Ghost Tropic – Song without a Name – Fire Will Come – Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Mother – Vitalina Varela – The Twentieth Century Chicago International Film Festival  
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Chicago Film Festival 2019
Main Competition Jury: Gabor Greiner, Tatiana Leite, Tetsuya Mariko, Jennifer Reeder, Cosmina Stratan

Gold Hugo of the Festival:Portrait of a Lady on Fire, France, dir. Céline Sciamma
Silver Hugo:Vitalina Varela, Portugal, dir. Pedro Costa
Best Director:The Fever, Maya Da-Rin
Best Actress:Sorry We Missed You, Debbie Honeywood
Best Actor:Corpus Christi, Bartosz Bielenia
Best Screenplay:Balloon, Pema Tseden
Best Cinematography:The Painted Bird, Vladimir Smutný
Best Sound Design:Fire Will Come, David Machado, Xavier Souto
DocuFest Gold Hugo*:
Love Child, Denmark, dir. Eva Mulvad
Docufest Silver Hugo*:Ringside, Germany/US, dir. André Hörmann
Docufest Special Mention*:Waiting for the Carnival, Brazil, dir. Marcelo Gomes
New Directors Gold Hugo*:
Litigante, France/Colombia, dir. Franco Lolli
New Directors Silver Hugo*:Bombay Rose, India/UK/Qatar/France, dir. Gitanjali Rao
Our Mothers, Guatemala/Belgium/France, dir. César Diaz
Q Hugo Award*:
And Then We Danced, Georgia/Sweden/France, dir. Levan Akin
Q Hugo Silver Hugo*:Portrait of a Lady on Fire, France, dir. Céline Sciamma
Q Hugo Special Mention*:Knives and Skin, USA, dir. Jennifer Reeder
Founder's Award:
The Irishman, USA, dir. Martin Scorsese
Roger Ebert Award:Adam, Morocco/France/Belgium, dir. Maryam Touzani
Audience Choice Award (Narrative)**: 
Just Mercy, USA, dir. Destin Daniel Cretton
Audience Choice Award (International)**: 
And Then We Danced, Georgia/Sweden/France, dir. Levan Akin
Audience Choice Award (DocuFest)**:Ready for War, USA, dir. Andrew Renzi
* These awards are determined by separately constituted juries
** Voted by the public, and announced later than the other awards

Features I Saw at CIFF:
Ranked in order of preference
My Vote for the Gold Hugo

Atlantics (Global Currents; France/Senegal/Belgium, dir. Mati Diop) - Talk about a ghost tropic. Solitude. Solidarity. Undertows. Salt. Knowledge. Mystery. Eyes. Ears. Flutters in the heart.

Extremely Strong

Just 6.5 (New Directors Competition; Iran, dir. Saeed Roustayi) - Wowsers Iranian policier! Mannish scope, Friedkiny moods. POVs multiply, deepen, expand. Remarkably rich social analysis.

The Orphanage (New Directors Competition; Denmark/Germany/Afghanistan/Qatar/etc., dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat) - Genre-blitzing director working at peak imagination, reconstructing a lost world with smiles, tears, and such craft.

Ghost Tropic (Global Currents; Belgium, dir. Bas Devos) - Quietly magical city symphony; you hear music, but all the instruments are in their cases. A warm coat made of lace.

By the Grace of God (Masters; France, dir. François Ozon) - Fast yet methodical, collective yet individuated, nuanced yet enraged. An amazing act of controlled narration.

Babyteeth (Global Currents; Australia, dir. Shannon Murphy) - Camera vividly yet modestly attuned to plot and superb cast. Wise, funny script inhabits themes rather than blaring them.

Mother (Documentary Competition; Belgium/The Netherlands, dir. Kristof Bilsen) - Emotionally piercing doc about family, caretaking, loss, and more. Expertly shot and cut. No platitudes or simple binaries.

A Thief's Daughter (New Directors Competition; Spain, dir. Belén Funes) - Tough, vibrant drama about embattled young mother, finishing with a question that's unexpected, yet just right.

The Wild Goose Lake (Global Currents; China/France, dir. Diao Yinan) - Maybe not a mold-breaker, but so strong at movement, color, space, tension, rhythm, and taciturn character.

