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Chicago Critics Film Festival 2016 Preview

The Chicago Critics Film Festival is back with its fourth iteration, starting this Friday, May 20th at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Just so we’re upfront, I’m the co-producer of the event, which promises over two dozen Chicago premieres, including the latest works from Ira Sachs, Werner Herzog, Taika Waititi, Ti West, Patricia Rozema, John Michael McDonagh, and many more. With festival hits from Toronto, Sundance, South by Southwest, Cannes, Venice, and more, CCFF replicates the international festival experience in Chicago. The Chicago Film Critics Association, of which I am the Vice President, is the only critics group in the world to curate its own film festival, an event designed to share our love of cinema with you, and build buzz throughout the summer for films we truly admire. This year’s line-up is our best ever, including premieres of Sundance award winners, titles you’ll be talking about all summer, and in-person appearances by household names. And we’re particularly proud this year of our focus on female directors, including appearances by four of them. Tickets are going fast so get yours now. Here’s a handy night-by-night preview:

Friday, May 20th

The festival starts with the premiere of two major films from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Chad Hartigan’s “Morris From America” and Andrew Neel’s “Goat.” Kick off the festival with the latest from the director of “This is Martin Bonner,” which played the first Chicago Critics Film Festival in 2013. The wonderful Markees Christmas plays Morris Gentry, a 13-year-old coming of age in Germany, where his single father (a perfect and Sundance award-winning Craig Robinson of “The Office” fame) has gone to work. Hartigan’s film avoids clichés by always staying true to its characters, and the writer/director and Mr. Robinson will be there Opening Night to discuss the film with the CCFF audience. "Morris from America" premieres this Friday, 7pm. Get your tickets here for this can't-miss opening night event.

“Morris” is followed by a very different look at teenage male life in the ‘10s in Neel’s stunning and harrowing “Goat.” Based on a true story, “Goat” stars Ben Schnetzer as Brad Land, a young man beaten and left bloodied in a carjacking in the film’s opening scenes. Trying to find his place in a macho world but still dealing with PTSD from the attack, Brad pledges the fraternity to which his brother Brett (a fantastic Nick Jonas) belongs. There he finds a version of masculinity that could prove more damaging than helpful. "Goat" premieres 9:30 on Friday, May 20, with an encore screening Wednesday, May 25 at 3:30pm. Tickets are available here.

The night ends with one of the highlights of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Midnight program. While advance buzz had people excited for the latest from Rob Zombie and Kevin Smith, it was Richard Bates Jr.’s razor-sharp relationship-horror flick that really had people talking. The less you know about “Trash Fire,” the better, but know that it’s one of those genre films that people will be talking about all year. Get on the bandwagon early. "Trash Fire" premieres 11:59pm on Friday, May 20. Tickets are available here. 

Saturday, May 21st

The luckiest film fans in Chicago will come to the Music Box early on Saturday and not leave until early the next day. It is arguably the most impressive full day of programming in the festival’s four-year history, and includes guest appearances for four of them. Comedies, dramas, horror films, shorts, documentaries—it’s an incredible day of film-going that may not be topped all year when it comes to exclusive Chicago premieres. There’s nowhere else to be on May 21st.

It starts early this year with the latest documentary from the prolific Werner Herzog, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World.” The masterful filmmaker turns his lens on the way technology is impacting revolution, examining everything from the potential of A.I. to internet privacy. As Herzog often is, he’s most fascinated not by where we’ve been but where we’re going and he uses “Lo” to comment on a future in which technology will be even more intertwined with our lives than we can possibly imagine. By the end, when Herzog is wondering if there will ever come a day when we can tweet our thoughts, it seems entirely plausible. "Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World" screens Saturday, May 21 at 11am. Tickets are available here. 

