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Chicago Critics Film Festival 2023 Preview: Chicago Premieres of Acclaimed Films from Around the World

For ten years, the Chicago Film Critics Association has been hosting a unique event—a critic-curated film festival. The idea was that we write about films at events like Sundance or Cannes, but then people don’t have a chance to see them. CCFF fixes that, bringing films to Chicago that have only one thing in common: We want you to see them. It is an entirely not-for-profit event, done purely for the love of the art form, and it has featured the Chicago premieres of “First Reformed,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Eighth Grade,” “Red Rocket,” “Stories We Tell,” “The Spectacular Now,” “The Farewell,” and dozens more. This year features premiere screenings of the latest work from Paul Schrader, Christian Petzold, Ira Sachs, Clement Virgo, Celine Song, Laura Moss, and many more, including a few guest appearances by the people who made the films. Below, you’ll find a complete itinerary of the event, including RogerEbert.com writing on each of these films, when available. Find out more and get tickets here.

FRIDAY, MAY 5th

7PM: “BLACKBERRY” (includes Q&A with star/writer/director Matt Johnson)

Johnson paces “Blackberry” like that rocket. It moves quickly without being overly stylized, clicking through dialogue and character instead of cheap tricks. We’ve seen a lot of movies about tech nostalgia lately (the far-inferior “Tetris” premiered across town at the same fest), but Johnson doesn’t resort to easy choices. The film is a tad long, but he’s also shoving in a ton of story, and I love his extended cast, including brief turns from Cary Elwes, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, and more. "Blackberry" is a smart movie about smart people who were destroyed by a dumb system that eats people like Mike Lazaridis alive. – Brian Tallerico (from SXSW)

9:45PM: “SANCTUARY”

Qualley seems to just get better each time out. Her work in “Maid” was spectacular, and this is arguably her best film performance to date, refusing to lean into clichés about sex workers and finding such complex range in this fascinating character, someone who may be the hired employee in this dynamic but has all the control. Yes, Hal pays Rebecca, and even writes the scripts, but she knows exactly how to push his buttons. Even if you’re paying someone to pull your strings, they’re doing the actual pulling. And Qualley totally nails a part that’s much harder than it looks, making Rebecca sly, sexy, and riveting. Abbott matches her in every beat, and it’s the chemistry between the two that really gives the film its kinetic energy. There’s something so thrilling about watching two performers play a tennis match of performance like this, made better by the athleticism of their opponent. – Brian Tallerico (from TIFF)

12AM: “DARK CITY”

The poignancy of "Dark City" emerges in its love stories. At a crucial point, John Murdoch tells Emma, "Everything you remember, and everything I'm supposed to remember, never really happened." Emma doesn't think that can be true. "I so vividly remember meeting you," she says. "I remember falling in love with you." Yes, she remembers. But this is the first time they have met. "I love you, John," she says. "You can't fake something like that." And Murdoch says, "No, you can't." You can inform someone who they love, and that is what the Strangers have done with their memory injection. But what she feels cannot be injected. That is the part the strangers do not understand. Emma has a small role but it is at the heart of the movie, because she truly knows love; John has still to discover it -- to learn about it from her. – Roger Ebert

SATURDAY, MAY 6th

11:45AM: “SHORTS PROGRAM 1”

2:15PM: “AFIRE”

A quiet yet brilliantly effective character piece about a group sharing a cottage on the Baltic Sea shore. A story of four individuals—Leon (Thomas Schubert), Felix (Langston Uibel), David (Enno Trebs) and Nadja (Petzold’s frequent collaborator Paula Beer)—"Afire" is about shifting loyalties and differing levels of passive-aggression, with some kindness and affection thrown into the cauldron of human emotions. It’s a slow burn for a film that features the backdrop of a forest fire, yet one is wrapped up in the dynamics of these individuals in ways that at once feel shockingly intimate yet depressingly familiar. – Jason Gorber (from Berlinale)

4:45PM: “THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY” (includes Q&A with co-writer/director Morrisa Maltz)

Can we find what was lost so long ago? Can we return to a country that we feel like we don’t know sometimes? Maltz’s approach at times has a lyrical, almost Malick-like appreciation of the natural world, but her most interesting decision by far is how she will literally branch the film off for what feel like little documentary segments about the people met along the way, all of whom are playing at least variations on themselves. – Brian Tallerico (from SXSW)