A Girl Missing (International Competition; Japan, dir. Kôji Fukada) - Imagine Gillian Flynn with a slyer, deeper touch, or Asghar Farhadi doing a whispery Japanese domestic chiller.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (International Competition; France, dir. Céline Sciamma) - Starts strong; only improves. Builds quite a bond between lovers, and between them and the audience.

Highly Recommended

The Painted Bird (International Competition; Czech Republic/Ukraine/Slovakia, dir. Vaclav Marhoul) - Not Job, not Judy, nobody suffered like this kid. Lucky for us, or maybe not, it's unforgettably shot and staged.

Fire Will Come (International Competition; Spain/France/Luxembourg, dir. Oliver Laxe) - Story purposely elliptical, structure designed to frustrate. But what a potent sensory experience and mood piece.

The Fever (International Competition; Brazil/France/Germany, dir. Maya Da-Rin) - Subtly but determinedly poetic tale of an indigenous Brazilian posed on many thresholds—medical, cultural, metaphysical.

Clemency (International Competition; USA, dir. Chinonye Chukwu) - Room to grow, visually and stylistically. But as moral inquiry, acting and writing showcase, head/heart provocation? WOW.

Song without a Name (Global Currents; Peru/USA, dir. Melina León) - Genuinely distinctive photography, especially for a historical exposé. Complex story handled told beautifully.

Waiting for the Carnival (Documentary Competition; Brazil, dir. Marcelo Gomes) - Lively, colorful, tonally complex documentary about northeast Brazil, the world's jean-making epicenter.

Love Child (Documentary Competition; Denmark, dir. Eva Mulvad) - Seven years of living among a small Iranian family seeking asylum in Turkey enables a round, complex, dramatic doc.


La Llorona (International Competition; Guatemala/France, dir. Jayro Bustamante) - Not exploitation, but not not. Reworks haunting tropes in gutsy, tonally nimble ways to confront post-genocidal trauma.

Vitalina Varela (International Competition; Portugal, dir. Pedro Costa) - Costa remains a consummate image-maker and conjurer of affects, his camera's voice louder than his characters'.

The Twentieth Century (Comedy; Canada, dir. Matthew Rankin) - Loopy, absurdist spoof-ode-elegy of Canada as a land of unmet dreams. Hilarious, and ingeniously designed.

Tremors (Global Currents; Guatemala/France/Luxembourg, dir. Jayro Bustamante) - Less stylistically nimble than Llorona, but Bustamante plays a long game of narrative complication. Strong on character.

Digitalkarma (Documentary Competition; Switzerland, dirs. Francesca Scalisi, Mark Olexa) - Gives face to structural forces stifling the potential of a young Bangladeshi prodigy. Spotty end is partly the point.

The Father (Global Currents; Bulgaria/Greece, dir. Petar Valchanov) - A version of Payne's Nebraska I can get behind, with a loopier sense of family deception and grief-prompted dementia.

Maternal (New Directors Competition; Italy/Argentina, dir. Maura Delpero) - Slowly, gratifyingly complicates itself, posing tougher, richer questions about what mothering means and who can offer it.

Deerskin (After Dark; France, dir. Quentin Dupieux) - Dupieux retains very odd ideas of premise and arc, but this is a huge step up from Rubber...and a hoot! Dujardin is bliss.

Chained (Global Currents; Israel/Germany, dir. Yaron Shani) - Critique of boorish, increasingly abusive masculinity is an unpleasant sit, but how could it not be? Images take back seat.

Honey Boy (Special Presentations; USA, dir. Alma Har'el) - Heartfelt, fresh, and clearly first-hand. Lived-in performances from all three leads. Still feels somewhat self-enclosed.

Les Misérables (Global Currents; France, dir. Lady Ly) - Elects that urgent, tough themes merit or even demand blunt figures, familiar style, vague POV. Maybe! Maybe not.

Let There Be Light (Global Currents; Slovakia, dir. Marko Škop) - Echoes Les Misérables's imbalance of toughness and evasion, sturdy intents and uneven execution. One draft away?

