Sunday, November 3, 2013

2013 Chicago Film Fest Wrap Up

While the 49th edition of the Chicago Film Festival was notable for having been one of the best run festivals ever, as it was better organized and featured managers who were actually friendly and helpful, and even more importantly, the quality of films was more consistent, as there were fewer bad film experiences.  The few films viewers complained about were actually provocatively different, offering surprisingly radical approaches to similar themes.  One of the most uncomfortably provocative films, the South African film Of Good Report, ended up at the Logan Theater six miles away for the 3rd screening.  Not sure how that went, as expanding the festival to surrounding neighborhood theaters is more problematic, simply due to the logistics of getting around.  Perhaps the defining quality of the fest, unlike other festivals, is that the documentaries are actually superior to the feature films, considering there are far fewer of them shown overall.  Make of that what you will, as that may or may not be a good thing. 

Surprisingly absent from the fest was Chicago’s own Gabe Klinger’s recent documentary Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013), which won an award premiering at Venice, but is playing at international fests elsewhere, including Brazil during the month of October.   

I think it's interesting to compare ratings year by year, to obtain some scientific measuring device to how well the fests play out each year, at least according to our evaluations.  Just as an interesting comparative observation, showing a certain lack of symmetry, I have 10 films rated higher than a B, and 8 films rated lower, and Kirk has 8 films rated higher than a B, and 25 rated below, while Frank has 16 rated higher than a B, and only 3 rated below.

Frank and I share 3 films in our Top Ten (The Missing Picture, Like Father, Like Son, At Berkeley), Frank and Kirk share 1 film (Monsoon Shootout), while Kirk & I share 4 films (Harmony Lessons, The Major, The Verdict, and Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me) - - not the same ones, interestingly enough.  Kirk really only lists a Top 8, as otherwise his list is alphabetical 

While I also have 4 in common with The Reader’s Ben Sachs (The Missing Picture, Like Father, Like Son, At Berkeley, Stranger By the Lake), as does Frank, (The Missing Picture, La Jaula de Oro, Like Father, Like Son, At Berkeley), Kirk none.

Fred Tsao only saw 13 films at the fest, mostly documentaries, where in our discussion of his favorites, they would have included At Berkeley, The Missing Picture, Last of the Unjust, and I Will Be Murdered, where we share 2 Top Ten films in common, as does Frank (At Berkeley, The Missing Picture), Kirk none.  

And Robbie, who joined us last year from afar, was duly missed this year, but he sent us his current Top Ten list for the year so far:

1) The Missing Picture
1) Norte, the End of History
3) Blue is the Warmest Color
4) The Act of Killing
5) At Berkeley
6) Nobody's Daughter Haewon
7) Jodorowsky's Dune
8) Only Lovers Left Alive
9) Stranger by the Lake
10) Young and Beautiful

Our respective ratings

Robert, Cranes Are Flying

The Missing Picture (L'image manquante)           A                     98

At Berkeley                                                      A-                    94
The Major (Mayor)                                          A-                    93

Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii)                   B+                   92
Suzanne                                                         B+                   92
The Verdict (Het Vonnis)                                  B+                   91
Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru)  B+                   91
Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac)            B+                   91
Le Week-End                                                  B+                   91
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me                                   B+                   90

A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn)    B             89
Nordstrand                                                      B                      89
Heli                                                                 B                      89
Lad: A Yorkshire Story                                     B                      89
Soul (Shi-hun)                                                 B                      88
Wolfschildren (Wolfskinder)                             B                      88
Blue Ruin                                                        B                      88
Stray Dogs (Jiao you)                                      B                      87
My Sweet Pepper Land                                    B                      87
Banklady (Die Banklady)                                  B                      86
Grigris                                                            B                      86
Infiltrators (Mutasalilun)                                   B                      85
Of Good Report                                               B                      85
I Will Be Murdered                                           B                      84
Just a Sigh (Le temps de l'aventure)                   B                      84

It's All So Quiet (Boven is het stil)                     B-                    82
Stockholm Stories (Gondolen)                          B-                    82
Borgman                                                         B-                    81
The Notebook (A Nagy Füzet)                          B-                    81
Lifelong (Hayatboyu)                                        B-                    80

A Thousand Times Good Night (Tusen Ganger God Natt...       C                     75
Pieces of Me (Des morceaux de moi)                C                     71

Kirk Madsen, Retired Facets Projectionist

I did not have any films this year that I rated A or A-.  My list of films that I have submitted are the B+ and B films – 

I saw 41 films this year and will have to say it was the most consistent festival I have been to.  There were no outstanding films for me this year, however 30 of the 41 films I saw, I would recommend strongly.

my recommendations:


A great documentary following a great entertainer in her twilight years(87 years old) as she gets ready for a one woman show of Sondheim songs in New York. Interspersed with recollections and asides and interviews with those that worked with her, an interesting bit of information that is learned is the friendship and admiration that was mutual between her and James Gandolfini.  The film is dedicated to him.

