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2014 Chicago International Film Festival Preview

To celebrate its 50th anniversary as North America’s longest-running competitive international film festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, running from October 9-23, could have chosen one of two paths. On the one hand, a look back at many of the key films and filmmakers that it helped to introduce to the world over the past half-century. On the other, a look forward to the next wave of groundbreaking works of cinema. Keeping in the wide-ranging spirit of the festival, founder and artistic director Michael Kutza and his staff of programmers have chosen to do both through a program consisting of over 150 feature films (not including various programs of short subjects) from 52 countries that combine some of the most talked-about films of the moment, new titles from filmmakers on the cusp of discovery and special presentations of some of the more notable films to have unspooled since the fest's inauguration in 1965.

The festival's Opening Night presentation (not counting a pre-festival presentation of the Robert Downey Jr. drama "The Judge" a few nights earlier) will be "Miss Julie" (10/9) a new screen version, adapted and directed by the legendary Liv Ullmann (who is scheduled to appear at the screening), of the classic August Strindberg drama about the ever-shifting battle of wills between a rich young woman (Jessica Chastain) and her father's valet (Colin Farrell) set over the course of a long Midsummer's night. For a Closing Night selection, they have booked "Wild" (10/23) the eagerly anticipated true-life drama that brings together director Jean-Marc Vallee (whose last film was "Dallas Buyers Club”), screenwriter Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon to adapt Cheryl Strayed's memoir of how she decided to turn her wayward life around by hiking over a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest trail by herself.

Among the other high-profile presentations on display, "The Last 5 Years" (10/15) finds director Richard LaGravenese adapting the long-running off-Broadway musical chronicling the rocky relationship between an actress (Anna Kendrick) and an author (Jeremy Jordan). "St. Vincent" (10/15), the debut film from writer-director Ted Melfi, features the living god that is Bill Murray as an ultra-cranky old man who is pressed into helping provide after-school care for the 12-year-old son of his new neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) that includes trips to the racetrack, a pregnant Russian stripper (Naomi Watts) and any number of life lessons. "The Imitation Game" (10/16) features Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in a docudrama about Alan Turing, the British mathematician who was celebrated for helping to win WWII by cracking the German Enigma code but who then faced prosecution by the government for being homosexual. One of the year's most eagerly anticipated films, the surreal dark comedy "Birdman" (10/18) stars Michael Keaton, in what is said to be revelatory performance as an actor, best known for starring in a superhero franchise, trying to restart his career by appearing in a Broadway play.

The festival will also be running a number of classic films that have either played at the festival over the years or which were selected by filmmakers who have appeared there in the past. Oliver Stone will be on hand to present the full-strength director's cuts of his hyper-violent 1994 social satire "Natural Born Killers" and his wildly ambitious biopic "Alexander" (10/12). "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (10/18), which received its world premiere screening at the 1975 fest will be screening with a number of guests on hand. Taylor Hackford will appear at screenings of "The Idolmaker" and "White Nights" (10/11), which were the Opening Night selections for the 1980 and 1985 editions, respectively. "Roger & Me" (10/22) will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a screening hosted by Michael Moore. Other classics of note include Lars von Trier's 1996 breakthrough "Breaking the Waves" (10/18), Ingmar Bergman's 1983 masterpiece "Fanny & Alexander" (10/13), Alfred Hitchcock's weird 1938 period drama "Jamaica Inn" (10/12), the restored version of George Cukor's 1954 version of "A Star is Born" (10/11) with Judy Garland and James Mason and "Why Be Good?" (10/19), the North American premiere of a 1927 silent comedy—long thought to have been lost—starring Colleen Moore, one of the top box-office draws of her time and later one of the founders of the festival. (Those are her eyes that serve as the festival's logo.)

The festival will also be paying tribute to one of the world's most celebrated actresses when Isabelle Huppert arrives to take part in a tribute that will include screenings of four of her favorites from her endlessly fascinating filmography and a photographic exhibition of portraits of her taken over the years that will be presented at the Alliance Francaise de Chicago. The films that she has chosen are 2001's "The Piano Teacher" (10/12), perhaps the most brutally intense of her numerous collaborations with director Michael Haneke, "Comedy of Power" (10/14), a 2007 film with another favorite collaborator, Claude Chabrol, in which she plays a magistrate obsessed with bringing down those guilty of massive corporate corruption, Claire Denis's 2009 drama "White Material" (10/14), in which she plays a woman determined to run her family's African-based coffee plantation in the face of intense civil unrest and "Copacabana" (10/12), a 2010 comedy in which she plays a oddball mother at constant odds with her more conventional daughter (played by Huppert's real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah).

