CIFF 2017: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Shape of Water” and Eight More to Remember

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The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival is now complete, and my mind is swimming with countless flickering images that have become forever etched into my consciousness. I was honored to serve for the second time on the New Directors jury alongside such esteemed cinema experts as NPR critic Ella Taylor; Columbia College professor Wenhwa Ts’ao; Fabrice Rozié, Cultural Attaché at the Consulate of France in Chicago; and Andreas Ströhl, director and commercial manager of the International Munich Film Festival (special thanks must be paid to our invaluable jury coordinator, Adelaide Evans). Together, we watched sixteen films over the course of a week, and I was overjoyed when my two top favorites, Laura Mora’s “Killing Jesús” and Milad Alami’s “The Charmer,” earned prizes: the Roger Ebert Award and the Silver Hugo, respectively (Vahid Jalilvand’s “No Date, No Signature,” another film I greatly admired, took home the Gold Hugo).

I reviewed Mora and Alami’s films in a RogerEbert.com dispatch that also included “Sea Sorrow,” the wrenching documentary directed by Vanessa Redgrave, whom I had the honor of speaking with at a post-screening reception. I savored all three of my dinners with the international jury, which included “24 Weeks” director Anne Zohra Berrached, “Juno” producer Daniel Dubiecki, “Man Push Cart” star Leticia Dolera, Northwestern University professor Nick Davis and the wonderful actor Tzi Ma (of “Rush Hour” fame), who shared with me the secret dialogue Amy Adams whispered to him during his pivotal climactic scene as General Shang in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” These words—echoing the message of aliens to the human race—further enhance the film’s connection to sci-fi classics such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which both stress the importance of communication. Tzi Ma gave me the go-ahead to share the words, so here they are: “Please be brave. War doesn’t create heroes. War only creates widows and orphans.”

Amidst all my jury duties and deliberations, I somehow managed to view a considerable amount of additional festival selections as well, many of which will easily end up on my best of the year list. I’ve included each of their release dates so you can make sure to have them marked in your calendar. Trust me, you’ll want to remember these titles…

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The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro is nothing if not a full-blooded movie buff. His insights on the art form added immeasurably to two of the year’s best documentaries, Alexandre O. Philippe’s breakdown of the “Psycho” shower scene, “78/52,” and Laurent Bouzereau’s analysis of WWII propaganda films, “Five Came Back.” Del Toro’s discussion of how these wartime pictures drained all humanity from the Japanese populace, reducing them to hateful caricatures, is reflected in his latest feature, which centers on the unexpected bond that forms between a mute janitor (the great Sally Hawkins) and a mysterious “amphibian man” (Doug Jones). Standing in the way of their happiness is a scenery-chewing Michael Shannon, exuding the chauvinism and xenophobia that extends directly from the film’s Cold War-era setting and reverberates through every facet of our modern world. Though the plot is perhaps a touch too derivative of “E.T.” and “Splash,” the script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is marvelously witty and refreshingly adult, particularly in scenes pairing Hawkins with Richard Jenkins, so endearing as her lonely neighbor. The song choices and film clips that del Toro curates are inspired at every turn, such as the groundbreaking moment in 1935’s “The Little Colonel” where Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dance up and down a staircase. In many ways, “The Shape of Water” is a loving ode to that precise moment in which barriers were shattered by the joining of hands and hearts.

“The Shape of Water” is slated to open on Friday, December 8th.

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Call Me by Your Name

You just never know what may rise out of the water. As a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) retrieves submerged statues of sculpted male bodies off the coast of northern Italy, his 17-year-son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), experiences forbidden feelings that threaten to bubble to the surface. He’s become hopelessly smitten with Oliver (Armie Hammer, a decade older than Chalamet), the loose-limbed graduate student living with his family for the summer. Whereas Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film, “I Am Love,” was fueled by mounting excitement as its heroine broke out of a stifling trap, the director’s latest feature is set in a snug cocoon of safety where Elio and Oliver can explore their mutual infatuation, albeit in empty fields and behind closed doors. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”), deliberately obscures certain shots—either through blurred focus or overlapping color—causing us to focus on the emotions rather than the details in the frame—and what swooning emotions they are. This is the most liberating screen romance in many a moon, with a script by James Ivory (adapted from André Aciman’s novel) that is profoundly erotic without ever being explicit. Stuhlbarg, who also delivered excellent work in “The Shape of Water,” has an extraordinary monologue in which he cautions Elio from protecting himself to the point where he “feels nothing” (I couldn’t help being reminded of dancer Bobbi Jene Smith’s views on the dangers of “withholding”). Hammer hasn’t been this exuberant onscreen since “The Social Network,” but this is Chalamet’s film, first and foremost, and his performance—navigating the tenuous line between adolescence and adulthood—is one for the ages, culminating in a final shot of such exquisite beauty that I get chills just thinking about it.

