By Jonathan Monovich.
Reporting from the U.S.’s ‘Second City,’ the home of the North America’s longest running film festival….”
The Chicago International Film Festival is the longest running film festival in North America. This year marks the festival’s 59th anniversary. Founded by Michael Kutza, the history of the festival is chronicled in his entertaining book Starstruck: How I Magically Transformed Chicago into Hollywood for More Than Fifty Years. Starstruck is well worth a read and offers insights into just how impactful the festival has been. Many of the greatest filmmakers, ranging from Orson Welles to Charlie Chaplin, have attended the festival over the years. Notably, iconic directors like Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin also got their start through the festival, offering a platform for viewers to see their earliest work. The festival also served as a launching pad for some of the finest film critics, including Roger Ebert. Most importantly, the festival has always served to offer a wide-ranging selection of films from across the globe. This year, the 59th iteration of the festival included over one hundred films from all over the world and appearances from some of the industry’s leading names. This year’s programming was particularly exceptional. The five films covered in the festival’s first week [Eric LaRue (2023), The Hypnosis (2023), Dream Scenario (2023), Evil Does Not Exist (2023), and The Killer (2023)] all struck a similar chord in exploring deeply complex subject matters while embracing humor in a very delicate fashion. While these particular films blend multiple genres, their ability to infuse humor and create an engaging distraction from serious synopses will leave viewers feeling slightly better about the chaos of the world. Just as the famous song, “Chicago,” suggests, I lost the blues in the windy city, at least temporarily, through the magic of the movies.
The second week of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival exemplified a continuation of a triumphant return for cinema and a reminder of the power of the art form. Examining wide-ranging stories from different countries, the four films seen in week two [Explanation for Everything (2023), The Zone of Interest (2023), The Holdovers (2023), and The Bikeriders (2023)] help demonstrate why the medium is so important. Whereas the films covered in the first week were exclusively set in the present, the second week’s selections primarily turned to the past. The tone of these particular films was much more variable and offered plenty to ponder, yet all conveyed a social problem-solving function relevant to today. Having started my coverage with Eric LaRue (2023) and hearing Michael Shannon profess his love for the historic Music Box Theatre, and it’s lively organist, it was a full circle moment to end hearing his friend, Jeff Nichols’, shared appreciation for the matchless atmosphere/audience of Chicago’s finest movie theater during the closing night screening of The Bikeriders (2023). Just as The Killer (2023) initiated vibrant cheers and applause when the Windy City could be seen on the big screen, Nichols’ film similarly captivated viewers given its Chicago roots. Hearing the tune of “Chicago” played on the organ at my personal favorite movie theater to both start/end the fest for me was a great joy and a cue to consider that not only does the city “do things they don’t do on Broadway,” as the lyrics suggest, but so does the amazing Chicago International Film Festival.
Eric LaRue (Special Presentation)
Michael Shannon, best known for his versatile performances as an actor, turns to the director’s chair with Eric LaRue. For his directorial debut, Shannon returns to his childhood town of Chicago with an adaptation of Brett Neveu’s play of the same name. The theatrical production was originally performed at the local Red Orchid Theatre (founded by Shannon), and both Shannon and Neveu were proudly present at the film’s screening for a Q&A session. Following the festival screening, Shannon shared that the film could best be described in one word— “confusing.” Given how increasingly confusing it has become to live in the modern world, Shannon set out to capture this with a versatile tone. The film is at times deeply serious and full of laughter at others. This came with great surprise given that Eric LaRue’s basic premise surrounds Janice (Judy Greer) and Ron’s (Alexander Skarsgård) struggles adapting after their son, Eric’s (Nation Sage Henrikson) horrific act of violence. The film is very conscious of the difficult subject matter (a school shooting) and offers a realistic outlook on a scenario that has happened far too often in the last twenty-five years.
