Thursday Ten: The Best Films I've Seen at CIFF

The Chicago International Film Festival begins tonight with the world premiere of Fischer Steven’s Stand Up Guys. Not to knock Chicago-native Steven or the ensemble cast of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin, but one would have hoped that the festival would at least attempt to strive for relevancy. Other festivals throughout the world, from Cannes to Telluride, Toronto to New York, have strong lineups that include debut features and festival darlings that make for a wholly unique experience. That was certainly the case when I attended the New York Film Festival two years ago – as the Lincoln Center provided such a rich atmosphere for cinematic consumption.

Still, I won’t completely dismiss a festival that has afforded me the opportunity to watch many great films. And that’s what this week’s Thursday Ten is all about – to reflect on the films that I’ve seen at the Chicago International Film Festival since first attending in 2008. So as I’ll be attending films like David Chase’s Not Fade Away, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (among others), this list will change. But for the here and now – the following ten films are enough evidence to know that there will always be films to keep me coming.

10.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (CIFF 2011) Directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen 

Turn Me On, Dammit! was one of those films that snuck up on me. Part of the pleasures of any festival is to experiment and dabble in the unknown. Knowing next to nothing about this Norwegian film was probably for the best – from the onset, it presents a set of expectations only to subvert them in virtually every way. Turn me On, Dammit! takes normative clichés of films of its type and provides a refreshing feminine perspective. In my original review of the film, I acknowledged the similarities it had with a film like Youth in Revolt – and honestly, there hasn’t been a better film to offer a comparison. The two present their central teenage characters as oversexed and yearning for connection in a middling community. Complimentary as they are, I would give the edge to Turn Me On, Dammit!, largely on how audacious and flagrant it becomes at addressing feminine sexuality. But most of all, Turn Me On, Dammit! is a perfect example of why a film like this succeeds in a festival setting – it offers pleasant surprises. (Full Review Here)

9.

A Dangerous Method (CIFF 2011) Directed by David Cronenberg

I had (and continue to have) reservations on David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. It was a film that I saw at CIFF with great anticipation – while intellectually stimulating, the film never reached out for me as I sat watching from a distance. But as I am removed from the film, and following a screening of Cronenberg’s follow up, Cosmopolis, I can’t help but feel dots begin to connect. While I highlighted the positives of festival viewings with my write-up of Turn Me On, Dammit!, their shortcomings may rear their ugly head with a viewing like A Dangerous Method. There’s a degree of synthesis that certain films demand upon viewing, and if you, like me, tend to use the festival setting as a way of seeing as many movies as possible, these films may slip through the cracks. A Dangerous Method may not have connected with me initially, but it is a film that, a year removed, resonates. (Full Review Here)

8.

Mother (CIFF 2009) Directed by Bong Joon-ho

My experience watching Mother is one that remains surprisingly clear – a sold-out screening for a pensive South Korean film on a Friday night was something I was not expecting during my college days. And after an all-nighter, I had reservations evening attending the picture. But I followed through and exhausted as I may have been, I was entirely engrossed in Bong Joon-ho’s picture. Considerable as a directorial effort, Mother is one of those pictures that I saw pieces of what I was learning in college – community building, social construction, and class conflict comprise much of the narrative. With a compelling central performance by Kim Hye-ja and a terse narrative structure, Mother fulfills the promise that Joon-ho has as being one of the best of an elite class of South Korean directors.

7.

Cold Weather (CIFF 2010) Directed by Aaron Katz

If there’s one thing that really impressed me about Cold Weather is its sense of place and community – here’s a fully- realized world, one where individuals are not defined as characters but as people, and where a sense of atmosphere is felt through the warmness of apartment lights and the chilliness of an ice factory. Aaron Katz uses the environment to maximum effect, methodically piecing together the world before introducing the film’s more story-driven aspects. And what’s great is how he doesn’t compromise the environment or people when introducing the narrative – instead it flows organically as something that just happens. The delight I had after watching Cold Weather is not easily shaken – it’s a film that I have returned to before and one that I can see again and again.

6.

The House of the Devil (CIFF 2009) Directed by Ti West

One of the better recurring events that CIFF has put on is their “After Dark” series. Comprised of future cult classics and horror pictures, it has provided audiences with a more audacious and viscerally engaging set of films. That, or just a good set of gross-out picture with lots of blood and guts and stuff. Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a picture that makes no compromise. It’s a directorial force with its share of kinetic scares. And while West has risen from unknown to only a semi-obscure name in horror, festival screenings of The House of the Devil are really what allowed him to ascend the cult-horror strata. At least I can say that I got to meet Ti West before he hits it big.

5.