“Call Me by Your Name” is slated to open on Friday, November 24th.

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Thoroughbreds

“The Shape of Water” isn’t the only recent film to make memorable use of a Shirley Temple vehicle. During a crucial sequence in Cory Finley’s “Thoroughbreds,” crusty character actress Mary Nash is seen terrorizing Temple in a televised broadcast of 1939’s “The Little Princess,” which cast the pint-sized Depression-era star as a privileged girl forced into an impoverished existence during her father’s absence. It’s the sort of character Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) would feel an instant kinship with, since she sees herself as the victim of a villainous stepfather intent on cheating her out of a high-priced lifestyle. Yes, her stepdad is horrible, but he’s absolutely right when he accuses Lily of viewing everyone as disposable “offshoots” of her consciousness. This splendidly structured thriller is, in essence, a portrait of sociopathy as embodied by two different young women, the falsely perky Lily and her witheringly sardonic friend, Amanda (Olivia Cooke). It’s Taylor-Joy’s best film since her breakout triumph in “The Witch,” another striking debut feature blessed with a nerve-jangling atonal score (provided here by Eric Friedlander). She has an icy stare that could rival Gene Tierney’s in “Leave Her to Heaven.” Finley’s background as a playwright is evident in his deliciously macabre dialogue, though the film is never stagy, in part due to Lyle Vincent’s cinematography, which drenches the screen in bright colors that sharply contrast with the grisly subject matter. The stooge in Lily and Amanda’s scheme is played by the late Anton Yelchin, as riveting and fearless as ever in the final performance of his career.

“Thoroughbreds” is slated to open on Friday, March 9th.

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I, Tonya

Remember Margot Robbie’s fourth wall-breaking cameo in “The Big Short” where she spouted gobs of exposition while lying in a bubble bath before telling the audience to f—k off? I have an inkling that Craig Gillespie saw that scene and figured it would be an ideal model for a feature-length biopic on disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding. The result is a sporadically successful hybrid of numbskull comedy and biting social commentary aimed at the media and members of the public who mocked her suffering as if it were a punchline (“You’re all my abusers, too,” Harding tells us). Unfortunately, the film makes a habit of softening the more disturbing sections of her life by disrupting them with a quip or knowing wink to the audience. Since its self-aware artifice is a running gag in itself—punctuated by characters complaining, “This didn’t happen!” or “My storyline is disappearing!”—a more fitting title may have been, “Margot Plays Tonya,” a la “Kate Plays Christine.” Though Robbie is strong in the titular role, her skating scenes are shot like outtakes from “Blades of Glory,” complete with shoddy digital effects designed to mask her body double that render Harding a zombie whenever she twirls. Much more effective are the scenes outside the rink, where Harding’s failure to match the judges’ ideal vision of American femininity ends up dooming her scores. Stealing every one of her scenes is Allison Janney at her funniest and most fearsome as Harding’s cold-blooded stage mom. After recalling the fight where she threw a knife into her daughter’s arm, Janney shrugs, “Every family has its ups and downs,” borrowing Katharine Hepburn’s best line from “The Lion in Winter.”

“I, Tonya” is slated to open on Friday, December 8th. 

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Breathe

At an event in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, Andrew Garfield told me about how deeply moved he was by “Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary about Roger Ebert’s battle with cancer and his wife Chaz’s role as his devoted caregiver. I wouldn’t be surprised if their story helped inspire Garfield’s portrayal of another remarkable real-life figure, Robin Cavendish, a man paralyzed from the neck down after being stricken with polio. His wife, Diana (Claire Foy of “The Crown”), refused to let him die, moving him out of the hospital in order to give him as full a life as possible, much to the chagrin of a doctor who might as well be the reincarnation of Mary Nash’s Fräulein Rottenmeier. With a breathing respirator fixed onto his wheelchair, Robin is able to see the world from an upright position, whereas polio patients at that time often resided in rooms resembling mausoleums (at one German hospital, the patients’ faces poke out of the wall, staring at nothing but their own reflections). It’s interesting that this film marks the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, the king of motion capture, since it revolves around a man whose movement was irrevocably stunted. Some critics have complained that the script is too aggressively upbeat for its own good, and while I agree with them to an extent, I also believe that the film is infinitely preferable to a picture like this year’s New Directors selection, “Never Steady, Never Still,” a sublimely acted drama resigned to lingering on the misery of terminal illness. Serkis’ film is about the courageous act of finding joy within one’s limitations rather than simply giving up. It is uplifting without being dishonest.

