Preview: 47th Chicago International Film Festival, Part One

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CHICAGO – This year’s line-up for the 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival is an eclectic mix of major Oscar contenders (“My Week With Marilyn,” “The Artist,” “The Descendants”) along with a number of interesting smaller films.

It is a nice blend of films that have made waves at other fests like Venice or Toronto along with a healthy number of debuts. It’s one of the fest’s strongest slates in years. And so, after weeks of screeners and advance screenings, we’ve broken down the highlights into three chunks, starting with an incredible amount of quality unspooling just this weekend (come back on Monday for next week and then next Friday for the final installment).

After a red-carpet opening for the Chicago production “The Last Rites of Joe May” with star Dennis Farina in attendance, the best films of the opening act of the 2011 fest include a major work by a controversial filmmaker, two stellar breakthrough female performances of the year, a frontrunner for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a documentary about a true shame for this country, and a trio of foreign films that couldn’t be more dissimilar other than that they deserve your attention. From the end of the world to young love to the magnetic power of a cult to what is billed as Israel’s first horror film, this is an incredibly strong opening weekend and it doesn’t even include several films that might be worth your interest but we didn’t have time to get to them (we’ll include un-screened, potential highlights on the final page, below our recommendations). It may not have a lot of the instant recognition factor of later-fest film stars like Michelle Williams, Ed Helms, or George Clooney, but you could have an amazing movie experience this weekend.

The top tier of film’s in the first four days of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival includes “Melancholia,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Kid with a Bike,” “Rabies,” “Like Crazy,” “Miss Bala,” “On the Bridge,” and “The King of Devil’s Island.” In order of quality, although all eight of these films are worth a look. Go buy tickets at the official site.

Photo credit: The Chicago International Film Festival

October 7th, 8:30pm

Lars Von Trier made waves at the Chicago International Film Festival before with his “Antichrist” and he returns this year with another daring work that also can clearly be seen as a product of the controversial filmmaker cinematically dealing with his own crippling depression. While “Antichrist” was a loud, violent, apocalyptic mess (that never came together for this critic despite Charlotte Gainsbourg’s best efforts), “Melancholia” is a brilliant and riveting meditation on the world-shattering impact of the mental illness known as depression, something that derailed Von Trier in his own life. It may be a rather underlined metaphor to name a planet Melancholia and have it set on a collision course with Earth, but it completely, 100% works in this mesmerizing film, easily one of the filmmaker’s best. Kirsten Dunst gives her career-best performance as a young lady who thinks she’s put depression past her enough to enjoy her wedding day but discovers in the first half of this evenly-split-into-two-chapters film that she absolutely has not. The second half consists of the rest of her family fearing that the planet Melancholia will crash into their lives as well. We will write a lot more about this film for its theatrical release and, in all likelihood, in year-end features here on the site. It’s that good.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Photo credit: The Chicago International Film Festival

“Martha Marcy May Marlene”
October 8th, 5pm

It would be too easy to describe Sean Durkin’s highly-acclaimed debut as the “Winter’s Bone of 2011.” Like that Oscar nominee, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” started its buzz at Sundance, features a striking debut female lead, and both even have the great John Hawkes delivering stellar supporting performances. But “MMMM” stands completely on its own as one of the most memorable dramas of the year. I’ll admit to a bit of trepidation after first seeing it, thinking perhaps it was a bit too purposefully vague in its storytelling, but I think it’s the question marks left by the film that really allow it to linger in the memory. Well, that and what is easily one of the best performances of the year in any category from the great Elizabeth Olsen (who we were lucky enough to interview…watch for it in a few weeks). This talented young lady perfectly embodies a woman who runs away from one fractured family in the form of a deadly-dangerous cult to return to another fractured family with her sister and brother-in-law. As she tries to remember what happened to her at the cult, the narrative twists and turns like a Moebius strip blending mysterious flashbacks with her confusing present until the tension reaches a peak in the final act.

The Kid with a Bike
The Kid with a Bike
Photo credit: The Chicago International Film Festival

“The Kid with a Bike”
October 8th, 5:15pm
October 9th, 5pm

The Dardenne brothers have returned with another cautionary tale about the impact of letting a child fall through the cracks and the result may be a relatively-standard drama for fans of the filmmakers but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the more emotionally powerful tales that will be projected this opening weekend of CIFF. In a remarkably-genuine performance, Thomas Doret plays Cyril Catoul, a young man who learns in the very first scene of the film that his father is not only not coming to pick him up from boarding school but he’s moved away. And he’s sold his bike. The headstrong Cyril runs away and takes a bus home where he meets a sweet salon owner (Cecile de France) who agrees to foster the wayward child on the weekends. After a heartbreaking encounter with his father, “Kid with a Bike” becomes a fascinating tale about how a young man can be set adrift without the right role models to keep him from drowning. Will he grab the right life vest or the wrong one? Once again, the Dardennes create tension out of human drama and draw believable, excellent performances from their entire cast. For the right audience (especially Francophiles), this could be your favorite film of the entire fest.

Photo credit: The Chicago International Film Festival

October 7th, 11:15pm
October 15th, 10:15pm

Billing a film as Israel’s first horror movie could easily be a turn off for as many viewers as it grabs. The first one is never that great, right? Well, much to my surprise, “Rabies” is actually pretty interesting stuff, certainly more so than some of the late-night horror fare at this year’s event. It’s hard to even describe “Rabies” without spoiling some of its enjoyment for this is one of those unusual horror entries that is so unique in the way that it unfolds that it’s one of its greatest achievements. It’s a film that opens with a young lady trapped in a box in the ground, clearly having just fallen in there, much to the dismay of her brother/boyfriend (yes, you read that right). When he screams off-camera, one might assume that what will follow is a pretty standard “slasher in the woods” piece and that’s certainly one element of the film but the poor souls who follow the incestuous pair into the trees don’t get dispatched in ways you will EVER see coming. “Rabies” is one of those fascinating horror movies that never gets too weird to lose its footing but also stays completely unpredictable. An unpredictable horror movie in 2011? I don’t care what country it comes from — that’s sort of a miracle.

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