My hometown festival, the Chicago International Film Festival is back in full strength for its 58th edition and, in just one of the ways that it wins my heart year in and year out, is back offering both a slew of screening options and a virtual hub for folks either not comfortable with the idea of going back into theaters in the midst of COVID or those that might live a little far from the Windy City. But if you’re in the Midwest, there’re few better ways to catch all the festival hits coming out of Cannes, Venice, Toronto and New York—and a few films lucky enough to premiere in Chicago.
Running from October 12 – 23, CIFF offers over 90 films in its program, 16 of which can be accessed virtually if you live in Illinois, Indiana or Wisconsin.
So, whether you’re a Midwestern cinephile, a Chicagoan ready to head to the Music Box Theatre or someone simply curious about the movies film critics (and Film Twitter) have been talking about for the past few months, CIFF has plenty for you. Attendees such as Jonathan Majors, Kathryn Hahn and Darren Aronofsky bolster familiar faces like documentarian Steve James, but the real draw to the fest is the sheer breadth of globetrotting culture covered.
These aren’t all the films on offer over at this year’s CIFF, and you can find a list of their full program here, but here are 10 films you shouldn’t miss this year:
AftersunDirector: Charlotte Wells
Parents and children can develop a sixth sense about each other—or, at very least, they can attune some of their five basic senses to each other’s wavelengths without even trying, and those sensitivities sometimes linger. Aftersun communicates its understanding of this connection right away. When Calum (Paul Mescal), a young father on vacation with his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Francesca Corio), pauses before leaving her alone for a moment, even though he’s out of her sight, she can hear his hesitation. She assures him it’s fine to leave her. Calum’s uncertainty makes sense. Gradually, the movie reveals the basics of their relationship: Sophie’s parents are divorced, seemingly amicably, at least by this point. Sophie lives with her mother in Scotland. Calum lives in London, and doesn’t see her as often as either of them might like. Now they are on end-of-summer holiday in Turkey, at a resort hotel, though Calum can’t afford the all-inclusive passes that would get them unlimited food, drink or whatever else. The pair of them get along—though, as with the friendliness of the divorced co-parents, you get the sense that this may not have always been the case. The time, based on Sophie’s “No Fear” baseball cap and the later-period Britpop that appears on the diegetic soundtrack (“Tender” by Blur; “Road Rage” by Catatonia), the very late ’90s. Eventually, flashes of Sophie as an adult, played by Celia Rowlson-Hall, make it clear that she is remembering this trip, with the help of some home videos we see her taking at the time, and rewatching later. I hesitate to reveal even these minor details, not because Aftersun is full of twists and turns, but because writer/director Charlotte Wells lets this memoir-like movie unfold with such impossible loveliness—and then, as it goes on, with something ineffably anxious beneath the surface. The movie is mostly Sophie’s her point of view, but sometimes Wells follows Calum away from his daughter’s eyes. Are we seeing the truth of those moments, or Sophie’s attempt to reconstruct them years later? Aftersun doesn’t fuss around too much with underlining these ambiguities, though it does use some of its pop songs to comment directly on the action in ways that are at once rapturous and goofily literal, which may be the movie’s way of keeping in touch with its inner tween. Yet Sophie can’t live in that 11-year-old’s memories forever. We see her turning them over in her head, and the movie itself pulls off a devastating flip, from low-key, observant idyll to something profoundly moving about the closeness and distance that can develop in families, sometimes at the same time. In its gentle, modest way, Aftersun might well break your heart.—Jesse Hassenger
All Jacked Up and Full of WormsDirector: Alex Phillips
For as long as there have been movies, there have been drugs in movies. Even predating 1936’s Reefer Madness, mood-altering substances have taken their own seat within the history of cinema because they have always been a part of our culture. All Jacked Up and Full of Worms nestles itself comfortably within the long history of drugs on screen, but does so with its own personality and flair. Also, the drugs are worms. Make no mistake, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is a little rough around the edges. Some of the micro-budget film’s limitations show. This is not a movie with grand locations and set design; there’re no polished CG effects or recognizable actors. It is scrappy, indie filmmaking. But it does have a lot of passion and heart behind it, and never lets its underdog origins get in the way of telling one very silly, incomprehensibly sweet story. It must also be clarified that All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is disgusting. It is drippy, slimy, perverted and disturbing. The characters are not saints, and no one here is ever in line for a medal of honor. It might be seen that some of the atrocities are shoehorned into the film to push the limits of what is acceptable, but that ignores the ultimate experience of the film: These people might be awful and their world might be indefensible, but there are still moments of growth and joy that shine through the filth. Writer/director Alex Phillips creates a visual tone that just makes sense for the absurd but revolting world of the film. Using vintage television sets, giallo-lit hallucinations and real-world grit, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms pivots frequently between cinematic modes to create the same unsettling experience that those in the film are getting whipped through. That is no easy feat for a filmmaker, and Phillips guides the audience’s experience with a rapier-sharp wit. There is no way that All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is for everyone. From drugs to dolls and a whole lot of creepy-crawly worms, it is bound to alienate and turn off a good chunk of the general population. But for John Waters lovers and proud weirdos, it is a scintillating addition to teeny budget favorites.—Deirdre Crimmins
