Maybe you've spotted the skull-and-film-strip-bones billboards looming around town, heralding the Festivus Film Festival.
Turns out their cheeky menace is a bit of bait and switch. Because Festivus, which opens Thursday evening and runs through Jan.15, has some truly open-hearted emotion programmed into its willfully indie fair.
Take the gem of a short "A Finger, Two Dots Then Me." In it, poet Derrick Brown performs the titular piece in a stripped-down room with some naked light bulbs for props.
Wait, no eye rolling quite yet. Fest co-founder Johnathan McFarlane had his doubts, too. Tim DeMasters, his partner in starting the festival, screened the eight-minute short first.
"Tim said, 'It's a guy reading a poem,' " McFarlane recalls. "My first reaction was, it's not going to work. We need a movie."
Well, work it does — and beautifully. The incandescent film features the former paratrooper riffing on love embodied, eternal, even cosmic. Directors David and Daniel Holechek cut between the poet and images that underscore the human scale and astronomical sweep of his words. "A Finger, Two Dots Then Me" screens as part of the festival's opening-night shorts package.
So does Dan Bush's "Ghost of Old Highways," another evocative film with an experimental bent. Nearly dialogue-free, the dreamlike (or is it nightmarish?) tale is set during the Civil War.
The haunting score comes by way of Lovett, musician Ben Lovett's nom de rock. A Southerner, Lovett not only provided the song that inspired the film, he gives a vigorous physical performance as the man hunted by Union soldiers in this feverish riff on life, death and the in-between. Shot in a verdant North Carolina, "Ghost of Old Highways" is one of those surreal shorts that keeps viewers teasing out its meaning. Why does the man come violently face-to-face with himself again and again? Both shorts play at 8:45 p.m. Thursday at the Bug Theatre
Granted, rating a festival by two of its shortest films is lunacy. Or is it? Each speaks well of Festivus' aim, says McFarlane: to introduce local audiences to filmmakers of passion and vision.
Now in its fifth year, there are signs that Festivus' reputation is growing. There are a few more sold-out shows each year. More attendees are finding their way to the Bug and Oriental theaters in north Denver for the films and the incumbent parties. "We probably had an extra 500 to 600 people over the year before," he estimates.
Sponsors, like energy -drink trendsetter Red Bull, no longer require the hard sell to re-up. A first this year, says McFarlane, was a call from a company wanting to become a sponsor. Popular whiskey Buffalo Trace is signed on to present the fest's Awards Party Blowout (Jan. 14, 10 p.m. at the Blake Street Tavern in LoDo). It seems, Festivus and its sponsors share a sweet spot demographic: 18- to 35-year-olds.
Feature-wise, the festival is screening the comedy mystery "Searching for Sonny." First-time director Andrew Disney's oddly engaging if slight story of friends reunited at their 10th high-school reunion features a cast of the young and the recognizable: Minka Kelly ("Friday Night Lights"), Jason Dohring ("Veronica Mars") and Masi Oka ("Heroes"). "Searching for Sonny," Jan. 15, 8 p.m., Oriental Theater
"Lilith" writer-director Sridhar Reddy has ties to Colorado but is shooting a film in India. He won't be in town for the world premiere of his moody horror flick inspired by Dante, but star Julia Voth will.
Forever dogged by memories of a family tragedy that took place on her birthday, Sarah (Voth) goes out for a birthday celebration. When she drinks a specialty martini called "The Inferno," she winds up in some pretty bad places. We know how she feels. "Lilith," Jan. 15, 3:45 p.m., Oriental Theater
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567 or email@example.com
FESTIVUS FILM FESTIVAL. Denver's micro-indie film festival celebrates its fifth year. Shorts and features screen at the Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo St., and the Oriental Theater, 4335 W. 44th Ave. Festival pass, $75; Saturday pass $35; Sunday pass $30. Tickets for individual screenings $8. Full schedule and more info: festivusfilmfestival.com