This Thursday marks the start of the 49th annual Chicago International Film Festival, a two-week affair that runs from October 10 to the 24th, featuring a mix of work by Hollywood hotshots and emerging filmmakers alike.

This year's lineup boasts over 180 films from 60 countries, ranging from animated shorts to four-hour documentaries to Hollywood blockbusters starring John Goodman, Brad Pitt, and Daniel Radcliffe. Since the elder statesman of film fests can be a bit overwhelming, Chicago asked CIFF Programming Director Mimi Plauche to share her top five picks. Here's what to see:

The Immigrant (USA)

James Gray's latest star-studded drama (Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner, Joaquin Phoenix) will screen only once during Thursday's Opening Night Gala. Tickets will run you anywhere from $25 (balcony seat, film only) to $150 (main floor and entrance to the cocktail reception), but Plauche promises the flick is worth the coin: "It's the tale of a Polish immigrant who comes to New York with her sister dreaming of a better life; they get taken in by a pimp—Joaquin Phoenix—and get caught up in the underbelly of New York society in the twenties."
Thursday, October 10 at 6 p.m. The Chicago Theatre (Reception at Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center).

The Priest's Children (Croatia, Serbia)

"We're doing a comedy focus this year," says Plauche of the Croatian-Serbian co-production The Priest's Children—one of nearly thirty comedies she and festival curators chose this year. "We are drama heavy, and we wanted to highlight the lighter side of things by looking at comedy around the world, especially because Chicago's such a great city for comedy." The Priest's Children follows Father Fabijan who, in response to the dwindling population of his island, partners with a local pharmacist to take birth control into his own hands. The result is in an uptick in pregnancies, shotgun weddings, and foreign tourism. 

Wednesday, October 16 at 8:15 p.m., Thursday, October 17 at 5:45 p.m. AMC River East 21.


Something Necessary (Kenya, Germany)

This Kenyan-German co-production—part of this year's new "Spotlight Africa" series—places Joseph, a mid-level pawn in Kenya's criminal undeground, face-to-face with Anne, a young farmer widowed by the statewide violence. "The film examines the violent episodes that erupted after the national elections in 2007," says Plauche. "It really looks at the aftermath of violence, both on the perpetrators as well as the victims. With the recent tragedy at the [Westgate] mall, I think a lot of the issues the film examines are still pertinent." 


Sunday, October 20 at 8:45 p.m., Monday, October 21 at 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 23 at 12:30 p.m. AMC River East 21.


American Vagabond (Finland, Denmark, USA)

Finnish documentarist Susanna Helke follows James and Tyler, two estranged gay teens, as they travel to San Fransisco in hope of assimilating into America's most celebrated gay community. There, with little to their names and dismal prospects for employment, they join the Bay Area's sizable population of homeless, queer youth. 

Friday, October 11 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 13 at 2:15 p.m. AMC River East 21.

The Sacrament (USA)


This late addition to the festival's "After Dark" series ("for the thrill-seekers and gore-lovers," says Plauche) uses the "found footage" M.O. to follow three reporters into a Jonestownsian Christian commune, Eden Parish. Directed by cult-fav  Ti West and starring Chicago's own Joe Swanberg (of Drinking Buddies fame) this seasonal chiller should sate your appetite for Halloween-time horror.


Saturday, October 19, 10 p.m. AMC River East 21.

The Chicago International Film Festival runs October 10 to 24 at the AMC River East 21 multiplex (unless otherwise noted). Individual tickets run from $5 (matinees) to $20 (special presentations, non-members). A complete list of titles and showtimes can be found here.