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CIFF in better form than ever, hosting Chabrol, Wadja, Oliveira...

The Chicago International Film Festival is celebrating its 45th anniversary in better form than ever, I think. The festival, which opened Thursday, will be presenting 145 films from 45 countries. That's fewer than Toronto or Cannes but more, I believe, than any other American festival -- and besides, can you see 10 films a day?

The venue is again the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois, which allows you to get easily from one screening to another. About 125 of the films will be followed by a chat with a director or actor. Prices are $12 at the box office, $9 for Cinema/Chicago members. Ten-movie passes bring that down to $8 and $11. The galas cost more, but don't worry, they're already sold out. I've been attending this festival since 1968. I've seen the good times and the bad times. There were years when its founder, Michael J. Kutza Jr., wasn't sure a month in advance what theaters he'd be using. I've seen half-empty houses, and heard complaints about disorganization. Kutza soldiered on, and now he has a gifted team in place. As the oldest competitive festival in North America, CIFF's Hugo Awards mean something. His many guests will be impressed by their digs at the new Wit hotel. Most importantly, CIFF provides an accessible way to see good movies. I've been hearing more than ever about how moviegoers can't find the films they hear good things about. The distribution situation for indie and foreign films is dire. In Chicago we have the Landmark, Siskel, Facets and Music Box screens, and the suburbs offer an occasional oasis, but many good films go unseen.

Like Toronto but unlike Cannes, CIFF is user-friendly. There's no mystery about how to buy tickets. They have a helpful website, chicagofilmfestival.com. I went to a multiplex the other day, and volunteers were actually handing out the schedule. In the old days it was like you had to be an insider to figure out the program.

This is not the place to launch a list of every film. Bill Stamets and I have been swamped with previews and DVDs and the Sun-Times has already started publishing our advance capsule reviews of virtually everything. But can I mention some high-profile offerings?

The headliner of the festival will probably be Lee Daniels' "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," with its great performance by Gabourey Sidibe as a fat high school outsider. She and Daniels will be here to walk the red carpet in person, and so very likely will the film's executive producer, Oprah Winfrey.

"Motherhood," with Uma Thurman, you may already know about, because she walked the red carpet Thursday. I haven't seen it yet. Of those I have seen, I'm very enthusiastic about Lone Scherfig's "An Education," with the leading Oscar contender Carey Mulligan as a 17-year-old girl in love with a smooth-talking older man (the persuasive Peter Sarsgaard). Mulligan and Scherfig will be in town. Also Lars Von Trier's controversial "Antichrist," with von Trier and his star, Willem Dafoe, in person. Oren Moverman's "The Messenger" tells the powerful story of a two-man team of Army war veterans (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson) informing next of kin about combat death. This is a very, very thankless job. Foster and Moverman will attend. Another gala presents Udayan Prasad's "The Yellow Handkerchief," with William Hurt, Maria Bello and Kristen Stewart in the story of an ex-con hitchhiking with two teenagers he befriends.

Poland's great Andrzej Wajda will be here with "Sweet Rush." Marco Bellocchio will be a guest for "Vincere." The legendary New Wave figure Claude Chabrol will attend the premiere of his "Inspector Bellamy." He is 79, but so what? Portugal's Manoel De Oliveira will be here with "Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl," and he's 100.

Some official entries from Cannes 2009 will be here, including Ken Loach's "Looking for Eric," about a soccer fan's fantasy; Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere," about Mussolini's brother; the acclaimed Romanian film "Police, Adjective," a procedural set in Bucharest; Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank," the Cannes Jury Prize winner; Bong Joon-ho's "Mother" from Korea, with its great title performance as a strong-willed woman; and "Air Doll," by the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-Eda, about a love doll that comes to life, sort of.

A high-profile North American premiere will be John Woo's "Red Cliff," starring Tony Leung, a second-century Chinese war epic about the battle of the Three Kingdoms during the Han Dynasty. It's the most expensive film ($80 million) ever financed in Asia, where it has grossed more than $124 million and broken "Titanic's record."

As always, there are premieres with Chicago connections. Elaine Madsen, once actually a Chicago film critic, has directed "I Know a Woman Like That," produced by her daughter, the actress Virginia. It's about more than a dozen women who continue unabated after "retirement" age, including Rita Moreno, Eartha Kitt, and Evanston mayor Lorraine Morton. Brian Caunter's "The Overcoat" stars Frank Vincent from "The Sopranos" as a Chicago mob hit man who takes orders from his boss (Armand Assante). Heather Ross's "Girls on the Wall" sounds intriguing--it's a doc about juvenile women in the Warrenville, IL prison, who put on a musical to tell their life stories.

And there's a Chicago connection in the one CIFF presentation you can be sure will be great. In cooperation with Warner Bros. a pristine restored version of Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" will be shown to celebrate its release on Blu-ra. Martin Landau will attend in person.

Then there's closing night, with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend starting as Victoria and Albert in "The Young Victoria." Also with Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany and Miranda Richardson.

This year Kuta asked me to present a film from my Ebertfest at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My choice may be the funniest comedy you've never seen. It's Rob Sitch's "The Castle," about a family that happily lives within inches of a jumbo jet runway, and refuses to move. Their home, you see, is their castle. Threatened by the city with eminent domain, they hire an attorney who is a few slices short of a sandwich. The theater roared with laughter at our screening, and there's a line in the film ("That goes straight to the pool room!") that has entered into Ebertfest lore. Incredibly, the film was never released in the United States. It was purchased by Harvey Weinstein, who told me "It didn't test well." See if you agree. (Oct 11, 5:00 pm)

A- Z of films, countries, details, times: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com/

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