“Breathe” is currently playing in theaters.

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Faces Places 

When a director professes oneself to be the “ultimate selfie filmmaker,” I’d ordinarily interpret that as an admittance of extreme narcissism. But when French New Wave icon Agnès Varda applies that title to herself, it’s clear she means the exact opposite. For the entirety of her career spanning over six decades, Varda has been a “gleaner” of people, placing their bodies and personalities in the foreground of her lens and studying the traits that make them distinctive. A half-century separates Varda’s age from that of her latest documentary’s co-director, an inventive muralist named “JR,” but their delightful banter makes it clear from the get-go that they are an ideal duo. “Faces Places” chronicles their efforts to graft enormous photographs of everyday citizens onto the locations where the people pictured live and work. A shy waitress strikes a confident pose on the side of a building. The wives of dock workers tower over their husbands on a stack of crates. A farmer whose job has become more solitary since technology took over finds himself displayed proudly on the side of his barn for all eyes to see. In every instance, these artworks celebrate the importance of the individual, taking faces that would normally blend into the crowd and giving them their deserved attention (sort of like the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park). The year I first served on the New Directors jury, I ran into Varda by chance at the festival’s opening night ceremony, and was immediately struck by how open and giving a person she was, sharing stories of her own service on festival juries, such as when she was elected president of the 2013 Camera d’Or competition at Cannes. To see Varda is to love her, and the same is true of this movie.

“Faces Places” is currently playing in theaters.

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Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

After “Master of None” scribe Lena Waithe, a native of Chicago’s South Side, became the first “queer black girl” to win an Emmy for Best Comedy Writing, I couldn’t help being reminded of the trail blazed by Lorraine Hansberry, who was crowned the toast of Broadway at age 28 upon the premiere of her debut play, A Raisin in the Sun. Lloyd Richards, the director of the original production, recalls chatting with an elder black audience member who told him that she purchased her ticket because, “I’ve heard there’s something happening here that concerns me.” How wonderful that in the same year Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” has resurrected the voice of James Baldwin, Tracy Heather Strain’s “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” has achieved a similar feat with Baldwin’s close friend and fellow under appreciated icon, Hansberry. Strain’s film was made for television and is less audacious than Peck’s in many respects, but it is a worthy companion piece nonetheless and enormously moving in its juxtaposition of the playwright’s landmark achievement with her own life. Her family was forced out of their neighborhood by white protestors who tossed a mortar through her window that nearly grazed her face. Sidney Poitier gets choked up while reflecting on his character’s climactic monologue, where he refuses to leave his house because his father had “earned it for us, brick by brick.” Hansberry’s work was so visionary and timeless that it speaks to the zeitgeist of today without missing a beat. “Each piece of our lives is a protest,” she once said of her South Side community, and as in all of her observations, her words ring truer than ever.

“Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” is slated to premiere on the PBS “American Masters” series in February.

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The Other Side of Hope

There is more than a hint of surrealism in Aki Kaurismäki’s Berlinale prize-winner, one of the most buzzed-about titles at this year’s CIFF. Certain details caused me to ponder whether the film took place in the same universe as “Twin Peaks: The Return,” from the bartender looking suspiciously like Carel Struycken to the moment where aspiring restauranteur Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) is banished from a gambling table after proving to be as invincible as Dougie Jones. A droll, almost theatrical aesthetic pervades every corner of the screen, as Kaurismäki mines the absurdity of a system willfully ignorant to the plight of people like Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland. After a Finnish court rules with solemn detachment that there isn’t sufficient enough danger in Aleppo to justify his stay in their country, the film cuts to breaking news footage of a bombed children’s hospital in Syria. As is often the case, CIFF was loaded with international films about people confined in their predicaments by a variety of factors—war, poverty, etc. (the New Directors competition was comprised entirely of such narratives). What makes Kaurismäki’s film such a pleasure is the resilience of Khaled, who somehow finds a way out of the most dire of situations. A full hour passes before his and Wikström’s plot threads merge, as they come into contact with each other’s fists, but it isn’t long before the headstrong men are united in friendship. In a time riddled with despair, “The Other Side of Hope” is a welcome reprieve.

