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The ninth annual St. Louis International Film Festival pares down its venues but beefs up its offerings

Think of it as addition by subtraction: Downsized to 60 programs from last year's 78 and largely limited to two theaters, the ninth annual St. Louis International Film Festival paradoxically enhances filmgoers' viewing opportunities. In former years, the fest's widely dispersed theaters made it impossible to see consecutive films at different venues, forcing moviegoers to choose a single site for the day's viewing -- and if the schedule there wasn't sufficiently intriguing, folks often headed home after a lone film. Fewer movies also allows for more multiple screenings of films, reducing the hard choices of previous fests when two must-sees unspooled simultaneously.

Film-programming manager Chris Clark believes that the changes will create more of a true festival atmosphere. Stranded at card tables at Plaza Frontenac or tucked in the corner of the West Olive's cavernous 16-screen facility, the fest lacked much of an identifying presence. Clark says simply, "Nobody knew what the hell we were doing there." This year, all three of the Tivoli's screens will be devoted to the fest for its entire run. Access to the other major venue, the Hi-Pointe (which recently upgraded its facilities with a new screen and sound system), requires only a five-minute trip down Skinker Boulevard, and the St. Louis Art Museum, which hosts a single day of screenings, is similarly proximate.

Despite its leaner look, the festival continues several longstanding events: the New Filmmakers Forum, which features seminars for aspiring moviemakers and coffees with the NFF films' directors; the Documentary Sidebar, whose 11 movies include such well-regarded work as Better Living Through Circuitry, Sound and Fury (by St. Louisan Josh Aronson) and American Pimp; and the African-American Sidebar, which includes a three-movie tribute and award gala honoring Sammy Davis Jr. Another special event is the screening of the St. Louis-shot The Treatment, about the assimilation problems of Chinese immigrants, which opens the festival on Nov. 2 at the Hi-Pointe.

The fest has its usual contingent of high-profile art films -- Songcatcher, Jason Alexander's Just Looking, David Mamet's State and Main, Shadow of the Vampire -- but this year leans heavily on under-the-radar American independents and English-language works. Foreign films receive less emphasis, but the fest doesn't lack for buzz films -- among the most anticipated are The Frame, George Washington, Harry: He's Here to Help, Dinner Rush and the riotous black comedy Sordid Lives. Also on offer is a selection of new work from established directors, such as Claire Denis' Beau Travail, Denys Arcand's Stardom and Ken Loach's Bread and Roses.

And fans of Post-Dispatch reviewer Harper Barnes shouldn't miss Mental Hygiene, a three-part program of gut-busting '50s-era instructional films. Among its highlights is "The Innocent Party," which features young actor Barnes struggling with what Clark calls a "sad bout with syphilis."

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