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10 Films You Must See At The Chicago International Film Festival

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 10, 2017 4:15PM

The Shape of Water

By Jacob Oller and Scott Pfeiffer

It's that time of year again, when we fly over the vast terrain of the Chicago International Film Festival and, as your cinematic pilots, point out features of the landscape not to miss. The fest opens on Thursday, Oct. 12; and we'll have more picks next week in our mid-fest report. In the meantime, here are ten films to get you started, each a different type of experience.

This year's fest offers an especially strong documentary slate, as well as giving Chicagoans a chance to catch up with recent work by some of the masters of world cinema. Besides the Claire Denis below, there are movies by Philippe Garrel (Lover for a Day), Hong Sang-Soo (On the Beach at Night Alone), and Andre Techine (Golden Years). We especially eagerly anticipate Agnes Varda's Faces Places, her collaboration with JR.

There are many more prospective treasures out there, and part of the fun may be hunting for your own. You could try a film apiece by a father and daughter from the republic of Georgia: Zaza Urushadze's The Confession and his daughter Ana​ ​Urushadze's Scary​ ​Mother​​. Or you could see Isabelle Huppert act with her daughter, Lolita Chammah, in Barrage. Or Sam Shepard's last film, Never Here. Artists attending the festival this year include Vanessa​ Redgrave​, who will introduce​ ​her new​ ​documentary,​ ​​Sea​ ​Sorrow, about the global refugee criss, and Alfre Woodard, who will be honored with a Career Achievement Award. Director Reginald Hudlin and actors Chadwick Boseman​, Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown will be attendance for the opening night feature, Marshall, a legal drama about an early case in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

All films screen at AMC's River East 21 Theatres (322 E. Illinois St.). You can find showtimes and ticket information (individual screenings or festival passes) at the CIFF website.

The Shape of Water (Oct. 26): This year’s closing night presentation is the Oscar-buzz-heavy The Shape of Water from master of monsters Guillermo del Toro. Rather than go for scares or even bloody Gothic beauty, del Toro this time turns to a forbidden love of the Other. This film’s beast isn’t its monster, but the prejudice keeping him from his girl and vice versa. A striking Sally Hawkins performance matches that of perennial shapeshifter Doug Jones, with Chicago mainstay Michael Shannon providing support. Shannon will be attending the closing ceremony, which should add to the draw of the already divine and ethereal romance. —Jacob Oller

Let the Sunshine In (Oct. 22 & 23): This uproarious satire of bourgeois romance by legendary French director Claire Denis is a fresh, original look at the contradictions of true connection, unpredictable in form and content. Its heart is a magnificent comic performance by Juliette Binoche as a divorced mother and artist in her fifties, strong but insecure, who searches for a loving companion amongst an impossibly self-absorbed set. She's looking for authenticity while not always being her own true self, and she and her lovers continually sabotage happiness by talking themselves out of it. Binoche's performance is so radiantly charged with nuances of heartbreak, vulnerability and ecstasy that you may find yourself holding your breath from moment to moment, watching her react. The great cinematographer Agnès Godard's camera circles with all the circular talk, as if examining the curious behavior of these people, and it's all presided over, gloriously, by Etta James. —Scott Pfeiffer

The Square (Oct. 13 & 14): Dry, painful satire comes aplenty in this lengthy pastiche of the art world by Palme d’Or-winning director Ruben Östlund. A museum curator’s multiple plights unveil ego and misanthropy behind the liberal guise of morality. Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss dominate the proceedings, which, though they can be long-winded, are often laugh-out-loud absurd or cringeworthy. If you’re in the market for a foreign comedy that isn’t afraid to stare ridiculous hypocrisy in the face until its audience is about to burst, The Square has something you can’t get anywhere else. —Jacob Oller

They (Oct. 13, 17 & 25): Tehran-born Anahita Ghazvinizadeh studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and made the memorable Needle, which won first prize in the short film competition at Cannes in 2013. Now, she has written, directed and edited her first feature, They, an ambient portrait of a transgender teen, J, facing an end-of-childhood medical decision: to transition or not. As J, the unaffected Rhys Fehrenbacher gives the fragile, fragmentary proceedings a core of quiet strength. With an eye for the natural world akin to silent film, Ghazvinizadeh has made a timely work evoking various forms of limbo: J's big sister's fiancé is an Iranian man in today's uncertain U.S., and a dinner party scene with his Iranian-American family is warm, funny and true. Free of contrived melodrama, the film is dedicated to Ghazvinizadeh's mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, and shows the influence of his slippery, metaphysical humanism. —Scott Pfeiffer