Shannon/Neveu were pleased with the audience’s lively reaction to the film, pointing out that the Chicagoans seemed to understand the film more than other festival audiences. The film grapples with themes of loss, faith, regret, and forgiveness, and mostly succeeds in covering them. There is a very clear contrast between Janice and Ron’s reaction to the situation and their handling of it puts their relationship at odds. At one end, Janice is stricken with a heavy sense of guilt. Understandably, her mind is constantly fixated on the past and there is an always visible expression of sorrow/pain in her delivery. Her husband, Ron, contrastingly, is oddly upbeat and consumed by dogma. His face is rarely void of a smile and his mannerisms are absurdly upbeat given the circumstances. It is his staggering idiocy that accounts for the film’s comedic relief and makes the film awkwardly frustrating to watch. The roles of Janice/Ron are unlike anything Greer or Skarsgård have ever done, yet they are both able to effortlessly depict the disorientation of these lost souls. Both characters are discombobulated and in search of answers, but the answers aren’t always what they want to hear. To make matters worse, Janice/Ron’s counterintuitive “support” groups are causing further tension in the household and greater separation from their goal of reconciliation with the victims’ families and themselves. One thing that is for certain is that is made very clear that the lost lives in the story are never coming back. Both Shannon/Neveu poignantly articulate that this cannot be ignored and will leave viewers engaging in important discussion.
The Hypnosis/Hypnosen (New Director’s Competition)
The Hypnosis (see top image), directed by up-and-coming Swedish filmmaker Ernst de Geer, is a brilliant satire about the confines of normalcy and the difficult balance between being yourself and being what you’e told to be. In this exciting breath of fresh air, the world’s hypocrisy is put on the stage and André (Herbert Nordrum)/Vera’s (Asta Kamma August) relationship picks it apart with a fine-tooth comb. Fans of the highly successful film The Worst Person in the World (2021) will likely be equally fond of Nordrum’s performance in The Hypnosis. Previously unfamiliar with August, I am now excited to see more of her in the future. Both actors are a thrill to watch, and the film’s screenplay, written by De Geer and Mads Stegger, is among the best in recent years.
The story follows André/Vera’s acceptance to a startup company workshop/pitch competition named “Shake Up.” The name is appropriate as the couple’s relationship is shaken when the two start butting heads over the course of their trip. The genesis of their playful drama originates from Vera’s visit to a hypnotherapist in hopes of quitting smoking. Instead of leaving her harmful habit behind, Vera leaves a seemingly reawakened individual with an entirely different outlook on life. Her behavior instantly becomes carefree and her gestures increasingly childish. Embarrassment is seemingly now an impossibility for Vera, and humiliation is at an all-time for André. Unamused, André is both perplexed and provoked by his girlfriend’s new personality. Defined by a controlling demeanor and a no-nonsense attitude, André comedically undergoes a crisis. His authority dwindles and his dominance becomes non-existent. On the flip side, Vera’s etiquette becomes progressively more erratic and unpredictable. Ironically, the couple’s company is a women’s health app; throughout “Shake Up,” André attempts to “mansplain” the company’s objectives but ends up fumbling along the way. André begins to look within, but his disingenuous demeanor is too far aligned with the fabricated objectives of his competitors. Simultaneously, Vera begins to recognize that she has gone too far. What is best about De Geer’s multi-layered vision is that, while the plot may seem predictable, it is full of surprises and an unforgettable ending.
Dream Scenario (Spotlight Screening)
In person for a question-and-answer screening, the Norwegian director, Kristoffer Borgli’s, newest film and his witty responses had the Music Box Theatre’s audience roaring in laughter. Following Sick of Myself (2022), a painfully accurate commentary on narcissism in the social media era, and Drib (2017), a mockery of inauthentic branding, Borgli has proven that he is both one of the best modern satirists, one of the greatest contemporary auteurs, and perhaps the best new director with his most recent film—Dream Scenario (2023). Written and directed by Borgli, Dream Scenario stars Nicolas Cage in his greatest performance since Wild at Heart (1990). The film is a perfect fit for Cage given the relevance to his own life much like Michael Keaton in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014).