The Banshees of InisherinDirector: Martin McDonagh
Whether we wear it on our sleeves or bury it somewhere down in the darkest part of ourselves, we all carry the fear that someday someone we trust and love will simply decide to abandon us. It lives somewhere in each of us in the same vicinity as the fear that, someday, inexplicable and motive-less violence will descend on us and our loved ones—a little knot of dread waiting to unspool. But this fear is quieter, simpler and, therefore, less-often discussed in the wider cultural landscape. There are a lot of films about sudden violence, but you don’t see as many feature-length explorations of straightforward, person-to-person departures. With that in mind, it would be easy to look to Martin McDonagh’s phenomenal The Banshees of Inisherin as some kind of fable, a dark fairy tale from a faraway time and place meant to cast long, shadowy metaphors over our own lives. If you’re willing to look closely, you’ll definitely find all the material you need to make those metaphors happen in your mind, but at the film’s Fantastic Fest premiere, McDonagh himself called it “a simple break-up story,” an exploration of what might happen to two men if one simply decided to cut ties with the other. So, is it a grand, fathoms-deep exploration of the bittersweet nature of human relationships, or “a simple break-up story” that’s just about one Irishman deciding he doesn’t want to see another Irishman anymore? In the end, it’s both, and that’s what makes The Banshees of Inisherin and its blackly hilarious portrait of everyday pain one of the best films of the year. Through beautifully framed shots rich with the texture of rustic stone walls and the warped glass of old windows, McDonagh takes us back to Ireland a century ago, where civil war rages on the mainland and things progress at their usual slow pace on the island of Inisherin. It’s here, with artillery fire raging in the background, that Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) decides he’s done hanging out with his old pub pal Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). For some on the island, it makes a certain degree of sense—the creative and contemplative Colm and the more simple-minded Pádraic always were a mismatched pair—but for Pádraic, it’s a baffling, literal overnight tectonic shift in his life. He hopes Colm’s sudden distance is part of a fight that he somehow forgot, or a poor choice of words after one too many pints, but according to Colm, it’s painfully, frighteningly simple: “I just don’t like you no more.” It all creates an atmosphere that invites us to ask a question about what we’re watching: On the grand scale of time, does it really matter if one man decides to cut ties with another? Will history record it? Will anyone care? Or, when faced with our own mundane despair in the face of the vast wider world, is being nice to your neighbor the only thing that matters? McDonagh’s characters, and McDonagh himself, might not have an answer for us, but the film’s ability to call these questions to mind is evidence of its haunting power. In its unwavering devotion to the straightforward nature of its story, The Banshees of Inisherin has found something profound and universal, something that will leave you both laughing and shaken to your core. It’s the kind of film that crawls into your soul and stays there.—Matthew Jackson
Before, Now & ThenDirector: Kamila Andini
A contemplative and wrenching Indonesian period drama, Before, Now & Then observes a masterful performance from Happy Salma as Nana, who escapes war only to find a bittersweet marriage with a rich older man—and his mistress. With incredible color and understated storytelling, replete with dream sequences and hazy visions, writer/director Kamila Andini creates a muggy aesthetic simultaneously stifling and buzzing with life, and all the hope the latter brings. A coy turn by Laura Basuki as Ino, the other woman with whom Nana finds an intimate bond, also stands out among a talented cast. A life haunted by regrets, memories and possibilities finds a way to move forward thanks to small bonds and an inner steel. Violence, political strife, marital problems—the world keeps on turning, but Before, Now & Then explores what’s needed to hold steady through it all.—Jacob Oller
BrokerDirector: Hirokazu Kore-eda
“Don’t have a baby if you’ll abandon it.” This is the first line in Broker, uttered by Bae Doona’s single-minded police detective Soo-jin as So-young (Lee Ji-eun, aka IU) leaves her swaddled baby, Woo-sung, outside a church on a rainy Busan night. The following 129 minutes of the film work to contextualize and complicate that statement. To do so, celebrated Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda uses an ensemble of complex, delicately drawn characters with differing opinions, some strong and some weak, about So-young’s choice. The result is a treatise on the families we make and the systems that get in the way of us caring for one another—and one of the best films of the year. Kore-eda’s talent for delicate character work and rich, contemplative pacing is on full display in Broker. Everyone has an opinion about So-young’s choice to leave her child at a baby box, a designated and safe drop-off spot for parents who are unable to care for their children, and Kore-eda unspools them over the