Thursday Ten: The Chicago International Film Festival

The 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival opens today until the 20th.  Punctuated by a tagline of What the World is Watching, one has to wonder why, oh, why their opening film is The Last Rites of Joe May. Starring Chicago theater actor Dennis Farina, the film really has no place opening an international film festival, particularly one with such a rich history. As New York City vies for screening the many yet-to-be-seen films of the year (rumor has it that J. Edgar or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have a special screening), Chicago‘s minimalist approach is a bit disheartening.

But I don’t mean to say that I’m not excited for the festival – because I’m utterly jubilant. My excitement stems from watching a lot of the Cannes, Toronto, and Telluride holdovers that I currently have slated for my festival schedule. And it’s perhaps the most stacked in terms of prolific directors – I’ll be viewing films by Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, and the Dardenne Brothers. And I’ll be treated with a discussion with one of my favorite actors, John C. Reilly.

To start off what will be a new weekly column here on Chicago Cinema Circuit, I’ll delve into the ten screenings I’ll be watching at the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg is simply one of those directors that I am drawn to, as the mere prospect of a new project is enough to get me interested in his work. Starring rising star Michael Fassbender and acting collaborator Viggo Mortenson, A Dangerous Method looks to be the sort of Cronenberg feature that meshes the cerebral elements of his recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) with his more explicit older work, particularly Crash and Dead Ringers.

Buzz on the film has been fairly muted – it is a Cronenberg after all, and one can understand how it could make people uncomfortable. Such quiet praise has only gotten me more amped for the film.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

I’d be lying if I said that I really believed this film would amount to a hill of beans. Ever since the trailer dropped, I suspected the film would be a trite exercise that subscribes to typical indie clichés. And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly reject that notion just yet. But The Descendants has received some of the very best critical reviews out of the festival circuit, and being a rookie Oscar prognosticator, I simply could not resist the temptation to see it for myself. If I’m going to make an argument to or for it, I really need to see it and dive into that conversation.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

You know it’s quite the year when you get a double dose of craziness in the form of two Herzog documentaries. His early year 3-D feature, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is one of my favorite films of the year, but the sheer grounded reality of Into the Abyss has gotten me quite excited. The topical nature of the film is of obvious interest, particularly given the recent release of the West Memphis Three and the film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the philosophy and ethics behind the death penalty are once again contemporary.

The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The brutal and simplistic way in which the Dardennes approach their subject matter always makes for a rousing experience. I have yet seen a film by the two that I have not found extraordinary. They are simply two of the most underrated writer/directors going at the moment. The Kid with the Bike was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and continued the duo's streak of walking out of that festival with a reward under their belt – unfortunate that their films have yet to catch on with the American public. And even more unfortunate is that the film was not selected by the Belgium film committee to compete at this year’s Oscars. But as it stands, the Dardennes will continue on. As some critics have noted, The Kid with the Bike is more of the same from the brothers – that’s fine by me.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

I’ll be starting out my festival experience with Lars von Trier’s latest. I had seen Antichrist at the 2009 Chicago Film Festival and had a fantastic time (not only was the film utterly explosive, Willem Dafoe happened to be in attendance as well). It’s been unfortunate that Melancholia has been a bit drowned out by Lars von Trier’s rather disheartening remarks at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite his gaffe, Kirstin Dunst managed to score a Best Actress win at the festival. Melancholia has had a rough festival run since, but the quality of the film is considered remarkably high – it’s the controversy surrounding the director that has hurt its chances as an Oscar contender. Trier is a director that I am very high on and have come to expect great things from; Melancholia looks to continue his thread of cinematic excellence.

Shorts 2: Pen and Paper

I tend to be drawn by animated short films. With films that include a reimagining of Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog short and a variety of foreign shorts, I’m hoping to catch some early possible entries into next year’s Best Animated Shorts category. Oh, and to have fun too. These films always tend to tell very simple but narratively astute stories that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the genuine sense of glee that so many animated shorts display.

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

A film presented by one of my favorite female directors, Jane Campion, Sleeping Beauty bares such a striking visual sense from its trailer that I immediately knew that the film would be on my “too see” list. Its response at Cannes was fairly negative, though Guy Lodge of Incontention gave a glowing review that certainly maintained my elation. It has been a while since I even heard about the film, but to seeing it slated for the Chicago International Film Festival has renewed my interest in the film.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

While it’s not my most anticipated film, Turn Me On, Dammit! has an interesting premise. It’s fairly typical in terms of what you get out of American indie comedies, particularly those based on teenage sexuality. But to see it played out in a foreign context will hopefully take the material in a new direction. And if there’s one way that the film festival can live up to its motto, it can be to introduce the Chicago audience to a subject matter that is familiar to them, but handled in a different way.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

My most anticipated film. Having read Lionel Shriver’s novel, I am intriguing to see how the talented Lynne Ramsay handles the incredibly difficult material. Adapting Shriver’s novel is a task upon itself, but given everything that I’ve seen so far in clips of the film, there’s definitely an eerie sense that is realized in the film that is apparent throughout the novel. It certainly seems like the film will work. The film also happens to star two of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. The fact that Reilly will be in attendance just seals the deal.

