Revelatory and resilient, the Chicago International Film Festival brings back in-theater screenings, along with less costly virtual screenings. Last year nearly all of the festival occurred online. Either way, cinema is the venerably virtual way to widen our horizons limited by COVID-19.
“The French Dispatch” — another ensemble treat by the inventive and diverting Wes Anderson — launches the festival at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre, a partner venue added this year. Tickets are $40. This U.K./France/Germany co-production opens Oct. 21 in Chicago.
The 57th annual festival draws cinema co-produced in 57 different countries, coincidentally. The schedule has 89 feature-length films and 10 programs of shorts. Documentaries include world premieres of works about Mayor Harold Washington, chef Charlie Trotter and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“Accessibility” is the 2021 watchword. “Everybody misses the face-to-face aspect,” admits artistic director Mimi Plauché, now in her 16th year at the non-profit Cinema/Chicago that presents the festival. “You can’t replicate that in-theater experience.” But she loves how audience members now connect through chat boxes during livestream Q&A sessions. “I think there’s a new ease in communication.”
To attend in-person, indoor screenings you need proof of full vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test results. More details are at www.chicagofilmfestival.com/festival/safety/
Noteworthy work by big-name auteurs includes “Belfast” by Kenneth Branagh, “Dune” by Denis Villeneuve and “Spencer” by Pablo Larrain. Other directors from the international festival circuit are Jane Campion, Zhang Yimou and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Here are 10 films recommended to see on the big screen or stream at home (tickets for both in-person and streaming options available at chicagofilmfestival.com):
“Amira” (Egypt/Jordan/UAE/Saudi Arabia) Egyptian filmmaker Mohammed Diab crafts a moving thriller about a 17-year-old Palestinian woman seeking truths about her birth. Imprisoned by Israelis, her father had nonetheless impregnated her mother. DNA tests now create a tragic conflict of identity. (5:45 p.m. Oct. 19, AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois St.)
“Bergman Island” (France/Belgium/Germany/Sweden) Two writers work on new scripts on the island Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman made famous. Their issues resonate with Bergman’s storied marital and artistic issues. Mia Hansen-Love seamlessly morphs their own film into one or two others being made. (8 p.m. Oct. 14, AMC River East 21)
“A Hero” (Iran) Asghar Farhadi offers a masterly drama of a man dealing with a debt to his ex-father-in-law that got him in prison. During a two-day release he implicates the warden and a prisoner charity in a feel-good news story that backfires. One lie inspires other lies, all in defense of reputations. Farhadi critiques media and social media for treating virtue as spectacle. “A Hero” won the Cannes film festival’s Grand Prix. His earlier “Fireworks Wednesday” and “The Salesman” won Hugos at the Chicago International Film Festival. (7:45 p.m. Oct. 19 and 8:15 p.m. Oct. 22, AMC River East 21)
“The Last Execution” (Germany) Franziska Stünkel re-creates the Kafkaesque plight of an East Berlin academic coerced by state security agents to destroy a soccer star who defected to the west. As in other politically acute entries this year, men leverage women in power plays. The title refers to the June 26, 1981 execution of Werner Teske, whose story inspired the screenplay. (8:45 p.m. Oct. 16, and 5:15 p.m. Oct. 21 AMC River East 21)
“Paris, 13th District” (France) Three young Parisians are variously roommates, co-workers, lovers, ex-lovers and lovers once more. Shooting in black-and-white, Jacques Audiard serves a wonderful slice of Paris romance. Yes, it’s familiar French fare but these characters and actors really are winning. (8:30 p.m. Oct. 16 and 8:15 p.m. Oct. 19, AMC River East 21)
“The Tsugua Diaries” (Portugal) Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes co-direct a playful film about three young Portuguese spending time in a large house in the country doing not much. It starts on Day 22 and counts back to Day 1. We will learn who they are and how they got there. Spoiler: A film crew comes into view and COVID-19 rules are spelled out. (5:15 p.m. Oct. 14 and 8:30 p.m. Oct. 22, AMC River East 21)
“Babi Yar. Context” (The Netherlands/Ukraine) Sergei Loznitsa assembles a searing montage that contextualizes Germans and Ukrainians shooting 33,771 Jews near Kiev on September 29 and 30, 1941. Adding natural sounds and actors voicing actual words, transcribed and broadcast at the time, lends uncanny impact to the originally silent footage. Some was home movies by German soldiers. (12:15 p.m. Oct. 17, AMC River East 21)
“Cow” (U.K.) In her press notes Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”) cites The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness as background for this intimate, intriguing chronicle of a cow in a barn. Luma looks enslaved yet enjoys a few lovely episodes of outdoor mobility, if not liberty. Interspecies empathy ensues. And a little sly humor. The wrenching end is a blindsider. (6 p.m. Oct. 19, AMC River East 21)
“The Last Forest” (Brazil) Luiz Bolognesi won a Silver Hugo for “Ex-Shaman” in the 2018 festival. He returns to the rainforest to further document the further struggles of ex-shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, credited here as co-writer. He stars as himself. Their shared perspectives defend an imperiled way of life from invasive miners and mercury ruining the water. (6 p.m. Oct. 20, AMC River East 21)
“The Velvet Underground” (U.S.) In 2007 Todd Haynes made “I’m Not There,” an odd biopic with six actors playing Bob Dylan. Now he profiles the late Lou Reed, his band The Velvet Underground and the surrounding Andy Warhol scene. This artfully composed portrait of New York City musicians generously samples experimental filmmakers, including Stan Brakhage. (7 p.m. Oct. 13, ChiTown Movies Drive-In, 2343 S. Throop St.)