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10th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival Recap

Courtesy of the Music Box Theatre.

The Chicago Critics Film Festival returned to the Music Box Theatre for its 10th year with a stacked lineup. From projects like highly anticipated awards movies to small indie projects to a 40th-anniversary screening of The Right Stuff, this is arguably the strongest selection of movies the festival has had. Here’s what stood out at the festival and what movies to keep an eye on once award season is underway.


The employees of Research in Motion goofily pose for a photo
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release

The festival started off with a bang with Matt Johnson’s funny and compelling BlackBerry. Continuing with this odd trend of making movies about brands and companies, this is the story of the men who changed the world by creating the world’s first smartphone, the BlackBerry, in 1996 and their eventual fall in 2007 with the emergence of Apple and the iPhone. Many of you may think, “Another one of these brand movies,” which is entirely fair. If Johnson wanted to, he could’ve made BlackBerry just like Tetris or shows like Super Pumped and WeCrashed, a paint-by-the-numbers rise and fall biopic. But, Johnson—who stars in the movie and serves as one of the writers—directs the movie more like a mockumentary comedy, therefore having more similarity with projects like The Big Short and The Office. And that’s why BlackBerry entertains from the moment it starts, never losing the audience’s interest.

At a Q&A following the movie, Johnson said he didn’t know much about BlackBerry and the technicalities of it all. He didn’t see the three characters as tech guys but as three aspiring filmmakers, allowing him to connect with them. This works in the movie’s favor as it never gets bogged down into the complicated parts—the tech, financials, marketing, etc.—but rather on the human aspect of it, specifically the hubris of it all. Johnson is known for his mockumentary web series Nirvana the Band the Show and, even without seeing the series, one can tell there’s a ton of influence from it in BlackBerry. The packed crowd at the Music Box Theatre was in splits multiple times throughout the movie and credit must be given to Johnson and his co-writer Matthew Miller for a witty script with many hilarious lines. 

While Johnson’s work behind the camera (and amusing performance as Doug) is excellent, this movie belongs to Glenn Howerton, who gives one heck of a performance as Jim Balsillie. It’s an over-the-top performance by design and Howerton is up to the task. His comic timing is perfect (as expected from an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia cast member) as are the scenes where he yells at the top of his lungs—of which there are many. 

He is oddly absent for most of the third act of the movie which, unsurprisingly, is where the movie loses its steam. Jay Baruchel’s Mike Lazaridis takes over this part of the movie to mixed results. It’s hard to match up to Howerton’s energy but the Baruchel performance is too timid. A stronger performance for this character would definitely make BlackBerry a better movie. 

In the end, BlackBerry isn’t perfect and is not in the S-tier of elite brand movies like Steve Jobs, but it’s absolutely in that next tier. Kudos to Johnson for leaning into his comedy roots and making this movie as funny as it is. BlackBerry was a great way to start the festival and will have me first in line for the next thing Johnson directs. 


A close up of Margaret Qualley grinning slyly in Sanctuary.
Photo: courtesy Chicago Critics Film Festival.

While BlackBerry is a movie you can show to your parents or grandparents, I would not recommend doing that for Zachary Wigon’s psychosexual dark comedy Sanctuary. This movie’s logline: “The heir to a hotel empire and the dominatrix who has primed him for success battle it out in a hotel room as he tries to end their relationship.” The word “battle” is fascinating because it can mean a battle of multiple things—physical, mental, sexual, etc. Which battle does Sanctuary feature? The answer is all of the above. And it’s so much fun.

A two-hander that takes place mostly in a lavish hotel room, Sanctuary is twisty and perverse that entertains the audience for what it is on its surface: a rich guy and dominatrix playing mind tricks on each other. But there’s something deeper than that at play. Identity, status, and intimacy affect both of these characters and they learn that their relationship has consequences. As Hal (Christopher Abbott) is poised to take over his father’s lucrative hotel business, we can initially understand why he would want to stop seeing Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). We don’t think what effect this has on her, however. Of course, both of them establish their relationship as transactional but is that enough to stop them from forming something more emotionally compelling than that? And who’s to say Hal will be able to succeed as the head of this company without his dominatrix, someone whom he has credited with his increased confidence? 