Without (Mark Jackson)

Perhaps the dark horse of my viewings, Without doesn’t really have a whole lot of buzz behind it. But its premise is so intriguing that I’d have to think that, if properly executed, the film could be a tremendous success. First time director Mark Jackson will certainly have his work cut out for him, but if his lead actress, Joslyn Jensen delivers with such difficult material  (it is about a young woman who becomes a caretaker to an old man on  a remote island), we could see something truly revelatory.

Cinema Chatter - Belated Recognition

When Jeff Bridges won his Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart, there was little debate to if he would win. After decades of nominations, starting with his excellent work in The Last Picture Show, Bridges had established himself as a true Hollywood actor. He had earned his spot. He had paid his dues. He deserved recognition. Excuse the actual content of the performance (which, I must say, was very good); he could go no longer without winning an Oscar. Martin Scorsese’s quest for an Oscar was perhaps even more tragic. How this man could have gone without being nominated for his direction in Taxi Driver is beyond me. But he chugged along and produced his greatest directorial effort in Raging Bull. He failed to get the gold. This was then followed by subsequent nominations for Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator. No such luck there either. It always struck me as a cruel joke that Scorsese would be victorious for his direction in The Departed – his most stylistically flawed and directorially muted outing yet.

This is often the case – talented auteurs who have a life work of exceptional performances and/or films find themselves getting recognized for efforts less than the trail behind them. It’s a flawed system, but it is part of the appeal of the whole awards season – there are narratives to mined and extracted. When Colin Firth won for his performance in The King’s Speech, there was a sense of entitlement to the award. After all, the year prior, he gave an arguably better performance in A Single Man. But that was the year that Jeff Bridges had rolled out and annihilated any competition. It was Colin’s turn. And as part of a greater narrative, The King’s Speech ended up dominating the conversation over David Fincher’s critically lauded The Social Network. It's yet another rebuff for Fincher on behalf of the Academy, Fincher must be feeling a little anxious about when it will indeed be his turn for the award. Because when you direct something as technically proficient and stellar as The Social Network, well, I have to wonder when my turn would be too.

At this point in the conversation, there seems to be one concrete nominee that Oscar prognosticators can generally agree upon – it’s that Christopher Plummer’s performance in Beginners is virtually set. With a career that began in the 50s, Plummer astoundingly only has one Oscar nomination (The Last Station). From his performances in The Sound of Music to The Insider, Plummer stands as an actor who tends to get overlooked by voting bodies. While someone like Peter O’Toole, who has been nominated on 8 separate occasions (with 8 losses), at least he is in the conversation. With Plummer, there seems to be a need to recognize the unrecognized; the mere fact that he has been working as long as he has with only one nomination is enough to work a narrative around his Oscar bid.

Plummer’s bid took an unexpected hit yesterday though when the trailer for Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dropped. The trailer hints at a performance from another actor who has seen constant slights throughout his career – Max von Sydow is now in contention.  With such a storied career, he too, has only had one Oscar nomination for the film Pelle the Conqueror. I’m a bit more familiar with Sydow’s career, and found him to give excellent performances in both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Hannah and Her Sisters. Both performances went unrecognized.

There’s a narrative to be mined out of these two. Both Plummer and Sydow are of the same age and have contributed their part in the language of films. They have starred in landmark features and have worked their way through smaller independent works. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close largely remains a question mark at this point, but the credentials are there. Plummer may hold a slight edge now, but we’re still very early into the Oscar season for there to be a clear cut winner, and frankly, I sense that the conversation could shift to Sydow’s favor by December.

Speaking of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I have to wonder if there’s any director with the sort of track record that Stephen Daldry has. He has made three films, Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader. All three films have snagged Daldry the coveted Best Director nomination. None have secured him the win. It’s interesting, in so much that there, again, can be a narrative mined out of Daldry’s shortcomings. I’m hedging my bets that Daldry’s film will not be nominated for Best Picture, but is it feasible for Daldry to get nominated for direction? Given the nature in which the Best Picture landscape has changed in the past year, and the general disagreeable tone I got out of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s trailer, I’m sensing that the film won’t be much of a play and will ruin Daldry’s streak. It’s all speculation at this point, but that’s the nature of the game.

