The Chicago International Film Festival is the oldest competitive film festival in North America. It is one of Chicago’s most prized cinematic celebrations, bringing audiences into the imaginations of directors from around the world through more than 150 films screened over two weeks in the city’s iconic AMC River East 21 movie theater (322 E. Illinois St.).
This year, cinephiles will enjoy films from countries such as Mexico, Canada, Spain, India, Brazil, France, Japan, Thailand, Italy, Australia, the U.K. and South Africa. Genres range from drama and horror to comedy and romance and are featured in categories such as Black Perspectives, New Directors, U.S. Indies, After Dark (horror films) and Out-Look (films focused on LGBTQ issues). These films compete to earn the grand prize: the Hugo Award, given to the most outstanding film in the competition. Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress are also included in the prize pool.
Although the festival has become a permanent part of Chicago’s cultural landscape, it actually came from humble beginnings. Its artistic director, Michael Kutza, was only 22 years old when he founded the festival in 1964. Believing in the importance of public exposure to international cinema, he hand-picked the movies for the first festival and has been closely involved in every festival that followed. In many ways, the Chicago International Film Festival is inseparable from Kutza, who has nurtured it every year for more than half a century through his role as artistic director.
Since establishing the festival, Kutza has gone on to help develop the Spoleto Festival in Spoleto, Italy, the Tehran International Film Festival and the Milan International Film Festival, among others. He has also won awards around the globe, including the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), from French Minister of Culture Jacques Lang at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.
Although the Chicago International Film Festival has been criticized by the Chicago Tribune and film critics alike for its over-sentimental attachment to Kutza’s somewhat impractical vision, it is difficult to argue with five decades of such prolific and productive dedication to artistic expression. Beyond the trivial details of press conferences, screenings and crowded theaters are the films that make it all worth it, transporting movie-goers to worlds beyond their own and introducing them to ideas that are larger than life. Kutza will welcome this year’s 51st International Film Festival to Chicago at the ripe old age of 73.
Films are organized by country of origin, genre and category, so whether you’re looking for a specific nationality or your favorite style of movie, it’s easy to find something that suits your tastes. If you can only attend one screening, consider getting a ticket for a Main Competition film. These films are the internationally acclaimed contestants in the competition for the Hugo Award. The 17 films in this category include:
Paulina (Brazil, Argentina)
Filled with social commentary about the contrast between lives of wealth and poverty, Paulina follows the story of a young, urban lawyer as she gives up her comfortable desk job to teach in a violent rural high school.
A Very Ordinary Citizen (Iran)
Aging Mr. Safari receives a note from his estranged son asking him to travel to Tehran for a reunion visit, sending him on a journey of love and loss that offers a powerful statement about broken families and the struggles of old age.
Mountains May Depart (China)
When a young woman and a venture capitalist start their lives as optimistic newlyweds, they begin to realize their vision of the future may not be the reality that is in store for them.
Looking for Grace (Australia)
Grace is an angsty teenager who runs away from home to attend a concert in the town over, launching her bourgeois family on a mad hunt to retrieve her.
A Childhood (France)
Impoverished teenager Jimmy dreams of a life of luxury beyond the meager circumstances that surround him as he battles through a sweltering summer in the home of his drug-addicted mother and her criminal boyfriend.
Schneider vs. Bax (The Netherlands, Belgium)
Hitman Schneider faces an awkward dilemma when he is caught between completing a particularly difficult hit and getting home in time to attend the birthday party his family is throwing for him.
The Club (Chile)
A group of disgraced Catholic priests sequester themselves in a lonely beach house until allegations of abuse arise from a former pupil, leading the men back into the truths of their dark and disturbing pasts.
45 Years (U.K.)
As an aging couple approach their 45th wedding anniversary, dark secrets emerge from the underbelly of the husband’s past that threaten to tear the couple apart.
Full Contact (Netherlands, Croatia)
In this bold, psychological drama, an Air Force drone operator must confront the consequences, and the personal guilt, of a missile strike gone awry.
Sweet Bean (U.S.)
In this soft philosophical tale, a young, restless pancake cook pairs with a plucky elderly chef to create a new snack that quickly becomes a local favorite.
Mia Madre (Italy, France)
John Tuturro (The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou) delivers a powerhouse performance as a pompous actor who is both the savior and the destructor of a new film directed by an overworked director who struggles to complete her masterpiece and take care of her ailing mother.
My Golden Days (France)
Winner of a distinguished Cannes award, this film follows young Paul as he returns to his home country of Tajikistan and follows his past down a rabbit hole of love, nostalgia, and wanderlust.
Laced with dark humor, this haunting drama follows the stories of three Warsaw residents: a coroner receiving messages from his wife beyond the grave, his suicidal daughter and her clairvoyant therapist.
Neon Bull (Brazil, Uruguay)
Ranch-handler Iremar dreams of a life of fashion design far removed from the world of Brazilian rodeo that surrounds him in this unconventional look into the world of Latin American machismo.
A dark, brooding look into the religious crisis of a young Orthodox Jew, Tikkun follows the devout Yeshiva after a near death experience leaves him doubtful and disillusioned to his once-precious religion.
Exploring the subtle realities of our last moments on earth, this tender drama follows the career of a hospice nurse as he struggles to hide his own pain from the patients whose suffering he takes away.
The Treasure (Romania)
Two quarrelsome neighbors face all odds as they hunt for their town’s fabled buried treasure armed only with rusty shovels and their own foolish optimism.