Award winners were announced Monday for the 44th Chicago International Film Festival, and festival judge John Russell Taylor was feeling pretty generous about this year’s crop of contenders. “It’s the only [festival] I go to regularly that’s been getting better and better,” the Tribune quoted him as saying, but excuse me for suggesting that maybe in fact the opposite is true: that for this year’s fest anyway, the pickings were downright slim.

Not that I got out to see that much—just nine features, down from the usual 12-15, which ongoing problems with an arthroscopic shoulder (yeah, blame it on the rehab) were at least partly responsible for. But partly too it was the films themselves, more terra incognita selections than in any of the last five or six festival years, like one roulette opportunity after another. Which in a way is how it should be, since where’s the adventure in placing all your bets on critically recommended product? But, I mean, c’mon—Henrik Ruben Genz as best director for Terribly Happy? One of the more arbitrarily sutured-together narratives I’ve seen in a while, like cut-rate Coen brothers set in the Danish bogs, with a mystical two-headed moon calf bellowing in the muck—a “supernatural” twist thrown in for no good reason that ultimately has to be abandoned since nobody can figure out what the hell to do with the metaphor. Or those ominous, chortling townsfolk who keep insinuating … well, what exactly? Like the ghosts of the 80s come back to haunt—except I thought we’d rid ourselves of these dreary cryptic signifiers many moons ago. 

All by way of getting down to the one honest-to-god masterpiece at the fest—Of Time and the City (pictured above), Terence Davies‘s documentary reverie on the Liverpool of 50 years past. Which reminded me most of Peter Hutton‘s haunted metropolitan elegies, with nods to Guy Maddin’s Winnipeg and the celluloid excavations of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, more archaeological fantasia than historical re-creation. (Or Bill Morrison‘s Decasia, processed images on the verge of disintegration—and how do they jack up the color without the antique film stock falling apart?) Not to mention Davies’s own previously fictionalized city of youthful longing: more distant voices, more still lives, the long day closing once again … It’s probably the best film I’ve seen at the fest in the last couple years—including Carlos Reygadas‘s Stellet Licht from 2007, which I praised inordinately here last year, as undoubtedly I’d do again now. Whether either of these films will be released in Chicago soon (both have U.S. distributors, and Stellet Licht opened in New York last month) is something I can’t tell you. Better we keep our fingers crossed on this one.