Preview: 54th Chicago International Film Festival—More than Just Movies

The 54th Chicago International Film Festival begins on October 10, and marks a milestone for the organization that claims the title of the country’s longest continuously-running competitive film festival: it’s the last for founder and CEO Michael Kutza, who’s finally passing the baton on to Artistic Director Mimi Plauché and an as-yet-unknown head of operations (Managing Director Vivian Teng remains in her role on the executive team).

54th Chicago International Film Festival
Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

This changing of the guard is still very much underway, and as such the current iteration will feel very much like the last 53, with a diverse selection of films (123 features, to be exact, plus shorts) and special guests arriving from every corner of the globe. The Festival runs (blessedly) a few day shorter than in years past, and while some will say there are plenty of accomplished films that didn’t make it into the selections this year, the ten-day marathon of movies still packs quite a punch. What’s more, there’s a lot more going down at AMC River East 21 (the Festival’s primary venue again this year, as it has been for ages) than just film screenings.

In the coming days, the film team at Third Coast Review will feature a series of posts with brief reviews of many of this year’s selections, posted to help you decide what to see and do over the course of the city’s largest film event. Here’s an overall preview of what’s in store:

Opening Night – Beautiful Boy

The 54th Festival opens with a gala screening of Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as father and son David and Nic Sheff as they navigate Nic’s heartbreaking (and life-threatening) battle with addiction. Van Groeningen, who’s 2012 The Broken Circle Breakdown struck similar beautifully sad, poignant notes, returns with a story based on memoirs from David and Nic, who chronicled their respective journeys into the desperate depths of addition and back again. Chalamet, who arrived as one of the most compelling new actors of the year in Call Me By Your Name, here creates a young man so tormented by his own shortcomings that a simple shift in his posture or adjustment in his expression communicates more than any line of dialogue could. And Carell, typically one to go for the gag, thankfully rises to meet him here, offering a gut-wrenching turn as a father helpless to cure his son of his demons. If you’re reading this in time, get to Opening Night to see this one with a captivated crowd; otherwise, the film opens theatrically in Chicago on October 19 (when Third Coast will have a full review).

Industry Days

For the fourth year running, documentary programmer Anthony Kaufman is the driving force behind the Festival’s annual industry conference for filmmakers, producers, distributors and anyone with an interest in the business of film. Under his guidance, the fest-within-a-fest presents compelling conversations, noteworthy keynotes and practical, productive access and advice to a local film community that’s hungry for it. That continues this year, as Industry days runs October 11-14; though an Industry Days badge is required to gain full access to the four-day program, several of the panels are open to the public. Thursday’s conversation on building a film career in the Midwest should be interesting, and Friday includes sessions on Virtual Reality as a medium for storytelling and the role of diversity in comedy (in line with the Festival’s choses topical sidebar this year, Comedy). Sunday’s big event is The Pitch, a program presented with IFP Chicago that sees filmmakers with great ideas compete for a suite of production services if their pitch is selected as winner. See the schedule and consider getting a badge here.


Every film festival loves a good Lifetime Achievement honor, and the Chicago International Film Festival is no exception, taking tributes to accomplished and acclaimed artists to new heights. This year’s event features no fewer than five special presentations, honoring everyone from Chicago’s own Art Paul, the founding Art Director at Playboy Magazine who’s best known for creating the famous bunny logo, to British actress Carey Mulligan, who arrives in Chicago with her latest film, Wildlife, Paul Dano’s directorial debut. Colleen Moore, Ruth Carter and William Friedken are also slated to receive recognition; more on all the Tributes is here.

Premieres & Special Guests

What’s a film festival without a few red carpets? In addition to the special guests receiving special tributes, several recognizable names will be in Chicago off and on over the coming week and half. Perhaps most notably, stake out your spot now to see filmmaker Steve McQueen and the Queen herself, Viola Davis, who are scheduled to attend the Chicago premiere of their new film, Widows. A sharp, smart heist film about the women who take on a major job when their husbands are killed, the film was shot right here in the Windy City. In addition to various celebrities in the mix, keep an eye out for the workaday filmmakers visiting for the festival, too; dozens of them descend on AMC River East during the festival, meaning you have a chance to not only see their films, but stay for a post-film Q&A and discussion, too.

Gems to be Discovered

Easily the best part of any film festival, Chicago does a particularly great job of offering up some films you honestly may never get a chance to see again. Whether it’s archival screenings of classics or their selection of international fare that, unfortunately, won’t get theatrical distribution in the States, there’s a lot of great cinema to be discovered. In the coming days, you’ll see the Third Coast film team cover a lot of these (see it all at this tag), but in the meantime, go and explore! Check out the full film list here, and see what fits in your schedule. Got a few open hours on a Tuesday evening? Bet you can find something great to see. Need something to do with out-of-towners as the weather gets chilly? There’s a movie or four for that.

Tickets to the Chicago International Film Festival range from $15 ($12 for members) to $20+ ($17 for members) for special presentations. If you figure you’ll see a lot (or want to split the savings with a friend), consider film passes, which are essentially a book of tickets you can redeem for any regular film screening. Tickets are available online, or you can visit the festival box office at AMC River East, too. More on tickets is here.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone