Movies » Movie Feature

A half century of CIFF milestones, from Scorsese's debut to Lee Daniels's achievement award

We dug through the Chicago International Film Festival's archives, talked to people who were around back in the day, and assembled a time line covering the fest's 50 years.

by and


Read our reviews of films screening during the first and second weeks of CIFF.

Read our reviews of 15 revival films screening at CIFF.

We try to avoid anniversary stories around here, because really, who the hell cares? Forty years since the Beatles did this, 50 years since Elvis did that—in popular culture, an anniversary is usually just a marketing hook, a new banner to slap across an old book, record, or movie. The Chicago International Film Festival has been celebrating its 50th anniversary since the beginning of the year, with retrospective screenings at the Cultural Center and on WTTW, and now the real thing has finally arrived, with even more blasts from the past: if you count the two director's cuts being presented by Oliver Stone, a full sixth of the features screening this year are revivals.

But half a century is nothing to laugh at. So this year, in addition to the usual reviews of CIFF's offerings, we decided to dig through the festival's archives, talk to people who were around back in the day, and try to assemble a time line that might give a clearer picture of what those 50 years were all about. Not surprisingly, the fest's fortunes seem to run more or less parallel with those of American film culture: underground ferment in the 60s, explosive gains in the 70s, mainstream assimilation in the 80s, self-examination and recommitment in the 90s, and a growing identity crisis as viewing options proliferate in the new century. Given the acceleration of global culture in the digital age, you can't blame the festival for looking backward; it's a lot more reassuring than looking forward. J.R. Jones

Chicago International Film Festival director Michael Kutza in 1965. - SUN-TIMES MEDIA ARCHIVE
  • Sun-Times Media Archive
  • Chicago International Film Festival director Michael Kutza in 1965.


CIFF debuts, one of only three international film festivals in the U.S. There are only eight feature films in this year's lineup, which also has categories for experimental, industrial, educational, religious, and animated films; narrative and documentary shorts; and even TV commercials. CIFF is the first U.S. fest to offer awards, the competition designed to "foster higher standards of filmmaking by [honoring] outstanding work."


Martin Scorsese's debut feature, I Call First, makes its world premiere at the festival. Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and starring Harvey Keitel in his first screen performance, the movie wins a glowing review from Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times ("a new classic . . . a great moment for American movies") and will be released commercially as Who's That Knocking at My Door. Ebert will introduce the film when it screens again as part of the "Critic's Choice" series in 2004.


An impressive lineup of experimental films includes two premieres by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Two Virgins and No. 5), Dušan Makavejev's freewheeling fiction-documentary hybrid Innocence Unprotected (which wins the Gold Hugo for best film), and Jan Němec's surrealist narrative Martyrs of Love in its U.S. premiere. The Playboy Organization gets a special, and rather cryptic, thank you in the program for its "understanding and assistance at a time when it was particularly needed."


Festival director Michael Kutza notes the social upheaval of the era in his statement for the festival program. "The whole medium has come alive," Kutza writes, "reflecting a new awareness, honesty, simplicity, and integrity of a new generation." Ironically this year brings greater involvement of establishment figures: Leo Burnett, a prominent sponsor since the festival's inception, contributes a full-page essay about the state of the TV commercial, and Mayor Richard J. Daley endorses the event for the first time.


Richard B. Ogilvie, the Republican governor of Illinois, contributes an essay to the program, declaring, "Too often, the avant-garde image of the filmmaker has been interpreted as antithetical to the mid-American ethic. But that view disregards an essential element of that ethic: its firm foundation in the concept of individual freedom. Film is free, as America is free. It is the one modern medium that exists without the government interference which midwesterners historically resent." State financing for CIFF increases.


The feature film lineup expands from 16 to 30 titles, with many works by major (or soon-to-be major) auteurs: Nagisa Oshima's The Ceremony, Satyajit Ray's The Adversary, Peter Watkins's Punishment Park, and František Vláčil's Marketa Laszarová. Keeping one foot firmly in the advertising world, the festival also features a 60-second film competition sponsored by the Ford Motor Company on the subject of "Freedom Is . . . " The winner will be used as a car commercial.


The festival presents the U.S. premiere of Bleak Moments, the debut feature by English writer-director Mike Leigh. For the next two decades Leigh will work primarily in television, but in 1993 CIFF will present the U.S. premiere of Naked, and Leigh's films will screen again at the fest in 1996 (Secrets and Lies), 2002 (All or Nothing), and 2008 (Happy-Go-Lucky).


Since the festival began, programs have taken place in more than two dozen venues scattered all over the city, but this year there are almost no screenings downtown; most of them are held on the U. of C. campus and at Oak Park's Lamar Theater. Satyajit Ray attends the festival for the second time in three years, introducing multiple screenings in an eight-film retrospective of his work.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In a coup the festival will be trumpeting for the next 40 years, it presents the world premiere of Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which will go on to win Academy Awards for best picture, director, screenplay, actor, and actress. But there are other notable world premieres as well, for Werner Herzog's Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Maurice Pialat's The Mouth Agape, Andrzej Wajda's Land of Promise, and King Hu's The Valiant Ones.


One of the first U.S. institutions to champion Krysztof Zanussi, CIFF presents all of his films to date; the Polish director makes his third visit to the festival, introducing films and serving as president of the feature-film jury. This years's other honorees are Mel Brooks (presenting his Hitchcock parody High Anxiety), Ann Miller, costume designer Edith Head, and British critic and director Lindsay Anderson.


