The Chicago International Film Festival has a schedule, and it’s starting up in barely more than two weeks. Which makes this the deliciously chaotic time to figure out what hell it’s worth seeing.
For starters, there are a good number of big, important releases, certainly more than last year: August: Osage County, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Immigrant, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, 12 Years a Slave, Philomena, Kill Your Darlings, and Blue Is the Warmest Color will all be getting gala presentations. Speaking privately, these have never been my favorite part of the festival, given that I’ll be able to see all of them eventually, even within a week or less of the festival itself; but it’s pleasing to see CIFF upping its game at least a little bit. It is only a regional festival and has no pretensions to competing at the level of the great big premiere-heavy festivals, but for those that want a bit more glitz and polish, this is a far better slate than there’s been for a while.
Personally, I’m much more excited about this year’s world cinema spotlight: an entire program of African features and shorts. Generally speaking, the cinema of Africa is unusually hard to find in the United States, and one of the great pleasures of a well-stocked film festival is getting some exposure to that continent’s artistic output. In fact, this year it’s causing me a problem, of sorts: ordinarily, when only two or three African films are on the schedule, I make a point of seeing all of them. With so many things to choose from, I’m suddenly thrown for a loop now: all that African cinema is threatening to make my scheduling quite impossible, and carving that list down to something manageable is absolutely defeating me; right now, the “raw” schedule I’m trying to turn into something final is stocked to the point that I’d have a nervous breakdown if I tried to keep up with it all.
Particularly with the horror subcategory, After Dark, also boasting a strong collection of movies, though not as dumbfoundingly long as the African film program. The point of all of this being, if anybody out there reading this can help me take focus either of those two categories into something a little less comprehensive than “all of them”. Which is my aim right now.
And that’s not including some of the other titles I’m especially looking forward to: a pair of hugely long documentaries, Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley and Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, alongside several other terribly interesting-looking non-fiction films (right now, I’d say that the Iranian Trucker and the Fox and Honor Diaries, a Canadian/Israeli film about women’s role in the Arab spring, are my two biggest priorities on that front).
Some of the plain old narrative films I’m most excited about include Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain; the Mexican Heli, winner of Best Director at Cannes; an Indian action film with a split “what if” structure called Monsoon Shootout; H4, described as a contemporary African-American gloss on the Henry IV plays; a true-life German crime thriller, Banklady; and a Croatian-Serbian black comedy, The Priest’s Children. For the first time in a while, there’s not a single feature-length animated project, which I’m actually grateful for; there’s enough on my plate as it stands. I have more than 45 films on my “maybe” pile, that I need to get down to a number around half that many, so if anybody has heard anything about any of the titles I mention here, good or bad, your help would be awesomely appreciated. I don’t ordinarily put my CIFF schedule sausage-making out in the open like this, but I also don’t think I’ve ever been so daunted by the amount of must-see stuff in one burst. This is the right problem to have, of course, and the reason that even in an increasingly streaming world, film festivals matter: it’s a one-shot opportunity to see most of these things, and I want to make the most of it.