Collin Souter, our contributor who analyzes short films every month in his brilliant “Short Films in Focus” column, goes through dozens of short films every year to produce two of the best short film programs you could possibly see in the city of Chicago. And this first one on Saturday features a first: Jocelyn DeBoer is the first CCFF guest to return in a different role, guesting as a star of “Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead” two years ago and returning with her short film, “Greener Grass” this year. Shorts Program #1 screens Saturday, May 21 at 1pm. The full roster and tickets to the special event, can be found here. 

“My Blind Brother” may be the perfect Saturday matinee comedy (showing at 3pm). It features an incredible cast of likable comedy actors. It doesn’t ask too much of you emotionally. It’s light enough to get you going on a weekend but character-driven enough to feel like it matters. Part of the reason for the latter is the career-best work by Nick Kroll as Bill, the brother to a local celebrity named Robbie (Adam Scott), who happens to be blind … and kind of a jerk. After a one-night stand with the lovely-but-damaged Rose (Jenny Slate), Bill is stunned to find his new love dating Robbie. Sophie Goodhart’s SXSW hit has an air of early Todd Solondz in its set-up, without quite as much misanthropy. It’s genuinely funny and sweet. "My Blind Brother" screens Saturday, May 21 at 3pm. Get your tickets here. 

The parade of Saturday guests picks up again at 5pm on Saturday with the Chicago premiere of “Joshy,” featuring an appearance by the wonderful Adam Pally, another returning CCFF guest after appearing at the Music Box last year for the Chicago premiere of “Night Owls.” Pally co-stars with an amazing array of talent, including Thomas Middleditch, Alex Ross Perry, Nick Kroll, Brett Gelman, Jenny Slate, Lauren Graham, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and two more past CCFF guests and Chicagoans, Kris & Joe Swanberg. "Joshy" screens on Saturday May, 21 at 5pm. Get your tickets while you still can here. 

One of the highlights of the 2014 Chicago Critics Film Festival was the Chicago premiere of John Michael McDonagh’s scathing and brilliant “Calvary,” and we couldn’t be more excited to host the city’s premiere of his follow-up, “War on Everyone,” which premiered earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival. Not only can you be the first in Chicago to see this pitch-black comedy about corrupt cops but you can ask questions of star and Chicago native Michael Peña ("Ant-Man") when it’s over. This promises to be one of the Chicago film events of the year. "War on Everyone" is showing on Saturday, May 21 at 7:15pm. Tickets are available here. 

We’re not done. Following the Michael Peña Q&A, we’ll segue into a film that first earned buzz at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (if you’re keeping track, that’s a day of films that premiered at SXSW, Sundance, Berlin, and TIFF—capturing the spirit of CCFF in the way it’s designed to bring the international film festival experience to Chicago). “Into the Forest” stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as sisters who find themselves stranded in a remote forest home after the entire world loses its power. How do they cope in a world without the distraction and safety provided by electricity? Page and Wood are gripping, finding rhythms that distinguish their character arcs but also always finding ways to remind us of the bonds of sisterhood. Writer/director Patricia Rozema will be in attendance for what’s sure to be a fascinating Q&A after the screening. "Into the Forest" screens Saturday, May 21 at 9:30pm. Tickets can be purchased here.

End your Saturday with our second midnight screening, the SXSW hit “Another Evil.” Steve Zissis of HBO’s “Togetherness” stars in this unique horror-comedy as Dan, a man who decides that he needs an “industrial-grade exorcist” to rid his home of evil spirits. Let’s just say that things don’t go exactly as planned. "Another Evil" screens at 11:59pm on Saturday, May 21. Get your tickets here. 

Sunday, May 22nd

If there’s any day that potentially tops Saturday for film quality, it’s the one that follows. The variety of film styles, countries of origin, tones—Sunday is the day that you can really experience the roller coaster that often comes with the festival experience, careening from Iran to New Zealand to New York City to France, emerging on the other side exhausted but supremely satisfied.

