Chicago International Film Festival Retrospective


This year’s Chicago International Film Festival has come and gone. There were some amazing international films premiering in Chicago… and there were some less-than-amazing international films premiering in Chicago. While I didn’t get a chance to do any interviews, I was able to meet some great people from both festival workers/interns and filmmakers. Of note were Esteban Nunes, director of Southwest, Esteban Lamothe, lead actor of The Student, and a brief encounter with Anton Yelchin, lead actor of Like Crazy.

As a reminder, you can find all of this year’s CIFF reviews here. Read on to find out the winners of the main competitions. For those that are interested, the Reader’s Choice Award will be announced early next week.

International Feature Film Competition

Representing a wide variety of styles and genres, these works compete for the Festival’s highest honor, the Gold Hugo, a symbol of discovery, as well as awards for best actors, director and writer.

Gold Hugo to LE HAVRE (Finland/France) for the mastery of film director Aki Kaurismäki and his stylized yet very humane depiction of illegal immigration.

Silver Hugo for CAIRO 678 (Egypt) for addressing relevant social issues. It takes a strong stand on sexual harassment for women at home and work. It is a brave film for presenting women as an oppressor rather than a victim.

Silver Hugo for Best Actress to Olivia Colman in TYRANNOSAUR (UK) for an outstanding performance hitting every note showing her vulnerability, her power and her humor.

Silver Hugo for Best Actor to Maged El Kedwany in CAIRO 678 (Egypt) for his ability to bring balance to the story and light to a heavy tone. His presence draws you into every frame he is in.

Silver Hugo for Best Screenplay to Joshua Marston and Andamion Murataj for THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (US/Albania) for a lovingly crafted story that takes us on an intimate journey through the fate of families that are ruled by the laws of honor and vengeance. The writers lay out for the audience the complexity of human relations and make us reconsider our own standards and convictions.

The International Feature Film Competition Jury includes Jury president Nimród Antal (US/Hungary), Leonardo García Tsao (Mexico), Claudia Landsberger (The Netherlands), Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz (Puerto Rico) and Bhawana Somaaya (India).

New Directors Competition

This selection of first and second feature films receiving their US premiere in Chicago celebrates the spirit of discovery and innovation upon which the Festival was founded.

The Gold Hugo goes to THE GOOD SON (Finland) for its real psychological insight. Economical without being overly abstract, the film depicts each character as selfish, but dependent on someone else, exposing their unstable familial relationships. Director Zaida Bergroth impresses with her ability to create characters and their environment, intersecting in believable yet shocking ways.

The Silver Hugo is awarded to VOLCANO (Iceland/Denmark), a film that triggers a deep emotional response that has nothing to do with sentimentality. It juxtaposes domestic space with the dramatic Icelandic landscape to riveting effect. Not just another film about redemption, Rúnar Rúnarsson’s debut depicts the moral ambiguity of the choices facing a complex, older man.

The New Directors Competition Jury includes Eileen Favorite, Tom Quinn, and Michael Raine.

Founder’s Award

The Founder’s Award is given to that one film across all categories that captures the spirit of the Chicago International Film Festival for its unique and innovative approach to the art of the moving image. This year’s recipient of the Founder’s Award is THE ARTIST (France), director Michel Hazanavicius’ delightfully romantic comedy about silent cinema and the movies in general.

Docufest Competition

This selection of international documentaries competing for the Gold Hugo go beyond the headlines in telling those true stories that surprise, entertain and challenge us.

Gold Hugo goes to CINEMA KOMUNISTO (Serbia), an exquisite matching of form and content. This film uses cinema as both a metaphor and a mechanism for the telling of unique national, cultural, and personal histories. Archival and contemporary footage are deftly interwoven to yield a result that is at once intimate and universal. Director: Mila Turajlic.  

Silver Hugo goes to the visually and aurally innovative DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (US). The subject, Diana Vreeland, embodies the exuberance of the 20th century (often called the American Century) even though she was not born in the US and was a confirmed Europhile all her life. The filmmakers have used a range of techniques in the service of a central aim: to connect audiences with the essence of this unique woman who reflected her times. Director: Lisa Immordino Vreeland.

Gold Plaque goes to SALAAM DUNK (US/Iraq). This documentary delivers an extraordinary level of access to the emotions of these courageous young Iraqi women who formed a basketball team at the American University of Iraq. There are so many ways the director could have sacrificed the sense of direct connection to steer our attention towards social and political analysis but this does not happen: we live with the players and their coach and with the complexities of ethnicity in post-Saddam Iraq. Director: David Fine.

Silver Plaque goes to ALL ME: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WINFRED REMBERT (US), a patient portrayal of an individual’s life that peels away social history layer by layer. It connects audiences with aspects of US racial history they may know in general terms but will rarely have had the opportunity to access through the life of a man who is also an extraordinary visual artist compelled to tell his story in his work. Director: Vivian Ducat.

