2015 Denver Film Festival: 3 films worth seeing each day

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DENVER — Now in its 38th year, the Denver Film Festival has become one of our favorite times of the year. That’s why we so thoroughly enjoy producing what has become an annual project: a guide to three films worth seeing on each day of the 12-day festival.

With more than 200 narrative films, documentaries, shorts, music videos and events, it’s always a challenge to pare the list down into the 30s. But we feel it helps festival-goers in the equally daunting task of choosing a few films they would like to see themselves.

When possible, we always make an effort to space the options out over the course of each day. The price of admission, location and language of each film is also listed. (Note that the film’s language is English unless otherwise noted, and all foreign language films have English subtitles.)

Also be advised that if one of the films listed below strikes your fancy but conflicts with your schedule, a list of alternate showtimes has also been provided. Click on the hyperlinked film titles for more information and to buy tickets. The link with the theater title will take you to a page detailing the location of that venue.

Wednesday, Nov. 4

(Note: Since there are only two films screening on Nov. 4, only two are listed below)

8 p.m.: Anomalisa Ellie Caulkins Opera House / $65
Also showing: This is the only showing
For the average moviegoer, you never know which Charlie Kaufman you’re going to get: the approachable genius who wrote Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the unchecked mad scientist behind Synecdoche, New York. Coming off a seven-year hiatus for a Kickstarter-funded, stop-motion animation film based on a play he wrote under a pseudonym about a paranoid-schizophrenic in the throes of a mental breakdown during a stop-over appearance in Cincinnati, interests are understandably piqued. Throw in the fact that Anomalisa is co-directed by stop-motion animation pro Duke Johnson, who helmed Adult Swim’s irreverent Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and Community’s stop-motion holiday episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, and the intrigue just keeps piling up.

7:30 p.m.: Suffragette / UA Pavilions / $17
Also showing: This is the only showing
Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter are both national treasures in their respective nations. It shouldn’t be long before Carey Mulligan, much like the unflinching Maud Watts she portrays in Suffragette, shoehorns her way into their company. But the team behind this film is equally worthy of mention — perhaps even more so. In an age when the marginalized are still fighting for a voice far more than many would care to admit, this film serves as a timely reminder about a group who took up such a fight — and won — from director Sarah Gavron, producers Alison Owen and Faye Ward and screenwriter Abi Morgan, all of whom shine in areas of film where women remain far too underrepresented.

Thursday, Nov. 5

6:30 p.m.: Brooklyn Sie FilmCenter / $17
Also showing: This is the only showing
If you saw the Oscar-nominated Wild at last year’s DFF, you’ll be delighted at the opportunity to see more of screenwriter Nick Hornby’s work. What’s more, many see this as the first potential best actress Oscar nod for Saoirse Ronan at the ripe old age of 21. If you saw her steal the show in Atonement or hold her own alongside the heavyweights in The Grand Budapest Hotel, this should come as no surprise. Cast in Brooklyn as an Irish rose torn between her new life and love in New York and her homeland after a trip home to bury her mother, Ronan balances the vulnerability and fortitude of this complicated heroine beautifully.

7 p.m.: Rams / Sie FilmCenter / $15 / Icelandic
Also showing: Nov. 6 / 5:45 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
The Valladolid International Film Festival, one of Spain’s largest, passed out four awards to Icelandic films this year, three of which went to Rams (including best film). Like so much of the work coming from an the burgeoning pool of Icelandic filmmakers, Rams, which tells the story of two comically-estranged brothers coming together to save the very thing that spawned the rift between them (their prize-winning sheep), is dripping with nuance; tiptoeing the line between hilarity and solemnity.

9 p.m.: Mediterranea / Sie FilmCenter / $17 / French, Italian, English, Arabic
Also showing: Nov. 11 / 6:45 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
At a time when the issue of immigration has reached a fever pitch, Mediterranea is perfectly placed. And like the issue, there is nothing pretty about this filmmost of which was shot with a handheld camera. While similar in style to gritty apocalyptic films like 28 Days Later, Cloverfield and District 9, the agent of destruction in Mediterranea, which tells the tale of best friends from Burkina Faso trying to make a life in Italy, isn’t some supernatural power. Everyone on all sides of this film has a face, and they’re faces director Jonas Carpignano, himself a subject of the 2010 Rosano race riots, knows and portrays well.

