Before I delve into which films I recommend in the 52nd Chicago Film Festival, tribute must first be paid to the tireless efforts over more than a half-century of Michael Kutza. Back in 1964, before there was Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and a host of other festivals, Kutza had a dream that would not be denied. The festival has since expanded its mission and influence over the years and is now a major venue on the film circuit. All due to the vision of not some committee or a millionaire but one twenty-something guy from southwest Chicago.
This year’s festival feature runs from October 13 to 27 with over 125 feature films from more than 50 countries. I have seen only a small fraction of the films but, judging from my reading of the program listings and a preview video screened at the press conference, I want to recommend 5 feature films that appear critically worthwhile and 5 films with strong Chicago connections.
My first 5 selections, excluding the Opening and Closing-night films, are: A Quiet Passion (Oct. 16), directed by master filmmaker, Terence Davies, that paints the life of poet Emily Dickinson in visually lush tones with a powerful performance by Cynthia Nixon, far from her “Sex and the City” days. Next is Things to Come (10/16 & 19), written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love. Another film that might be categorized simply as a chick-flic but one which features an outstanding, humane performance by the great Isabelle Huppert. A classy melodrama about a philosophy professor who, in short order, loses her mother, her husband to divorce and her publisher and who must construct a new life.
I, Daniel Blakc (10/22 & 25) is the latest from noted social documentary director, Ken Loach. It scores points for winning the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Tells the story of a hardworking Newcastle carpenter whose life becomes trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare. Loach puts a human face on the modern welfare crisis. Moonlight (10/26), an American entry from director, Barry Jenkins, tells a heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself and the pain and beauty of falling in love.
Finally, there is Abacus (10/18), by noted Chicago director, Steve James that is part of local Kartemquin Films 50th Anniversary. Those who know James’ prior work on Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters need no further encouragement to catch his latest about a Chinese immigrant family who must defend themselves and their dignity while the true architects of the 2008 financial crisis walk free.
In addition to Abacus, here are several more documentaries with a Chicago pedigree. American Anarchist (10/15 & 16), by Charlie Siskel, who directed the Academy Award-nominated, Finding Vivian Maier, offers a captivating portrait of William Powell, author of the infamous The Anarchist Cookbook. Another is Futures Past (10/14, 18 & 24), by Jordan Melamed, son of Merc Exchange pioneer, Leo Melamed. It’s a portrait of a father, a son and the struggle for success.
For Chicago foodies, there is Insatiable:The Homaro Cantu Story 10/17 & 24), by Brett Schwartz. Culinary connoisseurs need no further introduction to this pioneering chef. It is a behind-the-scenes look at Cantu’s sad story of culinary creativity mixed with his passion to tackle world hunger and obesity.
Finally, two indie films dealing issues of gender and disability are Miles (10/18 & 19), by Illinois native, Nathan Adloff and The View from Tall (10/20, 21 & 24), directed by Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss. Based on a true story, Miles follows a downstate high school boy who joins the girls’ volleyball team and faces harsh reaction from his rural community. In The View from Tall, a Chicagoland high school senior is bullied by her classmates over her affair with a teacher. She turns to therapy and forms a bond with her disabled therapist. Told with what is described as sardonic with by Parrish and Weiss, two local theater veterans.
As a longtime lover of French films, I cannot fail to mention a documentary by the celebrated director, Bertrand Tavernier, which is an ode to the universal power of cinema and French classics in particular. If you are like me, don’t miss My Journey Through French Cinema (10/15).
The festival’s official theater is AMC’s RiverEast21 on East Illinois Street. To purchase tickets, go to www.chicagofilmfestival.com or call 312-332-FILM.