If there’s one director that certainly deserves recognition, it’s Terrence Malick. Having perhaps reluctantly accepted the role of cinephiles' new director of worship following the death of Stanley Kubrick, it’s not hard to understand the following that Malick has. Of course, this is coming from someone who worships at the altar of Malick; so again, I have to put my feelings aside on these sort of things. But there certainly seems to be a group of people out there who are going to vote in his masterwork The Tree of Life into the Best Picture category, and with that, I find it difficult that anyone could neglect that craftsmanship that is employed in creating the film. Malick is the film, and the very specific and methodical way it is constructed leads me to believe that he will get recognized for his direction. It would mark only the second time he will receive notice for his stellar directorial work in a career that has spanned four decades.

At the center of Malick’s film is a performance from Brad Pitt that has shown a different side of the actor. Well, I shouldn’t say that entirely, as Pitt has, for the past few years, made some incredibly interesting character decisions that certainly adds credibility to his legacy. Perhaps taking himself more seriously, the actor has worked with an array of talented directors such as Joel & Ethan Coen, Andrew Dominik, and David Fincher to develop and hone his craft. With Fox Searchlight pushing Pitt for supporting in The Tree of Life, I sense that he will be the year’s only double nominee, as his lead performance in Moneyball has garnered him praise as his best performance to date. In a year where the Best Actor field is as crowded as it is, a nomination is a reward in itself. But there’s a certain novelty to the possibility of getting nominated in two separate acting categories, and given what Pitt has done for Hollywood in general, a win might be the self-congratulatory pat on the back for his good work.

Pitt would have his hands full to take a potential win from possible nominees in Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. And the Best Actor field is no guarantee either, particularly when you’re dealing with one of an overdue actor like Gary Oldman. Having had a career resurgence with his work in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, Oldman seems to be in line for his first nomination. Having often been considered a snub for performances in Sid & Nancy and The Contender, Oldman stands as an actor whose time may have finally come. With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the actor is receiving some of his best buzz yet, and has been amongst the key figures in the Best Actor race to get a nomination. Given Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s December release date and growing buzz for Oldman, I’d say it looks like he’ll finally score that nomination, perhaps on track to securing that win.

As you can see, the site is still in construction, so excuse the clutter. Check out the Contenders section for my most up-to-date predictions. Check out next Monday for another addition of Cinema Chatter. Until then, check out upcoming reviews for The Hustler, Branded to Kill, and In Cold Blood!

Buzz is a Bitch: Best Picture 2011-2012

Best Picture Contenders

As I bought tickets for the Chicago International Film Festival today, I found myself prioritizing films based on their buzz, neglecting smaller pictures that may sound good but won’t be in the awards conversation for the year. It comes to a point where you have to embrace the hysteria around Oscar prognostication and take part in the conversation to the fullest extent possible.

Fortunately for me, the Oscar conversation seems to be taking place outside of the festival realm. It gives me greater reign to actually look at films with little to no shot of entering the conversation due to lack of distribution or obscurity. But for films that have been garnering traction over the past few months at Toronto, Telluride, Cannes, and Venice, there’s a sense that it’s simply not enough. Whereas films like The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire had an irresistible-force aura to their festival runs, no film really stands out over the festival circuit to lay claim to the prior two films’ crown. The Ides of March debuted at the Venice Film Festival and had its fair share of acclaim, but hardly the sort of fanatic diehard reception that a Best Picture nominee typically receives, let alone a potential winner. Steven McQueen’s Shame seems to be an actor’s showcase for Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, but its appeal as a Best Picture contender is strictly contained to the art-house crowd. Madonna’s W.E. was a bust. Roman Polanski’s Carnage has failed to impress.

What were left from the festival rubble are Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Michel Hazanaviccius’ The Artist. The three films are anchored by strong leading male performances, and while they are at this point, likely nominees, neither is on solid footing.

The Artist

The Artist debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and has garnered universal praise. The film will undoubtedly garner enough passion votes to secure a nomination come the big day, but I sense a backlash forming. This is largely in part due to where it stands in the minds of the voters – as new films enter the conversation by the week (Moneyball this week, 50/50 next, etc) there seems to be a decline in the film’s staying power with audiences. The fact that it did not win the Audience Award at Toronto (an award that was bestowed on Best Picture nominees and winners like The King’s Speech, Precious, and Slumdog Millionaire) does not bode well for The Artist’s standing. And given that the film may come across as gimmicky for its own sake, its positioning is nowhere near as secure as one is led to believe. But then again, The Weinsteins are behind the film, so I’m probably just imagining it all.

