Preview of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival

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It is the first day of October, and other than wondering truly where the year had gone (it seemed just like yesterday that we were calling the Polar Vortex the worst thing that had happened to Chicago since Mrs. O’Leary’s frisky bovine sashayed around in her barn and knocked a lantern over), I’ve been busily wearing out my thumbs going through this year’s Chicago International Film Festival schedule.  If you’ve followed my blog through the years you know to expect that in the month of October there will be a spike in film-related posts and a semi-hiatus on theater-related ones.  It’s the Film Festival’s 50th anniversary (it is indeed the granddaddy to the more prestigious New York, Toronto, and Telluride festivals), and I’m proud to admit that except for 2011 when I was travelling every week for a client, I haven’t missed any of it since 1999 – I can’t imagine how my life would have been less colorful if I didn’t see the outrageous Hungarian film Johanna in 2005, the Joan of Arc tale reset in a mental hospital and told as a musical, or the bewildering Isabelle Huppert starrer The Piano Teacher in 2001, making a comeback to the Festival this year in the exciting Huppert retrospective, sure to remind all of us again what the best way is to clean up used tissue paper left behind in gloryholes (yeah!).  The 50th anniversary program is terrific (kudos to founder Michael Kutza and his hard-working Programming team); composed of around 150 feature-length films and 65 short films from 50 countries, with some very big, prestigious gets from the festival circuit. Below I talk about some noteworthy films, and some of the ones I’m sure to see and write about this month.

Several of the fall Hollywood releases being tipped off as Oscar contenders will be seen at the Festival this year: Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, Strindberg’s play reset to 1890s Northern Ireland with Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton will be the opening night film on October 9 while Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Dallas Buyers Club’s Jean Marc Vallee, the latest entry in the glam-celebrity-without-makeup-equals-Oscar-nom genre will be the closing night film on October 23. In between, there will be special presentations of St. Vincent, which gives Bill Murray his best role since Lost in Translation and showcases Melissa McCarthy in a rare, non-comedic performance; Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Birdman, which has already received universal raves at Venice and Telluride, with Michael Keaton as a has-been actor trying to make a comeback through a Broadway play; and The Imitation Game, which won the Audience Award at Toronto and which supposedly features an Oscar-caliber performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the British mathematician who cracked the German’s coded messages during World War II but was later prosecuted for being a homosexual.

All of these will be released in Chicago later this year, so unless you’re dying to see a movie two weeks before the rest of your friends do, I’d urge you to check out the crème de la crème of the film festival circuit instead: Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep about a disintegrating marriage set in stunning Cappadocia won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (and with its more than 3 hours running time was allegedly a snoozefest as well with audiences at the Croisette); Chinese director Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, a modern film-noir set in a Northern China factory town (yes, that’s not Double Indemnity-like cigarette smoke you’re seeing onscreen, it’s the notorious Chinese smog!) won Berlin’s Golden Bear, and acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President about the overthrow of a dictator closed the Venice Film Festival. Other filmfest circuit favorites worth checking out include Force Majeure from Sweden which won the top prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar competition, about the deterioration of the modern Western family; Argentina’s Princess of France, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost reset in contemporary Buenos Aires and directed by Matias Pineiro, one of the most exciting young directors working in cinema today; Mauritania’s Timbuktu, a harrowing account of how citizens in Northern Mali fought against the occupation of their village by Islamic militants which received a 10 minute standing ovation at Cannes;  Israel’s Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Ansalem about the years-long struggle of a woman to get a divorce from her Orthodox Jewish husband set in a courtroom for the whole duration of the film which was warmly reviewed at  Toronto; and Brazil’s The Way He Looks about a love affair between two teenage boys, one of them blind, which won Berlin’s Teddy prize (given to the best  film in the festival that deals with gay subject matter).

My own personal viewing list will include some of these but also Asian cult director Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After, an incisive satire of Hong Kong’s political climate (so relevant right now given the ongoing “Umbrella Revolution”) told through the story of survivors of an apocalyptic event; Argentina’s The Third One, one of the hippest, hottest titles on the gay film festival front, about a three-way affair between a gay couple and a twentysomething guy they pick up in a chat room (and of course, the Chicago fest catalogue’s warning of “Explicit Content” made me buy a ticket faster than you can say “gay ménage a trois”); and Kazakhstan’s The Owners, about a family trying to evict squatters from their ancestral house complete with corrupt government officials and musical numbers, sort of like House Hunters International meets Martin Scorsese with farm animals meets EuroVision. See you at the movies!

The Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 9-23, 2014. The majority of the screenings will be at the Festival’s home AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois Ave. The Isabelle Huppert retrospective films will be screened at The Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Check out the website for the complete schedule, updates, the filmmakers and actors in attendance, and special events and panels. It’ll take you a while to get through it all!

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