Friday, Nov. 6

8 p.m.: Where to Invade Next / Ellie Caulkins Opera House / $40
Also showing: This is the only showing
In the eyes of many journalists tasked with getting out of the way of stories, director Michael Moore’s penchant for putting his own stamp on his documentaries is often irksome. But it’s equally worthy of mention that Moore’s news judgement is superb, as he never seems to fail in his quest for nerve-striking subject matter. As it playfully juxtaposes some of Europe’s successful social and economic policies against some troubles back home, Where to Invade Next certainly aims to irk. And that is vintage Moore, even as he comes off a six-year hiatus.

9:45 p.m.: Love / UA Pavilions / $15 / English, French
Also showing: Nov. 7 / 9:45 p.m. / UA Pavilions
Not for the faint of heart — and certainly not for the little ones — this 3D erotic drama is quite literally in your face. While it was written, directed, produced and edited by Gaspar Noé, a frequent purveyor of graphic content, it bears mentioning the Argentinian has also long been lauded on the festival circuit. And in Love, he brings us far more than a peep show into the torrid romance between a young American and Parisian. Told in flashback from the perspective of a bored husband and father, this film attempts to explore just that: love — and the place of sexuality in it.

11:30 p.m.: Aaaaaaaah! / Sie FilmCenter / $15
Also showing: Nov. 11 / 9 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
In the opinion of this reporter, it’s these sorts of cult classics that make film festivals worth attending. Somewhat akin to I Am a Knife with Legs, which left DFF audiences in stitches a year ago, the humor you’ll find in Aaaaaaaah! is as absurd as the film’s budget (or lack thereof). While most of us are guilty of accusing humanity of acting like apes, the fantastically vulgar directorial debut from British actor, writer and comedian Steve Oram gives you a snapshot of what that might actually look like.

Saturday, Nov. 7

1:30 p.m.: Gods / UA Pavilions / $15 / Polish
Also showing: Nov. 8 / 3:45 p.m. / UA Pavilions, Nov. 9 / 8:45 p.m. / UA Pavilions
Filmmakers are constantly searching for outstanding real-life characters (in fact, DFF is hosting a panel discussion on that very subject). They don’t get much better than Zbigniew Religa, the Polish cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s first successful heart transplant. Religa’s irreverence is brilliantly captured by Tomasz Kot, and his performance comes at moment when it would seem modern medicine could use more brave souls like Religa.

4 p.m.: Once Upon a Crime / Sie FilmCenter / $11
Also showing: Nov. 6 / 2 p.m./ Sie FilmCenter, Nov. 8 / 4:30 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
This is the first of several films with Denver ties on this list. But as DFF director Britta Erickson told the Denver Post, the festival didn’t just include these films to throw the locals a bone. These are deserving films. The documentary Once Upon a Crime, in particular, features one of most compelling crime dramas to ever hit our state — that of falsely-convicted former NYPD detectives Bob Davis and Mike Borrelli, who were put behind bars on murder raps thanks in part to the testimony of Terry Lee D’Prero, the actual gunman in the alleged hit who has since disappeared into witness protection.

7 p.m.: 600 Miles / Sie FilmCenter / $15 / English, Spanish
Also showing: Nov. 9 / 3:45 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter, Nov. 10 / 9:30 p.m./ Sie FilmCenter
Just as thousands of of federal drug offenders are being granted early releases from prison this month — a purported nod by the current administration to the argument that our nation’s War on Drugs has failed — 600 Miles, a film about the lives that war has devastated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and both sides of the law, arrives on our doorstep. As if that wasn’t enough, the film stars the vastly underrated Tim Roth, a Quentin Tarantino darling who will appear in the director’s forthcoming film The Hateful Eight, which was filmed in Colorado.

Sunday, Nov. 8

1 p.m.: The Missing Girl / UA Pavilions / $15
Also showing: Nov. 6 / 9 p.m. / UA Pavilions, Nov. 7 / 6:30 p.m. / UA Pavilions
Speaking of underrated actors, The Missing Girl features two of them. Leading man Robert Longstreet had a whopping four films at Sundance in 2011, including The Oregonian, which was also screened at DFF. Eric Ladin, meanwhile, has played one-off or recurring roles in Veronica Mars, Mad Men, Big Love, Justified, Dexter and Boardwalk Empire, with recent credits in a pair of war projects (HBO’s The Brink and American Sniper). In The Missing Girl, Longstreet plays Mort, a comic book dealer whose long-lost bully Skippy (Ladin) comes back to town out of the blue. Considering Skippy’s high school girlfriend vanished without a trace, Mort’s paranoia heightens when his new employee — and the apple of his eye — also disappears shortly after Skippy’s return.

