The leaves are falling, the temperatures are dropping, and last year’s thermal items are looking pretty appealing. It’s time to go back… inside, with strangers in the dark, in front of a sublime scene that flashes with light. No, I’m not talking about Midnight Mass, but the annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, better known as SLIFF.
Fittingly, the highlight of fall for movie buffs is headquartered at the Hi-Pointe Theater, now the eternal home of Cinema St. Louis, which has run the festival for more than three decades. This year’s festival kicks off at the historic cinema this Thursday, November 9, with a party honoring the intersection of film culture and hip-hop. (It’s one of SLIFF’s many tributes to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, which the Saint Louis Art Museum is also celebrating through Jan. 1.) The 1990 comedy Party at homedirected by East St. Louis native Reginald Hudlin and featuring none other than hip hop legends Kid ‘n Play, will be shown after a cocktail party.
Hudlin, along with Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Alexander Payne, are receiving this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Both filmmakers will be in town to receive their awards; Payne will attend screenings of his latest film Leftovers (November 14) and its 2012 The descendants (November 15) and Hudlin will be in attendance at the awards ceremony culminating the festival on November 19.
This year Race in America: The Black Experience Spotlight features 27 films that tackle topics both heavy and light, from maternal mortality to space travel to the rise of Black Barbie. Fourteen landmark films are free at Washington University’s Brown Auditorium, sponsored by the Trio Foundation of St. Louis. Also free is Rawstock, a screening of the University of Washington archives of zany and wonderful 16mm documentary and educational shorts, held at Arkadin, a “microcinema” in the heart of Bevo Mill.
While the Tivoli (sigh) is no longer a venue, Midtown’s new Alamo Drafthouse has joined the list of local theaters hosting the festival: the University of Washington’s Brown Auditorium, Winifred Moore Auditorium of Webster University, the St. Louis Public Library Auditorium and the Contemporary Art Auditorium. Grand Center Museum.
As usual, it is impossible to narrow down my list of recommended films to fit the space allocated by a weekly alternative print. But here are the films that resonate with me the most this year – for reasons both entirely justifiable and downright bizarre.
All the dirt roads taste like salt (Saturday, November 11): A festival favorite written and directed by 33-year-old photographer and poet Raven Jackson, this lush, image-driven film chronicles the intergenerational heartbreak and joy within a struggling black family, delights and survives in rural Mississippi. . Produced by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, The Underground Railroad), it is the first film of a singular talent not to be missed.
All of us strangers (Sunday, November 19): No eye will be dry at the end of Andrew Haigh’s poignant fantasy drama about two London men, Adam (Andrew Scott) and Harry (Paul Mescal), who fall for each other on the occasion of their birth anniversary. The death of Adam’s parents. Part 1980s drama, part contemporary queer romance, Haigh’s talent for capturing the intricacies of intimate connections is on full display (he’s the director behind the 2015 film. 45 years old(starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a 70-year-old married couple).
Leftovers (Tuesday, November 14): Alexander Payne’s latest comedy-drama, set in a sunless all-boys prep school in New England, really feels like it was filmed in the early winter of 1970 Chronicling the unlikely friendship between history professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and lanky student Angus (Dominic Sessa), the film plays out like a cross between Rushmore and Dead Poets Society. Playing a grumpy scholar from ancient Greece who brags about his sexual exploits, Giamatti proves once again why he is, at 56, a national treasure worthy of the whole marquee.
The Chimera (Saturday, November 18): Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s irreverent epic stars Isabella Rossellini, who is just one reason to watch this exhilarating film about an Englishman who can guess the locations of profitable Etruscan tombs and filled with relics. “We almost rehearsed like a choir…and shot the film in half a day,” Rossellini explained after the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival. “I was surprised at how natural it all looked.”
Perfect days (Saturday, November 18): German auteur Wim Wenders takes his penchant for pedestrian profundity to Tokyo, Japan, in a meditative story about a public toilet cleaner, Hirayama (film legend Koji Yakusho), who becomes involved with friendship with a young girl (not in a creepy way). Wenders fans Paris, Texas will be satiated, and perhaps saddened, by this quiet drama told in four connected vignettes.
The taste of things (Sunday, November 13): In Trân Anh Hùng’s sumptuous and sensual period piece (France’s official selection for this year’s Oscars), Juliette Binoche plays the personal cook of an acclaimed late 19th century chef . Arrive hungry at your own expense (Hi-Pointe isn’t known for its foie gras popcorn, but maybe it could be?).
The teachers’ lounge (Saturday, November 11): Ilker Çatak’s incisive exploration of power asymmetries at a Berlin college is the only German film scheduled for this year’s SLIFF and is also the country’s Oscar entry. Léonie Benesch delivers a flamboyant performance as the first teacher overwhelmed by the moral issues of her vocation.
Bad press (Tuesday, November 14): This Sundance hit, directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, tells a classic underdog story, perfect for Native American Heritage Month. When journalist Angel Ellis attempts to report the news completely and fairly on the Muscogee Nation, not everyone is happy; his crusade to regain a “free press” for his tribe reveals a web of corruption that involves both native and non-native leaders. A must-see for anyone who cares about journalistic integrity, the film also shatters a number of common stereotypes. When this was performed at True/False in the spring, the audience jumped to its feet as soon as the finale.
Justice of birth (Saturday, November 18): Maternal mortality rates in the United States are three times higher for black women than for their white counterparts. Director Monique N. Matthews goes beyond these alarming statistics to take a more holistic, human-centered approach; an observational camera style invites families affected by racial medical injustice to speak for themselves. Making black joy a source of healing, this document is free.
Chasing Amy (Thursday, November 16): Sav Rodgers’ directorial debut reveals, and properly celebrates, just how charged a work of art (in this case, the 1997 Weinstein-financed cult classic) Chasing Amy) can do great things that its creator (indie bro Kevin Smith) never really intended. Rodgers brings a vital trans voice from the Midwest to this excavation of the queer canon; Joey Lauren Adams talks about the enduring complexities of #MeToo.
Plan C (Monday, November 13): As disturbing as it is informative, Tracy Droz Tragos’ presentation is a must-read for the post-Dobbs era, in which so many poor, rural, and working-class people now lack access to family planning . Regardless of your stance on abortion, this film encourages a more compassionate and nuanced view of the “projects” that matter.
The 32nd Saint-Louis International Film Festival runs from November 9 to 19. Tickets start at $15 ($12 for Cinema St. Louis members), and multi-movie passes start at $80 ($60 for members). See cinemastlouis.org/sliff/festival-home for more information.