Reel Thoughts: Must-see films from the Chicago International Film Festival


Kalina Pierga/The Daily Northwestern

The 58th Chicago International Film Festival premiered at the AMC River East 21 for another year of curated film screenings. Tickets available for in-person screenings and streaming through Oct. 23.

Kalina Pierga, Reporter

It’s the most wonderful time of the year again! In its 58th year, the Chicago International Film Festival is screening 92 feature films and 56 shorts, both virtually and in-person.

Here are my top four must-sees to catch before the festival ends on Oct. 23. Tickets to these films are available on the CIFF website.

Return to Dust, ★★★★★

This film had me screaming, crying, giggling, swinging my feet cartoon-character-style, rewiring my brain, rethinking my life. Absolute gold. 

“Return to Dust” is an unlikely love story set in China’s rural Gansu province. After their arranged marriage, middle-aged social outcasts Ma and Guiying learn to co-navigate poverty, health challenges, familial struggles and their own interpersonal isolation.  

Directed by Li Ruijun, the film is delicately composed, well-paced and cinematographically compelling. It offers an innocent companionship based on true care that is neither overbearing nor too obvious. 

A slow burner with nuanced, thorough character development and gorgeous visuals, “Return to Dust” is my top must-see at CIFF this year. 

“Return to Dust” is available to stream virtually.

Art and Pep, ★★★★ ½  

“Art and Pep” is my top documentary pick of the festival. A Chicago tale, “Art and Pep” dives into the history behind legendary Northalsted bar Sidetrack and its charming owners, Art Johnston and Pepe Peña. 

Director Mercedes Kane takes viewers through Art and Pep’s extraordinary love story, their journey as founders of Sidetrack and their LGBTQ+ activism during the AIDS epidemic and beyond. The film blends archival material, interviews and footage from Chicago’s Northalsted neighborhood. 

Tear-jerking yet uplifting, “Art and Pep” pulls viewers into an untold queer history of Chicago. Kane expertly weaves Sidetrack’s present-day struggles and successes with its legacy. 

Art and Pep is available to stream through Oct. 23.

The Killing of a Journalist, ★★★★ 

Medill students — skip your assignments, watch this instead. 

“The Killing of a Journalist” examines the murder of Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kušnírová. The film unflinchingly confronts the Slovak government’s corruption and demonstrates the power journalists have to change the world. 

Director Matt Sarnecki commands viewers’ attention through the film’s 100-minute runtime. The film is not just another true crime doc: featuring material from police files and behind-the-scenes footage from the murder investigation, “The Killing of a Journalist” guides viewers through the assassinations and their aftermath. 

It’s also guaranteed to satiate appetites for an edge-of-your-seat state corruption exposé. 

“The Killing of a Journalist” saw its U.S. Premiere at CIFF and is available to stream through Oct. 23. 

The Big Payback, ★★★ ½  

Northwestern students should flock to theaters for this one — especially if they want to understand Evanston beyond NU’s campus. 

“The Big Payback” tells the story of Evanston’s Restorative Housing Program. The film follows former Evanston councilmember Robin Rue Simmons as she battles government and community opponents of her proposed reparations program. It also highlights Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who continues to fight for H.R.40, legislation seeking to establish a committee examining national reparations proposals.  

Directors Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow construct a nuanced portrait of Evanston’s reparations movement — and its opposition. The film takes viewers into local government board rooms and beloved local businesses. It touches on several debates surrounding Rue Simmons’s efforts during her campaign for reparations. 

The film’s pacing felt disorganized, jumping jarringly between the Evanston plot and the Washington D.C. plot. However, “The Big Payback” is still a must-see for its storytelling and relevance. It’s common for NU students to remain in our college bubble, unaware of the city that surrounds us. This film is a chance to learn about revolutionary changes that transpired in Evanston. 

AMC River East 21 is screening “The Big Payback” in-person on Oct. 22 and 23 and virtually.

Somewhere over Chemtrails, ★★★ ½ 

For cinephiles craving off-kilter Eastern European dark comedy, look no further. 

Director Adam Koloman Rybanský’s “Somewhere Over the Chemtrails” is a comedy full of xenophobia and conspiracy. When a tragic accident shakes up a small Czech village, Bronya, a local firefighter grieving the death of his wife, vivifies local xenophobia by insisting it is a terrorist attack committed by Arab migrants. Standa, a blundering volunteer firefighter and amateur conspiracy theorist, gets wrapped up in Bronya’s schemes while struggling with his own impotence and weak character.   

The film marries a dark narrative with sharp circumstantial comedy. Its commentary on xenophobia’s ubiquity is painfully relevant, regardless of whether you call a tiny Czech village home. 

The film’s humor is subtle, and you’ll miss it if you blink at the wrong moment. If you’re looking for a laugh-until-your-ribs-hurt film, this is not the one.

“Somewhere Over the Chemtrails” saw its World Premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, and you can find it Oct. 22 and 23 at the AMC River East or virtually.

Email: [email protected]

Related Stories:

10 Second Film Festival features student-produced videos about climate change

57th Chicago International Film Festival debuted multi-venue hybrid format

Northwestern becomes set of coming-of-age, alum-directed feature film ‘Year One’