Chicago Film Fest Chat #5: Ending with Shorts But Not Feeling Short-Changed

This is the final installment of a weeklong conversation on the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, which takes place now through October 20, 2011. Read Part OnePart TwoPart Three and Part Four.

Kevin B. Lee: As we close out our week-long conversation, I’ll start with my top recommendations for the remaining days of the festival: The Turin Horse (Saturday at 2pm) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (Tuesday at 7:45pm), both of which I wrote about yesterday. I write this without having screened most of what’s scheduled, admittedly; and even though I’ve seen about 30 films, that’s only 1/5 of the lineup. I’m hoping for a chance to see Southwest now that both of you have raved about it. I most regret missing out on Melancholia (apparently the lone screening sold out quickly) but that will come out soon enough. The one film I’ll try hardest to see before the end is Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Johnnie To, my favorite Hong Kong director working today, though this film sees the action master trying his hand at a rom-com.

I can’t say I share your enthusiasm for Miss Bala, Nick. There’s no doubt that Gerardo Naranjo is an incredibly resourceful filmmaker, I dare say a virtuoso of cinematic technique, especially with the unfolding long-take (highly reminiscent of countryman Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men). My problem is that he makes you aware of that technique at almost every moment, and for me it makes the film play like an aspiring Hollywood action filmmaker’s calling card hitched to a third world social agenda for good measure. The film ostensibly shows a poor girl helplessly jerked around by malevolent social forces beyond her control or comprehension, but rarely did I feel that those forces were more than an on-screen stand-in for Naranjo and co-screenwriter Mauricio Katz, having all kinds of dramatic fun with their beauty queen mouse in a maze.

Maybe it amounts to a similar problem I expressed with the Dardennes: when the grip a filmmaker has on their work is so tight it becomes kind of oppressive no matter how skillfully it wrenches its vision into shape. Which may be why I find myself endorsing a film like Ruben Ostlund’s Play, which screens Sunday and Monday and is explicitly about manipulation, both on- and off-screen. I’ll admit there probably wasn’t a film that made me more agitated than this one, which has a petty mob of African immigrant boys harass three non-black Swedish kids. At first it seems that robbery is the motive (one of them claims a Swedish boy has his brother’s iPhone and wants to inspect it to make sure), but these cats prefer to play with their mice for the better part of two hours. What’s fascinating is that their bullying mind games were largely unscripted and improvised: the filmmakers gave the kids basic instructions and let them freestyle from there, and the aplomb with which the young immigrant actors take to their roles is both riveting and deeply disturbing. The film is shot in crisp HD with an unwavering documentary eye – but the fictional construct of the enterprise deliberately upsets the verisimilitude in ways that run counter to the realist pill coatings of Naranjo and the Dardnennes.

On that note, here’s a toast to all the films that continue to play in our minds – freely and uncontrollably – well after the last screening of CIFF ’11!

Timothy Brayton: In a weird and lovely little coincidence, Kevin, one of the movies you most want to see is the same as one of my biggest recommendations: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is absolutely giddy and adorable and weird. It’s superficially like any old quirky romantic comedy with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, except that it pushes all of that to such an extreme, and then doubles down with a pair of Manic Pixie Dream Boys to go along with the heroine, that it passes beyond cliche and into some kind of realism on the other side. It’s funny as hell, anyway, and it corrects one of the most annoying, to me, tendencies of contemporary romantic comedies: usually, when there’s a love triangle, it’s brutally obvious who is going to end up paired off, since the Other Man/Woman is almost always an unbearable cartoon gorgon; here, all three principals are 100% lovely, decent people, and it genuinely hurts to think that they can’t all end up happily.

Other recommendations: the Iranian Goodbye (last showing: Saturday at 2:15) isn’t the best thing to come out of that country, ever (I’m still disappointed that the programmers didn’t see fit to nab A Separation), but it’s a sufficiently intelligent and craftily-made social satire cum character study that I’m glad it got spirited out of  the country before the authorities could destroy it; and who doesn’t like a little bit of cinematic contraband? And I know I alluded to Pina a couple of days ago, but it’s worth reiterating: the film does absolutely fascinating things with 3-D and the human body. It’s a visually striking as anything I saw this year.

My regrets are all over the place: I’ve never heard anything about a solid third of the lineup, which means that I could be missing out on up to 50 marvelous little gems. But that’s the deal you make with a festival like this: some thing are going to fall through the cracks. I am particularly bummed out that I couldn’t swing Juan of the Dead, a Cuban zombie movie (what can I say? When you’re a zombie fan, you’re a zombie fan all the way); and Miss Bala, about which I knew only that it was Mexico’s Oscar submission before this conversation (and shamefully, that’s exactly why I didn’t want to see it), sounds like one hell of a discussion piece even if the movie itself is a hard to get a handle on.

Anyway, I saw enough good-to-great films that I don’t want to wallow in regret. It’s probably been the best hit-to-miss ratio I’ve ever had at CIFF, maybe because I’ve been picking my films better, maybe because the festival has been. The only outright disappointment has been Loverboy, the most erratic and aimless Romanian film I’ve yet seen. That’s coming after at least two for-sure masterpieces, with The Turin Horse still to come for me.

