Still from Todd Haynes’s May December
Fresh off of his time at the Chicago International Film Festival, Chris Forrester shares his thoughts on the films he saw, including buzzy upcoming releases like Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall and the latest from such filmmakers as Todd Haynes, Hayao Miyazaki, and more.
The 59th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival, North America’s longest-running competitive film festival, proved once again that, in spite of the encroaching threat of corporatized blockbuster cinema on all that film lovers hold dear, The Movies are indeed alive and well — this year perhaps better than they’ve been in a while. Reviews follow for a selection of CIFF ’23 programming: The People’s Joker (Vera Drew, 2022), The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023), Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet, 2023), Monster (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2023), The Killer (David Fincher, 2023), May December (Todd Haynes, 2023), All of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh, 2023), Evil Does Not Exist (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2023), Perfect Days (Wim Wenders, 2023), and Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki, 2023).
Still from Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker
One of the great pleasures of the major film festival is its ability to cross-section a Moment in film culture: what’s new, what’s old, what’s in, what’s out, what might come to define a new chapter of the medium. On that last note, Vera Drew’s much-discussed and now finally on the brink of mainstream accessibility The People’s Joker, which screened twice during the opening weekend of the 59th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival, is among the most exciting films of the year (or last year, if we’re to date it by its hype-making, controversy-initiating TIFF premiere). A reworking of Batman lore as trans coming-of-age movie/genre send-up/biting satire of our hypermediated late capitalist existence dedicated to the late, great Joel Schumacher, Drew’s film feels like a revelation — an explosion of the medium itself that pushes the limits of what film can be at a moment when its IP-dominated existence feels rather dire, precisely by wriggling into the woodwork of the franchise superstructure and leveraging the freedoms of copyright law to make the definitive statement on filmmaking in the age of the Cinematic Universe.
The beauty of Drew’s film, though, in spite of its outwardly satiric leanings, is that it also ultimately joins the ranks of the few comic book/superhero films that feel genuinely attached to the possibilities, expressive visual rhythms, innately goofy but ultimately earnest lore, and modern myth qualities of superhero media (see also: the pre-2000 Batman films, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, and most recently the animated Spider-Verse films). But then there’s also the almost hypnotic, collage-like craft of the thing, which leans so aggressively into its scrappy, DIY-filmmaking trappings that it becomes a beautiful, abstract redefining of what “movies” can and should and do look like that, even as it meanders its way through some confounding narrative turns and merges diorama-like practical effects, cartoonish animation, and hyperdigital insanity in service of an equally earnest and riotously funny experience.
Still from Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron
Quite the former’s antithesis, at least insofar as showcases of exciting new voices vs new work from old masters goes, Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful The Boy and the Heron is the director’s fourth so-called “final film” and thus both a gorgeous victory lap and another wonderfully imaginative and profoundly moving meditation on life’s fantastical beauty in spite of the ever-looming ugliness of man’s capacity for destruction. There’s a self-referential quality here that supplants the aching bittersweetness of The Wind Rises (Miyazaki’s last self-proclaimed swan song and this writer’s favorite of his many masterpieces) and at times threatens familiarity, but The Boy and the Heron proves nonetheless another effortlessly beautiful fantasy in the oeuvre of likely the greatest of all animated filmmakers.
It’s hardly worth spelling out what exactly The Boy and the Heron is about, except that it is certainly about a boy and there is also a rather significant heron — and in fact the film unfolds so beautifully that it rewards going in blind — but there is a comforting, almost cozy familiarity to it that will please both casual viewers and die-hard lovers of the director’s work in equal measures. It’s also quite possibly the most ravishingly beautiful film in the director’s already unbelievable oeuvre, rich with his singularly imagination and charm aplenty, but also underscored by a wistfulness that feels distinct to his more recent work and yields basically a nonstop joyride of fantastical imagery. Where, precisely, The Boy and the Heron (unfortunately renamed from its far more apt original title, How Do You Live?) will fall for the average viewer in the canon of a filmmaker who already has a positively outrageous number of instant classics to his name remains to be seen, but it feels like another undeniable beauty from the aging master. May he continue retiring and un-retiring until the end of time.