Cage’s character, Paul, is a middle-aged biology professor whose research focuses on evolutionary biology and swarm intelligence. He possesses a life-long desire to write a book and lives a low-key life with his wife (Julianne Nicholson) and two daughters (Lily Bird/Jessica Clement). Early on, in one of his lectures, Paul points out that “sticking out can be an evolutionary benefit.” This becomes incredibly relevant to the film’s plot as he begins to stick out in a very unusual fashion. Overnight, Paul becomes a worldwide sensation when he suddenly starts appearing in the dreams of his family, students, friends, unknowns, and just about everyone. The dreams are comedic at first as Paul is just a harmless passerby in these chaotic dreams, but as time goes by, these dreams become nightmares. Paul’s life also becomes a nightmare with the unrequested and undesired attention that he receives. Very clearly, the film metaphorically pokes fun at the polarization of the internet, the internet’s ability to consume lives, and the widening of generational gaps due to the internet. Borgli’s film is extremely observant of societal shifts and does not shy in criticizing many of them. Along the way Borgli also weaves in playful references to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Stop Making Sense (1984), an appearance by Michael Cera, and many memorable scenes. With Dream Scenario, Borgli effortlessly received Chicago’s blessing. For anyone who loves intelligent comedy and a good laugh, Borgli will win you over as well.
Evil Does Not Exist/Aku wa sonzai shinai (International Competition)
Acclaimed Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, best known for his Oscar award-winning film Drive My Car (2021), has returned to the screen with Evil Does Not Exist (2023). Whereas Hamaguchi’s previous film was an examination of grief and healing, his latest poetically serene production is an allegorical outlook at the decaying state of the world. A long introductory tracking shot looking from the ground up showcases the snowy trees of Harasawa—a small village on the outskirts of Tokyo. Immediately, it is presented as a peaceful place devoid of city life’s many distractions. Roughly 15-20 minutes pass before any dialogue is spoken. This is by design to further exaggerate the tranquility of the environment in which the film is set. During this time, we see Takumi’s (Hitoshi Omika) daily ritual, which consists of chopping wood and collecting water from a nearby stream. Everything he does is extremely methodical, and his knowledge of dendrology, botany, and biology is infectious. Scenes where Takumi helps his daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), differentiate between the forest’s many different species of trees and learn about interesting elements of the ecosystem offer a moving connection between father/child that will likely be an emotional point of connection for many viewers (myself included).
Harasawa is turned upside down when a “glamping” (glamorous camping) company, Playmode, calls for a meeting with the locals to present their proposal for the speedy construction/ implementation of a disruptive tourist destination. This scene offers the longest moment of extended dialogue and plays out like a typical town hall meeting (lots of disappointment and little productivity). Understandably, the village is upset, but their grievances are delivered in a knowledgeable, mature, and respectful manner. It is the kind of behavior that the Japanese are often commended for and contrasts the unenlightened and intrusive demeanor of Playmode’s two representatives—Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzami (Ayaka Shibutani). The presence of Playmode is so ridiculous that this scene drew laughter from the audience. This is a relief as the film is simultaneously depressing. Predictably, the rest of the film follows the awkward relationship between Takumi and Takahashi/Mayuzami. He is amazingly patient with them, but like the earth’s patience for irresponsible human mistreatment of land, this tolerance is unsustainable. Though the film’s title claims evil does not exist, what unfolds suggests that ignorance paired with greed makes for a deadly combination and mother earth is a force to be reckoned with.
The Killer (Special Presentation)
Based on Alexis “Matz” Nolent’s graphic novels, The Killer (2023) delivers Michael Fassbender’s best performance of his career thus far and is Fincher’s finest film since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). The Killer’s dialogue, written by frequent Fincher collaborator, Andrew Kevin Walker, is exceptionally well-crafted, sharp, and, darkly comedic. In the vein of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), the killer (Fassbender) is intensely introspective and sagaciously savvy much like Forest Whitaker’s character. The wisdom of the Hagakure that binds Ghost Dog is replaced in The Killer with a somewhat similar, yet personally crafted, code. Set in Paris, the Dominican Republic, New Orleans, Florida, New York, and Chicago, The Killer provides a suspenseful journey through the mind of a ruthless assassin. Along the way, sitcom character names are cleverly used as aliases at each stop. Given Fincher’s lengthy track record as a music video visionary, it’s no surprise that the film’s relationship with music is so excellently executed. The film’s lauded score, designed by Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, effectively matches the killer’s fluctuating heart rate and brings a sensation of uneasiness that helps the viewer be one with the protagonist.
