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CIFF 2019: Preview of the 55th Chicago International Film Festival

Running from October 16-27, the 55th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival will be unspooling 132 feature films and 50 shorts hailing from 67 countries from around the world. This crop of titles will include potential year-end award-winners (including 17 films that have been selected to represent their home countries for next year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar), the latest works from some of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, the debut efforts from the next wave of promising newcomers, a number of special guests in attendance, and even a few selections so odd as to defy most attempts to properly summarize them. With so many titles on hand, trying to figure out what to see can be a little daunting at first, but the crop of films brought together by artistic director Mimi Plauche and her team of programmers is eclectic enough to ensure that there's something on the schedule for everyone to enjoy.

Naturally, this year’s festival is studded with a number of gala events, beginning with the Opening Night presentation of “Motherless Brooklyn” (pictured above), Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed 1999 novel (now reset in the 1950s) in which he stars as a private detective with Tourette's Syndrome doggedly pursuing a case that leads him to the highest corridors of power in New York City. Also premiering that night is “Zombieland: Double Tap,” the sequel to the 2009 horror-comedy in which Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin return to once again fight the undead, this time accompanied by the likes of Thomas Middleditch, Luke Wilson, Zoey Deutch and Rosario Dawson

"The Torch"

The festival’s Centerpiece event will be a screening of Knives Out (10/23) the eagerly anticipated mystery-comedy from writer-director Rian Johnson (who is scheduled to attend) featuring an all-star cast that includes Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Christopher Plummer, Toni Colette, Lakeith Stanfield and Don Johnson. Closing Night will be the world premiere of “The Torch” (10/27), Jim Ferrell’s documentary on the life and work of legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy with both Guy and Ferrell scheduled to attend. In addition, actor/director Gael Garcia Bernal will be the focus of a tribute on October 26 that will include a screening of his latest directorial effort, the crime drama “Chicuarotes.”

Of the special presentations, the most notable title is probably the local premiere of The Irishman (10/24), Martin Scorsese’s 3 1/2 hour epic examination of organized crime in post-war America featuring a cast including the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino (as Jimmy Hoffa, no less), Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin. Coming in at a comparatively trim 173 minutes is “A Hidden Life” (10/23), Terrence Malick’s look at an Austrian farmer who faces death for his refusal to fight for the Nazis that is said to be Malick’s return to a more straightforward narrative style following the more experimental nature of his recent efforts. Fans of Scarlett Johansson will have two opportunities to see her on the screen, first in Jojo Rabbit (10/19), the already-controversial World War II satire from Taika Waititi in which she plays the mother of a young boy (Roman Griffith Davis) trying to navigate through complicated timed with the aid of his imaginary friend, none other than Adolf Hitler himself, and then in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (10/25), in which she and Adam Driver star in a penetrating look at a family caught up in the throes of a divorce. Driver turns up again in “The Report” (10/24), Scott Z. Burns’ docudrama about the investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program that yielded shocking secrets that were almost concealed from the American public. “Seberg” (10/24) stars Kristen Stewart, one of the most exciting actresses working today, as Jean Seberg, the one-time screen ingenue who went from becoming an icon of the French New Wave thanks to her performance in “Breathless” to a target of relentless harassment from the FBI because of her outspoken political views. 

"The Aeronauts"

The stars of the Oscar-winning biopic “The Theory of Everything,” Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, have reunited for “The Aeronauts” (10/23), a high-flying adventure set in 1862 loosely inspired by actual events in which budding meteorologist James Glaisher and balloon pilot-with-a-traumatized-past Amelia Wren join forces for a record-breaking and highly dangerous trip to the skies to prove that predicting weather patterns is possible after all. The resulting film is a mixed bag—none of the Earthbound flashbacks scattered throughout are particularly interesting—but the scenes set in the skies are so visually exciting that anyone even contemplating seeing is advised to catch it on the big screen instead of waiting for when it premieres on Amazon in December. 

Likewise, Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy” (10/22), a film written by Shia LaBeouf as inspired by his troubled childhood and centering on his troubled relationship with his father (played by LaBeouf himself), is not entirely satisfying as a whole either—it too often feels like a bizarre cross between a heartfelt piece of therapy and a Harmony Korine-style freakout. But Noah Jupe’s performance as the younger version of the actor (Lucas Hedges plays him when he is older and in rehab following yet another highly public crackup) is quite strong and self-assured, even when the film isn’t.