course of the film. For Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), a volunteer at the church who uses his role to steal babies for the adoption black market with friend Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), the act of baby abandonment is deeply personal and deeply wrong. Dong-soo was left at an orphanage as a child, and initially uses So-young as an excuse to release decades of unexpressed anger. While some of these characters are deeply judgmental of one another, Broker itself treats each of its ensemble members with immense empathy. In a different world, this could be a family, but Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo, So-young, Hae-jin and Woo-sung keep coming up against systems and expectations that remind them why they can’t keep each other. While Broker ultimately (mostly) reaffirms the power of the traditional nuclear family unit, it keeps space for more creative and flexible systems of caring—and is a more successful story for it. Every baby deserves to be loved and taken care of, but so does every adult. Broker does an impressive job of articulating how these two truths are inextricably intertwined.—Kayti Burt
Call JaneDirector: Phyllis Nagy
Buoyed by a convincing dramatic turn from Elizabeth Banks, Call Jane is a well meaning, appreciably sumptuous addition to the lore of these networks, but is made somewhat disingenuous by the choice of composite woman on which it centers its fable. Directed by Phyllis Nagy (screenwriter of sensual classic Carol), Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi’s script focuses on Joy Griffin (Banks), a happy homemaker and wife to upwardly mobile criminal lawyer Will (Chris Messina), and mother to ultra-precocious, sheltered fifteen-year-old Charlotte (a talented but wildly mature Grace Edwards). When Joy’s pregnancy threatens her own life, signified by a tinnitus-inducing heart condition, she must seek out a termination. Nagy, with the help of cinematographer Greta Zozula and composer Isabella Summers, crafts an atmosphere of confusion and frustration as Joy’s petition to a male hospital board is summarily denied, and she’s instead given the advice to either plead insanity, or fall down a staircase. Joy is white, and stable, and able to access a healthy bank account. Joy is the chosen one, and she’s going to be fine. Making a film with today’s statistical knowledge—that poor Indigenous and Black pregnant people are disproportionately affected by, and most at risk of being criminalized by abortion bans—and still choosing to enter this world through the lens of a fictional traditionalist turned democrat by her own unfortunate circumstances, dampens the film’s otherwise perfect setup for timeliness. Ultimately, it’s unfortunate that Call Jane can’t decide whether it’s a character study or the study of a movement, as it’s a visual pleasure that successfully tiptoes in both directions before retracting its more confrontational opinions. Banks, Mosaku, Scott and most of the ensemble contribute worthy performances, much of the medical history is detailed and fascinating, and under Nagy’s careful eye it’s a better-looking PSA than most.—Shayna Macy Warner
Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonDirector: Ang Lee
Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning epic is not only the highest-grossing foreign film ever in America (still), but it also happens to be a film that changed the cinematic landscape: an old-school wuxia flick, with pulpy soul and a romantic heart, that reinvigorated the genre for a whole new audience. Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi play 19th-century warriors whose loyalty and vitality are tested by a series of events that lead each to contemplate their many decisions that brought them together. Beyond the entrancing and lyrical storytelling, Crouching Tiger stands as a rare, beautiful beacon of hope: a foreign film that was actually universally embraced by Western audiences. Here’s to hoping that happens more often, though it’s been more than two decades and nothing has had the same impact since. —Jeremy Medina
Decision to LeaveDirector: Park Chan-wook
The winner of Best Director at this year’s Cannes, Park Chan-wook brings his signature twisty plotting and empathetic characters to Decision to Leave. Following a widow and the investigator looking into her husband’s murder, the Korean neo-noir is ready to bring even the most hardened cinematic sleuth into the fold. Mystery, romance and two enthralling performances from Tang Wei and Park Hae-il make this a film to check out regardless of how much you love Park’s Vengeance trilogy. He’s back in his wheelhouse in a big way.—Jacob Oller
Leonor Will Never DieDirector: Martika Ramirez Escobar
The blurring of movie and reality is perhaps a universal phenomenon. Hollywood stars parlay their heroic brands into branding deals, turn personae into politics. From Ronald Reagan to the Philippines’ Joseph Estrada, world leaders of dubious ability have taken power through their connection to and channeling of particular sensations derived from the movies: Nostalgia, familiarity, control, a sense that everything will work out because it all goes according to a script we know by heart. Writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar examines this transdimensional link—the kind of thing fascinating filmmaking since Sherlock, Jr. and continuing on through movies like John Candy’s Delirious—in Leonor Will Never Die, a surreal and bittersweet look at life and death through a screenwriter’s teleportation into one of her own B-grade action scripts. Before getting sucked into her own hammer-slinging, rifle-blasting schlockfest, Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) lived with her son Rudy (Bong Cabrera) in a home always supplied with the latest movies and always in danger of getting the power cut off. The faded filmmaker