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Food Alert

As the Chicago International Film Festival gets rolling, once again quantity triumphs over quality.

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Last week I made a couple of passing references to the Chicago International Film Festival's lack of clout in acquiring what many of my colleagues and I believe are the most important foreign movies to have appeared this year, including Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's Rosetta, Raul Ruiz's Time Regained, and Claire Denis' Le beau travail. Of course some colleagues--in particular ones who favor strong, easy to follow story lines over form, style, even vision--don't consider these pictures important, but my excitement about them is shared by many people in the mainstream: Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum singled out the Kiarostami and Denis movies as major Toronto events, in print and on Roger Ebert's TV show; Rosetta won the top prize at Cannes; and the New Yorker devoted a small spread to the star-studded Time Regained three months back.

Rosetta and Le beau travail have acquired U.S. distributors. So far The Wind Will Carry Us and Time Regained haven't--yet their producers are every bit as resistant to Chicago festival screenings as the distributor of Rosetta. Why? Because if a distributor or potential distributor is already worried about how many viewers a movie will attract, it won't help to siphon off a few hundred of them at festival screenings. Of course screenings in Toronto are an exception (though for reasons that are still unclear, Ruiz's Proust adaptation wasn't shown there). The largest annual film event in North America, attended by thousands of film-industry people as well as the general public, Toronto gets massive press coverage, so any film that's shown there is automatically guaranteed a lot of attention. The New York film festival is also an exception (it's showing all my favorites apart from the Kiarostami, which the selection committee couldn't preview in time); it restricts itself to 26 features, guaranteeing that each program will be paid a lot of attention--far more than the 118 programs of the Chicago Film Festival.

From a business standpoint, showing a movie at the Chicago festival gets you at most a one-shot audience. If Chicago had bigger art-movie audiences during the year--which may happen when more art theaters open--the festival might serve to promote subsequent commercial runs of the movies. But the festival organizers' determination to show more than 100 films each year means that no one can see more than a fraction of what's playing and makes the critical reasoning that prompts festival selections difficult to discern.

Some of the catalog descriptions add to the sense of overload and confusion. "Reminiscent of great films like Catch-22," reads the blurb for the Russian film Checkpoint--the first time I've heard that anyone thinks Mike Nichols's 1970 sprawling mess is a great movie. In years past the festival's retrospectives have also suggested that Ken Russell, Alan Parker, and Lina Wertmuller--three torchbearers for excess--are great directors, so maybe there is a critical position of sorts behind the festival after all: a position that favors overkill.

This is the week the real deluge begins, and the task of choosing between selections becomes much harder. At some peak hours there are as many as eight separate programs playing at once, in two separate parts of town, and even though many of these programs will be repeated, some of them more than once, getting to everything you want to see may be difficult. The profusion of reviews below is designed to make choosing a little easier.

Some selections have been designated recommendations by a star, but since no two reviewers will ever completely agree on what films are exceptional, even if they've seen the same films--which they by no means always have--there's plenty of room for argument on what the best selections are. Moreover, some of the capsules below are unsigned descriptions because none of our reviewers could see the films in time, and some of those films might be exceptional. So use the reviews to help you follow your own inclinations.

It seems that a disproportionate number of the best and highest-profile selections are surfacing during the first full week of the festival rather than the second, though the second week has the closing-night film and half a dozen "best of the fest" programs, all showing concurrently on Thursday, October 21. As a consequence I have a good many more recommendations now than I will a week from now--though I've seen only 16 of the festival's 118 programs at this point.

That said, my favorites this week, roughly in order of preference, are Frederick Wiseman's Belfast, Maine, on Sunday (its only screening; it runs just over four hours); Alexander Sokurov's Moloch, on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; Aki Kaurismaki's Juha, on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; Manoel de Oliveira's The Letter, on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; Hung Hung's hour-long The Love of Three Oranges (a charming recent discovery, thanks to Reece Pendleton, whose review of the film can be found below--for me it's the Taiwanese new-wave film that most evokes the French New Wave, quite apart from its early reference to Jules and Jim), which is playing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; Bruno Dumont's controversial but memorable Humanity, on Monday and Thursday; Kimberly Peirce's skillful, powerful Boys Don't Cry, Wednesday; and Carlos Reichenbach's Two Streams, on Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday. I suppose I could also make limited cases for Fly Low (Wednesday and Thursday) and Who Else if Not Us (Saturday and Monday).

Screenings are being held at the Meridian Water Tower theaters (four are upstairs on the second level at 845 N. Michigan; two are downstairs on the ground level at 175 E. Chestnut) and at the Music Box (3733 N. Southport). Single ticket prices are $4 for weekday matinees (before 5 PM Monday through Friday); $5 for weekend matinees (before 5 PM Saturday and Sunday); $9 for all other times, $7.50 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes good for everything but closing night and special presentations are available for $45 (6 tickets, 7 for Cinema/Chicago members), $90 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), and $275, $250 for Cinema/Chicago members (50 tickets); only two pass tickets can be used per screening. Tickets can be purchased at the festival store, which is in Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan, or at the theater box office at the time of the screening. They can also be ordered by mail (32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (312-425-0944), or by phone (312-782-9768; Ticketmaster, 312-977-1755). For more information try the Web site (www.chicago.ddbn.com/filmfest) or call 312-332-3456.

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