In the nearly 20 years I’ve been a part of Ain’t It Cool News, I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of some truly great events. But never in my time as a critic or resident of Chicago have I had more pride in playing a small role in pulling something together as I have assisting in the programming of the annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, a weeklong event, celebrating its fifth year and taking place once again at the Music Box Theatre, May 12-18.
Pulled together by my hard-working, fellow members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, the 2017 CCFF collects 23 features and two short-film programs composed primarily of recent film festival favorites and as-yet undistributed works, all receiving their Chicago premieres at the event. There are two important things you should know about this particular festival: one, as far as we can tell, this is the first time a film critics group has ever hosted and produced an event of this scale; second, each of these films was hand selected by a member or members of the CFCA after seeing it at a festival in the last year (such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, etc.) or having it submitted by someone connected to the production. If one of us didn’t champion the film, it basically wasn’t considered.
As this event was being conceived, we all agreed that pointing our readers to great movies was our primary goal, but almost as important was spotlighting works that might not have the benefit of big-studio marketing dollars. So the idea behind the CCFF was to bring such films to our city. Yes, some of these works have release dates; but several do not, so this may be your only chance to see these films on the big screen.
Here’s the final line-up (all guests are indicated in the cast & crew list of each film):
MAY 12, FRIDAY – OPENING NIGHT
7pm The Little Hours
Directed by Jeff Baena (In Person). Starring Aubrey Plaza (In Person), Kate Micucci (In Person), Alison Brie, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, Molly Shannon, and Fred Armisen.
Based on stories from the 14th century collection The Decameron, the film concerns Medieval nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci), who lead a simple life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on new hired hand, Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord (Nick Offerman). Introduced to the sisters as a deaf-mute to discourage temptation, Massetto struggles to maintain his cover as the repressed nunnery erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry.
9:30pm Patti Cake$
Directed by Geremy Jasper. Starring Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, and Siddharth Dhananjay.
Patricia “Killa P” Dombrowski drafts rhymes behind the bar at a dingy dive, trying to pay off her coarse but beloved Nana’s medical bills and support her hard-drinking mom, whose own musical aspirations failed long ago. Patti and her rap partner/best friend Jheri share dreams of fame, fortune, and escaping the projects of New Jersey for good, but they haven’t found a producer whose work inspires them. Unbroken by the taunts of local goons, she unexpectedly gravitates to a reclusive goth-metal musician named Basterd, a newcomer who just might be able to help Patti achieve hip-hop superstardom.
Directed by Marianna Palka. Starring Jaime King, Jason Ritter, and Marianna Palka.
Jill (Marianna Palka), a lonely, distraught housewife with four unruly children, paces on her dining room table with a belt around her neck, contemplating a desperate end to her wretchedness. Her husband, Bill (Jason Ritter), focused on his identity as breadwinner and an affair with a lusty co-worker, is as oblivious to Jill’s growing terror that she will do something destructive as he is to the panic at his unraveling company. Meanwhile, dogs bark and howl through the night, as one persistent mutt continually stalks the family’s yard. When Jill’s psyche finally breaks, she takes on a vicious new canine persona.
MAY 13, SATURDAY
11am Score: A Film Music Documentary
Directed by Matt Schrader
This documentary brings Hollywood’s premier composers together to give viewers a privileged look inside the musical challenges and creative secrecy of the world’s most widely known music genre: the film score. Subjects include Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Trent Reznor, Randy Newman, Quincy Jones, Junkie XL, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman, and many more.
1pm Shorts Program 1
3:30pm Band Aid
Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Starring Adam Pally, Zoe Lister-Jones, and Fred Armisen
Married couple Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) fight constantly. It doesn’t help that they’ve each come to a standstill in their careers, or that, together, they’ve suffered a heartbreak neither wants to face. But one day they come up with a brilliant idea they actually agree on: Why not start a band and use their arguments as songwriting inspiration? Almost as soon as they dig out their old electric guitars from the garage, their musical partnership starts to jell, but it soon becomes apparent this is only a temporary distraction from their real problems.
Directed by John Carroll Lynch (In Person). Starring Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., and Tom Skerritt.
Lucky follows the spiritual journey of a 90-year-old atheist and the quirky characters that inhabit his off-the-map desert town. Having outlived and out-smoked all of his contemporaries, the fiercely independent Lucky finds himself at the precipice of life, thrust into a journey of self-exploration, leading towards that which is so often unattainable: enlightenment. Acclaimed character actor John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut, Lucky is both a love letter to the life and career of Harry Dean Stanton and a meditation on mortality, loneliness, spirituality, and human connection.
8:30pm Southland Tales
Tenth Anniversary Screening in 35MM!
Directed by Richard Kelly (In Person). Starring Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake, Jon Lovitz, and Amy Poehler.
During a three-day heatwave just before a huge 4th of July celebration, an action star stricken with amnesia meets up with a porn star who is developing her own reality TV project, and a policeman who holds the key to a vast conspiracy.
11:59pm Birdboy: The Forgotten Children
Directed by Pedro Rivero & Alberto Vazquez.