Given his occupation’s requirement of stealth, the killer frequently monitors his body’s stability and calms his mind via yoga, the playfully morbid songs of the Smiths, and the repetition of emotion suppressing mantras such as “empathy is weakness; weakness in vulnerability,” “stick to the plan,” “anticipate don’t improvise,” and “what’s in it for me.” The killer’s outlook on life is strictly biological and aligns with the famous words of Charles Darwin that it’s “survival of the fittest.” This is essential for him to abide by his missions. His remedies for keeping his sanity, described above, are self-proclaimed “focus tools” and “useful distractions.” Without these tricks and the self-imposed manipulation, there would be no killer. Rather, he would just be another man with a name. The killer’s ways are very clearly trained/learned, and his constant reminders reveal that there is humanity behind the shadow of his animalistic tendencies. As the film progresses, the killer’s interactions become more bitter and his actions more brutal, but the narrative’s twists and turns will leave you rethinking whether he is a true believer of his constantly reiterated motives.
Explanation for Everything/ Magyarázat mindenre (International Competition)
After winning the Orizzonti Award for Best Film at Venice, Hungarian director Gábor Reisz took home the Gold Hugo (Best International Feature Film) at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival for Explanation for Everything (2023). Preceding the screening, Reisz was in attendance to warn the audience of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime and it’s slow pacing. The film may be too long and could have benefited from some tighter editing, but it’s universal relevance and satiric assessment of modern politics is undeniably clever. Like the earlier films that I covered at this year’s festival, Explanation for Everything continues the trend of using laughter as a remedy for coping with relatable issues. Everyone has surely had their fair share of awkward political debates at a dinner table, and Explanation for Everything rightfully makes fun of how these types of conversations have nonsensically infiltrated nearly all elements of modern life.
Reisz’s film follows the life of high school student, Ábel (Gáspár Adonyi-Walsh), and his attempt to navigate the difficulties of one’s teenage years. Ábel is in love with Janka (Lilla Kizlinger), but that love isn’t reciprocated. Similarly, Janka is in love with their history teacher, Jakab (András Rusznák), but he makes it clear that he doesn’t share mutual feelings and that such a relationship with her would be both ridiculous and wrong. When it becomes time for his oral graduation exam, Ábel freezes; the exam’s subject, the industrial revolution, is the one subject that he didn’t study, and his mind is preoccupied with the unobtainable desire of Janka as a romantic partner and not just a friend. As a result, Ábel fails his exam. His father, György (István Znamenák), is more humiliated than Ábel and is deeply disappointed in his son. Knowing that his father is deeply rooted in tradition and nationalism, Ábel develops a plan for a convenient excuse. Having worn a nationalist pin during the exam and being questioned about it by Jakab just before starting, Ábel cries that it was teacher’s fault for not passing. György buys the excuse for it aligns with his agenda and begins griping about it to his peers; at one point, a reporter, Erika (Rebeka Hatházi) gets ahold of the information and self-servingly turns the story into an unneeded media debacle.
Like many subjects undeserving of attention, Ábel’s pin is blown out of proportion and becomes a catalyst for national debate. Overall, the film serves as a perceptive statement on the dangers of confirmation bias and an astute analogy for the increasing worldwide divisiveness of politics. There is plenty to disagree with on both ends of the spectrum in Explanation for Everything, and this is very much by design to lead viewers to the realization that that life is too short to get wrapped up in meaningless arguments just for the sake of trying to win them; regardless, Reisz shared after the screening that “we would like to represent [with the film] how important communication and understanding both sides is. The writing process was the hardest when we realized that we need to understand both sides even if we are not a fan.”