"Corpus Christi"

This year’s International Competition finds 16 films competing for the festival’s top prizes. The highest-profile of the bunch is probably “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (10/17, 19), Celine Sciamma’s prize-winning historical drama set in 18th century France about the romantic attraction that unexpectedly develops between a less-than-enthusiastic bride and the female artist hired to do her portrait. “Corpus Christi” (10/23, 24, 25) is a powerful drama from Polish director Jan Komasa about a young man who, while on work release from a youth detention center, is mistaken for a clergyman and ends up lead the parish in a town still suffering the repercussions of a recent tragedy. “The Painted Bird” (10/23, 24) is an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel about a young Polish boy struggling to fend for himself in Eastern Europe during WWII that is harrowing enough to have sent viewers at previous festivals running for the aisles. The great Ken Loach returns with his latest work, “Sorry We Missed You” (10/19, 20), a story of a blue-collar father in Northern England hoping to provide for his family be becoming a self-employed delivery driver.

Two of the most intriguing films in this year’s lineup come from celebrated directors who have elected to stray from what is usually expected of them with their latest efforts. Marking his first film set outside of his home country, “The Truth” (10/17) finds Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda shifting his focus to France to tell the story of the fraught relationship between celebrated screen icon Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche); things come to a head when the latter, accompanied by her husband (Ethan Hawke) and young daughter arrive for a visit to coincide with the publication of Fabienne’s memoir, little of which bears much resemblance on how things really went down. To add to the tension, Fabienne is shooting a sci-fi movie opposite a hot young actress with a disconcerting resemblance to a long-ago rival of hers. Although a minor effort in comparison to the likes of last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters,” the film still manages to work both as a meditation on the eternal battle between fiction and reality and as an interesting mother-daughter narrative that contains moments of tartly inspired comedy that never devolves into mawkish melodrama. The moment when Fabienne casts shade on Brigitte Bardot alone is pretty much worth the price of admission. 

"By the Grace of God"

Over the course of more than two decades, perennial provocateur Francois Ozon (whose first film, “Sitcom,” appeared in the 1998 edition of CIFF) has consistently surprised audiences with his offbeat story structures, his penchant for hopping between genres, and his often transgressive narratives. As a result, fans of his past work may get the biggest shock of all with his latest effort, “By the Grace of God” (10/22, 23), in which he eschews all of those traits for a decidedly straightforward take on a legal case involving the efforts of Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon, who was accused of knowingly protecting the Reverend Bernard Preynat long after it was determined that he had been sexually abusing many of the children under his watch for years. Ozon examines the case through the eyes of three of the victims who brought him to court and shows the different ways in which they were affected—Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) has a seemingly perfect life but has moments when his torment comes through, Francois (Denis Menochet) is far more outwardly angry at what happened and is willing to stir things up by any means, and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) is a genuinely haunted soul whose entire life was destroyed at the hands of someone who he was supposed to have been able to put his trust in. The result is one of the most powerful movies in Ozon’s filmography, a horrifying, enraging and startlingly effective example of torn-from-the-headlines storytelling that shows that he doesn’t need his usual bag of tricks to create a great film that will stick with you long after it ends.

The New Directors Competition features 14 works from new filmmakers competing for prizes that include the Roger Ebert Award. One of the best of the bunch is “A Thief’s Daughter” (10/21, 22), a heart-wrenching drama from Belen Funes that features a narrative obviously influenced by the work of the Dardannes—a young Spanish woman’s attempts to make a better life for herself, her baby and her troubled younger brother are thrown into upheaval with the return of her ex-con father—but transforms into something entirely its own, thanks largely to the amazing performance by Greta Fernandez (who is scheduled to appear) in the title role. “Sole” (10/17, 18, 24), from director Carlo Sironi, tells the story of a pregnant Polish teenager who goes to Italy to sell her baby and is watched over by a middleman who finds himself unexpectedly falling for her. “Bombay Rose” (10/19, 20) is a colorful Bollywood-style animated feature from Gitanjali Rao about a woman who goes to great lengths to keep her sister in school and finds herself being romantically pursued by a Kashmir refugee. “Just 6.5” offers up an Iranian take on the cop thriller with a sprawling narrative about a dedicated detective out to bring down a local drug kingpin by any means necessary.