The day starts with a wonderful documentary, “Life, Animated,” based on the book of the same name by Ron Suskind. The author’s son Owen developed severe autism as a child, often shutting down entirely for years at a time. Unable to communicate with their once-vibrant son, the Suskinds didn’t see many options for how Owen could possible live on his own until the world of Disney animation taught Owen how to communicate with the rest of the world. Using the language of cinema, Owen figured out how to deal with reality, and the resulting film is a beautiful commentary on not just Owen’s specific case but how we all use movies to help us understand daily life. "Life, Animated" screens Sunday, May 22 at 12pm. Tickets can be purchased here. 

It’s not coincidental that we’re following up “Life, Animated” with a new take on a timeless tale once told by the Mouse House themselves, Beauty and the Beast.” This version stars the gorgeous Lea Seydoux and the striking Vincent Cassel as the title characters, and has been adapted and directed by the visionary Christophe Gans (“Silent Hill,” “Brotherhood of the Wolf”). Gans’ fantasy epic has been lingering in that space between international premiere date and domestic for two years now, so there’s no saying when, or even if, you’ll get another chance to see it on the big screen. Therefore, we’re giving you two! "Beauty and the Beast" screens on Sunday, May 22 at 2pm, with an encore presentation on Thursday, May 26 at 2pm. Tickets for both showings are available here. 

Strap in for Babak Anvari’s masterful “Under the Shadow,” a new horror film that feels like it shares some DNA with “The Babadook” and “The Devil’s Backbone” but also announces a new genre talent. The fantastic Narges Rashidi, who gave one of the best performances I saw in three dozen films at Sundance this year, stars as Shideh, a mother left alone with her daughter in a Tehran apartment in 1989, as bombs were falling regularly on the city. Much like Del Toro did in “Devil’s Backbone,” Anvari uses the threat and inherent violence of war as a tension-causing backdrop for supernatural storytelling. It’s one of those films, like “The Babadook,” that will transcend horror fans and become one of the most talked-about films of 2016 in any genre. Join the conversation early by being one of the first Chicagoans to see it. "Under the Shadow" screens at 4:15pm on Sunday, May 22. Tickets are available here. 

If you haven’t passed out from “Under the Shadow,” stay to see something completely different in the latest from Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”), “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” A big hit at Sundance 2016 and the first local feature to gross more than a million on opening weekend in New Zealand, Waititi's adventure featuring a lovable, doughy, Tupac-loving orphan and his crusty foster uncle (Sam Neill in one of his best roles) is sure to be a favorite of CCFF crowds. Adding to the charm of this fantastic piece of emotional and comedic entertainment is Waititi's stylized filmmaking, which recalls the calculated yet start-to-finish energy of any Edgar Wright film. Waititi has also been picked to helm the next "Thor" movie, "Thor: Ragnarok," and this project shows just how inspired that installment of the MCU could be. "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" screens on Sunday, May 22 at 6pm, and Monday, May 23 at 3pm. Tickets for both showings are available here. 

Arguably the best film of CCFF 2016 premieres Sunday night, May 22nd. You need to be there. Not only is Little Men one of the most haunting and memorable films I saw at Sundance this year, but writer/director Ira Sachs will be on hand to discuss his follow-up to the award-winning “Love is Strange.” Again, Sachs is examining the delicacy of urban living, returning to New York City and another story, believe it or not, of the impact of real estate. When Brian’s (Greg Kinnear) father dies, he inherits the building that dad owned and discovers that his father was basically allowing the tenant who rented the store on the first floor to stay there at incredibly outdated rental rates. Meanwhile, Brian’s son Jake (Theo Taplitz) becomes friends with the son (Tony Calvelli) of the tenant. As the drama over the dress shop rises, Sachs examines how often adult interactions influence their children’s relationships. It’s a gentle, natural, beautiful film that really sticks with you. The great Scott Tobias (The Dissolve, The New York Times) will moderate the Q&A. "Little Men" screens Sunday, May 22 at 8pm. Tickets for the event can be purchased here. 