The Wrestler (CIFF 2008) Directed by Darren Aronofsky

While Black Swan improved on many of the ideas posited by The Wrestler, the film proved to be a significant turning point for Darren Aronofsky as a director. The grim discourse is still prevalent, but it’s the methodology of his filmmaking that flourishes. It’s odd to think, but watching The Wrestler at CIFF was a significant turning point in my perception of contemporary filmmaking. While cognizant of his filmmaking techniques, to see a director like Aronofsky – someone who deployed his own unique perspective in films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream – utilize the techniques of many of my own favorite directors in The Wrestler was a minor revelation. I was viewing a director who was still shaping his grasp of cinematic language – and to be aware of this shaping was something new to me at the time.

4.

Antichrist (CIFF 2009) Directed by Lars von Trier

One’s appreciation for Antichrist hinges on your ability to view the material on a comedic level. I say comedic in less a “ha-ha” sense and more in an appreciation of the sober ridiculousness on display. Having only experienced the film once with a sold-out audience with Willem Dafoe in attendance, what Antichrist showed me was how incredibly divisive a picture can be. As audience members walked out, I was engrossed by the visceral qualities of Lars von Trier’s film. And as the picture goes absolutely bat-shit crazy in its last half, I couldn’t help but laugh at the audacity of it all. Some may connect with the film’s contemplations on anxiety or its bizarre gender politics – what I got out of Antichrist is the sense of how immediate and powerful a film can be when it aims to purely attack the senses.

3.

Certified Copy (CIFF 2010) Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

There are several films over the past few years that I embraced with the utmost conviction only to forget about them a week removed. Similarly, there have been many films in the past few years that I walked away from with uncertainty. There’s usually been something about that I admired. But ultimately, my immediate response is always hazy. Certified Copy fits the former. It was a film that I admired for aspects that I could not wholly explain. And there were aspects of it, its ambiguity, which prevented me from wholly embracing it. It’s only with time does the picture seem to click. Pictures of this nature, to be so far removed yet to recall with such impeccable fluidity, are of a rare breed. To have this immediacy with Certified Copy is almost par for the course – it certainly seems to be the sort of picture that people discover through fragments of their memory.

2.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (CIFF 2011) Directed by Lynne Ramsay

There are certain films that are so emotionally taxing that they simply linger in the air. And when John C. Reilly, an actor many would regard as a purely comedic talent, notes how unquestionably still the audience becomes after watching such an excruciatingly uncomfortable film like We Need to Talk About Kevin, one has to wonder what a guy like him will need to do to break the ice. Talented an actor and comedian that Reilly is, even he can’t bring the audience out of the emotional comatose induced by a film like We Need to Talk About Kevin – a film that deals with the brutal realities of motherhood and the false promises of familial bonds. Pandora’s Box was opened the night that film screened in Chicago, and the comedic stylings of John C. Reilly wasn’t going to close it. (Full Review Here)

1.

Happy-Go-Lucky (CIFF 2008) Directed by Mike Leigh

Certain films simply exude infectious exuberance. Happy-Go-Lucky is a film that makes any writer’s job difficult in that it’s hard not to employ cliché remarks on the utter joy it evokes. Here’s a film that presents a character of sincerity and good-heartedness and allows the audience to follow her in her exploits. By the picture’s end, you can’t help but have a smile sew across your face. The delightfulness of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is in its ability to view the world at large – there’s messiness strewn across the world. It’s in the central character’s ability to confront these issues that makes the film feel larger than it may seem. Mike Leigh, a director known for his bleak and emotionally draining worldview, offers one of the most overwhelmingly harmonious and life-affirming films of the decade. Walking out of a film festival with a worldview that has been transformed for the better is enough justification to keep on coming. 

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

Killer Joe is a picture that is so entrenched in its own male bravado and it is a minor miracle that I was capable of responding to any of its other qualities. But what allows Killer Joe to succeed beyond its visceral qualities is its ability to acknowledge the ugly open space of its environment. As William Friedkin opens with a view of lightening enveloping the night sky, we understand that the ugliness of the environment breeds those of a darker origin. The people found in this film are not of the pleasant variety. They are all cold, restless, lazy and above all, stupid. What we get out of this film is something of a peek at their final transgressions. Killer Joe functions as a taut and riveting example of how a dark world can produce a perpetual state of cruelty.

Much to the film’s advantage, Tracey Letts’ screenplay lays out a simple narrative framework to follow. Stupid people scheme murder to pay off gambling debts. They enlist a hitman named Joe (Matthew McConaughey, who has had his best year yet, with Jeff Nichols’ Mud still in tow). The job is the red herring to getting these characters in the same place at one time. As a result of his delayed payment, Joe accepts a retainer in Dottie (Juno Temple) – the contrast between the two is obvious from the beginning. She’s the angelic trailer-park trash dressed in white, whereas Joe is the outsider, dressed in black, where every movement carries a sense of purpose. Dottie’s acceptance of a darker state of things coincides with Joe’s suave sexual coercion.

