CIFF 2015 Preview: “Anomalisa,” “James White” and Six More

Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.”

Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.”

There comes a point when a film festival turns from a casual diversion and into an obsession. That happened to me last year during the Chicago International Film Festival, when I discovered Dietrich Brüggemann’s “Stations of the Cross,” a film that resonated with me on such a deeply profound level that it seemed to have been made with me in mind, and ended up ranking very high on my Top Ten list for 2014. Once you have an experience like that, you’ll find yourself going back for more quite often. The line-up for this year’s 51st installment of the festival features several of my favorite 2015 titles thus far, including Stephen Cone’s sublime coming-of-age drama, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” Sebastian Ko’s grimly funny shocker, “We Monsters,” and Rebecca’s Parrish’s rousing “Nuns on the Bus” documentary, “Radical Grace.” In addition to covering the festival, I’ll also be serving on a jury screening fourteen films in competition for The Roger Ebert Award honoring emerging filmmakers.

With my festival addiction already in full swing, here are eight films screening at CIFF this year that are well worth your attention. Perhaps one of these gems will trigger your own moviegoing obsession.

Jack C. Newell’s “Open Tables.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Jack C. Newell’s “Open Tables.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Open Tables

Whereas director Jack C. Newell’s 2012 debut feature, “Close Quarters,” juxtaposed various conversations unfolding simultaneously throughout a crowded restaurant, his sophomore effort, “Open Tables,” focuses its inquisitive lens on the romantic inner and outer lives of three particular couples. The witty, Woody Allen-esque plot structure sets up a series of typical rom-com scenarios only to subvert them with a jarring dose of reality. My favorite story plays like an ingenious riff on “Groundhog Day,” featuring Dave Pasquesi (who portrayed Bill Murray’s psychiatrist in the Harold Ramis classic) as a man stricken with short-term memory loss who circumstantially becomes the perfect match for his commitment-phobic date. Adding to the droll fun is Bill’s brother, Joel Murray, as Pasquesi’s doctor. Stephanie Dufford’s cinematography takes on a whole other level of grandeur during an extended black-and-white sequence set in Paris. The scenery is as sumptuous as the meals on display. When I interviewed Newell about the project two years ago, he said, “I feel that food has an incredible ability to not only unite strangers but elicit emotion and memory.” I’ll drink to that.

Open Tables” screens at 6:15pm Tuesday, October 20th, 3:15pm Saturday, October 24th, and 3pm Tuesday, October 27th. Director Jack C. Newell is scheduled to attend all three, with an optional Taste of Cinema event following the October 20th screening.

Ostap Kostyuk’s “The Living Fire.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Ostap Kostyuk’s “The Living Fire.” Courtesy of CIFF.

The Living Fire

Some films are meant to be followed, others are meant to be felt. Ostap Kostyuk’s documentary about shepherds in the Carpathian mountains belongs in the latter category. It contains some of the most indelibly haunting and enveloping imagery you’re bound to see all year (hats off to cinematographers Oleksandr Pozdnyakov and Mykyta Kuzmenko). No contrived plot arcs are created for easy emotional payoffs. Instead, we are merely invited to observe the flickering flame of a dying era before it’s snuffed out, and the men who rely on it as a source of warmth and purpose. An elderly shepherd poignantly confesses his regret that he had only spent three years of his half-century-long marriage with his wife, and there’s fleeting footage of a tearful woman likening her relationship with an often-absent husband to being a widow. The film may have benefitted from granting the female voices more screen time, yet Kostyuk is clearly fascinated by the seduction of a solitary life. There are shades of Malick in the film’s tone and philosophy regarding the role of our species as nature’s caretaker. “The land feeds everyone,” reflects the old shepherd, “but we have to love it.”

The Living Fire” screens at 7:15pm Thursday, October 22nd, and 12pm Saturday, October 24th.

