Preview: 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

I’ve been attending the Chicago International Film Festival for the past six or seven years now, and it’s easily my favourite event in the city. While it happens too late in the year to carry the same prestige and buzz as Telluride or TIFF, the festival always manages to attract a brilliant cross section of films from across the globe featuring works from top directors, underexposed talents, and fresh faces looking to make a name for themselves. It’s an amazing opportunity to connect with other cinephiles, meet and interact with directors, producers, and actors, and to catch films which you may never have another opportunity to see, and the dialed-back setting and circumstances makes it feel more personal.

The quality of the festival’s repertoire is always superb; I don’t think there’s a single year since I started attending where a film from the festival didn’t make my top ten, and sometimes (such as in the case of the brilliant Kazakh drama Harmony Lessons) the films have missed out on American distributors, leaving me without a proper opportunity to revisit them. It’s this that makes me always excited about what I could discover every year and to seize the chance to see as many films as I can. This year, I’ll be doing my biggest binge yet: starting Sunday, 15 October, I’ll be attending 24 films in the course of about 10 days. But before I start drinking from the cinematic firehose, I wanted to preview the films that are exciting me the most.

The Confession” (Georgia/Estonia/US)


This drama from the festival’s main competition follows an Orthodox priest, formerly a film director, who teaches film appreciation to his congregants and uses his passion for community outreach. When his parishioners point how the resemblance between a local teacher and Marilyn Monroe, the priest finds himself in his own battle with temptation. I’m always keenly interested in films that directly tackle the subject of religion, and the intertwining of such themes with classical film has me particularly looking forward to this one.

Sicilian Ghost Story” (France/Italy/Switzerland)


The festival’s blurb about this film describes it as a “heady fusion of gothic fantasy and Mafia thriller,” and that’s pretty much all I need to hear. I love films that blend in fantasy and bend the rules, like Pan’s Labyrinth or Donnie Darko, and the mysterious atmosphere and dark themes here are right up my alley. Might be my most highly anticipated film of the festival.

Gemini” (US)


I read the phrase “intoxicating L.A.-set neo-noir,” and I knew I was buying tickets. Film noir is one of my favourite genres, and a slick and stylish neo-noir flick will always get my attention. I really enjoyed Lola Kirke‘s performance in Gone Girl as well, so I’m excited to see what she can do with a leading role.

In the Fade” (Germany)


I’m a big fan of actress Diane Kruger, and she won the Best Actress award at the film’s premiere at Cannes earlier this year. Tackling issues of neo-nazism and immigration in Germany, this film looks to be both powerful and searingly (and unfortunately) relevant.

Wind Traces” (Mexico)


Another film that aims to blend magic with realism, plus emotional depth, gorgeous cinematography, and a 1970s setting – sounds like another perfect recipe for a film I’ll adore. The festival’s description made me instantly think of the work of one of my favourite directors, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose beautiful film Cemetery of Splendour screened at CIFF in 2015, and though I doubt it will be an exact match in tone and presentation, the premise still has my full attention.

Blade of the Immortal” (Japan)


Possibly my second-most anticipated film of the festival, Blade of the Immortal is the 100th film from insanely prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike, the mastermind behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and 13 Assassins. Here, a samurai cursed by a witch teams up with an orphan girl to seek revenge, and if Miike’s direction from 13 Assassins is anything to go by (as well as the film’s presence in the After Dark competition), it should be a bloody good time.

November” (Estonia/Netherlands/Poland)


A black comedy where paganism and Christianity collide, November features witchcraft, the black plague, werewolves, romance, and feudal politics in an ancient Estonian village. I feel like that’s all I need to say.

This is all just scratching the surface of what I’ll be seeing and an even smaller fraction of what the festival is screening on the whole. If you’re in the Chicago area between 13-26 October, I can’t recommend attending enough. Check out the full festival guide and purchase tickets at You can see the full list of the films I’ll be attending on my list on Letterboxd. Stay tuned for a full festival recap in two weeks’ time.


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