The 28th Chicago International Film Festival looks better on paper than most of the others I’ve written about over the past five years. Last year I noted some improvements in film selection and overall efficiency, and they seem to be continuing, thanks I suspect to the presence of Marc Evans, who joined the festival staff last year as program director. Another plus for this year is that the activity is focused on only two sites–four screens at Pipers Alley (which now boasts free parking) and one at the Music Box–which helps in terms of both convenience and continuity. And while there’s no large-scale retrospective that can compare with the ones devoted to 3-D in 1990 and CinemaScope in 1991–just sidebars devoted to Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal (six features), Israeli filmmaker Dan Wolman (five features), and Switzerland-based producer Arthur Cohn (five features), all three of which are new names to me–a greater number of the main selections can be defended as responsible and intelligent choices. There’s still a certain amount of sofa stuffing (beware of some of the American independent selections in particular), but in general the list comes closer to representing an international consensus on the best new films available than an arbitrary string of also-rans selected by bureaucrats and embassies (but don’t expect the latter category to be entirely unrepresented).

Writing a week before the festival starts, I’ve seen only 20 of the 112 programs, which is roughly comparable to the percentage I’ve previewed in other years. Most of the rest that I know or can surmise about this year’s selections comes either by word of mouth or from the 80-some reviews we’ll be running this week and next week in the Reader, representing the tastes of 20 writers split fairly evenly between Chicago and elsewhere in North America. So far, at least, there have been no cancellations or substitutions in the program, and the few errors I’ve come across in the official schedule’s titles and blurbs haven’t been egregious howlers like some of those I recall from previous years.

Why is it, then, that so many local journalists, myself included, tend to grit their teeth when the Chicago festival starts drawing near? Apart from my complaints of years past I can think of two factors, one major and one minor. The minor one is the amount of attention given by festival director Michael Kutza to personal appearances by Hollywood celebrities. I certainly don’t see anything wrong with this year’s tributes to Jack Lemmon and Kathleen Turner (although the 80th birthday celebration for Warners animator Chuck Jones sounds even more inviting); for some spectators–some of whom may well be generous patrons anxious to rub shoulders with the glitterati–such events are the very raison d’etre of film festivals, and while they aren’t usually my idea of edification or fun, I can readily subscribe to the philosophy of different strokes for different folks. My only problem, really, is the kind of glitzy prominence such events are given in relation to everything else, which in past years has left Kutza wide open for ridicule in the press after the last-minute cancellations of megastar appearances by Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, and the like.

But this, as I say, is only a minor cause of the journalistic skepticism that the festival inspires. A much more important factor is the sheer glut of cinema that descends on Chicago in the early fall of every year, all at once, with little thought on the part of programmers about what any individual, including a reviewer, can possibly process or handle. Why, I ask every year, can’t the Chicago Latino Film Festival or the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival or the Chicago International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival take place during the slower summer months–or even in winter or spring, when one might have more time to pay attention to them–rather than during, just before, or just after the Chicago International Film Festival? During the same period, I should add, a slew of important commercial and art-house pictures are launched in Chicago. This year, in addition, the Film Center is running at least three very important series concurrently with all the rest: a complete Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective, including not only newly subtitled prints of everything, but also poetry readings, lectures, symposia, and rare interviews with Pasolini shown on TV monitors in the Film Center lobby, all of which I’ll likely have to miss; a batch of new features from mainland China, with personal appearances by many directors and actors; and a retrospective of recent Iranian features that includes two of the best movies I saw at the Toronto film festival last month (Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up and Life and Nothing More, the latter of which was also the best new film I saw at the Locarno film festival in August).

There’s more: Facets Multimedia is currently showing a Robert Altman retrospective that includes a couple of the Kraft Mystery Theater shows he directed–both of which I’d like to see or at least think about seeing if I had the time. On top of all this I usually get several calls a week from local filmmakers and independent exhibitors asking me to preview other programs, and it pains me to have to keep saying no to them.

In short, for anyone who’s halfway serious about keeping up with what’s happening in film–and that obviously includes a lot more people than local reviewers–Chicago turns into New York City for about six weeks every fall. This yields a frustrating embarrassment of riches–and a surfeit of dross, which is always around in full supply–guaranteeing that a lot of important work will get lost in the shuffle (as it does in New York on a regular basis): missed or ignored by practically everyone, no matter how conscientious. And because the Chicago Film Festival is by far the largest single source of glut during this period–and has often been a source of at least as much dross as one can find elsewhere in Chicago–it becomes a logical target of abuse for stressed-out culture vultures, film critics included.

At least that’s the way it seems to me. John Russell Taylor in the English film magazine Sight and Sound last January came up with quite a different hypothesis. To quote his opening paragraph:

“This was Chicago’s twenty-seventh International Film Festival, which makes it the longest-lived competitive event in North America. By now it should have become a well-established local institution–supported, respected, and taken for granted. But, for better or worse, not a bit of it. Chicago, ever conscious of its ‘second city’ status, is in certain respects like a very large small town. Everybody knows everybody else’s business, and petty rivalries are rife around the parish pump. Thus the more successful the festival is, the more other institutions–film schools of local universities, film programmes of bodies like the Art Institute, even Chicago-based film critics–tend to resent it.”

If only Taylor had lingered a little over what he meant by “successful,” it might have been easier to decode his argument. But an equally serious omission is the information that Taylor, a good friend of Kutza and a longtime recipient of the festival’s hospitality, has served on its jury countless times in the past and is hardly the disinterested witness he pretends to be.

This year I’m serving for the first time as a festival juror myself, so I’d better be careful. As far as this reportage is concerned, my position produces two conflicting impulses. One is to follow Taylor and show my gratitude for the festival’s kindness by being more lenient; the other is to be even harsher than usual to prove that I haven’t been coopted. But a third impulse–the one I intend to abide by–is to ignore the other two and operate in these pages exclusively as a critic, not as a guest or juror in disguise. (Whether it’ll be possible to operate as a juror without my critical biases is, of course, quite another matter, but I see no conflict of interest there. And because my duties as juror will oblige me to see all 20 of the films in competition, I’ll wind up seeing more of the festival than I ever have before.)

Obviously I can’t say that I agree with the opinions in all the reviews found below; I would rank a few films (such as Dream of Light, Dust of Angels, and Equinox) lower than my colleagues have; none that I would rank higher spring to mind. Films that reviewers like especially and strongly recommend are preceded by a check mark. My own favorites, based on what I’ve seen so far and roughly in order of preference, are Actress, Angel of Fire, Hyenas, Reservoir Dogs (despite some reservations about the sheer unpleasantness of its violence and my strong suspicion that it will be overpraised because of it), Dark of Noon, Another Girl, Another Planet, Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, and, if only for Seymour Cassel’s beautiful performance, In the Soup.

If I were you, I’d be both adventurous and highly selective, to the extent that this is possible. I wouldn’t entirely forget the other films playing in Chicago over the next couple of weeks–sometimes movies are great even when the media doesn’t designate them as “events”–but I’d also bear in mind that this is the biggest dose of international cinema that this town gets all year, and when all is said and done that is something to be grateful for.

Archive note: the check mark recommendation has been changed to an asterisk for the electronic version of the festival listings.