Friday, October 28, 2011

My Best of the Fest - The Top Seven

The 47th Chicago International Film Festival ended it fifteen-day run last week, but I'm still catching up on some of my reviews. Several of these will appear in the short run, but for now, here are notes on my favorite films from the fest (top seven in order of preference):

We Need To Talk About Kevin (UK) - director: Lynne Ramsay
A haunting, mesmerizing film about the relationship between a teen-aged boy and his parents. I love the way Ramsay slowly reveals the chilling details of the plot as well as the dreamlike manner of the flashbacks. This is a superbly directed film that might have been excessive in lesser hands. Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the mother who struggles to learn the strange behavior of her son.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey) - director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A visual treat with stunning cinematography by Gokhan Tiryaki, this is the story of a murder investigation that takes us through the remote landscapes of Turkey. The first half of this 150 minute work takes place entirely at night, often in very long shots with sounds of footsteps, car engines and clipped dialogue in the background, while the second half takes place during the day, as the search is finalized and we head back to town. Along the way, we watch in fascination as the police along with a prosecutor and doctor share their inner thoughts about the immediate work as well as their private lives. The length of this film is perfect - it is never slow moving - and lets us discover for ourselves what this world is all about. Co-Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Miss Bala (Mexico) - director: Gerado Naranjo
Director Naranjo tackles the subject of the drug wars in contemporary Mexico, basing this film upon a real-life incident of a young woman who was kidnapped and forced to deal with a vicious gang. This is a highly entertaining thriller that balances moments of brutal honesty (shootouts on local streets) as well as total artificiality (a beauty pageant the young woman enters) with equal aplomb. This is certain to fuel the discussion of the terrible tragedies that have been suffered by too many of Mexico's people.

Into The Abyss (Germany) - director: Werner Herzog
Herzog's outstanding documentary about the effects of a triple homicide on several individuals, ranging from the family of the victims to the police who investigated the crime to the convicted parties as well. Herzog was actually granted the right to interview one of the killers on death row, a mere eight days before his execution and this short sequence is one of the highlights of the film. Yet the most gripping interview may be with the woman whose mother and brother were victims of this senseless crime. Herzog is clearly against the death penalty, yet the film is not a cry to banish this punishment in America, but rather a beautifully balanced work that is dedicated to the victims. Gripping from start to finish.

The Kid With a Bike (Belgium) - director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Just under 90 minutes, this is a remarkably direct look at the life of an 11-year old boy who has been abandoned by his father. The young boy Cyril (Thomas Doret) rebels against adults, even the hairdresser Samantha (C├ęcile de France) who takes him in on weekends and helps restore his shattered psyche. The two leads are both gifted performers and the Dardennes' telling of this story is an enlightening look at the fears and pleasure of youth - and adults - as they mature in their understanding of life and each other. Co-Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Le Havre (Finland/France) - director: Ari Kaurismaki
A witty, sometimes droll, sometimes heartwarming fable about a middle-aged shoe shine who helps a young African refugee to freedom. Kaurismaki does not make speeches about the problem of refugees, but instead weaves a marvelous story about the kindness of humanity at large. Every character, even the smallest roles, are perfectly written and fleshed out by the actors. Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Film at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The Last Rites of Joe May (USA) - director: Joe Maggio
A look at a proud, decent man in his 60s who is seeing his role in life diminish, but who wants to do one more great thing in his life. Dennis Farina portrays the title character and it's the performance of his life. Writer/director Maggio populates this sensitive and kindhearted film with honest characters in real-life moments, with scenes of simple dialogue about the people the characters deal with on an everyday basis. Along with his cinematographer Jay Silver, Maggio presents Chicago as a synthesis of neighborhoods filmed in bleak grays and blues during the chill of winter; there are no glossy skyscraper or lakefront images in this film. In the process, it's arguably the most visually honest film ever made in Chicago.

Other films I was impressed with include: All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, a fascinating documentary about the unique art of a black man from rural Georgia who suffered through the racial strife of the 1960s; The Return of Joe Rich, a funny and intelligent look at the Chicago mob that unites today's wiseguys with those of decades past; Cairo 678, a nicely written piece about sexual harassment in modern Egypt and Wild Bill, a quirky and smart film about a father who has to care for his two teen-age sons after being away for several years in prison.

I'll get back to regular reviews with the next post. I want to take this opportunity to thank Kate McMillan and Brie Dorsey for their help in arranging several interviews with some of the directors of these films. They made my job a lot easier and more enjoyable!


  1. All great picks -- I thought this year's lineup was particularly strong.

  2. Jacqueline:

    Thanks. I know I was impressed with the overall quality of the films at the fest.

  3. Looking forward to hearing more about the interviews. I've never really been into film festivals but this post is changing my mind.

  4. Maurice:

    I'll try and get one up this week, though I'm getting ready for a trip aboad. This festival offered a nice cross section of films from many countries. I was thrilled to see such a nice work as "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" from Turkey, a country I don't associate with leading cinema of the world.

    Interviews soon.