All this is tackled in Sanctuary through a razor-sharp and dialogue-heavy script. I appreciated Wigon and writer Micah Bloomberg for tackling these topics with a unique perspective. What allows both of them to excel is the fact they have two actors completely on board for this raunchy escapade. Abbott plays the heir with a silver spoon with ease and seeing him absolutely crumble to this woman’s demands is a devilish joy. 

It’s Qualley, though, who turns in yet another undeniable performance and chews up the scenery with great results. She gives Rebecca the necessary human and emotional qualities the audience needs to connect with to understand her side of the story, but Qualley shines when she’s having fun with the character by making her the dominatrix from hell. Both actors deliver two of the better performances this year thus far.

For 90 minutes of its 96-minute runtime, Sanctuary is everything you want it to be and, unfortunately, fumbles the bag in its final minutes. No spoilers here, but the ending is far too vanilla for a movie that wasn’t afraid to get dirty. It doesn’t ruin the movie but leaves (ironically) a bitter taste in the viewer’s mouth. Some people will enjoy it, but I’d love to have seen an ending that matches the tone of the majority of this entertaining and fun two-hander.

Master Gardener

An older white man and a younger mixed race woman converse revealingly in a greenhouse
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

There are fewer joys in life than seeing a Paul Schrader protagonist journal in a lonely, dim room while drinking alcohol. And would you believe it, Master Gardener—the latest Schrader joint and third in his unofficial trilogy of men seeking redemption—starts off with Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) journaling by himself in a room drinking scotch. Schrader knows what people want from his movies and he delivers the goods.

Master Gardener shares many themes with the other movies in this unofficial trilogy (First Reformed and The Card Counter) and proves to be the most divisive of the trio. While it may be the weakest of the bunch, Master Gardener is a solid and, surprisingly, sincere character study and shows Schrader’s still got it. 

Narvel is a horticulturist who manages the beautiful Gracewood Gardens owned by wealthy dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). He is tasked by Mrs. Haverhill to look after her grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) and teach her gardening. Mentoring Maya turns out to be more difficult than Narvel thought as his life is upended and he’s forced to confront his dark past.

While there are many familiar tropes in Master Gardener, I was genuinely shocked at how oddly sweet parts of the movie were, especially the relationship between Narvel and Maya. It’s as if Schrader took the Oscar Isaac-Tiffany Haddish subplot in The Card Counter and made a whole movie on that. Even though the stilted dialogue is rough at times (intentionally and unintentionally comic), both Edgerton and Swindell give good performances. Weaver is certainly giving a performance and I definitely had a good time watching her—whether that’s a good performance or not is very much up for debate.

Speaking of debate, much will be said about the revelations made about Narvel’s past and whether his character is worthy of a redemption arc. In my eyes, Schrader is not explicitly saying whether or not Narvel deserves a second chance but that this is the path he’s on and the result of the decisions he’s made. Nonetheless, there will be people who will be turned off within the first 20 minutes, though it shows Schrader still isn’t afraid to take bold swings.

I hope Schrader doesn’t stop making this type of movie. Master Gardener isn’t without its flaws—the choppy dialogue, awkward pacing in the second half, and some inconsistent performances—but it works more often than it doesn’t. Grab your journals and a glass of scotch and enjoy the latest Schrader thriller!


A woman dances at a club as a man turns to watch.
Photo by Guy Ferrandis / SBS PRODUCTIONS courtesy Chicago Critics Film Festival.

Of the six movies I saw at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, I enjoyed most of them (to different extents). The one movie I didn’t connect with was Ira Sachs’ Passages, starring Franz Rogowski, Ben Wishaw, and Adéle Exarchopoulos. Many people resonated with this movie, and perhaps on a rewatch it’ll grow on me, but for now, this is a movie that I appreciate parts of it more than I truly like it. 

German director Tomas (Rogowski) and Martin (Wishaw) live together in Paris and find their lives upended when Tomas has an affair with Agathe (Exarchopoulos). This causes ripple effects on each of the characters as they explore their sexuality, make each other jealous, and figure out what they want from each other and in life.

