Why Chicago International Film Festival is worth travelling for in 2020

In its 55th year of competition, the Chicago International Film Festival – the longest-running of its kind in the USA – once again acted as a beacon for cinephiles the world over, showcasing meaningful works across various genres and countries.

Film festivals have long been considered some of the greatest and most impactful destination events each year for travellers, so to say this 2019 outing was exciting for this first-time attendee is an understatement. Getting to soak up one of the world’s greatest cities while also ducking in and out of screenings packed with vehement film lovers from all over the world? I was ecstatic.

Highlights? There were plenty. The Irishman, Knives Out, Jojo Rabbit, The Painted Bird, and Just Mercy were the ones I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, while spots of disappointment were found with Motherless Brooklyn and 8: A South African Horror Story. Although, as with all film festivals, the atmosphere is always memorable.

There really is nothing like watching a highly anticipated movie in a sold-out cinema of enthusiastic viewers, being part of an audience that adds those collective cheers and jeers to make the whole experience hit that much harder. Film festivals are valuable not only because you get a jump on the rest of the film-watching world, sometimes even viewing pieces that won’t be released until a year later, but because they are playful reminders of how stories bring us together.

I already published five film festivals worth travelling for this year, but I wanted to focus on my experience at CIFF and take you through some reasons why I think it’s valuable, and why it has endeared for more than five decades.

It’s All in One Spot

AMC River East 21 hosts all screenings with very few exceptions.

Many other well-established film festivals often take place in multiple locations across the city. Sydney Film Festival, for example, has several historic venues all hosting screenings, which often means you’re running around to catch back-to-back sessions (and get good seats). None of that is an issue at low-key CIFF, given that it all takes place in just one location: AMC River East 21.

The large cinema complex (which also hosts a classic gaming arcade) isn’t even a 10 minute walk from the iconic Magnificent Mile (if you’re looking for a convenient hotel I suggest InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile), and holds numerous cinemas which the festival uses throughout the day.

Rarely do screenings happen off-site, although there are other activities such as masterclasses and workshops that take place in iconic venues like the Chicago Cultural Center. For 2019, this included a production design masterclass with Hannah Beachler, the first African American to win the production design Oscar for Black Panther.

CIFF also extends its reach with a year-round presence, solidifying it as an institution that promotes, engages and inspires Chicago’s film industry. This is best seen from late May to early October, where free public screenings of many different films take place at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theatre.

It’s a Victory Lap for Festival Darlings

Many films, like Moonlight, have screened at CIFF before going on the win Best Picture at the Oscars.

CIFF’s mid-to-late October range is a sweet spot, and a large reason for why remains so distinguished amongst other festivals.

You’re just months out from awards season, so stakes are high for the festival’s audience nods. Then you’ve got the billowing spirit of three of the most iconic film festivals in the world: Sundance (January), Toronto International Film Festival (September), and Cannes Film Festival (May). Historically, the greatest hits and audience favourites of each of these festival are typically funnelled forward to CIFF. This means a lot of these acclaimed films get a second-wind at CIFF, forming somewhat of a victory lap so visitors can catch up before the end of the year.

CIFF has an incredible track record to go along with that. As far as the Oscars go; every single Best Picture winner since 2013 has been screened at CIFF ahead of theatrical release, including 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, The Shape of Water, Green Book, and Moonlight. If The Irishman or Jojo Rabbit win this year, that prescient reputation will remain in-tact.

Competition Means Curation

Acclaimed since Sundance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was included in CIFF’s International Competition.

The majority of the categories that make up CIFF’s program each year are competition-based, which means each are highly curated, works carefully picked based on their winning potential. And competition is fierce, especially in the mainline International Competition which typically includes films that have already been met with high-praise from other festivals. An example of this is the 2019 screenings of Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency and Céline Sciamma Portrait of a Lady on Fire, both awarded top prizes earlier that year at Sundance.

And categories really is how you’d want to play around with the scheduling of CIFF – again made easier with it being concentrated in the one complex. They are handy curated guides to help you make those discoveries that will stick with you, possibly for a lifetime. Categories like “New Directors” and “Cinemas of the Americas” (Latin American cinema) are worth browsing, as are reliable strains like horror and thriller filled “After Dark”, LGBTQ-focused “Out-Look”, and “Black Perspectives”, which contains films connected in any way to African and African American identity.

Although perhaps most valuable is the “City & State” category, which really brings a remarkable sense of place to the festival and celebrates Chicago’s long and fruitful film industry. In 2019, the category was packed with nine feature films and several shorts which have ties to the windy city in some way. This included Rainbow Coalition, tracking the history of civil rights in Chicago, and Closing Night selection The Torch, a documentary on blue titan Buddy Guy, which he himself attended.

You’re in Chicago

Adam Alexander Photography Photo Courtesy of Choose Chicago

The most obvious advantage that CIFF has over other festivals is that, well, it takes place in Chicago. Constantly voted as one of the world’s greatest big cities, the sprawl is defined by its diverse architecture, world-class art institutions, and irrepressible energy. Top that off with neighbourhoods that brim with personality, a superlative dining scene, and a constant program of rich cultural events. It’s impossible to run out of things to do here.

That’s why between screenings you should be getting out to really explore. I’m talking about catching the short train ride to neighbourhoods like Wicker Park and Bucktown, Pilsen and Old Town, Hyde Park and Gold Coast. Even if you’re just around the main areas of River North and West Loop, there’s so much to see, do, eat and explore that you’d be forgiven for running late to the next screening.

There’s too much to get through, but some of the essentials include historic jazz and cocktail bar The Green Mill, hopping between trendy restaurants of W Randolph Street, seeing a concert at House of Blues, checking out the frequent free program at Chicago Cultural Centre, spending hours at the Art Institute of Chicago, queuing up early at Doughnut Vault, and hiding away at after-hours greasy spoon dive Billy Goat Tavern.

Chicago is your oyster during CIFF. Make the most of it.


To give you a bit more of a taste, check out the following films I reviewed at the 2019 event and start preparing for the 56th annual Chicago International Film Festival (14th – 25th October 2020) by visiting chicagofilmfestival.com.

Just Mercy Review – 4/5

The Painted Bird Review – 4/5

JoJo Rabbit Review – 3/5

Knives Out Review – 4.5/5


The writer was a guest of ChooseChicago and the Chicago International Film Festival. All opinions are that of the writer’s.

Feature image courtesy of Choose Chicago.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy-Editor-At-Large of the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.

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