Many of the films on this year's schedule are eagerly anticipated titles that have already received much acclaim on the festival circuit and which are making their local debuts. "Black Coal, Thin Ice" (10/11,13,17), which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, is a thriller from China combining many of the tenets of a classic noir drama with observations about life in contemporary China. "Clouds of Sils Maria" (10/16,18), the latest work from Olivier Assayas, combines elements from the likes of "All About Eve" and "Persona" in telling the story of an actress of a certain age (Juliette Binoche) who agrees to appear in a restaging of the play that made her famous as a young actress with her now playing the older woman opposite a hot young starlet (Chloe Grace Moretz) without realizing that she is reenacting the power struggles in the text in real life with her assistant (Kristin Stewart in her most impressive performance in years). Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand offers up "An Eye for Beauty" (10/16, 18), which tells the story of a married architect from Quebec who embarks on a passionate affair with a woman from Toronto. "Human Capital" (10/16, 17), which won Italy's equivalent of Best Picture, brings together such acting lights as Valeria Golino and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi for an "Amores Perros"-style that looks at a tragic event from three separate but overlapping points of view. Speaking of "Amores Perros," its screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, spearheaded "Words With Gods" (10/10), a collection of nine short films dealing in some way with religion helmed by Arriaga, Hector Babenco, Warwick Thornton, Bahman Ghobadi, Mira Nair, Hideo Nakata, Emir Kustarica, Amos Gital and Alex de la Iglesia. Celebrated documentarian Frederick Wiseman returns with his latest epic, "National Gallery" (10/19), a 181-minute (short for him) look at virtually every imaginable aspect of the famed British museum. The biggest film of the festival, at least in terms of length, is "Winter Sleep" (10/11, 14), Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 196-minute Palme d'Or winner set in a remote Turkish hotel run by a once-famous actor and his young wife.

Of course, a film festival wouldn't be a real festival without a number of selections focusing either on the history of film or the moviemaking process. "Centenary of the Tramp" (10/16) is a program hosted by Charlie Chaplin expert David Robinson that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the introduction of Chaplin's famous Tramp costume by delving into the history of the outfit and screening the key Chaplin shorts "Kid's Auto Races" and "The Immigrant." "The Editor" (10/18, 19) is a gory Giallo spoof from Canada about a film editor who is the chief suspect of a series of gruesome murders involving the actors of his latest project. "Gran Luigi Rondi: Life, Cinema, Passion" (10/16) is a documentary about the career of one of the most powerful and influential men in the history of Italian cinema. "The Maestro" (10/17, 19, 21) is a gentle French comedy, inspired by the production of the late Eric Rohmer's last film, about a clueless young actor who unexpectedly finds himself cast in the latest work by a revered filmmaker that he has somehow never even heard of before. "The Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles" (10/19) looks at the life and times of the master of cinema through archival interviews and new talks with such acolytes as Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich. However, no matter what you may think from the title, "The Young Kieslowski" (10/13, 16, 17) is not a biopic  of the early years of the famed Polish director—it is actually a coming-of-age comedy about a dorky physics major whose life is turned upside down when a one-night stand with another freshman leads to her pregnancy.

Of the numerous sidebars that the festival runs every year, one of the most popular and enduring continues to be their Black Perspectives section. This year, the sidebar centerpiece is the local premiere of "Beyond the Lights" (10/10), a romantic melodrama about the relationship that develops between a Rihanna-like musical superstar (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the ordinary cop (Nate Parker) who rescues her from a possible suicide attempt. Other Black Perspectives selections include "Cru" (10/17, 19), a drama involving the fraught reunion of four former high-school athletes 15 years after graduation and a car accident that affected all their lives, "Dear White People" (10/20), the highly touted satire following a group of black students attending a university that has just broken out into turmoil following an "African-American" party held by a white fraternity and "Evolution of a Criminal" (10/19, 20), in which director Darius Clark Monroe not only examines what led to his participation in a Texas bank robbery when he was 16 and how it affected those involved (he even interviews a couple of people who were in the bank at the time) but offers up a reenactment of the crime to boot.

While many of the films on display at the Chicago International Film Festival are noble and serious-minded, it still makes room for a healthy selection of genre items for those looking to take a walk on the wilder cinematic side. (This is, after all, the festival that gave the first notable exposure to a little thing called "Halloween" back in the day.) "The ABC's of Death 2" (10/11) is a continuation of last year's 26-part collection of gory shorts from an array of up-and-coming directors, each one using a letter of the alphabet as a leaping-off point for a vignette depicting an unpleasant way to die. "Ablations" (10/12, 15, 16) is a French film about an ordinary salesman trying to piece together how he came to wake up with one of his kidneys missing. "The Babadook" (10/10, 10/21), a much-heralded Australian horror film about a single mother and her son who are apparently being terrorized by a monster from the pages of a picture book. "Creep" (10/17, 19) involves a filmmaker who goes out to a remote cabin for a day of filming a man (Mark Duplass) that soon goes into weird areas. "The Midnight After" (10/10, 12), the latest work from Hong Kong madman Fruit Chan, follows seventeen people in a minibus trying to figure out the cause of the pandemic that has apparently eradicated all other human life before they wind up destroying themselves. For another view of the post-apocalyptic world, "The Well" (10/17, 19) finds a 17-year-old girl trying to defend her well, one of the few still remaining, from a brutal water baron who wants it all for himself. Then there is "Goal of the Dead" (10/18, 22), a strange, blood and barf-drenched French comedy about a soccer match in a remote town between two fierce rivals that goes askew when a virus turns the players and fans into zombies—in other words, it is the rare soccer game where something actually happens. 