4:45 p.m.: Parabellum / UA Pavilions / $15 / Spanish
Also showing: Nov. 10 / 6:45 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter, Nov. 11 / 2:15 p.m. / UA Pavilions
Imagine a gorgeous countryside retreat where the aging, mostly-portly guests sit by the pool sipping mai tais one moment then feverishly get up to take part in Krav Maga courses the next. In that sense, Parabellum is oddly amusing. But set against the backdrop of an inconspicuous but clearly impending apocalypse with a protagonist who has left his life behind without saying a word, this film is equally jarring.

7 p.m.: War of Lies / Sie FilmCenter / $15 / German, Arabic, English
Also showing: Nov. 7 / 2 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter, Nov. 10 / 4:45 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
Meet Rafed Ahmed Alwan, the man behind one of the biggest military quagmires of our lifetime … or so they say. If you’ve never heard of the Iraqi defector and petrochemical engineer accused of supplying the false information about his home nation’s weapons of mass destruction that began the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, this is an important film for you. But be forewarned, German documentarian Matthias Bittner makes no effort to tell the other side of this story, and he paid Alwan to appear on camera. Even still, the first public account from Alwan’s perspective is significant in its own right.

Monday, Nov. 9

4:15 p.m.: Liza, the Fox Fairy / UA Pavilions / $15 / Hungarian, Japanese
Also showing: Nov. 7 / noon / UA Pavilions, Nov. 8 / 4:45 p.m. / UA Pavilions
Desperately searching for love and gleefully interacting with the friendly ghost of deceased Japanese pop star Tommy Tani, who haunts the residence of her employer, the ailing Japanese ambassador to Hungary, Liza the live-in nurse becomes convinced she must be a fabled fox fairy when her would-be lovers start falling dead one-by-one. Little does she nor a delightfully hapless police commissioner realize, Tommy is behind it all. Equal parts Japanese folklore, romantic comedy, ghost story, murder mystery and period piece with polished production and a great soundtrack, Liza, the Fox Fairy will find one section of your cinematic spirit to tickle. Comparisons this film has drawn to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie feel very apt.

6:30 p.m.: Son of Saul / Sie FilmCenter / $17 / Hungarian, German, Yiddish, Polish
Also showing: This is the only showing
Everything about Son of Saul is challenging. At the heart of this film is the moral dilemma and psyche of Saul Auslaender, who works at Auschwitz as part of the Sonderkommando, a group of concentration camp prisoners forced to participate in the mass extermination of their fellow Jews. As if tackling that story wasn’t daunting enough, this project was taken on by first-time director Lázsló Nemes, it stars first-time actor Géza Röhrig and it was shot on 35mm film. Everyone and everything about this film is transcendent, and that’s why it seems to be the current Oscar front runner for best foreign film.

9 p.m.: Decay / Sie FilmCenter / $15
Also showing: Nov. 7 / 9:15 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
Written and directed by local filmmaker Joseph Wartnerchaney and shot in the Mission Viejo neighborhood of Aurora, you may find yourself recognizing a lot of the establishing shots in Decay. The horror story is far less comforting, centering on an amusement park groundskeeper who developed a crippling case of OCD after growing up in abusive family. And when a young woman winds up dead in his basement, he is  a little too happy to have acquired some company.

Tuesday, Nov. 10

4:30 p.m.: The Wanted 18 / Sie FilmCenter / $11 / Arabic, French, English, Hebrew
Also showing: Nov. 9 / 7 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
The Wanted 18 is among the most creative films at this year’s festival. This documentary — partially (and hilariously) told through stop-motion animation — follows the infamous 1987 cow hunt in the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour that spanned eight days. The 18 cows, acquired by the townspeople in an effort to rid themselves of dependency on Israeli dairy products, were sent into hiding by their owners after being declared a “threat to the national security of Israel.”

6:45 p.m.: My All American / Sie FilmCenter / $17
Also showing: This is the only showing
Foxcatcher, t
he last sports flick DFF landed, was mesmerizing. The Academy agreed, giving it five Oscar nominations. My All-American may not have the same awards buzz, but it isn’t short on inspiration. Coming from the same writers who gave us Hoosiers and Rudy, this film tells the true story of Wheat Ridge High School graduate Freddie Steinmark, who overcame his small stature to become a football star at the University of Texas, and whose untimely death helped jump start the nation’s War on Cancer.

8:45 p.m.: Call Me Mariana / UA Pavilions / $15 / Polish
Also showing: Nov. 11 / 6:15 p.m. / UA Pavilions, Nov. 12 / 2:15 p.m. / UA Pavilions
In the year of Caitlyn Jenner, Call Me Mariana explores the much more modest — and perhaps more honest and difficult — transition of another trans-woman. Leaving a long-term marriage, trying to come to terms with a disapproving mother, navigating complicated legal and surgical procedures and suffering a life-altering stroke in the process, Mariana’s struggles — artfully documented in this film — are as real as they are rewarding for a protagonist gracefully coming to terms with her identity.

