Exiting the Chicago International Film Festival: What You Should & Shouldn’t See

The Chicago International Film Festival came to a meaningful conclusion last Sunday night with Jason Reitman in attendance to screen his new film and second of the year, The Front Runner. Now having had a week to digest the eight films I attended, I have been able to sort out my feelings on the movies individually, some of which have ranged from utter disdain to absolute bliss. My feelings on the festival as a whole never wavered, however. Simply attending the theater almost every day for just under two weeks started to feel like somewhat of a comfort zone by the end. Being in the presence of all these people who love the movies as much as you do, along with a staff of volunteers so nice and helpful, made this an experience any patriot of the cinema would relish. We are now fully entrenched in the awards season with heavy hitters like A Star Is Born and First Man having come out earlier this month and Widows set to release in the coming weeks. The Chicago International Film Festival is a great place to see movies that aren’t getting a major theatrical release, as well as get a head start on others before the awards season. Here are my thoughts on the eight films I was able to catch up with:

What You Should See

Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet)

Natalie Portman in Vox Lux

This movie is sure to be a divisive one among audiences in the coming months, as it isn’t even scheduled for release in the US until early December. Natalie Portman is tremendous in the film, one of her most memorable portrayals to date. However, there is much more to this movie than just her performance. It is impossible to discuss this narrative without getting spoilery, with perhaps the first major spoiler coming in the first five minutes of the film. However, it is safe to say that you will want to go check out this movie both for Portman’s performance and the supporting role of Jude Law, both of whom I could see getting Oscar nominations. The real all star of this film, however, is in its direction from Corbet. Coming off last year’s extraordinarily weird yet captivating The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet brings that same peculiar energy to Vox Lux on a much grander scale and to greater effect. This is a movie that can be squared off into two distinct halves, and the first half in particular is exceptional and some of the best film-making I have seen all year. His skill with the camera and moving it around a scene is simply exceptional, and we’d better get used to seeing a lot more from him in the years to come.

Trailer | US Release: December 7, 2018

Widows (dir. Steve McQueen)

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, and Elizabeth Dubecki in Widows

Steve McQueen is back, and he has more titans of the industry at his disposal than ever before. After introducing himself to the world with a stellar three film run of Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen has teamed with writer Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame to bring forth a crime thriller set in contemporary Chicago that is sure to generate a ton of buzz this winter. This features one of the most incredible ensemble casts I have ever seen, along with a lead performance from Viola Davis that will only further her legend. This is a throwback to crime thrillers of the ’90s, and I think that audiences are really going to respond to it. The cast and crew were here in Chicago to introduce the film, and sitting just a few rows back from them was truly a special moment. It just so happens this turned out to be my favorite film of the festival, and I encourage everybody to go out and see this so we can hope for more films like it to be made.

Trailer | US Release: November 16, 2018

Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

The cast of Shoplifters

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters may have been the most enjoyable time in the theater of the entire festival. It is a family drama, but it strives for so much more than that. This film asks us to question what we define to be family and what it means for each of us. Every viewer will come away from this film with a deeper appreciation for their family and for our inherent need to rely on others to help make us stronger. It also boasts the question between right and wrong and what we are willing to accept from those we love who do wrong. Living in this wonderfully realized vision of a poor Japanese family that doesn’t wallow in its struggle but rather exudes nothing but love and happiness with each other is exactly where I want to be. Take me back, Koreeda.

Trailer | US Release: November 23, 2018

Overlord (dir. Julius Avery)

Jovan Adepo in Overlord

My screening of Overlord was held at 11 PM on a Saturday night, and I feel it’s the most logical way for this film to be viewed. This is a throwback to 80’s B-movies in all the best ways. It is a little slow to get started the first half hour, but once the military lands on the ground, things start to get crazier and crazier. I would liken the tone of this movie to the last half hour of A Cure for Wellness. If the insanity that ensued in the back half of that movie wasn’t for you, then this probably won’t be either, as that is this entire film.  It is incredibly over the top and a wild good time, as the “Nazi zombies” plot is really all you need to know going into it. I wouldn’t call this a great movie necessarily, but it is certainly going for it and is an absolute blast to watch. Jovan Adepo really shines in the lead role, and he is starting to take off now in Hollywood with roles in Fences, The Leftovers, Mother! and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. I recommend taking a date or seeing this with a group of friends—it is a really great theater movie!

