Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
The third annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, of which I am a producer and programmer, begins this Friday, May 1st. For the first week of May, the legendary Music Box Theatre in Chicago, one of Roger’s favorite theaters in the world, will be host to over two dozen Chicago premieres, including the latest works from Joe Swanberg, Bobcat Goldthwait, Andrew Bujalski, James Ponsoldt, Francois Ozon, 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. Tickets are going fast. Get yours now. (Or just get a pass for the whole event and see every film below.) Here’s a handy night-by-night preview and go here for more details:
Friday, May 1st
The fest opens with Chicagoan Joe Swanberg’s Sundance hit, “Digging For Fire”. For his latest comedy about the minefield that is modern marriage, Swanberg has gone to L.A. and reunited with some of his most famous former cast members and a few new faces. Jake Johnson, who starred in Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies”, stars in this ensemble comedy as Tim, a man happily married to Lee, played by the always-great Rosemarie DeWitt (“Rachel Getting Married”). While housesitting for a weekend, the two essentially part for their own adventures. Tim’s restlessness leads him down a rabbit hole when he finds a gun and a bone in the cliff side outside the L.A. home, inviting friends over (including Mike Birbiglia and Sam Rockwell) to help excavate the area. Meanwhile, Lee meets some interesting characters herself, including a charmer played by Orlando Bloom. A startling array of familiar faces make up the ensemble, including Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Sam Elliott, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, and Chris Messina. Swanberg draws some of the best performances of his career from this cast, especially DeWitt, as he investigates how it can often be our partners who keep us stable and sane, and sometimes it just takes a few days separation to realize it. Joe Swanberg will attend and do a Q&A after the screening. Get tickets for “Digging For Fire” here.
After “Digging For Fire”, stick around for the Chicago premiere of “Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”, a touching documentary about finishing what one starts, even if it’s not until decades later. In 1982, three 11-year-olds in Mississippi filmed their own version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and they did so with such attention to detail that it would become a beloved film of its own. The only problem was that they never had the ability to complete the explosive airplane fight scene. Until thirty years later. “Raiders!” is more than just a film about movie love (although it is that too). It is a film about how we change as we get older…and how some parts of us stay the same. Finally, that night, strap in for “Restoration and the Midnight Insanity Collection”, a collection of horror-themed short films at midnight, including the premiere of “Restoration” from local filmmaker Ryan Oliver, who will do a Q&A.
Saturday, May 2nd
Saturday is one of the most amazing days for film lovers in Chicago for the entire year, featuring six films in a row that display the diversity of CCFF, including the fest’s first animated film, a great documentary, a film from a beloved French filmmaker, one of the most terrifying movies you’ll see this year, and a double feature that just happens to include a guest appearance by one of the stars of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. There’s nowhere else to be on May 2nd.
The big draw of the day is the back-to-back screenings of films starring Cobie Smulders. The star of “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Avengers” will be on-hand to discuss her roles in Andrew Bujalski’s “Results”and Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected”. (Swanberg will also be there for the Q&A after her film). Smulders had one of the most impressive 2015 Sundance Film Festivals of anyone, earning raves for her work in both films, and she’ll be here to talk about both of them. First up is “Results”, from the director of “Funny Ha Ha” and “Computer Chess”. At first, “Results” feels like a change of pace from the filmmaker, looking more like a traditional romantic comedy than one might expect. And yet there’s a unique, fascinating rhythm to this piece that makes it charmingly unpredictable and likable. Smulders plays a personal trainer who starts working with an unexpected millionaire played by Kevin Corrigan. Meanwhile, her boss, played perfectly by Guy Pearce, starts to feel protective of her, which could lead to deeper feelings of love. Buy tickets for “Results” here. “Results” will be followed by “Unexpected” from Chicago filmmaker Kris Swanberg. Smulders earned raves for this drama at Sundance, in which she plays a Chicago schoolteacher adjusting to an unexpected pregnancy who befriends a high school senior in a similar situation. But tickets for “Unexpected” here.
“Results” and “Unexpected” may be the centerpiece for Saturday at CCFF, but there are four other must-sees that day as well. Start with the latest from the studio who has been handling the stateside release of Studio Ghibli films and last year’s Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea”, “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet”. Roger Allers, who was an essential part of the Disney team in the early ‘90s when they came back with films like “The Lion King”, has assembled an array of internationally acclaimed animators to recreate passages from the beloved poetry by Gibran. The various interludes, including animation by Bill Plympton and Tomm Moore, along with new songs by Damien Rice and Glen Hansard, are interwoven into a tale of a young girl (Quvenzhane Wallis) trying to free an imprisoned poet voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson. This movie is beautiful.
