Film festivals are an industry in themselves, combating with one another over nabbing the next big Oscar contender or art house breakout. The glossy prestige and media circus that surrounds Toronto and Cannes may look like a contradiction, but there’s no doubting that these are festivals that draw the eyes of cinephiles and casual movie-goers alike. They are big.
There was a point where the Chicago International Film Festival met at a similar juncture between artistry and commerce. It was, of course, the festival that had the world premiere of Milos Foreman’s Oscar-winning behemoth One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And for attendees this year, it was a fact that the festival highlighted as if a badge of honor –the festival’s semicentennial celebrations included a plethora of retrospective screenings, including Foreman’s film.
But in an increasingly competitive film festival circuit, Chicago has struggled to maintain its presence, particularly on a national level. It’s really a grab-bag of a festival, dipping its toes into the vetted pools of Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, SXSW and a host of others. Few films had their world premiere here; fewer were very good.
What’s the problem, exactly? A festival is only as good as the films it screens and it’s contradictory that so much effort was placed on highlighting the festival’s past while delivering rhetoric in its future. It could get a bit irksome to see such coveted festival spots and screenings afforded to filmmakers like Oliver Stone or Michael Moore when important new films from Peter Strickland, Xavier Dolan, and Christian Petzold failed to make the festival lineup. Timing is also an issue: screenings for Justin Simien’s Dear White People, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, and Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent are highlighted as Special Screenings despite the fact that these films are to be released to Chicago’s public within a week of their screening.
As critical as I may be, the festival did manage to surprise. Credit to the festival’s After Dark programmer Evan Morehouse for compiling a hearty lineup of international and domestic horror – it was a true highlight to attend packed screenings of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. And the variety! From anthological ABCs of Death 2 to Patrick Bruce’s home video Creep to the giallo-inspired The Editor, there were clear efforts to emphasize the variety of macabre visions. The festival has a rich history of filmmakers presenting their horror films (including the world premiere of John Carpenter’s Halloween) and Morehouse’s programming was the clearest example of the festival celebrating its past with the future.
But the true find of the festival was Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard. The film has taken the weathered festival path since its premiere at SXSW, including trips to New York’s New Directors/New Films and Lorcano, but it remained questionably under-the-radar. It’s an important film of such uninhibited primal energy. It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited about a filmmaker.
Most of the lauded festival favorites delivered as expected, with Oliver Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria defying my high expectations. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne churn yet another masterwork in Two Days, One Night, while Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep delivered despite my reservations on the filmmaker (was I all wrong about Once Upon a Time in Anatolia?). Other renowned international films, such as Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu and Yi'nan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice didn’t so much disappoint as they simply failed to connect – their formal artifices too impenetrable for me to crack.
Beyond the global film festival circuit, Chicago’s housed some impressive festivals beyond CIFF. The Gene Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival has screened some impressive features over the past few years and has grown in critical stature. Plus, with a smaller pool of films, there’s a greater sense of selectivity in their choices. And the Chicago Critics Film Festival, in its second year, showed just how quickly a festival of carefully curated films can grow: a 2013 screening of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell occupied less than half of a Rosemont theater, whereas in their second year a screening of David Wain’s They Came Together sold out Chicago’s Music Box theater – an auditorium twice the size of most any other theater in Chicago. I present this to highlight that while Chicago maintains a global presence for cinephilia, it’s become increasingly fractured. CIFF should represent a culmination, the theoretical high point in the city’s consumption of film.