Chicago International Film Festival 2013: What to see at the 49th annual CIFF
Movie recommendations for this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, from potential Oscar contenders to new films by marquee directors.
August: Osage County. Dir. John Wells. 2013. 130mins. Edges of seats will require reinforcement, given all the leaning forward in stupefied amazement that August: Osage County inspires. That's not a recommendation, unless uncut hysteria is your bread, butter and plate. While Tracy Letts's revered Oklahoma-set stage drama delivered plenty of live fireworks as the bitter Westons tore into each other scene after scene, no one here (certainly not director John Wells) reminded his A-list cast that they were, in fact, making a movie and thus could tone it down a notch. It's pure lunacy to argue that Letts's three-hour play has retained any of its subtle power, or is a prestige Oscar candidate. Nor is anyone going to convince me that the material been properly adapted to the screen simply by shooting it on farm country. Even if you put your own clan's knockdown brawls in mind, this film doesn't occur anywhere close to reality. (Oct 15, 7:30pm).—Joshua Rothkopf
At Berkeley. Dir. Frederick Wiseman. 2013. 244mins. Complaining about the four-hour length of this often absorbing campus documentary seems whiny, especially since it comes from vérité master Frederick Wiseman (La Danse). So let’s approach the problem from another angle: There’s a fair amount of redundancy here. Not that this director would ever go for a streamlined end result. His slow-mounting style—seemingly accommodating of all perspectives—fits the proudly messy nature of the title institution itself, a magnet for radical thought in the 1960s. Today, Berkeley suffers from deep budget cuts that stymie its administrators. We watch the hand-wringing in a lengthy senior-staff meeting at which the chancellor bears bad news from the state’s budget office. The doc captures a crisis (with a deeply ironic payoff, given this institution’s history), as students occupy the library with a list of fuzzy demands. At Berkeley works beautifully as a picture of compromised activism; viewers who summon the patience to commit to its indulgences won’t feel slighted. (Oct 20, 6:30pm.)—Joshua Rothkopf
Blue is the Warmest Color. Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche. 2013. 179mins. French with subtitles. At first, the title suggests a link to the dyed shock of aqua hair on Emma (Léa Seydoux), a punky artist who awakens enormous feelings of lust and tenderness in high-school-age Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). But as this beautifully paced French romance stretches through the years—via a few explicit sex scenes that almost spoil the vibe—it’s clear that blue indicates a mood: that moment when kindred souls stop resonating. To the film’s credit, this is not primarily a gay-identity drama; that subtext is, for the most part, accepted by friends and family. It leaves room for the ache of a tumultuous relationship in full, centered around the somewhat obvious metaphor of artist and muse, but shaded by the messier realities of career anxiety, cohabitation and colleague flirtations. An emotional powerhouse, the film leaves you raw. (Oct 12, 6:30pm.)—Joshua Rothkopf
Despite the Gods. Dir. Penny Vozniak. 2012. 85mins. English and Hindi with subtitles.
David Lynch’s filmmaker daughter, Jennifer, has never been a critical darling, and this doc brings her tortuous creative process to the fore. Juggling shooting a film in India (Hisss, about a woman turning into a snake—how Lynchian!), searching for a romantic partner and taking care of her adolescent daughter, we see the middle-aged Lynch trying to weather setbacks on set, negotiating with local officials about shooting locations and ultimately getting steamrolled by the film’s producers. In this always engaging doc, what happens behind the scenes is more nightmarish than the fictional drama in front of Lynch’s camera. (Oct 17, 8:30pm; Oct 18, 5:45pm.)—Nathaniel Epstein
The Fifth Estate. Dir. Bill Condon. 2013. 124mins. Benedict Cumberbatch is Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder and, depending where you stand, radical crusader or crazed egomaniac—or both. The Fifth Estate indulges both views without offering much about the man that feels new or original. Condon’s frenetic, pacy movie feels like a character assessment in progress as it dashes through the rise of WikiLeaks and Assange’s ballooning self-importance with the swiftness of a broadband speed not yet invented. It honors his ballsy achievements—gathering and publishing explosive political and corporate documents—and tries, weakly, to find some explanation in his childhood. (Oct 13, 5:15pm.)—Dave Calhoun