Roger Ebert Home

45 Movies to see at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival

Now in its 54th year, the second under the purview of Artistic Director Mimi Plauche—founder Michael Kutza having stepped away to serve as CEO—the Chicago International Film Festival has undergone a couple of changes to its long-long-established formula. The key one is that rather than running a full two weeks, it now goes for a slightly shorter 11 days and will be screening a mere 123 feature films and 51 short subjects from over 50 countries. (Last year, by comparison, saw the screening of 139 features and 53 shorts.) Although the number of films and screening days may be a little lower than in previous years, the festival as a whole appears to be moving ahead as normal. Over the course of the 11 days running from October 10-21, those 123 features (including 24 North American and 21 U.S. premieres) will cover the usual gamut, ranging from potential year-end awards contenders, the latest works from some of the world’s most significant filmmakers, debut efforts from the next wave of potential cinematic greats, tributes to a couple of Hollywood icons, and, for those with a taste for the outré, a few shots of pure concentrated weirdness to rattle minds.

Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy,” the highly anticipated piece of Oscar bait from director Felix Van Groeningen (who is scheduled to attend) that adapts the complementary 2008 memoirs Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by David and Nic Sheff to tell the story of writer David (Steve Carell) grappling with his son (Timothee Chalamet), whose ever-growing addiction to meth has plunged him into a never-ending loop of abusing the drug to the point of disaster followed by tentative stabs at rehabilitation before the inevitable relapse. This is a well-meaning effort that has a few strong moments here and there (the scene in which David finally finds himself forced to abruptly cut ties with the son that he previously would have done anything for is especially good) but as Carell delivers a smart and understated performance, the film as a whole never really clicked for me. Too much of it rings slightly hollow at times and Van Groeningen doesn’t do his film any favors by overdoing things with a soundtrack filled with songs (including “Heart of Gold” and Perry Como’s rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset”) that seem to be doing most of the emotional heavy lifting at key points. In fact, the single most effective scene in the whole thing is a moment in a support group meeting where an emotionally ravaged mother (LisaGay Hamilton) talks about how her own child was destroyed by drugs in a plain and unadorned manner that this film could have used more of throughout.

What They Had

In addition to “Beautiful Boy,” the festival has a number of other Gala Presentations of eagerly anticipated films, a number of them with guests on hand to do the presenting. “A Private War” (10/12) tells the story of real-life war correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) as she goes on a fateful assignment to Syria to report on the conflicts. “Vox Lux” (10/12), a late addition to the lineup, features Natalie Portman as a dissolute pop star whose career was launched as the result of a song she co-composed and sang in the wake of a horrific school shooting that she survived. Local favorite Melissa McCarthy toplines Can You Ever Forgive Me? (10/14), filmmaker Marielle Heller’s recounting of the strange story of Lee Israel, a writer who, having fallen on hard times, begins selling counterfeit letters purportedly written by famous figures as a way to make money utilizing her talents. Writer/director Peter Hedges is scheduled to be on hand to present “Ben Is Back” (10/14), a drama following the fraught reunion between a loving mother (Julia Roberts) and her former addict son (Lucas Hedges, Peter’s real-life son)  over the course of 24 hours after the latter unexpectedly shows up at home on Christmas Eve. First-time filmmaker Elizabeth Chomko and the great Robert Forster will be on hand to present “What They Had” (10/15), an overly familiar, if well-acted, locally-shot drama about a pair of siblings (Hillary Swank and Michael Shannon) trying to get their father (Forster) to come to terms with the need to do something about their Alzheimer’s afflicted mother (Blythe Danner). “The Favourite” (10/18), starring Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman, may look like a standard-issue historical drama at first glance but as it comes from the twisted mind of Yorgos Lanthimos, the guy behind such films as “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” expect anything but the usual. For the Closing Night feature, Jason Reitman is expected to be on hand to present his latest work, “The Front Runner” (10/21), which recounts how one-time sure thing presidential candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was driven from the race once rumors of an extra-marital affair hit the media and caused a firestorm with repercussions that continue on to this day.