Trailer | US Release: November 9, 2018

The Front Runner (dir. Jason Reitman)

Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner

Reitman came to Chicago to close out the festival by introducing his second film of the year, following up Tully with The Front Runner. This movie stars Hugh Jackman as failed presidential nominee Gary Hart during the 1988 presidential race. The film worked well for me because Jackman is compelling, and Vera Farmiga brings a lot of depth to the character of his wife. The journalistic aspects to the film work incredibly well because of the pace and energy that Reitman instills. This was an excellent movie to close out the festival because it is likely to spark a lot of conversation in comparison to our current political climate and the #MeToo movement. Jackman nails the role of Hart by both bringing the charisma and prowess that made him a viable candidate in the first place, and by also showing the man lose control as his world quickly crumbles around him in the wake of allegations of infidelity. I love watching Jackman take on a role like this—it reminded me a lot of Prisoners.  This is a political & journalistic drama you will actually want to make the time for.

Trailer | US Release: November 21, 2018

What You Shouldn’t See

Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet & Maura Tierney in Beautiful Boy (left) and Julia Roberts & Lucas Hedges in Ben is Back (right)

Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back are two movies with strikingly similar characteristics.  They both feature a young man struggling with addiction to hardcore drugs, and they both feature one parent in a very prominent role while the other spectates from the sidelines. The two movies are setting out to tell their stories in very different ways, however. Beautiful Boy attempts to portray a family in turmoil as one of its members is addicted to crystal meth. It is a very serious look inside this miserable reality, and it plays out in almost documentary-like realism. Ben is Back, however, strikes for the more crowd-pleasing approach of bringing the story of its drug addicted son into a larger narrative wherein Julia Roberts plays a hero of a mother trying to desperately save her son at all costs. Beautiful Boy did a lot more to impress between the two, by at least featuring two very inspired performances from Carell and Chalamet that have a good chance at being recognized at the Oscars. While Roberts is very good in her role, the movie is so outrageous and lazily put together that her performance won’t be recognized amidst the rubble. These are two deeply depressing movies to watch that don’t feature many redeeming qualities beyond capable actors, and I think these are two films you would be better off skipping this awards season, if not simply waiting to catch them at RedBox or on VOD.

Take It or Leave It

At Eternity’s Gate (dir. Julian Schnabel)

Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate

Willem Dafoe is playing Vincent Van Gogh during the final months of the famous painter’s life in France. If that sounds inherently like something that would interest you, then this film is totally worth seeing. Dafoe brings an incredibly inspired and grounded performance of Van Gogh to the screen, and it is beautiful to watch. France is filmed in a gorgeous way to capture the time and place, and watching Van Gogh struggle with his artistic vision being looked down upon by everyone he comes in contact with is truly heartbreaking. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have much to offer beyond being a spectacle for Dafoe’s performance, with no other notable characters to connect with and a very bland script to engage the audience. If Van Gogh isn’t someone that immediately captures your attention, this is probably a movie that you can live without.

Trailer | US Release: November 16, 2018

Closing Thoughts

It is a shame the Chicago International Film Festival has come to an end, but I am very grateful I got the time to see a bunch of wonderful films and be in the presence of like-minded movie people. Chicago is a city with a lot of history and a lot of love; spending time downtown and soaking in the atmosphere will never get old. This was the first year I had the privilege of experiencing the festival, and I learned a lot. It is something I hope to build on and continue to enjoy for years to come. This is Tyler, signing off from CIFF. ‘Til next year!