Once little more than a safe haven for every zero-budget zombie movie spit out of the Midwest, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, now in its 18th year, continues to grasp for an identity. This year’s fest, which opens Thursday 2 and ends next week, includes everything from I-have-a-camera-and-know-an-eccentric documentaries like Total Badass (Sunday 5)—about Austin, Texas’s most self-aggrandizing shithead—to European-friendly, molasses-slow mood pieces like the entrancing Observers (Sunday 5), which essentially takes last year’s CIFF winner How I Ended This Summer and strips all traces of plot and suspense from its frigid bones.
The Color Wheel (Saturday 4) walks and talks like something straight out of South by Southwest, but it’s an odder duck than it first lets on. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Impolex) stars as one half of a brother-sister duo bickering its way through a road trip. A better sibling comedy than Cold Weather, the film builds to a transgressive and oddly moving climax—the kind a mumblecore mainstay like Joe Swanberg might try for but never properly pull off.
Too many films here simply overstay their welcome. Take, for example, Heavy Metal Picnic (Sunday 5), Jeff Krulik’s belated sequel to his own bootleg rock doc “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” Four times longer than the original, Picnic unwisely intercuts its onsite festivities with Anvil-style reunion footage of the featured band, completely missing the point. (As “Parking Lot” slyly suggested, the headbangers in attendance are mostly superfans of themselves.)
And then there’s Some Girls Never Learn (Thursday 2), the fest’s profoundly strange, fitfully hilarious opening-night selection. Resembling nothing so much as a sci-fi epic directed by Adult Swim Dadaists Tim and Eric, Jerzy Rose’s anti-comedy chases the ghost of Amelia Earhart through a neon-pink ether. It’d be nice to report that the film sustains its wonky comic inspiration throughout; alas, a little of this kind of thing goes a long way. There’s a reason Tim and Eric episodes last only 15 minutes.
To that end, the safest bet here may well be the shorts programs. Though uneven by nature, these collections offer not only the most eclectic but also the most legitimately “underground” work in the festival. One program, evocatively titled My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains (Friday 3), boasts at least two avant-garde triumphs: Jem Cohen’s intimate artist portrait “Anne Truitt, Working” and John Price’s scrapbook tribute to his children, “Home Movie.” If CUFF ever commits to a single programming principle, these are the kind of idiosyncratic efforts from which it could built a better fest.