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Take 46: CIFF brings the world of film to town

Chicago's biggest annual cinema event boasts 150 films from 50 countries this year. The Chicago International Film Festival opens its 46th season Thursday night as the city's longest-running showcase of dramas, documentaries and shorts.

“This is where you can see what's going on in the world,” said Michael Kutza, the fest's founder and artistic director. Interviewed in his Loop office, he added he's an unapologetic fan of Hollywood fare.

But Mimi Plauche, the fest's head of programming, admitted, “I'm not a big blockbuster-goer myself. So when I read a lot of critics talk about what a terrible year it is for film in 2010, I am thinking the scope of their vision must be so limited. There's a lot of great films out there. They're just not making it to the big screen in the U.S.”

A major premiere is set for 7 p.m. Friday, with "Stone," starring Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich. DeNiro plays a prison counselor near retirement, Norton is a complex prisoner who challenges him, and Jovovich plays his sexy wife. Norton, director John Curran and others are expected to attend.

The festival continues strong at 7:30 p.m. Friday with a red carpet premiere of "Drunkboat," starring Chicago's John Malkovich and John Goodman and Dana Delaney. In person will be Jim Ortlieb, starring on Broadway in "Billy Elliot," and Chicago native Jacob Zarchar, from TV's "Greek."

The big screen is what the fest plugs in its slogan this year: “See the Big Picture.” “I see people on the airplane watching a feature film on a cell phone, and I feel so sad for them,” said Kutza with a sigh.

This year, all of the fest's screenings will be at a single venue full of big screens: River East 21. So if your first choice for a film is sold-out — as 72 percent found last year — you can quickly find an alternate nearby.

As usual, the fest mixes new titles from Europe's most prestigious festivals (Cannes and Berlin), plus self-submitted unknowns. Along with such foreign films as Abbas Kiarostami's “Certified Copy” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palm d'Ore winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” upcoming domestic releases in the lineup include Clint Eastwood's “Hereafter” and Darren Arnofsky's “Black Swan.”

Festival favorite Bertrand Tavernier from France returns with an ambitious historical epic, "Princess of Montpensier." Oscar-winning Hilary Swank stars with Sam Rockwell in "Conviction," based on a true story of a woman who fought for years to prove her brother was innocent of murder. The UK's Stephen Frears is here with "Tamara Drewe," a lighthearted British village comedy. Jon Siskel, nephew of Gene Siskel, has "Louder Than a Bomb," a documenary about Chicago poetry slams that has already who prizes at other festivals. And "Red," starring Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman, in a story of an undercover assassin reassembling his old team.

“We're non-stop imagination, non-stop new everything,” Kutza said. There are no retrospectives this year, but there's a promising sidebar titled “Film on Film” that features documentaries about filmmaking, plus one pseudo-documentary titled “Hitler in Hollywood.”

Other fest series highlight African-American, South-American, gay-themed, women's interest, made-in-Illinois and horror genre films. Free panel discussions will consider sex in cinema, black music in film, the short film and the contemporary documentary.

Many filmmakers appear with their films. Celebrities scheduled to attend and receive awards include Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, Hollywood producer Paula Wagner, and directors Danny Boyle and Guillermo Del Toro.

These special screenings have higher ticket prices and include parties. For informal get-togethers between screenings, check out the new Festival Filmmakers Lounge, open from noon to 6 p.m. at the Lucky Strike Lanes in the River East complex.

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