Thursday Ten - Your Best Bets at CIFF ‘15

The 51st Chicago International Film Festival begins next week on October 15 with Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre selected as the fest’s opening night film. Two weeks of diverse American and foreign, local and global filmmaking follow. Consider the following ten films as useful recommendations to highlight some of the festival’s eclectic offerings, though an overarching suggestion to keep in mind is: get out of your comfort zone. Utilitarian programming issues aside, there are diamonds in the rough that reward viewers willing to take risks. 

10.
The Assassin/Brooklyn/Carol/James White/Macbeth/Son of Saul/Spotlight/Youth

A scene from Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin {Photo: WELL-GO USA}

A scene from Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin {Photo: WELL-GO USA}

Look to Ticketmaster and see the usual suspects, i.e. the purported awards contenders and festival darlings, selling out quickly. While I’m as eager as anyone to catch the new offerings from Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Todd Haynes, these are films with organized distribution and will screen in the Chicagoland area within the calendar year. That’s not to suggest that catching these early screenings won’t illuminate (Haynes is scheduled to attend the one and only Carol screening – tickets are already sold out), but patience with these titles offers the opportunity to catch something else, something that might benefit from an inquisitive viewer.

9.
Entertainment
(Rick Alverson, USA)

A scene from Rick Alverson's Entertainment {Photo: MAGNOLIA PICTURES}

A scene from Rick Alverson's Entertainment {Photo: MAGNOLIA PICTURES}

Rick Alverson’s The Comedy was a polarizing exercise in unpleasantness and, following a contentious premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it would appear that Entertainment ups the nihilistic ante further. I can’t say that The Comedy left a positive impression on me, but it’s a lasting one; the experience of watching terrible people doing terrible things takes on a form of meta self-reflectivity that’s difficult to shake. Previews and press material for Entertainment highlight an even more aggressive tonal direness, in what’s an account of a failed comic making his way through the Mojave Desert. Entertainment screens as part of the Chicago International Film Festival’s limited After Dark series, and while the series includes selections meant to induce fright through camp or gore, I doubt there’s going to be anything more horrifying than the blunt miserablism found in Alverson’s new film.

8.
Rams
(Grímur Hákonarson, Iceland)

A scene from Grímur Hákonarson's Rams {Photo: COHEN MEDIA GROUP}

A scene from Grímur Hákonarson's Rams {Photo: COHEN MEDIA GROUP}

Winner of the Cannes Un Certain Regard competition, this Icelandic fable details the travails of two estranged brothers as they prepare for a sheepherding competition. The Un Certain Regard competition rarely inspires the same fevered prestige that’s afforded to the Main Competition, but besides a minor hiccup in last year’s selection (Kornél Mundruczó’s formally inventive but aggressively dire White God), the winners include an elite brand of films and filmmakers that I’ve grown to admire tremendously –  Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, Michel Franco’s After Lucia, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth are among just a few of the distinguished winners. Being completely unfamiliar with Grímur Hákonarson or even a great deal of Icelandic cinema, this opportunity to familiarize myself with a new filmmaker/country’s cinematic output is precisely what a film festival ought to be doing.

7.
Neon Bull
(Gabriel Mascaro, Brazil)

A scene from Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull {Photo: KINO LORBER}

A scene from Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull {Photo: KINO LORBER}

With a Special Jury Prize in tow from the Venice Film Festival, Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull was surprisingly one of the most talked about films coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival. Noted for its sexually explicit content, Mascaro’s film drew my interest primarily from his collaborator. Cinematographer Diego Garcia has worked on the Mark Jackson’s visually lush Without as well as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s upcoming (and also playing the festival) Cemetery of Splendor. The few stills produced from the picture’s marketing, along with the slew of positive reviews coming from Venice and Toronto, inspire a great deal of hope in the continued excellence of films coming out of Brazil.

6.
In Jackson Heights
(Frederick Wiseman, USA)

A scene from Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights {Photo: ZIPPORAH FILMS}

A scene from Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights {Photo: ZIPPORAH FILMS}

No filmmaker, documentarian or otherwise, puts you quite at the center of a cultural milieu as Frederick Wiseman. I was fortunate enough to come across Wiseman’s work at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2013, where the fest screened his mammoth 244 minute long At Berkeley. I’ve been smitten since, admiring his subsequent release, the immersive museum tour that was National Gallery and inundating myself in his impressive filmography. In Jackson Heights finds Wiseman in Queens, New York City, where the filmmaker’s fly on the wall approach looks to a community that lays claim to being the most culturally diverse in the world. Wiseman’s interests fundamentally tie into institutions and how they relate to people. But on a visual level, Wiseman’s always been fascinated with the movement of bodies as they relate to those institutions – part of the wonder of his films is to simply observe large hordes of people move from one point to the next. In Jackson Heights presents an entire community as Wiseman’s playground – in his hands, the world he captures comes alive in profound ways.