“The Prophet” is followed by the latest drama from acclaimed French filmmaker Francois Ozon, the genius behind “Swimming Pool”, “8 Women”, and much more. Anais Demoustier stars in “The New Girlfriend” as a young woman trying to find stability after the death of a best friend. She goes to visit the friend’s widow and makes a shocking discovery that changes both of their lives.
After the Smulders double feature, you’ll want to stick around for a return appearance by the great Bobcat Goldthwait, who was at CCFF last year with “Willow Creek”. The talented actor/director shifts gears this year with the moving “Call Me Lucky”, a documentary about a wildly influential stand-up comedian named Barry Crimmins who helped define some of the comedy you love today before a personal revelation changed his life forever. Both Goldthwait and Crimmins will be in attendance after the screening of “Call Me Lucky”, and, trust me, you’re going to want to talk to them about this movie.
The night ends with fest shocker “Goodnight Mommy”, a film about twin boys who start to distrust their mother after she returns home from plastic surgery. Is that really mommy? This Haneke-esque chiller shocked audiences in Toronto this year, when it became one of the most talked-about films of TIFF. It’s not opening until August, when indie horror film lovers are going to be talking about nothing but its disturbing finale. Get on the bandwagon early.
Sunday, May 3rd
On Sunday night, you can experience one of the most touching documentaries you’ll see all year with the Chicago premiere of “Batkid Begins”, a film so moving that Warner Bros. picked it up after its Slamdance premiere this year and there’s internet buzz about a fictional remake of this unforgettable story. You won’t forget Miles Scott, a 5-year-old forced to deal with more pain and uncertainty than most of us do our entire lives because of his fight with leukemia. Miles also thinks big. When asked what he wanted for his Make-a-Wish, Miles wanted to be Batman’s sidekick, Batkid. And the people who worked to make that dream come true pulled off a miracle, transforming San Francisco into Gotham City. The entire city shut down when the event went viral. Even the President got involved. This is a moving, unique document of man’s power to overcome the unimaginable to make a boy’s dream come true. Don’t miss it. (And stick around after for an emotional Q&A with director Dana Nachmann and editor/producer Kurt Kuenne, who directed the amazing “Dear Zachary”). Buy tickets here.
Hours before “Batkid Begins”, settle in for an amazing Shorts Program that includes the winner for Best Short at Sundance this year and a movie that might be the best film of 2015 to date, Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow”. It won at SXSW too. It would probably win at any film festival. And it’s just part of a shorts program that includes seven other short films, carefully chosen by short films expert Collin Souter (read his Short Films in Focus series here).
CCFF has two Westerns playing on Sunday, both loaded with personality and artistic detail. The first is at 3pm with the Chicago big-screen premiere of “Slow West”, starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn. Ever wondered what it might look like if Wes Anderson directed a Western? The excellent “Slow West” has that unique, detailed composition of Anderson in a tale that plays almost like a dream or a memory instead of the gritty realism we usually expect from the genre. For that, turn to “The Keeping Room” later that night. We rarely see the female perspective on the genre, and that’s what we get here from Julia Hart’s excellent script, which landed on the 2012 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays. Hart and director Daniel Barber tell the story of a pair of South Carolina sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) who are left at the farm to protect it when the men go off to fight the Civil War. Their safety is constantly in jeopardy, and becomes even more so when a pair of Yankee scouts happen on their farm. Barber’s film is visceral, brutal, and unforgettable.
In the middle of the day, don’t miss “People, Places, Things”, a striking change-of-pace for “What We Do in the Shadows” star Jemaine Clement. In this gentle, moving piece, Clement plays a graphic novelist and professor who is just trying to stay happy after discovering his girlfriend (and the mother of his kids) cheating on him. Thrown out of family life, he’s stuck in tiny studio apartment, doing everything he can just to spend some time with his kids. His dating life gets thrown into the picture when a student, played perfectly by “The Daily Show”’s Jessica Williams, sets him up with her mom (Regina Hall). This is a uniquely sweet dramedy about good people trying to find happiness.
Monday, May 4th
Have you ever wanted to give up on your family? Quit one family and start up again with another? Noah Pritzker brings his “Quitters” straight from its success in Austin at the South by Southwest Film Festival to this year’s CCFF, where he will also do a Q&A. Ben Konigsberg stars as Clark Rayman, a high schooler with a deeply disturbed mother (Mira Sorvino) and argumentative father (Greg Germann). When he starts dating a girl who appears to be the product of a more stable family, he moves in with them, giving up on the insanity in his family tree. Of course, this is not an arrangement that can hold, and we often learn in our lives that even the most normal-looking family hides their own secrets. Get tickets for “Quitters” here.
