Not Dead Yet

The 33rd Chicago International Film Festival

When people ask me to compare the Chicago International Film Festival to other festivals, it’s hard to know how to respond. I attend some festivals as their guest, and for the past four years I’ve gone to Cannes as a member of the New York film festival selection committee. As part of that same stint, which just concluded, I’ve also spent two weeks in New York in late summer for the last four years previewing seven or eight dozen additional films. I go to some other festivals–Berlin two years ago, Vienna later this month–as a jury member. By contrast I don’t “attend” the Chicago festival in the same fashion, because I’m usually too busy coordinating the Reader’s coverage of the event, not to mention the paper’s coverage of current releases and the International Children’s Film Festival. The closest I’ve come to attending in any extensive way was in 1992, when I served on the main jury and therefore saw all the films in competition–creating a logistical nightmare that entailed staying at a downtown hotel with my fellow jurors and thus relating to Chicago and the festival as if I were a tourist.

Being what it is and coming when it does, the Chicago festival can’t help but be something of a hand-me-down event, skimming items from various international festivals that precede it and adding a few selections of its own. Invariably it screens too many films–unlike, say, New York, which is restricted to only 20-odd programs–and it’s never revealed as clear or consistent a critical position as either Rotterdam or Toronto. But this year, its 33rd, the Chicago festival shows some evidence of honoring a reasonable number of the best it has the clout and wherewithal to acquire. By rough count, 15 of the 50 best films I’ve seen at (or for) other festivals this year are showing in Chicago, and if that seems like a small percentage, it’s less meager than it appears when one factors in all the films that have been excluded through no fault of the programmers and all the titles that have already made it to Chicago in other venues (such as Mother and Son, My Life in Pink, and Unmade Beds, all of which turned up at the Film Center in a Telluride package two weeks ago).

Consider a couple of the films Chicago failed to get. On all counts the greatest feature I’ve seen all year is Abbas Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, which premiered at Cannes and shared the Palme d’Or there with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel. I don’t know whether Chicago tried to get it, but I do know that before it acquired U.S. distribution its producer decided to restrict its North American festival showings to Telluride and New York, and even requested that New York screen it only once. Since then it has opened commercially in Canada and has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Zeitgeist, which plans to open it in New York in March. Informed sources tell me that The Taste of Cherry will make it to Chicago when the Music Box gets on the stick. Michael Moore’s The Big One–originally part of the Chicago lineup–got picked up for distribution by Miramax, which promptly yanked it from the festival. (Miramax is also probably the worst U.S. distributor when it comes to last-minute changes in release dates.)

The fact that all the festival screenings will take place this year at a single, centrally located venue, 600 N. Michigan, is a hopeful sign. In my experience, there’s a great deal to be gained–socially, communally, logistically–when viewers remain in the same general vicinity rather than crisscross a city to get to screenings, a problem that’s made the Toronto festival difficult (at least for the press) over the last couple of years. In theory, it will be easier to stick around for discussions after the Chicago screenings–assuming that the festival finds a comfortable way of handling them–rather than dashing off to another part of town for the next movie.

Eighty-eight programs have been announced for this year–a slight increase over last year, and far too many in my opinion: many titles just get lost in the shuffle. (The festival even has trouble getting all its titles straight: The Wings of a Dove in the flyer’s capsule is Wings of the Dove in the flyer’s schedule, neither of which is correct.) Having seen 30 of these and sampled half a dozen more, I can find a fair number to recommend, and only 10 that I’d describe with outright antipathy (in roughly ascending order of disapproval): Funny Games, The House of Yes, Two Girls and a Guy, Gattaca, Kini & Adams, The Witman Boys, Welcome to Sarajevo, The Ice Storm, Assassin(s), and The Wings of the Dove. For the record, The House of Yes, Two Girls and a Guy, Gattaca, Welcome to Sarajevo, The Ice Storm, and The Wings of the Dove are expected to turn up in commercial runs.

Here are my dozen favorites, this time starting at the top: 4 Little Girls, The Sweet Hereafter, Voyage to the Beginning of the World, Kiss or Kill, Destiny, Love and Death on Long Island, Cosmos, Kitchen, The Brother, The Life of Jesus, Private Confessions, and Love’s Debris. To the best of my knowledge, 4 Little Girls, The Sweet Hereafter, Voyage to the Beginning of the World, Kiss or Kill, and Love and Death on Long Island are the ones scheduled to open here commercially in a matter of weeks or months; the others may never return, or at least not for a good while. I also like Jean Bach’s jazz short The Spitball Story but haven’t seen the other short films in the same program. And I can give half-approving nods to Suzaku, Artemisia, Best Man, and Post coitum, animal triste.

Among the retrospective items–a piss-poor selection on the whole (which, alas, is nothing new when it comes to the Chicago festival’s treatment of film history)–I can wholeheartedly recommend only The Ballad of Cable Hogue and halfheartedly, in descending order of preference, Love in the Afternoon, A Bucket of Blood, The Grass Is Greener, and The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, leaving it to you to decide whether Indiscreet and That Touch of Mink are worth your time. (The four “romance classics” presented by American Movie Classics appear to be titles pulled out of a hat–and whose hat is anyone’s guess.) As for the tributes, why Spike Lee is getting a Career Achievement Award while Michael Douglas is mysteriously entitled to a Lifetime Achievement Award are matters best left to publicists and economic theorists (assuming one can differentiate between the two).

What’s clear in any case from the tributes is that ratifications and not discoveries are the order of the day–a tendency also observable among most international critics, to judge from their two polled favorites in Toronto, L.A. Confidential and Boogie Nights–which also happened to be the two most commercial movies shown there.

If rubber-stamping is the goal of critics and festival programmers alike, then I suppose the 33rd Chicago International Film Festival is simply doing its job. But if discovery still counts for anything, consider the recommendations above, check out the individual reviews that follow, and pursue your own whims. (Reviews preceded by a check mark are especially recommended by the reviewer.)

The festival runs from Friday, October 10, through Sunday, October 19, with screenings at 600 N. Michigan. Tickets can be bought at the festival store (located in the Viacom Entertainment Store at 600 N. Michigan) or at the 600 N. Michigan box office an hour before show time; they’re also available (with a service charge) by phone at 312-332-3456 or through Ticketmaster (312-902-1500), on-line at or, by mail at 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601, or by fax at 312-425-0944. General admission to most programs is $8 on weekday evenings (Monday through Thursday), $6.50 for Cinema/Chicago members; $3 for weekday matinees before 5:00 (Monday through Friday); $9 for weekend screenings (Friday evenings through Sunday), $7.50 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes and other savings of various kinds are also available. Call 312-425-9400 for the price and location of the Michael Douglas tribute, and 312-332-3456 for other matters. The schedule presented here covers the first week of the festival and is based on the best information available at press time. Our on-line guide to the festival, at, will provide the entire ten-day schedule and whatever last-minute changes we can uncover.

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