7:15PM: “BIRTH/REBIRTH” (includes Q&A with co-writer/director Laura Moss)

Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien give just enough creepy momentum to “birth/rebirth,” knowing that their audience is smart enough to understand that bringing a child back to life comes with a likely set of problems. Moss doesn’t really use jump scares, presenting the bloody horror of what’s unfolding in practical terms off creeping dread. We often feel like we’re just in a place that we really don’t want to be, especially as the women discover they’re going to need to do some extreme things to keep their project alive. It’s not quite a new Frankenstein, but it’s a fascinatingly maternal riff on what we risk when we play with life and death: the very thing that makes us human. – Brian Tallerico (from Sundance)

9:45PM: “BROOKLYN 45” (include Q&A with star Jeremy Holm)

This is a film that may be set almost eight decades ago, but it’s very clearly a post-pandemic film in my eyes. It features a cast of characters coming together after the traumatic experiences of World War II, but they speak of division, hatred, and distrust of their fellow man in a manner that truly feels like it’s meant to reflect where we are in 2023 too. How do we move on from events that reshape our landscape, both personally and internationally? What morals do we carry through from one major phase to the next? And how do our beliefs about what happens after we die impact our behavior? – Brian Tallerico (from SXSW)

12AM: “A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE”

SUNDAY, MAY 7TH

12PM: “ERNEST & CELESTINE: A TRIP TO GIBBERITIA”

2:15PM: “MASTER GARDENER”

Suffice it to say that Schrader remains astute and unflinching in his pursuit of genuinely purposeful provocation. Is it a spoiler to reveal that there’s a certain shift to optimism here, going beyond the premise that people ARE capable of constructive change? And yes, I did notice the cis-het-male wish fulfillment at work here, and what am I supposed to do about it? Let Schrader be Schrader is my personal view. He’s a great artist. He’s earned his prerogatives, and this work is up to the high standard he’s been setting for himself over the past decade and more. – Glenn Kenny (from Venice)

4:30PM: “PASSAGES”

“Passages” is about a man who demands attention at all times. There’s a reason Sachs opens his film on a set with Tomas ordering people around and getting eyes from everyone in the room. How a creative like Tomas uses that ego-driven worldview to impact the lives of the people who happen to sleep with him has rarely been more interestingly dissected in a drama than Sachs does here. Whether he’s digging into issues about himself or his fellow filmmakers is an open question, but it feels like this riveting character study comes from a place of truth either way. – Brian Tallerico (from Sundance)

7PM: “WAITING FOR THE LIGHT TO CHANGE” (includes Q&A with writer/director Linh Tran)

The big winner from the Slamdance Narrative Grand Jury is actually a Chicago production, the insightful and genuine “Waiting for the Light to Change,” which announces an interesting new voice in Linh Tran. This character study almost feels like a non-American film as it has a slow, deliberate, non-flashy style that recalls filmmakers working today in Europe and Asia more than the indie film market in this country. It’s a project that one can tell was a labor of love for everyone involved, and was made by a bunch of students at DePaul University on the North Side and filmed entirely at a house on Lake Michigan. “Waiting for the Light to Change” has a relatively simple structure and familiar story, but the execution elevates what could have felt like just another film school project into what feels more like a launchpad for a major career. – Brian Tallerico (from Slamdance)

9:30PM: “LAKOTA NATION VS. THE UNITED STATES”

MONDAY, MAY 8TH

5PM: “SHORTS PROGRAM 2”

7PM: “THE RIGHT STUFF”

When Yeager pushed the edge of the envelope as far as it could possibly be pushed by one man in one plane, the age of the individual explorer--of Marco Polo, Magellan, Columbus, Livingston, Scott, Lindbergh--ended, and Team Man stepped into the limelight. That is the real subject of "The Right Stuff." It's not that Yeager had the right stuff and the others didn't. They all had it, but it had become a new kind of stuff. – Roger Ebert

TUESDAY, MAY 9TH

4:45PM: “BLUE JEAN”

7PM: “PAST LIVES” (includes Q&A with writer/director Celine Song)

Song directs “Past Lives” with such eloquent confidence. She often frames her characters against settings that feel bigger than them, whether it’s the sculptures in Korea when they’re young or the Statue of Liberty when Nora and Hae Sung take a ferry tour. And she very carefully cuts her film, often allowing conversations to unfold in long, single takes as if we’re eavesdropping on them. She’s also a clear talent when it comes to directing performance, drawing memorable ones from all three of her leads, especially Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, who can convey more with a long silent stare at each other than most performers would with a page of melodramatic dialogue. Some connections are stronger than words. – Brian Tallerico (from Sundance)

