I suffer from completist tendencies, which made it difficult to select ten films to preview from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Unable to watch every film due to time and availability, I can’t say that these are the best films of the festival, but they’re ten that caught my fancy, either through an affinity for their directors or curiosity about filmmakers and subjects unknown to me.
Some titles I look forward to watching that weren’t available for preview, were made available too late to watch for this piece, or which I simply didn’t have time to screen are Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, Steve James’s City So Real, Christos Nikou’s Apples, Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, François Ozon’s Summer of 85, and Shahram Mokri’s Careless Crime, as well as many of the shorts programs.
I can say with some certainty that Tsai Ming-liang’s Days and Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran are among my favorites of the year, one which nearly eliminated my moviegoing altogether but not my movie watching. I can only imagine how stunning Tsai’s film, or the last shot of Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno, would be in the theater. And who else but Mama Gloria was made for the big screen? Being at home allowed me to watch more films than I may have been able to otherwise, but it’s not the same as the real moviegoing experience. I’m hopeful that next year will find us back in theaters. All films are streaming at chicagofilmfestival.com throughout the U.S. from 10/14-10/25 unless otherwise noted.
And Tomorrow the Entire World
The Beatles posited that we all want to change the world, which isn’t universally true but currently applies to a great swath of young people eager to upend the system. These aims can be as knotty as they are noble—some want to disrupt, others to destroy—which forms the tension in this compelling drama from German director Julia von Heinz (Hanna’s Journey). Luisa (Mala Emde) is an affluent, early 20-something law student who joins an antifa co-op in Mannheim, where the group organizes peaceful protests against the country’s rising conservative faction. A contingent of the co-op, including the dashing Alfa (Noah Saavedra) and the reclusive Lenor (Tonio Schneider), want to take violent action, and they find an opportunity to do so when Luisa grabs a cell phone belonging to an alt-right goon. The situation escalates into a series of tense stand-offs between left and right, forcing Luisa to confront how far she’s willing to go in her beliefs. Von Heinz’s subtle direction employs realistic widescreen compositions that envelop both Luisa’s world and her inner conflict. In German with subtitles. 111 min.
A spiritual sequel of sorts to his 1997 masterpiece The River, Tsai Ming-liang’s first narrative feature since Stray Dogs (2013) returns to the real-life health problems of the director’s recurring star and collaborator Lee Kang-sheng. The film burrows into the lives of Lee and costar Anong Houngheuangsy, a young Laotian immigrant who recalls Lee from decades ago. In long sequences Lee sits ruminatively in the spartan mountaintop locale that he and Tsai share in real life, seeks medical treatment for his ailment, and wanders the streets in a neck brace; similarly languorous sequences show Anong cooking in his threadbare apartment. (Tsai didn’t shoot most of the material with a narrative in mind, instead filming his actors’ real lives and then conceiving a story out of the footage.) About halfway into the film, the two men cross paths at a hotel where they engage in sexual activity; one gleans that Anong is a sex worker and Lee his client. After their encounter, Lee gives Anong a music box that plays the theme from Chaplin’s Limelight, and the two share a meal. Like all of Tsai’s films, this communicates feelings of loneliness and alienation inherent to the human condition; but perhaps more than any other, it revels in the corporeality of Tsai’s performers, finding delicate mystery in even the most banal actions. Per an opening disclaimer, the film is intentionally unsubtitled. 127 min. Streaming only in the midwestern U.S.
In June 2017, 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Champaign- Urbana, went missing. In the weeks that followed, investigators discovered that a male student at the university was responsible for her disappearance; later, he would be charged with her murder. Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s heartrending debut feature documentary, produced by Kartemquin Films, explores the case from a decidedly personal perspective, as Shi and Zhang attended the same university in China (but never met) and came to the U.S. to study at different Illinois colleges. Shi also accompanied Zhang’s family and boyfriend when they arrived in the U.S. to search for Yingying, recording their efforts along the way. The footage, combined with readings from Yingying’s diary and sequences in which Shi ruminates on her own experiences as a Chinese student in the U.S., coalesces into a doleful elegy for Yingying and the person she could have become. Shi also focuses on the crime’s impact on Yingying’s family and friends, who are forever changed by what happened. In English and Chinese with subtitles. 96 min.