“The Other Side of Hope” is slated to open on Friday, December 1st.

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The Other Side of the Wall

I was so taken with the videotaped acceptance speeches from the young subjects of Pau Ortiz’s documentary, after it deservedly won the Gold Hugo at last week’s award ceremony, that I knew I had to seek out their movie. It is as riveting a character study as any I’ve seen, as intimate a portrait of young people tasked with heading their family as Anna Zamecka’s “Communion.” When the film begins, 18-year-old Ale is desperately searching for a job that will support his wife and child, while his 13-year-old sister, Rocio, is taking care of their two younger siblings. As migrants from Honduras living in Mexico, their options for survival are extremely limited, especially after their mother is thrown in jail. Once she tells Rocio over the phone that her prison sentence could last a decade, her daughter tearfully thanks her for raising them (watching this moment without weeping is damn near impossible). Afterward, Rocio and Ale vow to keep their family above water until their mother is freed. The difficulty of such a promise, however, proves to be immense, forcing them to be imprisoned indefinitely in a country indifferent to their needs. Ortiz allows his subjects’ challenges to resonate on a universal level, delving into the agony experienced by siblings who need space but are stuck together. We empathize with Rocio’s need to go out on her own as well as Ale’s fear of her getting into trouble. The maturity that both siblings display is awe-inspiring to behold, and could be viewed as a testament to their mother’s guidance. All I’ll say about the impeccable final shot is that it manages to respect the privacy of the moment while allowing us to bask in its beauty.

Here’s hoping “The Other Side of the Wall” receives the U.S. release it deserves.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Here it is, folks: a masterpiece that could very well prove to be the movie of the year. The rage spawned by our KKK-empowering, p—sy-grabbing, morally bankrupt political era is embodied in the swagger and dagger-laden glare of a ferocious Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, an unapologetically “nasty woman” who could make Clint Eastwood tremble in his cowboy boots. When local police drag their heels on tracking down her daughter’s killer, Hayes sends them an outraged message in the form of three billboards, grabbing the attention of the media and a disgruntled public. At the center of her crosshairs is Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a police chief well-respected by his neighbors, despite the acute racism of his officers. Sam Rockwell gives the performance of his career as Dixon, the slowest-witted doofus on the force, whose complex character arc requires him to be uproariously childish, scary as hell (during a destructive tantrum lensed in one masterful take by Ben Davis) and startlingly poignant once his conscience starts to awaken. Writer/director Martin McDonagh (whom I interviewed in 2007 about his debut feature, “In Bruges”) is a poet of the profane, crafting dialogue that never ceases to provoke an audible response from audiences. The crowd applauded multiple times during the film’s screening at CIFF, first after Hayes’ monologue about how all members of gangs are culpable (a speech that is especially potent in light of the Weinstein scandal). All of the gags from the film’s glorious red-band trailer are here intact, along with a ton more, though my favorite is still this classic exchange involving the policemen’s desk sergeant, played with Don Knotts-esque bewilderment by McDonagh’s longtime collaborator, Zeljko Ivanek…

Mildred [enters police station]: “Hey f—khead!”

Dixon: “What?”

Desk Sergeant: “Don’t say, ‘What?’, Dixon, when she comes in calling you a f—khead!”

What may be surprising to viewers unfamiliar with McDonagh’s work is the discovery that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is as sobering as it is hilarious. The film continuously subverts our expectations and assumptions about its characters, serving as a rebuke to our knee-jerk culture’s mob mentality (the inclusion of “Walk Away Renée,” as sung by The Four Tops, is a stoke of genius). Peter Dinklage is extraordinarily touching as a man who takes a liking to Hayes, but is put off by her own prejudices regarding his physicality. If Hayes were a character unblemished by fault, her crusade wouldn’t be nearly as exhilarating. Beyond its stark portrait of disillusionment and its brutal bursts of violence, this is the most affirmative film McDonagh has made, suggesting how we can come together as a divided nation during such uncertain times. Hayes’ search for justice may be a daunting one, but nevertheless, she persists.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is slated to open on Friday, November 10th.

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