Chris contributes to outlets in Buffalo and beyond, including The Film Stage (https://thefilmstage.com/). He lives in WNY and works as Communications Director for the University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI).

Chicago International Film Festival 2021

Clockwise, from top left: Paris 13th District, Dune, Hit the Road,Robust, Julia, and Cow

The final 2021 festival on my virtual calendar — following Toronto and New York — was the Chicago International Film Festival. This was my second straight year covering CIFF, a fest that is less heralded than some but offers just as lengthy and diverse a lineup. 

Like every fall festival, many of CIFF’s most noteworthy entities were in-person only. That means I’ve still not seen Belfast, C’mon C’mon, The French Dispatch (note that Wes Anderson’s latest opens in Buffalo on October 29), A Hero, King Richard, Memoria, The Power of the Dog, Spencer, and The Worst Person in the World. However, Chicago organizers did their best to make sure there were some strong selections available for press covering things virtually.

 

Here is a roundup of the 2021 CIFF entries I watched during the festival, along with a few CIFF selections I saw at the New York Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Sundance Film Festival, as well as one from South by Southwest.

 

Petite Maman: A

Céline Sciamma’s extraordinary follow up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire wrecked (and delighted) me. Starting as a rather simple tale of a young girl who accompanies her family to her late grandmother’s home, Maman takes several surprising turns, ultimately revealing itself to be one of the more canny tales of the parent-child relationship ever made. (Watched at 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

 

Parallel Mothers: A

One year after bringing to New York a stunning short film, The Human Voice, the mighty Pedro Almodóvar returned with an emotional knockout — a masterpiece that is even stronger than his last triumph, 2019’s Pain and Glory. Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit star as two women who give birth the same night, and then see their lives become inextricably linked, and deeply tangled. A fiercely political and ultimately heartbreaking film, Parallel Mothers is one of Almodóvar’s finest films. (Watched at 2021 New York Film Festival.)

 

The Velvet Underground: A

Has a “music documentary” captured the context of how and why a band came to be, and why it was so impactful, better than Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground? I would argue no, and that makes this exploration of the collision between Lou Reed, John Cale, Andy Warhol, and 1960’s New York an exhilarating and intricately compiled gem. (Watched at 2021 New York Film Festival.)

 

Flee: A-

From my review for The Film Stage: Flee “ranks as one of the most uniquely memorable animated films of the last decade. It is remarkably successful as a study of the refugee experience, as a coming-of-age drama set against a backdrop of fear and danger, and as a tribute to one individual’s ability to survive and even flourish. More than deserving of its selection as Grand Jury Prize winner in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, Flee is an extraordinary achievement. ” (Watched at 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

 

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy: A-

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s second film at CIFF — see below for notes on Drive My Car — is a complex, involving delight. It tells three separate stories exploring fate and coincidence. The third, a tale of two former classmates (or were they?) titled “Once Again,” ends the film on a note of warmth and catharsis. (Watched at 2021 New York Film Festival.)

 

Hit the Road: A-

Moving, surprising, and genuinely funny, this drama from Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi — son of legendary director Jafar Panahi — ranks as one of 2021’s finest. It is a road movie, one in which a couple drives two of their sons (and their dying dog) toward the border for reasons that slowly become apparent. There are some unforgettable moments in this one, which is sure to be an audience favorite. 

 

Drive My Car: A-

Long, purposely slow-moving, and thematically ultra-complex, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story is fascinating and deeply moving. Featuring a stellar lead performance from Hidetoshi Nishijima as a stage actor attempting to understand his late wife, Drive My Car is genuinely haunting. (Watched at 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

 

Cow: A-

This stunning documentary, shot over four years on a farm in England, is the strongest film yet from ever-ambitious director Andrea Arnold (American Honey, Fish Tank). Be warned, though, that this story of a cow named Luma is as upsetting as it is sweet and humorous. The ending will leave you shattered.

 

Passing: A-

Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, is a fascinating and moving study of identity and race. The performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are revelatory, and Hall excels at crafting moments that are subtle but hard-hitting.  (Watched at 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

 

Dune: B+

Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi favorite tackles only the first half of the Paul Atreides story, but it does so with admirable size and scope. I found it to be involving and intelligent, anchored by a remarkable performance from co-star Rebecca Ferguson (as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica). One of the most omnipresent criticisms I’ve seen is that Villeneuve has created too literal an adaptation. And indeed, it is a literal adaptation, far more so than David Lynch’s deeply flawed but tremendously imaginative (and delightfully weird) 1984 film. However, isn’t a literal approach the right approach for this beloved source material? Yes, the film lacked surprise, and its nature as part one of a two-film saga invariably impacts the satisfaction level. None of this means, though, that Dune is not a success. Indeed, it is a great success, and I look forward to part two. 

 

Bergman Island: B+

Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest is a look at married filmmakers (played by Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) visiting the Swedish Island that director Ingmar Bergman called home. Bergman Island is an unconventional drama, one that first seems to have modest goals in mind but soon reveals complex and surprising themes. I have a feeling this is a film that will grow in esteem, although I have one major criticism: Mia Wasikowska is so strong and so moving in a brief role that I desperately wanted to see more of her character on screen. (Watched at 2021 New York Film Festival.)

