Preview: What To Watch (and Do) at the 55th Chicago International Film Festival

A 55th anniversary is no small thing; most marriages don’t make it to that milestone, let alone annual arts events. But here we are, with the Chicago International Film Festival gearing up to deliver the fifty-fifth edition of its yearly programming, a feast of films, special guests and events worth carving out some time for. Over the weekend, Third Coast’s film critic Steve Prokopy spoke with the festival’s Artistic Director about what sets this year apart from others. Here, a rundown of just what to look out for as the eleven-day film festival (October 16-27) unfolds at downtown’s AMC River East.

The Irishman
Image courtesy of Netflix

The Heavy Hitters

If what you love most about the Chicago International Film Festival is that you get to see some of the year’s most anticipated films before anyone else, you’re in for a treat. Among the heavy hitters this year: Opening Night selection Motherless Brooklyn, directed by and starring Edward Norton; Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story; Rian Johnson’s Knives Out; Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (pictured); Trey Edward Shults’s Waves just to name a few. Since the auditoriums at River East aren’t stadiums with thousands of seats, most of these are already on rush (meaning all tickets are sold, but if you queue up before the film, you may be able to buy a last-minute ticket and get a seat).

Additional special presentations include Terrence Malick’s latest film, the epic (it runs nearly three hours) A Hidden Life; Shia LaBeouf’s screenwriting debut Honey Boy, a story about his own childhood as a working actor with a co-dependent father (in which he plays his own father); and Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit, a sharp satire about a young boy whose imaginary friend is none other than Hitler himself. For more of the big titles at this year’s festival, visit the Special Presentations section.

Worth Discovering

The other side of the coin, of course, is waltzing into some movie you know nothing about and being entirely astonished by what you see on screen, and in this area, the Festival does not disappoint. Several categories in the program are competition-based, meaning these films are selected for their potential to be named best in their class. The International Competition (which is a bit misleading, as it’s really a global narrative feature category, including US films as well as those from around the world) includes films that have already earned significant acclaim (Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize back in January; France’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (pictured below) was named Best Screenplay at Cannes) and films the festival programmers hope to shine a light on (Poland’s Corpus Christi, about a young man mistaken for a priest; Japan’s A Girl Missing, that follows a young nurse and the kidnapping that shakes the family she works for).

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

Other competition categories include New Directors (look for the next big thing in this group) and Documentaries (where topics explored include European families who send their aging relatives with Alzheimer’s to Thailand; the life of former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos; and one film billed as “Hoop Dreams for boxing”). The festival slices and dices its hundred-plus features even further, into categories including “Cinemas of the Americas” (aka films from Latin America), “Out-Look” (or films with an LGBTQ+ theme), “Black Perspectives” (otherwise known as films with African and African American connection), “After Dark” (the festival’s home for thrillers, horror and other genre fare) and even a “Comedy” category (that is, one assumes, funny). The point is, explore the many, many categories and you’re sure to find something that piques your interest.


Of course, a significant draw for festival audiences are the films connected to the Windy City itself, as our film industry continues to thrive. Look no further than the “City & State” program, comprised of nine feature films and one shorts program, all of which have ties to Chicago. From films like Girl on the Third Floor (also included in the “After Dark” program), which was filmed on the southwest side of the city, to the story of László Moholy-Nagy, the co-founder of the Bauhaus movement and the New Bauhaus, a design school opened in Chicago in 1937 after fleeing Germany. This year, the Festival features two world premiere films, both of which land in the City & State program: The First Rainbow Coalition about the origins of the civil rights group right here in Chicago; and the Festival’s Closing Night Selection, The Torch, about our very own Buddy Guy and his impact on the blues (Guy is scheduled to attend the Closing Night screening event).

Not Just the Films

If you’ve stacked your schedule with movies to see from sun up to sun down and are eager for a break from the big screen, consider some of the non-film events worth attending throughout the Festival. Chief among them is the now well-established Industry Days, a weekend of panels, master classes and conversations around what it takes to make a movie. Typically geared toward the aspiring filmmakers among us, this year’s program again promises a primer on these professional pursuits, from development and screenwriting workshops to discussions on finding funding and managers. A focus on production design is planned, as well.

Also happening throughout the week: a tribute to actor and producer Gael García Bernal (his latest directing effort, Chicuarotes, screens as a Gala Presentation), and a full program of “Immersive Cinema,” a virtual reality studio set-up in the lobby at River East for Festival-goers to step into and experience the movies in 360 degrees.

Tickets for films range from $10 (weekday matinees) to $28 (Gala presentations for the general public; members always get a discounted price); if you plan to see a lot, consider a pass ($120-$275) that offers a suite of film tickets at a discount (though you’ll still have to buy access to many of the Festival’s special events and screenings). The full schedule and tickets are available online at; tickets are also available on-site at a special Festival box office set up at AMC River East.

Did you enjoy this post? We’d love to hear what you think of our work; take our reader survey here. Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!