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Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

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Even the mellower festivals take a little something out of you. Now in its third year, the Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) has expanded to become an event that lets you “…go to a festival with the foreknowledge of the films that you should be seeing,” as co-programmer Eric Childress told us last week. Gone are the long hours waiting in line or the disappointing shut outs, though a couple of screenings did come close. It was just a really nice time at the Music Box Theatre.

Curated by critics who simply liked the movies they’re showing, CCFF has already grown into Chicago’s most intriguing film event of the year. We were there all week, and managed to cut through a number of the films we missed at earlier festivals this year — in addition to some new offerings. So, have a look at what we saw and where it all stacks up. For the record, the vast majority of them were pretty damn good, but that should hardly be surprising.

–Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Film Editor

Goodnight Mommy

GoodnightMOMMY-Photo4

Grade: D

When you’ve figured out a twist four minutes into a movie, don’t give up on the filmmakers and the story they are trying to tell. There’s still a chance that an even greater twist is on its way, or that the twist you thought you solved isn’t actually there for the twisting. InGoodnight Mommy, a twist courtesy of German writers/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is so obvious, it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t offered up deliberately. Unfortunately as the film winds down, the big “reveal” is indeed the predictable one from minute-four, and by this point Goodnight Mommy has even more problems it cannot overcome. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET

Grade: C

What makes The Prophet worth seeking out is the all-star roster of directors on board, illustrating various chapters of Mustafa’s, or rather Gibran’s, philosophies. We get eight music videos and montages in varying styles. Bill Plympton has a freakish color pencil chapter about eating and the Earth. Tomm Moore of Song of the Sea contributes a musical segment about love’s beckoning powers, and it looks like Gustav Klimt on Saturday morning. Spray paint art, stippled textures, music by Damien Rice, blue and purple tangos in the night, a whole world of color and style; the individual segments areThe Prophet’s greatest rewards. It’s a shame the overarching story about Mustafa’s exit is emotionally dumb, and, well, really Disney, with its smirks and big eyes and caricatures. [Read Blake Goble’s full review.]

Results

results still Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: C

This is the closest to a mainstream offering Andrew Bujalski has ever delivered and given that he’s often referred to as one of the godfathers of “mumblecore,” there’s an unspoken degree of accountability at hand for the thirtysomething filmmaker. Does he retain his own devices or risk absconding into the Hollywood ether? Does he break the genre or simply fall into line? It doesn’t seem like Bujalski’s convinced yet and so he does a bit of both with Results, and although he wanders, there’s still a certain intrigue to the proceedings. If it’s any consolation, you’re more than likely to check your watch than roll your eyes. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

The Connection

the connection Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: C

Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection (La French) is so in love with the period it depicts that one can’t help but start thinking about the works of other famous directors of criminal pulp fiction. This movie has the gauche colors of De Palma, the moody consternation of a Mann, the flash and swerve of a Tony Scott film, and of course, the 1970s gangland scope and attitude of an early Scorsese. And that all works against it. You’ll think, why not just watch one of those other directors’ flicks right now? The Connection is like watching 135 homage trailers. Actually, better yet, it’s like an extended cut of Spike Jonze’s “Sabotage” music video, how about that? –Blake Goble

Unexpected

unexpected2 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: C+

Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected is fine. It’s a nice Chicago-based movie that knows exactly what it is, what it wants to do, and how it wants to go about getting there. Remove a few uses of the word “fuck,” and it could be marketed as a family comedy, but what better way is there to react to a surprise pregnancy? Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier tell us a tale of not one, but two such pregnancies and their effect on two women who come from different backgrounds. This is a good device; sometimes three movies’ worth of material work better as a single feature film. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

Night Owls

night owls1 e1431066606979 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: B-

There’s something special about overnight flicks. The stakes, the romance, the unknown — they’re always so recklessly imaginative. Think about George Lucas’ American Graffiti, or Paul Brickman’s Risky Business, or Martin Scorcese’s After Hours, or even Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise … each of these films exude an embalming magic that capitalizes on the wild things that go bump in the night. Charles Hood’s minimalistic indie dramedy Night Owls offers a unique spin on this timeless style and unspoken genre by skipping the streetlight prowling and opting to stay indoors. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

Slow West

slow west michael fassbender e1421681488776 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: B-

