Five or 10 years ago, if you wanted to see the latest films making the rounds in Toronto, Sundance, and more, chances are you’d rack up enough frequent flier miles to redeem a round-trip ticket to Cannes for good measure. That’s because you’d basically have to travel to all those places, due to the lack of a serious film festival locally showing the sorts of trailblazing films they specialize in. Though we have a few more art house theaters than we once did, seeing bleeding-edge film has generally required long drives, if not out-of-town jaunts.
But the last five years have seen the rise of a local film festival called Cinetopia. The fest’s founder, Russ Collins, says: “We just saw that there was this void in the Detroit metropolitan area.” And so he and other local cinephiles, including the Detroit Film Theatre’s Elliot Wilhelm, set out to bring those films to Detroit, while they’re still fresh off earning distribution deals at international-level festivals.
It can be a challenge to scour these festivals for films that will both connect with Detroit-area audiences and present a good mix of dramas and comedies, features, and documentaries. But Cinetopia’s organizers regularly attend festivals in the Midwest, across the country, and around the world. The Michigan Theater has a decade-old relationship to the Sundance Film Festival, and Collins reminds us that “the Toronto Film Festival, one of the world’s great film festivals, is just down the road.”
Speaking for festival organizers and members of a local cinema conference, Collins says, “We’ve been going to film festivals for a long time. Several of our staff have appeared on juries at film festivals in Traverse City, Cleveland, and Chicago. So our staff makes it to quite a few festivals, and we’ve contracted with them to scout out festivals we can’t make it to.”
In this sense, Cinetopia stands on some shoulders: Collins notes that Sundance gets more than 4,000 feature films entered each year, and Cinetopia chooses among what makes it to the screen there. But they still have to cover a lot of ground to see what makes it, traveling from Tribeca to Telluride to see the latest. It means that Cinetopia won’t be besieged by flocks of deal-making distribution scouts like other festivals. “That being said, however, how the film is received is very closely tracked by all the distribution companies,” Collins says, “in terms of stuff they’re on the edge about or looking for marketing angles.”
But the basic pleasure of going to see the films selected for Cinetopia this year is almost too obvious to merit mention: a chance for metro Detroiters to see great films up on the big screen, everything from Bambi to Iggy.
“As an audience member,” Collins says, “you’re going to get stuff that could win an Academy Award. Stuff that will be up for best foreign language film, best documentary, best animated film, best short film. You’re not going to see them in a theater.”
And though Cinetopia offers a cinematic feast of films from all over the world, it’s wisely rounded out with local offerings, as well as choices attuned to the area’s niche audiences, including the Arab Film Festival. And the screens cover a wider geographic scope than ever before, with screenings in Detroit at not just the Detroit Film Theatre, but at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the College for Creative Studies, Cinema Detroit, the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, and the Redford Theatre.
Films will even be shown at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township, and at the IMAX theater at Dearborn’s Henry Ford museum. In Ann Arbor, the movies will take over the screens at the Michigan Theater and the State Theatre. All in all, more than 50 films will be screened, with more than 120 chances to see them, over 10 days. Fans can also expect an excellent schedule of post-film events, such as panel discussions, question-and-answer periods, and special appearances. Attendance is predicted to crest around 30,000 attendees.
Cinetopia runs June 3-12; to learn more about the festival, buy a festival pass, or just peruse the schedule, see cinetopiafestival.org.17 films we're super jazzed about:
The Alchemist Cookbook
Feature, 82 minutes
A trippy film about an outcast named Sean who goes out and lives on the edges of society, where he experiments with black magic, only to discover something dark and sinister. Up-and-coming Grand Rapids-based director Joel Potrykus has built a nice buzz for this feature. Collins calls Potrykus "a post-mumblecore type of filmmaker with a distinct style." Potrykus will be on hand for the Detroit screening of this film.
9:30 p.m. June 3 at the College for Creative Studies
9:30 p.m. June 8 at the Michigan Theater
Black Mountain Poets
Feature, 85 minutes
This British farce follows a couple of confidence artists on the lam who try to hoodwink the attendees at a poet's retreat in Wales. They pretend to be poets, hoping to make off with the event's cash prize. Filled with hilarious performances, Black Mountain Poets provides an amusing commentary on world of poetry.
7:30 p.m. June 5 at the Henry Ford
7 p.m. June 10 at the Michigan Theater
Feature, 118 minutes
Viggo Mortensen is Ben, whose family lives in the remote wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, where he and his wife home-school their children to be free thinkers. But when one family member falls ill, it pulls them out of the wilderness and confronts them with the complexities of the big city. Collins calls the film "a really interesting narrative film with some very good performances."
6:45 p.m. June 3 at the College for Creative Studies
6:45 p.m. June 10 at the Michigan Theater
Documentary, 17 minutes
Plenty of New Hollywood directors are stars in their own right, but Brian De Palma never got the personal attention of, say, a Lucas or a Scorcese. With Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's documentary about the director, that may well change. As told by De Palma himself, the film has him look back on a directing career that includes such classics as Carrie, Scarface, and Mission: Impossible.
1:15 p.m. June 5 at the Detroit Film Theatre
Shorts program, 78 minutes
Cinetopia whittled dozens of entries down to the very best short subjects from Detroit-based high school kids, college students, and professionals. It's an effort to show off some of the impressive local talent, including animation, docs, features, and experimental. Some of the filmmakers will be on hand to talk about their work.
3:30 p.m. June 4 at the Detroit Film Theatre
12:30 p.m. June 11 at the Michigan Theater
Iggy Pop Live in Basel 2015
Concert film, 79 minutes
This film captures the intensity of Iggy Pop, the godfather of punk, performing at the Baloise Session in Basel, Switzerland. It includes him singing many of his best-known songs, including "I Wanna be Your Dog," "The Passenger," and "Lust for Life."