It was also recently announced that the New Directors program at this year’s fest will culminate in the presentation of the Roger Ebert Award to the film this year’s jury deems the best.

With the exception of a couple of special presentations, screenings for the 50th Chicago International Film Festival will take place at the AMC River East 21 theaters. TIckets and passes can be purchased in person at the theater or the Festival Office (300 E. Adams, Suite 600), over the phone at (312)332-FILM or online at chicagofilmfestival.com For further information on titles, running times, ticket prices and availability and program changes, not to mention a full schedule of events, go to the festival site at chicagofilmfestival.com

FIVE TO WATCH

These are five of the films that I have had an opportunity to view in advance that are especially worth checking out.

ALEXANDER: ULTIMATE EDITION: A couple of months ago, when Oliver Stone's latest and vastly improved edition of his critically reviled 2004 biopic of Alexander the Great was released on Blu-ray, I wrote that it would be nice to see this edition on the big screen as a way to best appreciate the size and scope of Stone's incredibly ambitious production. Not only is the festival screening this 207-minute-long edition--a film far more coherent, exciting and dramatically satisfying than the initial release version--Stone himself will be there to present the film and talk about its long and strange history. (10/12).

FORCE MAJEURE: In this pitch-black Swedish comedy from director Ruben Ostlund, a perfectly happy family on a ski vacation in the French Alps is devastated by an avalanche, albeit in a most unexpected way, and the father struggles to redeem himself in the wake of a seemingly unforgivable act. This is a hilarious comedy of bad manners that takes what might have been a one-joke premise (a joke more or less inspired by a certain "Seinfeld" episode) and spins out any number of inspired variations as the guy stubbornly insists that he did nothing wrong, even when the evidence of his actions is literally staring him in the face. This will be opening for a commercial run in a couple of weeks but no sense in not being able to get a head start with it. (10/10, 12)

THE SALVATION: In this Danish-made take on that most American of film genres, the Western, an unassuming European settler (Mads Mikkelsen) sees his newly arrived wife and child murdered by a couple of depraved thugs and kills both assailants in retribution. Alas, one of them proves to be the brother of the region's most feared baddie (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and a bloody battle of wills erupts between the two that threatens to destroy their entire town in the process. This effort from Kristian Levring is fascinating in the way that it both celebrates and subverts the traditional conventions of the genre and if that isn't enough, the always-compelling Eva Green turns up as a woman caught between the two men. (10/13, 14).

STOCKHOLM: The first half of this film, a cult hit in its native Spain, may put some viewers in the mind of "Before Sunrise," as it follows a young couple who meet at a nightclub and spend most of the night wandering the streets of Madrid talking and flirting before winding up at his apartment. The next morning, however, things take a decidedly darker turn in ways that I leave for you to discover. Beautifully acted, especially by newcomer Aura Garrido as the female lead, and nicely staged by director Rodrigo Sorogoyen, this is an utterly compelling exercise in decidedly discomfiting drama that will no doubt strongly resonate with many viewers and while the finale may be a tad obvious from a dramatic standpoint, the rest of the film is so smartly developed that it manages to earn that ending. (10/14, 15).

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT: The latest work from acclaimed Belgian neorealists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne finds them working with something that they have never before employed in one of their films--a world-recognized movie star in Marion Cotillard. In it, she plays a factory worker who has 48 hours to save herself from being fired in a downsizing move--the hitch is that she has to go to her fellow workers and convince the majority of them to voluntarily give up their much-needed yearly bonuses in order to keep her employed. The situation is as melodramatic as can be but by handling it in a quiet and even-handed manner that doesn't overplay their hand, the Dardennes create an absolutely wrenching work that captures the realities of day-to-day existence in the current economic climate and observes all the possible aspects of human behavior in response to being posed with such a request. Although the sight of Cotillard amidst the otherwise down-to-earth surroundings is a bit disconcerting at first, that feeling is quickly pushed aside as she delivers one of the most powerful and bruising performances of her already-stellar career. (10/16, 19)


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