A spare beautiful debut film from first time director Emir Baigazin.  The direction and flat straight forward storytelling is wonderfully interrupted by dream sequences that play as reality. Telling of the corruption from school kids to gangs to police.  No one can be trusted or believed.

From the David Gordon Green school of film making, this is set in the rural Northwest. The sense of place and beauty feels organic in the disturbing portrait of two brothers faced with decisions and actions they cannot fully understand.  A perfect blend of storytelling and contemplation.

Lyrical and gentle, this is a first rate family film that that grows more engrossing as it progresses.  Gorgeous cinematography.

One of my two favorite films of the fest.  This is what you could call a Russian crime drama but that doesn't do it justice. From first time director/actor Yury Bykov, this is a searing pedal to the floor first rate thriller about cover ups and corruption inside the police force. Even a nod to Assault On Precinct 13 but veering away as fast, this is bravura film making.

This was my other favorite film of the fest.  Classic film influences drip from this inventive fast paced police corruption thriller(a thread that was very prominent in many films this year, corruption in all forms) that plays with narrative and outcomes.  Highly entertaining.

This psychological thriller has elements of horror and possession set in a remote alpine location that is both beautiful and menacing.  Touches of the DePalma choreographed violence that is shocking and jaw dropping beautiful at the same time with strange behaviors by all involved.

One of the best courtroom dramas I have seen.  Performances all around are superb and the story unfolds like a clock.  Inside and outside the courtroom are both given equal weight. Riveting.

Jarring and informative Doc on two gay homeless kids in San Francisco.  This film has the advantage of following these kids for four years so it goes so much farther than other similar subject mattered films.

Taking place in a small northwestern logging town in Maine, this film captures the feel and cadence of the place.  Amy Morton, John Slattery and Margo Martindale lead an amazing cast in this sad melancholy film.

This is one weird film.  Extraterrestrials are taking over a little at a time in this dry, droll film.

Jiri Menzel directs this fast, breezy, assured comedic film about putting on an opera.

One of many gay films in the fest, this was the best one I saw. Following a young man that has an infatuation with another seemingly straight man.  Even though that starting point sounds like a hundred other gay films this one goes places that the other ones haven't dreamed of going.

A really good Woody Allen film with two excellent lead performances, Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent.

MY SWEET PEPPER LAND(Iraq/France/Germany)
A western.  In a Kurdish village.  Today.

A modern gangster film film set in Copenhagen that is visceral, fast paced and terrifying.

Well there are my top 16 films.  I have another 15 that I have graded a B-.

One thing I feel I have to mention(although I know I'm in the minority on this) is that the film THE MISSING PICTURE, which has been lauded as one of the best of the year, I did not like.  I feel as if it is another film that is being unduly praised for its subject matter and not the film as a whole.  I agree that the story that is told is an important one and should be told, just not in this manner.  I found the constant use of clay puppets and the drone of the narration blindingly boring.  It was real chore for me to sit through this one.  The hardest film I saw all fest.  Other than a midnight show and one other, I gave this my lowest grade - a C-.

IT'S ALL SO QUIET(Netherlands)
LA PAZ(Argentina)

THE GERMAN DOCTOR(Argentina/Spain/Norway)
VOYAGE(Hong Kong)



That's all of them!

Frank Biletz, Loyola History Professor

I have attached my list of CIFF films with ratings in approximate order of preference. At the moment, I don't have enough time to append comments except to say that I thought that The Missing Picture was extraordinary and the high point of the festival for me, as well as possibly the best film of the year so far. I also greatly liked La Jaula de Oro and Blue is the Warmest Color, with Heli; Like Father, Like Son; and At Berkeley in the next tier of top films. On the whole I agree with Kirk about the general consistency of the festival as even my lowest ranked films had at least something to recommend them.

Of all of the films in the festival, I had the most divided responses to The Last of the Unjust and A Thousand Times Good Night, being moved by some aspects, but troubled by others.