5. 
My Golden Days
(Arnaud Desplechin, France)

A scene from Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days {Photo: MAGNOLIA PICTURES}

A scene from Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days {Photo: MAGNOLIA PICTURES}

Despite the shower of praise afforded to A Christmas Tale and multiple opportunities to catch, Jimmy P. I still have yet to see any film from French director Arnaud Desplechin. This oversight will thankfully be remedied shortly as I’m eagerly anticipating My Golden Days, a film that has only played a handful of dates since its debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Despite winning an award at the festival, it was not until it premiered at the New York Film Festival has the film seemed to generate a fervor of positive citations and notable accolades. Perhaps what’s generated my interest in Desplechin the most, however, is that John Magary, director of The Mend, has cited the Frenchman as being a crucial voice that shaped his film. Given my adoration for Magary’s film, checking out a major Desplechin is a no brainer. 

4.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
(Stephen Cone, USA)

A scene from Stephen Cone's Henry Gamble's Birthday Party {Photo: WOLFE RELEASING}

A scene from Stephen Cone's Henry Gamble's Birthday Party {Photo: WOLFE RELEASING}

A year ago I saw Stephen Cone’s This Afternoon, an initially promising if eventually unfulfilling film that made its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival.  Cone, based in Chicago, squandered what I hoped would be a more sprawling “Chicago” film, confining himself to a stifling apartment that never escaped its stageplay setting. To use a term that I tend to avoid, it felt uncinematic. A year later and Cone gets bigger, literally, for his follow-up, the beautiful Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. Ballooning his initial cast of two to over ten, it’s a film that displays Cone’s strengths as a director of actors while also highlighting a remarkable level of craft. I’ll have more to say on this next week during my festival preview, but note that this is among the very best American films you’ll see this year.

3.
Mountains May Depart
(Jia Zhangke, China)

A scene from Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart {Photo: KINO LORBER}

A scene from Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart {Photo: KINO LORBER}

Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin remains one of my favorite films of the decade and any new film from the master director is certainly worth my attention. Like his previous film, Mountains May Depart utilizes a multi-narrative device though this time Zhangke is more keen to shift perspectives within the narrative (the plots in A Touch of Sin followed a singular perspective) while also tinkering with formal presentation - like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mountains May Depart utilizes different aspect ratios to distinguish between different narratives and time periods. Zhangke’s name hasn’t quite reached the echelon of modern Chinese filmmaking titans like Wong Kar-wai or Hou Hsiao-hsien but with each subsequent film he’s cementing a legacy that may very well overshadow those contemporary masters.  

2.
Anomalisa
(Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, USA)

A scene from Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa {Photo: PARAMOUNT PICTURES}

A scene from Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa {Photo: PARAMOUNT PICTURES}

A late arrival to the festival’s schedule, this Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman stop-motion animation made its premiere at the Telluride International Film Festival and would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Kaufman, with but only one other directorial credit (Synecdoche, New York) is titan of a filmmaker, having penned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. Few screenwriters alive possess the cerebral wit and existential concerns of Kaufman, making all of his films a cinematic event.  And given the relatively uncharted medium (Johnson and Kaufman worked on episodes of Moral Oral, a short stop-motion animation show on Adult Swim), the auteur’s sophomore film will confine the action to but a triad of figurines. But if the mode of his musing seems small, the ideas behind them are gargantuan.

1. 
To Sleep with Anger
(Charles Burnett, USA)

A scene from Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger {Photo: SAMUEL GOLDWYN COMPANY}

A scene from Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger {Photo: SAMUEL GOLDWYN COMPANY}

When I composed my Best of the 90s list several years ago, I neglected to highlight Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger. That’s not for a lack of trying, as the film is incredibly difficult to find. Chicago’s Odd Obsession houses the single copy I was able to find of the film throughout the city, and that’s after scouring online for a streaming version. And those who find a copy will soon be turned off by the poor quality of most existing copies – poor VHS-quality transfers exist but can be difficult for most modern cinephiles to sit through. 

Thankfully, the Chicago International Film Festival screens a restored version of Burnett’s opus, with the underrated director in attendance for a post-film Q&A. I’ve often been critical of the festival allocating its resources for revivals that don’t typically warrant them (last year’s semicentennial was especially grating) but this restoration of one of the most vital African American films in cinema history is essential viewing. The fact that they have the director in attendance is a major coup as well, and signals precisely the sort of revivals the festival should be heralding.