"The Kingmaker"

As usual, documentaries have a place of prominence in this year’s lineup. The most notable of the bunch is perhaps “The Kingmaker” (10/18, 19), by filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (“The Queen of Versailles,” “Generation Wealth”). Greenfield offers up an eye-popping and jaw-dropping look at Imelda Marcos as she attempts to rehabilitate her image in the eyes of the world while reestablishing her political status in the Philippines. “The Kingmaker” intersperses those moments with pungent reminders of exactly what she and her late husband, Ferdinand Marcos, once did to their home country when they were in power. Sports fans will doubtlessly enjoy “Jump Shot” (10/23, 24), Jacob Hamilton’s slight but affecting look at the story of Kenny Sailors, a one-time pro basketball player who is credited by many with having created the literally game-changing move known as the jump shot. Having made numerous documentaries in the past in which he has consciously inserted himself into the narratives, documentarian Nick Broomfield finally trains the camera on himself in “My Father and Me” (10/19, 20) to tell the story of his complicated relationship with his father, himself an accomplished photographer. The end result is more moving and interesting than most of Broomfield’s other efforts but those who have found him and his work to be off-putting in the past may want to give this one a pass. “Mother” (10/21, 22) is a touching film that presents the stories of two seemingly different women whose lives end up intersecting at an eldercare facility in Northern Thailand. 

And since no reputable film festival is complete without at least one documentary about the cinema itself, this year’s festival provides two of them. “Forman vs. Forman” (10/19, 21) tells the story of the late Milos Forman, the two-time Oscar-winning director of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (which premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival back in 1975), “Ragtime” and “Amadeus”—although fascinating enough, the extremely abbreviated length (it clocks in at 78 minutes) leaves you wishing that directors Jakub Hejna and Helena Trestikova had gone longer in order to give a fuller view of Forman’s considerable life and work. Before passing away earlier this year, the great Agnes Varda completed “Varda by Agnes” (10/17, 27), a film in which she looks back over her filmmaking career and offer the last and definitive word on her considerable oeuvre.

The festival also includes a number of sidebars—some long-standing and some new for this year—designed to highlight specific areas of filmmaking. Presented in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Architecture X Design program offers a series of films dealing with architecture and design. “House of Cardin” (10/26, 27) takes a look at Pierre Cardin and his enormous fashion design empire; the doc features interviews with the man himself, along with the likes of Sharon Stone and Jean-Paul Gaultier. “The New Bauhaus” (10/17) looks at the innovative and influential art design movement that emerged when Hungarian artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy arrived in Chicago in 1937. (You’ll never look at a bar of Dove soap the same way after watching this.) A number of production designers will also be on hand for a series of programs, including Hannah Beachler, who won the Oscar (the first for an African-American) for her work on “Black Panther.” There is also a celebration of contemporary French animation that will include screenings of the wild fantasy “I Lost My Body” (10/19, 27), the slightly heavy-handed political allegory “The Prince’s Voyage” (10/19, 23, 25) and “The Swallows of Kabul” (10/19, 20, 25), an adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s novel about a happily married artist who ends up being imprisoned by the Taliban, where she is watched over by a guard who is inspired by her to question his loyalty to the cause. Another sidebar takes a look at what is going on in Italian film, and includes an early look at Fernando Meirelles’ latest, “The Two Popes” (10/26) and “Vivre” (10/24, 26), in which certain members of a family are driven to distraction by the arrival of their new au pair, an Irish art history student.