is loving and forgetful, unappreciated by her son and more alone than she looks. Her trunk full of unmade scripts is now little more than an apple box. It’s a familiar if not particularly enviable life for an elderly person, and one that few have the power or wealth to avoid. But Leonor has a creative spark that allows her to get herself out—even if it confuses and frightens those that love her. Leonor gets bonked on the head by a TV, Looney Tunes style, and wakes up in the script she recently revisited after a burst of inspiration. It’s the ‘80s. The hair is big and the tank tops are tight. Tables break on impact and henchmen die in a single punch. But Leonor’s movie about beefcake Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) sticking it to a local thug and saving the girl is subsumed by melancholy. The real Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon), Leonor’s son who died in an accident disturbingly similar to the one that claimed the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust last year, doesn’t just haunt their family but takes an active role despite his incorporeal state. Rudy, now confronting his mother’s death, desperately chats with her comatose body at the hospital. Escobar juggles these tones and styles with warm respect, never pointing and laughing at her own over-the-top situations. Aside from the aesthetically particular action movie antics, Leonor Will Never Die contains more hazy surrealism, channeling the slow magic of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The filmmaking process is mined for its planning, its uncertainty and the hyperreal spontaneity that sparks when the two meet. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s strange and of a piece with the rest of her debut. Why wouldn’t she appear in her own film, just as Leonor directs the muscles and guns of Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago? We are culpable for our creations, even if they don’t and shouldn’t define us. As Escobar appreciates this fact, sometimes more wildly than even her ambitious helmsmanship can handle, Leonor Will Never Die considers that perhaps the best way to bold the line between movies and reality is to cross it more intentionally.—Jacob Oller
One Fine MorningDirector: Mia Hansen-Løve
Léa Seydoux isn’t the only film actor able to tease desire out of sadness and vice versa, but she may be the reigning champion in the under-40 division. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning, Seydoux is, like so many of us, further than ever from her ingenue days (even her Bond Girl took a turn for the domestic with last year’s No Time to Die), and her character Sandra is beset with workaday responsibilities. She’s the widowed single mother to preteen daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins), while also navigating healthcare decisions for her father Georg (Pascal Greggory), who is suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder. Much of Sandra’s life, then, is divided between various forms of caregiving, and her job as a translator requires full concentration in the moment; as we see in one scene, even a brief rumination for herself can send her work off track. So when she reconnects with her old friend Clément (Melvil Poupand)—whom she originally met through her late partner—there doesn’t seem to be much immediate expectation beyond the opportunity to take a pleasant breather from the rest of her life. Besides, Clément is married, with a child of his own. But the two see each other again, and suddenly fall into a passionate (if possibly ill-advised) affair. Hansen-Løve doesn’t force the connections between these two storylines, though of course they reflect each other. Georg’s condition forces Sandra to confront the unpleasant realities and regrets of aging (the film’s title comes from his notes for an unwritten autobiography), which feels like a tacit encouragement to cherish the excitement she feels over Clément—as well as a reminder that no amount of sexual heat will reverse the chilliness of our inevitable decline. In opposite ways, both men challenge her early, casual assertion that “my love life is behind me”: Clément by raising the possibility of a new romantic relationship, and Georg by indirectly illustrating how glib that statement can seem compared to someone who has lost, and will continue to lose, so much more. This kind of low-key yet pervasive moodiness, bordering on bleakness, needs all the star-level radiation it can get, and Seydoux luminates obligingly. Hansen-Løve doesn’t give her pages upon pages of dialogue to ruminate over her conflicts—some of that comes out in spats with Clément, and even there it’s reduced to more immediate, sometimes petulant disappointments—and Seydoux conveys plenty in her silence. A performer of her beauty and potential glamor runs the risk of reducing her character’s ennui to a kind of exquisite-sadness modeling pose, but she keeps Sandra moving forward, muddling through. The film’s other performances aren’t as engaging as Seydoux and young Martins, which means One Fine Morning itself sometimes feels like it’s muddling through with Sandra’s same weariness, too faithfully reproducing the repetitions of real life. Amidst the over-many fraught texts and Clément’s hand-wringing over how (or if) to end his unhappy marriage, it’s hard not to miss the unforced loveliness of Bergman Island. That twinge of nostalgia for a very recent film becomes more pronounced when Hansen-Løve occasionally captures fleeting images of weary beauty, like a too-short shot of Seydoux on a public bus, eyes closed, framed by a window, with the city blurring past in the background. Maybe the brief respite is by design—an admission that we only have so much time for luxuriating in moods.—Jesse Hassenger
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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