Like so many events in 2020, the Chicago Critics Film Festival was forced to hit the pause button just before it was about to announce the first selections for its eighth annual edition scheduled for May 2020. While we hoped to return in May 2021, the pandemic had other plans. However, precautions in Chicago, particularly at the Music Box Theatre, have allowed us the comfort to bring it back for one weekend only, November 12-14, 2021, before our triumphant return in our traditional time slot in May of 2022. A weekend edition of the Chicago Critics Film Festival contains all of the same expectations of artistic quality as the program has yet again been hand-picked by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, including contributors to RogerEbert.com like yours truly, Robert Daniels, Peter Sobczynski, and Collin Souter. (The committee also includes Erik Childress, Steve Prokopy, and Sarah Marrs.)
This year’s slate features a dozen Chicago premieres, including highly acclaimed films that have played Cannes, Tribeca, Toronto, Venice, and Telluride, from filmmakers like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mamoru Hosoda, Robert Greene, and Sean Baker. An eclectic, fascinating array of styles are on deck for anyone lucky enough to get a pass and experience all 13 films and our Shorts Program. Particularly special events include a 40th anniversary screening of a classic Chicago film, Michael Mann’s “Thief,” a Netflix double feature on Opening Night of “The Lost Daughter” and “The Power of the Dog,” and appearances by Barry Gifford (for “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago”) and Douglas Tirola (for “Berntein’s Wall”) on Saturday. Clifton Collins Jr. will join the lucky audience members on Sunday for a virtual Q&A for his career-best work in “Jockey.” The full schedule can be found below along with links to our coverage of those films when available. Get tickets here or buy a pass and see every screening for only $100.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 12TH
7PM: “THE LOST DAUGHTER”
Alone on a seaside vacation, Leda (Olivia Colman) becomes consumed with a young mother and daughter as she watches them on the beach. Unnerved by their compelling relationship, (and their raucous and menacing extended family), Leda is overwhelmed by her own memories of the terror, confusion and intensity of early motherhood. An impulsive act shocks Leda into the strange and ominous world of her own mind, where she is forced to face the unconventional choices she made as a young mother and their consequences. This is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. THE LOST DAUGHTER also stars Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Paul Mescal.
9:30PM: “THE POWER OF THE DOG”
Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a mesmerizing performance) inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings home a new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter, a wispy medical student (a terrifically unsettling Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil sets out to torment them—until he finds his own dominance threatened. Working with an extraordinary cast, master filmmaker Jane Campion ("The Piano," "Bright Star") remakes the American Western with this continually surprising, gorgeously photographed, and incisive drama about manhood, intimacy, and revenge.
In 1978, the inhabitants of a small village in Iran called Zalava claim there is a demon among them. Massoud, a young gendarmerie sergeant, who investigates this claim encounters an exorcist attempting to rid the village of the demon. When he arrests the exorcist on charges of fraud, the villagers fear and anger escalates. Massoud and his love interest, a government doctor, soon find themselves trapped in a cursed house, surrounded by villagers who believe they are both possessed by the demon.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 13th
12PM: “SHORTS PROGRAM”
With special guests Clare Cooney and Abby Pierce
Single - A girl born with one arm, gets set-up on a blind date with a guy who has one hand...and she is pissed! Written and directed by Ashley Eakin. 15 min.
Big Touch - An Afro-Surrealist story about a giant woman and a tiny man who through the power of touch, experience an unexpected transformation. Written and directed by Christopher Tenzis. 3 min.
BJ’s Mobile Gift Shop - A young Korean-American hustler runs throughout the city of Chicago making sales out of his “mobile gift shop.” Written and directed by Jason Park. 16 min.
Soak - Yeonsoo meets her runaway mother in the hopes of convincing her to return home. Stuck between her mother's new life plans and the pressures from her controlling father, Yeonsoo is faced with an impossible choice. Written and directed by Hannah Bang. 17 min.
VO - A deadly accident between a self-driving car and a pedestrian sets off an investigation about the role of human workers in the training of driverless cars. Testimonies from vehicle operators guide us through a night shift where the landscape merges with data from the car’s sensors. Directed by Nicholas Gourault. 19 min.
Bathwell In Clerkentime - “Bathwell in Clerkentime” completes the animated trilogy about cuckoos from Clerkenwell going nuts. In the first classic episode called “Bathtime in Clerkenwell” (2002) they took over London, in the second episode, the award winning “Last time in Clerkenwell” (2007) birds invaded the entire planet. In the third and final episode they face middle-age crisis, problems with marriage, raising kids and alcohol addiction. Directed by Alex Budovsky. 5 min.
Go Ahead… Grab Time By the Throat - Abby and James got engaged and broke up on the same day. Abby filmed it on her phone and then made a movie about it two months later. This is that movie. Part documentary, part narrative, partly confusing for everyone. Written and directed by Clare Cooney and Abby Pierce. 14 min.
