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CIFF: Ready for takeoff

by Roger Ebert

I am properly awed by the size and selection of the 43rd annual Chicago International Film Festival, which opens on Thursday at the Chicago Theater with the U.S. premiere of “The Kite Runner.”

Michael Kutza’s 14-day extravaganza, the oldest competitive film festival in America, has put together a program that combines lots of big premieres and stars with lots and lots of discoveries. To cut straight to the chase: check out www.chicagofilmfestival.com, which lists everything and tells you how to order tickets, or go through Ticketmaster; there’s more ordering info at the bottom of this story.

I started attending the festival in 1967, when it was living a hand-to-mouth existence in one or two small theaters. The venues this year, after opening night, include the AMC River East, the Landmark Century, the Music Box, the Chicago Cultural Center, and, for closing night, the Harris theater in Millennium Park.

Red carpets will be rolled out at all those locations to welcome such guests as Ben Affleck, Alison Eastwood, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Malcolm McDowell and Jeffrey Wright. The directors include “The Kite Runner’s” by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland”); Hungarian legend Istvan Szabo in conversation; Tamara Jenkins with her powerful family drama “The Savages”; Tony Gilroy with the George Clooney legal thriller “Michael Clayton”; Ben Affleck, who directs his brother Casey in “Gone Baby Gone”; Susanne Bier of “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berry and Benecio del Toro; Anthony Hopkins with his “Slipstream,” and the American independent film legend John Sayles, with “Honeydripper.”

My capsule reviews of these and many other films will appear on rogerebert.com, and Bill Stamets and Bill Zwecker will be covering at chicagosuntimes.com. We will only be scratching the surface; it is impossible to see all the films, which is the idea, I think. I recommend your close coordination between the CIFF online schedule and IMDb.com to find out more about the dozens of other titles.

This year’s competition for the top prize, the Gold Hugo, includes films from an astonishing array of countries: Romania, Brazil, Russia, the UK, France, Hungary, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Israel, China, Germany, and Sweden. Still unresolved after all these years is who Hugo represents. We know that the sci-fi Hugo is named after Hugo Gernsback, “the father of science fiction,” but could CIFF’s Hugo draw from the Latinized version of the name Hugh, which in German means "Bright in Mind and Spirit?” That’s what Wiki says, anyway.

The festival has a long record of discovering new directors; at my first festival, I saw the first film by Martin Scorsese, and it was the first American showcase of such giants as Fassbinder, Tavernier, and Gregory Nava. The New Directors Competition this year looks good on paper, many of the film makers will be present, and you’ll sense their joy in finally getting their project before an audience. Among the new directors is Brett Morgan with “Chicago 10,” a recreation of the famous Chicago Seven trial in 1969.

Among the films I’ve already seen, especially recommended are Sidney Lumet’s complex thriller “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,” Alison Eastwood’s heartwarmer “Rail & Ties,” Affleck's “Gone Baby Gone,” Paul Schrader’s “The Walker,” Rudi Dolezal’s documentary “Freddie Mercury,” “The Savages,” and “Things We Lost in the Fire.”

Then there is the documentary competition, the midnight horror films, the restorations, an anime section, family programs, short subject, and a special series reviewing 100 years of filmmaking in Chicago (did you know that Charlie Chaplin worked here before he went to Hollywood?).

Out-of-towner?

Although many people make Toronto a destination for its festival, you can fill your screening schedule as easily in Chicago, the US$ is no more expensive than the Canadian $, and the beloved city is absolutely sensational in October.

If you can’t get into every festival film you want and have dreaded gaps in your schedule, seek treasures elsewhere. Facets Cinematheque has Peter Greenaway films on the Saturday and Sunday, and “Alice Neel,” her grandson’s doc on the famed artist, starting Oct. 5. And Facets Videotheque has the nation’s largest selection of foreign, experimental, documentary and silent films on DVD.

The Gene Siskel Film Center in the Loop will have an Ingmar Bergman fest Oct, 5-30, a fest of recent Iranian films at the same time, and on Wednesday nights, a series of screenings of great films of the 1950s, introduced and discussed by the estimable Jonathan Rosenbaum. What else? G o to the top page of our site and search for movies with a 5-mile radius of area code 60610.

Legend has it that Orson Welles is responsible for the founding of the festival. Kutza, then fresh out of college, was at Cannes in 1963 and met the great man himself.

“Chicago?” Welles said. “That’s almost my home town. Why doesn’t it have a film festival?” Kutza told Welles that he would personally start one if the director promised to attend it. Welles promised, Kutza delivered, and Welles never came.

* * *

The festival says: Tickets for single and multiple film screenings and special events, which range in price from $9 - $400, are now on-sale and available by calling Ticketmaster at 312.902.1500; visiting www.ticketmaster.com; on-site at Film Festival stores, including the Borders Books & Music at 2817 N. Clark and 830 N. Michigan Avenue; or at the Festival Box Office at 30 E. Adams (weekdays 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.).

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