Slow West is the biggest little movie set in the Old West we’ve seen in a long time. In his very first full-length feature, writer/director John Maclean realizes something about moviemaking that many aspiring or even established filmmakers do not: you don’t need a three-hour movie to tell a 90-minute story. He accomplishes this by capturing the sprawl of the Wild West without lingering for too long on one of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous shots. While the story is a bit of a slow crawl through its dangerous frontier, the film mostly pays off by the time its closing credits roll. It’s just too bad the filmmaker didn’t have enough trust in the audience to avoid unnecessary use of flashback and narration, adding brushstrokes to an otherwise fully realized painting. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

Quitters

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Grade: B-

Quitters is as much about adults acting like children as it is about a child acting like an adult. Through friends and family I’ve found that the best way to be a good parent is to convince your children that you have it all figured out. No one has “figured it out” inQuitters, no matter their faux confidence. Noah Pritzker fills his feature-length directorial debut with characters that aren’t particularly likeable, but feel real in their failings. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

Raiders!

raiders1 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: B

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is about the Quixotic quest undertaken by two men, older and wiser now, to finish what they started when they were younger and more idealistic. It’s a loving if sometimes uneven documentary about fandom in all its forms, from the kind that inspired the remake itself to the kind that passed VHS dubs of it around until it became a cult sensation years after the fact. Geek luminaries like Harry Knowles, Ernie Cline, and Eli Roth are on hand to help chronicle the spread of a remake that’s at once earnest and kind of ridiculous, the product of two young men whose vision vastly outpaced their means. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

People, Places, Things

people places things jemaine clement1 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: B

People, Places, Things is as simple as its title, but this isn’t a bad thing. We’ve become conditioned to believe that anything less than great is somehow unworthy when that isn’t and should never be the case. Writer/director James C. Strouse’s film is a heartwarming look at a lovable lead (the always interesting Clement) as he tries to navigate through life as a recently separated father of twins (played to adorable effect by Aundrea and Gia Gadsby). The whole thing clocks in at under 90 minutes and never comes close to wearing out its welcome. Some familiar beats from the romantic films of yesteryear appear, but they’re resolved in satisfying fashion. People, Places, Things is a good movie. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

Batkid Begins: The Wish We Heard Around the World

Dressed as Batkid, Make-A-Wish recipient Miles Scott spent the day fighting crime as San Francisco was turned into Gotham City, Friday. Scott, a 5-year old leukemia patient, had his wish fulfilled with the help of Make-A-Wish Foundation, San Francisco police chief Greg suhr and Mayor Ed Lee.

Grade: B

Defy yourself to not think that Batman has healing, transformative powers by the end of this doc. Yes, Batman is just a man, but a man with his wits about him and the will to fight (not to crib and alter Christopher Nolan and Bob Kane’s stronger motivations for why Batman is the way he is). Batman inspires people to try harder, to be a little better. Forget the current fascination with his brooding and insanity; Batkid Begins reminds us of the long-term allure of the Dark Knight. He’s a hero, because he’s a man doing his best. Miles Scott, in his young and endlessly optimistic way, knew and was elevated by this. Batman can make us strive and survive in this crazy, mixed-up world. It’s insane, but holy-heartwarmth, Batman! Like the hero himself, Batkid Begins shows us people at their best and brightest. [Read Blake Goble’s full review.]

The End of the Tour

end of the tour Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: B+

The End of the Tour is a piece for its performers. James Ponsoldt’s film is a study of envy, acceptance, and the battles some face within themselves. While the framing device of the movie feels a little too Hollywood, the story of the trip David Lipsky takes with David Foster Wallace just about makes up for it. Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace won’t just be talked about in the months to come, but in the years to come. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

The New Girlfriend

the new girlfriend Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: A-

Look at how clever that title is, and how we’re immediately asked to test our often limited terminologies for understanding gender, identity, and sexuality. Girlfriend, in the most general sense (or primarily the American), is a term we affiliate with a woman in a relationship with another person. Right? Or, what if it’s a kind of 1940s gal pal usage, like our grandmothers would often do? The New Girlfriend thinks it can be both, and that’s so cool. [Read Blake Goble’s full review.]