A                     The Missing Picture (Cambodia/France, Rithy Panh).

A                     La Jaula de Oro (Mexico, Diego Quemada-Díez)

A                     Blue is the Warmest Color (France, Abdellatif Kechiche)

A-                    Heli (Mexico, Amar Escalante)

A-                    Like Father, Like Son (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

A-                    At Berkeley (US, Frederick Wiseman)

A-/B+              My Sweet Pepperland (Iraq/France/Germany, Hiner Saleem).

A-/B+              Monsoon Shootout (India, Amit Kumar)
A-/B+              Miele (Italy, Valeria Golino)

B+                   Le Weekend (UK, Roger Michell)

B+                   Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (US, Chiemi Karasawa)

B+                   Harmony Lessons (Kazahkstan/Germany/France, Emir Baigzin)          

B+                   Lad: A Yorkshire Story (UK, Dan Hartley)

B+                   The Last of the Unjust (France/Austria, Claude Lanzmann)

B+                   Stranger at the Lake (France, Alan Guiraudie)

B+                   In the Name of.....(Poland, Margoska Szumowska)

B                      Blue Ruin (US, Jeremy Saulnier)

B                      The Don Juans (Czech Republic, Jirí Menzel)

B                      The German Doctor (Argentina/France/Spain/ Norway, Lucia Puenzo)

B                      The Nun (France/Germany/Belgium, Guilluame Nicloux)

B                      Under the Rainbow (France, Agnès Jauoi)

B                      A Thousand Times Good Night (Norway, Erik Poppe)

B                      Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland, Andrzej Wajda)

B                      Closed Curtain (Iran, Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi)

B                      Domestic (Romania, Adrian Sitaru)

B                      Viva la Libertá (Italy, Roberto Andò)

B                      Purgatorio (Mexico/US, Rodrigo Reyes).

B-                    A Long and Happy Life (Russia, Boris Khlebnikov).

B-                    Trapped (Iran, Parviz Shahbazi)

B-                    The Blinding Sunlight (China, Yu Liu)

Jonathan Dabian, Microsoft Computer Architect

In viewing order (film - grade on 1-10 scale - optional comments.  I'll try to be brief.  We'll see how that works out...):
Contracted - 4/10 - Cliche-ridden shitfest. Main character actually does something halfway smart and goes to the doc.  Doc gets normal horror movie plot-necessitated retardation.

Yema - 8/10 - I was the only one to see this, I think.  An Algerian film following a mother as she buries one of her sons who was, until his violent death, an officer in the Algerian army.  Over the course of the film, she comes to suspect, rightly, that her other son, a commander in the local mujaheddin, was responsible for the death of her Army Officer son.  The mother is left with a son she despises while doing everything she can to carry on with life after the death of the son she was proud of.  One of my favorites of the fest.  Not quite feminist by western standards, but the mother is one of two main characters and does some things that make her fundamentalist son quite upset.

Lasting - 6/10
The Major - 9/10 - We all saw this one.  This one fits into the general theme for the festival:  corruption and violence in society and civil institutions.  One of the top three films in the series on the violence & corruption theme.
Lifelong - 6/10
Raze - 7/10 - One of the After Dark films.  It features an underground fight club where women are kidnapped and forced to fight to the death.  Stars stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell.  This was decently satisfying exploitation genre fluff.

Stray Dogs - 8/10

Pioneer - 8/10 - Directed by Insomnia's Erik Skjoldbjaerg.  Another good example of the corrupt societies & civil institutions theme.  Deep sea divers die to keep safe trade secrets of an American deep sea engineering company and to protect Norway's control over their North Sea oil resources.  The film makes a definitive statement that the strength of Norway's present social welfare system is a direct result of the corruption behind this deal and the lives of the divers expended to build the undersea pipelines.  Fairly by-the-numbers, but well executed.

