Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the Chicago International Film Festival is making a special effort to mark the occasion, with a gala gathering of name talents (Liv Ullmann, Oliver Stone, Kathleen Turner and Isabelle Huppert, among others) and many retrospective classics to spotlight the festival’s storied history. But I am, as always, more intrigued by what new and exciting discoveries are to be found in the competition lineups; after all, this is the longest-running competitive festival in North America, and its lineups have routinely yielded films that end up on my top ten lists (last year: The Missing Picture; the year before: Consuming Spirits). The three major competition lineups for this year each yielded two clear standout titles, adding up to my six must-see films of the festival. They may not have the collective star power of the festival’s marquee events, but then again, they don’t need it.
Top Ten from 2014’s Chicago International
New Directors Competition:
Top Pick: Next to Her. This below-the-radar entry at this year’s Cannes Director’s Fortnight is a breakthrough debut for Israeli director Asaf Karman and his wife Liron Ben Shlush, who both stars in and wrote the screenplay based on her experiences caring for her mentally challenged sister (Dana Ivgy, stunningly convincing). The everyday difficulties of the sisters’ daily lives are handled with a casual sensitivity, gradually unfolding into a shocking series of events that exposes the dark logic beneath their sisterly bond.
Runner-up: A Girl at My Door. Another outstanding, troubling film about a vulnerable young woman trying to protect an even more vulnerable younger woman. Korean star Bae Doo-na (Cloud Atlas) plays a police chief assigned to a working class town, where she takes an active interest in a schoolgirl (Kim Sae-ron) seeking refuge from her abusive family. The film is written and directed by July Jung, a protege of Lee Chang-dong (Poetry), who produced the film; there are strong similarities here to Lee’s films in its sympathetic yet unnerving, plot-twisting treatment of misfits dealing with the prejudices of Korean society. The performances by Bae and the prodigiously talented fourteen-year-old Kim Sae-ron command every scene they occupy.
Top Pick: Hotel Nueva Isla. In a run-down historic hotel in Cuba, a scraggly man named Jorge picks away searching for lost treasures embedded in the collapsing walls and heaps of rubble. An exemplar of the specialized genre of “performance documentary,” this portrait of derelict lives playing out before the camera is a testament to directors Irene Gutierrez and Javier Labrador in both capturing and collaborating with Jorge and other memorable hotel squatters in one near-miraculous moment of intimacy after another. Look especially for the children’s alphabet lesson that takes place under a lightning storm—it’s a stunner.
Runner-up: The Iron Ministry. J.P. Sniadecki, an affiliate of Harvard’s highly touted Sensory Ethnography Lab, spent three years riding China’s railways to compile this richly audiovisual portrait of train travel, still the main mode of long distance travel for the majority of Chinese. With no narration or explanatory text, Sniadecki strives for nothing less than the most direct portrayals of as many aspects of the train-riding experience as he can capture, from crowded, creaking old cars packed with migrant laborers to the sterile first class berths of brand new high speed trains. As far as 2014 films on trains go, it’s decisively better than Snowpiercer.
Top Pick: Timbuktu. Eight years since making his masterpiece Bamako, Abderrahmane Sissako returns with a searing chronicle inspired by the 2012 occupation of the Malian city by Islamic militants. The occupation sets forth a nightmarish scenario of cultural schizophrenia as rigid laws and demands are imposed on the locals, prohibiting everything from music to sports. Resistance to the new order manifests itself in strange, poetic ways, such as a soccer match played without a ball. Overbrimming with a strange beauty borne from genuine tragedy, this is possibly the best film in the festival.
Runner-up: Sand Dollars. The great Geraldine Chaplin plays the older European lover of a young local girl in a relationship that slides between sexual transaction and true affection. The directing team Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, whose debut film Jean Gentil dealt with issues of colonialism and poverty in deeply humanistic terms, make further gains through sober yet sensitive direction of a love affair borne of both economic reality and emotional need.
Best of Show at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.