Still from Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera
Equally delightful and gracefully slight is Alice Rohrwacher’s consummately wonderful La Chimera. Fresh off the heels of her international breakout, the Happy as Lazzaro director returns with an intensely pleasurable romp through rural Italy that centers on a disgruntled, fresh-out-of-jail archaeologist (Josh O’Connor, perhaps the best he’s ever been) with a knack for locating (and pilfering) Etruscan tombs as he falls in with a gaggle of tomb raiders on his hunt for a doorway to the underworld that might reunite him with his long lost lover, Beniamina. Also present — and thank God for it — is Isabella Rossellini (luminous) as Beniamina’s wheelchair-bound, aristocratic mother, who spends her days dwelling aimlessly around her dank, crumbling villa in hopes of her daughter’s return.
Drawing lovingly on Italy’s rich cinematic history, Rohrwacher assembles around her protagonists a delightfully airy ensemble caper that traipses its way through both national histories and stunning countryside vistas as it meditates on the act of unearthing the past and who, if anyone, might rightfully lay claim to what’s found in the process. The gleefully carnivalesque comedies of pre-Dolce Vita Fellini seem a clear reference point, but so, too do Pasolini’s lovingly made celebrations of Italy’s lumpenproletariat (especially his Trilogy of Life opener, Il Decameron). And yet still, many of the film’s greatest pleasures are of Rohrwacher’s own invention: the rich camaraderie amongst her lovable band of outcasts, the pitch-perfect formalisms that contextualize the film’s goofiest and most profound moments, and most of all, the quiet genius of its very conception.
Still from Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall
Also significant is the Palme d’Or-winning Anatomy of a Fall, in which a husband’s fatal tumble from an upper story of a chalet in the French Alps is the dramatic impetus for a film of mercurial ambiguity that’s enlivened by a core tension between the innate sensationalism of its premise and the restrained, dramatic focus of its approach. Suspicions quickly arise from the inexplicable circumstances of the fall, and as the film charts the ensuing investigation and trial, it becomes both a commanding courtroom drama and an icy postmortem of a deeply complicated marriage. At the film’s center is the victim’s wife, Sandra Voyter (a magnetic Sandra Hüller), who stands accused of foul play and so must balance reflection on her marriage, grief for her late husband, and defense of her innocence, and in her orbit are a son blinded by an accident from years prior (Milo Machado Graner), a lawyer with whom she shares a bit of history (Swann Arlaud), and an array of other acquaintances and family figures whose suspicions begin to render her an outcast in her own home.
There’s a certain pleasure inherent to a number of the genres Triet invokes here — particularly the sort of “whodunnit” basis of the film and the courtroom drama that comprises the bulk of its runtime — that becomes also a challenge as it carefully doles out exposition in the form of fallible memories, objective documentations of fact, and hotheaded accusations. The film’s structuring is at times remarkable in its precision, weaponizing its own runtime for a distancing effect that immerses the spectator in the story’s mystery as it progresses ever further from the few selective glimpses offered of the instigating event. But there is also a sense of monotony to a number of the courtroom sequences, and Triet’s formal restraint more generally, that at times threatens to overwhelm her careful manipulation of both character and spectator. For all the enormity of both its hype and runtime, Anatomy of a Fall sometimes feels more interested in maintaining an air of sophistication than plumbing the emotional interiorities of its characters.
Still from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster
Another Cannes heavy-hitter, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Queer Palm and Best Screenplay-winning Monster is an emotionally resplendent return to form for the filmmaker, whose work of late has felt distanced from the emotional highs of Shoplifters and After Life. Elapsing over a series of Rashomon-esque, perspective-switching chroniclings of the same vague series of events — which see a single mother concerned for her child’s well-being when he starts behaving strangely — Monster begins as something of a taut, domestic-drama/thriller before gradually softening into an endlessly moving portrait of aching human complexities. Though its structural gambit can feel alienating as much as rewarding, Kore-eda’s steady mastery behind the camera anchors the film to the deep humanity at its core even as its often writerly screenplay threatens to burst at the seams.
There is nonetheless a rather deft sense of structural integrity to the film, which carries itself with a masterful air of purpose even as its first two acts deliberately, and sometimes frustratingly, obscure its beautiful endgame. The emotional impact of that endgame, however, is all the better for the preceding film’s patience and intricacy, mining tremendous pathos from a slew of terrific performances (newcomer Soya Kurokawa is especially brilliant as the ill-behaved son) and a gorgeous score by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Still from David Fincher’s The Killer
On a similar note, David Fincher’s The Killer is also something of a return to form for the once-king of expertly crafted airport bookshop paperback thriller adaptations who briefly dethroned himself with a yawn of a foray into prestige biopic territory with Mank. Michael Fassbender (vacant, deliberately) plays the titular hitman, who finds himself on the run after a job goes awry in Paris, but is also perhaps a stand-in for Fincher himself: an expert at his often grizzly but always beautifully mechanized craft who, here, is so unflinchingly devoid of humanity one might forget he was ever a person at all.
