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59th Chicago International Film Festival Recap

Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago
The official banner of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago

The Chicago International Film Festival returned for its 59th year and this year featured a robust lineup of award hopefuls to small independent features. Two movies—The Zone of Interest and The Holdovers—evoked strong, albeit starkly different audience reactions from the eager moviegoing Chicago community.

The Zone of Interest


An idyllic picnic happens near a lake
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago

Holocaust movies tend to put you at the center of the horror during World War II. Schindler’s List has many disturbing sequences that elicit visceral and upsetting reactions. Jonathan Glazer’s harrowing and complex The Zone of Interest  is unlike any Holocaust movie released thus far—little to no violence or torture is shown on screen. And for that precise reason, it is one of the scariest non-horror movies I’ve ever seen. 

In addition to being an atypical Holocaust film, this is simply one of the interestingly and uniquely constructed movies of the past 15-20 years. There is minimal plot—the movie follows the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), attempt to build an idyllic life next to the camp—and Glazer directs with a naturalistic, documentarian, and avant-garde style. The camera doesn’t so much follow the characters as much as it observes them in their everyday life.

There are no overt displays of inhumanity rather Glazer highlights—a phrase many people have associated with this movie—the banality of evil. Throughout the movie, the faint wails and screams of Jewish people at the camp can be heard. However, for the Höss family, it’s white noise. Smoke arises from a chimney at the camp and it’s not hard to tell what the source is, but no one from the family questions it. For Rudolf and his family, this is normal and that’s what makes it so frightening. 

Mica Levi’s booming and eerie score only adds to the unsettling atmosphere as does Łukasz Żal’s all-too-steady cinematography. Glazer does an astounding job directing The Zone of Interest, loosely using Martin Amis’ novel as inspiration, defying any and all expectations that viewers had about this film. Whether or not the film works for you, it cannot be denied that Glazer’s meticulous and precise direction is a marvelous achievement. 

This is not an easy movie to watch, and I found myself squirming many times in dread. But, it’s unlike any movie you will see this year, or in general. For that reason alone, The Zone of Interest is a necessary watch.

The Holdovers

Two men stand on a sidewalk in the snow.
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago

Sometimes, period movies channel the energy of the era they are attempting to recreate. Back in early 2021, a movie called The Little Things released on HBO Max starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto (yes, I swear this is a real movie) takes place in the ‘90s and felt like a movie from the ‘90s—in a bad way. Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is set in the ‘70s and feels like many of the heartwarming dramedies from that decade in the best way possible.

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a cantankerous teacher at a prestigious boarding school who is tasked with overseeing the holdovers—students staying at the school—during winter break. Through a series of events, he is left to deal with the rebellious Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) along with the school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). During this break, the trio learn to live with each other and form unexpected bonds. 

I love a hard-hitting drama just as much as the next person but a movie that leaves a smile on your face by the time the credits roll is just something else. These attempts at a feel-good romp can go sideways, especially if you can feel the effort in creating a special moment. The Holdovers relies on sharp, witty writing and wonderful cast chemistry, which is why it’s a successful film. 

Payne has effectively nailed the ability to seamlessly blend humor and drama through his previous endeavors and The Holdovers is no different. Some scenes in the movie will have you laughing and immediately you’ll have tears well up the next scene. This constant tonal shift can become repetitive during the course of 134 minutes, but it works more often than not primarily due to the inherent watchability of the cast.

Giamatti is in top form as a senile teacher who—spoiler—learns to loosen up a bit. He’s been one of my favorite actors, whether it be on the big screen or on TV, but I’m not sure if he’s been better than as Mr. Hunham here. Sessa is a revelation as Angus, who’s a really tough character to play. I can see the complaints of Angus coming off as grating or annoying, but I found Sessa’s portrayal convincing enough to buy into the emotional baggage and behavior of the character. Randolph is also quite good, and I can understand why she’s getting a lot of award buzz around her performance. Though, I did find her addition to the narrative to be inconsistent, and perhaps in a rewatch her performance will stand out more and/or make more sense.

That’s the thing about The Holdovers. It’s a good movie—but how good is it? It’s utterly delightful but it’s also cheesy, predictable, and simple. Is it because we get so few movies like this that I might be overrating it? Possibly. I think a rewatch will help answer that question. Till then, I know that I enjoyed the movie and it will hit even harder on a snowy day with some hot chocolate. Who could hate a movie like that?

Written by Aqib Rasheed

AQIB RASHEED is a staff writer at Film Obsessive. Member of the Chicago Indie Critics and served as the Resident Film Critic for the Loyola Phoenix from 2021-2022. An admirer of movies, old and new, from all over the world. President of the Al Pacino and David Fincher fan clubs.

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