Wednesday, Nov. 11

3:45 p.m.: Cemetery of Splendor / UA Pavilions / $15 / Thai
Also showing: Nov. 11 / 4:15 p.m. / UA Pavilions
In 2010, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or, the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival, for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He’s back to creating the supernatural worlds he so capably traverses in Cemetery of Splendor. But this film isn’t just a foray into the psychedelic, with many suggesting the group of soldiers who fall ill with a mysterious sleeping sickness along with the experimental and eventually spiritual methods used in an effort to treat them serve as a metaphor for Weerasethakul’s home country, which remains under military rule.

6:45 p.m.: Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi / UA Pavilions / $15
Also showing: Nov. 10 / 4 p.m. / UA Pavilions, Nov. 12 / 9:15 p.m. / UA Pavilions
If you’re like me, you work in digital news and remember when the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was being blamed on a missing Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi. This gripping documentary follows the turmoil that ensued in the wake of those unfounded accusations for Tripathi’s family, who found an online community that was once their pillar of strength swiftly became a source of strife. And as this film suggests, it can all be traced back to one errant Reddit post.

9:15 p.m.: Youth / Sie FilmCenter / $17 / English, Spanish, Swiss German
Also showing: Nov. 6 / 7 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
It’s rare that a film draws both boos and bravos from a Cannes audience, but Youth did just that earlier this year. Having won a best foreign language Oscar in 2013 for his film The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino had no shortage of star power in his follow-up effort. The anchor of Youth is Michael Caine, who portrays a retired British symphony conductor recounting tales of success, delusion and destitution among friends and family (portrayed by fellow acting heavyweights Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda) during a spa getaway in Switzerland. If nothing else, it seems worth finding out why this film whipped one of the world’s most respected festival audiences into such a tizzy.

Thursday, Nov. 12

4:15 p.m.: H. / Sie FilmCenter / $11
Also showing: Nov. 10 / 6:30 p.m. / UA Pavilions, Nov. 11 / 8:45 p.m. / UA Pavilions
H.‘s dual protagonists are both named Helen, with one being a elderly woman obsessed with lifelike “reborn dolls” and the other being a performing artist who is carrying her creative partner’s baby. The two’s paths begin to cross after a meteor hits Troy, N.Y., causing a dull but developing sort of mayhem. If you’re not an M. Night Shyamalan fan, this film probably isn’t your bag. But if you appreciate eerie science-fiction, haunting soundtracks and have no yearning for concrete resolutions, this film is right up your alley.

7 p.m.: Mia Madre / Sie FilmCenter / $17 / Italian, English
Also showing: Nov. 13 / 4:15 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
While celebrated Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti wrote, directed and stared in Mia Madre alongside his equally-prolific countrywoman Margherita Buy, Nov. 11 is set to be their co-star’s night at DFF, as John Turturro will be on hand for this screening to accept the John Cassavetes Award. It’s DFF’s highest honor, and is bestowed on individuals for lifetime achievements the late Cassavetes may have smiled upon. In this particular film, Turturro is up to his old tricks, playing a buffoonish American actor who is driving his director (Buy) to her wit’s end.

9 p.m.: CaminoUA Pavilions / $15
Also showing: Nov 13 / 6:30 p.m. / UA Pavilions
If Zoë Bell’s high-energy performance in the action-packed thriller Camino looks familiar, it may be because you’ve been watching her judo chop and kick for years as a stunt double to the stars — perhaps most famously in the place of Uma Thurman. In Camino, Bell is responsible for the acting and the stunts, playing a photojournalist with a checkered past on the run from the Colombian cartel.

Friday, Nov. 13

3:45 p.m.: A Woman Like Me / UA Pavilions / $11
Also showing: Nov. 12 / 6:30 p.m. / UA Pavilions
A personal and brave undertaking from director Alex Sichel — and ultimately her last — A Woman Like Me is half narrative and half documentary. The story centers on Sichel’s experience after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, with half of the film showing her own endeavors and the other half showing powerhouse actress Lili Taylor (The Conjuring, Six Feet Under) portraying those experiences in a feature film.

