Nov 5th 2019

Chicago International Film Festival: 2019

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor


From October 16-27, over four hundred films were screened from 68 countries. I saw thirteen of these. The most inspiring was Varda by Agnés—and I’ll close this essay with her: Find her films, see them, cherish them. The list that follows runs from two—I can’t help but say this—clunkers to all the rest that are well-worth seeing—if you can find them.

One thing for sure: Cinema flourishes around the world without the Hollywood studio system: Heartfelt narratives are coming to the screen with the force of truth and soul and the search for the good.


Chicaurotes (Mexico) directed by celebrated and much adored actor Gael García Bernal was preceded by an absolutely charming interview with Bernal and an award for his acting achievements at age 40. You may remember him from Alfonso Cuarón's y tu mamá también, numerous other films where he shines off the screen and the unforgettable television series Mozart in the Jungle in his charming performance as maestro Rodrigo de Souza. Sadly, the film he described before the showing is not the one we saw. Chicaurotes is a brutal telling of youngsters who thieve, lie, kidnap and get brutally beaten as they battle their way through their poverty-stricken Mexico City neighborhood. Not only is the film difficult to watch for its brutality but, ironically, it inexplicably supports PresidentTrump’s fallacious assertion that those who want to get out of Hispanic countries and come to the United States for better lives are folks we would not want. That aspect is a crucial failure of this film that Bernal so hopes will leave us with understanding. It does not—while Bernal’s own life stands in direct contrast—as does that of another marvel and gentle Mexican, a chef, I will write about later in this column. Bernal is a total charmer, but his film hurts to watch—and not in a good way. Oh dear, I said, on leaving.


The Truth (France| Japan) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda may stand as one of the last times we get to see the still gorgeous Catherine Deneuve on screen. She’s joined by the equally marvelous Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, the latter totally wasted in this film—he barely gets a single good line. The film circles around Deneuve’s character as a narcissistic actor, envious mother and a woman incapable of telling the truth. The film gets points for beauty on the screen but little else that redeems this tale of a mother and daughter’s hateful relationship and the loneliness that Fabienne (Deneuve) has clearly brought on herself.


On to films that take your breath away:

Motherless Brooklyn (U.S.) directed and written by Edward Norton, based loosely on a Jonathan Lethem novel. The festival opened with this brilliant, if over lengthy, heartbreaker that stars Norton, includes a stirring cameo by Bruce Willis and shows off Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Because of Norton’s screen fame, critics may smash what glistens here in this tale of the Brooklyn underworld, told with compassion. As Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, plagued by Tourette Syndrome, tries to solve the murder of Frank Minna, played briefly and well by Willis, Norton as director and actor layers the plot with heartrending, conflict, empathy and humanity that defies the world Lionel has grown up in, lives in and attempts to redeem. In an interview in The New York Times, Norton aptly described the problem filmmakers today face. Here’s a brief quote: “So would Forrest Gump be made today? Maybe with the right people. Would Chinatown? No way. If you wiped every critic’s mental hard drive and put Chinatown in front of them, they’d take that film apart.” I totally agree. And if you read a bad review of this flick that I suspect will run widely, run to see it for the risks Norton takes and for his brilliance as an actor—let alone what he may continue to do as a director.


The Aeronauts (U.K.) directed by Tom Harper. One of the joys of the festival is who comes in person from the cast, directors, producers. In this case both Harper and the star Eddie Redmayne introduced this 1862 period thriller, of sorts, that also stars Felicity Jones. These two were paired in the marvelous film Theory of Everything—and the trust between the two actors shows here. The story deals with a real-life feat, fictionalized here in the role played by Jones. A scientist, early climatologist James Glaisher (Redmayne) joins with the athletic daredevil balloonist Amelia Wren (Jones) to achieve the feat of going higher than any other balloon had gone to discover the science of weather in a nail-biting journey with stunning photography.


Ordinary Love (U.K.) directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa | Glenn LeyBurn stars Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. Neeson leaves behind his spy, adventure film persona for the sensitive performance that we saw most marvelously in his stunning portrayal of savior of Jews in Schindler’s List and I, would argue, the subtle and brilliant performance in the rom-com Love Actually. If you missed Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis’s last film, or so he declared after it ran, then run to see that flick. Here, both Neeson and Manville give stunning performances about the power of committed love. I fear that this film will not get the viewing and the long run it deserves because the directors did such a good job of showing how breast cancer victims get treated in the anonymity of hospitals. But truly, dear readers, this is a film about extraordinary love. Try to find it.


The Report (U.S) directed by Scott Z. Burns brings Adam Driver as Senate staffer and researcher to Senator Dianne Feinstein played with remarkable skill by Annette Benning, who literally disappears into the role. I am not the first to assert that Adam Driver may very well be the best actor on screen for now and long to come. He gives a powerful performance as the unwavering researcher who uncovers the brutality of torture of Muslims after 9-11 and the attempt of the CIA to cover up what the U.S. was doing in violation of the Geneva Convention, undermining our nation’s humanity. A marvelous and important film in today’s political environment.


Marriage Story (U.S.) written and directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Adam Driver in another startlingly brilliant performance with Scarlet Johansson. The conflicted tale of a marriage coming apart is so well performed, so incredibly well-written that I dare you to leave this film unstirred. Your heart will ache while it sings for what has been achieved in this film. I declare an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, and another nomination for Driver. And I give the music by Randy Newman a thumbs up. This is stunning cinema. See it!


