I’ve been speculating in this space over the past couple of weeks that, in spite of the efforts of much of the mainstream press, American isolationism may be declining–at least when it comes to world cinema. The evidence–apart from the impending opening of local art-movie venues and the current Chicago International Film Festival, now in its third and final week–includes the exciting non-American prizewinners at Cannes and Venice, a striking change from past years, bitterly contested or else studiously ignored by our more provincial reviewers, and the announced departure from the New York Times of its first-string film reviewer, Janet Maslin, a prime example of alienated labor when it comes to movies in general.

Another shining example of shrinking American isolationism is David O. Russell’s Hollywood war film Three Kings, which Lisa Alspector’s enthusiastic Reader review persuaded me to run out to see a couple of weeks ago. It’s a skeptical look at this country’s role in the gulf war that, for all its ideological ambivalence and stylistic difficulties, seems a more responsible and accurate reading of that war than any comparable movie made about the Vietnam war. Considering that so far it’s practically the only Hollywood film we’ve had about that war, the accomplishment seems even more impressive, and makes it an honorary foreign movie of sorts, even with all its action kicks. Without wishing to make too much of the parallels, I can’t resist finding Russell’s more optimistic view of the American viewer’s intelligence similar to the Chicago festival’s assumption that we might actually want to see movies from all over the world. By contrast, what must David Edelstein of Slate think of us when he accords more space and respect to adolescent yahoo and publicity hound Kevin Smith (who told Edelstein, “I tried to do something good and got hassled for it…to spread the word of Christ, and also throw in a few fart and dick jokes”) than to any other filmmaker at the New York film festival?

Of the dozens of films offered by the Chicago festival this week, I’ve seen only seven. The best of these, in order of their first appearance, are Laurent Bouhnik’s haunting first feature 1999 Madeleine (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday); the late Djibril Diop Mambety’s Le franc (playing with another medium-length film by the same Senegalese master, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday), Kimberly Peirce’s powerful piece of gender agitprop Boys Don’t Cry (Saturday), soon to open commercially; John Frankenheimer’s creepy 1966 SF thriller Seconds (Sunday); and Milton Moses Ginsberg’s provocative blast from the past, the 1969 Coming Apart (Monday). For more details on these and other films, see the reviews below; those preceded by a star have been singled out as exceptional.

Screenings are being held at the Meridian Water Tower theaters (four are upstairs on the second level at 845 N. Michigan; two are downstairs on the ground level at 175 E. Chestnut) and at the Music Box (3733 N. Southport). Single ticket prices are $4 for weekday matinees (before 5 PM Monday through Friday); $5 for weekend matinees (before 5 PM Saturday and Sunday); $9 for all other times, $7.50 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes good for everything but closing night and special presentations are available for $45 (6 tickets, 7 for Cinema/Chicago members), $90 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), and $275, $250 for Cinema/Chicago members (50 tickets); only two pass tickets can be used per screening. Tickets can be purchased at the festival store, which is in Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan, or at the theater box office at the time of the screening. They can also be ordered by mail (32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (312-425-0944), or by phone (312-782-9768; Ticketmaster 312-977-1755). For more information try the festival’s Web site (www.chicago.ddbn.com/filmfest) or call 312-332-3456.