There’s a degree to which that parallel is fascinating; here is Fincher’s second consecutive Netflix film, and one that feels not only hollow beyond its imposing sense of craft and style but also in conversation with that hollowness — littered with mirthless quips, flagrant product placements, and splattered with killer needledrops that deny even the pleasure of a good tune as they’re fragmented into diegetic background noise and non-diegetic soundtrack. It’s as if the filmmaker wanted to pose a critique of contemporary filmmaking from within the halls of one of its most deflating institutions. Unfortunately, though, the rest of the film is far less interesting than the ideas at its core, and as Fassbender’s killer globetrots between well-calibrated suspense setpieces in picturesque locales, there’s a growing sense that even one of our finest genre technicians can’t dazzle on artistic prowess alone.
Still from Todd Haynes’s May December
A highlight of the fest and likely the finest American film of the year, Todd Haynes’s May December unites two of the most dynamic actresses of a generation (Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman) for a tonally intricate, high-camp melodrama of shifting identities in the tradition of films like Persona, 3 Women, and Mulholland Dr. In it, Portman plays an actress studying the relationship between a woman (Moore) and her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton, who not only holds his own alongside two titans, but proves an imposing talent in his own right), years after their scandalous tabloid romance headlined papers across the nation as Portman prepares to lead a film about their past. Ever a master of delicately crafted, genre-traversing complications of the melodrama (Safe, Far From Heaven, Mildred Pierce, Carol), Haynes delivers perhaps the finest film of his career (and if not, then at least his finest work since Safe) with this slippery masterwork of a tonal high-wire act.
Vital here are the three lead turns, each a small miracle of a performance keyed into both the film’s underlying drama and its subtler generic intonations — as much as May December is an incisive portrait of a deeply troubled relationship under extreme duress, it’s also a playfully self-reflexive study of the actor’s craft that’s made electric by the little tics each performer offers: Portman’s gleefully enunciative dialogue-chewing, Moore’s ever-so-slight lisp that maybe-is-maybe-isn’t the crux of the film’s entire tonal balance, Melton’s stone-faced innocence that cracks at just the right moments and unleashes the film’s full dramatic force. Also of note are Marcelo Zarvos’s beautifully forceful score, which proves key in uniting the film’s dueling dramatic and melodramatic undertones, and regular Kelly Reichardt collaborator Christopher Blauvelt, who steps in for Ed Lachmann (Haynes’s regular cinematographer since 2002’s Far From Heaven) and lends the film a gorgeously textured naturalism that both compliments and contrasts its more eccentric moments. And yet for all its intricacies, May December feels like such a simple delight, an intensely pleasurable film from a master at the height of his craft.
Still from Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers
Andrew Haigh, ever a master of quietly heartrending dramas about the emotional distances between friends, lovers, and friends-turned-lovers, delivers perhaps the most shattering film of the year with All of Us Strangers, a love story about the two lonely occupants of a towering North London apartment building — with a supernatural twist. Loosely based on Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel The Strangers, Haigh’s adaptation (the second, after Nobuhiko Obayashi’s The Discarnates) marks the first time the director has complicated his penchant for rich character drama with a healthy dose of unreality, a space he occupies remarkably well by way of his steadfast reliance on a very human mode of filmmaking that hinges on his actors’ deeply felt performances. Andrew Scott is terrific in the lead role, offering an incredibly raw turn that’s beautifully in sync with the film around him, and so, too are Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, and, to a lesser but not insignificant degree, Jamie Bell as his lover and once-deceased parents, respectively.
There are times when Haigh’s filmmaking can dip into theatrics that threaten to overwhelm the intensely moving drama at the film’s core or reveal his hand too early, but the film is by and large a knockout, an emotionally piercing reflection on the ways that our upbringings shape us and how the love that we have for our parents comes to define the loves we can and can’t open ourselves to romantically, at the core of which is a heartaching sense of ephemerality. Haigh’s is more than just an adaptation of Yamada’s basic premise — about a man who meets and befriends his once-dead parents — it’s a very personal and distinctly queer rejiggering of the source material that proves equally tearjerking and thoughtful as it considers the traumas of coming of age as a queer person, the drastic changes in what being queer can and can’t be over the course of the last few decades, the intensely specific baggage of loving parents you’ve spent years hiding yourself from, and ultimately the reality of becoming someone they won’t be around to know you as.