The poster boy for this year's festival is Orson Welles, though photographer Victor Skrebneski has the good sense not to present him stripped to the waist. Welles cancels at the last minute, blowing off the U.S. premiere of his new documentary Filming "Othello," plus a retrospective of his work at Northwestern's Norris Center. This year's festival includes work by such warhorses as Billy Wilder (Fedora) and Jules Dassin (A Dream of Passion) but also the up-and-coming John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13 and, in its world premiere, Halloween).


Ingmar Bergman presents Faro-dokument 1979, his TV documentary about his hometown, and William Friedkin is honored with a three-day tribute. Gloria Swanson, Neil Simon, and producer John Houseman are among the other honorees at the 16th festival, notable for the U.S. premieres of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Camera Buff, Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray's Lightning Over Water, and Menahem Golan's cult-film-to-be The Apple.


CIFF hosts a complete retrospective of films by François Truffaut, who attends with his girlfriend, actress Fanny Ardant; seven of them screen on opening night in a 12-hour marathon at the Village Theatre, concluding with a continental breakfast in the lobby. The series continues throughout the fest on the IIT campus, with multiple screenings introduced by the French director.

"Hot for Teacher" by Van Halen
  • "Hot for Teacher" by Van Halen


The festival adds a music video category; included in the competition are "Some Guys Have All the Luck" by Rod Stewart, "Hot for Teacher" by Van Halen, and "I Want a New Drug" by Huey Lewis and the News. The category is discontinued after a few years. Special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull attends an all-night marathon of his major films, among them 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner.


The "British Renaissance" sidebar features new work by Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers), Ken Russell (The Lair of the White Worm), and John Akomfrah (Testament). "World Cinema Today" offers films by Jean Rouch and Raul Ruiz (Icebreaker), André Téchiné (The Innocents), Béla Tarr (Damnation), Krzysztof Zanussi (Wherever You Are), Jean-Luc Godard (Keep Your Right Up), and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Daughter of the Nile). But the year's most notable documentary is Golub, a portrait of artist Leon Golub by Chicago's own Kartemquin Films.


The festival presents a sidebar of 3-D movies from the 50s as a tribute to the recently departed Arch Oboler, a Chicago native known primarily as a radio writer but also as director of the trend-setting 3-D sensation Bwana Devil (1952). Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up screens in the feature film competition, several years before new Iranian cinema makes its mark on U.S. movie culture. The fest expands its late-night programming with a series of outre genre films, establishing a tradition that continues to this day.


Several ambitious sidebar presentations mark the festival's 30th anniversary: a ten-film Luchino Visconti retrospective; shorter retrospectives devoted to Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Michael Haneke; and a program of "critic's choices" (in which Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum introduces the Chicago premiere of Béla Tarr's Satantango). Graphic designer Saul Bass, who created the highly influential opening-credit sequences for films by Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Martin Scorsese, and many others—designs the festival poster and lectures about his work at the Music Box.


Following a tumultuous year, more than a dozen board members resign, as does executive director Elizabeth C. Morris, and several longtime sponsors withdraw their support. "We had to slim down and focus on the films," recalls former staff member Jim Healy, now director of programming for the Wisconsin Film Festival, "but the festival soon started growing again."


  • Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
  • Spike Lee

Honoring Spike Lee, CIFF presents a complete retrospective of his dramatic features, and Coretta Scott King takes part in a panel discussion following a screening of 4 Little Girls, Lee's documentary about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. For the first time the festival partners with FIPRESCI (the International Federation of Film Critics), assembling a jury of critics from France, Germany, Argentina, and Canada to judge a sidebar of films by first- and second-time directors.


Robert Altman, a frequent guest of the festival in the 1980s, presents his new film Dr. T and the Women as part of the opening-night program. Emcee Bill Kurtis secures his reputation as the festival's Harry Caray by introducing the film as "Mr. T and the Women," leading many attendees to crack that they wished the festival had programmed that movie.


This year's lifetime achievement award goes to Robert Benton, who broke into movies with his screenplay for the epochal Bonnie and Clyde (1967), wrote and directed the Oscar juggernaut Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), collected another Oscar for Places in the Heart (1984), and directed Paul Newman in his last great film, Nobody's Fool (1994). The opening-night program includes the U.S. premiere of his Philip Roth adaptation The Human Stain, and there are career achievement awards for Nicolas Cage and Robert Downey Jr.


Since the early 1990s, CIFF has presented a new film by Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira nearly every year. This year the 96-year-old filmmaker returns the favor by making his first visit to the States in decades to introduce the U.S. premiere of Magic Mirror at Landmark's Century Centre. The festival also presents Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, almost two years before the Romanian New Wave comes to international prominence.


The "New Directors" competition includes the U.S. premiere of Shotgun Stories, written and directed by Arkansas writer-director Jeff Nichols and starring local hero Michael Shannon. Nichols will win a reputation as one of the country's most promising young filmmakers with his subsequent Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012); among his competitors is Mia Hansen-Love, whose All Is Forgiven will be followed by the highly regarded The Father of My Children (2009) and Goodbye, First Love (2011).

  • Precious


The long-running "Black Perspectives" sidebar takes special prominence as Lee Daniels's breakout film, Precious, screens as the festival centerpiece. Attending that night are Daniels, who accepts an Artistic Achievement award, and star Gabourey Sidibe, who accepts a Breakthrough Performance award.


The year's lineup includes U.S. premieres of Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley and Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain, but after four decades the festival now faces fierce competition from around the country. Many of the most anticipated features have already screened at fests domestically, including James Gray's The Immigrant (New York), Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis (New York), Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color (Telluride), Alexander Payne's Nebraska (Mill Valley, New York, Hamptons), and Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Like Father, Like Son (Aspen, New York, Mill Valley, Hamptons, Hawaii).

Add a comment