Chicago Critics Film Festival Brings One Solid Week of Films to Music Box Theatre

On Friday, a week of films kicks off at Music Box Theatre that could only have been curated by people who know a thing or two about what they're doing. Such is the case with the seventh annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, an always impressive run of films Chicago gets to see before they find their way to wider release in the months to come. Sure, the line-up is fairly mainstream; if you're looking for international fare or genre films, there are plenty of other festivals to choose from around town. With just seven days to see films, we pulled out some selections from the line-up to give you an idea of what's in store. Saint Frances Image courtesy of Chicago Critics FIlm Festival


It'd be easy to assume that festival programmers selected Saint Frances for one of their coveted slots because of its Chicago connections; filmed on the far north side by local filmmakers, much of the film will look familiar to Chicagoans. But the truth is, the film more than warrants inclusion in such a strong line-up. Concerned with Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan, who wrote the script) as she takes on a new summer job as a nanny just as she's dealing with her own personal issues, Saint Frances (directed by Alex Thompson) is as smart as it is sentimental, as timely as it is timeless. After a consensual, if spontaneous, hook-up finds Bridget unexpectedly pregnant, her choice to have an abortion is presented with such candor, I know a few legislators in Georgia and Alabama who could stand to see it. Chicago can take pride of place for this one, but audiences across the country will be buzzing about it soon. —Lisa Trifone Saint Frances screens Friday, May 17, at 7pm with filmmakers and cast in attendance.


The first of two shorts programs at this year’s festival includes a mixture of animation, documentary, and traditional narrative. Whether because of poor acting or nonsensical plots, the first few entries in the program prove somewhat underwhelming. But if you’re patient, you’ll find that the program’s second half more than makes up for these disappointments. Particular standouts include Dunya’s Day, a funny yet scathing portrait of vanity; A Line Birds Cannot See, a tear-jerking story about a 12-year-old Guatemalan immigrant; and Guaxuma, a touching meditation on friendship and memory. —Andrew Emerson

Shorts Program #1 screens Saturday, May 18, at 1pm, with several filmmakers scheduled to attend.


Weaving together threads of family and art and the passage of time in ways that prove deeply moving, Our Time Machine follows Maleonn, a puppeteer who, upon learning of his father's deteriorating memory, finally mounts a show he's been meaning to for years: the story of a father and son who go back in time to revisit good memories. The time we spend with Maleonn and his family, getting to know them better as they navigate their new reality, is just as riveting as the moments spent observing Maleonn and his production team through their journey toward opening night. Don't let the subtitles scare you away from this one; the circle of life is a real thing, and it finds a poignant, universal manifestation in Our Time Machine. —Lisa Trifone Our Time Machine screens Sunday, May 19, at 12:15pm with filmmaker in attendance.


It's still early, but it's very possible that Olympic Dreams, directed by Jeremy Teicher and starring Alexi Pappas and Nick Kroll, will land among my favorite films of the year. It's filmed in a sort of "scripted verite" style (Pappas and Kroll are credited as writers) on location during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Penelope is a young cross country skier with not much to do after competing early in the games. She meets Ezra, a volunteer dentist who's still pining for the fiancé back home who dumped him, and the two strike up a friendship that, though begun out of shared circumstance, soon develops into much more. Channeling the purest of emotions—loneliness, homesickness, a desire for connection, to feel something, anything at all—Olympic Dreams finds the beautiful in the foreign, the exceptional in the ordinary. —Lisa Trifone Olympic Dreams screens Sunday, May 19, at 2:45pm. Olympic Dreams Image courtesy of Chicago Critics Film Festival


In contrast to the first shorts program, the best parts of CCFF’s second shorts program mostly come towards the beginning. The first short, Wild Love, tells a hilarious—but extremely creepy—story about a hiking trip gone wrong, while the second, How To Be Alone, will resonate with anyone who’s ever been at home by him or herself. Otherwise, the only other standout in the line-up is The Downfall of Santa Claus, which channels My Life as a Zucchini in its loving, respectful depiction of children’s intelligence. —Andrew Emerson

Shorts Program #2 screens Monday, May 20, at 5pm.


Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas tells the coming-of-age story of Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli), a 15-year-old who lives in Naples. Unemployed and completely uninterested in school, Nicola really doesn’t have much to do in life. So he and a bunch of his friends decide to get involved with the Mafia, all while clinging to the mistaken notion that doing so will allow them to get rich and be happy.

Given the film’s focus on the theme of “lost innocence,” Piranhas’ basic narrative will probably strike you as somewhat familiar, especially if you’ve seen American gangster movies like The Godfather. Yet to his immense credit, Giovannesi is far less enamored of illegality than most of his American peers, adopting a cinematographic approach that acknowledges the allure of crime without embracing it. And in what turns out to be a remarkable debut performance, Di Napoli effortlessly captures the tension between Nicola’s lust for power and his childlike, equally powerful longing for love, family, and peaceful living. —Andrew Emerson

Piranhas screens Thursday, May 23, at 3:45pm.

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Lisa Trifone