Recap: 2017 Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival has come and gone for yet another year, and it was a whirlwind for me this time around. Twenty-three films in ten days ended up being pretty ambitious when I’m also working a full-time job, and my fatigue showed when I ended up missing a film when I passed out at home. It was absolutely worth the effort, though, as I saw a plethora of quality films from veteran directors and exciting new faces, and every single one was good. That’s a bit shocking considering the sheer volume of films I saw, but I’m not complaining; it’s a great feeling to be able to look back at the fest and not feel a single bit of regret about the decisions I made.

While every film was certainly worth a viewing, it’d be a bit of a system overload to post my thoughts on every film here. Rather, I’ll give a rundown of my festival favourites and a few honourable mentions.

Best Film

November

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This was one of the films I was most excited to see going into the festival, and from it’s opening scene featuring a mechanical creature haphazardly crafted from farming tools stealing a cow from a neighbour by helicoptering it away, I knew I was going to love it. November is a perfect concoction of fantasy, romance, medieval religious fable, and black humour, touching on various elements of feudal life through its dark and clever narrative. Whether it’s hiding from the plague by wearing pants on one’s head or tricking the devil by using berries instead of blood to sign his book, there’s a glorious absurdity to everything going on here, and the cast sells it with a perfect mix of self-awareness and self-seriousness. Not to mention some incredible low-budget visual effects that I’m still wrapping my head around, inspired art direction and costume design, and some of the most gorgeous and vibrant cinematography I’ve seen this year (shot in a crisp black-and-white no less), and you’ve got not only my favourite film of the festival but one of the best films I’ve seen yet in 2017. Couldn’t recommend this film more.

Runners Up

1945

1945

I wrapped up my run at the festival with this film, and it was a doozy. Set in a village in Hungary shortly after the end of World War II, 1945 follows the villagers beginning to come to terms with their guilt as two Jewish men with a wagon of mysterious cargo make their way into town. It’s captivating watching the slow burn of the film as everything moves from a perfect wedding day and begins to fall to pieces as deep secrets are revealed and hidden thoughts and feelings come to the surface. Ultimately, there are some sobering questions that the film asks about the culpability of the Hungarian people (and others who just stood by) in the Holocaust. It’s heavy, potent, and beautiful.

Beauty and the Dogs

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One of the films of the festival that I fear will be the most overlooked, I think Beauty and the Dogs may be one of the most important films of the year in wake of the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Told over the course of one night in nine single takes, the film follows a young, Tunisian woman over the course of one night as she frantically attempts to seek justice after being raped by a group of police, ultimately revealing just how much the system is working against her. The use of long takes is brilliantly implemented and accentuates the sense of stress and urgency, and it necessarily coaxes excellent performances from the cast. A powerful experience, and one that I hope many more cinemagoers will be able to have.

Honourable Mentions

While I’ve noted my favourites already, I wanted to briefly mention a few additional films that stood out to me amongst the crowd.

Arrhythmia

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A Russian drama focusing on a paramedic attempting to resurrect his relationship with his estranged wife, I loved Arrhythmia‘s slice-of-life approach to narrative and character study. It’s touching and funny, and the central performance is a brilliant pillar that holds it all together.

Have A Nice Day

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The one animated film I caught at the festival, I really enjoyed Have A Nice Day‘s minimalistic presentation and thick atmosphere. The sound was delightful, and it played well with noir tropes while adding a lot of smart, tight humour through a wide palette of characters. It’s fun, twisted, and a short time commitment to boot.

In the Fade

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In the Fade is surely going to be one of the most controversial films of the year, but I don’t think enough praise can be given for Diane Kruger’s turn as Katja, a mother seeking justice and revenge against the neo-nazis that murdered her husband and child. It’s a stupendous and heartrending performance, and it makes this a must-watch no matter what.

Killing Jesus

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Killing Jesus really made an impression on me in its own right with its story of a girl trying to seek out the man who shot and killed her father, but it was made even more powerful by director Laura Mora Ortega’s personal story and painful connection to gang conflicts in Colombia. It’s a gorgeous, gripping film, and one that can echo across all communities ravaged by senseless violence.


With this year’s festival under my belt, I’m now turning my attention toward playing catch-up in the cinema and hitting the bigger awards-season releases. Expect several new review to come in the next week or two and the pace to keep up. If you’re interested in my thoughts on the other films I saw at CIFF this year, you can check out my Letterboxd profile. For more information on the Chicago International Film Festival, the 2017 festival award winners, and other events promoted throughout the year by Cinema/Chicago, check out the official website at www.chicagofilmfestival.com.

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