9:45PM: “KOKOMO CITY”

The women interviewed here—Liyah Mitchell, Dominque Silver, Koko Da Doll, and Daniella Carter—are scholars of their experience. Smith empowers them throughout, giving them space in the edit and with each extreme close-up of a weaponized body part, sometimes in slow motion. The editing by D. Smith—who also filmed it—has essential energy and offers a prismatic look at such an intricate topic. These women have revealing, heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious stories to tell about their own lives and the many thoughts they have gathered from dealing with men (in this case, a large number of Black men) who seek to exploit them and sometimes push for secrecy. Meanwhile, Smith also interviews men who desire trans women, and they too speak freely. Smith has a smattering of monologues at her disposal and cuts them with a great deal of humor and free spirit, sometimes bouncing between one confessional and then a reenactment. – Nick Allen (from Sundance)

WEDNESDAY, MAY 10TH

5PM: “AND THE KING SAID, WHAT A FANTASTIC MACHINE”

“Fantastic Machine” reflects on the manipulation of the truth in our present news landscape: Anyone with a mic, a camera, and a YouTube channel can call themselves a reporter. And anyone with a big enough mouth can shout “Fake News.” But what’s even more fascinating is the ending, which considers the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space in 1977, as a welcome record to aliens of human existence. We know about the audio included. But did you know we included images that showed the best of humanity sans war, poverty, and strife? In this striking conclusion, our obsession with commanding the truth behind the image isn’t a new disease. It’s merely the human condition. – Robert Daniels (from Sundance)

7PM: “BROTHER” (includes Q&A with writer/director Clement Virgo)

Clement Virgo’s “Brother” is that wonderful thing every fest goer wants to experience: the unexpected standout. It's easily the best premiere of the early days of the fest for me. Virgo unabashedly admires the work of Barry Jenkins, particularly “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and I feel like there’s a dash of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” movies in here too, but he’s also got his own confident, lyrical voice. His complex film unpacks Black grief in a way we haven’t really seen that often. We’ve seen many stories about struggle and violence, but rarely the emotional and even physical toll that it takes on loved ones and an entire community. – Brian Tallerico (from TIFF)

9:45PM: “REVOIR PARIS”

In this quietly harrowing drama, Efira plays Mia, a woman whose perfectly ordinary life is shattered forever when the Paris restaurant she is dining at one night is the target of a mass shooting. Although her physical injuries are easily treatable, the emotional scarring she suffers as a result is considerable and results in a near-total blackout of what occurred that fateful night. Increasingly alienated from her husband, who wasn’t there, she's determined to reconstruct exactly what happened as a way of possibly finding closure to such an unthinkable, if increasingly common, traumatic event. However, instead of lingering on the grisly details, Winocour is more interested in observing Mia as she tries to get to the bottom of what happened to her that night, bonding with fellow survivors. The results are both gripping and quietly moving, as is Efira’s wonderful performance (which earned her the César for Best Actress). – Peter Sobczynski (from Rendez-Vous with French Cinema)

THURSDAY, MAY 11TH

5PM: “STARRING JERRY AS HIMSELF”

Jerry was an average Chinese immigrant living in Florida. Recently divorced, he was on his own when he got a call from the Chinese police, telling them that they needed him for a covert mission. Or did they? Based on something that really happened to the producer’s father, this is an entertaining experiment that proves that recreation-heavy documentaries need not be dull if the filmmakers are willing to get as playful as Lawrence Chen and his team. – Brian Tallerico (from Slamdance)

7PM: “THEATER CAMP”

A thoroughly funny and easygoing comedy that applies the “let’s put on a show” mentally of the stage to making a heavily improvised film comedy, one greatly influenced by “Waiting for Guffman,” “Wet Hot American Summer,” and blessed by Todd Graff's cult favorite "Camp" (which premiered at Sundance exactly 20 years to the date of "Theater Camp"'s big debut). The film marks the directorial debut of Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, who share co-writing credits with Ben Platt and Noah Galvin. Their collaborative spirit in writing the story and its wonderfully silly songs is felt throughout, and it helps makes this movie as charismatic as it ought to be. – Nick Allen (from Sundance)

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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