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Our Chicago International Film Festival Picks

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 22, 2010 4:00PM

We've got the CIFF schedule here in our hot little hands (it's also posted on the festival website), and having had the chance to give it the once-over it's pretty clear that this year's festival offers up more surprises than usual in addition to its traditionally buzzworthy fare.

Before we get to the surprises, let's tackle the buzz, starting with an observation: Helen Mirren is the new Michael Caine. And by that we mean, she's everywhere, featured in no less than three of the most anticipated films in the lineup. In The Tempest, Julie Taymor's Shakespeare adaptation, she's the sorceress Prospera (yup, there's been a gender switch--par for the course when it comes to Taymor.) Red, based on a series of D.C. Comics graphic novels, highlights the star-studded quartet of Mirren, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and Morgan Freeman as retired CIA agents who band together after being framed for assassination. And in Closing Night movie The Debt, she acts alongside Avatar's Sam Worthington in a brooding story about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal.

There are plenty of other movies sure to sell out quickly. The so-called Festival Centerpiece is 127 Hours, Danny Boyle's harrowing portrait of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), the hiker who was forced to sever his arm after it was crushed by a boulder in a remote Utah canyon. The climactic scene caused some audience members to faint at a recent screening at the Toronto Film Festival. Boyle is scheduled to attend. Also highly touted is Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman, described by Shane Danielsen as "The Tales of Hoffmann. Crossed, naturally, with Repulsion and Single White Female." The Company Men, from writer-director John Wells (the creator of ER), includes Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Costner in a tale of corporate downsizing. Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame, and Sean Penn is her husband Joe Wilson, in Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman. Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, which garnered much acclaim at Cannes, is another strong selection.

CIFF loves to bring in the starpower when it comes to its tributes, and this year's festival has three: Guillermo del Toro, Forrest Whitaker, and producer Paula Wagner. How many questions about The Hobbit do you think Mr. del Toro will be asked?

Back to the subject of surprises. We'll be honest: the bulk of movies in the lineup are ones we know nothing about. They're from directors we've never heard of, and some are even from countries we'd have trouble finding on the map (Burkina Faso contributes The Place in Between; A Screaming Man is from Chad.) You know what? That's very exciting. There's an edginess in these unknown titles that draws us in. Horror seems big this year. Not only are there at least two zombie flicks (Big Tits Zombie and the Chicago-lensed The Defiled), there's also others involving cannibalism (We Are What We Are), limbless sadists (Caterpillar), and anatomic obsession (The Sentiment of the Flesh). A chef takes the ultimate form of revenge against an unscrupulous food blogger in Bitter Feast.

Sure, there's a Jackie Chan movie (Little Big Soldier), but also two other martial arts-themed movies that are unknown to us (Sword of Desperation and Abacus and Sword, recasting the samurai picture for the white collar world). Two films from Romania (Tuesday, After Christmas and If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle) have us itching to find out if we'll see another Police, Adjective this year.

Speaking of whistling, Andrew Bird turns soundtrack composer/performer with Norman, a portrait of a troubled teenager. All That I Love has a punk band at the center of its story about 1980's Poland. Other performance-themed selections include Nannerl, Mozart's Sister, about Amadeus' talented sibling; Thunder Soul, a documentary about an inner city high school funk band; On Tour, which follows a rowdy burlesque troupe as they criss-cross France; and Louder Than a Bomb, focusing on poetry slamming kids here in Chicago.

Out of many fine documentaries on offer, Catching Hell just might be the most painful to watch (for Cubs fans anyway). ESPN Films and acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney tackle the pop fly that will live in infamy, one that was snagged by a mild-mannered sports fan by the name of Steve Bartman. You might have heard of him.

So. Well over a hundred movies (including several programs of shorts) screening over a period of two weeks. We'll do our best to preview several of them for you, but because we're not superhuman, be sure to check out coverage by other locals we like: Time Out Chicago, Ferdy on Films, CINE-FILE, and Nick Davis.

To borrow a quote, we'll see you at the movies.