The Endless (Oct. 21 & 22): A puzzle that’s very genre shifts as you begin to solve it, The Endless is writer/director/stars Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s third and most accomplished film. The two play brothers drawn back to a cult community in the desert they’d occupied in their childhood. Their growing concern that something is deeply strange and wrong with the community, its people, and the nature of the world around them drives the film more palpably than its clever special effects and sharp dialogue. One of the most intellectually stimulating films of the year, The Endless is the self-aware H.P. Lovecraft story you didn't know you needed. —Jacob Oller

Mutafukaz (Oct. 19 & 20): Animation like you’ve never seen before, this French-Japanese co-production blends anime stylings with something closer to the aesthetics and writing style of The Boondocks—with all the baggage that comes from jamming R-rated content into a kid-simple story. A dirty world of broke weirdos, monsters and government agents threatens the cartoonish protagonist Angelino. That is, until things get even weirder. An engaging and unique film featuring world-guarding luchadores and an evil “master race,” Mutafukaz is oddball midnight fun despite its flaws. —Jacob Oller

Spoor (Oct. 14, 15 & 20): This Polish eco-thriller, a majestic cri de cœur, shows venerable director Agnieszka Holland working with all the celebratory rage of youth. Co-directed with her daughter, Kasia Adamik, it boasts a tender, incendiary performance by Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka as a flinty retiree living in a woodsy mountain village where hunters begin to turn up murdered. The town's authorities consider her an unstable, if harmless, eccentric, a mystic who shakes with grief and white-hot rage about hunting—mass murder, to her. She and a multigenerational group of misfits launch their own investigation based on her theory that the killings are revenge crimes committed by wild animals. Though the filmmakers intentionally make her too abrasive and unreliable for easy embrace, she's so slyly good-humored that Spoor plays as both an unsettling mystery and an unabashed call to green revolution. —Scott Pfeiffer

The Other Side of Hope (Oct. 13 & 14): I chortled out loud at Aki Kaurismaki's ultra-dry Finnish comedy, next to which the Sahara is a rainforest. It centers around a taciturn and tough but goodhearted restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) and a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland (the exquisitely deadpan Sherwan Haji), who greets the vicissitudes of his life with a bemused twinkle in his eye. The oddball characters populating the restaurant, including the staff and some hip old rock 'n' roll cats, are unremittingly amusing; even the colors and shadows are somehow funny, all part of Kaurismaki's unmistakable eye for this singular society poised for so long between east and west. This is a wonderfully wry treatment of a cruel, sad reality—the refugee crisis—and the two cagey leads are my favorite movie characters in a good long while. —Scott Pfeiffer

A Moon of Nickel and Ice (Oct. 15 & 16): French-Canadian filmmaker Francois Jacob carries on the great Quebecois tradition of Direct Cinema with this haunting, visually stunning documentary. It opens a window onto Norilsk, a ghostly industrial city in Arctic Russia that might as well be a crater on the moon, where the concrete buildings are gray, there are no trees, and it snows constantly. The town's history as one of the outposts of the Soviet gulag is mainly hushed up, but when one resident theorizes that the tundra's cold and solitude led a local dog to kill itself (an act with which she finds herself in some sympathy), it evinces the gallows humor deployed by the memorable people who make this place their home, including a theater troupe, nickel miners and teenagers of varying ambition. —Scott Pfeiffer

Hunting Season (Oct. 13): Natalia Garagiola’s directorial debut is a coming-of- age film of blood, acne and chapped lips that reminds us of the imperfect flesh and bone we share with the living things around us. Teenager Nahuel's mom dies, so he goes to stay with his re-married biological father in their house in the woods. A sullen little Holden Caulfield type, a smarmy bad boy most recently familiar in characters played by Miles Teller, Nahuel (played by newcomer Lautaro Bettoni) embodies youthful urban dissent struggling against whatever—here, it’s rural hunting tradition—finds itself unlucky enough to be in its path. The film he’s in is just as vigorous and raw, with a sweet core. —Jacob Oller