After blitzing through many of the Chicago International Film Festival’s 2021 offerings ahead of its 11-day run—including its eventual award-winners like Memoria, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, Drive My Car and The Worst Person in the World—there were still plenty of movies left on the fest’s 89-movie program to see. I checked out as many of them as I could, making extensive use of the virtual screening options, to get a good sample of the international, documentary, first-time filmmaker, and other sections that might not have the buzz of something like Dune or The French Dispatch.
What I found were tricky films that had a keen sense of style (Broadcast Signal Intrusion, The Harder They Fall) or structural confidence (In Front of Your Face) that made sense why they’d be included, but for one reason or another didn’t fully connect with me. There were also those that’s placement in the fest were a little more confusing (Halloween Kills). But in that sweet spot, running beneath the current of soon-to-be-awards-favorites, were a few films that hit me in my favorite place for festivals: That giddy place that makes you feel like you’ve got a secret you can’t wait to share with the world, a combination of lucky glee and insuppressible brain-buzz that turns a random festival attendee into a full-throated evangelist.
Here are five under-the-radar films that brought that feeling out for me, and that I hope you keep an eye on as they make their way out into the world at large:
Director: Panah Panahi
The debut of writer/director Panah Panahi (yes, son of famed Iranian New Waver Jafar Panahi), Hit the Road is a sharp and endearing portrait of a family painted through a series of road trip conversations—often veiled, openly lying, or disguised by ballbusting humor. His ensemble includes a car karaoke queen mother (Pantea Panahiha), broken-legged father (Hasan Majuni), quiet driver son (Amin Simiar) and his scene-stealing fireball of a little brother (Rayan Sarlak). And a cute puppy, which means constant pee breaks. Together, they traverse the dry and rural roads fulfilling checkpoints for a mysterious quest that becomes clearer and clearer as they go. Panahi dwells on lived-in conversational rhythms as much as landscapes, both beautiful and affecting in their own ways. Sarlak’s manic little squirt often pays his respects to the picturesque horizon, but every long and loving sparring match between family members contains just as much reverence. It’s this adoration for closeness—and the confidence and trust in your cast to simply sit and shoot them rambling affectionate obscenities for long, long takes—that makes the film’s bittersweetness work so well. When Sarlak’s hilarious antics (he needs to get his contraband cell phone back because of all the people who constantly want to chat with him) and his parents’ deadpanned one-liners give way to fears about loss and separation, familiar modes of connective chatter become coping mechanisms and then reverse course, sometimes in seconds. Panahiha is particularly potent at this, letting it all play on her face—while singing her heart out, no less. For his part, the incredible Sarlak gets a musical moment as show-stopping as Mads Mikkelsen’s Another Round finale last year. It’s a movie where anyone can be a punchline, but nobody’s ever the butt of the joke. There’s too much love at hand, and even a child’s goofy babblings about the Batmobile can be transcendent moments of beauty. The road trip always has to have an end, but the excellent Hit the Road promises that the journey is as good as the people crammed in alongside you.—Jacob Oller
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
The awkward charm of coincidental encounters is what sets Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in motion, a collection of three short films about the unexpected outcomes of otherwise mundane interactions. Each segment lasts approximately 40 minutes, focusing on full-length casual conversations and the intense emotions they immediately provoke. The film’s anthology approach works as a compelling contrast to Hamaguchi’s other 2021 feature, Japan’s Oscar selection Drive My Car, which itself is a three-hour adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. Whether by weaving together standalone shorts or fleshing out an existing text, the director suggests that the subtleties of everyday exchanges often harbor strange secrets. Though none of the stories are connected—or even exist in the same ostensible world—there is a consistent throughline of analyzing performance. Whether it’s achieved through a character playing out imagined scenarios in their mind, communicating the vulnerable passion of sex or roleplaying to receive long-awaited answers to unquelled questions, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy demonstrates the benefit of inhabiting delusion. In fact, the film’s English-language title addresses this very fixation. The idea of fortune is not inherently bound to prosperity, but rather the more intangible and improbable intricacies of fated consequences. In this sense, the role of fantasy is to act as a salve for the often depressing mundanity of real-life obligations and social mores, whether through speculative daydreams, beguiling lies or invited deceit. Hamaguchi certainly possesses a fascination for depicting multifaceted women in his filmography (Happy Hour, Asako I & II and now Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy as well as Drive My Car), a trait that can surely be traced back to the filmmaker’s decades-long obsession with Cassavetes. This interest is compounded by his prominent focus on romance in women’s lives: In the case of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, these relationships range from doormat