COLUMN: Must-see films for the 50th Chicago International Film Festival

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival opened this Thursday, October 9th with the Opening Night Gala for Liv Ullmann's "Miss Julie" at The Harris Theater.  After Thursday, over 300 other films and events will take place over the course of the next two-plus weeks at the Chicago International Film Festival.  Most of the action will be centered on film screenings taking place at the AMC River East 21 theater location downtown. 

While the festival doesn't boast anywhere near the amount of red carpet headliners found at Toronto or New York's film festivals, there are still several worthy films coming to Chicago for the first time in advance of their theatrical release and the year-end Oscar and awards season.  This very writer has acquired press credentials through to cover this year's event and here is a list of the must-see films from the festival's schedule.  I will do my best to gobble up as many of these that I have access to.

Tickets for any of the festival's films are available online or over the phone with Ticketmaster.  They are also available for purchase in-person at festival box office within the AMC River East 21 theater at 322 Illinois Street downtown.  The full schedule for the 50th Chicago International Film Festival is available on its website.  (All images that follow are courtesy of Alejandro Riera from the Chicago International Film Festival)

1.  "The Imitation Game"-- This is the big one, folks.  This should be at the top of your list.  In three of the last seven years, the top award winning film from the Toronto Film Festival has gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  This year, "The Imitation Game" was that top film and comes to Chicago for the festival nearly a month before it hits theaters.  Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Goode, and Kiera Knightley the film tells the story of an British WWII codebreaker and his trials with genius and his homosexual lifestyle.  "The Imitation Game" is a Special Presentation film for the Chicago International Film Festival and screens only on Thursday, October 16th at 8:00pm.

2.  "Birdman"-- "Birdman" from the director of "21 Grams" is a Special Presentation screening happening Saturday, October 18th at 7:30pm.  The film stars Michael Keaton as, appropriately, a failed former superhero actor trying to legitimize his career with a soul-bearing stage show that tackles his personal demons.

3.  "St. Vincent"-- Along with "The Last 5 Years," Ted Mefti's "St. Vincent," the new collaboration from Chicago favorites Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy, is the second Festival Centerpiece set to screen on Wednesday, October 15th before its national release into theaters.  Don't be shocked if a certain former Ghostbuster or Bridesmaid makes a surprise screening appearance.   

4.  "The Last 5 Years"-- "The Last 5 Years" is one of two Festival Centerpiece selections.  Directed by Richard LaGravenese, the film is a big screen adaptation of an Off-Broadway musical that started in Chicago back in 2001.  The film stars Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.  I was able to attend an advance press showing of this film and it's a phenomenally breezy musical (and I hate musicals, so that's saying something).  LaGravenese himself will attend this event on Wednesday, October 15th.

5.  "Wild"-- Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon and Jean Marc Vallee, the director of last years's sensational "Dallas Buyer's Club," have teamed to make "Wild," about a woman conquering her individuality through a personal journey.  "Wild" is the Closing Night film of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  That event is set for Thursday, October 23rd, where the film will screen and a cocktail reception will follow.

6.  "The Salvation"-- The country of Denmark is represented by this international homage to the American Western with "The Salvation" starring Mads Mikkelsen ("Casino Royale" and TV's "Hannibal").  Taut and sharply done, this film is part of the World Cinema and Spotlight Scandinavia series of the festival.  The press screening I saw of this was excellent.  This is a legit western from an unexpected source.  It screens on Monday, October 13th and Tuesday, October 14th.

7.  "Rudderless"-- "Rudderless" is the feature directorial debut of renowned actor William H. Macy.  The film is part of the Main Competition of the festival and screens twice (October 11th and 12th).  The film tells the story of a grieving father (Billy Crudup) and a young musician who team up to music in honor of the father's teenage son.

8.  "Low Down"-- Academy Award nominee John Hawkes ("The Sessions") and Elle Fanning ("Maleficent") star in this Sundance Film Festival hit making its debut in Chicago.  The story surrounds a troubled jazz pianist and is told from the point of view of his daughter.  "Low Down" screens on Saturday, October 18th.

9.  "Clouds of Sils Maria"-- Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche, "Twilight" series star Kristen Stewart," and Chloe Grace Moretz star in this "All About Eve" like drama of an actress revisiting a former successful play, but in a new and older role from the one that made her a star.  The film screens twice during the festival on Thursday, October 16th and Saturday, October 18th.

10.  "Beyond the Lights"-- "Beyond the Lights" is a special event for a Black Perspectives Gala on Friday, October 10th at 7:00pm.  The film stars Guga Mbatha-Raw ("Belle" and "Larry Crowne") and Nate Parker ("Red Tails" and "The Great Debaters") and is from the director of "Love and Basketball."  Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and star Nate Parker will both be in attendance that night.

11.  "Dear White People"-- The Sundance Film Festival favorite "Dear White People" opens locally at the Chicago International Film Festival before its national theatrical run.  It enters as part of three exhibitions: World Cinema, Black Perspectives, and Make 'Em Laugh.  The film shows on Monday, October 20th at 6:00pm.

12.  "Force Majeure"-- "Force Majeure" from prominent Swedish director Ruben Ostland is a dark comedy about people dealing with an avalanche disaster.  The film won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  It screens twice during the Chicago International Film Festival on Friday, October 10th and Sunday, October 12th.

13.  "Two Days, One Night"-- Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard ("Inception," "The Dark Knight Rises") stars in this World Cinema entry about a woman who has the title's amount of time to convince her co-workers to vote on keeping her job.  Excellent drama and a raw performance from one of the industry's best actresses.

14.  "Winter Sleep"-- Finally, the winner of the Palme d'Or as the top film of this year's Cannes Film Festival from May is Turkey's "Winter Sleep" and it makes a rare screening appearance in this U.S. at the Chicago International Film Festival.  The daunting 196-minute epic will be shown on Saturday, October 11th and again on Tuesday, October 14th as a World Cinema selection.

15.  "Natural Born Killers"-- As part of the festival's 50th anniversary, several previous festival masterpieces are being shown during this year's event with special guest panels.  Of those, the top choice to see would be a director's cut of the controversial "Natural Born Killers" attended by the film's director, three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone.  That counts as a treat and an opportunity to pick the brain of one of the industry's most storied filmmakers.  This event occurs Sunday, October 12th at 4:00pm.

16.  "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"-- Another 50th anniversary special re-showing is the former Best Picture winner "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the classic starring Jack Nicholson.  A surprise special guest is scheduled to attend this screening.  The event happens on Saturday, October 18th at 4:00pm.