Luchina Fisher’s debut documentary feature about Chicago legend Gloria Allen, a septuagenarian Black transgender woman called Mama Gloria by her devotees, is a love letter to the charismatic activist. For those unfamiliar with Allen, it’s an excellent primer; Fisher spans Allen’s entire life, from her childhood when she first contended with her identity, to her years spent around the ballroom scene on Chicago’s south and west sides, to the period when she founded and ran a charm school at the Center on Halsted for homeless trans youth (which inspired Philip Dawkins’s play Charm), to her current status as an LBGTQ icon. Allen lived most of her life out of the closet, with family and friends who embraced her even at times when it may have been socially unacceptable to do so. Some of the most affecting scenes are those of Allen with these people and those in which she recounts her mother’s unwavering support, specifically during her transition surgery. Fisher notes that the film is a story of mothers’ love: Allen’s mother for her and Fisher’s for her own trans daughter. At a time when the trans community is maligned, often to violent ends, it’s refreshing to watch something about love within this community—especially Allen’s love for herself. 76 min.
Writer-director João Paulo Miranda Maria’s debut feature is an audacious examination of racism, xenophobia, and colonialism in his native Brazil. It centers on an Afro-Brazilian man, Cristovam (Antônio Pitanga, an actor known for his work in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement of the 1960s), who’s journeyed south for a job at a milk factory owned by a European company. There he resides in a town where Austrian colonizers dominate, resulting in a strange dissonance with the local population that reflects southern Brazil’s cultural makeup on the whole. Cristovam finds refuge in the titular memory house, an abandoned shack in the woods that’s full of indigenous artifacts and which the white townsfolk routinely desecrate. Soon Cristovam begins to use the house’s objects to reconnect with his heritage and eventually strike back at the European interlopers. Rife with magical realist elements, the film is a visual and auditory treasure trove; the production design, music, and cinematography are inspired. It meanders at points, but all this combined with Miranda Maria’s provocative themes and Pitanga’s compelling performance make it worthwhile. In Portuguese and German with subtitles. 93 min. Streaming only in the midwestern U.S.
Shot over three years along the tormented borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon, this documentary by Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea) employs an observational approach to the ongoing warfare and related atrocities in the Levant. Rosi is resoundingly patient as he hones in on various subjects, such as a Kurdish woman whose son was killed in a Turkish prison and refugee children from Raqaa who work through their trauma with art therapy. The film proceeds in a nonlinear fashion, with Rosi developing concurrent narrative threads and sporadically working in unattached vignettes that provide further insight. One particularly interesting thread looks at a psychiatric hospital where patients practice for a play in which they ruminate on the barbarity wrought by al-Qaeda and ISIS and recite lines such as, “The Americans destroyed every beautiful thing.” Another poignant throughline involves a young boy who goes to work to help provide for his mother and siblings; his is a face of suffering and endurance. The cinematography is sublime, but the beautiful imagery doesn’t mask the terror of Rosi’s subject matter. In Arabic and Kurdish with subtitles. 100 min. Streaming 10/19-10/25
There Is No Evil
After he released A Man of Integrity in 2017, Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof was banned from filmmaking (which he defied to make this film) and sentenced to a year in prison; his follow-up feature considers Iran’s death penalty, focusing on those tasked with carrying it out. The film is divided into four sections, each a fable that approaches the subject from a different angle. The first and most provocative vignette follows a seemingly normal Iranian man as he goes about his day, engaging in such mundane activities as grocery shopping and helping his wife dye her hair. Rasoulof generates a certain tension in the story, which erupts in a shocking scene at the end and which sets a tone for the next three sections. These parts focus on conscripted soldiers compelled to carry out executions, and the storytelling becomes more cloying as the film progresses. It’s all very impactful, and Rasoulof elevates the moral tales to the stuff of cinema through allegorical visual compositions and reflective long takes. The content may be a bit heavy-handed at times, but Rasoulof’s style infuses the subject matter with a sense of poetry and moral reckoning that invokes age-old Persian literary traditions. In Farsi with subtitles. 150 min. Streaming only in the midwestern U.S.
