Chicago Film Fest Chat Pt. 1: Underachieving or Underrated Festival?

This is the first installment of a weeklong conversation on the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, which takes place now through October 20, 2011.

Nick Davis: A great pleasure of a film festival is having erudite, movie-loving friends to take it in with.  I know we are all jazzed about CIFF, but I also know we are all coming to it from slightly different vantages, as I imagine our Chicago-area readers might be.  I, for example, haven’t seen any of the programmed films anywhere else, though I am enough of a CIFF geek to have a special section devoted to it every year on my website.

Since my faculty position at Northwestern is largely focused in cinema and gender studies, I’m making a priority wherever possible of films by women or LGBT directors, or with strong gender- or sexuality-related themes.  And I’m on the Short Films jury, so I’ve already seen all 52 of those.  In terms of features, though, you guys are both taking in even more films than I am, so what should readers know about your relationship to the festival and what you’re looking for from this year’s slate?  Then we’ll dig into some movies.

Kevin B. Lee: Among the three of us, I’m the Chicago newbie, but I’ve followed CIFF for the past 10 years, chiefly through the Chicago Reader’s annual capsule coverage. And I’ve read rather unflattering assessments of the festival to the effect that it’s poorly managed and the selection doesn’t uphold a consistent level of quality that one might expect from a festival serving a major US metropolis. But while the recent runs by Venice, Toronto and NYFF leave Chicago with no real prestigious world premieres, I’m impressed by how many highlights from other festivals (those three plus Sundance, Cannes and Berlin) are available for Chicagoans to see for the first time. In that sense it’s a fine regional festival on par with Tribeca, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

I’ve seen close to 30 films in the lineup, about half of which I’d seen in other festivals, such as A Dangerous Method, which I saw in Toronto and is one of two films that I consider true CIFF standouts. The other, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which was feted at Cannes), I was able to catch up with here. Both of those films have swiftly gained reputations that precede them. But as I’ve sifted through CIFF’s vast selection, I’ve also discovered some hidden gems that haven’t gotten the attention from other festivals that they deserve.

Three examples: Amador, a kind of Spanish neo-realist Weekend at Bernie’s but far more deftly handled than that comparison would suggest; its gentle mix of comedy and melodrama blossoms in front of your eyes. Bunny Drop, by Sabu, one of the bad boys of Japanese cinema, who uncharacteristically tries his hand at a family adoption melodrama and turns it out with startling sensitivity.

And then there’s Nobody Else But You, a playful yarn that re-imagines Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life transplanted to the sleepy, provincial French Alps. I give it props for being more inventive with the standard Marilyn legend than the star-studded My Week With Marilyn, an impeccable if rote interpretation. Michelle Williams doesn’t bring anything to our understanding of Monroe that we don’t already know, but she embodies Marilyn with stunning precision, down to the tiniest lip quiver.

Timothy Brayton: I’ll start by saying that this year just so happens to my tenth anniversary with CIFF: and though it’s always one of the highlights of my year, I’m obliged to agree with the conventional wisdom that Kevin points out, that it’s really kind of a well-meant underachiever among film fests. For sure, it’s a great regional festival, but every I end up wondering why a city with such a thriving film culture (we’re no New York, of course, but there are a lot of excellent ways to find worthwhile rarities all year ’round) has to settle for a regional festival.

And then in the the very same breath, I always remind myself that, even if we don’t get any of the big premieres of important films – if I’m not much mistaken, the last major Hollywood prestige picture to debut here was The Weather Man back in ’05 – there are always some absolutely fantastic little movies that I’ve never heard about or only heard one or two things, and never hear about again.

It’s not flashy stuff, but the flashy stuff will show up eventually, anyway. I think what makes CIFF such a wonderful thing for Chicago cinephiles is that it’s our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these rarities, not just the B-tier Cannes and Berlin offerings that might or might not eventually play for a week in one of the art theaters that don’t do much advertising.

Case in point: Southwest, a fantastic Brazilian picture by first-time director Eduardo Nunes, as far as I can make out, it hasn’t played outside of South America before now. It’s a strange formalist fairy tale that isn’t perfect, but is so ambitious and inventive and completely beautiful that I haven’t had it out of my mind for five minutes since I saw it. And I saw it almost completely by accident.

That’s what’s so wonderful and frustrating about CIFF: there’s a lot of really special films hiding in the schedule, without any buzz or reputations, and you have to sift through a lot of banal indies and such to get there, but the reward is that when you stumble across the great stuff, it feels personal, like you did it all on your own. That’s maybe my favorite part of CIFF: it doesn’t come pre-sold to me, I have to engage with it to find the best stuff, and that makes me value it more.

Continue to Part TwoPart Three, and Part Four.

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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