The weekend of festival greatness ends with a thrilling drama from the writer of 2015’s highly acclaimed and Oscar-nominated “Mustang.” In Alice Winocour's “Disorder,” Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone”) stars as a bodyguard to a wealthy family, including Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”), and he happens to be dealing with pretty severe PTSD. Is he going crazy or is there really a threat to the family he’s been sworn to protect? "Disorder" screens Sunday, May 22 at 10pm. Tickets are available here. 

Monday, May 23rd

Just because the weekend is packed with festival goodness doesn’t mean we’re about to let up during the week. There are ELEVEN more Chicago premieres, some repeats of our weekend’s best, and another program of short films for you during the week. Monday kicks off with a repeat of “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” and a second program of short films from the one and only Collin Souter.

Then it’s time for “American Fable,” a film that set social media on fire when it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and was shot mostly in the heartland of Illinois. To celebrate the film’s premiere at the Music Box Theatre, star Peyton Kennedy, producer Kishori Rajan and writer/director Anne Hamilton are accompanying the movie to Chicago and doing a Q&A for this drama-fantasy about an 11-year-old girl who lives in a world that blends fables and reality. "American Fable" on May 23 on Monday, 7:30pm and Thursday, May 26 at 4pm. Tickets can be purchased here. 

Continuing something of a theme on Monday night, we move to another piece that blends realism and the supernatural in the stunning “Demon” from Polish director Marcin Wrona, who sadly passed away suddenly after the film’s premiere at TIFF last year. It’s a real loss because “Demon” is the work of a man who clearly would have made an impact on international cinema. It merges fears about getting married with a possession narrative. How many times have you heard that getting wed changes you forever? It’s dark, stylish, and incredibly well-made. "Demon" screens at 9:45 on Monday, May 23. Get your tickets here. 

Tuesday, May 24th

It’s already Tuesday but there’s still so much greatness to come, including a remarkable four premieres right here in the middle of the week. Sadly, we have no guests on Tuesday night but we have an amazing quartet of films. Fortunately, these are some films that can speak for themselves. 

It starts with a pair of truly unique documentaries, Penny Lane’s Nuts!” and the Ross Brothers’ “Contemporary Color.” Lane’s film premiered at Sundance, and, well, the less you know about it the better. Described as a “mostly true story,” Lane’s project uses animation to tell the tale of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a man who made a fortune convincing men that he could cure their impotence using transplanted goat testicles. That’s all you need to know. "Nuts!" screens on Tuesday, May 24 at 3:30pm. You can be one of the first to see "Nuts!" by purchasing your tickets here. 

And "Nuts!" is then followed by an incredible, joyous film about David Byrne’s unique concert event in which musical artists (including St. Vincent, Ad-Rock and Nelly Furtado) wrote new compositions for some of the best color guard troupes in the world. It’s mesmerizing and spectacular, from the documentarians behind one of Roger’s favorite recent docs, “45365.” "Contemporary Color" screens on Tuesday, May 24 at 5:30pm. Get your tickets here. 

Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black,” leads the SXSW hit “The Other Half,” the centerpiece screening of Tuesday night. In Joey Klein’s drama, she co-stars with real-life love Tom Cullen, as a bipolar woman who falls in love with a grief-stricken man. How do we get over unimaginable pain? How does our mental illness define us? Variety praised the “outstanding performances” from Cullen and Maslany, and they’re likely to get more praise when the film is released later this year. See it first at CCFF. "The Other Half" screens on Tuesday, May 24 at 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased here.

And then there’s “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” a film I walked into at TIFF at the last minute (where it was called “February”), knowing almost nothing about it. I was rattled. Written and directed by Oz Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins), this Argento-esque drama stars Emma Roberts and “Mad Men”’s Kiernan Shipka in roles they’ve never really played before. Again, this is the kind of work that connects best the less you know about it. It’s disturbing, unsettling, and really, really good. "The Blackcoat's Daughter" screens at 10pm on Tuesday, May 24. Tickets can be purchased here. 

