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10 Films to See at the Chicago International Film Festival

May Contain Spoilers

The 51st Annual Chicago International Film Festival kicks off tonight with the Chicago premiere of Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre,” and this year’s iteration of one of the biggest film events in the Windy City is a remarkable one. Fest Director Michael Kutza and his team have assembled a stunning array of the greatest hits of festivals from Sundance to Toronto, and included a few interesting world premieres of their own. We’ll be hitting a few films in dispatch form over the next two weeks, but we thought we’d launch our coverage with a guide to what you should go out of your way to see, if tickets are still available. (Go here to get yours.)

I decided to stick to films that I had seen only, which means no inclusion of “Carol” or “Macbeth,” neither of which screened for press in time, both of which I’m dying to see. In chronological order:

“James White”

Producer Josh Mond’s deeply personal directorial debut was the most emotionally draining experience I had at Sundance this year. Christopher Abbott transcends the already-great work he did on television in HBO’s “Girls” and “Enlightened” as the film's title character, a young man whose history of excuses and addictions are torn down when he has to care for a mother dying of cancer (devastating work by Cynthia Nixon). Without melodrama, Mond and Abbott find the honesty in this unimaginably painful story. We’ll have an interview with both of them next month. See the film before everyone’s talking about how great it is.

10/16, 9:45pm, with Director Josh Mond and Actor Christopher Abbott in attendance

10/17, 7:30pm, with Director Josh Mond and Actor Christopher Abbott in attendance

“45 Years”

Speaking of a film everyone’s talking about, Andrew Haigh’s searing domestic drama was one of the most-buzzed films out of Toronto this year. I saw over three dozen movies there, and it was easily one of the best. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling star as a couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when a ghost from his past disrupts everything she thought she knew about their relationship. With award-worthy work by Rampling, “45 Years” captures how often that what we don’t know about our partners guides our lives. You’ll never listen to The Platters the same way again. We’ll have an interview with Haigh & Courtenay from TIFF running this December when the film is theatrically released.

10/17, 3:30pm

10/20, 6:15pm

“My Golden Days”

Famed French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin brings arguably his most accessible film to CIFF this year with this delightful coming-of-age story, told in flashbacks that beautifully blend nostalgia and even the fantasy that comes with remembering the highlights of our lives. Paul (Mathieu Amalric) is being interrogated after returning from Tajikistan and is considered a spy. He goes through his formative years, focusing heavily on his love affair with a beautiful young lady. The first conversation between young Paul and the love of his early life is reason alone to see “My Golden Days”—vibrant, delightful filmmaking. We’ll have a rare interview with Desplechin posting soon.

10/17, 5pm

10/19, 5:30pm

“Cash Only”

I wanted to dig a little deeper than previous festival darlings for this CIFF preview and, while it’s flawed, I find a lot of promise in Malik Bader’s disturbing thriller about a man who has essentially run out of options. Writer Nickola Shreli plays Elvis Martini, “The King of Lowlife Tenants,” in Detroit, MI. In the opening scene, Elvis lights his apartment on fire for the insurance money, unaware that his wife is taking a nap in the bedroom. Now, he’s a single father with a group of tenants who basically laugh at him when he needs rent money. He makes a desperate move to pay off a debt and it leads down a truly dangerous road. Bader’s film is imperfect but it has a confident energy about it. It’s the kind of piece that instantly makes one curious what its filmmaker and writer/star are doing next.

10/17, 9:30pm, with Director Malik Bader and Producer Ele Bardha in attendance

10/21, 3pm, with Director Malik Bader and Producer Ele Bardha in attendance

10/23, 5:15pm, with Director Malik Bader and Producer Ele Bardha in attendance

“Brooklyn”

Another of my favorite films from Sundance this year is John Crowley’s gorgeous love story with career-best work by Saoirse Ronan and the kind of luscious, beautiful design work that one just doesn’t see that often anymore in cinema. With lyrical cinematography by Yves Bélanger and a strikingly resonant script by Nick Hornby, “Brooklyn” is a coming-of-age tale wrapped in the narrative of immigrant America. It is about a person who goes from a girl to a woman as she’s forced to choose between her old home and the potential of a new one. This was many a fest goer’s favorite film of Sundance. It could be yours of CIFF.

10/20, 6pm

“Anomalisa”

And now for something completely different. Announced after the full schedule had been unveiled, CIFF’s addition of the most-buzzed film from Venice and Toronto is a true coup. Paramount is planning an awards season campaign at the very end of the year, but who knows when and how you’ll be able to see this truly unusual film, a stop-motion animation piece co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, the writer of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Synecdoche, New York"? Take this opportunity. It’s a movie that people will be talking about, and it’s a movie about which it’s best to go into it with as little spoiled as possible. Again, we’ll be talking with the directors when they’re in town. Watch for the interview in December.

10/21, 7pm, with Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson in attendance

“Son of Saul”

I saw over 50 films that played at TIFF this year and I consider László Nemes’ directorial debut the best of the bunch. It’s a stunning piece of experimental filmmaking, in which we never leave the side of a man named Saul (Geza Rohrig, whose eyes you will never forget). His perspective is ours, focusing tightly on his face or that which he can see. Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners of the Holocaust forced to assist the Nazis in the camps. When a boy survives a gas chamber extermination, Saul becomes determined to bury him properly. It is about paying tribute to our dead no matter the cost or pain. In a way, the film is that as well, asking us to bear witness to atrocity. It's unforgettable. 

10/22, 6pm

“Mustang”

My biggest surprise at TIFF this year was France’s entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a movie set in Turkey but produced in France. It’s a delicate, beautiful coming-of-age piece that has been described as “Turkish 'Virgin Suicides'”—a shorthand that is not inaccurate, but this is its own film too. With heartbreaking honesty, “Mustang” details the story of five sisters essentially forced into a “wife factory” after it’s perceived that they’ve been flirtatious with local boys. They will be kept inside until they are married off. Told almost entirely through the eyes of the youngest girl, this is a funny, sweet, and very moving piece about sisterhood, identity, and speaking for yourself.

10/24, 5:30pm

10/26, 8:15pm

"Cemetery of Splendour”

I wasn’t too confident that the latest from acclaimed auteur Apichatpong Weersathekul (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) worked for me when I saw it in Toronto, but it has lingered in unexpected ways. I think the filmmaker would like that fact, given his emphasis on dreams, and the unknowable and unseen. His latest is about a hospital at which soldiers lay in near-constant sleep states, and a woman who draws close to one of the men. It is a challenging piece, but it builds in emotional power, so much so that I feel like I’m still unpacking it over a month later.

10/25, 5:30pm

10/27, 8:30pm

“Spotlight”

Perhaps the biggest "get" for Kutza and Co. this year was landing the presumptive favorite for the Oscar for Best Picture as their Closing Night film (they played “Birdman” last year and “12 Years a Slave” the year before…so the track record in that department is pretty solid). Tom McCarthy’s phenomenal recounting of the Boston Globe investigation that broke open the church’s protection of pedophile priests plays like a thriller. It’s got echoes of Sidney Lumet in its construction—the way he portrays its reporters (including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams) as people just deliberately doing their jobs. They don’t take no for an answer. In a way, it’s a call to journalists of 2015 to act similarly—and a call to filmmakers to make movies this good. Watch for an interview with McCarthy the first week of November. See the movie first.

10/29, 7pm


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