5 Must-See Films in This Year's All-Virtual St. Louis International Film Festival

click to enlarge Lucky Grandma is just one of many films you should check out at this year's SLIFF. - MOVIE POSTER ART
Lucky Grandma is just one of many films you should check out at this year's SLIFF.

It’s been a long pandemic, and things are only heating up again. So you know what? It’s time to make the most of this weird backwards opportunity you’ve been given. If you’ve always meant to actually go to the St. Louis International Film Festival but couldn’t find the time: Tada! Here you go!

This year’s SLIFF is, of course, all online — which means you have a huge new batch of movies and shorts to tap into just as you get sick of poking through Netflix yet again. The festival is a dazzling international smorgasbord, featuring over 150 documentary features and shorts and more than 200 narrative features and shorts.

It’s a giant and beautiful festival full of insight, comedy, magic, mystery, history, harrowing truths, life-affirming stories, enchanted animations and so much more. Which can be overwhelming — so we’ve put together this list of suggestions to get you oriented.

Most are available for viewing from now through Sunday, November 22, and virtual tickets can be purchased individually or via passes at cinemastlouis.org/sliff/festival-home. Stay home, stay safe and stay entertained!

Lucky Grandma
Grumpy Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) is widowed and barely making ends meet in her tiny Chinatown apartment when a fortune teller tells her that she’s about to hit a very lucky streak. She gets herself to a casino and finds out that her luck is real but not uncomplicated, and before long she has to hire a bodyguard, Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), to protect her from a local gang’s predations. While the stakes are high and the consequences are real, first-time feature director Sasie Sealy has a sharp eye for details both funny and Hitchcockian that keeps it thrilling and mysterious, in part by deploying a fantastic score. Chin’s chain-smoking Grandma Wong is tiny but implacable, with real comic chemistry between her and the hulking but babyfaced Big Pong, but it is cramped Chinatown, reeking of fish and mystical secrets, that really shines.

The Black Artists’ Group: Creation Equals Movement
The Black Artists’ Group (BAG) was founded in St. Louis in the fiery days of the late ’60s and lasted until 1972 — but in that time, they managed a fierce burst of cultural and artistic activity. They were on the cutting edge of the Black Power movement, and many of the members had FBI surveillance records to prove it. They brought an arts-focused, interdisciplinary approach to their Black cultural activism, built around music, particularly jazz, in radical co-invention with experimental dance and theater. Though BAG hasn’t received nearly enough attention to date — even and especially in St. Louis — the work done here in the city reverberated through the Black corridors of the segregated American experience. Many of the artists went on to international music and theater careers, including such heavy hitters as Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett, who formed the World Saxophone Quartet and became fixtures of New York’s art-loft jazz scene of the ’80s.

This showing is of a work in progress: Director Brian DeMatteis is still finishing it up. The film features archival footage of a wide variety of BAG members including Lake, Hemphill, Bluiett, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Portia Hunt and Shirley LeFlore as well as Dennis Owsley of “Jazz Unlimited.” For St. Louis musicians, music aficionados and the theater crowd, this is a rare opportunity to see history literally in the making.

The Penny Black
Some of the strangest stories are the true ones, and The Penny Black is an immersive adventure in the unlikely. At a dinner party in LA, the filmmakers encounter Will, who tells them that he was recently asked to hold onto a couple of books of stamps by his neighbor, a Russian man whom he only met that one time. The man then promptly disappears, leaving the stamps with Will. The problem? The collection, which includes an infamously rare “Penny Black,” is potentially worth millions, and Will has no idea what to do next, especially because he doesn’t even know the name of the mysterious guy who handed them to him. As weeks turn into months, Will has to decide what he wants to do about this potential fortune in his care — and remain ever mindful of the documentarians who are watching closely to see what happens.

It’s not a real movie about high school unless you’re squirming in your seat with discomfort on the kids’ behalf. Dramarama catches a group of senior-year drama nerds at their fever pitch: throwing a murder mystery party together. True to type, they are as unbearably ridiculous as they are unselfconsciously delighted with each other’s pure nerd pageantry. But Gene has his own drama: He wants to come out as gay to his friends, even as he worries desperately about what that will mean for all of them. It’s a confidently directed debut by Jonathan Wysocki, and both he and the actors clearly revel in the mid-’90s world they create, free from the tyranny of social media but full of anxiety for anyone hiding the secret of their true selves.

It would be a fool’s errand to convey the life of David Bowie, one of the world’s most mercurial and opaque artists, in a single film, and director Gabriel Range knows it. Instead, Stardust is set near the outset of Bowie’s long and glorious career, when he’s still a mostly unknown young folk singer strumming an acoustic guitar in a dress and wide-brimmed hat, baffling his record company and anyone who tried to get near him. With the help of grizzled industry vet Rob Oberman (played by a very recognizable Marc Maron), he’s got to figure out how to convince America to love his new album, The Man Who Sold the World. He clearly has the skills, but he lacks a personality — “character,” it’s sometimes called. If only he could become someone else entirely...

Lead actor Johnny Flynn’s own star has been on the rise over the last decade — he was noticeably gorgeous in this year’s Emma — and the fact that he’s a legit musician in his own right helps the musical aspects of the film immensely. But mainly, it’s just an undeniable pleasure to watch the birth of one of rock’s great ciphers: Ziggy Stardust.

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