Forget autumn in New York – November's a magical time to be right here in St. Louis, especially if you're a movie-lover. The city's coated in a blanket of crisp leaves, until they're picked up by that perpetual cool autumn breeze that also makes for perfect sweater weather — that season in the Midwest when reasonable conditions punctuate the space between 100 and -20 degree temperatures for a few fleeting weeks. It all feels quite romantic — cinematic, even. What better way to usher in the beginning of Oscar season than with such picturesque scenes and a few hundred films? Cinema St. Louis has the latter all queued up, with its annual St. Louis International Film Festival, now in its 20th year. The festival, which takes place from November 10 to 20, plays host to more than 400 feature, documentary and short films, many of which wouldn't appear in St. Louis on the big screen otherwise. With so many enticing options, it's difficult to narrow down to the must-sees. After all, finances and time constraints make it impossible to see all of them. To help you sort through the overwhelming selection, we've highlighted a few especially gripping films guaranteed to make you feel something – whether it's joy, despair, motivation or simply love for the medium and the city that fosters it.
Give a Damn?
Noon, Saturday, November 12, at Washington University's Brown Auditorium
As decent people, we'd like to think we all give a damn about Africa's poverty. But this country — hell, this city — has plenty of problems of its own, so why should we give a damn about the problems of a far-flung continent so far removed from our day-to-day lives? And with that question, a trio of friends — including a "God will provide" Christian fundamentalist and a "fuck that shit" atheist — set out, Africa-bound, from St. Louis (but not before plenty of pensive shots taken around the Arch and Saint Louis Bread Co.). They pledge to live on $1.25 a day (not counting transportation), like an estimated 20 percent of the world's population does. Along the way they meet with scholars, activists and pastors who provide some sociological context before they finally live among the people themselves: walking feces-strewn streets, eating dirt, partaking in ebullient church services and experiencing a horrifying event that shakes the project to its core. It's a call to action, and one that viewers will want to answer.
Wish Me Away
2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 13, at the Tivoli Theatre
Wish Me Away explores Chely Wright's evolution from closeted country singer to out and active LGBT spokeswoman. Wright put her Nashville ambitions above all from a young age, learning to pray for the strength to hide her sexuality for fear that her fans (who adored her but were largely steeped in a culture of homophobia) would abandon and alienate her. Wright played it straight, living in secret with her lover throughout much of the '90s. Meanwhile, hits such as "Single White Female" and "Shut Up and Drive" climbed the country charts, focusing more and more attention on her personal life. Decades of self-hate and one suicide attempt later, Wright decides to come out — to her abusive mother, her small hometown, her fans and the LGBT community — via the release of a tell-all memoir, a heart-baring new album and a massive talk-show tour. The film documents her story as well as this process, complete with intimate moments from her video diary and recordings of conversations with her previously homophobic but now wholly supportive father.
— Chrissy Wilmes
(I rymden finns inga känslor)
3:30 Sunday, November 13, and 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, November 15, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema
Simple Simon, Sweden's entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2010 Oscars, explains its main plot point with an introduction between characters: "I'm Simon; I'm Asperger's." The title character deals with his syndrome by imposing a strictly regimented schedule upon himself and his brother, Sam — showers timed to the minute, tacos every Friday. His rigid demands drive away Sam's girlfriend, setting Simon off on a mission to find his brother's perfect match. With Simon as narrator, the film is respectfully approached through the lens of the technically driven Asperger's mind. He tries to impose logic upon the world's inherent chaos, breaking down when his equations for love and happiness fail to add up correctly. Of the fictional films that deal with similar disabilities — What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Other Sister immediately come to mind — Simple Simon is one of few that offer an inside view of the topic.
