The 9th annual Chicago Critics Film Festival starts this Friday, May 13th, and features over two dozen Chicago premieres, accompanied by special guests and the kind of film-loving audience that only the Music Box Theatre can provide. For years, the programmers of the Chicago Film Critics Association have been endeavoring to bring the best of the international festival circuit to the Windy City, including movies that premieres at Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Slamdance, and more. This year’s event opens with the Audience Award winner from Sundance and closes with the Audience Award winner from SXSW with works in between by Ramin Bahrani, Terence Davies, Claire Denis, and many more. It’s a wealth of independent cinema and passes to see all 25 screenings are only $150! That’s the way to go, but if you can only do one event a day, I thought I’d highlight a personal favorite from each of the seven days of the program with their official synopsis. (You really should do more than seven though.)
FRIDAY, MAY 13
7PM: “CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH”
Fresh out of college and without a clear life path going forward, 22-year-old Andrew is stuck back at home with his family in New Jersey. But if there’s one thing that belongs on his nonexistent résumé, it’s how to get a party started, which lands him the perfect job of motivational dancing at the bar and bat mitzvahs for his younger brother’s classmates. When Andrew befriends a local mom, Domino, and her daughter, Lola, he finally discovers a future he wants – even if it might not be his own. Cooper Raiff writes, directs and stars alongside Dakota Johnson, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann and newcomers Vanessa Burghardt and Evan Assante in this tale of unconventional love that brims with emotional honesty.
Q&A with writer/director/star Cooper Raiff to follow the screening.
Also playing on Friday: “Watcher” and “Speak No Evil”
SATURDAY, MAY 14
7PM: “TO LESLIE”
Leslie is a West Texas single mother struggling to provide for her son when she wins the lottery and a chance at a good life. But a few short years later the money is gone and Leslie is on her own, living hard and fast at the bottom of a bottle as she runs from the world of heartbreak she left behind. With her charm running out and with nowhere to go, Leslie returns home. Unwelcome and unwanted by those she wronged, it’s Sweeney, a lonely motel clerk, who takes a chance when no one else will. With his support, Leslie comes face to face with the consequences of her actions, a life of regret, and a second chance to make a good life for her and her son.
Q&A with director Michael Morris to follow the screening.
Also playing on Saturday: “Shorts Program 1,” “A Love Song,” “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” Emily the Criminal,” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”
SUNDAY, MAY 15
Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Terence Davies, the biopic explores the turbulent life of WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden). The writer and soldier was a complex man who survived the horrors of fighting in the First World War and was decorated for his bravery but who became a vocal critic of the government’s continuation of the war when he returned from service. His poetry was inspired by his experiences on the Western Front, and he became one of the leading war poets of the era. Adored by members of the aristocracy as well as stars of London’s literary and stage world, he embarked on affairs with several men as he attempted to come to terms with his homosexuality. At the same time, broken by the horror of war, he made his life’s journey a quest for salvation, trying to find it within the conformity of marriage and religion.
Also playing on Sunday: “2nd Chance,” “Both Sides of the Blade,” “Hold Your Fire,” and “Piggy”
MONDAY, MAY 16
7PM: “BOOGIE NIGHTS” (ON 35MM!)
From writer/director P.T. Anderson comes the turbulent behind-the-scenes story of an extended family of filmmakers who set out to revolutionize the adult entertainment industry in the seventies. Idealistic producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) has always dreamed of elevating his films into an art form. When he discovers young actor Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), Jack begins to turn his dreams into reality. Under the stage name of Dirk Diggler, Eddie soon gives the adult entertainment world a star the likes of which it has never seen. But the rise to fame has its costs, and soon Dirk finds himself sliding down the slippery slope of sex, drugs and violence. The only question: can he get himself back together before it's too late?
Also playing on Monday: “Shorts Program 2” and “The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic”
TUESDAY, MAY 17
9:45PM: “PALM TREES AND POWER LINES”
Seventeen-year-old Lea spends her summer break aimlessly tanning in her backyard with her best friend, tiptoeing around her needy mother, and getting stoned with a group of boys from school. This monotony is interrupted by an encounter with Tom, an older man who promises an alternative to Lea’s unsatisfying adolescent life. But as things progress between them, red flags about Tom’s life begin to surface, and Lea chooses to ignore them. Under Tom’s influence, Lea begins to see her mom as unfit and her friends as a waste of her time. Isolated from those around her, Lea discovers Tom’s true intentions and finds herself in a situation that she never could have imagined.
Also playing on Tuesday: “Beba” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right”
WEDNESDAY, MAY 18
Margaret’s life is in order. She is capable, disciplined, and successful. Soon, her teenage daughter, who Margaret raised by herself, will be going off to a fine university, just as Margaret had intended. Everything is under control. That is, until David returns, carrying with him the horrors of Margaret’s past.
Also playing on Wednesday: “Inu-Oh” and “Flux Gourmet”
THURSDAY, MAY 19
8:15PM: “I LOVE MY DAD”
Inspired by Writer/Director/Star James Morosini’s true life experience, I Love My Dad follows Chuck (Patton Oswalt), an estranged father who desperately wants to reconnect with his depressive son, Franklin (Morosini). Blocked on social media and concerned for his son’s life, Chuck impersonates a waitress (Claudia Sulewski) online and starts checking in with Franklin. But things begin to spiral when Franklin falls for this imaginary girl and wants nothing more than to meet her in person, as Chuck has inadvertently catfished his own son.
Q&A to follow screening with Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, and Claudia Sulewski!
Also playing on Thursday: “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”
(Note: I am the co-producer of the Chicago Critics Film Festival and contributors Collin Souter, Peter Sobczynski, and Robert Daniels are on the programming committee.)