Saturday, October 25, 2014

Favorites from the Chicago International Film Festival

The President
Winner of the Gold Hugo as best Film of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival wrapped up its two-week run a few days ago and it was a smashing success! I attended the fest at the beautiful AMC River East theater complex and was amazed at the crowds on the weekend of October 17-19; the organizers were quite right in making the theme of this year's fest "Everybody Loves Movies," as thousands turned out to see the latest in world cinema. Founder and artistic director Michael Kutza and his team have made the Chicago Film Festival undoubtedly one of the finest in the United States.

There are so many films shown during the two weeks, that's it's impossible to see everything. Please keep that in mind as I write about my personal favorites from the fest, as I realize I missed out on some films that were highly praised. But I did try and make an effort to see many different types of films, be they dramas, comedies, shorts and documentaries.


The President (Georgia, France, U.K., Germany) - directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. This film was awarded the Gold Hugo as the Best Film of this year's festival; bravo to the jury for selecting such an original, provocative film! In an unnamed country (perhaps Georgia or a neighboring land), a dictator must flee for his life after the military overthrows his government. The president sees his wife and daughters off to the airport in the nick of time, but stays to fight for his regime along with his five-year old young grandson. At times funny, but mostly chilling, the film focuses on the desperate measures the former ruler must go through just to survive from one day to the next, as soldiers are out to capture him, dead or alive, for a large ransom. 

Director Makhmalabaf masterfully brings an immediacy to the story, beautifully capturing small moments so well, as when the president and his grandson must pass themselves off as street musicians, with the young boy wearing a cardboard box while performing an impromptu dance. I have not seen other films by Makhamalabaf, but based on this single work, it is clear that he is an extremely talented director, one who understands the spatial boundaries of the screen (his compositions are at once beautiful and sadly heartbreaking). He has been called one of the leaders of the Iranian New Wave; this movie along with A Separation (director, Asghar Farhadi), which was awarded an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film in 2012, offer proof that some of today's most remarkable films are being made by directors from Iran.

Stockholm (Spain) - directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen - A look at a chance affair at a bar between a young man and woman that turns into much more than a one-night stand. A very intelligent screenplay by Isabel Peña and Sogoyen that offers three dimensional characters who each practice their own particular dance; he (Javier Periera) will do anything to impress this woman, while she (Aura Garrido) is quite unsure of herself as well as his motives, yet feels drawn to him. This is such an impressive study of a male-female relationship that is only rarely seen in Hollywood; this is not a "meet cute" film that major studios routinely produce. Great work by the two principal performers, especially Garrido.

Human Capital (Italy) - directed by Paolo Virzi (review here). A look at the excesses of the rich in northern Italy, set in the current day economic crisis of the country. The film is told in four chapters, as there are multiple viewpoints of a tragic roadside accident that sets the story in motion. Each chapter also provides insight into the emotions of the various characters, most of whom are not happy with their current lot in life. Beautifully written, directed and acted (the entire cast is first-rate), the film has received numerous awards in Italy; I believe it can also be a critical success in America (and perhaps even relatively popular at the box office).

Fearless (United States) - directed by Ted Kotcheff - A splendid short film (26 minutes) that deals directly with the question of the quality of life. An aging actress sees a young man outside her estate who is ready to kill himself; she challenges him and invites him in for tea, provoking him with questions about why he would do this. During their time together, we discover that she also has problems with her current existence; clearly her glorious past as a movie star is a thing of the past. An engaging performance by Fionnula Flangan; sensitive direction by the 83-year old Kotcheff and an insightful script by his daughter Alexandra. In its brief running time, the film treats serious questions about life and death with greater complexity than many feature films. Highly recommended.

Sand Dollars (Dominican Republic, Mexico) - directed by Israel Cardenas and Amelia Guzman. A dream-like film about the relationship of two women, one a young native of the Dominican Republic and the other a European in her 70s. The older woman (an outstanding performance by Geraldine Chaplin, who is not afraid to display her 70 year-old appearance) feels alive again with the tenderness shown to her by her young lover, while the young woman is attracted to her older companion, if only for the fact that she has money. This is a film of wishes and hopes, and while some of these desires are dashed, the characters have an eternal outlook that things will work out for them. Chaplin was awarded the Silver Hugo as Best Actress in this year's festival.

