"Inside Llewyn Davis" takes place in 1961 in the Greenwich Village acoustic folk scene as it approaches a musical nervous breakdown. The movie opens commercially Dec. 20. But Chicago area fans of the Coen brothers don't have to wait that long. They can try, at least, to see it when the folk-soaked ballad of comic lament closes the 49th Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 24, with star Oscar Isaac in attendance.
The film received a warm reception in its Cannes Film Festival premiere earlier this year. The Coens, who love torturing their protagonists, innocent or otherwise, follow the charismatically sullen Davis as he spends a week or so of his sorry life coping with bitter ex-lovers (Carey Mulligan plays the one we get to know), musical rivals (Justin Timberlake plays a clean-cut rube), and a road trip from New York to Chicago for a big audition at the Gate of Horn. Llewyn Davis exists in a blur of motion, rejection, acrimony, cat hair (he lugs a cat around much of the picture) and occasional grace notes.
Diving into the film festival, as many are about to do — it opens Thursday with James Gray's "The Immigrant," and the evening is dedicated to the late Roger Ebert — a moviegoer may find herself or himself in a similarly blurry state. Along with his programming team and managing director Vivian Teng, artistic director Michael Kutza is presenting 135 features, not including short films and panels over the festival's 15 days (13 of them well-loaded). Kutza's number's two is programming director Mimi Plauche. "It's clear I'm giving her more and more power," he says.
Meantime: What do we have here, right now? We have the customary mixture of foreign and domestic films, more of the former than the latter. Many of the international titles are active this year on the festival circuit; others are making their U.S. premiere here in Chicago.
Here are 10 worth seeing. There are 125 more on which to take a chance. The best way to do this festival is to identify three, four or five intriguing prospects playing sequentially on a given day at the AMC River East 21, the main venue; determine where and when you're going to grab a bite in between screenings; and get in there and get your hair mussed, as George C. Scott said in "Dr. Strangelove."
"Blue Is the Warmest Color," 6:30 p.m. Saturday. This three-hour examination (taken from a graphic novel) of an affair between Emma (Lea Seydoux) and the younger, newly awakened high school student Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. The sex scenes dominate the picture, but Cannes jury president Steven Spielberg was right: It's predominantly and gratifyingly a real love story. In French with English subtitles.
"Borgman," 10 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Oct. 21; 8:15 p.m. Oct. 23. Twisted Dutch fairy tale about a hermit, or an underground terrorist, or somebody, who turns the posh suburban home of Marina and Richard upside down. A Cannes premiere. In Dutch with English subtitles.
"Grigris," 5:30 p.m. Sunday; 3 p.m. Oct. 19. The king of the local dance club, Grigris is forced by circumstance to venture into dangerous black-market territory to get money fast. Another Cannes premiere. In French and Arabic with English subtitles.
"The Immigrant," 7 p.m. Thursday, Chicago Theatre. Director James Gray is scheduled to attend this gala screening; the evening's dedicated to Roger Ebert, and Chaz Ebert will join Gray and others on the red carpet. Also, the film is Gray's most satisfying to date, an ode to melodrama of another day, done with style and surprising restraint. Marion Cotillard stars as a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York City; Joaquin Phoenix plays a Lower East Side theatrical impresario who's either her protector or her pimp, or both.
"Like Father Like Son," 6 p.m. Wednesday7 p.m. Oct. 19. Solidly structured tale of two families caught in a bizarre bind: Years earlier, their respective newborns were mixed up in the same hospital. What to do now? A Cannes premiere. In Japanese with English subtitles.
"Medium Cool," 3:30 p.m. Oct. 19. Haskell Wexler's influential, kinetic 1969 docu-narrative follows a Chicago TV news reporter (Robert Forster, working with co-star Peter Bonerz) in the thick of the '68 Democratic National Convention. And you know how that turned out.
"Needle," part of the "Shorts 1" program, 6 p.m. Tuesday; 1 p.m. Oct. 18; 11:30 a.m. Oct. 20. At Cannes, this 21-minute gem from School of the Art Institute student Anahita Ghazvinizadeh won the prestigious Cinefondation short film competition. It's a terrific, subtle piece about a sixth-grade girl (Florence Winners) getting her ears pierced but also getting an earful of family strife.
"Silent Films: Louder Than Words!", 6:15 p.m. Oct. 17. David Robinson's annual Chicago festival program focuses this year on virtually unknown Czech silent star Anny Ondra, known once upon a time as "Buster Keaton in skirts."
"12 Years a Slave," 7 p.m. Sunday. At the Toronto festival, director Steve McQueen's extraordinary adaptation (with screenwriter John Ridley) of the 1853 Solomon Northup memoir won the audience award. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the free-born Northerner abducted into a nightmare. The film opens its commercial Chicago run Oct. 18.
"Le Week-End," 8:30 p.m. Oct. 17; 5:30 p.m. Oct. 19. Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan are wonderful in this vinegary study of a marriage hitting a chilly autumnal patch. Nick and Meg leave England and head off to Paris, where they've been before — but not like this. Jeff Goldblum co-stars, along with various riffs on Jean-Luc Godard.
Go to chicagofilmfestival.com for more information on the 49th Chicago International Film Festival, or call 312-222-FILM. The festival's home base, the AMC River East 21, is located at 322 E. Illinois St.