 

Paris 13th District: B+

Jacques Audiard’s film is looser and, to be frank, more enjoyable than past efforts like A Prophet and Rust and Bone. But in its own way, this story of three French twentysomethings whose love lives become entangled is just as accomplished. The performances of stars Noémie Merlant, Lucie Zhang, and Makita Samba are extraordinarily nuanced, as is the script co-authored by Audiard, Petite Maman director Céline Sciamma, and Léa Mysius.

 

Julia: B+

The life story of Julia Child is told with warmth and wit in Julia, a new documentary from RBG directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Knowing little about the superstar cookbook author and television icon proved helpful, as Child’s path to success held many surprises. The footage of her TV work is a delicious delight.

 

Nobody Has to Know: B+

Here is one of season’s greatest surprises, a powerful drama centered on a man who loses his memory after a stroke, and the woman who may (or may not) have been central to his life. He is played by writer-director Bouli Lanners, she is played by Game of Thrones’ star MIchelle Fairley, and both are wonderful. Like the 2020 TIFF entry Limbo, this is a quiet, amusing, and very sweet film. (Watched at 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

 

Robust: B

Here is a pleasant surprise — a modest, good-natured comedy-drama in which a larger-than-life French film star (played by larger-than-life French film star Gerard Depardieu) must adapt to a substitute bodyguard (the wonderful Déborah Lukumuena). Director Constance Meyer’s film is a real crowd-pleaser, and more than deserves an American release.

 

The Beta Test: B

Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe have created a darkly comic paranoid drama with The Beta Test. This portrait of Hollywood douchebag-ery is sometimes off-putting but always engrossing. Its energy reminded me of 2018’s great Under the Silver Lake, but its story — of an agent on a quest to discover who sent him an invitation to an anonymous sexual encounter — is wholly  original. 

 

The Tsugua Diaries : B

There has not been a pandemic-shot and pandemic-set film quite like this light, loose, and leisurely movie about COVID-era film production. Told backwards, Tsugua hums to the tune of  Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “The Night.” It may not linger in your memory, but this effort from Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro is smart and absorbing.

 

One Second: B

I neglected to include House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou’s latest in my TIFF roundup in September, but it is certainly a film to savor, and one I think will be stronger on second viewing. The story, of a labor camp escapee searching for his daughter, is innately powerful, even if the film feels a bit overlong. 

 

Sundown: B

After Sundown (which I watched at TIFF21 but neglected to include in my roundup) and 2020’s New Order, director Michel Franco has established himself as one of current cinema’s foremost provocateurs. That does not mean his films are entirely successful, but rather, fascinatingly complex. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the strange and mysterious Sundown, the story of a man — expertly portrayed by Tim Roth — who seemingly decides to abandon his family (and family business) to hang poolside in Acapulco. Is it a satisfying film? Not really. But it is unquestionably one worth seeing, and arguing over.  

 

Costa Brava, Lebanon: B

The plot of Costa, Brava, Lebanon — a family living in the mountains finds their lives permanently disrupted when a landfill is built nearby — is unique, to be sure. The story is one of many joys to be found in Mounia Akl’s humor-filled if a tad forgettable drama. 

 

Fabian: Going to the Dogs: B-

Dominik Graf’s historical drama set in 1930s Berlin is excruciatingly long — nearly three hours — and meandering. Yet it just barely succeeds thanks to star Tom Schilling and its plot, about the life and loves of a Bohemian writer as the Nazi era is set to begin.

 

Mothering Sunday: B-

Eva Husson’s period piece positively smolders at key moments, yet suffers from a tacked-on framing device that adds little. Still, this is mostly an involving and enjoyable film featuring stellar work from Odessa Young and Josh O’Connor.(Watched at 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

 

Maria Chapeldaine: C+

A teenager in 1900s Quebec struggles with a decision that will define her future in Sébastien Pilote’s literary adaptation. Its aesthetic beauty is undeniable, but the pacing is glacial, the lead performance dispassionate, and the whole affair unmemorable.

 

Madeleine Collins: C

This French-language thriller about a woman leading a double life has style to spare, but the story never connected for me. Still, the mystery will grab some viewers, and the performance from Virginie Efira is quite strong.

 

Broadcast Signal Intrusion: C

Creepy conspiracies and grainy VHS nightmares are great on paper, but Jacob Gentry’s film never adds up to anything truly compelling. Still, there is style to spare; Gentry is a filmmaker to watch, for sure. (Watched at South by Southwest 2021.)

 

House of Snails: D

A horror-thriller about a famous author working on his novel in a quiet Spanish town holds the distinction of being the worst film I saw during the fall festival season. The tension is laughable, and builds to a truly eye-rolling conclusion.

 

Christopher Schobert writes about movies and more for Buffalo Spree and www.buffalospree.com. A former Spree editor, he regularly contributes to outlets in Buffalo and beyond, including widely-read film website The Film Stage (https://thefilmstage.com/). He lives in Western New York with his wife and two children, and works as Communications Director for the University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). Follow him on Twitter at @FilmSwoon. 

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