Monday also features the second shorts program curated by Mr. Souter and the Chicago premiere of the unforgettable “Heaven Knows What”, the latest cinematic experiment from the Safdie brothers. How to explain “Heaven Knows What”? You know those Hollywood dramas about homeless junkie kids that feel more manipulative than genuine? Imagine one that feels real. Working with actual addicts, the Safdies employ a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, often leaving their camera stable, without heavy editing, as we watch a couple deal with their deep addiction in the unforgiving streets of New York City. It has moments that feel like eavesdropping as the lives of people on the fringe of society have rarely been this accurately captured.
Tuesday, May 5th
Tuesday brings us another landmark documentary and two of the most fascinating foreign films of the year. The centerpiece is “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon,” which will be attended by the film’s director, Douglas Tirola. The title pretty much says it all, as Tirola’s film details the story of The National Lampoon, a comedy powerhouse that would change the very form, especially through the movies it produced like “Animal House” and “Vacation”. With rare and never-before-seen footage, Tirola documents an essential chapter in the history of American comedy, detailing how difficult it was to get National Lampoon off the ground and why it fell apart. Their influence is still everywhere in modern comedy. See where your sense of humor likely began. Get tickets here.
Come out early and see one of my favorite films of Sundance 2014, “Blind”, which is finally making its journey stateside later this Summer. This fascinating drama is the directorial debut of Eskil Vogt, the writer of Joachim Trier’s “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31”, and it’s like nothing you’ll see this year. Ingrid is going blind. But her dreams remain vivid. Vogt’s film starts to blur the line between Ingrid’s real life and her imagination without making it crystal clear to the audience which is which. The result is an unsettling, fascinating journey into how it is our emotional and intellectual lives that matter as much as our physical ones.
After “Drunk Stoned,” stick around for the riveting “The Connection”, the French side of the classic “The French Connection”. Oscar winner Jean Dujardin stars as Marseilles magistrate Pierre Michel, the man forced to go up against the legendary kingpin Gatean Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). When Zampa starts to run heroin through the States, Michel has to figure out a way to take him down. Cedric Jimenez’s crime drama is a streamlined, tight procedural that plays not unlike “Heat” in the way it captures both sides of the mano-a-mano battle between cop and criminal.
Wednesday, May 6th
One of the highlights of the just-ended Ebertfest was the Champaign premiere of James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour”, and the director will make the journey a few hundred miles north to bring the film to CCFF on the second-to-last day of this year’s fest. “The End of the Tour” tells the story of a five-day interview between Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). I’m on record as having adored the film when I saw it at Sundance 2015, and it holds up very well on second viewing. I can’t wait to see it a third time with an audience at the Music Box. This is one of the hottest tickets of the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Get your tickets now.
Please get there early for one of the best films of CCFF 2015, “The Second Mother”, another Sundance 2015 hit; this one about the fascinating class barriers that may become transparent over time but never fully go away. Regina Casé gives a fantastic performance as Val, a housekeeper who has left her family behind to go work for a wealthy one in Sao Paulo. Years later, after forming tight bonds with her new family despite her role as servant never being fully dismissed, Val’s life is thrown into disarray when her teenage daughter Jessica comes to visit. Parenthood, income inequality, and the issues of modern life are delicately interwoven into a drama that never loses focus on its genuine characters.
After “The End of the Tour”, stick around for a very special appearance from the star of “The Mindy Project” and “Happy Endings”, Adam Pally, who will be there with director Charles Hood to present SXSW hit “Night Owls”. This riff on “The Apartment” stars Pally as a workaholic named Kevin who ends going home for a one-night stand with the beautiful Madeline (Rosa Salazar). He wakes up discover that he’s not at her house but he’s someplace familiar: his boss’ house. And Madeline just took a bottle of sleeping pills. The great Tony Hale co-stars in this charmer.
Thursday, May 7th
The Chicago Critics Film Festival closes with two of the biggest hits of Sundance 2015, both accompanied by their directors, Patrick Brice and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Brice’s film “The Overnight” earned some of the biggest laughs in Park City this year. Starring Jason Schwarztman, Adam Scott, and Taylor Schilling, Brice’s film is the story of a dinner play date gone, well, unexpectedly. Scott and Schilling have moved to Seattle from Los Angeles, and they meet Kurt (Schwarztman) and his wife for pizza night. The kids go to bed. And things get…interesting. See this one with a crowd. Buy your tickets here.
Finally, there’s a movie that is guaranteed to make waves when Fox Searchlight releases it later this summer, “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl”. Last year, there was a little film that came into Sundance and walked out with both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. It would go on to win three Oscars and universal acclaim. That film was “Whiplash”. This year, another film surprisingly pulled the double win with both the jury and audience: “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl”. You will love this movie. See it before everyone in the world tells you that you should. Buy tickets here.
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