As a lifelong movie lover, it made my heart swell to see the AMC River East 21 jam-packed over the last two weeks with crowds vying for rush tickets to obscure foreign titles devoid of big names or Marvel superheroes. In its 50th year, the Chicago International Film Festival is still going strong, and the camaraderie of its participants is a joy to behold. I got into so many impassioned discussions with fellow theatergoers eager to dissect what they had just seen. One of my favorite extended encounters was with editor Eric Houtz, whose Chicago-set indie, “The Alley Cat” (written and directed by Marie Ullrich), was screening throughout the festival. I also stumbled upon Frederik Steiner, director of the acclaimed German drama, “Zurich,” and his leading lady, Liv Lisa Fries, who informed me of their hopes to acquire U.S. distribution from Music Box Films. “Supernova” director Tamar van den Dop gushed to me about her love of American films, from Technicolor musicals to Terrence Malick pictures and Craig Brewer’s “Black Snake Moan” (all three had a clear influence on her beguiling film).
I also got the chance to speak with Michael Moore at the red carpet event prior to a 25th anniversary screening of his newly restored 1989 masterpiece, “Roger & Me.” In its ironic juxtaposition and deft comic timing, the film offers a master class in the art of editing, and Moore told me that he and his editors, Jennifer Beman and Wendey Stanzler, had never edited anything prior to that film. “That was our first go at it and we didn’t know what we were doing, which I think probably helped us,” Moore said. “If you can feel the beats and rhythms of a story, you can edit, and that’s what we did. We felt the story and we knew what to do.” In his excellent post-screening Q&A conducted by Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, Moore admitted that he considered the film to be a failure, in some ways, because it didn’t bring about the change he had hoped it would. I raised my hand and told him I could never consider the film a failure since it stands as a microcosm of what’s happening all over America today. Moore initially answered with a joke (telling the audience, “This gentlemen just told me that I’m a miserable failure”) before thanking me and reflecting on how the film does capture what he believes to be “the beginning of the end of the middle class.”
Other iconic filmmakers made cameos prior to various screenings with taped messages to the festival in commemoration of its half-century-long legacy. I’ve heard Martin Scorsese’s tale of how Roger Ebert praised his first feature, “I Call First,” upon its CIFF premiere in 1967, which subsequently led to an enduring friendship between the two titans, countless times (most memorably in Steve James’s documentary, “Life Itself”), yet it’s a credit to Scorsese’s mastery as a storyteller that he makes me feel as if I’m hearing it for the first time every time. Several audience members clearly were unfamiliar with the yarn, since Scorsese’s mentioning of Ebert’s name elicited audible gasps during his lovely video, which earned applause at the end. I laughed quite loudly at John Carpenter’s much briefer message, where he recalled that two of his classics—1976’s “Assault on Precinct 13” and 1978’s “Halloween”—had previously played at the festival, and that his career “has been going downhill ever since.”
The following six discoveries are films I was lucky enough to catch during the festival and are well worth keeping on your cinematic radar. Here’s hoping some of these gems will be making their way to an art house near you.
“You’re an accident waiting to happen,” replies Rachel (Amanda Mealing) to her ex-husband, Carver (Aiden Gillen, a.k.a. “Littlefinger” on “Game of Thrones”), in writer/director Simon Blake’s gritty, surprisingly poignant thriller. Her observation encapsulates the entire trajectory of the film, as Carver’s life disintegrates after burying his son, a victim of a supposed hit-and-run. Gillen’s magnetic presence compensates for his character’s irredeemable nature. He neglected his son when he was alive, and is now paying the price, so to speak. When a local street gang, led by young punk Carl (rapper Sonny Green in a remarkable feature debut), start terrorizing Carver, his thoughts turn to vengeance, leading to a powerful climax drenched in poetic irony. Blake draws connections between gang culture and indifferent parenting without becoming preachy, allowing provocative themes to emerge organically through the story itself. As part of the festival’s New Directors competition, the film does sport some typical rookie flaws—the overabundance of close-ups being one of them—but the cast is uniformly strong across the board and Blake gives each of his major players a stellar showcase. Editor’s Note: In his Q&A, Blake praised Green, likening him to both a Caravaggio painting and the kid from “Deliverance.”
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Diao Yinan’s icily seductive noir is the sort of picture that seeps into your bones. Its mystifying plot may warrant more than one viewing to fully digest, but the spell cast by Yinan’s exquisitely nuanced direction and Dong Jinsong’s hypnotic cinematography is instantaneous. There’s a sequence where a wave of reassuring calm is brutally interrupted by a sudden bloodbath, and the effect is horrifying. It demonstrates that violence could erupt at any second and that no character is safe, especially the bumbling protagonist, who clumsily stalks a possible murderer while aboard his sputtering motorbike (I was reminded of Ewan McGregor’s bicycle trudging through gravel in Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer”). With body parts piling up around the city, a femme fatale emerges as the prime suspect, though the story is much more complicated than it initially appears, exposing corruption and abuse throughout Chinese society (the woman is the sexual prey of practically every man she encounters—including the hero). Yinan builds suspense with the pacing and attention to detail of a master. He understands that the journey is far more important than the destination, which perhaps explains the film’s rather shocking final cut to black. It may frustrate at first, but it will have you buzzing about it for weeks.