"Once Upon a River"

The festival annual City & State sidebar, featuring locally-grown films and talent, features an eclectic bunch of titles ranging from documentaries like “The First Rainbow Coalition” (10/24, 25), “Present Perfect” (10/17, 20) and “Ringside” (10/18, 20, 25) to horror films like Jennifer Reeder’s Lynch-inspired high school saga “Knives and Skin” (10/18, 19) and “Girl on the Third Floor” (10/18), Travis Stevens’ strange tale of a troubled father-to-be (CM Punk, who is scheduled to appear along with Stevens and co-star Sarah Brooks) whose attempt to fix up an old Victoria house single-handedly for himself and his family starts off as a standard haunted house thriller and then veers into deeply icky Cronenberg-style body horror. Minhal Baig’s “Hala” (10/18, 20) is a good coming-of-age drama that tells the story of a 17-year-old Muslim girl (“Blockers” scene-stealer Geraldine Viswanathan) going through her senior year of high school and trying to deal with family conflicts and a romantic attraction to a classmate (Jack Kilmer). “Once Upon a River” (10/21, 25, 26), written and directed by Haroula Rose, tells a too-familiar story of a Native American teenager who is forced to go off on a quest to find her estranged mother and meets a number of colorful characters along the way. But the performances, by Kenadi DelaCerna as the girl and John Ashton as one of the people she comes across, are quite good. (DelaCerna, Ashton and Rose are scheduled to attend the screenings.)

The Black Perspectives program is headlined this year by “Harriet” (10/26), Kasi Lemmons’ scattershot look at the life of Harriet Tubman that wastes a good performance by Cynthia Erivo on a screenplay that rushes through incidents too quickly for them to have any emotional impact. Other films in the program include: “The Apollo” (10/25, 26), Roger Ross Williams’ look at the history of the legendary Harlem theater; “Clemency” (10/18, 19), featuring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden who finds her hard-line attitude towards her prisoners begin to crumble after presiding over a botched execution; “Atlantics” (10/25, 27), Mati Diop’s acclaimed coming-of-age drama about a young woman who loves one man but is betrothed to another, a situation that unfolds highly unexpected ways; and “Les Miserables” (10/20, 21), a drama centered on the tensions between police and local Muslims set in the same Parisian district as the novel that gives it its name. 


In the Out-Look program, which is dedicated to films revolving around LGBTQ themes, there’s “Carmilla” (10/17, 18, 22). Director Emily Harris presents a new adaptation of the famous Sheridan La Fans supernatural novella about the relationship that develops between a sheltered teen girl and the mysterious young woman who sweeps into her life after a carriage accident. There’s also “Cunningham” (10/25, 26), a visually stunning 3D documentary on innovative modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham. The film intersperses a look at his life and career with eye-popping stagings of some of his most famous dances.

Finally, for those who are in the mood for something far from the beaten path, this year’s After Dark sidebar is sure to satisfy. “8: A South African Horror Story” (10/18, 25) is a moody and largely effective supernatural drama about a family that arrives to take over a farm that they recently inherited, only to find themselves battling a local outcast who has some very specific and shocking designs on the family’s young daughter. “Deerskin” (10/25, 27), the latest bit of weirdness from Quentin Dupieux, stars Jean Dujardin as a man who acquires a suede jacket that he is so taken with that he elects to go out on a quest to destroy all other jackets in the world, even hiring a cameraman to follow him on his increasingly bloody quest. A triumph on the festival circuit, Andrew Patterson’s “The Vast of Night” (10/24, 26) tells a 1950s-set story about a switchboard operator and a radio host who try to track down the source of a mysterious sound infecting all the local phone lines. However, what may be the strangest film of the entire festival is “Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway” (10/19, 20), an uncompromisingly odd film in which a secret agent is sent into a virtual reality universe to battle a computer virus that has infected the CIA’s computers in a tale that deploys kung-fu, stop-motion animation, retro takes on the sci-fi and spy genres and any number of “WTF?” moments. Honestly, I could not make heads or tails out of any of it but the film has been made with so much energy and conviction that it cannot be readily dismissed, either. On the bright side, director Miguel Llanso and producer Sergio Uguet de Resayre will be on hand for both screenings for post-viewing Q&A’s—something tells me that they are going to be quite busy with them. Love it or hate it, it is the type of movie that will leave you feeling some kind of deep emotion—isn’t that what a film festival like CIFF is all about in the first place?

Screenings for the 55th Chicago International Film Festival will take place at the AMC River East 21. Tickets can be purchased in person or at the theater, at the festival's websiteor over the phone at (312) 332-FILM. For further information on titles, running times, ticket prices and availability and program changes, go to The Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 16-27. 

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.

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