By Sean Boelman
Like so many regional festivals this year, the Chicago International Film Festival has an unusually stacked lineup, with plenty of excellent films encoring from the various fall festivals — as well as a few premieres that audiences will get to see for the first time in Chicago. From high-profile and buzzy awards contenders to hidden indie gems, there are plenty of great flicks to see at this year’s CIFF.
We at disappointment media are excited to be covering this year’s Chicago International Film Festival from afar, catching up on some of the films we missed elsewhere on the festival circuit, as well as checking out some of the exciting premieres playing in the Windy City
Be sure to keep an eye on this page, as we will be updating it with more thoughts on films playing at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival as we see more movies.
Second Update: 10/22/2023
R.J. Daniel Hanna’s Hard Miles is the type of indie crowd-pleaser that the festival circuit was meant to discover. The film is based on the inspiring true story of a social worker at a youth prison who assembles a peloton of young convicts and takes them on a 1000+ mile ride to teach them a lesson about perseverance and hopefully encourage them to find themselves. Although the beats the film hits are a bit predictable and sentimental, there's no denying that the film pulls on the heartstrings at the right times. Matthew Modine has also never been better than he was in this leading role, which is equal parts empathetic and uplifting.
In the Rearview
Like the many Ukraine-focused documentaries that have appeared on the festival circuit in the nearly two years since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, In the Rearview is certainly not an easy watch — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. Maciek Hamela’s documentary is essential viewing, and part of what makes it work so well is its simple conceit. The film follows the passengers of a vehicle that is being used to transport civilians seeking refuge out of the country. Although the camera occasionally does leave the vehicle, most of the time, the film is presented as if it were looking in the rearview mirror of the car. The result is an experience that is subtly harrowing and quietly powerful.
First Update: 10/19/2023
Paradise Is Burning
North American Premiere
Mika Gustafson’s Paradise Is Burning debuted at this year’s Venice Film Festival before making its North American premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. Although the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel with regards to its genre, this story of a group of three tight-knit sisters who face separation by child services due to an absent mother is absolutely heartbreaking. All three young actresses — Bianca Delbravo, Dilvin Assad, and Safira Mossberg — are fantastic in their roles, but what makes this stand out from other poverty-centric narratives is Gustafson’s incredibly empathetic approach to the narrative that focuses less on the trauma of their situation than the connection that draws them together.
Stamped From the Beginning
It’s impossible to deny the artistry or the anger of Roger Ross Williams’s documentary Stamped From the Beginning, based on the book of the same name by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. The film is an exploration of the misinformation that has been used to fuel racist ideology for generations, and it is unafraid to challenge some of the institutions and figures that have been revered throughout American history. Although the film clearly struggles with condensing an entire book’s worth of material into a runtime under 90 minutes, kinetic editing and powerful messaging keep the film entirely engaging and completely affecting.
Original Post: 10/12/2023
The documentary Alien Island tells one hell of a story: a group of radio operators in Chile in the 1980s amidst the military dictatorship think they have discovered an extraterrestrial race who has taken up residence on a nearby island. When the film is able to connect the stranger than fiction story to the political undercurrents happening in its societal context, it is utterly fantastic. The film also boasts some of the most impressive reenactment sequences of the year, shot in the black-and-white aesthetic of a Twilight Zone episode or the type of sci-fi movie that would feel at home in a drive-in theater. Like many UFO-centric docs, the nuttiness does become a bit overwhelming at times, but the genuinely interesting story keeps this one engaging.
Banel & Adama
Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s feature debut Banel & Adama was recently announced as the Senegalese submission for the Best International Film Oscar. While the film is certainly gorgeous thanks to excellent cinematography by Amine Berrada, it feels somewhat bland on a narrative level. The film’s story of a couple of star-crossed lovers who face the disapproval of their community is overly familiar. While the performances by Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo are solid, and the film is very authentic with its love story, the film doesn’t add anything particularly new or perceptive to its well-worn beats.
The Crime Is Mine
French master François Ozon’s latest film, The Crime Is Mine, is arguably his most mainstream film in quite a while, and unfortunately, it lacks the emotional heft of his recent output. However, even those looking for a diverting caper might find themselves thoroughly disappointed by this tonal mess of a comedy. Following an actress who is accused of murdering a producer and then acquitted, only for a new witness to come to light, it’s clear that this is meant to be a reversal of its genre. Which genre the film reverses is hard to identify, though. It starts as a period murder mystery, then becomes a courtroom drama, before finally settling as a film industry farce. It’s altogether too much, even in the hands of a filmmaker as talented as Ozon. Not even a rousing third act turn by the legendary Isabelle Huppert can salvage this would-be romp.
Tatiana Huezo’s documentary The Echo is undoubtedly one of the most visually stunning documentaries you’ll see this year. In fact, this verité portrait of a matriarchal community in rural Mexico is shot so cinematically, and its story told with such an eye for character, that it’s easy to forget what you are watching is a documentary and not an engrossing coming-of-age tale. Huezo’s tender lens stands out within the genre of documentary filmmaking thanks to its refusal to other-ize its subjects’ traditions and practices. The result is a film that feels deeply humanistic, even if it is on the slight side.
Bas Devos’s Here, which premiered at Berlinale earlier this year to great acclaim, shares a lot in common with another film that has gotten more attention on the festival circuit — Fallen Leaves. Both are unorthodox, gentle love stories following two people from seemingly opposite lifestyles, finding themselves inexplicably drawn together by fate. The result, particularly with Here, is a romance that is undeniably lovely to watch, offering some profound observations on the power of connection. And, as one of the duo in Devos’s film is a byrologist, the story lends itself to some stunning 16mm nature cinematography. For those looking for a reprieve from some of the heavier selections in this year’s fest, Here is the way to go.
Cinephiles often joke that Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo makes the same movie over and over again since there are so many similarities in their characters, themes, and quaint, dialogue-driven narratives. Although one of his two 2023 films, In Water, doesn’t defy expectations in a narrative sense, it does take an ambitious swing formally — and it doesn’t totally pay off. Following a trio of friends who wander around an island to which they have traveled to make a film together, the most distinctive aspect of the film is that it is intentionally out-of-focus for a majority of its runtime, making most of the images look blurry. While the conceit is intriguing, the execution is unfortunately often grating.
For much of its first third, Paris Zarcilla’s Raging Grace resembles last year’s Nanny — another anxiety-inducing social horror film that used its story to comment on the immigration crisis in the United States. However, in the second act, the film takes an unexpected turn, resulting in one of the wildest hours of genre cinema you’ll see all year. Max Eigenmann’s performance as the Filipina immigrant caretaker who uncovers a dark secret long buried by the family she works for heralds a breakout waiting to happen, thanks to her simply captivating screen presence. While the cinematography, editing, and score are all a bit obvious at times, the script is more than sharp enough to keep viewers utterly gripped to the screen.
The 2023 Chicago International Film Festival runs October 11-22.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.