Denver Film Fest Preview, Part 2: Daring Docs, Fresh Faces and Local Heroes

While the red carpet presentations at the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival feature Oscar-worthy films with box-office potential, there are enough under-the-radar temptations to please the most critical cinephile.

With help from festival director Britta Erickson, who handicapped the Academy Award best actor race in Part 1 of this preview, and opinions formed from a few advance screenings, here are some recommendations from among more than 250 films showing over 12 days beginning Wednesday (November 2).

Part 1 featured two of the festival's red carpet presentations at the classy Ellie Caulkins Opera House -- Alexander Payne's The Descendants and Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist.

Yet, it's Drake Doremus' Like Crazy that gets the opening night slot.

Star Trekkies might flock to see Anton Yelchin (Chekov in the 2009 prequel) as an L.A. student trying to woo babe-alicious Brit Felicity Jones in what has been called the "Love Story for a new generation."

Jennifer Lawrence, another promising performer, costars in the film that collected the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Festival along with a Special Jury Prize for Jones.

"I saw Like Crazy at Sundance and just fell crazy in love with it," said Erickson, calling this the year of rising female stars.

"Felicity Jones is as mesmerizing as any new face I've seen in a long time, save for Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene," Erickson's "favorite film of the year" that has a special screening for members of the Reel Social Club on November 3.

Like Crazy (with Drake Doremus scheduled to attend): 8 p.m. November 2, Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

Other special presentations
Melancholia: No longer Spider-man's love interest, Kirsten Dunst won best actress at Cannes for her role as Justine, a depressed woman dealing with life as a newlywed in Lars von Trier's "beautiful movie about the end of the world." Tickets sold out more than a week ahead of the scheduled screening but check an hour before showtime for availability.

7 p.m., November 3, Denver Film Center/Colfax, (2510 E. Colfax Ave.)

Wish Me Away: Asked to list a few of the possible surprises, Erickson first mentioned this gripping feature-length documentary that takes a no-holds-barred look at country singer-songwriter Chely Wright.

The initial screening sold out of advance tickets at the smaller L2 Arts & Culture Center (1477 Columbine St.), so it was moved to the roomier Highlands Church.

One of the rising stars in conservative Nashville during the late 1990s, Wright decided after nearly 20 years of "living a lie" that she would risk losing more than her fan base by coming out as a lesbian in 2010.

The film that took the Jury Prize at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival will "really resonate with our audience and be a huge hit," Erickson predicted. It was directed by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, who are scheduled to appear, along with Wright.

7:30 p.m., November 4, Highlands Church (3241 Lowell Blvd.); additional screening at 11:30 a.m., November 6, Denver FilmCenter/Colfax.

Also worth considering
An Evening with Judy Greer: Festival-goers will see plenty of the versatile actress (Arrested Development, Adaptation) over the next two weeks.

She will receive the 2011 John Cassavetes Award (8:30 p.m., November 4, Denver FilmCenter/Colfax), and a clips program will follow.

The first actress to receive the award (other recipients have included Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Kevin Bacon), Greer appears in two prominent features in Denver -- The Descendants and Jeff Who Lives at Home. She plays "the wronged wife in one, the wronging wife in another," Erickson said, leaving viewers to figure out the rest.

"I'm really excited that (the award) is going to Judy this year," Erickson added. "She is a hard-working character actor with an unstoppable spirit."

We Need to Talk About Kevin (7 p.m., November 11) and Butter (noon, November 13):  Two of the festival's special presentations are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both could polarize audiences.

The former (at the L2 Arts and Culture Center) stars Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton (in another commanding performance) and John C. Reilly (not so much) as wife and husband raising a troubled son in a disturbing story, especially for a city that will never forget Columbine.

Along with Shame, "people are going to be very surprised by We Need to Talk about Kevin," Erickson said, adding both are "films that I'd bet a (Denver Broncos quarterback Tim) Tebow trade on that will have everyone talking."

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay will be in town and participate in a panel discussion (2 p.m., November 12).

Butter (at the King Center) had some people at the Telluride Film Festival talking, mostly about seeing star Jennifer Garner riding the gondola and making the rounds with her children.

The film takes a satirical and metaphorical look at ruthless Iowa housewife Laura Pickler (Garner) and the risks she'll take to win the Iowa butter-carving championship. Hugh Jackman costars, but it's Olivia Wilde and Ashley Greene who share a scene-stealing moment.

More to Live For (7 p.m., November 9): Jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker is one of three cancer patients searching for a life-saving bone-marrow transplant in the documentary playing at Boettcher Concert Hall, followed by a tribute concert by Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Chris Botti and the Colorado Symphony.

The Big Chill and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (November 13): With the festival and the Denver Film Society bidding adieu to the Tivoli and the Starz FilmCenter for permanent digs on Colfax Avenue, they go out with two blasts from the nostalgic past. The Big Chill opened in a spanking-new AMC Tivoli 12 at the Denver International Film Festival in 1985.

The first year-round home of the Denver Film Society opened its doors on April 3, 2002, with Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, but now it's "The End." After the Last Picture Shows, it'll be lights out with a farewell party.  

"I don't think I'll actually miss the Tivoli as much as I'll always feel nostalgic for our time there," Erickson said. "The Denver FilmCenter/Colfax is like the sexiest new boyfriend you could ever have. Makes it hard to even compare the old one... We won't miss not having windows. We all love watching films but we don't want to be in the dark all the time."

Colorado connections
Among the documentary films from local directors, Erickson endorses art-driven kART Across America and Still.

Both scheduled screenings of Still, produced and co-directed by Amie Knox, are sold out. It'll be shown in conjunction with this month's grand opening of the Clyfford Still Museum as both celebrate the life and works of an American artist who was one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

In kART Across America, Andy Raney and Jeremy Make -- friends since childhood -- embark on a 100-day, 6,000-mile cross-country journey -- in a golf cart -- to discover the inspiration behind the creative force of an artist.

Also deserving attention is Patriocracy, an objective and succinct examination of the political divide this country faces and some of the guilty parties behind it. Made by Castle Rock's versatile Brian Malone, Patriocracy is filled with talking heads such as Bob Schieffer, Eleanor Clift and Gene Policinski, but all are knowledgeable and fascinating to watch.

Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson tops the list. He takes on some of the cable news oracles who pass themselves off as informed voices behind "news" programs that take opposite sides.

"Those people are entertainers," Simpson said. "They couldn't govern their way out of a paper sack."

Making his feature-narrative debut, Filipino-American writer-director Josh Hyde (now living in South Boulder) is in town for multiple screenings of Postales, a charming and compassionate film set in the Peruvian village of Cuzco. In a culture clash of two families, Megan Tusing gives the most spirited performance as the older daughter of an American businessman who wants more than just memories of his visit to South America.

Finally, Jeremy Craig, a writer-director who grew up in Littleton and now lives in New York, presents multiple screenings of Terrebonne.

Making its Colorado premiere as part of the "First Look Student Section," the short film about the erosion of the Louisiana coastline features original music by The Fray, whose members attended high school with Craig. There's authenticity down on the bayou except for the actors, who don't sweat a drop.

Publicity photos courtesy of the Denver Film Festival.