Today marks the last day of regular programming at the Chicago International Film Festival (tomorrow brings the closing-night ceremony, a sneak preview of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis). Looking over my list of ten favorites from the fest (which I’ll post below), I realize it contains next to no revelations. The films, if not directed by established filmmakers, come from the small pool of selections with secure U.S. distribution—meaning they’d been vetted by tastes other than mine. The one exception is La Jaula de Oro, an exceptional debut (by director Diego Quemada-Diez) and a confirmation of the thriving state of Mexican art cinema. Indeed I was stunned by all three Mexican entries I caught at CIFF—Oro, Heli (which I wrote about here), and the Seidl-esque comedy Workers—though I must admit to feeling worn down by their depictions of injustice. As much as I wanted to check out the documentary Purgatorio, I didn’t know if I could take a fourth round of Mexican suffering.
That’s clearly my problem, not the movies’. The current wave of Mexican art cinema displays great creativity in its consideration of painful subject matter—their formal ingenuity seems to proclaim, “No tragedy can subdue the power of art.” Constant in these films is a palpable sense of the director’s exhilaration. You can feel it in the extended Steadicam shots of Heli, the emphatically big-screen compositions of Workers, or in the way Quemada-Diez seems to discover his characters in the mannerisms of his nonprofessional actors. La Jaula de Oro is also a remarkable experiment in cinematic realism: speaking at the screening I attended, Quemada-Diez explained that he began his screenplay after interviewing roughly 600 people who’d attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexican border illegally. Every scene in the movie is drawn from firsthand testimony. The film combines many different stories, but it never feels like a collage. I hope someone manages to bring it back to Chicago, ideally as part of a new-Mexican-cinema series.
Not on my list but also representative of a thriving national cinema was Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge’s Tanta Agua, which screened at CIFF on opening weekend. I’ve seen so many sweet, low-key Uruguayan films in recent years that I’ve lost count, yet I still haven’t gotten tired of them. Perhaps it’s because the movies feel so much like classic Jewish jokes? The unifying sentiment of recent Uruguayan comedies is that even when life is at it’s best, it’s still pretty crappy. And so it goes with Tanta Agua, in which a divorced schlemiel finally gets to spend some time with his kids only to get rained out of all his plans. It’s a one-joke premise, but the movie realizes it with surprising nuance. Most compelling is the way these female writer-directors go about portraying this thwarted patriarch. They clearly feel for this man, who lives in a society that no longer needs him; that their sympathy doesn’t lapse into pity marks a minor victory. As with so much recent Uruguayan cinema, I expect the film’s unforced humanism to stay with me.
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
9. Closed Curtain
10. Stranger by the Lake
A few last stray thoughts. On a purely visual level, Nanni Moretti’s The Mass Is Over was the ugliest thing I saw at CIFF. It was projected not from DCP, but a below-average DVD—it looked like someone had fished out a recording they’d taped off TV about 20 years ago. Yet Moretti’s humor transcends even the worst presentation, and the fact that Mass Is Over is so hard to find in the U.S. made me grateful to CIFF for showing it at all. Why isn’t this film better known here? The jokes are accessible, the characterization warm, and (like Moretti’s recent We Have a Pope) it manages to question the value of organized religion while treating it with respect. This episodic comedy about a former Marxist radical turned small-town priest contains one of the most moving final scenes I encountered at CIFF. Indeed Moretti’s final monologue—which climaxes with the line, “I believe that life is made for happiness, not suffering”—seemed to sum up all of the best selections I saw this year.
I’d like to revisit The Immigrant and Closed Curtain before writing at length about either, but I admire both films for the risks they take. With The Immigrant, James Gray attempts to revive the lyricism of silent cinema within a sound-film context. If nothing else, the movie’s alienating quality reminds us how distant the cinema has gotten from its roots. With Closed Curtain, the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi elaborates on the themes of This Is Not a Film while pushing his narrative into the realm of abstraction. Though nowhere as explicit as Heli (or as direct as The Missing Picture), it contained some of the scariest scenes of this year’s festival. Some enterprising programmer ought to show it on a double bill with The Purge.