Illiterate - 8/10
Blue Ruin - 8/10 - The main character really goes against type for this sort of film.  I loved subverting the trope when he tries to pull the arrow out of his leg, gives up, and goes to the hospital to have qualified medical professionals do it instead.
With You, Without You - 8/10 - Sri Lankan film based on a novella by Dostoyevsky (A Gentle Creature, also served as inspiration for Bresson's Une Femme Douce).  In this case, the split between the two characters was that the wife was Tamil while the husband was a member of the Sri Lankan army tasked with putting down the Tamil separatists (Tamil Tigers).  I really liked this one, and sadly, I don't think anyone else saw it.
Just a Sigh - 6/10 - I think we all saw this.  Boring film that threw two characters together in a supposed-to-be torrid affair with zero chemistry.  Ended up being more tepid than torrid.  I usually fall head-over-heels for films like this.  Before Sunrise (the Before trilogy in general), Lost in Translation, Amelie, La vie d'Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) etc.  In those films, the characters usually meet each other and actually interact.  The best films of this type have the characters falling in love with each other on an emotional/intellectual level, not just based on pure lust.  Just a Sigh has the characters do nothing other than eye-fuck each other from across the train and somehow this turns into the romance of the ages.  There's _one_ conversation between the two that really gets into character and that's their discussion in bed where Alix wonders if she should tell her boyfriend she's pregnant, and wonders if she should leave him.  Not exactly the kind of stuff the other films I mentioned are built upon.
Big Bad Wolves - 8/10 - Part of the "After Dark" series.  An Israeli horror film.  A genre which hasn't really existed in Israel until recently (this director pair had an earlier film in the fest a year or two ago called Rabies).  A pedophile kidnaps, rapes, and decapitates a young girl and leaves her body (minus the head) in a field for the cops to find.  The lead cop on the case and the father of the murdered girl kidnap the man they suspect of being the pedophile and torture him for a confession and to find the head.  Surprisingly funny for a film about torturing a pedophile and murdered children!  Luckily, the humor is all divorced from the torture.  A VERY satisfying genre piece.
A Long And Happy Life - 8/10 - I initially disliked the ending of this piece, but in the larger context of Russian films and how Russians view their government, it makes a lot more sense.  Fits nicely into the larger theme of the festival of violence and corruption as well.
How I Live Now - 7/10 - I saw this based solely on Saorise Ronan's participation.  It was a decent quasi-apocalyptic genre film built around a teen romance.  Ultimately forgettable.
A Thousand Times Goodnight - 8/10 - I agree with the criticisms about the likelihood of the Taliban allowing a Western journalist in to view the preparations of a suicide bomber.  They do usually record this stuff, but with their own people.  Still, I can let this pass.  Particularly since the main theme of the film, how the photographer's family is affected by the photographer's risk taking behavior, still rings true for me regardless of the particulars behind the risky behavior.  What I really enjoyed the most about this film is that the photographer, in this case, was the _wife_, not the husband.  I felt that the family drama worked for me.  Rebecca was driven by her work and her desire to expose societal violence and corruption (hey, there's that theme again), and the risks she took to do so were tearing her family apart with measurable and dramatic effects on her children and husband.  And the fact that it took place with a woman as the lead just makes it even better for me. 
The Blinding Sunlight - 7/10 - Fits into the theme of the fest (in China this time), I just found the film very bland.  A more realistic take on the subject, versus the gloss of the top films on the subject from the Fest.  This was also made without professional actors.  Yuck.
Miele - 9/10 - Again, one of the few films of the fest with a strongly female POV.  Miele wrestles with more issues than just what to cook for dinner, how to take care of the kids, or why can't she just find a decent husband?  Instead she struggles with issues like the right to die and assisted suicide for the terminally ill.  One of my favorite films of the fest.
Chasing Fireflies - 8/10
Le Grand Cahier / The Notebook - 8/10 - We all saw this one.  I very much enjoyed it.  In the horrors surrounding something like WWII, the only way to survive is to become strong.  The twins learn serial lessons in how to gain the strength needed to survive, and then eventually absorb the hardest lesson of all:  independence.  To become as strong as possible, they had to discard what was previously their only weakness, their only crutch:  each other.  A very grim and utilitarian lesson on what it takes to survive.
The Invisible Collection - 7/10
Wolfskinder / Wolfschildren - 8/10
The German Doctor - 7/10
Stranger By The Lake - 8/10
Nordstrand - 7/10
How To Describe A Cloud - 8/10
Breathe In - 7/10
The Harvest - 7/10
Life Feels Good - 8/10
Banklady - 8/10
It's All So Quiet - 7/10
Something Necessary - 6/10
A Pact - 6/10
Memories They Told Me - 7/10
Heli - 7/10
La Jaula de Oro - 9/10 - One of the top three films in the series on the violence & corruption theme.  I hope I can find a copy of these eventually as I would very much like to see it again.
The Verdict - 8/10 - Vigilante justice porn.  I've seen this film (or films made from the same template) a dozen times before (maybe a slight exaggeration).  Just once I'd like to see one of these films where the jury sides with the rule of law and convicts the eminently sentimentally/emotionally justified vigilante.  I still liked the film though.
Northwest - 8/10
La Paz - 7/10
Soul - 8/10
Harmony Lessons - 9/10 - Dostoevsky by way of Gandhi.  One of the top three films in the series on the violence & corruption theme.  Very pointedly makes the statement that you can't solve problems through violence.  Violence just causes more violence in retaliation.  As satisfying as it was to see Aslan and Mirsain fight back against Bolat and the other bullies, all it did was draw them deeper and deeper into corruption.  I really loved how the film started with the scene of slaughtering the sheep.  The parents teach their children violence.  The teachers teach their children violence.  Then the children start being violent towards each other, training for the day when they can be violent towards each other as adults.  Finally, the police teach the children the full potential of violence.  In the end, the only way to break free of the cycle is to renounce violence like Gandhi did (hence the speech on his bio in the middle of the film).
Like Father, Like Son - 8/10
My Sweet Pepper Land - 9/10
This is one of the only films I saw in the fest that passes the Bechdel test (if you accept the mother-teenage daughter conversations about mother's behavior) (other films that passed are Raze, Illiterate, How to Describe a Cloud, & La vie d'Adèle).  If you want to include films that simply have a strong female protagonist, you can add Miele, Yema, maybe How I Live Now, maybe Something Necessary, maybe La Jaula de Oro though the female character disappears half-way through, and maybe My Sweet Pepper Land).  Yeah, so, I saw 43 films (45 total now, including 12 Years, and Blue seen after the fest), and arguably only five of them pass the Bechdel test.  With a possible six more films that have a female POV that, nevertheless, fail the Bechdel test.