Of all the big-ticket items on this year’s roster, none is perhaps more anticipated by true film fanatics than “The Other Side of the Wind” (10/21), the final narrative film from the legendary Orson Welles that, after decades in a bureaucratic and financial limbo that prevented its completion, has finally been finished utilizing notes and instructions left by Welles before he died in 1985. Set over the course of one long night, the film chronicles the turbulent 70th birthday party of rebellious filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston), who has just returned from a long exile in Europe to make an adventurous new film, with glimpses of that new project, which resembles what might have resulted if Russ Meyer had inexplicably been put in charge of a Michelangelo Antonioni screenplay or vice versa. Having only seen it once at this point, it is a bit difficult to wrestle with the undeniably heady brew of images and ideas that Welles was serving up but even just a single glimpse can confirm that at an age when most filmmakers are perfectly content to serve up new versions of familiar themes, he was one who was willing to continue experimenting with new ways of approaching cinema. Is it the equal of the likes of “Citizen Kane” or “Touch of Evil” or “Chimes at Midnight”? Probably not but I cannot wait to delve back into it and explore its mysteries further. At this screening (one of the rare theatrical presentations before it hits Netflix in the coming weeks), critic and Welles expert Jonathan Rosenbaum will be on hand to introduce it and conduct a post-screening Q&A. To further prepare viewers, the festival is also presenting “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” (10/20), a glib but genial documentary—basically a feature-length version of one of those “making of” DVD featurettes—made for Netflix by Morgan Neville that recounts the strange history behind the film, though it unfortunately neglects to go into significant detail on many key points. 


A number of other master filmmakers will be presenting their latest projects, some as part of the official International Competition. “Non-Fiction” (10/11, 13), the new film from Olivier Assayas, is a dry social satire about the contemporary publishing industry and the people who live and work in it as they try to adjust to the changes of a digital world. The film is funny in parts and any chance to watch Juliette Binoche at work should be taken but the results are a little too uneven for their own good, especially in comparison to such recent Assayas masterworks as “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper.” “Ash is the Purest White” (10/12, 14), the latest from Jia Zhangke, tells the story of a gangster’s moll (Tao Zhao) who is released from prison after five years to discover that everyone she knows and cares for has moved on without her. Christian Petzold (“Phoenix”) returns with “Transit” (10/11, 12), a politically charged thriller about a man who poses as a dead author to escape from France to Mexico after a fascist coup—after becoming stuck in Marseilles, he meets a woman who is looking for the very man that he is pretending to be. Writer/director Alice Rohrwacher won the Best Screenplay prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with “Happy as Lazzaro” (10/15, 16), a story of a man living on the fringes of society who appears to have the ability to travel through time. 

On the non-competitive side, Oscar-winning documentarian Charles Ferguson returns with “Watergate” (10/14), an extravagantly detailed 260-minute-long exploration of the greatest criminal conspiracy in contemporary politics (for now, at least). “Shoplifters” (10/16, 17), a story abut a multi-generational Japanese family of petty criminals and outsiders who take in an abandoned five-year-old girl, arrives after having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year for celebrated director Hirokazu Kore-eda. After having won prizes around the world for his previous film, “Ida,” Pawel Pawlikowski returns with “Cold War” (10/17), an acclaimed romantic historical drama set against the background of the titular period in Paris, Poland, Berlin and Yugoslavia. Another acclaimed filmmaker, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, goes for a broader international scope with “Everybody Knows” (10/17), a thriller starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem about a woman who returns from Argentina to her Spanish hometown for her sister’s wedding and inadvertently unleashes a number of long-buried secrets about the town and its people after her daughter is mysteriously abducted. “American Dharma” (10/20, 21), an already-controversial work from the great Errol Morris, finds the celebrated documentarian training his camera on one of the most polarizing figures on the current political scene, Trump and general sleaze Steve Bannon. Even though its commercial release has been postponed until next spring, the festival will still be presenting “Peterloo” (10/21), Mike Leigh’s dramatic recreation of the events leading up to 1819’s Peterloo Massacre, in which British troops stormed a crowd of 60,000 demonstrators who had gathered to protest the rising poverty rate.