ex-boyfriends, unforeseen objects of seduction and long-lost loves. However, the women explored in each segment are hardly defined by their success in securing a happy union. Particularly due to the short films ranging from ending on a sour or slightly saccharine note, the characters are given much more room to be frustrated in their relationships—this theme of disharmony in otherwise functional relationships being another recurring motif in Hamaguchi’s films. Both Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car incorporate themes of the erotic thrill of crafting a narrative, the power in playing pretend, and the malleable and ever-transmogrifying nature of human relationships. Though his highly anticipated Drive My Car distills these musings in a slightly more meticulous manner, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy cuts to the chase in a way that’s quaintly quirky—and never dull to watch unfold.—Natalia Keogan
Director: Joe Winston
A by-the-numbers but nonetheless emotionally affecting documentary about a vital subject, Punch 9 For Harold Washington recounts the campaigns and short-lived tenure of one of Chicago’s greatest mayors—and the first Black mayor in the city’s history. Director Joe Winston combs through an onslaught of news footage, of which there is a bounty since Washington’s nomination became a national issue thanks to the insidious blend of outspoken racism and backdoor Chicago politicking it brought out, to craft compelling trail drama. Connecting it to contemporary Chicago politics isn’t hard because many of the local officials who were key players in that 1983-1987 span are still active today. The machine’s still whirring along just fine. Just ask Edward M. Burke, who was one of the aldermen opposing Washington and is still an alderman…despite being a Trump attorney currently under indictment for extortion and racketeering. This access to Washington’s contemporaries and fellow officeholders is both impressive and muzzling; there’s only so much critique you can level at former mayor Rahm Emanuel or Lori Lightfoot (mayor-elect when the doc was put together) while still including their voices. Winston still gets a few jabs in here and there at the two-faced and glad-handing politicians guilty of exactly what Washington railed against, which helps offset some of his less-than-subtle choices with editing and score, but the film hangs almost entirely on the sheer magnetism of Washington himself. His clever humor, eloquent speeches and no-bullshit approach to bettering the city are as readily apparent and alluring in 2021 as they were in the ‘80s. For Chicagoans, it’ll be the first of many films to pay tribute to one of the city’s modern legends. For the rest of the world, it’ll either introduce them to an unmissable bolt of political lightning or remind them of when the city wasn’t a dog whistle, but a beacon—a place you’d think of and ask, “How’s Harold?”—Jacob Oller
Director: Luiz Bolognesi
A 76-minute documentary from director Luiz Bolognesi and co-writer/subject/Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa, The Last Forest blends gripping mythological reenactments with slice-of-life footage to craft an incisive and insightful look at an Indigenous culture resisting the corrupting—of mind and body, thanks to chemicals and COVID-19—influence of capitalistic greed. In the rainforests of Brazil, the lure of gold still brings out the worst in outsiders. Through arresting shots drenched in green and yellow, then submerged in smoke and sound, Bolognesi sets the scene while Kopenawa tells their stories. Their methods combine to make The Last Forest a rhythmic and liminal protest that’ll easily entrance you with its skillful sensations. But Bolognesi’s technical abilities at capturing motion and process shouldn’t be ignored, despite the film’s sometimes gossamer beauty: Watching a bow draw and loose an arrow, or a kid nestle into a hammocked parent, is artful and satisfying through his lens. In that blend of practicality and abstraction, it truly feels like Bolognesi and Kopenawa let you into their lives—and there’s no better way to build empathy and respect than that.—Jacob Oller
Director: Claudia Huaiquimilla
Claudia Huaiquimilla’s command over her young cast in My Brothers Dream Awake makes the movie. Based on a true event, the story of tweens thrown at the mercy of SENAME (basically an even worse, more corrupt juvie) in Chile constructs its ensemble and their relationships immediately and believably. There’re the brothers, Ángel and Franco (non-pros Iván Cáceres and César Herrera), the mohawked new badass (Andrew Basters) and their funny non-masc friend (Sebastián Ayala) whose very presence and acceptance by their peers seems like a radical act—and one of protest considering that the kids are separated along a gender binary by The Man. Ángel’s guilt at being the older brother, who should’ve kept Franco (prone to depression) safe, runs rampant throughout the film, which engages with its kids’ mental health through a variety of dreams, flashbacks and other altered states of shooting. These hazy attempts at visualizing interiority don’t work quite as well as the adult failure and realism-drenched rapport filling the vignettes, but that’s because Huaiquimilla is so assured in representing the institutional segments in ways that harken back to prison movie tropes while finding entirely unique angles to address. Filling the movie with honest moments of connection and emotional/physical need between the kids, Huaiquimilla soars when shooting note passing, nervous kissing, toothbrush sharpening, and the casual closeness of sedation. Their tragedy isn’t so much foreshadowed as it is omnipresent, but they couldn’t break your heart so well if they weren’t so convincingly true to life.—Jacob Oller