This morning the Chicago International Film Festival announces its slate of films and with it a (hopeful) deluge of highly acclaimed foreign and American films. Amid the hysteria of the fall festival season, where critics and audiences alike make quick and often exaggerated declarations on films, it’s easy to forget some of the year’s earlier offerings that don’t usually generate the same degree of communal fervor. The outlined films are available on most VOD and streaming services or could very well be playing in a local arthouse theater. They are all, to varying degrees, worth your time.
Heaven Knows What
(Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie, 2014)
Screened at multiple film festivals throughout much of late 2014 into 2015, it’s most telling that one of Heaven Knows What’s pit stops included a screening at Columbia, Missouri’s documentary-intensive True/False Film Festival. Based on an unpublished novel by Arielle Holmes (who stars in the film), Heaven Knows What’s greatest virtue (and undoubtedly the reason why it was a featured selection at a documentary film festival) comes from Ben and Joshua Safdie’s remarkable visual intensity. There’s a breathless and ceaselessly harrowing quality to the film, where the Safdie’s intermingling use of telescopic long shots and tight close-ups within the dingy crevices of New York City produce an immediate documentary quality.
A two-pronged narrative about a woman’s dependence on drugs (found in the form of heroine and abusive men) as well as a sociological study of New York City’s communal substance users, Heaven Knows What has more in common with the stripped-down aesthetics of Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park than, say, Darren Aronofsky’s stylized Requiem for a Dream. Anchored by a convincing cadre of performers and non-actors (the Safdies often shoot from a great distance, capturing genuine civilian reactions to their actors), Heaven Knows What rarely relents in its anxiety-ridden study of substance abusers, where the spiral of despair is not all too far from watching a human ouroboros.
(John Magary, 2014)
Just as you think you’ve figured out John Magary’s The Mend, it changes shape on you, flickering in and out from sight. It returns with a loud boom each time, only to reveal itself as both everything and nothing. It’s a genuinely great film, an incredible debut, an heir-apparent to the tradition of John Cassavetes in the digital age, and most of all: it’s exciting.
The hipster doofus Mat (Josh Lucas) crashes his brother Alan’s (Stephen Plunkett) bohemian party and subsequently takes the apartment as his domain while Alan and his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) take a trip out of the country. Roughly 30 minutes into the picture, you figure that this is the trajectory the film’s narrative will take – to see Mat assume Alan’s identity as a Responsible Adult. Yet Magary makes no simple concessions for his characters, opting instead to expose an unbending human condition that conceals life’s concerns through insouciance. The array of asides and purposeful narrative misnomers are united by Lucas and Plunkett’s incredible performances and realized with great éclat through Magary’s distinguished formal presence. From his carefully orchestrated tracking shots, mixture of warm and dark compositions, and deployment of iris shots, Magary’s response to his cascading narrative is to produce an equally unhinged formal aesthetic. Debuts of this caliber, of such notable stylistic assuredness, are rare to come by.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
(Roy Andersson, 2014)
Winner of the Venice’s 2014 Golden Lion, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is my first encounter with Sweden’s Roy Andersson. With Pigeon being the third film in a “Human” trilogy, it’s key to note what makes Pigeon so stylistically singular: the film is composed as a series of vignettes, often involving robotic and chalk-colored actors drolly reciting platitudes that, more or less, attest to a litany of general truths on human existence. This has apparently been the structural design of Andersson’s previous films Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, which suggests that those familiar with Andersson’s work may grow weary of such stylized and obvious observations – as the film approached the end of its runtime I certainly grew tired of its desultory structure. Even a much discussed and stylistically distinct scene involving the death of African slaves while a coterie of aged and bourgeois white onlookers observe (while being served champagne) comes at a point where the picture’s structure tested my patience; this humorless passage coming at a point when Andersson’s comic taste were unaligned with mine. Yet those who can jibe with the Andersson’s darkly comic sensibilities (as was the case with the audience that I saw the film with) are sure to get something more out of Pigeon than I.
(Sean Baker, 2015)
Marked by aggressive stylism and an urgent energy, Sean Baker’s Tangerine makes for the sort of alternative Christmas viewing that I can get behind. It’s Christmas Eve. We begin in a donut shop where Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender prostitute just out of jail, scales Los Angeles in an effort to find the woman that’s sleeping with her boyfriend (and pimp). Her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) attempts to dissuade her bellicose tendencies to little avail: Sin-Dee’s out for revenge. Intermingling sequences sees an L.A. taxi driver take in passengers, effectively communicating the eclectically seedy, but nevertheless, amusing milieu that these characters occupy. It all builds back to the donut shop at the start of the film, where essentially three characters embark on an After Hours-esque surrealist journey through the scuzzier sides of L.A.
Shot on an iPhone 5, defined by a remarkable sense of character and place, and possessing what’s likely the best score of the year, Tangerine is the all-encompassing effort that presses you into its worldview. It would not be unfair to compare it to Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, where Baker’s perpetually moving iPhone camera circumscribes a whole city in its spatial construction. Every one of its sequences, from a character sitting at a sun-soaked bus stop to sharing a crack pipe in a dimly lit bar restroom, is felt, lived in, and experienced.