As usual, the festival will be presenting a number of tributes to people to celebrate their contributions to cinema. William Friedkin, the director of such classics as “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer” and “To Live and Die in LA” will appear on October 15 for a tribute that will include a screening of “Friedkin Uncut,” a career retrospective documentary that plays a little too much like hagiography for its own good and which lacks some of the detail and insight that Friedkin displayed in his recent autobiography. (Friedkin will also be on hand the day before to present a screening of one of his all-time favorite films, the classic 1953 musical The Band Wagon.” The festival’s Centerpiece screening will be Wildlife(10/16), Paul Dano’s adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel about the crumbling of the marriage of an ordinary Sixties couple, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, through the eyes of their teenaged son—Mulligan will be on hand to present the film and the screening will serve as a tribute to her already extraordinary career. Colleen Moore, one of the legendary silent film comediennes and a co-founder of the festival, will be remembered on October 21 with a discussion between Kutza and her grandson, Billy Hargrave, following a screening of one of her few sound films, the 1933 Preston Sturges-penned classic “The Power and the Glory.” Art Paul, the Chicago-based graphic artists whose creations have ranged from numerous posters for the festival to the iconic rabbit logo for Playboy and who passed away earlier this year, will be celebrated on October 14 with a screening of the new documentary “Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny.” And as part of the festival’s traditional Black Perspectives sidebar, Ruth Carter, the Oscar-nominated costume designer whose works have been seen in films ranging from “Do the Right Thing” to “Black Panther,” will be feted on October 20 with her on hand to discuss her career at length in a talk moderated by actress Regina Taylor. 


The festival once again contains a number of sidebars concentrating on specific areas of cinema. The main draw this year is an advance screening of “Widows” (10/13), Steve McQueen’s highly anticipated Chicago-set crime drama about a quartet of women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo) who find themselves deeply in debt after their criminal husbands die during a job gone wrong and elect to save themselves by taking the plans for a future job they left behind and doing it themselves. Other films in the sidebar include a showing of the acclaimed youth drama The Hate U Give (10/11) and “Little Woods” (10/19, 21), in which Tessa Thompson plays a former opioid dealer who is trying to make a new life for herself, only to be forced back into the business on the eve of the completion of her parole. On the documentary side, “Mr Soul!” (10 13, 15) looks at the groundbreaking 1968-73 PBS series that highlighted a breathtaking array of African-American talent and the man who presided over it, producer Ellis Haizlip. (His niece, Melissa, directed the film and will be present at both showings.) “United Skates” (10/12, 13) looks at the importance of roller-skating to the African-American community and how some skaters, including Chicago’s Buddy Love, are trying to keep that spirit alive in the face of discrimination and rink closings. “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” (10/16, 17) offers viewers a piercing examination of the infamous 2015 case, in which Chicago activist Sandra Bland was arrested at a traffic stop in a small Texas town and was then found hanging in her cell three days later, that employs interviews with her family and their legal team as well as the video blogs of Bland herself that help to truly put both a face and a voice to the name. (Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, Bland family attorney Cannon Lambert and Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, will attend both screenings and lead discussions afterwards.