The jury gives a Certificate of Merit to ENDING NOTE: DEATH OF A JAPANESE SALESMAN (Japan). The filmmaker demonstrates considerable courage and determination in this refreshing and candid film that naturalizes dying and death. She has a very special ability to preserve affection and intimacy even as she reveals the final months of her father’s life to the world. Director: Mami Sunada.

The Docufest Competition Jury includes Jill DiBiase, Bruce Sheridan and Jonathan Towers.

After Dark Competition

This competitive program of scary movies from around the world takes audiences on a journey to the darkest corners of the human soul.

The Gold Hugo goes to SNOWTOWN (Australia), a cinematically told, verité style portrait of a serial killer which is surprising in its execution and never relies on stock characters. Director: Justin Kurzel.

The Silver Hugo goes to A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (UK), which employs stunning cinematography and majestic mountain landscapes to tell a story which thrilled the jury with its capacity for the unexpected. Director: Julian Gibley.

The After Dark Competition Jury includes Shayna Connelly, Julian Grant and John Russell Taylor.

Short Film Competition

The Gold Hugo for Best Short Film goes to THE EAGLEMAN STAG (UK), for its virtuoso and wide-ranging technical feats with a form and style that seem wholly its own, all in the service of characterizing a brilliant, acerbic scientist from cradle to grave, and beyond. The film’s monochromatic palette, intriguing textures, wry narration, and imaginative aesthetic illuminate the life and mind of a potentially cold figure, yielding a precise vision of what dazzles and bores him during the finite time he will spend on this strange, wonderful planet. Director: Michael Please.

The Silver Hugo for Best Animated Short is awarded to BIRDBOY (Spain). This film’s dynamic realization of two souls searching for some better place in a flawed and fractured world is a compelling journey wrought with contradictions and surprises — and ultimately hope. Directors: Pedro Rovero and Alberto Vazquez.

The Silver Hugo for Best Documentary Short is awarded to CARETAKER FOR THE LORD (Scotland), for its beautifully observed, intensely moving, but rigorously unsentimental record of a small-town church faced with closing its doors, prompting complex questions about how we use our communal institutions, why we need them, and how to decide when it’s time to let them go. Director: Jane McAllister.

The Silver Hugo for Best Narrative Short is awarded to THE UNLIVING (Sweden), for combining the rich atmospheres and sterling production values of a feature with the eccentric rhythms of truly independent cinema, all braided into a deeply unnerving thriller that is manna for horror fans but a resonant, indelible experience for all audiences. Director: Hugo Lilja.

Gold Plaque goes to THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF ROCKY (Belgium), a brilliant darkly comedic tale of one young man’s grappling with fate, love, and the meaning of life. Director Kevin Meul.

Silver Plaque goes to MEATHEAD (New Zealand) for the most inspired location to film a coming-of-age story. With a terrifying sound mix and amazing cinematography, the filmmakers turn a real life meat factory into a full-on haunted house for a young man facing the trials (and entrails) of adulthood. Director: Sam Holst.

The Gold Plaque for Best Student Short (Animated) is awarded to BELLY (UK), which marries a poignant, pivotal experience shared among three characters to a series of innovative character designs and unusual physical environments, reminding us that adolescence is a sad, weird, eye-opening journey, and that every person and every relationship is made of multiple, sometimes conflicting sides. Director: Julia Pott.

The Gold Plaque for Best Student Short (Documentary) is awarded to GOODBYE, MANDIMA (Switzerland), for its heartrending dissection of a seminal moment in time captured in a single photograph. The rupture between past and future is so beautifully articulated, and so deeply felt, that the final shot manages to leave you breathless. Director: Robert-Jan Lacombe.

The jury awards a Special Mention to GRANDMOTHERS (UK). This short truly defies categorization –all at once an animated, short, student, documentary film combining a very personal (almost narrative approach) and an innovative visual specificity– painting a picture far beyond its 9 1/2 minutes of loss and recovery in the multi-generational search for Argentina’s “disappeared.” Director: Afarin Eghbal.

The Short Film Jury includes Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, Nick Davis, and Todd Lillethun.

INTERCOM Competition

One of the longest-running international competitions of its kind, INTERCOM honors a wide range of corporate-sponsored, educational and branded films.

The Gold Hugo goes to SUVA – THE MOMENT OF TRUTH by Seed Audio-Visual Communication, commissioned by insurance company SUVA to promote work safety.

The Silver Hugo goes to OSTEOBLASTS AND OSTEOCLASTS by Random42 Medical Animation, the world’s premier medical animation company.

The INTERCOM Competition Jury includes Ron Falzone, Cortney Groves and Kim Kubiak.

Chicago Award

The Chicago Award, presented to a Chicago or Illinois artist for the best feature, short film or documentary, goes to L TRAIN, directed by Anna Musso. It is purposeful, mysterious and formal in a way that heightened its expressiveness.

The Chicago Award jury includes Tim Kinsella, Natasha Korecki, and Brigid Reagan.