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A preview of the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival

| Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Emma Kirner

This year will mark the 57th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival, the longest-running festival of its kind in North America. It will also mark my seventh year in attendance — and my first with press credentials.

As evidenced by this tweet when I first heard the news (shameless self-promotion, and it won’t be the last!), I’m extremely excited to cover, in an official capacity, an event that has quickly become my October tradition. Call it … “film bro autumn.”

While this might be my most comprehensive CIFF coverage, it won’t be my first time writing about the fest for The Observer. In 2019, we ran a measly 600 words on my experience at the 12-day event. But listen to what I saw: “Marriage Story” with Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” and more. The films I saw racked up 24 Oscar nominations in 2020 — two even took home gold. And that’s without mentioning the films I couldn’t catch, like Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” “Harriet” with Cynthia Erivo, “Just Mercy” with Michael B. Jordan and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the ultimate winner of the fest’s top prize, the Gold Hugo.

All of which is to say, CIFF is a fantastic opportunity to engage not only with independent, foreign and arthouse films, but with mainstream movies that are sure to make a splash. Next week, I hope to cover it all, which reminds me: The festival runs from Oct. 13 to Oct. 24, which is almost the exact span of Notre Dame’s fall break. For those of us from the suburbs of Chicago (and honestly, who isn’t from the suburbs of Chicago?) and to those sticking it out in South Bend, CIFF represents more than just the chance to catch cool movies before anyone else. It’s also a way to participate in art, to participate in the city and to participate in community.

CIFF’s 2020 edition, like nearly everything in that godforsaken year, unfolded in an online-only setting, with some exceptions. For example, the Closing Night film, a special presentation of eventual Best Picture winner “Nomadland,” was shown at the ChiTown Movies drive-in in Pilsen. 

But this year, the festival welcomes the return of in-person screenings with new health and safety guidelines that reflect the persistence of the pandemic. Guests must provide either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to attend any event, and masks must be worn at all times during screenings, except while eating or drinking. 

Furthermore, CIFF has expanded the locations of its screenings beyond its usual venue, the AMC River East. In addition to ChiTown Movies, select festival offerings will play at the historic Music Box Theater and the Gene Siskel Film Center. All CIFF theaters will operate at 80% capacity to accommodate social distancing, and many films will still be offered online.

“But Aidan,” you plead, “What are the films?” I’m glad you asked!

Opening Night is Wes Anderson’s hotly-anticipated “The French Dispatch,” the eclectic auteur’s love letter to journalism; concurrently, Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” will open the ChiTown drive-in, while “Halloween Kills” will launch the After Dark program right after. Closing Night is “King Richard,” the story of Serena and Venus Williams told from the perspective of their father and coach, played by Will Smith. 

The Centerpiece of the fest is Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon,” a black-and-white dramedy starring Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix. Gala Presentations include blockbuster “Dune” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” at which the acclaimed (and knighted) thespian will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Special Presentations include Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” “Spencer” with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana and “Passing,” the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall, for which she will be presented an Artistic Achievement Award.

The International Competition will screen 13 films whose productions spanned 21 countries, including “Petite Maman” by Céline Sciamma, back after “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” 27 documentaries will play, including “Mayor Pete” about South Bend’s own Pete Buttigieg. Additional programs include Black Perspectives, Women in Cinema, Shorts, City & State and the OutLook Competition for LGBTQ+ films.

Other screenings include, but are not limited to: Andrea Arnold’s first documentary, “Cow”; “Encounter” starring Riz Ahmed; “Happening,” the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival; “The Harder They Fall” with Idris Elba and Regina King; Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria,” starring Tilda Swinton; “Parallel Mothers” by Pedro Almodóvar; Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” with Benedict Cumberbatch; Cannes breakout “The Worst Person in the World”; and somehow, even more.

Now, if that doesn’t peak your interest, I don’t know what will. Be sure to check The Observer website throughout fall break for reviews and write-ups from Chicago, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram for coverage from the frontlines of the fest.

I’ll see you at the movies!

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About Aidan O'Malley

Aidan was the Managing Editor of The Observer. He previously served as Scene Editor and will forever be biased toward that section. You can reach him by email at [email protected], on Twitter @_aomalley or by loudly yelling his name on DeBart Quad.

Contact Aidan