2:15PM: “ROY’S WORLD: BARRY GIFFORD’S CHICAGO”
With special guests Barry Gifford and Rob Christopher
Hailed as “William Faulkner by way of B-movie film noir, porn paperbacks and Sun Records rockabilly,” poet, author, and screenwriter Barry Gifford has given the world more than forty works, including the Sailor and Lula novels that inspired David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. Featuring Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, and Lili Taylor, Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago brilliantly brings to life Gifford’s autobiographical collection of stories, capturing a vanished 1950s Chicago through a jazzy, impressionistic combination of beguiling archive footage, animation, and spoken word.
5PM: “THE NOVICE”
Isabelle Fuhrman ("Orphan") plays Alex Dall, a queer college freshman who joins her university's rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost. Intent on outperforming her teammates, Alex pushes herself to her limits—and beyond, alienating everyone around her in the name of success. Furhman’s fierce lead performance collides with Lauren Hadaway’s bold direction and dynamic editing, creating a visceral window into a cutthroat world. Stylish cinematography and a seductive soundtrack complete the experience, evoking the romance and danger of falling in love; the attraction, the drama and the fallout. This unapologetic debut from Hadaway, based on her personal experience as a competitive collegiate rower, heralds a bold new voice in queer storytelling. If you liked "Whiplash," this one’s for you.
7PM: “BERNSTEIN’S WALL”
With special guest Douglas Tirola
Douglas Tirola’s thrilling documentary portrait of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein artistically tells the story of an immigrant son who became a phenomenon as the visionary and exuberant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and, then for decades, the face of classical music for the nation. Bernstein joyfully responded to the clamor of his times, matching his passion for music with an unyielding commitment to political engagement. Tirola also reveals a husband and father wrestling with what Bernstein called "his demons" of his hidden sexuality. We see Bernstein as a tireless participant in the anti-war and civil rights movements and a factor in the de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Incredibly Tirola uses Bernstein’s own voice almost exclusively to turn the maestro’s life story into a call to action for artists and those that believe in the arts to create change in today's society with the goal of bringing freedom and respect to all people.
9:45PM: “CATCH THE FAIR ONE”
A former boxer embarks on the fight of her life when she goes in search of her missing sister. Catch the Fair One is a taut thriller and second feature for Tribeca “Best New Narrative Director” winner, Josef Kubota Wladyka, and a star-making debut for professional boxer, Kali Reis. Kali is the first Native American fighter to win the International Boxing Association middleweight crown and she fought in the first female boxing match ever televised on HBO. She is currently the WBA Super lightweight champion.
Becoming closer to his dream of leading a normal life, a professional safecracker agrees to do a job for the mafia, who have other plans for him. Released in the US as Violent Streets, Michael Mann’s super influential minimalist neo-noir looks as authentic and original today as the day it did in 1981. Mann used real thieves as technical advisors on the film and that Tangerine Dream soundtrack is a joy. Donald Thorin’s moody and brilliant cinematography seals the deal. (Presented in 35mm)
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 14th
From the celebrated Academy Award®-nominated director Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu, creators of "Mirai," "Wolf Children," "Summer Wars," and more, comes a fantastical, heartfelt story of growing up in the age of social media. Suzu is a shy, everyday high school student living in a rural village. For years, she has only been a shadow of herself. But when she enters “U,” a massive virtual world, she escapes into her online persona as Belle, a gorgeous and globally-beloved singer. One day, her concert is interrupted by a monstrous creature chased by vigilantes. As their hunt escalates, Suzu embarks on an emotional and epic quest to uncover the identity of this mysterious “beast” and to discover her true self in a world where you can be anyone.
Six midwestern men—all survivors of childhood sexual assault at the hands of Catholic priests and clergy—come together to direct a drama therapy-inspired experiment designed to collectively work through their trauma. As part of a radically collaborative filmmaking process, they create fictional scenes based on memories, dreams and experiences, meant to explore the church rituals, culture and hierarchies that enabled silence around their abuse. In the face of a failed legal system, we watch these men reclaim the spaces that allowed their assault, revealing the possibility for catharsis and redemption through a new-found fraternity.
With special guest Clifton Collins Jr.
An aging jockey (Clifton Collins Jr.), hopes to win one last title for his longtime trainer (Molly Parker), who has acquired what appears to be a championship horse. But the years—and injuries—have taken a toll on his body, throwing into question his ability to continue his lifelong passion. And the arrival of a young rookie rider (Moises Arias), who claims to be his son, and whom he takes under his wing, further complicates the path to fulfilling his dream.
8PM: “RED ROCKET”
The audacious new film from writer/director Sean Baker ("The Florida Project," "Tangerine"), starring Simon Rex in a magnetic, live-wire performance, "Red Rocket" is a darkly funny, raw, and humane portrait of a uniquely American hustler and a hometown that barely tolerates him.