Chicago Film Fest Chat Pt. 2: Derelict Discoveries for Working Stiffs

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

Nick Davis: “Regional” or not, I love this joint.  I am sure I’d have a blast at Cannes or Venice or Toronto, none of which I have ever attended, but I get heartburn just reading about the logistics, the venues, the paparazzi, and the bidding wars. I love that Chicago stays focused on the movies and doesn’t price itself totally out of the average, curious moviegoer’s means like NYFF seems deliberately to do.  Seeing the uneven but intensely affecting Melancholia last night in a sold-out house, mixing auteur-obsessed cinephiles with casually chatty Midwesterners, was a great reminder of one thing I adore about this fest.

I agree about the discoveries, too.  (All you newly-minted fans of Asghar Farhadi (director of A Separation)? CIFF was on the case as early as his barely-seen Fireworks Wednesday from 2006, which won our top prize.)  This year, it’s already too late to see either showing of the funny, perceptive, emotionally pristine Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s film about a 10-year-old girl who passes in her new town as a boy named Mikael, cultivating the outfits, the spitting prowess, and the air of aloof disaffection to back it up. Hopefully someone’ll bring it back eventually.  Ways of the Sea is an indelible Filipino drama about migrants, many of them Muslims, trying to leave one of the country’s poorest regions for the relative, possibly illusory prospects of Malaysia. This beautiful but hardly touristic film is impressively disinclined to rub our noses in misery, and some of the long, uninterrupted scenes of dialogue and character behavior – including a key sequence where nobody says anything – pack the power we now expect from peak Romanian fare, while in every other way being totally different.

Since we’re all talking about hunting down these gems, how will you be doing this from now till the fest ends? What are you determined to catch, or, in pursuit of these rare orchids that no one else might know about, how are you choosing your tickets?

Timothy Brayton: I’ll get to your question in a moment, but first I want to wholeheartedly agree that the opportunity for regular folks to just drop in and check out whatever movie catches their fancy is one of the very best parts of this festival; being surrounded by a theater full of middle-aged working stiff who are not just interested, but downright excited to see something like Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre does my crusty old film geek heart good.

How do I decide what I’m looking for? Step one is to track down all the usual suspects, countrywise – Iran, South Korea (both sadly underrepresented this year), whatever African nation is represented in a year (Ghana’s Destiny of Lesser Animals is one of my most-anticipated for the rest of the fest). Whatever they seem to be pushing is always worth a look- South Asia this year, which has already resulted in one Indian film that I thought was pretty good, the indie Corrode, and the Pakistani box office hit Bol, which is a perfect example of a film I’d have heard of and probably not had a chance to see until if and when it hit DVD without the festival). And of course I’m only human, and the handful of super-big mainstream releases invariably pique my interest; We Need to Talk About Kevin was the first ticket I bought. Mostly, though, it’s the absurdly straightforward method of reading each and every single blurb in the catalogue and marking down whatever grabbed my attention – a lot of disappointments that way, but it’s led to plenty of things I’ve loved (Southwest), or have at the top of my must-see pile (Cairo 678, The Whisperer in Darkness)

By the way, how great is it that this festival digs deep enough that We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the “mainstream” events?

Kevin B. Lee: A number of factors steer my viewing selections. One is to catch up on highlights from other festivals, especially New York, as I’m trying to keep pace with my NYFF correspondents’ viewings on our Keyframe critics’ scorecard, and the CIFF selection has been most obliging as far as overlap.

As Nick noted, CIFF has a competition slate, which has lured me into playing armchair jurist by tracking as many of those 15 titles as I can. So far I’ve seen about half, and heartily endorse the Yasujiro Ozu-esque Chronicle of My Mother which stars two of Japan’s standout performers, Koji Yakusho (of Babel, but don’t hold that against him) and the feisty Aoi Miyazaki. Also the irresistibly affable Le Havre, a the perfect introduction to the world of Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s answer to Ozu. And the aforementioned Nobody But You. Not sure who among them I’d give the prize to; there are more films to see yet.

But of all the films left on the fest schedule between now and next Tuesday, my hands-down, can’t miss event is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (playing this Tuesday and Thursday). A couple of my Turkish friends have hailed it as Turkey’s best film in at least 30 years; it’s a historic achievement by any standard. Possibly one of the greatest nocturnal films ever made, this gorgeously shot odyssey charts a long night in which several cops search for a buried murder victim, only to probe into the recesses of their own humanity with dark-edged humor. With its stunning compositions (mostly lit by car headlights!) and bottomless ambiguities, it places director Nuri Bilge Ceylan on par with Andrei Tarkovsky and David Fincher.

Tim mentioned The Whisperer in Darkness, which I’ve seen, and I think CIFF is an ideal venue for this kind of film. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s undoubtedly a labor of love and deserving of an appreciative audience, especially the H.P. Lovecraft fans it was meant for. Director Sean Branney is co-founder of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society and this is his second screen adaptation of Lovecraft (his first, The Call of Cthulhu, happens to be on Fandor). While it’s a bit top-heavy with dialogue, and Branney wears his classic B-movie fetish on his sleeve (he shot the film in “Mythoscope,” which as far as I can tell is shorthand for luminous black and white shot in Academy ratio HD), there’s no denying the earnestness of the endeavor.

The brio of Branney & Co. has me rooting for them over the 800-lb black-and-white nostalgia gorilla of the festival, the much-ballyhooed The Artist. Don’t get me wrong, the first half of the film is absolutely masterful, not just mimicking but transcending the tropes of silent era filmmaking. There’s one scene in particular that is more erotic than most anything I’ve seen from the 20s, all while staying within the silent Hollywood rulebook. But the second half is a flat-out face plant of uninspired, self-pitying melodrama; it was like watching one of those vintage clips of early airplanes soaring for several heroic yards before nosediving into ignominy.

Nick, Tim, any other 800 lb gorillas you want to take down, or do you care to defend The Artist? And any can’t-miss picks for the rest of the fest you want to call out?

Continue to Part Three, and Part Four, or read Part One.

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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