On the subject of one of those masterpieces, We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I could describe, but I’d just be parroting Kevin’s words), I want to return to the question we started with: the value of the Chicago International Film Festival in the whole world of fests. I sort of can’t believe that …Kevin didn’t make it into NYFF. It’s the kind of must-see film event that every cinephile is going to need to hold an opinion on in some way or another, and it strikes me as a no-brainer. Frankly, if the biggest city in the country has a festival that would rather go for the easier, more mainstream stuff, I guess that maybe CIFF isn’t so bad after all. One thing that can’t ever be doubted is the festival’s tradition of demanding from its audience that we keep exploring and learning more about the art of cinema. There’s a lot of dross, but every year I’ve been coming I’ve been challenged and enlightened by what I’ve seen. That, maybe, is the highest calling of any film festival, and one of the best reasons that we all keep watching movies.

Nick Davis: I’m in the dread mid-to-late zone where the toll of squeezing in movies is starting to induce day-to-day fatigue and day-job backlogs, and I’ve had to drop some tickets.  Apologies to Joshua Marston and Mia Hansen-Løve, both of whose previous features won me completely to their cause, and to the producers of all those screener DVDs that there’s just no time to watch.  Thank goodness for all the outlets like Fandor, MUBI, Film Movement, Facets, etc., that keep some of the most low-profile or esoteric titles circulating.  I won’t part with my schedule any time soon, and I’ll keep hunting for late pick-ups!

I still have lots of tenuous hopes, though I’m positive I won’t be missing in the remaining week is We Need To Talk About Kevin; Morvern Callar was my favorite film of the 00s, so nothing was keeping me from this, even before your ringing endorsements.  I’m also fixed on the Down Under double-feature of Sleeping Beauty and the serial-killer suspenser Snowtown, both of which I’ll be seeing with my favorite Australian, which satisfies.  And though I missed the out-and-proud ballwalker fantasia Leave It On the Floor, I’ll seize another chance when it spruces up the Portage Theatre as part of November’s Reeling Film Festival.  Be there, Chicagoans!

Lastly, if I hadn’t been on the Shorts jury, I might have felt too fatigued by the second weekend to make those programs a priority.  This would have been a dire, dire mistake.  All of them will screen for the public on Friday and Saturday in seven thematically-curated blocs, each of which contains multiple gems.  I have to tread carefully around tipping my hand to tightly sequestered decisions; they made us deliberate in a cinema showing I Don’t Know How She Does It, just to make sure absolutely no one was around.  In any event, the list of what I adored, which is much longer than what I’m highlighting here, extends even further beyond the prizes we could give.  So without casting these as explicitly bests or bookies’ favorites, I’ll say on my own behalf that some of my happiest, most indelible memories of the entire festival include:

* the exuberant wall of retro-punk euphoria that accompanies a fist punching its way out of a garbage heap in The Ghosts, which is like George Romero directing John Waters’ Cry-Baby;

* the nimble, hilarious play with scale that pairs minuscule houseflies with the giant, stressed-out, frame-filling noggins of the human characters in Heavy Heads, which also features the year’s most hysterical and least predictable masturbation technique;

* the thundering menace of Meathead, and the more spindly menace of The Strange Ones;

* the 75-year-old Japanese male porn star who anchors the documentary short Grandpa’s Wet Dream, and the pre-teen, proudly fetishistic owner of 160 vacuums in another unforgettable character portrait, The Vacuum Kid;

* the uproarious Atari-era surrealism of Traumdeutung and the shape-shifting, carved-soap polygons of the drily funny and moving Eagleman Stag;

* the unbroken but unostentatious sequence shot that constitutes all of The Shower, and the piquant miniaturism of The Shirt and Time After Time;

* the unexpected, enigmatic endings of Minuto 200 and Winter;

* the line, “Oh, that’s just because I’m cold” at the end of Flying Anne;

* the various forms of XXX-rated Claymation coitus in the sweetly comic Venus;

* the iconic costume that gets a huge laugh in Method, and the personal-cum-political meditations that wring honest tears in Grandmothers and Goodbye Mandima;

* the most adorable, recurring image of what surely counts as child abuse in The Extraordinary Life of Rocky, except you don’t see it that way at all, and neither does Rocky;

* The Doctor’s Wife, which would pair wonderfully with Dangerous Method, Cropped, which turns Snowtown on its semi-farcical head (so to speak), and Caretaker for the Lord, a very apt companion to the delectable Corpo Celeste;

* and, just for Tim, the underwater zombie attack in Sweden’s The Unliving (aka, Jan of the Dead?)

I have to cut myself off there, but thanks so much to Kevin for inviting us to have this week-long conversation, and thanks to every programmer, staff member, volunteer, ticket-buyer, and (especially) filmmaker who has made the 2011 Chicago Film Festival such an especially savory vintage!

Nick Davis writes essay-length film reviews at his website NicksFlickPicks. He is also a professor of film, English, and gender studies at Northwestern University.

Timothy Brayton writes about film at his blog Antagony & Ecstasy.

Kevin B. Lee is editor of Keyframe at Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

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