Previewing the 55th Chicago International Film Festival

Cinema/Chicago, the “presenting” organization of the Chicago International Film Festival, annually invite members of the press to a breakfast where they announce their festival lineup. Programmers remark on a handful of titles, logistics get figured out, and everyone flutters about the stale pastries before and after the event. Every year I mentally keep track of the different variants wherein organizers deploy the word “rebrand”, all while musing how something could be re-anything when there’s not much of an identity in the first place. It was also the first year where a few of the colleagues that I call friends didn’t show up to the breakfast. I sympathize with why. There’s a certain masochistic agony associated with these things, where my thoughts tend to gravitate toward the films that are missing rather than what’s there.  I’m not the only one who does this and I’m fairly certain that it’s not a healthy way of thinking, but it’s frequently unavoidable.

Part of me cites this disappointment out of some hope that it might inspire change? I’m grateful to be alive in a city that shelters such a passionate community of cinephiles; it’s a pocket of benevolence that engages with film in such a proactive and communal way. That kind of community is eerily out of sorts with the bill of goods sold by CIFF (or Chi Film Fest or whatever they want to go by now). Their preferred method of quote unquote curation is seemingly queued to arbitrary, with a particular preference for middlebrow Oscar-fare that has already had the benefit of being vetted and considered ad nauseam.  But whatever Cinema/Chicago is doing is clearly working for them (frequent sell-outs of premium-rate screenings) even if it’s not working for me.

The 55th Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 16 through October 27. For a complete schedule, please refer to their website here. Below are some of the titles I had the opportunity to preview, updated regularly as the festival proceeds.

Previewing Cinepocalypse 2019

No other film festival in Chicago has furrowed my brow in dubious surprise quite like what I’ve seen programmed at Cinepocalyse for the past couple of years. A lot of it has centered on their repository screenings, where I’ve had the distinct pleasure of discovering the likes of Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight and Maximum Overdrive. Or rediscovering Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and Dario Argento’s Suspiria in their intended formats. But it was their screening of Joel Potrykus’ Relaxer last year that really made me aware of the depth of their programming. The crew behind this festival is probably the most passionate cadre of genre-cinephiles I’ve ever come across and that passion comes across in their selections. From Lucky Mckee’s Kindred Spirits (making its world premiere) to a 70mm projection of Paul Veroheven’s Total Recall  (with actor Michael Ironside in attendance for a post film Q&A), Cinepocalypse offers the kind of counter-programming that reminds me of the benefits of living in a metropolis. There’s a hungry audience in Chicago for genre films and the fact that we have nearly half a dozen festivals dedicated to horror spread out throughout the year, is remarkable. Cinepocalypse might be the best of them all.

Cinepocalypse begins Thursday, June 13 through Sunday, June 20 at the Music Box Theatre. For a complete schedule of films and ticket information, click here.

Previewing the 7th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival

I have a smashing time at every Chicago Critics Film Festival. Wait, I mean I tend to get smashed at every Chicago Critics Film Festival. Get together enough socially inept film critics under one roof with the promise of booze and film and the subsequent result is a little less than distinguished. Since their move from Rosemont’s Muvico (never forget your origin story) to Chicago’s Music Box Theater, the growth of this festival has been nothing short of remarkable. The year-to-year transition of seeing James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (with Ponsoldt at the screening) in a Rosemont theater with fewer than 20 people (in a theater designed to seat at least 150) to seeing David Wain’s They Came Together sell out the large auditorium (designed to seat 700) of the Music Box Theatre is staggering.

And it’d be so easy to dismiss it as another fixture in a litany of solid programming, but the films screened here – for the most part- are actually good. Last year was a particular highlight, where Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, my #1 film of 2018, was spotlighted with Schrader himself in attendance. And then there was Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. All in all, it was untoppable programming.

As a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, it is my expected duty to report on the excellence of the 2019 programming selections. It looks fine. A Danny Boyle film headlines the festival and it’s hard not to consider it anything but a step down after the Schrader-Bujalski-Decker-Burnham quartet. But I’ll try to keep an open mind. I’m eager to see Jennifer Kent’s follow-up film to The Babadook, The Nightingale. And despite persistent reservations on the work of Peter Strickland, I hope In Fabric will turn the tide on my opinion of the filmmaker. If the festival is lacking in the way of established filmmakers, there’s the promise of finding new voices all together. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Sundance pickup by A24, looks especially promising.  

Below you’ll find links to select reviews of titles, updated throughout the duration of the festival. For schedule and ticketing information, refer to the Music Box website here.

Previewing the 4th Annual Doc10 Film Festival

It’s my first year covering the Chicago Media Project’s Doc10 Film Festival, and it should be noted that no other film festival in Chicago has amassed such a notable reputation over its brief four-year run. Much of it has to do with Chicago International Film Festival mainstay programmer Anthony Kaufman heading the festival’s curation team, where the selection of ten documentary films becomes an exploration in taste and temperament.  Simply refer to last year’s notable slate, which included the likes of Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG – an eclectic selection that demonstrates Kaufman’s foresight in picking out culturally significant and socially relevant features well before they enter the mainstream conversation.

I had the opportunity to preview a handful of titles ahead of their Chicagoland premiere. Click below for capsule reviews of some of these titles, films that will likely be brought up again by the end of 2019 for year-end consideration.  Doc10 begins April 11 with a (sold out) screening of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez documentary, Knock Down the House, and concludes on April 14 with a screening of John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm. For additional ticketing information, click here.

