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10 Films You Must See At The Chicago International Film Festival

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 11, 2016 3:52PM


By Joel Wicklund and Jacob Oller

The outrageously expansive Chicago International Film Festival is almost here and with the fest opening on Thursday, what better way to prepare for any film endeavors than with a couple of cinematic Sherpas to guide you through? We'll have a mid-fest report next week, but until then, we’ve picked ten films to dive into. We’ve also reviewed them so you don’t bring your grandmother to a sex thriller.

The truly tuned-in among you may have heard of a few of these films, but for the most part we’ve tried to dig through the deluge to find you some hidden gems. There’s also something here for everyone, be they art-house devotees or casual film fans. Don’t be overwhelmed, be informed (and seem super cultured in front of your friends).

In addition to the recommendations below, there is much anticipation for new films from acclaimed artists like Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) and Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden). Many prominent filmmakers will be in attendance, including Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Mask) for special tribute programs.

All films screen at AMC's River East 21 Theatres. Showtimes and ticket information (individual screenings or festival passes) are available at the CIFF website.

La La Land (Oct. 13): Writer/Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his breakout Whiplash, this obsessively crafted musical takes everything you love about a Hollywood-set meta-movie like Singin’ in the Rain and adds brightness and emotional depth for a modern take on music and love. A movie of compromises, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling belt addicting and affecting tunes while their romance and careers tumble and spin with the same deft choreography as their modern tap dances. And don’t worry, it’s spectacular for all ages. If you like musicals, romances, or movies that love movies, this one earns your love with every highly coordinated number. —Jacob Oller

Christine (Oct. 15 & 16): Rebecca Hall delivers an intense and discomforting performance as Christine Chubbuck, a Florida newscaster who shot herself on live TV in 1974, in this uncompromising portrait of depression taking its ultimate toll. Almost relentlessly bleak in both its emotional tone and deliberately drab imagery, the film is a powerful, though draining experience. It's a rough one, but a memorable one, with vivid period detail and fine supporting performances from Michael C. Hall, Steppenwolf’s own Tracy Letts (scheduled to appear at the Oct. 15 showing), and especially Maria Dizzia, who carries a quietly devastating closing scene. —Joel Wicklund

A Quiet Passion (Oct. 16 & 19): An oil painting smeared with repressed feminine emotion, this Emily Dickinson biopic comes from director Terence Davies with a light touch. Full of caustic wit and candlelit wonder, the shots obsess over their cottage enclosure just as Dickinson clawed at her own captivity. This velvety firelit prison is the perfect place to grapple with what it means to be a progressive, a Christian, and a poet. While some exchanges can devolve into tedious Dawkins-like quip battles and its finale sprawls as unmetered as a coffeeshop open mic night, the film has enough beauty that it’ll bring out the inner poet in all of us. —Jacob Oller

Hunter Gatherer (Oct. 15-17): This off-kilter little drama will either leave you cold or win you over with its eccentric qualities. Put me in the latter category. Andre Royo (unforgettable as the good-hearted informant/addict Bubbles on The Wire) plays an ex-con, pining for an ex-girlfriend and trying to make money through a poorly conceived scam involving refrigerator disposal. He befriends a young man, possibly autistic, trying to repair a homemade respirator keeping his grandfather alive. South Central L.A. takes on a weird yet welcoming vibe in this debut feature from writer-director Josh Locy (scheduled to attend all three showings). —Joel Wicklund

Apprentice (Oct. 17 & 18): Shadows weigh heavily on this stunning Singaporean drama as a prison guard finds himself reluctantly ingratiating himself with, and ultimately working for, his prison’s executioner. A workplace and family drama about the mechanics and mechanisms we use to inflict and cope with death, the film is led by the harrowed, quietly consuming performance of Fir Rahman and the bleak blue collar realities of capital punishment. Intense, workmanlike, and with a killer ending (no pun intended), the movie sheds light onto the bureaucracy of Hell. —Jacob Oller

Abacus (Oct. 18): Chicago documentarian and frequent Kartemquin Films collaborator Steve James (Hoop Dreams) mixes the true-crime drama of Serial and Making a Murderer with the financial rage of The Big Short in this film about the only bank to be indicted over the 2008 financial crisis. A small family bank that caters to Chinatown immigrants, Abacus comes under fire as the only bank “small enough to jail”—but the prosecutorial detail, background work and touching interviews with the daughters of the bank’s founder paint an elaborate portrait of a community built on trust and personal relationships. That this is taken advantage of is unsurprising, but more heartbreaking thanks to James’s thorough exploration of the people affected by the case. With more triumphant closure than most true-crime stories, don’t wait for this to hit Netflix. —Jacob Oller

Neruda (Oct. 16 & 17): This dynamic blend of biography, fanciful suspense and caustic historical commentary paints an unexpected portrait of Chilean poet and Communist-party activist Pablo Neruda. The great writer (well played by Luis Gnecco) is shown as vain and cynical, with pride driving his actions more than political commitment. Neruda’s period in exile is factual, but the film invents a dogged but conflicted detective (Gael Garcia Bernal in top form) to hunt him. The movie seems to almost mock the notion of political idealism, but director Pablo Larrain (No, The Club) does so with lively camerawork and a playful tone. Larrain’s highly anticipated Jackie (with Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy) also plays at the fest. —Joel Wicklund

I Promise You Anarchy (Oct. 19, 21 & 22): Titillating equally with its queer sensuality and noirish crime, neither of which is entirely the point, this film feels like a modern indie Godfather. Sexual politics and Mexican machismo rasp upon each other, filing the young criminals at its heart into husks as they scheme to escape their status as small-timers to full-blown racketeers. When real danger rears its head, it is immediately felt. All the power games that come with teen sexuality take a backseat when someone sets a revolver on the dashboard. Ruthlessness and freedom both have their prices and we see the leads mature as they decide which is worth paying—and sacrificing their criminal daydreams. —Jacob Oller

9 Rides (Oct. 14, 21, & 23): On the heels of the critically acclaimed Tangerine comes another movie shot entirely on an iPhone—and it looks great. This second feature written and directed by former NFL wide receiver Matthew Cherry marks him as a talent to watch. The structure—nine different encounters an Uber driver has on New Year’s Eve—might recall Jim Jarmusch’s taxi-set anthology Night on Earth, but Cherry sticks with one driver and carries a romantic subplot through all nine segments. This stylish and sophisticated indie captures nightlife denizens with a low-key grace. —Joel Wicklund

Imperfections (Oct. 14, 22 & 23): Chicago music scene veteran David Singer’s first feature film lives down to its title in some ways: the plot gets a little unwieldy, some of the dialogue is labored and at times it feels like an overlong sitcom episode. But it has something in abundance that many modern comedies lack—charm. This tale of a planned jewelry fraud and accompanying romantic entanglements has a looseness and generosity to it that lets you easily overlook its flaws, and locals will love seeing parts of the city few movies shot here bother to show. —Joel Wicklund