Honestly, I think it's shameful that at a film festival where film is treated as an art form with, presumably, a very liberal audience, that less than 10% of the films pass as stupefyingly simple a test as the Bechdel test; and that less than 25% of the films have anything even approaching a feminist main character.  Seriously, what the hell is wrong with the world of film that we can't have female characters in films who don't regress to standard females-in-film stereotypes?
On that note, The Guardian reported yesterday that a group of cinemas in Sweden are going to start publishing Bechdel test scores for the films that they show specifically to encourage more modern/realistic feminist POVs in film.

These two films were seen after the fest:
12 Years A Slave - 9/10 - If I had seen this during the fest, I would be saying that this is "one of the top three films in the series on the violence & corruption theme."
La Vie d'Adèle / Blue is the Warmest Color - 9/10

I still hope to catch another half dozen or so films from the festival over the coming months.

A quick note on the point system:  I tend to score films against everything I've ever seen.  The 10s are the Kubricks, Kurosawas, Hitchcocks, Bergmans, etc.  The 9s are the really good films that are just outside of the 10s.  8s are solid films.  7s are ok.  6s are getting into the range where I start to debate if it was an effective use of my time to watch that movie.  5s are middling.  5 and below is where most mainstream Hollywood trash belongs.  I don't go to the theatre to see something if I think it's going to rate less than a 7.  So, no 10s this year at CIFF (Holy Motors last year got a 10, for example), but seven 9s.  There were also twenty 8s, twelve 7s, five 6s, and one 4.  I would be happy if I saw a distribution like this every year (with maybe one or two 10s, and strike the 4).
If you want a top 10 from me, that's the 9s, plus a few of the 8s that I consider notable. Let's say:
The Major.  Miele.  Harmony Lessons.  La Jaula de Oro.  My Sweet Pepper Land.  La Vie d'Adèle / Blue is the Warmest Color.  12 Years A Slave.  Soul.  Wolfskinder.  Northwest.  Like Father, Like Son (dammit, that's 11).  Life Feels Good.  How to Describe a Cloud. Yema.  The Notebook.  Well, how about a top 15?

Below are my top ten favorites from this year's festival. This shouldn't be taken as comprehensive. I saw 26 titles at CIFF, but caught almost none of the prizewinners and few of the big studio movies that will open in wide release in the coming months.

1. At Berkeley (which I considered at greater length here)
2. Stray Dogs (further thoughts here)
3. The Immigrant
4. La Jaula de Oro
5. The Missing Picture
6. The Mass Is Over (1985)
7. Like Father, Like Son
8. Grigris
9. Closed Curtain
10. Stranger by the Lake

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