The Zone of Interest (Spotlight Screening)
A perfect companion piece to Jonathan Glazer’s short film, The Fall (2019), a chilling critique of the growing prevalence of mob mentality, The Zone of Interest (2023) serves to show the absolute worst that can result from it. Similar to his approach for Under the Skin (2013), The Zone of Interest is a very loose adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel of the same name. The film follows the carefree life of the commandant, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their children. Their days are spent lounging in a picture-perfect Polish garden, sunbathing and swimming at the river, enjoying meals as a family, and reading fairytales just before bed. Just on the other side of the wall, surrounding the Höss’ house, is the horrific nightmare of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The striking contrast between two ways of life so close to one another, yet so far removed, is quite jarring. The family’s day-to-day activities (cooking, fishing, kayaking, etc.) are so familiar to many that the film provides an extremely discomforting viewing experience for the undesirable relatability. Though at the surface level the lives of the Höss’s are seemingly normal, their unsubtle nonchalance to the next-door atrocities and their daily deeply disturbing happenings show that it’s all a ruse. Glazer is very intentional in abruptly inter-splicing sickening sound design and alien-like night vision sequences to remind viewers that while this may seem otherworldly, this is history that must not be repeated.
The vile ways of the Höss residence become increasingly repugnant, and it is their sheer disregard and simultaneous responsibility for adjacent mass murder that solidifies them as truly repulsive. While savoring a cigarette in Rudolf’s backyard, he casually breathes in the air as human lives turn to smoke right beside him. When Hedwig fancies herself in a fur coat, gun shots and screams echo in the distance. The juxtaposition is so damning that it becomes more and more infuriating overtime, but the film is essential viewing and a warning of what could happen. Following the film’s harrowing conclusion, the audience was in utter silence and shared a meaningful moment of reflection. In person for a question-and-answer session following the screening, Christian Friedel unsurprisingly described the film as an “intense journey” and that he is “still processing and trying to shake things out [of his mind],” following his portrayal of the ruthless Rudolf Höss. The most telling insight that Friedel shared was that “many people want to say ‘no, that’s not me,’ but I think we have to realize that could be us and there’s a darkness inside of all of us… we have to learn from our history… and art inspires us hopefully to be aware that this darkness exists in all of us.”
The Holdovers (Special Presentation)
What Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did with Grindhouse (2007) in offering a genuine homage to the exploitation films of the 1970s, Alexander Payne does for heartwarming adult/child relationship driven comedies of the same decade with The Holdovers (2023). Much like Harold and Maude (1971) and Harry and Tonto (1974), The Holdovers explores how time allows for contrasting views on life, but connection between generations is often much more common than expected despite an age differential. Nostalgically, the film opens old school with the light blue/white variation of the “Rated R” MPAA bumper. This is not a gimmick, rather it is one of the many detailed touches that cements Payne’s latest cinematic victory as an faithful period piece. A clear advocation for 35mm, it’s a shame that The Holdovers won’t be widely be projected on film for it is a work that exemplifies a great appreciation for the warmth that the format offers. Nonetheless, though digital, Payne and his team have created something that feels awfully close.
Set in the winter of 1971, the story follows a group of boys stuck at a boarding school during their Christmas break. They are deemed “the holdovers,” as they are trapped on campus. Some of their parents have no choice but to leave them behind and others simply don’t want them around. Making matters worse, the boys are beholden to their disciplinarian teacher—Paul (Paul Giamatti). While most comply with Paul out of fear, Angus (Dominic Sessa) is an exception. Unafraid to vocalize his frustrations and defy his leader, Angus irritates Paul given his fixation on authority. Though perturbed by his pupil, Paul recognizes Angus’ potential and is patient with his hot-headed outbursts. When the other students leave and the two are forced to spend more and more time together, the school’s chef, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), serves as a considerate intermediary in helping the two bond. Through due course, the two hint at the possibility of a friendship and occasionally see eye to eye. It is Mary’s kindhearted presence paired with Paul’s well-intentioned direction that sees the two adults filling in as transitory mother/father for Angus during his homesick holidays.