Still from Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist
Another quiet stunner is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist, a hypnotic and tranquil drama about a rural community imposed upon by developers looking to establish a luxury campsite. The film was composed to fit its score (a beautiful contribution from Eiko Ishibashi that was initially intended as live accompaniment to a much shorter version of the film, released separately as The Gift), and so there exists a lyrical harmony between its gorgeous nature imagery and the swooning strings of its music that beautifully echoes, and helps the film to articulate, the relationship between its subjects and the land around them. Anchored by a powerful sense of place, it’s a quietly moving drama that’s compounded by Hamaguchi’s knack for coaxing the best from his performers and the formal restraint of his filmmaking.
The film proves equally articulate in observing a certain kind of very menial evil — that of bureaucratic businesspeople all too eager to disguise capitalism’s cancerous growth as a universal benefit — that both echoes and contrasts the harmonious quietude of the townspeople’s existence in fascinating ways. Still, the contrast is hardly binary, and Hamaguchi mines a lot of depth from the interplay between the two parties and their competing wills, specifically in their (often quite dry) attempts to understand one another. There’s a degree to which the midsection of the film feels like it obscures a richer drama that doesn’t surface until the film’s absolute stunner of an ending, but carried by the sounds of Ishibashi’s haunting score and the tranquil beauty of cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa’s images, Evil Does Not Exist feels like both a small miracle and an exciting left turn for the Drive My Car director.
Still from Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days
Nearly 40 years after Tokyo Ga, his 1985 Yasujiro Ozu documentary that kicked off a series of artist-focused nonfiction films (Pina, Buena Vista Social Club, The Salt of the Earth) that mosty eclipsed his post-’90s fiction work, New German Cinema wunderkind Wim Wenders returns to Tokyo with Perfect Days, a film at least a bit indebted to the Japanese master whose work brought him there in the first place. Perfect Days, a lyrical drama about the ins and outs of a Tokyo restroom cleaner’s life, the tranquil beauty of life’s innate joys, and the zeal required to find it amidst the mundanity of routine, finds the director working in a register largely unfamiliar to him, but one he inhabits quite naturally. It’s a far cry from the road movies that defined his heyday, but still firmly anchored by a strong sense of place and an exceptional, largely wordless, lead turn by Koji Yakusho.
There’s a stirringly effective formal restraint in play here that enables Wenders both a naturalistic depiction of his protagonist’s daily life, moving gently between his obligations (work and self-care) and sublime pleasures (reading, music, tending to his collection of tree seedlings, photographing the trees from his daily lunch spot, bike rides in the warm sun), and a very appealing and palatable simplicity. This is a cinema that warms one from the inside out, like a hot bowl of soup on a cold winter afternoon, a balm to our worldly difficulties that reminds one of life’s simple joys. There are times when its structuring can feel like a limitation — as in the way that its episodic unfolding largely inhibits stronger emotions from spilling over between scenes — but as a gorgeously photographed, lovingly performed distillation of a way of life, it’s simply beautiful, effortlessly moving in the way that it leaves its protagonist’s background unspecified, as if in invitation for the viewer to project their own struggles and take away from the film a glimpse at the warmth of a life on the other side of them.
Still from Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves
Closing out the festival was an encore screening of one of its prize-winning (Silver Hugo: Best Director) titles, Aki Kaurismäki’s wryly depressive Fallen Leaves. A poem of deadpan mastery from a master of deadpan poetry, Kaurismäki’s latest is a delectibly slight will-they-won’t-they blue-collar romance between a recently-fired grocery worker and an alcoholic that functions as a snapshot of a particularly dour moment in eastern European history. Backdropping the film is the war in Ukraine, communicated by way of frequently overheard news broadcasts and contextualized by a 2024 calendar in one key scene that suggests the film not as a work solely about the contemporary moment but rather an anticipation of worse things to come.
But in spite of the film’s outward downtroddenness, it also proves an airy piece of entertainment by a master of both comedy and craft. There’s a rather elegant sense of tonal assuredness to Fallen Leaves that bathes its central romance in a healthy dose of sardonic bleakness, a flavor that’s more than satisfying across the scope of the film’s 81-minute runtime. Of equal importance are its two central performances, which lend the characters’ off-and-on-flirtations a sense of gravity that weds their occasionally ironic intonations to the film’s larger sense of comic despair, and Kaurismäki’s very sharp sense of craft, a key component in the film’s articulation of its specific brand of curmudgeonly hopelessness. However slight it ultimately feels, Kaurismäki’s hand is a deft one, and the film feels better — and more singular — for it.