The Out-Look sidebar, which includes LGBTQ-themed films, includes 8 titles this year, led by "Boy Erased," the drama by writer-director Joel Edgerton (who is scheduled to attend along with Garrard Conley, who wrote the book the film is based on) in which a young man (Lucas Hedges) is forced by his Baptist pastor father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman) to undergo a conversion therapy meant to make him go from gay to straight under penalty of being permanently ostracized from his family and community. Cinemas of the Americas includes 14 titles centered around South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean and is highlighted by a showing of Roma (10/16), Alfonso Cuaron’s epic-sized drama about a domestic worker going about her life amidst the political turmoil of the 1970s that is already being shortlisted by many as a certain Best Picture nominee. Women in Cinema highlights 36 movies produced by female filmmakers and of the ones not cited elsewhere, perhaps the most fascinating is “Sofia” (10/12, 16, 20), a powerful drama from Morocco by Meryem Benm’Barek (whose screenplay won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes this year) that grapples with that country’s law declaring it illegal for a woman to give birth out of wedlock by looking at it through the eyes of the 20-year-old daughter of a moderately prosperous family who unexpectedly gives birth and then has 24 hours to name the father or risk going to prison. Spotlight: Italy focuses on films from Italy and includes such titles as “Dogman” (10/19, 21), the new crime thriller from Matteo Garrone (whose previous efforts include “Gomorrah,” “Reality” and “Tale of Tales”) in which a simple dog groomer is forced by a nasty acquaintance into becoming his partner in crime until he is finally pushed too far, and “Naples in Veils” (10/14, 19, 21), a hypnotic and moody thriller from Ferzan Ozpetek about a medical examiner (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) who spends a wild and passionate night with a mysterious younger man only to discover his corpse waiting when she gets to work the next day—with the police looking at her as a prime suspect, she begins investigating on her own and ends up disturbing some long-buried traumas from her own past along the way.

The Great Buster

An Acceptable Loss” (10/13, 15), a political thriller from director Joe Chappelle that stars Jamie Lee Curtis as the President and Tika Sumpter as a former adviser who begins to receive an undo amount of pressure from numerous sides when she decides to take a job as a university lecturer. “Olympia” (10/15, 16, 19) stars local actress McKenzie Chinn, who also wrote the screenplay and is scheduled to attend the screenings with director Gregory Dixon, as an artist who reaches a personal crossroads when her boyfriend asks her to drop everything she knows and move cross-country with him. The documentary “The City That Sold America” (10/11, 13) reveals the story of the influence that Chicago-based advertising firms have had over consumer culture for decades—a fascinating story, to be sure, but one that cries out for a more detailed examination than the cursory 69-minute one given here. Comedy films have also been given their own sidebar with a program that includes such efforts as “Flammable Children” (10/13, 14, 16), a wacky tale of '70s-era Australian suburban angst (co-starring Guy Pearce, Radha Mitchell and Kylie Minogue) that plays like a mashup of “Muriel’s Wedding” and “The Ice Storm” and whose appeal will depend largely on each viewer’s personal tolerance for over-the-top whimsy, the delightfully titled Swiss entry “Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into The Arms Of A Shiska” (10/17, 18, 19) and “The Great Buster” (10/19, 21), Peter Bogdanovich’s entertaining, if not exactly in-depth, examination of the life and work of Buster Keaton that combines still-astounding clips from Keaton’s filmography with testimonials from an array of talking heads ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Cybil Shepard to, delightfully enough, Werner Herzog.


After Dark, the festival’s late night walk on the wild side, including the Japanese high school revenge drama "Liverleaf" (10/12, 17), and "Piercing” (10/13) the decidedly dark S&M-infused comedy about a new dad (Christopher Abbot) who decides to divert the homicidal feelings he has towards his newborn child by renting a hotel room, hiring an escort (Mia Wasikowska) and acting them out on her instead—needless to say things do not go quite as planned. The big title here, however, is Overlord (10/20), an advance screening of the latest production from JJ Abrams (which was once positioned as part of the “Cloverfield” universe, though that aspect seems to have been either dropped or reduced considerable following that “Cloverfield Paradox” nonsense) in which a group of WWII paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines on the eve of D-Day and stumble across a secret Nazi lab that contains any number of grisly secrets. And if that isn’t enough to whet your appetite, consider that I have only mentioned roughly half the films unspooling this year and that there are still a number of titles out there that might be of interest. Face it, if you can go through all the movies playing here and come away from the list thinking that there is nothing on hand of interest to you, the problem is almost certainly yours.

Screenings for the 54th Chicago International Film Festival will take place at the AMC River East 21. Tickets can be purchased in person at the theater, online at  or over the phone at (312)-332-FILM. For further information on titles, running times, ticket prices and availability and program changes, got to the festival site at The Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 10-21.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Janes
Crimes of the Future


comments powered by Disqus