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Music Box Theatre / Photo courtesy of Deirdre Hayes.

The seventh annual Chicago Critics Film Festival took place May 17 to 23 at the historic Music Box Theatre, breaking records with a 40 percent growth in attendance. Why, you ask? Programming and special guests.

The films at the fest were wonderfully varied in topic matter, appealing to all demographics, and the caliber of filmmaking makes them stand out among the hundreds that programmers screened at festivals such as Sundance and SXSW to chose the best of the best.

Special guests included Tom Skerritt, in attendance for the 40th anniversary presentation of “Alien,” as well as Aisling Franciosi, star of the emotionally complex thriller “The Nightingale,” Jim Gaffigan for “Light from Light,” writer-director Lulu Wang for “The Farewell,” and Chicago’s very own Jay Duplass and Kelly Sullivan for their films.

And with these stars, and many more, the audiences packed the theaters creating multiple sold-out venues.

Wang, during her discussion following the screening of “The Farewell” starring Awkwafina, shared her experience of taking a personal story she presented on “This American Life” and then on to Sundance and beyond.

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ABOVE: A packed house inside the Music Box Theatre enjoys a viewing of “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina, during the Chicago Critics Film Festival earlier this month.

LEFT: The Music Box Theatre welcomes visitors to the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which saw a 40-percent growth in attendance thanks to several guest stars and the high caliber of films.

In casting the comedian in the lead role, Wang said, “I knew her because my brother introduced me to her music and to have the girl who did “My Vag,” … are we like on the same page here?”

Her tune quickly changed when she saw Awkwafina’s audition.

“She had so much emotion on her face when she was silent. And those were the moments that I knew she was the right one for the role.”

On the other side of the continuum, Franciosi described her character, Clare, who has been emotionally and physically beaten in indescribable ways and is now seeking revenge.

She discussed with me one of the most harsh yet incredibly real rape scenes on screen since “Light of the Moon.”

“It really isn’t about sex. It’s a weapon and power and dehumanizing someone. There’s a reason that rape and war go hand in hand. It’s a very powerful, dehumanizing and destructive [weapon] that has a long lasting effect. I’m really proud, and I know it’s not easy to watch, but even with the violence in general, our attitude is, it’s abhorrent, so you should absolutely feel that it is something abhorrent.”

The festival is a noncompetitive one, but the audience does get a chance to vote for their favorites.

The opening night film “Saint Frances,” written by Kelly O’Sullivan and directed by Alex Thompson, captured the audiences heart and the award for narrative feature. “Life Overtakes Me” received the Audience Award for documentary feature, and “Squirrel” and “You” received the honors in the short film category.

Erik Childress and Brian Tallerico, the festival producers and programmers said, “This year’s festival exceeded our expectations in every way.” They continued, “We’re grateful to everyone who joined us for a movie, to the sponsors who supported us and to all the filmmakers and studios who shared their work with us.”

If you missed this year’s festival, be sure to mark your calendars for May 2020.

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