There is light and beauty, even in the darkest of worlds. Stranded on an island in a post-apocalyptic world, teenager Dinky and her friends hatch a dangerous plan to escape in the hope of finding a better life. Meanwhile, her old friend Birdboy has shut himself off from the world, pursued by the police and haunted by demon tormentors. But unbeknownst to anyone, he contains a secret inside him that could change the world forever. Winner of the Best Animated Feature, 31st Goya Awards (2017).
MAY 14, SUNDAY
12pm The Force
Directed by Peter Nicks.
Sprawling, immediate, and complex, Peter Nicks’s vérité documentary moves like a pulsing, timely thriller. In 2014, after over a decade of federal monitoring for misconduct and civil rights abuses, the Oakland Police Department hires Chief Sean Whent—a young, clear-eyed idealist—in hopes of bridging an historically tense divide between its officers and the community they serve. Whent’s intentions and calls for transparency are immediately met with enthusiasm, but as his tenure begins, the realities of his department’s scandal-plagued past coincide with fresh accusations of brutality and harassment.
2:15pm Shorts Program 2
4:45pm Beach Rats
Directed by Eliza Hittman. Starring Harris Dickinson, Toni D’Antonio, and Nicole Flyus.
Frankie, an aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn, is having a miserable summer. With his father dying and his mother wanting him to find a girlfriend, Frankie escapes the bleakness of his home life by causing trouble with his delinquent friends and flirting with older men online. When his chatting and webcamming intensify, he finally starts hooking up with guys at a nearby cruising beach while simultaneously entering into a cautious relationship with a young woman. As Frankie struggles to reconcile his competing desires, his decisions leave him hurtling toward irreparable consequences. Winner: Best Director, Sundance Film Festival 2017.
7pm The Hero
Directed by Brett Haley (In Person). Starring Sam Elliott, Nick Offerman, Laura Prepon, and Krysten Ritter.
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is a Western icon with a golden voice, but his best performances are decades behind him. He spends his days reliving old glories and smoking too much weed with his former-co-star-turned-dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), until a surprise cancer diagnosis brings his priorities into sharp focus. He soon strikes up an exciting, contentious relationship with stand-up comic Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), all while searching for one final role to cement his legacy. THE HERO is a beautiful and poignant celebration of life and the legacies we all leave behind.
9:30pm Berlin Syndrome
Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Teresa Palmer and Max Riemelt.
While holidaying in Berlin, Australian photographer, Clare, meets Andi, a charismatic local man and there is an instant attraction between them. A night of passion ensues. But what initially appears to be the start of a romance takes an unexpected and sinister turn when Clare wakes the following morning to discover Andi has left for work and locked her in his apartment. An easy mistake to make, of course, except Andi has no intention of letting her go…ever.
MAY 15, MONDAY
3pm Bitch (encore)
Directed by Antonio Santini & Dan Sickles.
Dina’s getting married in a few weeks and there’s still so much to do. She has to move her boyfriend, Scott, from his parents’ house to her apartment, and settle him into only the second home he’s ever had, all while juggling his schedule as an early morning Walmart door greeter. She has to get her dress, confirm arrangements with the venue, and make peace with her family, who remain nervous for their beloved Dina after the death of her first husband and the string of troubled relationships that followed. Throughout it all, in the face of obstacles large and small, Dina remains indomitable. She’s overcome tragedy and found the man she wants and, at age 48, is bent on building the life for herself that she believes she deserves. As we discover in this unexpected and moving documentary, Dina is unstoppable, a force of nature, and as the star of her own life story, she’s an unconventional movie protagonist. Winner: Grand Jury Prize, Sundance Film Festival 2017.
7:15pm Take Me
Directed by Pat Healy (In Person). Starring Pat Healy & Taylor Schilling.
Ray is a fledgling entrepreneur who specializes in high-end, simulated abductions. He jumps at the chance when a mysterious client contracts him for a weekend kidnapping with a handsome payday at the end. But the job isn’t all that it seems.
9:30pm Dog Years
Directed by Adam Rifkin (In Person). Starring Burt Reynolds and Ariel Winter.
Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, known of his mustachioed good looks and cocky swagger. With his Hollywood glory a distant memory, the now-octogenarian Vic begins reassessing his life with the passing of his beloved dog and the arrival of an invitation to receive a lifetime achievement award from the (fictional) International Nashville Film Festival. Intrigued by the promise of long-lost adulation, Vic accepts the offer. The festival, however, turns out to be very different from the glitz and glamour affair he expected, personified by his foul-mouthed, text-obsessed, punkish escort/driver for the weekend, Lil (Ariel Winter). Humiliated but motivated to make the most of his time in his home state of Tennessee, Vic and a reluctant Lil take off for Knoxville on a road trip neither will soon forget.
MAY 16, TUESDAY
3pm Berlin Syndrome (encore)
5:15pm Person to Person
Directed by Dustin Guy Defa. Starring Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), and Philip Baker Hall.
A record collector hustles for a big score while his heartbroken roommate tries to erase a terrible mistake; a teenager bears witness to her best friend’s new relationship; and a rookie reporter, alongside her demanding supervisor, chases the clues of a murder case involving a life-weary clock shop owner.