As one can expect, dimwitted schemes tend to breed dimwitted results. This is where Killer Joe rejoices in its candor and appetite for the distasteful. Friedkin employs a bit of Sam Peckinpah, a dash of Tennessee Williams and a sprinkle of John Waters in a bombastic final sequence that acknowledges the inhumanity of every character’s life. Certainly relishing in pushing boundaries, a valid argument can be made against Friedkin’s overt use of violence and flagrant misogyny. I tend to be turned off by pictures that adopt such cynical worldviews, but Killer Joe, intentionally or not, seems to operate in a world outside our own. With such wide-open vacant spaces, trailer parks lit by trash-can fires, and a world populated by the selfish, what we see in Killer Joe is less a glimpse of life as we know it, but rather, a glimpse of Hell on Earth. 

Rating: 8/10

Home Movies #5

This month’s Home Movies column threads on a broad selection of films. From a comic Italian picture to an atypical musical, this latest batch have been among some of the more pleasant surprises of the past month – it’s been a busy period for me as I’ve just managed to settle into my new apartment while getting through various work-related deadlines. It’s nearing the end of July though – time is flying.

Dancer in the Dark (2000) Directed by Lars von Trier

Several years ago I was mesmerized by brutal range of emotions that Lars von Trier was able to extract out of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. Afterward, I was similarly leveled by Nicole Kidman’s performance in Dogville. And then there’s Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist – the most impressive female performance of the past ten years. Often spoke of in the same breath, Bjork’s performance in Dancer in the Dark falls in line with the series of female victims in Trier’s films, though perhaps the sheer brutality of what is on-screen seems a bit more tame in comparison to some of his more recent films. Obviously, that’s taking into account Dancer in the Dark’s brutal murder sequence and a gruesome hanging - perhaps Trier has simply desensitized me to his brand of miserablism. Cinema of this nature (one so grounded in the misery of people) simply doesn’t resonate with me as profound. If it weren’t for Trier’s firm directorial presence, I fear I would not have been able to maintain my measure of interest in picture.

Rating: 6/10

Water for Elephants (2011) Directed by Francis Lawrence

On a scale of 1-10, my interest in watching Water for Elephants was… well, not particularly high on the spectrum. But I gave it a try, and surprisingly, the picture is effective. While utilizing a useless framing device to structure its narrative, it doesn’t have the same sort of intrusiveness that plagued a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And much like Button, what really elevates Water for Elephants is the stellar collaborators at Francis Lawrence’s disposal – the gorgeous sun-drenched cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto operates in wonderful contrast to Jacqueline West’s Depression-era costumes and David Crank’s art direction. Unfortunately, a substantial dichotomy between the picture’s aesthetics and writing persists. Still, the triad of Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, and Reese Witherspoon diligently sell the material – and I was buying.  

Rating: 6/10

Divorce Italian Style (1961) Directed by Pietro Germi

Pietro Germi’s ability to adopt a sociological lens without compromising his comedic tendencies in Seduced and Abandoned and especially Divorce Italian Style is nothing short of remarkable. Divorce Italian Style sees Germi analyze the communal nature of a Sicilian family, as Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni) yearns for his cousin while plotting an elaborate plan to coerce his wife into having an affair.  Brandishing a nervous tick, Mastroianni excels as the sort of neurotic husband who fantasizes about a future that is really too good to be true. The film’s richness lies in how Germi constructs the Sicilian neighborhood – much like what was seen in Seduced and Abandoned, virtually every character’s actions are decided by the norms and mores of their community. Complimented by Germi’s excellent framing and clear understanding of his spatial setting, Divorce Italian Style is excels best as a portrait of a man who is confined by a social structure  and his futile attempts to work within the system to get what he wants.

Rating: 9/10

The Navigator (1924) Directed by Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton

The wide range of characters that Buster Keaton took on through his career gives him a versatility that cannot be matched. Whereas I always favored Charlie Chaplin to Keaton’s work, I’m beginning to feel a change of heart. The loveable tramp found in City Light and The Gold Rush begins to look a little less complex when faced with the sissy schoolboy in Steamboat Bill Jr., the daydreaming projectionist of Sherlock Jr., or the egotistical one-percenter in The Navigator. What this allows is a level of flexibility in narrative and character that really does give Keaton an edge over his main silent-era rival.

The Navigator may just be Keaton’s best picture. It’s larger than the grounded Sherlock Jr., but somewhat less frantic than The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. It’s perhaps the most tightly constructed of all of his films – at a runtime of 60 minutes every scene has such a spontaneous comedic spirit that etches a smile onto your face. Along with being one of Keaton’s most impressive visionary works, it’s immediately identifiable on a personal level. It’s a love story first and foremost, where proving to both yourself and the person you love that you are more than what you may put on. It’s a matter of growing up and accepting a measure of responsibility that’s foreign to them. That’s where a lot of comedy comes from, as Keaton absent-mindedly goes underwater to fix a leak without the slightest clue of how to get it done. It’s all funny material, but there’s a poignancy attached to it that gives it added depth.

Rating: 10/10