Chicago International Film Festival Winners and Must Sees!

Film festivals are a dime a dozen. Anyone can have a film festival, as you have seen with the most recent Internet Cat Video Festival. Many of them fizzle out, but only the truly amazing ones pass the test of time. There is Cannes, Sundance, and of course the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), which is celebrating its 50th year of bringing us gems from around the world. Every year the main competition is fierce, usually including winners from various other film festivals. All of them are in direct competition for the prestigious grand prize: the Gold Hugo. Here are this year’s winners:

Gold Hugo, Best Film: The President (Georgia, France, UK, Germany) Director: Mohsen
Silver Hugo, Special Jury Prize: Refugiado (Argentina, Colombia, France, Poland,
Germany) Director: Diego Lerman
Silver Hugo, Best Director: Timbuktu (France, Mauritania) Director: Abderrahmane
Silver Hugo, Best Actor: Anton Yelchin, Rudderless (USA)
Silver Hugo, Best Actress: Geraldine Chaplin, Sand Dollars (Dominican Republic, Mexico)
Silver Hugo, Best Cinematography: John Christian Rosenlund, 1001 Grams (Norway)
Silver Hugo for Best Screenplay: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz (co-writer and co-directors), Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel, France, Germany)
Gold Plaque for Best Art Direction: Mauro Radaelli, Human Capital (Italy)
Gold Plaque for Best Costume Design: Pia Myrdal and Anne-Dorthe Eskildsen, Speed
Walking (Denmark)
Gold Plaque Special Mention for Originality: The Owners (Kazakhstan) Director: Adilkhan

It is near impossible to see every single film at the festival. Believe me – I tried. You still have time to see some great films, including those considered the “Best of the Fest” and others. Check out the schedule and see how many you can watch in the next few days.

Out of all the films I got a chance to see, I have a few favorites, aside from the major releases like Birdman and Dear White People. Some of them won awards at CIFF. My first would have to be the winner for the Gold Hugo award, The President.

The President is a profound look at monarchies/dictatorships and how the will of the people is (forcefully) overthrowing them. It is kept generic by not giving you the name of the country, but at the same time it could be any number of countries that are currently calling for democracy. This story is about the president of this unidentified country adopting disguises with his grandson as they flee for their lives in their homeland. We are not only shown how the evils of an unchecked government affect the people, but we also see a darker side of the people as anarchy and the lack of accountability help to tear the country further apart.


Winter Sleep plays with all the theatricality of a Turkish play, but with a deep, philosophical core. The film is well over 3 hours long, but it passes like a winter’s breeze: quick and sudden, but also chillingly revelatory. Aside from the beautiful cinematography, this character-driven story takes us into a study of human behavior and emotions. It focuses on the story of a very prominent hotel owner/retired actor in a small village who seems to have never quite stopped acting, even around those closest to him.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem takes us through the five year process of divorce Viviane is forced to go through. Rarely leaving the claustrophobic confines of the courtroom, this simply staged film delivers complex cultural insights. We witness her battle to divorce a man she no longer loves, but who won’t let go of her. The patriarchal-focused religion and judicial system refuse to let her intervene in their separation unless the husband willingly relinquishes his claim of her. It is a great look into the social injustice and systematic oppression of women that still happens around the world (and to a lesser extent, here in the US as well).


Force Majeure is a dramatic, cascading avalanche that leaves a tidal wave of destruction in its wake, and takes everything and everyone in its way down with it. Meanwhile, you’re the bystander, at a safe distance witnessing the entire, beautifully shot catastrophe, being glad you’re not directly involved, but unable to escape from being completely immersed as the unstoppable force comes over you. With some elements of a Wes Anderson film, this film draws you in, only to witness a family vacation tear apart the family. All you can do is sit back, feel completely uncomfortable with every situation that unfolds before you, and hope that the suspense lasts.

The Babadook is possibly the most fun I’ve had at a horror movie recently. By fun, I of course mean that it wasn’t a derivative rehashing of some already beat-to-death story with predictable scares and copious amounts of gore. This film is more subtle and sinister, not only delivering scares through a monster, but also through some skillfully developed psychological terrors. The scariest thing about the film is that it is not afraid to mix the beauty with the beast, which leaves you completely unprepared for when it changes from one to the other without a moment’s notice.


The Last 5 Years is one of those musicals where almost every sentence of dialogue is turned into a song. If you’re about to roll your eyes, then you’ve completely underestimated this musical adaptation like I did. It delivers a love story, told out of chronological order, that shows us the rise and fall of a relationship. Warm tones are used to let us know those are the good times, while cooler/darker tones herald the relationship’s end. What makes this musical enchanting is not the witty song lyrics made to appeal to this generation’s young adults, or the (500) Days of Summer-like approach to the film, but the chemistry between Tony and Grammy-nominated Broadway performer Jeremy Jordan and the immensely talented Anna Kendrick. Kendrick reaches new heights, both as an actress and a singer, that you didn’t even know she was capable of. It’ll make her role in Pitch Perfect look like nothing but well-performed karaoke.

I wish I could write down every single film I saw at the festival, but these few were standouts in their genres. Keep an eye out for these films, because any amount of trouble you have finding them will be worth it in the end. You also have a chance to see a few of these films, and others, as this year’s 50th Chicago International Film Festival wraps up in the next few days.


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