have attended the annual Chicago International Film Festival for about five
years now. 2008’s offerings were lost on me at the time. Hindsight gives weight
to debut films I missed like Steve McQueen’s Hunger and James Gray’s Two
Lovers, both of which screened at the festival well before their initial
release. My complaints and reservations about subsequent festivals have been
shared ad nauseum by Chicago’s cinema-literati: Chicago is all too often
provided the leftovers feasted on by the Cannes and Toronto crowd with little
in the way of prominent world premieres. That problem wasn’t rectified this
year, with main stage films like the opening night’s The Immigrant, centerpiece picture Nebraska, and closing night’s Inside
Llewyn Davis having been primed and assessed by a multitude of outlets.
But perhaps it’s the surprising quality of these pictures that has made the 49th Chicago International Film Festival the best one I’ve attended yet. Unlike dismal openers like 2012’s Stand-Up Guys or 2011’s The Last Rites of Joe May, James Gray’s The Immigrant served as one of the most challenging and compelling pieces of cinema this year, revitalizing the festival as the auteurist vehicle that it was founded on. Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis were no different, reaching a compromise between the festival’s commercial requirements and critical potency.
Beyond the veneer of the festival’s Oscar pedigree, it offered an eclectic bounty of challenging foreign and documentary films, along with an unusually rich amount of B-movie type pictures. Films like Josh Waller’s Raze, Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D and John McNaughton’s The Harvest all operated under the guise of B-movie principles, though to varying success. McNaughton’s film, featuring Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon, was a particular find, highlighted by an incredible child performance from Natasha Calis. Without a release date, it’s a film well worth keeping an eye on. Raze, picked up by IFC Midnight, will likely enjoy a measure of VOD success while Argento’s return will satiate his vocal fanbase - even if it wasn’t all too great a film.
The foreign offerings were a cascade of Cannes and Toronto holdovers, with buzzed pictures like Blue is the Warmest Color and Like Father Like Son worthy of their reputation. But smaller films, such as Katell Quillévéré’s sophomore effort Suzanne and Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun, proved to be exemplary exercises in French filmmaking. While neither is likely to receive even limited distribution in the States, they were the sort of finds that made the festival experience so wholly memorable - the satisfaction of discovering new titles that haven’t been properly assessed by those who have seen them before.
Two pictures that will be discussed at a later date and that I had a great affinity toward were Valeria Golino’s Miele and Amat Escalante’s Heli. From Italy and Mexico respectively, both pictures had been vetted by the Cannes crowd with Heli securing a Best Director prize. The win was unfortunately overshadowed by Blue is the Warmest Color’s Palme d’Or win, but Heli serves as an important reminder of how impressive Mexico’s recent output has been. Capturing the sort of noir-ish qualities that made something like Breaking Bad so compelling, Heli stands outright as one of the best Mexican production I’ve seen. Meanwhile, Golino’s Miele barely made a splash at Cannes but registered as a spiritual successor and contemporary re-dusting of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red. Serving as Golino’s debut, the confidence exuded, both through her defined compositions and incredible use of music, shows incredible promise.
Unlike previous years, I attended a couple of the festival’s numerous free panels. A panel involving Chicago-based critics such as Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune), Ben Sachs (Chicago Reader), and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) offered great insight and discussion on the evolving shape of criticism itself - a festival highlight. A separate panel featuring John McNaughton and Ti West offered a frank discussion on the current state of horror filmmaking and the process of getting a film made. Often relegated to afternoon attractions, these intimate conversations with filmmakers, producers, and critics enhanced the festival environment and simply made for a more engrossing experience.
With the festival entering its 50th year, a true communal aura is felt throughout Chicago’s cinephiles. A somber tone defined the start of the festival with so much talk circling around the loss of Roger Ebert. But as the festival progressed, the focus on shifted onto the films and filmmakers who made them. I’ve had more conversations with enthusiastic cinephiles over the past two weeks than I care to share. But that sort of conviction and ability to talk about cinema is what makes these festival environments so engaging. The 50th Chicago International Film Festival has a lot to live up after the success of this year.