Along the way, the film’s soundtrack appropriately includes several staples of record collections from the corduroy-clad era, including Cat Stevens’ “The Wind,” Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “Knock Three Times,” and Badfinger’s “No Matter What.” Apart from the sounds of the seventies, memorable relics of the era are also on display, including Zap Comix, the Who posters, and pinball machines. Like other films of Payne’s oeuvre, he thoughtfully presents a balance of comedy/drama and a meaningful message. This time, it’s with the assistance of screenwriter David Hemingson. Though the film could have arguably had a more satisfying ending twenty minutes sooner, the final product is a touching examination of compassion and an uplifting account of empathy. With The Holdovers, viewers will be transported back to the greatest decade of American cinema and will long for a time when storytelling on the screen was at its peak. Though certainly less prominent, The Holdovers also optimistically proves there is still a demand for toned-down tales of the human condition.
The Bikeriders (Closing Night)
Following two weeks of some of the best films I have seen in recent years, the 59th Chicago International Film Festival came to a climactic close with The Bikeriders (2023). Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, The Bikeriders, Inspired by Danny Lyon’s iconic photography book of the same name, offers the auteur’s latest slice of Americana. Though Nichols’ films are usually set in the south, The Bikeriders channels the Midwest. Given the film’s Chicago setting, the Music Box Theatre’s audience was understandably excited but comedically quick to note that the movie was actually filmed in Cincinnati. In attendance to receive a Career Achievement Award, Nichols shared that “when I picked up Danny’s book for the first time twenty years ago, I just got this feeling. It was a feeling of a subculture, it was a feeling of working class people, it was a feeling of a place, and I’ve just tried to make a movie that gives you all that feeling.” Having seen Lyon’s Bikeriders photographs up close and on display at the Art Institute of Chicago time after time and quickly noticing the replication of them on screen, Nichols’ certainly achieved the feeling that he described. Readers of the book will also recognize dialogue verbatim from Lyon’s transcribed interviews.
In the words of Nichols, his adaptation of The Bikeriders is “a fictional story, a fictional club, and arguably a fictional world” based on Lyon’s 1965 study of the Chicago biker subculture. The film tells a tale of men seeking identity amidst the demise of the golden age of motorcycles. The narrative is held together by a filmic version of Lyon (Mike Faist) who primarily interviews the main characters, Benny (Austin Butler) and Kathy (Jodie Comer), along the way. After happening upon the Chicago Vandals, a macho biker club led by Johnny (Tom Hardy), Benny gets sucked into a world of deep-rooted familial relationships. Supporting performances by longtime Nichols collaborator, Michael Shannon, and Norman Reedus also stand out amongst the film’s ensemble cast. The world of The Bikeriders goes well beyond leather jackets and blue jeans, and recognizes that the grandeur of Johnny’s vision is fleeting. There is an authentic awareness akin to the greatest films of the genre, The Wild One (1953) and Easy Rider (1969, and both are appropriately referenced in the film. Set to classic rock and roll, the imagery is exceptional, including bare knuckle fighting in the mud, late night conversations beside bonfires, playing pool in dive bars, and racing in the countryside.
What makes The Bikeriders unique is Benny’s division between his wife, Kathy, and his friend, Johnny. He loves both of them in different ways and has difficulty navigating his allegiances. Through exploring these relationships and their surrounding environments, Nichols has achieved a respectful representation of an era whose imagery will forever be in the psyche of rebels with or without a cause. Described as a “portrait of a subculture, ” following the film’s screening, Nichols eloquently surmised the enigma of The Bikeriders, sharing that “you can’t make a film about motorcycle culture without talking about masculinity, and I think there’s a tension in masculinity. There’s a lot of things that are toxic about it and those things have been talked about a lot over the last five years, but on the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of things that are beautiful about masculinity and romantic.”
Jonathan Monovich is a Chicago-based writer and Image Editor for Film International, where he regularly contributes. His writing has also been featured in Film Matters, Bright Lights Film Journal, and PopMatters.