The 7th annual Chicago Critics Film Festival kicks off tonight at the Music Box Theatre in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago and runs a full week through Thursday, May 23. Many hits and talked-about films from the major festival circuit will be making their Windy City premieres during the seven-day event, with plenty of guests to discuss the showcase of their filmmaking efforts.
Chicago Film Critics Association Events Director Erik Childress has spearheaded this idea from the start--the first known film festival selected, programmed and hosted by a critics organization.
Planning it hasn't changed from year to year, according to Childress. Some of the CFCA board members attend the major fests in Toronto, Sundance, SXSW, among others, and see what hot flicks they feel could be perfect for the CCFF. Sometimes, liked movies aren't always available come May. But things don't kick into gear for programmers until January 1 hits.
"There are always particular ideas that we begin thinking about earlier but it is difficult to put them fully in motion until we get into the new year," Childress said. "Our goals are primarily the same every year to have the best collection of new movies you can find in a week anywhere."
That is not to say new surprises arose this year. Studios like Warner Bros., Universal and even Amazon have been crafting events around the CCFF.
"We are thrilled to be working with them on these films we want to highlight," Childress said.
Diversity in tone, style, subject and genre continues this year, ranging from a revenge film to a documentary about debilitating illnesses. Childress says it's all about substance and craftsmanship, first and foremost.
"Quality is where it all begins, " he said. "We think about films that will provoke discussion, some of that introduced by the primary contributors both in front and behind the camera. Obviously we’re thrilled when we can have the best of it all and encourage diversity."
The past few years have seen the CFCA use the fest to highlight a past film of classic stature or they view has significant merit. This year is definitely a combination of the two. This year is the 40th anniversary of Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror masterpiece "Alien," shown in 35mm and with start Tom Skerritt in attendance.
Given it's triumph of it's female lead--Sigourney Weaver's Ripley--the timing felt appropriate for today's culture of change towards diversity.
"Of all the potential anniversaries this one just seemed to make sense for so many reasons," Childress said. "It was such a groundbreaking film not just for its technical merits and the surprises it had in store for us, but also in terms of literally flipping the script in favor of women. Ripley is one of the original action heroines.
"A survivor. Iconic to generations of girls and boys who weren’t too busy closing their eyes."
As Childress mentioned, though--it starts with quality, and "Alien" certainly is of a high level of it.
"Clearly it is a masterpiece of its genre that influenced not only decades of cinema but certainly had its own effect on many of us at a young age – sometimes too young – on our everlasting admiration for what movies can achieve," he said.
The presentation of "Alien" on film isn't a forced history lesson for those used to the digital age. In a time where notable filmmakers like Steven Spielberg are questioning studios like Netflix and if streaming movies exclusively on TVs and mobile devices are films, Childress--ironically, a self-professed Spielberg aficionado--makes a sly reference as to why it doesn't matter if its a film projected on actual film or digitally.
"True cinephiles appreciate a good print the way Indiana Jones appreciates a good relic," he said. "Which is not to say that film prints belong exclusively in a museum."
He notes new technology is great for film, especially taking old films and restoring them for future generations to enjoy, appreciate and learn from--even if it is on a digital platform.
"We can embrace what got us here and keeping them in the public consciousness," he added.
In the end, Childress is like the CCFF attendees--he's a fan of film. Given his busy travel schedule to some of these film festivals, he is human and admits he's not seen everything the critics are showing at the Music Box.
Some ones he highlights are "The Farewell" ("strikes a real emotional chord... [the audience] will leave the film with a giant smile on their face"); "Light from Light" ("We're closing with another ghost story, co-produced by David Lowry no less [director of 2017 CCFF entry "A Ghost Story"]); "Brittany Runs a Marathon" ("The biggest surprise I had at Sundance this year"); "The Nightingale" ("one helluva revenge tale"); and "The Perfection" ("beautifully twisted and unsettling as they come").
But picking a favorite is "is still a bit like picking out your favorite child," Childress said.
"There is so much I’m looking forward to this year personally, but particularly peeking in on audiences and seeing their reaction to some of these films I like so much."