If you’re a movie buff who happens to be in Aspen this week, whether you live here or you’re just visiting, your present arrives today in the form of Aspen Film’s 27th annual Academy Screenings, which run through Sunday.
A holiday tradition that brings critically acclaimed, award-nominated movies to town for a five-day film smorgasbord, the Academy Screenings offer cinephiles a chance for zero-calorie overindulgence on films that they might not otherwise get to watch in a theater.
“We realized after last year that people want new and fresh, and they also want things that they can’t really see elsewhere,” said Aspen Film executive director Susan Wrubel, “so that was our focus.”
If you’re feeling so inclined, over the next five days, you could watch 15 different films — only three of which have played in the valley thus far — for a binge-watching session that would do any Netflix couch potato proud. Impressive as that feat would be, however, it’s more likely you’ll just want to see a handful of the movies, so here’s a guide to what’s playing where and when.
Today, Wheeler Opera House
4:30 p.m. — “Amazing Grace.” This uplifting documentary chronicles two days of live performances by Aretha Franklin in 1972 at the Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. The audio recordings of the performances became Franklin’s “Amazing Grace,” widely considered the greatest gospel album of all time. The video footage, shot by Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack, captures the Queen of Soul at the very height of her unmatched powers. Essential viewing for fans of soul music.
6:45 — “Vice.” Christian Bale gives an astonishing performance as Dick Cheney, the most powerful vice president in American history, in this biopic from director Adam McKay. With an all-star cast, including Steve Carell, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, “Vice” takes a look at Cheney’s rise to power and how he reshaped America and the world at large in ways that are still being felt.
Thursday, Wheeler Opera House
3 p.m. — “Woman at War.” This Icelandic import tells the tale of Halla, a 50-year-old environmental activist (and industrial saboteur) whose world is turned upside down when she learns her application to adopt a little girl from Ukraine has been accepted. Lauded for tackling important global issues with compassion and humor, “Woman at War” premiered last May during Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival and has been charming audiences worldwide ever since.
5:30 — “Roma.” Short-listed for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, this intimate portrait of Cleo, a domestic worker in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighborhood in the 1970s, may also land a Best Picture nomination as well (nominees will be announced Jan. 22). From Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” examines social hierarchy and domestic strife amidst the political turmoil that roiled Mexico when Cuarón was a boy.
8:30 — “The Favourite.” A dark comedy set in early 18th-century England, “The Favourite” tells the story of Abigail (Emma Stone), a servant girl at Buckingham Palace who becomes a companion to the frail Queen Anne. This sets off a deliciously nasty battle with Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) for the queen’s attentions. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos does a masterful job of turning a palace full of conniving aristocrats into an unsettling but deeply entertaining period piece.
Friday, Paepcke Auditorium
3 p.m. — “Never Look Away.” An epic spanning three eras of German history, this drama from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck follows an artist (loosely based on Gerhard Richter) from his childhood under the Nazi regime to post-war East Berlin, where he falls in love with a woman whose father is an ex-Nazi murderer in hiding, to his eventual escape to the West. Another entry on the Best Foreign-Language Film short list, “Never Look Away” justifies its three-hour running time by staying taut and engaging throughout.
7 — “Stan & Ollie.” An affectionate look at one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy teams, this film from director John S. Baird finds Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) on a tour of England in 1953. Years removed from their halcyon days and diminished by age, the pair have to deal with the ghosts of their past and their own creative and personal relationships as they face an uncertain future. Though small in scale, “Stan & Ollie” packs a hefty emotional punch.
9 — “Free Solo.” Making its return to Aspen, this stunning National Geographic documentary chronicles climber Alex Honnold as he gets ready to scale Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-vertical-foot El Capitan without a rope. An examination of the limits of human achievement and the terrifying uncertainty of a potentially deadly undertaking, “Free Solo” combines astonishing cinematography and human drama to create a film that plays like an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Saturday, Paepcke Auditorium
12:15 p.m. — “Capernaum.” Yet another Best Foreign-Language Film favorite, “Capernaum,” from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, played to rave reviews in September as the surprise film at Aspen Filmfest. The plot revolves around Zain, a streetwise boy who sues his parents for giving him life, flees his home and has to use his wits to survive on his own.
3 — “Boy Erased.” Tackling the thorny issue of “gay conversion therapy,” this Richard Linklater-directed film tells the story of Jared Eamons, the homosexual son of a Baptist minister in a small American town. Sent to conversion therapy by his conservative parents (played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe), Jared clashes with the program’s leader and begins a journey toward finding his own voice and accepting himself the way he is.
5 — “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Based on the acclaimed novel by James Baldwin and set in Harlem in the early 1970s, this moving romantic drama centers on 19-year-old Tish, a pregnant bride-to-be whose artist fiancé is jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Exploring issues of masculinity, race and optimism in the face of seemingly hopeless odds, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a mature, profound effort from Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” the 2017 Oscar winner for Best Picture.
8:30 — “Vox Lux.” A meditation on the pitfalls and allure of celebrity anchored by a stellar performance from Natalie Portman, this Brady Corbet-directed feature tells the story of a former teen pop star trying to make a comeback at the age of 31 while struggling to navigate familial obligations, motherhood and the burden of her own celebrity after her career is almost derailed by scandal.
Sunday, Wheeler Opera House
3 p.m. — “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” Delving into the mostly forgotten world of industrial musicals — full-blown productions designed to sell things like tractors and silicone — this charming, slightly goofy documentary follows former “Late Show with David Letterman” writer Steve Young on his obsessive quest to uncover a hidden world of rare albums and unseen footage featuring the likes of Chita Rivera, Florence Henderson, Bob Fosse and others.
5 — “At Eternity’s Gate.” Starring Willem Dafoe in a star turn as Vincent van Gogh, this character study from director Julian Schnabel dramatizes scenes from the latter part of the painter’s life loosely based on his letters, events for which there are records and Schnabel’s own imagination. A stirring portrait of inner turmoil centered on a full-bodied performance from Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate” reveals the tortured soul behind the legendary artist.
8 — “Ben Is Back.” A family drama starring Julia Roberts in one of her finest performances, this film from director Peter Hedges looks at what happens when a mother’s 19-year-old addict son (a terrific Lucas Hedges) returns home on the day before Christmas. A riveting drama that doesn’t sugarcoat its difficult subject matter, “Ben Is Back” asks how far a loving mother will go to protect her son over a turbulent 24 hours that could tear the family apart.