21 Becca Hall, Julian Antos and Kyle Westphal, Founders, The Northwest Chicago Film Society
Becca Hall, Julian Antos, and Kyle Westphal were programmers and projectionists at the always-described-as “late and lamented” Bank of America Cinema series, a four-decade-long cinephile’s fever dream in a Portage Park bank branch that closed around Christmas 2010. But they wouldn’t let the dream of the repertory moviehouse go dark: as The Northwest Chicago Film Society, celluloid projections continue the tradition of going with the grain on a larger, grander screen at the Patio Theater west on Irving Park Road. This season alone, studio archive prints and sources like the Library of Congress and George Eastman House provide the likes of early Hitchcock, Terrence Malick’s “Days Of Heaven” and Philip Kaufman’s 1964 “Goldstein,” which follows a “Hasidic hobo” on the crunchy streets of 1964 Chicago. Of their goal, the trio write, “We believe that all of this history–not just of film, but of twentieth-century industry, labor, recreation and culture–is more intelligible when it’s grounded in unsimulated experience: seeing a film in a theater, with an audience, and projected from film stock. More than art, cinema marks time and space. It gives them dignity and form… We don’t find the same magnificence in video projection. Going to the movies should mean more than watching a consumer product violently cajoled into filling a theater screen.”
22 Michael Kutza, founder and artistic director, Chicago International Film Festival
What’s the old saying? Even the oldest building, if it stands decades long enough against the brace of Chicago’s worst weather, it becomes dignified? The indefatigable, tart-tongued Michael Kutza, Chicago International Film Festival founder, and artistic director since 1964, may not be an edifice, but as Chicago film goes, he’s one of the last standing from a bygone era. And that’s not just whomever might have comprised a “film scene in 1964, but the theaters where CIFF played each fall: the Carnegie, the Granada, the Uptown, the Village, the Playboy, the Fine Arts, the Esquire, the Biograph.” All have fallen. But now the logo that West Sider Kutza designed at twenty-two, a pair of eyes composited from those of silent screen sirens Theda Bara, Pola Negri and Mae Murray, overlooks the bland efficiency of River East. CIFF is the oldest competitive film fest in North America, and after many downs and ups in its forty-nine years, including a battle for control in 1995 in which Kutza emerged victorious, the festival seems poised to persist. There are naysayers (including this newspaper in the 1990s), such as the Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who asked last year, “Is the Chicago International Film Festival good, good enough or not quite that?” With a staff led by managing director Vivian Teng and programming director Mimi Plauché, CIFF will surely reach beyond 2014’s golden anniversary, with more opportunities to build substance atop numbers (131 feature-length films from sixty countries this year). In 2010, Kutza summed up his philosophy simply: “My idea of watching a film has stayed the same after all these years. I like settling into a dark theater full of people.”
23 Patrick Friel, programmer
Patrick Friel is coming up on twenty years of independent film programming and curation. “I’m not thrilled by the state of film exhibition or programming or filmmaking per se,” he says of the current scene. Experimental and alternative programming has always drawn a small, if consistent audience and, even as groups and screening spaces come and go, Friel has programmed the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, which turned twenty-five in September, since 2001, first as part of Chicago Filmmakers, then freelance. He’s also served as founder and programmer of the White Light Cinema series since 2008, and as managing editor of listings and review website Cine-File Chicago. “My ‘thrills’ are always with new great films and filmmakers or new discoveries of older work. The thing that scares me the most (though frustrates or upsets are better words) is the trend towards only doing film preservation and restoration in digital, with no move back to 35mm, and the increasing practice of studios to limit access to prints, not strike new prints, etc. I despair of not being able to see great films from the first hundred years of film history on celluloid.” Closer to home, Friel says that “individuals make Chicago a film city: programmers (professional and amateur), critics (professional and amateur), filmmakers, archivists (Chicago Film Archives), professors, great projectionists, tech people (James Bond, Justin Dennis), and so on. There has always been a rich and diverse community of people in Chicago with strong passions for film. What we don’t seem to have is an audience base as large as their activities deserve.”