6:45 p.m.: Creative Control / Sie FilmCenter / $35
Also showing: Nov. 14 / 4:30 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter / $15
The stylish sophomore effort from independent filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson is drenched in dry wit and features a surprisingly mainstream supporting cast in Nora Zehetner (Grey’s Anatomy), Dan Gill (The Wedding Ringer) and Late Late Show band leader Reggie Watts. Also serving as Creative Control‘s leading man, Dickinson, a former commercial director in real life, seems to be delving into a world he knows well in this project, playing David, a tech-addicted advertising executive in near-future Brooklyn. Serving as a character unto itself is Augmenta, a pair of augmented-reality glasses that lead David to develop a preference for the 3D simulation of his best friend’s girlfriend in lieu of his own, flesh-and-blood belle.

9:30 p.m.: I Saw the Light / Sie FilmCenter / $17
Also showing: This is the only showing
The critics haven’t exactly raved about the efforts from I Saw the Light filmmaker Marc Abraham, a producer of blockbusters (Air Force One, The Hurricane, End of Days) who is only beginning to try his hand at writing and directing. But the central performances from a pair of Avengers stars, Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, in this Hank Williams biopic have garnered wide acclaim. And frankly, any foray into the meteoric rise and fall of one of country music’s most enigmatic stars seems worthwhile.

Saturday, Nov. 14

12:15 p.m.: The Boat Builder / UA Pavilions / $11
Also showing: Nov. 11 / 4:30 p.m. / UA Pavilions, Nov. 15 / 4:30 p.m. / UA Pavilions
Originally set to star the Oscar-nominated Bruce Dern, who had to step aside due to scheduling conflicts with his shooting schedule for Tarantino’s aforementioned film The Hateful Eight, The Boat Builder now stars Emmy-winner Christopher Lloyd instead. Not a bad consolation prize for Denver-based author and political strategist-turned-writer and director Arnie Grossman, who’s making his silver screen debut. In fact, Grossman has shown a knack for landing talent, recruiting producer Richard J. Bosner (Fruitvale Station) and actress Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle) for this project. Now it’s time to find out what the rookie has in the tale of a bitter old mariner (Lloyd) stubbornly building one last boat with the help of an initially unwanted orphan, played by Denver-based actor Tekola Cornetet, who’s also making his debut.

2:30 p.m.: Carol / Ellie Caulkins Opera House / $20
Also showing: This is the only showing
There are no rookies in Carol. Fresh off an Oscar win for best actress, Cate Blanchett is already generating buzz within the Academy for her performance as a wealthy 50s socialite who falls in love with a female department store clerk in New York. But interestingly enough, it was the performance of the clerk, played by Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects, The Social Network), that earned a best actress award at Cannes.

8 p.m.: Coming Through the Rye / Ellie Caulkins Opera House / $55
Also showing: This is the only showing
 will be a tough act to follow on closing night for the festival, but James Sadwith’s inventive, semi-autobiographical Coming Through the Rye may be up to the task. Up-and-coming actor/musician Alex Wolff plays Jamie Schwartz, a teen at an East Coast boarding school pulled out of his youthful angst by J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. Determined to adapt the work into a play but needing the creator’s permission, Jamie sets off to track down the reclusive author, stoically portrayed by Chris Cooper.

Sunday Nov. 15

2 p.m.: The Lady in the Van / Sie FilmCenter / $17
Also showing: The is the only showing
While Saturday may be closing night, DFF has plenty more to offer on Sunday, and it starts with The Lady in the Van. It’s based on the true story of the haughty nomadic woman who showed up on London playwright Alan Bennett’s doorstep one morning and didn’t leave for 15 years. Naturally, Bennett turned his experiences into a play staring Oscar-winner Maggie Smith. This film is a long-awaited adaptation of that play.

4:30 p.m.: The Measure of a Man / Sie FilmCenter / $15 / French
Also showing: Nov. 14 / 2:15 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
Most film festivals tend to be lousy with worthwhile French films. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to be the case at DFF this year. But what it may lack in quality, The Measure of a Man makes up for in quality. Playing an laid-off factory worker with a disabled child trying to navigate working-class France after finally landing a new job as a supermarket security guard, it seems this is a role long-time actor Vincent Lindon was born to play. He took home a coveted best actor award in Cannes for his performance.

6:15 p.m.: Rise of the Legend / Sie FilmCenter / $15 / Mandarin, Cantonese
Also showing: Nov. 14 / 6:45 p.m. / Sie FilmCenter
Why not finish off DFF with a bang? Rise of the Legend seems plenty capable of providing one. Why? Because this isn’t just any kung-fu tale — it’s the kung-fu tale of Wong Fei Hung, the 1800 Chinese folk hero whose exploits are based in truth. Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and now Eddie Peng, who dropped all his projects to study martial arts for a year in preparation for this role, have been tasked with breathing life into Fei Hung, a legendary orphan said to have brought ruin to the rival gangs that once controlled his town.

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