The Chicago International Film Festival wrapped up this weekend, closing out their impressive program with Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders,” a film that has been pushed possibly as far as next awards season due to the strike. The buzz around the Windy City was that this year’s program for CIFF was the best in a generation. It was the most impressive since I moved to Chicago in 1997 and started paying attention. They got most of the major films from Cannes and the other fall fests while also programming a few titles that Toronto passed on due to the lack of red carpets. Every night for the fest run, there was something worth seeing, and I was lucky enough to see some of the best films of the year at CIFF 2023, including one, maybe two, in this trio of potential awards contenders.
The best of my admittedly limited (although not really when one factors in the repeats from TIFF to CIFF) sampling of the program was Andrew Haigh’s gorgeous “All of Us Strangers,” a deeply moving film about loss and loneliness with a quartet of performances that blend together in a breathtaking way. It’s inspiring to see a filmmaker and an ensemble operating on the same emotional level. It’s clear that Haigh created such a comfortable set for these performers, who display the kind of vulnerability that we don’t often see in dramas. We see melodrama, and we see manipulation, but honest vulnerability is rare and special. The people here are genuinely damaged, and it takes a form of cinematic bravery to pull that off.
Andrew Scott of “Fleabag” fame does the best work of his career as Adam, a London-based writer who exits his apartment one day during a fire alarm to see he’s the only one in the building who did so. His building is pretty empty, besides the handsome young man staring down at him from the sixth floor. They make eye contact, and Adam learns that his neighbor’s name is Harry (Paul Mescal) when he drunkenly knocks on his door. Nothing happens that night, but Adam starts to open up to Harry later, and the two form a relationship. Meanwhile, Adam takes trips back to his childhood home, where he encounters his parents (Jamie Bell & Claire Foy), who died 30 years ago in a car accident. They are the same as when they left a young Adam, and the trio catches up on life with Adam coming out to the parents who never got to know him and questioning some of the choices his parents made when he was young.
It’s a fantastic conceit, imagining what a grown man would say to the parents he lost in childhood and vice versa. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to catch up with someone they lost? One never gets over that kind of sudden break in reality, and “All of Us Strangers” is about a man realizing that he has to essentially use a writing device to overcome his grief. Are the encounters between Adam and his parents all in his head? Are we supposed to read them as ghosts? None of that matters because Haigh is more interested in emotional truth than literal. And all of his actors operate on that level. Scott is tender and reserved in pure ways, while Foy is emotionally devastating as a mother who never got to watch her son grow up. That’s what matters and what I won’t forget for a long time. The end is a little rushed, but that’s a minor complaint for one of the major films of 2023.
Many will also consider “Poor Things” to be one of the major films of 2023. The latest from “The Lobster” director Yorgos Lanthimos has already won the Golden Lion at Venice, and the people who do this kind of thing predict it to be one of the major Oscar players of the upcoming award season. It’s definitely going to spark some conversations regarding its unpacking of how men try to control women through physical manipulation, financial imprisonment, bodily autonomy, and more. It’s a daringly constructed film, a movie that leans into surreal depictions of deformed biology and extreme debauchery. It can be hysterically funny and incredibly disturbing, sometimes in the same beat, and it’s the most visually accomplished film that Lanthimos has made, with sharp production values on every level that blend together to create a dream-like vision. Finally, much like Haigh’s film, it’s a product of an ensemble all on the same page with great performers orbiting the most fearless work to date from Emma Stone.
The “La La Land” star plays Bella, a Victorian-era woman who is saved from a Dr. Frankenstein figure named Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) after she attempts suicide. Brought back to life in an impossible way, she is raised by the man she calls “God,” himself a miracle of unimaginable science. There are body horror elements in “Poor Things” that reminded me of Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future,” another film about evolutionary impossibilities in which the human body becomes a malleable form of expression. Baxter brings in a medical student named Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who ends up a beau for Bella. Still, she’s more fascinated by an obvious conman named Duncan Wedderbum (Mark Ruffalo). She flees with him to see the world, discovering she has potential never presented in God’s Garden of Eden.
“Poor Things” is a defiantly strange film, a movie that obviously echoes Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it’s more about liberation than the folly of playing God. With the possible exception of the warmth that Dafoe surprisingly brings his mad scientist, the men in “Poor Things” are uniformly awful, faux intellectuals who hold power over Bella purely because of gender and society. Through each episodic development in the script by Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”) from the book by Alasdair Gray, Bella becomes more self-aware and confident. I need to see it again to really appreciate (or not) how this character develops, but I’m eager to do so just to see a performer throwing her all into a role, comfortable enough in her talent to make unexpected choices that no one else would make.
There’s also a fearlessness to Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” but it’s in pursuit of a hollow, misguided venture. With elements of Sofia Coppola and Patricia Highsmith, the latest from the Oscar-winning director of “Promising Young Woman” is a gorgeous misfire, a film that looks stunning but ultimately has nothing to say. It’s a movie that twists itself into so many sexually charged knots that it can never untangle. When it purports to get deep about privilege or even sociopathology, it careens into ridiculousness instead of insight. The excess of “Saltburn” will get it some attention, but that’s about all it’s got: another study in how more is sometimes significantly less.
Getting past the disturbing realization that a film set in 2000 is a period piece that takes place over two decades ago, “Saltburn” centers on Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an awkward student at Oxford University. (It’s worth noting that Fennell went to school there, and this project is like a blend of her experience at the esteemed university with a dash of deconstruction of extreme wealth brought by her work on “The Crown.”) Oliver becomes infatuated with the Big Man on Campus, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who is rich, confident, and gorgeous. After he befriends Felix (by being of service to him, which is how rich people make friends), Oliver invites him to come to their palatial estate for the summer, and much decadence and disaster unfold at Saltburn.
It’s a credit to the mood created by Fennell that it really feels after about the halfway point of her film that every single scene could end in sex or murder. She truly enjoys taking the flaws of these aesthetically and financially blessed people and ripping them apart one by one, revealing how we are all driven by primal needs. But the cringe-inducing behavior on display that starts with Oliver literally drinking Felix’s very dirty bathwater and somehow gets even crazier feels like a hollow provocation. At first, the extreme behavior feels just in pursuit of a good laugh, but what people like Coppola and Highsmith accomplished when they tore down excess illuminated elements of the human condition relatable to all, whereas Fennell’s film just ends up being defiantly silly, stuck in the world of Saltburn as much as its characters.