It opens today, runs through October 24, and we begin with Michael Smith: “The Chicago International Film Festival has returned for a 49th edition that features a typically expansive and eclectic list of movies from around the world—180 films from 60 different countries to be precise. While this includes some (but not all) of the important films by big name directors that made splashes earlier this year at Berlin (Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain), Cannes (Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color) and Venice (Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs), a lot of the chief pleasures to be found at CIFF come from seeking out titles more off the beaten path. CIFF will never be able to compete with New York, Telluride or Toronto, all of which immediately precede us on the fall festival circuit, but the other side of the coin is that we’re more likely to get gems by lesser-known auteurs that fly under the radar of those festivals. In this regard, I was particularly impressed by the Taiwanese thriller Soul, a Lynchian mind-bender by one Chung Mong-Hong featuring a great role for the legendary martial artist Jimmy Wang-Yu (The One Armed Swordsman).” He then highlights four “best bets.”
Ray Pride for Newcity Film: “One of the most exciting, as well as unexpected attractions, is the Opening Night film, the sturdy and underrated filmmaker James Gray’s turn-of-the-20th century drama, The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner…. Of local note: John McNaughton’s The Harvest, his first feature in far too many years, with Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton as overly protective parents whose bubble is burst by a new neighbor. 91-year-old Haskell Wexler will join Walter Jacobson on stage to discuss his 1968 classic Medium Cool, to be shown along with Medium Cool Revisited (2013), his short documentary about anti-NATO protests in Chicago.”
“On the whole,” writes Ben Sachs, introducing the Reader‘s massive guide, “CIFF belongs to itinerant movies still searching for (and often failing to find) audiences outside their native countries. This gives the festival a certain egalitarian spirit, with filmmakers and audiences alike hoping for new prospects but uncertain of what to expect. If you attend in a spirit of aesthetic or cultural curiosity, that uncertainty can be a very good thing; on some occasions at the fest, I’ve stumbled onto something so alien that it revises the basic expectations I bring to a movie. Here’s hoping we’re all so lucky this year.”
Marilyn Ferdinand‘s been previewing up a storm, having already posted reviews of Asli Özge’s Lifelong, Joanna Kos and Krzystof Krauze’s Papusza, Jan Verheyen’s The Verdict, Erik Poppe’s A Thousand Times Good Night, Andrzej Wajda‘s Wałęsa: Man of Hope, Bernard Attal’s The Invisible Collection, and Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.
Update, 10/14: In a new batch of capsule reviews, Michael Smith declares that his “favorite movie at this year’s CIFF is Stranger by the Lake” and reviews Parviz Shahbazi’s Trapped (“the plotting here is at least as skillful and suspenseful as that of A Separation, without resorting to that film’s more blatant narrative contrivances”), Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley (“lacks the intimacy and poignance of his seminal High School (1968)”), and Chung Mong-Hong’s Soul (“gripping and highly original stuff”).
Update, 10/15: For Marilyn Ferdinand, Carlos Lechuga’s Melaza, “a Cuban film that got past the censors because they were blind to the irony of the scenes ‘celebrating’ the triumphs of the revolution, is a fascinating look inside a society dedicated to leveling the playing field for all, but managing instead simply to flatten most of its people. Beyond economics, however, is one of the most heartfelt love stories I’ve ever seen, one that seems to want to believe that love conquers all, even as it shows that we often have no control over the little lives most of us would like to go about in peace.”
Update, 10/16: For the Reader, Ben Sachs reviews Suzanne, “the second feature by writer-director Katell Quillévéré, whose first, Love Like Poison, played at CIFF two years ago…. Like Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love, it advances forward in time without warning (sometimes days, sometimes years), creating the sense that time is constantly slipping away from the characters…. Like Poison, Suzanne can feel derivative of other recent French cinema. Hansen-Løve’s storytelling breakthroughs cast a large shadow over the picture, as do the deceptive formlessness of Maurice Pialat (Loulou, A Nos Amours), the music-inspired editing patterns of Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas, and André Téchiné’s love of complex, self-contradicting characters. Yet Quillévéré doesn’t seem as enslaved to her models this time around—she seems to be working through them and slowly establishing her own voice.”
Viewing (8’35”). The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips and Keyframe’s Kevin B. Lee discuss their favorite films at CIFF 49.
Updates, 10/18: At Newcity Film, Ray Pride takes a look at “some highlights (and a couple of lowlights) of the second week.”
Marilyn Ferdinand is impressed by Damon Vignale’s The Exhibition, “a 360-degree look at the broad range of issues surrounding a Vancouver-area farmer who admitted to killing 49 women, the vast majority of them First Nation prostitutes, during the 1990s and 2000s, and a successful artist named Pamela Masik who undertook a project to paint huge portraits of all of the victims in what she calls ‘The Forgotten’ series.”
Update, 10/19: The Reader‘s Ben Sachs suspects that Heli “will be among the most divisive films at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. It contains some of the most graphic images of torture I’ve ever seen in a movie, and director Amat Escalante‘s blunt, deadpan presentation somehow makes them even more repulsive. Like Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala (a standout at CIFF two years ago) or Diego Quemada-Diez’s La Jaula de Oro (a standout at CIFF this year; it plays again on Tuesday at 1:15 PM), its subject is brutality in contemporary Mexico; and like those films, it generates a frightened, paranoid energy that makes violence seem all but inescapable. At the end of all three, major characters with whom we have come to identify have been stripped of their humanity, and the narrative has been interrupted by scenes of atrocity. Yet Heli may go further than either of the other films in the severity of its conclusion or the hideousness of its violence.”
Update, 10/21: “One of the most pleasant surprises for me at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was attending the U.S. premiere of the independent ‘body horror’ entry Contracted by prolific 25-year-old writer/director Eric England,” writes Michael Smith, introducing his interview with England.
Updates, 10/23: “Another Chicago International Film Festival has come and is just about gone, and unlike previous years, I don’t feel at all exhausted by the effort,” writes Marilyn Ferdinand. “I don’t feel particularly inspired by it either. Perhaps my lack of fatigue has something to do with the lack of challenging, thought-provoking fare.”
“Looking over my list of ten favorites,” writes Ben Sachs, posting that list at the Reader, “I realize it contains next to no revelations. The films, if not directed by established filmmakers, come from the small pool of selections with secure U.S. distribution—meaning they’d been vetted by tastes other than mine. The one exception is La Jaula de Oro, an exceptional debut (by director Diego Quemada-Diez) and a confirmation of the thriving state of Mexican art cinema.”
Updates, 10/28: Michael Smith ranks and reviews the 13 he caught at CIFF 49.