Wednesday, May 25th

The penultimate night of the 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival featured the Chicago premiere of “The End of the Tour” with James Ponsoldt and Joan Cusack in attendance. So, we set the bar pretty high, and we matched it this year. The night starts with a repeat of “Goat” for those that missed it on Opening Night, which should make an interesting segue into the fantastic “The Fits,” Anna Rose Holmer’s Sundance that should be a breakthrough vehicle for Royalty Hightower when it opens in a few weeks. Hightower plays Toni, a physical force of nature taking boxing lessons with her brother and captivated by a dance troupe at the same gym. And then “the fits” start. "The Fits" screens on Wednesday, May 25 at 5:30pm. Tickets can be purchased here. 

The centerpiece screening Wednesday night features an appearance by the great Ti West (“The Sacrament,” “The House of the Devil”), and he’ll be bringing his most ambitious film to date, a gusty, old-fashioned Western called “In a Valley of Violence.” The film stars Ethan Hawke as a man passing through a small town called “A Valley of Violence” when he runs afoul of a local moron played with icy menace by the great James Ransone. The violent dummy’s dad (John Travolta) happens to be the Sheriff in town, and his gal (Karen Gillan) runs the local hotel. When Hawke’s runaway soldier is crossed in truly violent ways, he decides to clean up this valley. It’s a brutal, fantastic genre entry with a great cast and tight direction. I can’t wait to hear what West has to say about making it. "In a Valley of Violence" screens on Wednesday, May 25. Tickets for this special event can be purchased here while they're still available. 

End your Wednesday with one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen at a festival, Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night.” In much the same way that Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” used Columbine as a starting point to tell its own story, “Dark Night” uses the Aurora movie theater shootings to craft a narrative about suburban ennui and the environment that produces violence. It’s riveting and somewhat terrifying, even in its mundane moments. This is a challenging film, but it’s a rewarding one as well. "Dark Night" screens Wednesday, May 25 at 10pm. Purchase your tickets here. 

Thursday, May 26th

We’re ending with a flurry of fun films, starting with repeats of “Beauty and the Beast" (2pm) and “American Fable" (4pm) for those who couldn’t make them earlier in the week. Then we very intentionally wanted to highlight a great find from Sundance and a great find from SXSW, films we loved that we think should find a bigger audience. That’s all that CCFF is about, ultimately, building buzz for movies we love.

The first is “First Girl I Loved,” with star Dylan Gelula (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) in attendance for a Q&A. This nuanced coming-of-age story tells of a first romance between the shy Anne and the athletic Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand of “Deadpool”). The results are a film that greatly challenge any expectations from such a common starting point, and it's a treat to find out how. "First Girl I Loved" screens Thursday, May 26 at 6pm. Tickets can be purchased here. 

Finally, there’s “Operator,” a film that shot all over Chicago last year, and now returns to the Music Box and CCFF for its Windy City premiere, complete with co-writer Sharon Greene, co-writer/director Logan Kibens and star Martin Starr (another returning guest after his CCFF appearance in 2014) in attendance. Starr plays Joe, a programmer and self-obsessive, who has essentially been using his wife (Mae Whitman of “Parenthood,” who has never been better) as a crutch and decides to employ that crutch when he needs to develop a soothing voice for an automated project at work. In other words, he turns his wife into a machine. Echoes of Spike Jonze’s “Her” permeate this daring relationship comedy, one that approaches our dependence on technology in its own, unique way. "Operator" screens Thursday, May 26 at 8:30pm. Tickets can be purchased here. 

For more information on the festival and to get your tickets, click here. The Chicago Critics Film Festival runs from May 20 - 26 at the Music Box Theater. 

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