Isadora’s Children (France) directed by Damien Manivel, based on the dance that Isadora Duncan choreographed after the death of her two children in an accident in 1913, is a study in grief that relies remarkably on silence, close-ups, and the beauty of gesture. The film is deservedly receiving world-wide acclaim. The ability to bring silence with very little music and virtually no dialogue to the screen in such a poetic, eloquent manner, makes Manivel, the director, the star of this moving film that depicts the indescribable with empathy, with sensitivity, with soul and heart and eloquence. I was blown away.

I’ll close here with five documentaries:


Lives With Flavor: From Earth to the Michelin Star—Carlos Gaytan (Mexico) directed by Pablo Gasca Gollas | Ruth Zachs Babani, all three in attendance. The film follows the trials and successes of Mexican born chef Gaytán who, when he thought all was lost—he was totally out of money and few if any customers—when his Chicago restaurant Mexique won a Michelin star, how he then lost everything again and how he’s risen once more despite all odds with a new restaurant, recently opened, Tzuco. You may want to plan a trip to Chicago to eat there and to meet this charmer. He’s self-taught, humble, endearing and clearly gifted. The story is about how he emigrated to the U.S. illegally at age 14, made his way, became a citizen, learned the craft and art of French cooking and blended his knowledge with his Mexican heritage, and the deep love of his mother’s cooking. The film goes back and forth from Mexico to Chicago and will leave you yearning for his innovative cuisine.


Cunningham (Germany | U.S. |France) directed by Alla Kovgan who attended the showing and discussed her choices at length. This 3D stunner brings the choreography of Merce Cunningham to the screen with footage of interviews with Cunningham, Cunningham rehearsing and allusions to his long-time relationship with composer John Cage. Although I longed for more on the intensity of that love affair and deep friendship, Kovgan explained that much has been written about the two and her choice was to bring Cunningham’s innovative choreography to the screen since his death in 2009. The film is visually stunning. If you’ve never seen the brilliant, groundbreaking work of Cunningham, his extraordinary use of music—I once attended a performance (not included in Kovgan’s film) where each person in the audience was given an iPod and all of us were listening to variations of different musical pieces while watching the same dance. You should not miss this film if you have any love of dance, creativity, and athletic prowess.


Renzo Piano, Architecture of Light (Spain) directed by Carlos Saura. Renzo Piano, who designed the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pompidou Museum in Paris, and currently-in-process The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, among many others, is the focus of this film as he worked to create the Centro de Arte Botin in Santander, Spain, from 2011–2017. Piano, an Italian, is onscreen much of the time speaking poetically about how he works, how light and shadow, water and reflection, in every sense of that last word, are key to his process. Not only does he shed light on the creative process but the filmmakers show us the creation of this floating Centro de Arte as it evolves. Interviews with Botin abound though the central figure of this documentary is clearly Renzo Piano and the gorgeous structure that came to be. You will fall in love. I guarantee it.


The Torch (U.S) directed by Jim Ferrell was the closing night’s film to honor blues’ celeb and Chicago hero Buddy Guy. I turned to jazz and blues aficionado Del Persinger for his take on this remarkable flick: The Torch is a rollicking celebration and a serious contemplation of the blues, told through the story of Buddy Guy, one of the last of the “old generation” carrying this music forward. The movie is a reminder of Chicago’s vibrant music scene and its central place in American musical history. You will hear plenty of great “licks,” but this is not a concert film. Rather, we see Guy’s monumental effort to keep the blues alive: Running a club in Chicago, performing regularly at age 83, inviting others—especially children—on stage. In this way, he discovered the phenomenal talent of seven-year-old Quinn Sullivan, who at the time of the filming is 18, and who has been touring with Guy for ten years. Guy talks of learning from B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and other past greats. Buddy Guy went on to influence Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and many others. Much to appreciate here, whether you are a blues aficionado or not. But perhaps the best of all is getting to know Buddy Guy as the legend who has never forgotten his humble Louisiana roots. The film captures his humor, his kindness, his eagerness to give the spotlight to a willing up-and-comer and his drive to keep doing whatever is necessary to pass the torch.



Varda by Agnès (France) directed and written by Agnès Varda before her death in 2019. Varda chats with a live audience and us about her career in art and film. She is ninety or close to it, as she directs this last work of art. At 115 minutes, I longed for her to keep talking with me forever. She’s funny, humble and charming. If you haven’t seen Faces Places, go to Netflix right now and watch her brilliance. The list of her accomplishments in photography, art and filmmaking is so long that your head will spin as she spins the tale of her life while sitting in a chair on stage and cutting to her works. Varda inspires in both life and career. She shows that, as the saying goes, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Until her last moments she lived for art and for love of others: the ordinary face, the extraordinary face, the movie star, the model, the beggar, the gatherer, the store keeper. Varda defines not only what it is to be a loving human, open-hearted soul, but how to get old and love the process—even as we face its end. The film closes with her dear friend and artist JR by her side and with whom she made Faces Places that I reviewed here on this site— —in a scene she chose not to use in that film and that perfectly ends this one. Wow!


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