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Grade: A-

At the risk of offering a copout, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that either will or won’t work for many. Those weary of the “Sundance movie” may approach it with cynicism; it’s not as though “twee” isn’t an appropriate descriptor for what happens throughout. But for a film this sincere and affectionate, and one with some truly striking emotional sucker punches in tow, it’s an oversimplification. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl cuts right through the noise, telling a story about teenagers that’s both familiar and rare, capturing them in all their messiness and optimism and fear and soul. Films that look and feel sort of like this one have become as perennial as summer disaster movies or Oscar season biopics, but they’re rarely this moving, this warm, this resonant, and this flat-out wonderful. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

Digging for Fire

digging for fire Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: A-

Marriage is hard, parenting is impossible, and life will always invite mystery. Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson know this first hand, and it’s that knowledge that empowers Digging for Fire. Rarely do films accurately juggle the pitfalls and treasures of marriage — in fact, they’re usually reduced to dramatic embellishments — but there’s a tear-jerking wisdom to this film that’s quite remarkable. The writers accept their characters’ faults, and they never appear to shame them. Not once. There’s something strangely cathartic about that. After all, we don’t always need a shovel to do the digging … it just happens. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

drunk stoned1 e1422835987997 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: A

We should all be thankful. That’s the conclusion director Douglas Tirola wants his audiences to reach at the end of his fantastic rock ‘n’ roll documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. In an all-too-breezy 93 minutes, Tirola flips through the pages of the institution’s riotous history with help from its many writers, editors, animators, and comics. It’s a rib-tickling ride of a story that demands your laughter, your curiosity, and your tears. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

The Overnight

the overnight taylor schilling e1421676766784 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: A

Things get awkward pretty fast in Patrick Brice’s sophomore feature film, The Overnight. But that’s been his style so far: For two films now, he’s embraced the stories that surface from strangers trusting other strangers. In last year’s underrated found footage thriller,Creep, he directed himself as a naive camera man responding to a Craigslist ad from a woodsy recluse (Mark Duplass, in an uncanny performance). His latest picture maintains that skin-crawling tension, only he’s lightened the mood considerably. You won’t go home checking underneath your bed; rather, you’ll stare at your spouse, your friends, and your neighbors in a bold, new way. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

Heaven Knows What

heaven knows what1 Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: A

Where many narratives about drug addicts, even the good ones, tend to come from an outsider’s perspective, inevitably leading to a sort of “drugs are bad, m’kay” posturing most of the time, Heaven Knows What takes a virtually anti-narrative, documentary-style approach to the addiction story. It’s completely immersed in an addict’s world, in the flophouses and makeshift homes, in the kinship born from mutual desperation and the devastation that can come if ever you make the mistake of getting a little too attached. It’s a disorienting, often brutal, haunting film, as emotionally naked and deeply empathetic a portrait of addiction as modern cinema has seen. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

Blind

Blind-Film

Grade: A

Blind is a strikingly beautiful and intuitive escape into the mind of a blind person, and Vogt writes and directs the film as if he has experienced such terror. There are situations in this story that are so unique and yet also startlingly universal. When Ingrid fears her husband may be cheating online with another woman, it’s a tangible guilt. Why not? Wouldn’t you question his pauses at the keyboard? Wouldn’t you wonder? How would you know for sure? A quote by Buddha feels applicable here: “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” Granted, that’s a burden shared by everyone, but it’s a vivid crisis for Ingrid and one that Vogt portrays with ease. Similar to the work of Michel Gondry, though sans the twee, the Norwegian filmmaker takes us deep into the inner psyche of his protagonist and hardly fractures the narrative. It’s stylish without losing any substance. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

Call Me Lucky

call me lucky Ranking: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015 From Worst to Best

Grade: A

Suffering is hard, but trying to be a good person when you know what the world is capable of doing to the weakest within it is one of the few things that might be harder, especially when you were one of those people at one time. This is a pretty universal truth, and it’s one to which comedian Barry Crimmins can provide real, hard-lived testimony. Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldthwait’s superb documentary about Crimmins’ career, and more valuably than that, his life, goes into detail about the depths of Crimmins’ understanding of this idea. At times the film is excruciating in its honesty, its willingness to speak of the things we like to avoid speaking about, and to linger on it long past the point of any comfort. Crimmins is more than willing to confront his pain for the camera, as long as others are willing to bear witness. It’s not only a wonderful piece of documentary filmmaking, but it’s an act of some substantial bravery as well. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

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