The streamlined 32nd Chicago International Film Festival opens Thursday, with fewer films but better quality control. Emerging from a year of boardroom turmoil and an attempted coup, festival founder Michael J. Kutza has retained his post as director but adopted some of the changes long called for by the event's critics.
This year's festival (Thursday through Oct. 20) will be a week shorter than in the past. It will present 68 new films and a William Wyler retrospective, down from schedules of 100 to 150 films in past years. Most films will play twice, allowing a chance for word of mouth to build an audience. The result is a simplified, better-organized festival of generally higher-quality films, instead of what critics said was an annual cinemathon of whatever Kutza could lasso.
Most festival screenings will be at the Music Box and Sony Pipers Alley theaters, but opening night will be a gala of Chicagoan Ross Marks' "Twilight of the Golds" at the Chicago Theatre. And the McClurg Court's 70-mm. projection facilities will be used for a screening of the restored print of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), with star Kim Novak appearing in person. Jodie Foster will be named actress of the decade in a gala on Oct 26; the date is six days after the festival ends, perhaps providing a clue that Kutza originally planned a longer schedule.
The abbreviated schedule is a nod to the festival's perennial budget problems, which led to an attempt by the board to kick Kutza upstairs and put a cap on spending. Kutza weathered the coup but not the reforms, and Judy Gaynor, who helped steer the festival in the 1970s, was brought back to make it leaner and better organized.
In years past it was joked that the good news and the bad news about the Chicago festival was exactly the same: You see films here you don't see in any other festival. This year, Kutza and his team of programmers have done a good job of snaring many of the films that have been loudly hailed at earlier festivals like Cannes, Venice and Toronto.
Two of those shared the top prizes at Cannes. "Secrets and Lies," by Mike Leigh, the closing night film on Oct. 20, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. And Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," to be shown Friday, won the jury prize.
Leigh is a discovery of Kutza's: He credits the 1972 Chicago premiere of his "Bleak Moments" for launching his career. His new film, the story of a long-separated mother and daughter and a dysfunctional family, is perhaps his best film yet, an uneasy, riveting meeting of comedy and social observation.
"Breaking the Waves," the story of a romance between a simple-minded Scots girl and a crewman on a North Sea oil rig, is visionary, spiritual and emotionally devastating.
Another much-lauded film from the festival circuit is Scott Hicks' "Shine" (Saturday), which won the Air Canada Audience Award at Toronto. It's based on the true story of the Australian pianist David Helfgott, who after a promising start suffered an emotional meltdown and regained his ability to play only with the help of an understanding woman.
I've seen a lot of the other 1996 entries at other festivals, including: Patrice Leconte's "Ridicule," about an engineer who must learn to be clever in order to be heard at the decadent court of Louis XVI. Nick Cassavetes' "Unhook the Stars," starring his mother, Gena Rowlands, as a widow whose life takes on meaning after she starts helping the disorganized woman across the street (Marisa Tomei) care for her child. "Sling Blade," a virtuoso writing, acting and directing job by Billy Bob Thornton, who plays a mentally retarded man who tries to reason his way out of a dangerous emotional situation. Trevor Nunn's "Twelfth Night" is one of two splendid films based on Shakespeare at the festival this year. A charming and sly comedy of gender confusion, it stars Imogen Stubbs as a woman who disguises herself as her twin brother and inadvertently wins the love of a Countess (Helena Bonham Carter) while awkwardly falling in love with a duke. Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard" is an uncommonly absorbing documentary about the problems of performing "Richard III"; scenes from the play are intercut with talk about practical problems of performance, editing and delivery.
Also recommended: "Trees Lounge," written, directed by and starring Steve Buscemi ("Reservoir Dogs") as a morose loser who drinks his days away in the corner bar and tries doggedly to pull his life together. Abel Ferrara's "The Funeral," about the murder of a younger brother and the way his Mafia family handles it. "Swingers," one of the autumn's most heralded films, follows five guys on the make on the fringes of the entertainment industry.
And there are many other titles, unseen by me, that come trailing praise from earlier festivals. Among them: "Fire" from India; "Bitter Sugar" from Cuba; "Jude," based on the Thomas Hardy novel; David Rocksavage's "Other Voices, Other Rooms," based on the Capote novel; Sergei Bodrov's "Prisoner of the Mountains," as highly praised as any film at Toronto; the French documentary "Microcosmos," using ultra-closeups to explore the world of insects, and (who knows?) "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2."