In this experimental epistolary documentary, Spanish director Meritxell Colell (Con el viento) and Argentine director Lucía Vassallo (Línea 137) use filmmaking to chart their friendship as well as their separate lives in different countries. At the beginning, Vassallo (often called Lu) moves back to Argentina after living in Barcelona near Colell (who’s often called Meri). They enter into long-distance communication with each other through handwritten letters, then e-mail; the text of their correspondence appears in subtitles overlaid on footage by each filmmaker that correlates to the content of her dispatches. The women write about their personal lives, their work, and sometimes nothing and everything in general. Occasionally months go by between letters, and subsequent messages are prefaced with apologies. Even though the film grew out of an ongoing project, it nevertheless feels natural—not realistic, as much of the footage is ornamented with experimental flourishes, but real, the sentiments and the friendship represented nearly as tangible as whatever’s appearing on screen. The concept is elegantly realized, the presentation assured, and the emotional impact enormous. In Spanish with subtitles. 116 min.
Again starring actors Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, Berlin school master Christian Petzold’s follow-up to Transit (2018)—one of the best films of the last decade, which stars Rogowski and Beer—nakedly merges the director’s deep introspection into Germany’s ongoing identity struggle with his abiding love of prevalent mythology (which usually manifests as references to popular cinema, but here finds inspiration in mermaids; undines are water nymphs that originated in the work of the 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus). Beer plays the title character, a historian who gives tours at the Berlin City Museum. The film begins with her getting dumped; she then meets Christoph (Rogowski), a handsome industrial diver, in a decidedly bizarre fashion that sets the stage for what follows. It appears they’ve both found love, though the unusual circumstances intensify (most of which revolve around water), resulting in an ambiguous conclusion that satisfies the Undine myth but not necessarily expectations for a modern drama. Petzold works in hyper-specific details about Berlin’s postwar development that at first seem out of place in a contemporary fairy tale; however, the political insights tend to be more interesting than the narrative machinations. In German with subtitles. 92 min. Streaming only in the midwestern U.S.
The Woman Who Ran
South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo makes deceptively simple films that become more complicated upon consideration, and no less is the case with his 24th feature. Kim Min-hee, Hong’s now-frequent collaborator as well as his onetime, real-life romantic partner (it’s indeterminate whether they’re still together), stars as Gamhee, a woman who sees three friends while her husband is out of town. The first friend is a timid divorcee living in a rural area outside Seoul; the second is a self-reliant pilates instructor and dancer who lives in the city; and the third is an estranged friend working at an arts organization who is now married to Gamhee’s ex-boyfriend. As in many of Hong’s films, the episodic narrative contains a series of pointed repetitions: here, each visit gets interrupted by a man whose face never appears onscreen in full, and during two of the three visits, Gamhee observes her friends via closed-circuit television systems. (Less meaningfully, two of the three also feature characters peeling and slicing apples.) This is one of Hong’s only films centered almost exclusively on women; it also lacks the efficient symmetry of his other episodic films, which usually unfold in two parts. Gamhee’s disquietude feels more pronounced as the film progresses, culminating in the final section. Kim, more than other frequent Hong collaborators, continues to feel as crucial to Hong’s vision as the director himself, representing an important piece of a cinematic puzzle from which pieces are always missing. In Korean with subtitles. 77 min. Streaming only in the midwestern U.S. v