7 p.m. June 5 at the Detroit Film Theatre
7 p.m. June 12 at the Michigan Theater
Documentary, 84 minutes
It has become almost a cliché of the documentary film world to show how, yes, even poor people can enjoy playing classical music. From 2004's Tocar y Luchar to 2014's Crescendo! The Power of Music, films now abound on the subject of the poor finding Prokofiev. Upping the ante a bit is Landfill Harmonic, a documentary about the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay, where a children's orchestra plays with instruments made entirely out of garbage thanks to the tremendous landfill they live next to.
7:15 p.m. June 5 at the DIA
7:30 p.m. June 9 at the State Theatre
Musical, 92 minutes
Two mermaid sisters live out their dream of traveling to the United States and becoming pop stars. Visually striking, with moments of violence and terror, Collins calls it a "Polish murder musical about mermaids." Expect to see something unique.
10 p.m. June 3 at Cinema Detroit
10 p.m. June 9 at the State Theatre
Michael Jackson Sing-Along & Dance Party
Given his long career as the King of Pop, it's easy to forget that Jackson worked with talented directors on his game-changing music videos. Prepare to be wowed by a collection of short pieces with top-notch direction outdoors.
7:30 p.m. June 8 Campus Martius
7:30 p.m. June 9 Maynard Street
Morris From America
Feature, 91 minutes
Everybody loves a good coming-of-age comedy. But when that story is about a 13-year-old American whose family moves him to Germany, where he pursues his dreams of being a hip-hop superstar, you have a shoo-in for the independent film festival circuit.
7 p.m. June 4 at the Detroit Film Theatre
Norman Lear: JAVOY (Just Another Version Of You)
Documentary, 91 minutes
Back in the 1970s, American television entered a new era of social consciousness, in which working-class characters wrestled with the big issues of life: race, class, and women's lib. This was central to the comedy in such shows as All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, and The Jeffersons. And one thing all those shows had in common was Norman Lear, the man who "brought prime time into step with the times." And this film is the definitive chronicle of Lear's life and work. It comes from Detroit-area native Heidi Ewing (Detropia, Jesus Camp).
6:45 p.m. June 5 at CCS
3:45 p.m. June 12 at the Michigan Theater
Animated, 118 minutes
Originally released in 1991, this anime feature is only finally making it to American screens. It's a family-friendly coming-into-adulthood story for Taeko, a young woman who travels back to her rural village to look back on life so far and try to find her way forward. It's being screened on the north lawn of the Detroit Institute of Arts as part of the opening night festivities. This will be the second year an outdoor DIA screening is free and open to the public as part of the festival. "It was a lot of fun last year," Collins says, "so come out, sit on the lawn at the DIA, and enjoy the film."
After sundown, June 3 at the DIA
Feature, 87 minutes
Joe is your everyday guy, with a sensible wife, but seems a bit obsessed with quantifying his life in charts and calculations, if only to calm his anxiety. It keeps him on an even keel, at least until his work life comes into conflict with his marriage. If it sounds like we're trying to avoid a spoiler, you'd be right. With shades of Spike Jonze's Her, this film premiered at SXSW and has been playing at festivals all over the world. It's written and directed by two Ann Arbor natives, and stars Martin Starr of TV's Silicon Valley.
7:15 p.m., June 9 and 7:15 p.m., June 11, at the Michigan Theater
7:30 p.m. June 12 at the Henry Ford
Documentary, 87 minutes
This documentary about Senegalese novelist and director Ousmane Sembene, aka "the father of African film," presents the filmmaker and thinker, as well as his vision for Africa and the inner lives of its peoples. The ambitious documentary attempts to paint a portrait of a complex and dynamic artist, his political points of view, and how he used art as a weapon against colonialism.
6:45 June 3 at the Wright Museum
3:45 June 10 at the Michigan Theater
Documentary, 91 minutes
As the world becomes more global, the theme of undocumented immigration only grows in importance. But what about a teenage Afghan undocumented immigrant? And not in the United States, but in Iran? Now what if her dream was to become a hip-hop star? Then you'd have the makings of the award-winning documentary (yes, documentary) Sonita.
7 p.m., June 5 at Cinema Detroit
12:30 p.m. June 11 at the State Theatre
Documentary, 85 minutes
This film zooms in on Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn, New York tailor shop that specializes in creating well-fitting, stylish suits for the trans community. The shop's customers are often people preparing for a big moment in their lives: a business interview, a walk down the aisle, a bar mitzvah, etc. They take the shop's motto — "You have the right to be handsome" — to heart. This gives the film's viewers a chance to see a marginalized group of people share their hopes, dreams, and aspirations, and to see people who want them to look and feel their best. One of the shop's owners, Rae Tutera, will attend at least one of the screenings.
7:15 p.m. June 3 at Cinema Detroit
7 p.m. June 8 at the Maple Theatre
7 p.m. June 9 at the Michigan Theater
3:45 p.m. June 11 at the State Theatre
Tyrus: The Tyrus Wong Story
Documentary, 73 minutes
Inspired people who overcome struggles make great subjects for documentaries. Take Tyrus Wong: He came to this country at age 9, overcame being poor, adapting to a new culture, fighting against deeply embedded racism, and became a proficient artist who created paintings, greeting cards, and was the lead designer on Walt Disney's Bambi. What's more, Wong is still alive, 103 years old, and eager to share his story in this film. As part of Cinetopia, Bambi also gets a rare theatrical screening, as does a program of Disney shorts. In fact, film historian Leonard Maltin will even be in town to discuss them at certain screenings. 8:30 p.m., June 4 at the DIA 1 p.m., June 12 at the Michigan Theater