As someone who doesn’t get out of town that often, the two September-October weeks of the Chicago International Film Festival (running October 4-17 this year) are usually the high point of my moviegoing year. Partly it’s the gambler’s game, the sometimes giddy (or is it only fraught?) calculation of deciding what to take a chance on and what not to and how to juggle two or three must-sees at different theaters on the same off-night Tuesday. Not being a guy with lots of disposable income, I have to make these choices count. On the other hand, it’s no fun always playing the safe, sure bets—films with critical imprimaturs decked out in the metal regalia of other, more prestigious fests: Golden Lions, Silver Bears, Palmes d’Or, etc. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but close your eyes and jump.

My own all-time-favorite CIFF leap into the void was a one-time-only screening of Nelson Yu Lik-wai‘s All Tomorrow’s Parties at the 2003 fest. Terra incognita for the most part, since nobody bothered to review it (the Reader ran a descriptive blurb) and the only online commentaries I came up with gave it a classical one-finger salute (with “terrible” as pejorative of choice). But writer-director Yu had been chief cinematographer on all the features of critical darling Jia Zhang-ke (as he continues to be today), and the program notes’ anonymous burble about a “Chinese Blade Runner” made it sound … well, kind of inviting. How much recommendation does any unknown film need?

But Blade Runner it wasn’t—though it probably was the sleeper of the fest, all those resourceful, elegantly stripped-down visuals, like dystopian dream time in Outer Mongolia or some other mysteriously forlorn place. And with expectations almost ratcheted down to zero—with an audience to match, just a dozen or so intrepid souls—it’s as close to private epiphany in a public space as I’ve probably ever come. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but here’s me in my seat: “C’mon, don’t blow it now!”—like some nickel-and-dimer at Arlington or Sportsman’s trying to coax his 50-1 nag home.) Do we live for that kind of experience or what?

Finally—also indulgently, except memory jogs do matter: as ritual incantations, as ways of keeping the inner discourse alive—my own top CIFF films in order of preference from each of the last five years (obviously 2004 was astonishingly packed!):

2002 Monday Morning, Otar Iosseliani, France; The Uncertainty Principle, Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal; Springtime in a Small Town, Tian Zhuangzhuang, China; The Happiness of the Katakuris, Takashi Miike, Japan 2003 Father and Son, Alexander Sokurov, Russia/Germany; Distant, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey; Madame Sata, Karim Ainouz, Brazil; Jesus, You Know, Ulrich Seidl, Austria 2004 The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone, Julio Medem, Spain; Tropical Malady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand; Crimson Gold, Jafar Panahi, Iran; Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin, France; Nobody Knows, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan 2005 The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu, Romania; Magic Mirror, Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal 2006 Summer Palace, Lou Ye, China; Comedy of Power, Claude Chabrol, France; Belle Toujours, Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France; Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand

For a full critical rundown of this year’s fest, see the Reader‘s online sidebar at (to be posted later on today).