I can’t vouch for the first 22 editions of the Chicago International Film Festival, but the 30th threatens to be the best since I moved to this town in 1987. Much of the usual fat and filler has been trimmed away, and the selections this year are unusually thoughtful and judicious (thanks in large measure to the efforts of coprogrammer Marc Evans, who knew where to look). Happily, there’s more attention given to older films, and the overall spread of films promises a veritable bounty to anyone ready to take the plunge.

This presupposes in many cases a pretty hefty commitment–taking a whole day (or much of one) during one of the busiest seasons of the year–but the payoff is experiencing something not generally available in an ordinary night at the movies. Regrettably, even many of my more serious colleagues have been forsaking such adventures at the film festivals in Cannes, Toronto, and New York, focusing instead on the same big commercial releases you’ve been hearing about for months. But here’s your chance to delve into riches never dreamed of in Entertainment Weekly. Having seen exactly half of the 118 separate programs being offered, I can testify that at least 40 of the features are well worth seeing and perhaps a dozen fall under the category of essential viewing.

There must be some dogs as well, but I’ve been lucky enough to miss them. The films I’m most inclined to steer you away from–Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Le buttane, Rio’s Love Song, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana, and We, the Children of the 20th Century–are at worst only mediocre. If the festival were as spotty as it’s been in previous years, I might even halfheartedly recommend the last two, as well as a few other films I’m not fully sold on. (Ron Holloway’s hour-long documentary Paradjanov is no great shakes, but it’s still worth seeing for the glimpses of early Sergei Paradjanov films that haven’t yet reached Chicago.) With so many choice goods available, the main difficulty is not determining what to avoid but working out a viable viewing plan.

One way of doing this is concentrating on certain categories and groupings, which the festival has indicated in its printed schedule. Among the more meaningful clusters are three recently completed trilogies: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s pan-European Blue, White, and Red, which saves its best for the last; Abbas Kiarostami’s Iranian Where Is My Friend’s Home?, And Life Goes On . . . , and Through the Olive Trees, whose high point is its middle film; and Michael Haneke’s Austrian The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, which goes downhill after the first–an icy shocker soon to be turning up on its own at Facets Multimedia. A Luchino Visconti retrospective omits four features (including the indispensable Senso) and five shorts, but still includes ten works by a major figure. Another worthwhile cluster is four recent entries in an excellent series made for French television about teenagers over the past few decades. Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds, Cedric Kahn’s Too Much Happiness, and Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl From Brussels (a U.S. premiere). There are also four movies by horror specialist Wes Craven, four movies selected by local critics, myself included, and two of the three best Taiwanese features I’ve seen this year, Stan Lai’s The Red Lotus Society and Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour–both highly distinctive looks at contemporary Taipei that impart a great deal of insight about where the whole planet is heading. (The third, A Confucian Confusion, which has the same ambitious agenda, should be surfacing in an Edward Yang retrospective at the Film Center next year.)

Zeroing in on these clusters, or perhaps a few others (e.g., three Finnish features by the goofy Kaurismaki brothers), brings a certain shape and continuity to one’s viewing, yielding extended, homogeneous experiences that are likely to be more meaningful than random smorgasbords. This is especially true now that the festival has once again been forced to spread its screening locations across the city. Though not all of the aforementioned clusters are concentrated at one location, a clear effort has been made in many cases to allow for this sort of structured viewing.

The above suggestions are far from exhaustive. If your aim is merely to encounter an unbroken string of eye-popping masterpieces, each one an autonomous universe of its own, let me recommend in particular–among titles you’re not likely to have other chances to see–Bela Tarr’s staggering seven-hour Satantango (my own “critic’s choice,” and easily my favorite film of the year), Visconti’s The Leopard, Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On . . . , Douglas Sirk’s 1958 The Tarnished Angels (the inspired “critic’s choice” of New City’s Ray Pride), Olivier Assayas’ heartbreaking Cold Water, and, if you’re prepared for something experimental and visionary (despite a few unwelcome narrative intrusions), Alexander Sokurov’s Whispering Pages.

If you’re after some journalistic enlightenment about what’s happening elsewhere on the globe, two key items come to mind: Robert Kramer’s poetic and heartfelt look at contemporary Vietnam (Starting Place) and Marcel Ophuls’s fascinating, eclectic, nearly four-hour investigation of war reporting, with a special emphasis on Bosnia (The Troubles We’ve Seen).

On the other hand, if you’re looking for neither heavy art nor hard information but straight-ahead, artful entertainment, and of a caliber that you don’t find very often coming from Hollywood nowadays, I can propose still another list, headed up by Wong Kar-wai’s exuberant and charming Chungking Express from Hong Kong and Nanni Moretti’s soon-to-open Dear Diary from Italy, and followed by Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was . . . , Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Anne Turner’s Dallas Doll, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Ryaba, My Chicken, and Mika Kaurismaki’s endearingly flaky Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, which sends filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Sam Fuller down the Amazon in search of a projected 50s Hollywood picture that Fuller never shot.

The list of possibilities doesn’t stop here. I’ve still left out such solid entries as Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Michael Winterbottom’s Family, Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird, Sara Driver’s When Pigs Fly, Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace, and Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio’s Strawberry and Chocolate–not to mention Visconti’s La terra trema, Ossessione, Bellissima, The Innocent, and the rarely seen White Nights (which adapts the same Dostoyevski story as Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer). Some films–Dear Diary, What Happened Was . . . , Clerks, Exotica, Strawberry and Chocolate, and Ladybird, Ladybird–have already acquired big-time distributors, as have Kieslowski’s Red and Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, so if you miss them now you’ll have a chance to catch them later.

I haven’t begun to speculate here about the 60-odd films I haven’t seen, but as usual I’ve asked several of my colleagues–16 in all–to help me out in reviewing as many of the films as I’ve been able to assign. (A few of the capsules for older films were written years ago by former Reader critics Don Druker and Dave Kehr.) I’ve offered my own short descriptions of the ones that none of us has seen, based on various festival catalogs and handouts (which are not always reliable). Titles preceded by a check mark are recommended by the reviewers.

The festival runs from Friday, October 7, through Sunday, October 23. Screenings are at Pipers Alley, 1608 N. Wells; the Fine Arts, 418 S. Michigan; and the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport. Tickets can be purchased at the festival store at Pipers Alley and at the theater box offices an hour before show times; they’re also available (with a service charge) by phone at 337-4840 or fax at 337-7964. General admission to most programs is $7.50, $6.50 for students and seniors, $5.50 for Cinema/Chicago members. Shows before 6 PM

at all three locations are $5. Discount passes to multiple screenings are also available. For more information, call 644-3456 (644-FILM).

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