24 Joe Swanberg, producer-director
Six years ago, prolific Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg said, “Realistically, I’m always shooting for an LCD screen. The on-camera LCD, roughly 2.5 inches, that’s what I frame for. Everything’s getting smaller, and certainly part of me feels that I might as well make it look good here because in five years, that’s how everybody’s going to be watching it.” At thirty-two, Swanberg has his most visible success on larger screens, with the theatrical release of “Drinking Buddies,” which is at least his fourteenth feature—“I’ve lost count”—holding over at theaters across the country, grossing about $300,000 to date. While starring name actors, including Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston, its hybrid distribution is very much of today, with its true, undisclosed success (or lack thereof) for distributor Magnolia Pictures lying in digital receipts from iTunes and other streaming, download and video-on-demand services. Money factored into his early career, as well, being one of the clutch of filmmakers who discovered you could make movies for not much money at all, many of whom first debuted at the SXSW film festival and were dubbed “mumblecore.” Swanberg’s impressive output as producer-director makes him a latter-day DIY exemplar, but his greater visibility, outside of film festivals came after “V/H/S,” a horror anthology to which he contributed, and which was bought for $1 million at Sundance 2012. In 2011, he released six features, all around seventy minutes and amounting to a kind of anthology film about things on his mind about filmmaking and his personal life. (Kris Swanberg, his wife, is a filmmaker as well as a gourmet ice cream entrepreneur.) It’s a long way from “Kissing on the Mouth,” his sexually explicit post-collegiate 2005 first feature, to representation by Hollywood agency CAA and actors committing to his modern-day take on romantic comedies by the likes of Paul Mazursky on just a page and a pitch. Swanberg intends to branch out into production as well: “I’m working with a group of Chicago investors to find good low-budget projects and local filmmakers to help grow the scene here.” What is that scene? “I’ve been in Chicago for ten years and the film scene feels the same now as it did then—fractured, confused, with a chip on its shoulder. There seems to be an attitude locally like, ‘If you were any good, you wouldn’t still be here in Chicago.’ I can’t tell you how many people I meet assume I moved away years ago and seem genuinely surprised that I still live here. Part of me loves this about the city, because it means nobody’s paying attention and nobody gives a shit, but it’s frustrating that I have an easier time showing my stuff in New York than I do in Chicago.” Swanberg is currently directing an episode of a new HBO show, “Looking,” after which he finishes post on “Happy Christmas,” with Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham and Mark Webber, as well as writing a script for Fox Searchlight to direct in 2014.
25 Margaret Caples, executive director, Community Film Workshop
Chicago may be enjoying a rising tide of Hollywood film and production work lately, but it’s long been a center for nonprofit community filmmaking. Caples, a student in the first class ever offered at the South Side’s Community Film Workshop, rose to executive director nearly twenty years ago, succeeding her late husband, Jim Taylor. Today, the CFW’s mission is “designed to increase access and equity in media, and to give people of color, youth and women the tools to create media and to transform their communities.” Caples, a thirty-year veteran of media arts in Chicago, also serves on the Kartemquin board.
26 Tom Gunning, Professor, University of Chicago
The University of Chicago has become a world-class force in film scholarship with an abundance of talent, none more prominent than Tom Gunning, who is respected for feats of mentorship and influence as well as of scholarship on early cinema, Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith. While highly respected for his writing on film style, history and culture in his seventeen years at the school—his “Cinema of Attractions” idea has been widely adopted and cited as it relates to very early cinema—the Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Art History and Department of Cinema and Media Studies, Gunning’s name is affectionately invoked for effortless erudition but also keen curiosity.
