Thursday Ten - Best of CIFF 2013

The 49th Chicago International Film Festival begins today with a celebration of Roger Ebert’s contributions to the world of cinema. While most film festivals, from Telluride to Toronto, have celebrated the critic’s unparalleled work, his hometown ties allows for a more intimate affair. With Chaz Ebert introducing the opening night Gala film, James Gray’s The Immigrant, the start of the festival promises the sort of auteurist work that Roger Ebert would have championed. Ebert had shown a growing affection for Gray’s work from his 1995 debut Little Odessa to 2008’s Two Lovers.

I’ll be covering plenty of the festival’s offerings, including an early look at Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color, and the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, among others. But what I’d like to highlight for this Thursday Ten are some of the smaller features that are either awaiting a distributor or simply not on the calendar for a wide release in 2013/2014; the sort of films that depend on positive festival reactions to get distribution. Essentially, the kinds of films that festivals are meant to highlight. With the continued commercialization and Oscar-ization of contemporary cinema, we often lose sight of the artistic weight and excitement of discovering new films. These ten films merely scratch the surface of the vast amount of films currently scheduled for the Chicago International Film Festival. After covering the festival for three years, I can easily say that this year’s offerings are some the best yet.

At Berkeley
(Frederick Wiseman)

 

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“Bring a cushion” said the Chicago Film Festival volunteer when I obtained a ticket for Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary. At a lengthy four hours, At Berkeley may test audiences’ patience (and ass, for that matter) but it will have to suffice as a thorough study of one of America’s most storied institutions. Wiseman’s films have rarely screened in the Chicagoland area (2011’s Crazy Horse being the only one to extend its screenings outside of the downtown area). And whether this four-hour cut makes it to a cinema beyond festival screenings remains to be seen. But Wiseman, like Chicagoan Steve James and Claude Lanzmann, is a proven documentarian capable of maintaining attention through sharp pacing and compelling subject matter.

Contracted
(Eric England)

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Whether or not we’re reaching a horror renaissance with the works of Ti West and to a lesser extent James Wan, reaching larger audiences remains to be seen. But a case can be made on the great steps forward in microbudget filmmaking. From Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color to Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, shoestring budget films are being made with efforts placed on formal presentation, complex scripting, and emotionally-grounded acting. Contracted has already drawn comparisons to Carruth’s film - though with the embrace of Cronebergian paranoia, one has to hope that genre will only enhance the proceedings.

The Harvest
(John McNaughton)

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Whether he’s cheesing it up in the latest blockbuster (Man of Steel) or giving the best performance of this early decade (Take Shelter), Michael Shannon has become the vital go-to guy for batshit crazy roles. The Harvest, the latest work from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer director John McNaughton, looks to fall in line with much of Shannon’s output of the past few years. And while the crazed roles he’s taken over the past year (the aforementioned Man of Steel and The Iceman) haven’t been his best work, Shannon’s proved to work best when his sparring partners are up to task. Could his performance in Take Shelter been as successful if it weren’t for Jessica Chastain? Or in Bug if it weren’t for Ashley Judd? This time around he has arguably his best sparring partner in Samantha Morton. With Morvern Callar under Morton’s belt as it is, Mr. Shannon may have finally met his match.

Heli
(Amat Escalante)

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The works of Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light) and Michel Franco (After Lucia) have largely contributed to the growth of a New Wave of Mexican filmmakers. One of the younger contributers to this movement, and perhaps the heir to Reygadas’ crown, is Amat Escalante. Already securing a Best Director win at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the young director is poised to make the sort of international impact that won Alejandro González Iñárritu favor in 2000 following Amores Perros. With Heli playing extensively throughout the festival circuit and being Mexico’s submission into this year’s Academy Awards, audiences will likely not be hearing the last of Escalante’s film.