Directed by Kogonada (In Person). Starring John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Rory Culkin, and Parker Posey.
When a renowned architecture scholar falls suddenly ill during a speaking tour, his son Jin (John Cho) finds himself stranded in Columbus, Indiana—a small Midwestern city celebrated for its many significant modernist buildings. Jin strikes up a friendship with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young architecture enthusiast who works at the local library. As their intimacy develops, Jin and Casey explore both the town and their conflicted emotions: Jin’s estranged relationship with his father, and Casey’s reluctance to leave Columbus and her mother. Debut director Kogonada’s COLUMBUS unfolds as a gently drifting, deeply absorbing conversation. The film is also a showcase for its director’s striking eye for the way physical space can affect emotions.
Directed by Nicolette Krebitz. Starring: Lilith Stangenberg and Georg Friedrich.
A woman has a strange encounter on her way to work: She finds herself gazing into a wild pair of eyes and realizes that her entire life hitherto has been a joke. She can’t forget that instant and becomes a hunter who indeed finally manages to lock a wild wolf in her high-rise apartment. Now she herself begins to assume a new identity, one that breaks with all the fetters of bourgeois life.
MAY 17, WEDNESDAY
3pm Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (encore)
5pm La Baracuda
Directed by Jason Cortlund & Julia Halperin. Starring Allison Tolman, Sophie Reid, and JoBeth Williams.
A young British woman named Sinaloa comes to Texas to find Merle, her half-sister by way of their dead country musician father. It doesn’t take long for Sinaloa to charm her way into Merle’s life. Her singing awakens something in Merle and erases some of the lingering doubts about their shared bloodline. But an all-too-familiar chaos comes with it, which soon starts to unravel Merle’s stable world—her job, her upcoming marriage, and an already tense relationship with her mother, Patricia. And while the family music legacy brought this stranger to town, darker motives are woven into the songs she sings, showing glimpses of a violent rage that’s been building for years.
7pm The Incredible Jessica James
Directed by Jim Strouse (In Person). Starring Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfield, and Noël Wells (In Person).
Jessica James (Jessica Williams), a young, aspiring playwright in New York City, is struggling to get over a recent breakup while trying to make it in the competitive world of the theater. Reluctantly forced to date by a well-meaning friend, she meets the recently divorced Boone (Chris O’Dowd). An unlikely duo at first, together, they discover how to make it through the tough times, in a social media obsessed post-relationship universe, while realizing they like each other – a lot. Featuring a breakout performance from Jessica Williams, The Incredible Jessica James is a refreshing and heartfelt modern comedy with an honest, hilarious and shockingly relatable look at what it means to be a twenty-something today.
9:15pm Mr. Roosevelt
Directed by Noël Wells (In Person). Starring Noël Wells, Nick Thune, and Doug Benson.
Emily Martin (Noël Wells) is a struggling 20-something who moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy after graduating college in Austin, Texas. When a loved one falls sick, she returns to Austin and runs into her ex-boyfriend, as well as his amazing and intimidating new girlfriend. Low on funds and stuck in Texas for the weekend, Emily stays with the two of them in her old, but miraculously remodeled house. She quickly finds her way into the circle of a local female badass who shows Emily a good time and tries to keep her from spinning out as she goes toe-to-toe with the new girlfriend, all the ways her ex has changed, and ultimately, her own choices and guilt about leaving the past behind. Shot and projected in 35mm.
MAY 18, THURSDAY
2pm Lucky (encore)
4pm Mr. Roosevelt (encore)
Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein. Starring Menashe Lustig.
Deep in the heart of New York’s ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community, Menashe, a kind, hapless grocery store clerk, struggles to make ends meet and responsibly parent his young son, Rieven, following his wife Leah’s death. Tradition prohibits Menashe from raising his son alone, so Rieven’s strict uncle adopts him, leaving Menashe heartbroken. Meanwhile, though Menashe seems to bungle every challenge in his path, his rabbi grants him one special week with Rieven before Leah’s memorial. It’s his chance to prove himself a suitable man of faith and fatherhood, and restore respect among his doubters.
8pm A Ghost Story
Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.
Lauded filmmaker David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon), reunites with his collaborators for a haunted tale like no other-one conceived in secret and fueled by the spirit of pure, creative expression. Lowery’s meticulously sparse narrative contemplates a spectral figure who was once a man (Casey Affleck). Prematurely taken from this earth, he makes his way toward his former home, where he is fated to remain forevermore. Shrouded in a white sheet, he observes the lament of his grief-stricken lover (Rooney Mara). Bearing unseen witness to her pain, the wisp stands sentry for years to come, interacting only with time as it hurtles further and further forward, the remnants of his humanity quietly evaporating.
As always, an incredible array of special guests will be at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. This year, they’re proud to announce that Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Jeff Baena, John Carroll Lynch, Richard Kelly, Brett Haley, Pal Healy, Adam Rifkin, Kogonada, Jim Strouse, and Noël Wells will be in attendance.
The full schedule, links to buy tickets, a PDF of the full-festival program, and all additional information about the Chicago Critics Film Festival can be found at their website.