Today celebrates the opening of the 51st Chicago International Film Festival.  Festivities kick off in grand style on the red carpet tonight at the Auditorium Theatre downtown.  The Opening Night film is “Mia Madre,” an Italian drama directed by Nanni Moretti and starring Magherita Buy and John Turturro.  Red carpet arrivals begin at 5:30pm and the feature begins at 6:30pm.  “Mia Madre” is the first of more than 150 films, documentaries, and shorts, several making their world, North American, or U.S. premieres, from over 40 countries that will descend upon the main festival venue, the AMC River East 21 theater location. 

Annually, the Chicago International Film Festival houses some of the first opportunities to Oscar contenders and world-class films.  With so many choices, what are the high-profile or can’t-miss films appearing at the year’s festival?  Here are this website’s picks for the top 10 must-see films of the 51st Chicago International Film Festival.

1.  “Spotlight—Todd McCarthy’s journalism drama chronicling the Boston Globe’s 2001 story and investigation on the long-standing cover-up of child abuse within the Catholic Church has slowly ascended to become a sure-fire Oscar contender even before its November release.  Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, and Stanley Tucci, “Spotlight” was recently added as the Closing Night film of the festival.  This website has been lucky enough to see it early and it stands as the #1 film to beat so far for 2015 (full review coming in November).  Move mountains to see this film.  (Screening: Oct. 29- 7:00pm) (trailer)

2.  “Carol— The next highest ranking Oscar contender is Todd Haynes’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation “Carol” starring two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two women engaging in a frowned up love affair in 1950’s New York.  “Carol” competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May where Rooney Mara tied for the Best Actress award.  (Screening: Oct. 28- 7:30pm) (trailer)

3.  “Macbeth—In a big and bold new take on Shakespeare’s famous Scottish-set tale of royal ambition and revenge, Michael Fassbender and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard headline this feature from director Justin Kurzel.  Like “Carol,” “Macbeth” also competed for the Palme d’Or top prize of the Cannes Film Festival.  The film doesn’t debut in North American until December.  See it here in Chicago first.  (Screening: Oct. 25- 4:45pm) (trailer)

4.  “Brooklyn— This Nick Hornby-penned historical drama on a young Irish woman’s immigrant journey of love in 1950’s Brooklyn is turning award watchers heads.  “Brooklyn” stars Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, and Julie Walters and premiered back at the Sundance Film Festival.  (Screening: Oct. 20- 6:00pm) (trailer)

5.  “The 33—Based on the true story of the famous 2010 Copiapo mining accident, Antonio Banderas leads an ensemble that includes Juliette Binoche, Josh Brolin, Gabriel Byrne, and Lou Diamond Phillips in this survival drama.  The film has been well-received in Latin American, but doesn’t debut official in America until December.  (Screening: Oct. 24- 6:00pm) (trailer)

6.  “I Smile Back—Comedienne Sarah Silverman plays it straight in this hard-edged drama about the fractured inner emotions of depression and compulsion that boil under the service of a seemingly-normal suburban mother.  Josh Charles and Thomas Sadowski join Silverman in this Sundance Film Festival favorite and CIFF Special Presentation level event. (Screening: Oct. 16-6:00pm ) (trailer)

7.  “45 Years—Veteran actos Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling won the Best Actor and Best Actress awards at both the Berlin and Edinburgh International Film Festivals for their married roles in this drama about a secret that threatens to shatter a long-lasting marriage celebrating their 45th anniversary.  (Screenings: Oct. 17-3:30pm and Oct. 20- 6:15pm ) (trailer)

8.  “What to Invade Next—Recently tabbed as the Festival Centerpiece film of the 51st festival is the latest shock-value documentary from Oscar-winning button-pusher Michael Moore.  This documentary recently garnered a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival and focused on the social and economic flaws of the United States and seen by other countries abroad.  (Screening: Oct. 23- 7:00pm) (trailer)

9.  “Youth—Oscar winner Michael Caine and Oscar nominee Harvey Keitel play two reunited childhood friends sharing a holiday together in the Alps reflecting on life and mortality.  Oscar winners Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz and Oscar nominee Paul Dano co-star in this travelogue drama from Italian director Paolo Sorrento (“The Great Beauty”).  Like so many others on this list, “Youth” competed for the Palme d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. (Screenings: Oct. 24- 8:15pm and Oct. 25- 2:00pm) (trailer)

10.  “James White—Lastly and representing a “diamond in the rough” compared to the bigger headliners is this Sundance “What’s Next” award winner from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” director Josh Mond.  “James White” is an off-kilter coming-of-age drama of a young NY man trying to sort out his inner reckless demons and self-destructive behavior.  Christopher Abbot and Cynthia Nixon play the leads.  (Screenings: Oct. 16- 9:45pm and Oct. 17- 7:15pm) (trailer)

For many of the films mentioned above, several actors and filmmakers will be in attendance for Q&A sessions after each film. 

Sharing a few extra links and titles, here are other notable films just outside of the Top 10 to keep an eye on: The debut feature “Embers” (full review), “I Am Michael” starring James Franco, Zachary Quinto, and Emma Roberts, Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” “A Perfect Day” staring Tim Robbins and Benicio del Toro, the filmmaker’s documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” the Argentinian caper film “How to Win Enemies” (full review coming soon), “Dheepan,” the Guillermo del Toro-produced “The Thin Yellow Line,” “The Middle Distance” from local director Patrick Underwood, “Chronic” starring Tim Roth, and the Asian martial arts film “The Assassin.”

The 51st Chicago International Film Festival spans from October 15-29.  The full schedule and slate of all of the CIFF’s film screenings, panels, and events is available online or as a downloadable program booklet.  Tickets are available for any and all of these films through the AMC River East box office, Ticketmaster online, or over the festival’s hotline phone at 312-322-FILM.  Popular films sell out quickly, so earmark your itinerary quickly.  Keep following my website for more coverage