On paper, the plot sounds intriguing but I found the film to be too slight. Perhaps I was looking for something more in the vein of Sanctuary with some psychological elements added in but ends up being thematically closer to the fantastic The Worst Person in the World. But, where The Worst Person in the World succeeds and Passages fails, is in its characterization of its protagonist. 

Simply put, Tomas is too much of an unlikable character. And, I understand that’s the point of the movie, but he makes every wrong decision possible one can imagine. I couldn’t relate to him the way I was able to relate to Julie from the aforementioned The Worst Person in the World. Julie also makes some bad choices but that screenplay shows us so much of her life and a glimpse into her psyche. We don’t get any of that in Passages

All three actors are good, specifically Rogowski, but I wasn’t blown away by anyone. The technical elements of the movie were probably the best part, especially the cinematography which was exceptional. Passages is a movie that I really wanted to like and it fell short of the mark.

Past Lives

A man and woman smile at each other on a ferry.
Photo by Jon Pack courtesy of Chicago Critics Film Festival.

Folks, we did it. Without any hesitation, Past Lives is the movie of the year so far. Easily the best-received movie out of Sundance and perhaps the most acclaimed movie of the year, Past Lives lives up to its lofty expectations and more. An outstanding debut from writer-director Celine Song, this movie echoes back to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and is a romantic epic about regret, love, and destiny. I was bowled over by every aspect of this movie, from the writing to the direction to the performances and every single technical aspect. I can’t say for sure if Past Lives will keep the crown at the end of the year, but even if it doesn’t, it won’t be far from the top.

Nora (Greta Lee), a playwright in New York, reconnects with her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) after 24 years, seeing him for the first time in person since she moved from Korea. The two of them evaluate their lives and their relationship and reflect on what could have been had things been different. 

I had an idea of what this movie would be like but my expectations were subverted at every turn, starting from the opening minutes of the film. This isn’t a “will she choose guy 1 or guy 2” movie, it’s much more grounded than that. It’s about these two characters growing up and learning how to say goodbye. Both Lee and Yoo are transcendent in their roles, giving such layered performances without being over the top. John Magaro is also in top form in a complicated role. 

I will say more about Past Lives in a long and detailed review closer to its June 2 release date but don’t miss this one. It was the best movie of the festival and no movie released yet comes close to it.

Theater Camp

a man and woman confer at the director's table of a small theatrical production.
Photo: courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

The festival ended with Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp, a hilarious mockumentary about a bunch of eccentric adults trying to run a theater camp for young kids. Of the six movies I saw, no movie got more of a raucous reaction than this one. With a joke-a-minute script and impeccably written characters, the audience at this closing night film was laughing throughout its 94-minute runtime. 

Inspired by classic mockumentaries like “Best in Show” and “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” Theater Camp is a worthy addition to this genre and one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in the past few years. While the narrative doesn’t have enough dramatic heft to keep it afloat when the movie wants to be serious, there will be a funny one-liner or sequence that brings the energy back. 

While there are many characters, the ones that stood out are the ones played by Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Ayo Edibiri, and Jimmy Tatro. Gordon easily stole the movie for me. Everything she was doing had me crying-laughing and I could easily watch a spinoff of her character. After playing Evan Hansen in the Dear Evan Hansen movie—one of the worst casting decisions of all time—Platt is cast to a tee as a drama teacher who takes things too seriously. Edibiri gets some good scenes as a “very qualified” stunt teacher (keep an eye out for a staged slap that might have been the hardest I laughed during the movie) and Tatro is fantastic as the “crypto-bro” who has to run the camp in lieu of his mother. 

I hope people will go out to see this movie. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious and features some great performances from rising actors. Gordon is the revelation in front of and behind the camera. She’s the real deal and so is Theater Camp.

Written by Aqib Rasheed

AQIB RASHEED is a staff writer at Film Obsessive. Member of the Chicago Indie Critics and served as the Resident Film Critic for the Loyola Phoenix from 2021-2022. An admirer of movies, old and new, from all over the world. President of the Al Pacino and David Fincher fan clubs.

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