While St. Louis springs tend to coyly lift their petaled heads before swiftly flitting away, our autumns are a slow, satisfying burn, lingering at the door of Thanksgiving. Marking fall's final flourish, as ever, is the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival that in this year's 31st season bodes to be as vibrant as ever. A good portion of the lineup just premiered last month at the New York Film Festival and are unlikely to return to the big screen outside the coasts. Which is just another way to say: SLIFF is a big deal. The films that come to St. Louis are a big deal — not just here but all over the globe.
While the Tivoli, sadly, will not be hosting any screenings (badger One Family Church about that, please — perhaps with an emphasis on cinema bringing the St. Louis "family" together), this year's addition of St. Louis Cinema's Galleria theater offers greater accessibility to those motoring from north county. While many of the 250-plus films on offer will also be available virtually, most will screen in-person at Plaza Frontenac, Washington University's Brown Auditorium, Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium, St. Louis Public Library's Central Library Auditorium and the Contemporary Art Museum in Grand Center. For the first time, films will also be on view at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles.
This year, a familiar bearded face will be feted: Cliff Froehlich, who retired as executive director of Cinema St. Louis in June and will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. Overseeing 19 film festivals since 2001, Froehlich has been a major player in arts and entertainment in the region since around the time Spielberg's ET hit screens 40 years ago. Fittingly, Froehlich's favorite flick, the screwball news comedy His Girl Friday (1940), will play (for $15) at his tribute Saturday, November 12.
Based on my own extensive film-viewing, research and biases (women directors! complicated female protagonists!), I present the following as this year's picks.
Corsage (Tuesday, November 8): The luminous, earthy Vicky Krieps plays Austrian Empress Elisabeth in a sumptuous, if at times overly revisionist, historical drama from director Marie Kreutzer. Loosely based on the late-19th-century leader's life, Corsage profiles a rebellious woman at middle age grappling against the stringent dictates of her time and rank. Bonus points for horse chases and occasional gender bending.
Enys Men (Monday, November 7): At once trippy and deeply meditative, Mark Jenkin's latest, shot on grainy 16mm, follows an unnamed woman (Mary Woodvine) as she fastidiously records the environmental conditions on the craggy Cornish coast — parts of which are haunted. Set in 1973, the film feels like it was made that year; the past uncannily comes to life in both content and form.
Holy Spider (Thursday, November 10): Directed by Ali Abbasi, this internationally produced thriller chronicles the efforts of a Tehrani journalist to catch an infamous serial killer responsible for the deaths of 16 women. Zar Amir Ebrahimi won Best Actress at Cannes for the lead in what feels like a mix of A Separation and Silence of the Lambs.
Nanny (Sunday, November 6): Nikyatu Jusu's psychological horror takes root in the fancy flat of a New York couple who has recently hired a Senegalese immigrant to take care of their children. This is the first star turn for Anna Diop, who appeared in Jordan Peele's Us, and certainly not her last.
She Said (Tuesday, November 8): Director Maria Schrader's English-language debut, this star-studded newsroom drama chronicles New York Times reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they break the Harvey Weinstein story. While a bit too, well, white to adequately represent the depths of #MeToo, She Said reflects a crucial moment in recent journalist history.
Women Talking (Sunday, November 13): The first film in a decade from Canadian director Sarah Polley, this probing drama orbits the deliberation of a pan-generational group of Mennonite women responding to sexual abuse in their community. After its reception at Telluride, Polley is already rumored to be a likely nominee for Best Director category at the Academy Awards.
After Sherman (Saturday, November 5): This poetic, nonlinear film from Jon-Sesrie Goff relies on collage techniques to mine the past — and present — of the Gullah community on the coast of South Carolina. Quietly disquieting, After Sherman exposes the aftermath of slavery from a distinctly introspective angle. (Free admission, as part of the Divided City lineup.)
All that Breathes (Thursday, November 10): Winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Shaunak Sen's portrait of three men rescuing injured birds off the streets of New Delhi compels a trenchant reassessment of how we conceive of both nature and urbanity. A must-see for the ornithological enthusiast, this doc also exposes the Islamophobia plaguing India's capital under the current Modi regime.
Body Parts (Friday, November 4): Anyone interested in sex onscreen (so ... everyone) should check out Kristy Guevara-Flanagan's examination of Hollywood's history of recording nudity and intercourse onscreen. A feminist doc that avoids rote finger wagging, Body Parts includes a broad range of perspectives that push past the white, hetero, ableist norm.
Education, Interrupted (Saturday, November 5): Directed by St. Louis' own Aisha Sultan, writer and columnist for the Post-Dispatch, this doc delivers an unflinching yet compassionate look at a single mother in East St. Louis struggling to care for, and educate, her two young children during the pandemic lockdown. It's a welcome rejoinder to bootstrapping rhetoric that continues to plague our nation.
Let the Little Light Shine (Saturday, November 12): A gripping depiction of grassroots activism, this doc brought audiences to their feet at this year's True/False and may very well move you to tears. Directed by Kevin Shaw, the movie confronts the ramifications of Chicago gentrification on one of its most beloved, and successful, Black public schools. (Free admission, as part of the Divided City lineup.)
The YouTube Effect (Thursday, November 4): Alex Winter's latest should pique the interest of anyone perturbed by the rising power of social media empires — from their dissemination of fake news to their polarizing effect on national politics. YouTubers like Natalie Wynn add a dose of levity to an alarming exposé of mercenary media conglomerates.
The 31st Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival takes place from Thursday, November 3, to Sunday, November 13. Locations and times vary, and tickets cost between $5 and $350 for a VIP pass. Visit cinemastlouis.org/sliff/festival-home for more information.
This story has been updated.