I Was at Home, But... (Global Currents; Germany/Serbia, dir. Angela Schanelec) - Committed fulfillment of a peculiar, astringent aesthetic to which I failed to attach. But do you, Schanelec!

Instinct (New Directors Competition; The Netherlands, dir. Halina Reijn) - A gutsy directorial debut, even if the visual approach left me cold. As an acting piece and case study, it's astonishing.

Seahorse (Documentary; UK, dir. Jeanie Finlay) - In centering a trans man's pregnancy, moving doc illuminates much about family, yearning, self-knowledge, and human bonds.

Corpus Christi (International Competition; Poland/France, dir. Jan Komasa) - Launch and finale make electric impressions. Complex protagonist, but movie has trouble seeing the other characters.

The Whistlers (Global Currents; Romania/France/Germany, dir. Corneliu Porumboiu) - Playful and crafty, like a deconstructed burger. I guess I prefer a whole burger, but still, compliments to the chef.

It Must Be Heaven (Masters; France/Qatar/Palestine/etc., dir. Elia Suleiman) - Suleiman's vignettes have more whimsy than real insight, and he over-showcases himself. Still, tender and sweet.

Adam (New Directors Competition; Morocco/France/Belgium, dir. Maryam Touzani) - Script beats often familiar, sometimes verging on stock, but rich lensing and soulful cast, especially Azabal, elevate it all.

Bombay Rose (New Directors Competition; India/UK/Qatar/France, dir. Gitanjali Rao) - No shortage of visual invention or dazzling technique, but nearly as ends in themselves; story, character feel weak.

The Cordillera of Dreams (Documentary Competition; Chile/France, dir. Patricio Guzmán) - Less poetic or complex than Guzmán's last two docs, but still a movingly restless ode and elegy to Chile.

Carmilla (Global Currents; UK, dir. Emily Harris) - Potent visual and sonic ambiance. Cannily managed frames. Buggy inserts a bit much. Nice last shot. I'd've watched longer!

Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (After Dark; Spain/Estonia/Ethiopia/etc., dir. Miguel Llansó) - Look, most bets are off. But this is wittier and more engaging than most films of its type.

Mixed Bags

Spider (International Competition; Chile, dir. Andrés Wood) - Propelled by a strong, two-pronged historical critique which it hasn't totally figured out how to structure or dramatize.

A Hidden Life (Special Presentations; USA/Germany, dir. Terrence Malick) - As gorgeous as you would predict, but grandiose in ways its subject would dislike. Repetitious and overlong, too.

The Prince (Global Currents; Chile/Argentina/Belgium, dir. Sebastián Muñoz) - Partly earnest film about self-invention in seamy circumstances. Partly just seamy. Ratios vary. So do performances.

And Then We Danced (Global Currents; Georgia/Sweden/France, dir. Levan Akin) - Too genre-obedient through the middle, but the start, the recalibrated end, and the strong camera elevate it.

The First Rainbow Coalition (Documentary; USA, dir. Ray Santisteban) - Potent study of multiracial radical coalitions in late-60s Chicago. Needs bigger canvas? End too vague.

The County (Global Currents; Iceland/Denmark/Germany/France, dir. Grímur Hákonarson) - Elects upon a tough subject, then backs away from the complex confrontation it promises. Still made me miss Iceland!

Our Mothers (New Directors Competition; Guatemala/Belgium/France, dir. César Díaz) - Good topic, moving setup, but neither the director nor his lead actor demonstrate the skills to fulfill such promise.

The Vast of Night (After Dark; USA, dir. Andrew Patterson) - Due credit for an eccentric vision. Still, struggles to keep pieces in sensible proportion or generate a payoff.

The Hypnotist (Documentary Competition; Finland, dir. Arthur Franck) - Story invites playful structure and manipulated realities, but this too often feels hazy in focus or takeaway value.

Not Recommended

Adoration (Global Currents; France/Belgium, dir. Fabrice du Welz) - If anything your film would say about mentally ill kids is idealized and/or demonizing, a great option is to abandon it.

Motherless Brooklyn (Opening Night; USA, dir. Edward Norton) - So depressing. Hideously lit and staged, from the opening. Whole cast comes off badly. At sea with its themes.

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