Sion Sono’s “Tag.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Sion Sono’s “Tag.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Tag

A single drop of blood can alter the color of a feather just as a single decision can alter the course of history. Ain’t life surreal? That seems to be the message of Sion Sono’s exuberant gore fest, yet it doesn’t even begin to convey the film’s unabashed weirdness. At this year’s CIFF press conference, “Tag” was singled out for having one of the most outrageously violent opening scenes in the history of the festival, which it does, yet the carnage is so cartoonish that it will elicit more laughs than screams. The premise is somewhat reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s infamous bomb, “The Happening,” with a malevolent force embodied by the wind leading characters to off themselves, yet Sono is more interested in transcending the sadism of the “Final Destination” series, where characters are merely locked in their doomed fate. Owl-eyed heroine Mitsuko (a terrific Reina Triendl) fights for her freedom, even as her ever-morphing identity proves bewildering. The whole picture is pitched at the level of a nightmare, by turns amusing (I loved the wedding guests whose cheering grows increasingly vile) and repellant (a set piece where schoolgirls are gunned down is most unwelcome).

Tag” screens at 9:45pm Thursday, October 22nd, and 10pm Friday, October 23rd.

Jakob M. Erwa’s “Homesick.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Jakob M. Erwa’s “Homesick.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Homesick

Considering that I recently moved into a new apartment, Jakob M. Erwa’s insidious psychological thriller hit a tad too close to home. It’s crafted in the classic tradition of mysteries straddling the line between the supernatural and the pathological, teasing both options until the last few frames, which initially felt like one turn of the screw too many, but grew more diabolical the more I thought about it. Jessica (Esther Maria Pietsch) and Lorenz (Matthias Lier) are a young couple overjoyed to have an apartment of their own. Yet there’s something a bit off about their new abode, as well as the creepy woman who lives upstairs. Cinematographer Christian Trieloff frames the building in such a way that it appears to be spying on its tenants, while chipping away at their sanity. Erwa accentuates the inherently violent nature of Jessica’s favored instrument, the cello, in how the strings resemble the veins in a human arm, and how the slashing motion of the bow might as well be drawing blood (no wonder strings worked so well in the immortal score for “Psycho”). The film’s use of deafening, almost funereal silence is evocative of another Hitchcock classic, “Frenzy.”

Homesick” screens at 6pm Friday, October 23rd, 12:30pm Sunday, October 25th, and 1pm Monday, October 26th. Director Jakob M. Erwa is scheduled to attend all three.

Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.” Courtesy of CIFF.

45 Years

There’s no question Charlotte Rampling is one of the most entrancing actresses in all of cinema. Her stare can cause an entire wheat field to wither in the heat of its gaze. Though her sweetly dispositioned character in Andrew Haigh’s searing drama may be far removed from the nihilistic mother she played in “Melancholia,” both films share the theme of impending catastrophe metaphorically represented by an inevitable apocalypse. “45 Years” could be considered a ghost story in the sense that the characters are haunted by a figure from the past who has infiltrated their lives in ways they hadn’t fully realized for decades. On the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Rampling) exude chemistry worthy of Fonda and Hepburn in “On Golden Pond.” Yet when news breaks that the remains of Geoff’s old flame have been discovered, Kate suddenly awakens to the hold that this deceased woman still has on her husband. But that’s nothing compared to the hold the camera has on Rampling’s face, as she uncovers shattering secrets while somehow managing to maintain her ageless radiance. This is one of the year’s best performances.

45 Years” screens 3:30pm Saturday, October 17th, and 6:15pm Tuesday, October 20th. Director Andrew Haigh is scheduled to attend the October 17th screening.

Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.”

Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.”

Where to Invade Next

2015 has been full of lovely surprises. First M. Night Shyamalan satirized his own missteps to delightful effect in “The Visit.” Then Johnny Depp reminded us of how exciting an actor he can be in “Black Mass.” And now Michael Moore, the divisive provocateur who appeared to have left filmmaking after 2009’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” releases a top-secret picture, and it turns out to be not only one of the year’s funniest, but also one of the most joyous. In a style similar to his 2007 health care exposé, “Sicko,” Moore embarks on a globe-hopping crusade to invade countries and steal their best ideas with the goal of implementing them in the U.S. What he ends up finding is the American dream being realized far outside our borders. We see an Italian couple enjoying eight weeks of paid vacation; students excelling sans homework in Finland; free government-funded women’s health clinics in Tunisia; and a French school cafeteria with more mouthwatering meals than most upscale American restaurants.