— Ryan Wasoba
You've Been Trumped
6:45 p.m. Monday, November 14, at the Tivoli Theatre
Just in case you're not sure who the protagonists and the antagonists are in the documentary You've Been Trumped, all you need to do is listen to the music: gently tinkling notes for the residents of Aberdeenshire, in northeast Scotland, who are watching their land be bulldozed into a golf-course development by Donald Trump's corporation (its appearance is marked by luxury SUVs crawling over virgin soil to the beat of ominous thuds). Aberdeenshire's topography is one of dunes, wetlands and scrubby, windswept shores, and it plays an integral part in its history of generations of ploughmen and fishermen. The houses are modest; Trump calls them "slums" and "pigstys" and "disgusting" eyesores that guests at his resort shouldn't have to look at. Though it lopes along at times, You've Been Trumped is a compelling look at the students, scientists, artists and the homeowners who are facing down police, developers, politicians and the megalomanic land-grabbing American himself in an attempt to preserve their beloved homeland.
We Were Here
6:30 p.m. Thursday, November 17, at the Tivoli Theatre
We Were Here is an honest, confrontational and deeply moving eulogy for the more than 15,000 victims claimed by AIDS in San Francisco during the '80s and early '90s. The story is shared through the voices of those who experienced the devastation firsthand, whether through working in an AIDS ward, participating in AIDS activism, manning a Castro flower shop or living with the virus. The film's most powerful moments, however, lie in its silences. Pages and pages of obituaries pass the lens, as more friends, family and lovers succumb to "gay cancer." LGBT culture mourns the apparent loss of the fleeting utopia it found in '70s San Francisco as it does its many dead; meanwhile, a profound, spiritual beauty emerges from so much pain, as those left behind become custodians of friends' memories and a culture forever changed.
— Chrissy Wilmes
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
7 p.m. Friday, November 18, and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, November 20, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema
Serge Gainsbourg's beginning was humble (at least, relatively humble) as Lucien Ginsburg, the loudmouthed Jewish boy from France with a penchant for naked women, art and naked women. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life reconciles self-conscious Lucien with egotistical Serge, relying on essentially three characters: Gainsbourg's "mug" (a caricature of Jewish stereotypes that represents his insecurities and his id), Gainsbourg and women, collectively. We follow young Ginsburg as he hides from Nazis, escapes into fantasies and transforms from painter to piano player to the singer/songwriter/performer/lady-killer we know and love and love to hate; all the while, he's followed and, at times, guided by his mug, leaving in his wake a trail of underdeveloped characters — his used women and children. Eric Elmosnino's portrayal of Gainsbourg is uncanny — detestable and endearing, awkward and attractive. We understand why the iconic beauties who punctuated his life (Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin) fell for him and, more important, why they're better off without him.
— Chrissy Wilmes
These Amazing Shadows
1 p.m. Sunday, November 20, at Webster University's Moore Auditorium
Modern film buffs are pretty spoiled. Not only do we have access to a plethora of domestic and international cinema, but much of it is available to stream directly into our homes. In an entertainment world full of quickly produced digital media and short shelf lives, it's easy to forget how much time and effort goes into the production of a film, much less the preservation of reel upon reel of 35 mm film negatives from, say, 1906. These Amazing Shadows is a movie-lover's movie; It explores the Library of Congress' mission to restore, preserve and protect "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" American films. Watching members of the film industry discuss personally significant moments from films already included in the registry serves as a reminder of the important and magical role cinema plays in American life.
— Chrissy Wilmes
6:30 p.m. Sunday, November 20, at the Tivoli Theatre
Shuffle is the anti-Groundhog Day. Every time narcoleptic photographer Lovell Milo wakes up, he is a different age experiencing a different day of his life. As the name implies, the progression of time appears random, but the plot thickens with the aid of a few planted loopholes. T.J. Thyne, whose filmography includes bit parts in Erin Brockovich and Ghost World, is endearing as Milo; the onscreen chemistry he shares with Paula Rhodes, lead actress/former Miss Junior Missouri (2000-2001), helps the brief feature transcend its wacky premise. Once Shuffle settles in, the suspenseful flick straddles itself between mystery and romantic comedy, not unlike Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is weighed down by sentimental schmaltz — not the least of which comes courtesy of writer/director/composer Kurt Kuenne's overwrought, sappy score — but Shuffle manages to be both a light, hand-holding date movie and a tense nail biter at the same time.
— Ryan Wasoba