27 Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune film critic
Journalists, and particularly the shrinking field of paid, professional film critics, live under an economic guillotine in the twenty-first century: you can’t just file copy anymore. Yes, you have to be a “brand,” and you have to extend that brand. Certainly, Roger Ebert knew that, and Richard Roeper learned well from him. But the Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who also has extensive experience as a theater critic, has quietly done the same. With New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, Phillips gamely took over the “At the Movies” brand in 2009, but the result was more consensus than the continual contumely that was the Siskel-Ebert trademark. Phillips has made a gentlemanly mark as a public presenter, as a host or guest or panelist at events like Ebertfest, the Film Center’s Oscar nominations panel, and Turner Classic Movies. A colleague recently compared Phillips to Vincent Canby, the New York Times’ lead film critic in the 1960s and 1970s, who today lacks the historical profile of stronger personalities like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Like Canby, the Phillips brand wields a sturdy critical voice with a moderate tone, but consistently backs difficult films like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates,” Béla Tarr’s “Turin Horse” and Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux” to the Tribune’s substantial yet largely unconcerned readership.
28 Mimi Brody, Program Director, Northwestern University’s Block Cinema
While her title is a mouthful even at an academic institution—the Pick-Laudati Curator of Film and Director of Block Cinema at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art—Mimi Brody brings vital experience from her years at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and a number of film festivals in the rich assemblage of classic and contemporary films. The Block Cinema also features events and hosts intensive conferences such as 2011’s “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” at just the right moment before the subject of “Whither! Film Criticism?” talked itself out. (A 2012 highlight: “Rethinking Film Preservation: Implications and Inspirations for the 21st Century.”) The range of sponsors is always impressive, and the modest distance from the city provides a chance to show films that have yet to debut in Chicago proper. Working on the Northwestern campus offers Brody a perspective on how old and new media clash as well, as she observed in a 2011 Reuters report. “It’s funny to see from the projection booth a sea of open laptops. They may be on Facebook while we’re asking them to watch ‘Guys and Dolls.'” Recent highlights: the twelve-part film series “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema”; eighty-year-old filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles presenting a 35mm print of his 1968 debut, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” and the tenth anniversary of “Sonic Celluloid,” an event where musicians perform new work or improvised scores to silent and experimental films.
29 Keith Phipps, Founder and Editorial Director, The Dissolve
A group exodus from the Onion’s A. V. Club by writers Keith Phipps, Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias and Nathan Rabin several months back led to a new Chicago-based film crit-and-column website under the Pitchfork Media umbrella. Founder and editorial director Phipps also drives the contributions of a nine-writer masthead which, like the revamped RogerEbert.com, which it launched within weeks of, fashions itself as a bazaar of “insight film writing” from “sharp, passionate writers.” Both websites boast airy design positioned toward a readership on the go, best read on phones and tablets. Dividing its pieces under rubrics like “Essential,” “Newsreel,” “Exposition,” “Upstream,” “Forgotbusters” and “The Conversation,” The Dissolve is designed for maximal “stickiness” and has all the brash self-assurance of a site under the stable hand of an established web content provider. Readers (and advertisers) will gauge the lasting appetite for so many teeming channels of content.
30 Mike McNamara, Festival Co-Founder and Executive Director, Midwest Independent Film Festival
An understated but vibrant mood prevails at the Midwest Independent Film Festival at Landmark Century, which has the tagline, “The Best Films of the Midwest. The First Tuesday of Every Month.” Informal cocktail mixers precede a producer’s panel on the night’s program, followed by an independent feature from Illinois or surrounding states, with an after-party for further conversation. “It’s a full evening,” says Mike McNamara, a Chicago actor who co-founded the group in 2005. “That first Tuesday, if you’re just coming out for a great time, it’ll rival your Friday.” McNamara hates the word “networking.” “We celebrate strength in the community, you go to Sundance, you’re networking, but then everything’s a networking event if you look at it that way.” At first, the programmers didn’t know if they could even find the content to last six months, but as 2014 marks their tenth anniversary, McNamara says “it’s kind of mind-blowing” that they’ve established “a film festival for filmmakers. It’s for film lovers but we specifically focus on bringing the filmmakers together.” The most recent outreach has been to show films from “folks in the advertising community, this whole other creative community we’ve worked hard to welcome in.” The monthly setup is unusual in the film festival world. “The reason we make it a year-round event as opposed to ten or twelve straight days so that there is a place for the entire independent film community to come together all year round.”
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.