Like Father Like Son
(Hirokazu Kore-eda)

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Another Cannes leftover, Like Father Like Son was virtually every bookies’ pick to obtain the Palme d’Or. It came close, securing a Jury Prize - essentially third place in the festival. With subject matter ripe for overt sentimentalism, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s picture involves two families discovering that their sons were switched at birth, with a particular emphasis on each family’s social standings. Kore-eda’s picture is much more layered than any brief synopsis leads on. The delicacy in coping with the emotional loss of rearing a child that’s not your own and the subsequent debate on nature versus nurture makes for one of the most level-headed domestic dramas in years.  Kore-eda has already been compared to the likes of Yasujirō Ozu for his deliberate camera movements and emphasis on kinship-infused drama. Like Father Like Son justifies the comparison.

Mielie
(Valeria Golino)

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Italian actress Valeria Golino may not be a common name, with very few of her productions making their way stateside (1989’s Rainman and 2002’s Frieda). But her directorial debut offers promise in so far as providing a powerful lead performance vehicle for star Jasmine Trinca. A picture that zeros in on the subject of assisted suicides, it’s doubtful that Mielie will be hailed as the feel-good film of the year. Yet much has already been mentioned about Golino’s skillful craft and winning its fair share of recognition throughout the festival circuit. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a film that will likely not procure distribution in the states (Italy’s Academy Award selection ended up being The Great Beauty). The works of new directors, let alone new female directors, are so rarely highlighted and picked up for mainstream distribution. Seeing them in a festival setting might be your only chance.

Raze
(Josh C. Waller)

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Zoë Bell was highlighted in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and never really heard from again. It was a terrific performance, but as a career stuntwoman, Bell’s transition into speaking roles hasn’t exactly gone smoothly. Josh C. Waller’s Raze looks to provide Bell with a role better suited to her strengths -essentially an action-laden horror picture about overcoming male hegemony. As part of CIFF’s After Dark Competition, Raze may be a tad more visceral than cerebral, but we’re in the midst of a horror renaissance where horror is subverting any and all preconceptions. Whether Raze fulfills the high expectations of its contemporary predecessors will be seen, but at the very least, it looks to fulfill my quota of seeing dominate women, uh, dominating.

Stray Dogs
(Tsai Ming-Liang)

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Tsai Ming-Liang has proven to be something of an acquired taste. While I’ve never been too impressed with the lethargic movement of his feature, there’s no doubting that there’s some serious thought in their construction. Stray Dogs initially sounds like more of the same from the director, though the conversation surrounding the picture has noted it’s very purposeful rejection of narrative. It’s been the problem that I’ve had with a majority of his picture, most notably Rebels of the Neon God, which felt compromised by its scant, though still emphasized, plotting. Whether or not Stray Dogs remedies my objections against the filmmaker remains to be seen. As an aside, it’s been noted that the Taiwanese director is looking at retirement. The loss of any auteur is an unfortunate circumstance and one needs to look at this purported final work as compulsory viewing.

Suzanne
(Katell Quillévéré)

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Katell Quillévéré’s Love Like Poison was highlighted on my previous Thursday Ten where I noted that Suzanne ought to be making some festival dates in the near future. Lo and behold, it makes its American debut in Chicago. This is quite the grab for the city, which usually contends with New York and Toronto to get these types of debuts. Quillévéré’s debut didn’t exactly spark much interest, though it’s the sort of restrained yet assured debut that often gets passed by for flashier efforts. Here’s hoping that her sophomore effort displays the nuanced delicacy and attuned emotional balance that defined her previous work. Either way, this is one of my most anticipated films of the entire festival.

A Thousand Times Good Night
(Erik Poppe)

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My Thursday Ten on Juliette Binoche’s best performances is a little out of date at this point, but it stands to reason that I’m quite a fan of the French actress. Not much has been written on her newest vehicle, which saw its premiere at a rather obscure festival at the start of the year. Its limited buzz gives Chicagoans the rare opportunity to dictate the growth of the picture. And hopefully I’ll have a good bit to say on the picture’s strengths or weaknesses. But Binoche is an actress with very few missteps, and even her fumbles were more in the vein of noble failures than outright duds, giving A Thousand Times Good Night the sort of immediate pedigree that most films struggle to have at all.