Human Voice -La Voce Humana - (Italy) - directed by Edoardo Ponti. Another short film (25 minutes), this a magnificently filmed telling of the Jean Cocteau eponymous short story in which an elderly woman (Sophia Loren) talks to her lover on the phone one final time, painfully realizing that she will never see him again. Loren, who was 79 years old when this was filmed (she recently turned 80) is brilliant in this role - you'd have to say that this ranks among the finest works of her career. There is an urgency in her voice and such primal emotions on display- she takes your breath away with this performance! Her son Edoardo tenderly directs this tale, while the brilliant cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto, who is one of the finest directors of photography working today (recent credits include Argo, Babel and The Wolf of Wall Street). His deeply saturated blues and reds in the apartment scenes add irony to the film's plot and his compositions of the actors set against the Napoli seaside is stunning. I can't imagine the Academy nominating a short film for cinematography, but it would be a worthwhile nomination; I don't know if I'll see a more beautiful and professional job of cinematography this year (note, this was shot on film stock, not digitally). But perhaps the film will be nominated for an Oscar in the Short Film category; I would love that, as it would allow a good-sized audience to see this gorgeous film!

The Look of Silence (Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, Finland, UK) - directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. This is Oppenheimer's companion piece to his 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, which told the story of a select few of the individuals that committed brutal government-approved murders in Indonesia in the 1960s. While that film recreated the deeds of those individuals, The Look of Silence concerns itself with the story of the brother of a young man who was one of the victims. He confronts the murderers and asks them if they feel any remorse. Like the first film on this topic by Oppenheimer, this is a devastating film. One final note: many of the end credits - especially for assistant directors - read "anonymous"; clearly many of Indonesia's citizens are reluctant to talk about this terrible period in their recent history.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (United States) - directed by Chuck Workman. An excellent documentary about a true genius of cinema, this film is a great introduction to the work of Welles - theater as well as film - and will be appreciated by devotees of Welles. My full review will appear in December when the film hits theaters, for now, you can read my interview with Workman about this film here.

Birdman (United States) - directed by Alejandro Iñarritu. A highly original movie about an actor who has left his superhero days behind and is now tackling his first Broadway work, adapting, directing and starring in a dramatic play. He asks himself often in the film if he is crazy to do this; his life complicated by several others in his immediate family and in the play. (I'll write a full review in a few days.) Great lead performance by Michael Keaton, who was awarded the Founder's Award from the festival for his work in this film. 

I've Seen the Unicorn (Canada) - directed by Vincent Toi (full review here). A film for the dreamer in all of us set amidst the world of thoroughbred horse racing in the small nation island of Mauritius. We follow the trials of an owner and a jockey who desperately want to win the country's biggest race; we also learn the story of a young boy who will do whatever it takes to become a jockey in a few years. A delightful film - only 60 minutes in length - full of simple pleasures as well as exciting race scenes.

Algren (United States) - directed by Michael Caplan (full review here). A heartfelt tribute to the famous Chicago writer, the champion of the dispossessed. Beautiful photos from the 1940s, '50s and '60 shot by Art Shay illustrate the life and times of Nelson Algren. There are many wonderful stories in this documentary, told by famous writers and directors such as William Friedkin, John Sayles and Philip Kaufman.

Other films I enjoyed included: 

Maestro (France) - directed by Lea Fazer
Joy of Man's Desiring (Canada) - directed by Denis Coté
The 100 year old man who jumped out the window and disappeared (Sweden) - dir. Felix Herngren
The Divide (United States, short film) - directed by Ashley Monti
Tir (Italy) - directed by Alberto Fasulo

I would think the Chicago Film Festival team would have a difficult time topping themselves next year, but I'm quite confident they'll be up to the task. Here's to the 51st Chicago International Film Festival in 2015!

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