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Some of the Best Films to See During Week 1 of Chicago International Film Festival

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The 52nd edition of the Chicago International Film Festival is upon us, beginning tonight with the Chicago premiere of the highly acclaimed La La Land. This is the new project of Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle, who will be attending the screening along with actress Rosemarie Dewitt, who is also featured in the film.

La La Land is a full-blown, old-school Hollywood musical with a somewhat modern twist. Ryan Gosling plays a struggling jazz piano player and Emma Stone plays a struggling actress, so the two fall in love and decide to struggle together rather than alone. The songs are exceptional, the staging is stunning, and the film isn’t afraid to turn melancholy when it needs to. Plus, there’s a sequence near the end of the film that will absolutely blow your mind. This is a near-perfect film that will be at the forefront of the awards season discussion.

La La Land is part of CIFF’s special 11-film spotlight on musicals. This year, the festival has gathered emerging musicals from all over the world. Here are some examples.

  • Trolls is a 3D animated musical starring Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake. Timberlake wrote and performed many of the film’s original tunes.
  • The Way We Sang comes from Britain and stars Imelda Staunton.
  • Elis is a remarkably sensual film from Brazil about the life of Elis Regina, an iconic Brazilian singer.
  • King of Jazz is from 1930 and stars a pre-fame Bing Crosby. It has recently been restored.

As it does every year, CIFF is pays tribute to a handful of exceptional filmmakers. Twelve Years a Slave director, Steve McQueen, is being honored as part of the Black Perspectives spotlight’s 20th anniversary. McQueen is working on a film with the Chicago-based Gone Girl author, Gillian Flynn. The new film is scheduled to start shooting in Chicago next year. Julie Dash, a director whose 25-year-old groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust will screen at CIFF in a restored print is also being honored.

Other filmmakers being honored with tributes this year include Peter Bogdanovich, the subject of the documentary One Day Since Yesterday, a chronicle of his struggles on the 1981 film They All Laughed, which will also be screening. The great actress and CIFF jury member, Geraldine Chaplin, is being honored at Essanay Studios on Argyle. This is because she is the daughter of Charlie Chaplin and that is where her father shot his first U.S. film. And although every year feels like a Claude Lalouch tribute at CIFF, this year the French filmmaker will be on hand for a screening of his new film, Un + Une, as well as a restored print of his landmark, Oscar-winning A Man and A Woman, celebrating its 50th anniversary.

This year, the late night screenings that make up the After Dark program is expansive and are not to be taken lightly. The arguable highlight of After Dark is also one of the most notorious films ever to premiere at CIFF, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Henry celebrates its 30th anniversary with a restored print and special discussion with director John McNaughton and star Michael Rooker. Some of the other highlights of After Dark include the following.

  • Raw is a French horror film that supposedly caused fainting spells at its screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.
  • The Eyes of My Mother is beautifully shot in black-and-white and is a haunting tale of isolation turned into pure torment from director Nicolas Pesce.
  • Headshot is a martial arts action film from Indonesia starring Iko Uwais, who is probably best known for starring in both The Raid movies.
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe stars Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as a father-son coroner team who must unravel the mystery of the dead woman on their slab before it kills them.

Other highlights from the first week of CIFF include:

  • Commune, the latest film from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, The Celebration).
  • The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, from Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War), a spotlight on the famous portrait photographer on the verge of retirement.
  • Paterson, a sweet-natured, thought-provoking work from director Jim Jarmusch, starring Adam Driver (“Girls”) as a New Jersey transit bus driver and part-time poet, who occasionally dares to stray outside of his daily routine.
  • Elle, the latest from provocateur Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls, Basic Instinct, Black Book) throws light on a successful businesswoman (the always-compelling and risk-taking Isabelle Huppert) who is raped at the beginning of the film, and the incident both rattles her and unlocks buried memories and sexual fixations in her that she is barely prepared to deal with. This might be CIFF’s most controversial film this year, but it’s an electric, challenging work with no easy answers. Finding out the identity of her marked attacker is only half the mystery of this work.
  • Things to Come, another film starring Isabelle Huppert, which is so damn French, you might want to pull your hair out. Filled with philosophy professors and students, the movie seems to give equal weight to great tragedies and minor moments. In the end, it’s about her character becoming unencumbered by personal responsibilities (few of those by choice), but its messages about middle-aged freedom are a bit muddy.
  • Christine, the troubling profile of real-life newscaster Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), who shot herself on live TV in 1974; from director Antonio Campos.
  • My Journey Through French Cinema, a three-hour-plus personal tour through Gallic film history though the eyes of legendary director Bertrand Tavernier.
  • Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, from Chicago’s own Steven James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Life Itself), telling the harrowing and infuriating story of the only bank in America to face criminal prosecution for the 2008 financial crisis—the small, family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown, who struggle to defend against ridiculous charges.
  • Amerika Square, from Greece, is the story of a disgruntled nationalist in Athens who decides to turn his anger about the ever-increasing number of immigrants in his city into something wholly destructive. The film also looks at the situation from the point of view of the immigrants, which results in a well-rounded, quite tense work from director Yannis Sakaridis.
  • Girls Don’t Fly, a documentary about a British man who opens a flight school for young women in Ghana, whose best intentions blow up in his face.
  • Neruda, the first of two films at CIFF from director Pablo Larrain (the other being the Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie, starring Natalie Portman) concerns the famed Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda is this exceedingly non-traditional biopic, which focuses more on the pursuit of Neruda by a fictional police detective (Gael Garcia Bernal). The end result is an existential trip in which the journey is far more important than the capture.
  • A Quiet Passion, the latest from UK director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, Sunset Song) focuses on the young womanhood and later adulthood of Emily Dickinson (played by Emma Bell and Cynthia Nixon at different ages), a poet and writer whose peak creative years occurred when women simply weren’t encouraged to be creative. The film covers both her professional struggle and the deeply psychological toll this struggle had on her. Nixon is phenomenal here, as is Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie.
  • Apprentice, one of my favorite discoveries this year. This movie from Singapore profiles a young man just out of the Army who takes a job as a prison guard, but is inexplicably drawn to becoming friends with the head executioner at the prison. Soon the young guard is assisting the older man, who is on the verge of retiring. But it becomes clear that these two men have a connection that only one of them knows about. The film has a slow-building tension and a fantastic payoff that left me stunned.
  • The Salesman is the latest from the Oscar-winning A Separation and About Elly Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, concerning a young couple in Tehran who are forced from their apartment into a new unit, where the wife is attacked while alone in the unit. The film is both about the husband’s search for her attacker and how the process weighs heavily on the couple, who are both actors in a local production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
  • Middle Man, from Chicago director Ned Crowley and starring Jim O’Heir (“Parks & Recreation”) as a dorky accountant with lofty dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. And then the killing starts…
  • The Last Laugh, a thought-provoking documentary from director Ferne Pearlstein about where, if anywhere, should comedy draw the line on taboo subjects, in particular, the Holocaust. Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, and others chime in on the topic.

The full schedule for CIFF 2016, as well as descriptions of all films and special events, can be found at http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com/. And I’ll have highlights from Week 2 of the festival next week.

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