There are many big laughs (a musical orientation video from a maximum security prison in Norway brings down the house), and yet the film is also tremendously sobering in its cumulative impact, illustrating with acute clarity how the corporate greed fueling our economy has resulted in an anti-humanist society of disastrous proportions. But Moore provides us with various illuminating examples of how things can change for the better when people refuse to have their voices silenced. The entire film is anchored by Moore’s unabashed sincerity and deadpan wit, and longtime fans will especially appreciate the moment when he thanks an interview subject for being “the first CEO to meet with me on the factory floor.”

Where to Invade Next” screens at 7pm Friday, October 23rd. Director Michael Moore is scheduled to attend.

Josh Mond’s “James White.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Josh Mond’s “James White.” Courtesy of CIFF.

James White

For anyone who has ever inhabited the role of a devoted caregiver to a loved one battling terminal illness, Josh Mond’s staggering first feature is so authentic, it will feel as if it were eavesdropping on your day-to-day life. After winning fans with his endearing turn as Marnie’s sensitive on-again/off-again boyfriend during the first two seasons of HBO’s “Girls,” Christopher Abbott receives a showcase here that puts him at the front ranks of his generation’s actors currently gracing the silver screen. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, who also lensed the Cannes prize-winner “Son of Saul,” often frames his face so closely that we find ourselves sharing in his claustrophobic agony. With his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” fame), battling stage 4 cancer and his absent father now deceased, James tends to all of her needs, while floundering in his attempts to build a stable life for himself. There’s a heartbreaking scene where he attends a job interview arranged by a family friend (Ron Livingston), and is entirely unaware of the self-destructive mess he so obviously resembles.

The fierce love James has for his mother has caused him to put his own needs on the back burner, as Gail shifts from lucid awareness to frightening incoherence without warning. After awakening to her calls for help one night, James helps her to the bathroom and ends up articulating a vision of a better life that enables them both to escape—for a brief moment—as she rests her head on his shoulder. It’s one of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen in a film this year, with performances from Abbott and Nixon that are so transformative, even HBO subscribers will feel like they’re watching these actors for the very first time.

James White” screens at 9:45pm Friday, October 16th, and 7:30pm Saturday, October 17th. Director Josh Mond and actor Christopher Abbott are scheduled to attend both screenings.

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa.”

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa.”

Anomalisa

It has been seven years since I met Charlie Kaufman after the CIFF screening of his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York.” I still have the ticket he signed (his twin brother, Donald, was sadly not on hand for autographs). As a great admirer of his collaborations with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry (especially “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), I found his movie puzzling upon initial glance. Subsequent viewings have revealed its brilliance, and after the sudden death of its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film has become almost unbearably poignant. Kaufman’s second picture, “Anomalisa,” is adapted from his own play, and like “Synecdoche,” blends two pivotal words in its title. Co-director Duke Johnson’s background in animation must have been essential in crafting the picture’s extraordinarily lifelike stop-motion visuals, distinguished by visibly fragmented faces.

Michael (David Thewlis) arrives in Cincinnati for a dull conference, and it grows quickly apparent that he has trouble connecting with others, despite his renowned mastery of customer service etiquette. Everyone he encounters sounds suspiciously like Tom Noonan, who also had a habit of following Hoffman around in “Synecdoche.” Only the voice of an infatuated fan, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), manages to register in Michael’s ears, causing him to fall head over heels for her. Though there are many trademark humorous touches, the central relationships are treated with the utmost sincerity, and Kaufman’s depiction of the effect depression can have on one’s worldview is both provocative and enlightening. This is a towering achievement on every level, as meticulously complex as it is surprisingly accessible. If Craig Schwartz, the neurotic antihero from “Being John Malkovich,” had directed a feature-length puppet show, it would have looked something like this.

Anomalisa” screens at 7pm Wednesday, October 21st. Co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson are scheduled to attend.

For the full festival schedule or to buy tickets, visit the official site of the Chicago International Film Festival.

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