The Descendants fits a specific pedigree of indie filmmaking that tend to get nominated once a year (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Kids are All Right), but it has already been acknowledged as a lesser effort from those who saw it at Telluride. It’s still riding a wave, but I have reserved expectations on its potential once it gets a wider release. Its comedic roots aren’t going to do it any favors, nor will the fact that Payne has already been recognized (albeit, in the Adapted Screenplay category). There is typically a time when individuals get recognized for their efforts – this was the case with Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,  the Coens for No Country for Old Men – it’s not meant to dismiss the accomplishments of the individual performance or direction, but rather it serves as a lifetime achievement award. Simply put, Alexander Payne’s time doesn’t seem to be just now.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has the benefit of a British contingent to bolster its chances and has a good awards-story in Gary Oldman getting a role that will finally get him recognized with a nomination.  It, for all intensive purposes, achieves a particular role of what to expect in a “Best Picture” nominee, and from there, I’d say it’s in better position than The Descendants  The buzz for the film seems to have run stagnant for the past few weeks since its debut at Venice, which I take as a positive – I doubt Focus Features would to bust their load from the onset. Instead, there seems to be a conscious effort to keep Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in a quiet buzz period, before releasing it to a wider audience come December.

The Festival Darlings

  1. “The Artist”
  2. “The Descendants”
  3. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”

Alt: “The Ides of March”

Then we have the summer crop. The summer gave us some concrete possibilities of other nominees with Tate Taylor’s The Help, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life leading the charge. I’d wager all three movies have the potential to make it to the end of the race, as they all tend to rouse a sort of passion vote that is a requirement in meeting the 5% (of first-place votes) needed for a nomination in the category. This works particularly well for The Tree of Life, as its polarizing status won’t necessarily do it any harm come the end of the race – there are those who love it and hate it, and only those who love it will be acknowledged come nomination time. Amongst outside contenders, the only one that bares any possibility seems to be the final addition to the Harry Potter franchise – given its critical acclaim, there’s a sense that the film could sneak in for a nomination. I think not – unlike The Lord of the Rings franchise, none of the previous Potter incarnations have garnered above-the-line awards recognition. I sincerely doubt that will change.

Summer Hold-Overs

  1. “The Help”
  2. “Midnight in Paris”
  3. “The Tree of Life”

Alt: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”

War Horse

So we have six. This leaves us with the possibility of yet another four. Here’s where things get particularly tricky as we explore a great deal of unknowns. The general consensus has placed Steven Spielberg’s War Horse as the one to beat, and quite honestly, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a period piece, set against the backdrop of a war, with Spielberg at its helm. I talked about it being someone’s time earlier in this piece, and if anything, this season seems to be geared toward rewarding Spielberg yet again – his time seems to be here yet again.

Remaining amongst the unknowns include Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. I’m hesitant to lobby for Eastwood’s place in the Academy’s circle, particularly given that he has been largely shut out of the larger awards for the past few years with Invictus, Changling, and Gran Torino. But then again, so has Woody Allen, and Midnight in Paris was a return to form, so it’s hard to make such blanket statements with no word on the actual quality of the film.

Jason Reitman’s Young Adult is bypassing the festival circuit entirely, leaving one to question where the film stands at all. It’s written by Diablo Cody, which begs more questions than answers. Reitman’s previous two films have garnered directorial and Best Picture nominations, which lends itself to the same logic that has people believing that Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a lock for a nomination. My take: neither film will make much of an impact come nomination time, but if there’s one that might, I’d go with Reitman’s film.

A big question mark that remains in the Oscar season and one that I sense could truly make a play that pundits are ignoring, is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The trailer displays incredible detail in the craft department, though there certainly seems to be a nostalgic essence to the film that could resonate with voters. Again, like with War Horse, J. Edgar, Young Adult, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we’re in a wait and see mode with these films, but the possibility definitely seems there.

The Unknowns

  1. “War Horse”
  2. “J. Edgar”
  3. “Hugo”
  4. “Young Adult”
  5. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

And that concludes my first column of what I hope will be a weekly column that looks at the Oscar race. In the meantime, the site will be going through periodic updates as I attempt to create a more interactive and in-depth Academy Award interface. The focus of the site will still remain on my reviewing of the films I see (with a new post coming soon) but hopefully I’ll be able to supplement that with my own obsessive thoughts on the Oscar race.