The word “brave” doesn’t even begin to describe the level of courageous audacity achieved by young actor Villads Bøye in Niels Arden Oplev’s extraordinarily honest and perceptive coming-of-age drama. Resembling a Danish “Almost Famous”-era Patrick Fugit, Bøye plays Martin, a 14-year-old boy who must grapple with the death of his mother in the midst of a typically confusing adolescence. The hilariously absurd sport of “speed walking” becomes an apt metaphor for the measured steps and gawky sincerity of a life in evolution. With his hormones raging, Martin is consumed with feelings of lust for both his pretty schoolmate, Kristine (Kraka Donslund Nielsen), and his close friend, Kim (Frederik Winther Rasmussen). It’s depressing to ponder how an American remake would go about defining Martin’s sexuality as leaning one way or the other. Oplev is utterly uninterested in branding his young protagonist with a label. How refreshing to see a film that regards sexuality in terms that aren’t black and white. Bøye and Rasmussen share two scenes of such tender, unguarded intimacy that they left me awestruck. Oplev half-joked at the Q&A that such scenes would’ve gotten him arrested had he shot them in America, yet his film is the antithesis of exploitation, and infinitely more mature than countless allegedly adult pictures made in this country. Censoring this film would be a crime.
You know a film is working you over when you suddenly feel yourself unable to breathe. That’s how I felt during the last scene of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s galvanizing Iranian drama laced with satire and fleeting beauty that shimmers all the brighter amidst ever-escalating chaos. The film, winner of this year’s Gold Hugo, kicks off with a fabulous opening sequence: an elderly dictator (Misha Gomiashvili, resembling the captain of Cameron’s “Titanic”) impresses his grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili, a pint-sized wonder) by demonstrating the extent of his great power. He orders the lights of his land (credited as an “unknown” country) to be switched off, then on, then off again. Not only does he hold the world in the palm of his hand, he takes delight in bouncing it down the hall with no regard to what it might break in the process. Yet the fun stops when the lights suddenly fail to turn back on, signaling the overthrow of his regime from a public calling for his head. Only when he’s forced to go incognito—blending in with citizens on the lowliest end of the economic scale (a la “Sullivan’s Travels”)—does he face the horrors he’s blissfully ignored throughout his leadership. He’s a loathsome monster, to be sure, but the love that he feels for his grandson is genuine, and every flicker of delight and agony that registers on little Orvelashvili’s face is wholly authentic. Plus his line, “Wash my a—, Your Majesty,” brings some much-needed levity to the proceedings.
Black Panther: The Story of Emilie and Jacob
Emilie (Lucy Wirth) and Jacob (Ole Jacobs) are the textbook definition of an adorable couple: he with his slender build and piercing stare, she with her toothy grin and freckled complexion. If only they weren’t brother and sister. Such is the setup for Samuel Perriard’s accomplished debut feature, which quietly builds an erotic power as the siblings steal lingering glances at one another. They’ve reunited at their family’s old vacation home in the Swiss Alps with plans to sell it. Once Emilie’s boyfriend (Jonas Hien) leaves the pair alone, the repressed yearnings between them can no longer be denied. The metaphorical panther, externalizing Emilie and Jacob’s animalistic pangs of desire, is often glimpsed from an extreme wide angle. It’s often obscured from view but haunts every scene. Inspired by the controversy that engulfed Switzerland when debates swirled over whether incest should be decriminalized, Perriard approaches the defiantly uncommercial subject matter from a purely emotional perspective. The excellent score by JJ & Palin brings a pulsating rhythm to various scenes, such as the denouement bolstered by their catchy tune, “Good,” though Perriard wisely removes any trace of music from the pivotal sex scene, leaving only the awkward sounds of writhing bodies. Wirth and Jacobs are so compelling together that they transcend all divisive boundaries with their irrefutable humanity.
There’s a deleted scene from Stephen Daldry’s 2008 film, “The Reader,” where a teenage boy (David Kross), in the midst of his sexual awakening, stands naked before a mirror, examining his body as if for the first time. I was reminded of this scene all throughout Pirjo Honkasalo’s spellbinding abstract opus, featuring a 14-year-old protagonist, Simo (played by Johannes Brotherus, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kross), who spends much of the time regarding his reflection—not out of vanity but out of a primal need to understand himself and the mysterious, seemingly doomed world he inhabits. Like “The Reader,” Honkasalo’s film (based on Pirkko Saisio’s book) is a tale of lost innocence, yet it expands on the glimmers of potential witnessed in the early sections of Daldry’s frustratingly flawed morality play. To say Honkasalo is a visionary talent would be an understatement. Every frame of her film, lensed in glorious black and white by Peter Flinckenberg, is a sumptuous treat for the eyes, conveying both the virginal amazement and stomach-churning horror experienced by Simo, as he explores Helsinki while torn between the philosophies of his nihilistic brother and his rather dubious neighbor. Stark and sensual in equal measure, the entire film is anchored by the ever-transfixing Brotherus, who tackles the physical and emotional nakedness of his role with a fearlessness unseen in most people his age. What a discovery.