Previewing the 5th Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival

The litany of film festivals offered within Chicago and its surrounding suburbs during the calendar year makes the very thought of covering each one a daunting, frankly impossible, task. Part of me, however, feels like I’ve neglected some of my duties in running Chicago Cinema Circuit, especially when it comes to highlighting some of the local festivals in the area that would otherwise go unnoticed on a national stage. Case in point: the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival. For the past five years, Michael Glover Smith has carefully programmed a small yet incredibly thoughtful festival that highlights local and national filmmakers. An emphasis is placed on providing a discourse between filmmaker and audience, with filmmakers frequently in attendance for post-screening Q&As. There’s an overwhelming quality to a lot of the larger film festivals in the area, where quantity tends to be valued over quality. With the Oakton PUFF, there’s significance placed on curation, on creating a fundamentally relaxed experience that values the film, the filmmaker, and its audience. That, my friends, is a fundamentally singular film festival experience.

The Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival begins Tuesday, November 27 through Friday, November 30 at the Footlik Theatre. All screenings are free and open to the public. For additional information, click here.

Previewing the 54th Chicago International Film Festival

Write about this festival long enough and you run out of things to say. I complain every year about the Chicago International Film Festival and there’s plenty to complain about (Asako I & II, Burning, La Flor, Her Smell, High Life, Hong Sang-soo, 3 Faces, etc. are all immediately felt absences in a line-up filled with a lot of, to say it diplomatically, filler). Blasé inclusions aside (The Front Runner is your Closing Film? And why is our After Dark programming year in, year out always so terribly sparse?), I’m going to try to stay positive.

I’m glad that Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind are screening in, you know, a theater. I’m happy that Oliver Assayas’ new film, Non-Fiction, is screening. Same for the new Christian Petzold, Jia Zhangke, and Dominga Sotomayor. And the stuff that I’m going to see before the end of the year (staying positive), like Steve McQueen’s Widows and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite should benefit from a festival crowd. I don’t know what’s going on with their “Masters” programming, which is a hodgepodge of puzzling inclusions and equally perplexing exclusions (where’s the new Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Jean-Luc Godard, or Frederick Wiseman?). But it does feature the new Hirokazu Kore-eda and Pawel Pawlikowski, so – positive.  

Look, I won’t pretend like I know the economics or the web of complex relationships required to manage and maintain a festival. I don’t have the constitution to even consider all the handshaking and endless series of emails required to get so-and-so film to screen, or the logistics necessary to get this or that filmmaker in attendance. All I know is that New York City and Toronto and Telluride have those resources and Chicago does not. But what I guess I want to know is… why not?

The 54th Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 10 to October 21. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, refer to the Chicago International Film Festival website here.  

Previewing the Chicago Critics Film Festival

Last year I was invited to join the rank and file of the Chicago Film Critics Association. As a Chicago-based quote unquote film critic, it is literally the highest distinction of its kind. I mean that mostly as a compliment. Or at least I try to think of it as such; I won’t deny that I get a certain measure of pride in seeing my name along a litany of other critics that I admire like Angelica Jade Bastien, Adam Kempenaar, Scott Tobias, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. It’s my self-effacing nature to wonder how I figure within the group. But for now, I’ll enjoy the perks and privileges that I frankly never imagined would have been afforded to me.

I’ve covered the Chicago Critics Film Festival as an audience member, member of the press, and now, in its sixth year, as a fellow critic. Over the past five years, the festival has screened the likes of James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, and Kogonada’s Columbus. These films, by filmmakers of limited stroke and cache, were major personal discoveries and provided Chicago audiences with an early glimpse into some of the more notable titles to come out of Tribeca, Sundance, and other American film festivals.

This year’s programming includes some especially intriguing titles like Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, David and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel, and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. However, my most highly anticipated title is Paul Schrader’s new film, First Reformed, with the filmmaker in attendance for a post-Q&A session.

Below you’ll find links to select reviews of titles, updated throughout the duration of the festival. For schedule and ticketing information, refer to the Music Box website here.

Previewing the 21st Chicago European Union Film Festival

Over the past five years, the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival has programmed the likes of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat, Terrence Davis’ Sunset Song, and Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper. It’s an indispensable film education, with the Siskel Center’s programming team ambitiously taking on the kind of films that rarely screen on more than a half-dozen screens in the city (if at all).

Less commercially inclined than their Chicago International Film Festival counterpart, I frequently considered the Chicago European Union Film Festival to be the city’s true cinephile attraction; the kind of festival that remedies CIFF’s glaring omissions and bloated filler selections. With such inclusions as Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghostd, Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Kornel Mundruczo’s Jupiter’s Moon, and Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, this year’s European Union Film Festival offers Chicago’s cinephiles with an all too rare opportunity to catch up with some of Europe’s most dynamic films, all within the comforts of the Siskel Center’s renovated theaters. Given how barren the winter movie months can become, the European Union Film Festival emerges as a cinephile’s oasis.

For a complete schedule, screening times, and ticket informationrefer to the Gene Siskel Film Center’s website here.

Previewing the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival - Week 2

The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival concludes Thursday, October 26 with its Closing Night selection, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Other significant screenings occurring during the second half of the festival include Dee Rees’ Mudbound, Martin McDonough’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, Hong Sang-soo's On the Beach At Night Alone, and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name.

The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival runs from Thursday, October 12 to Thursday, October 26. For a complete schedule of films and ticketing information, refer to the Chicago International Film Festival website here.