Selectivity Is a Key for New York Film Festival

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The last major festival on the circuit, the New York Film Festival is a fascinating anomaly. With dogged, bare-knuckled contrariness--defying an era of bigger-is-better, celebrities-are-gods and cozy studio bedfellows--it caps its lineup at 30 films; this year, only 26 will be shown during the 16-day event that opens today.

And unlike, say, Venice or Cannes, the New York Film Festival doesn't give out prizes and is adamantly noncompetitive. Unlike Sundance and Toronto, it's not a shopping magnet for film pickups. And standing alone, it won't pick films up sight unseen, no matter the pedigree of director or stars.

"There are department stores and there are specialty shops," says Richard Pena, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chairman of the festival film selection committee. "New York doesn't need a festival like that, nor is it one that I or the people who founded or ran the festival were ever interested in. It's not an encyclopedic festival."

Despite one film critic's carping last week that it is a "dinosaur" compared to the 300-plus film, three-ring cornucopia of Toronto, the New York festival has become a scalpel-sharp distillation and barometer of global film arcs.

This year, the American independent is alive and well, represented by a slew of dazzlers. Among the headlines: Spike Jonze is this year's Steve Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino. French films continue their ascendancy. And Kate Winslet can make a big splash, even without "Titanic."

This year's festival, the 37th, hits the bull's-eye on several accounts, presaging several Oscar possibilities: Winslet and Harvey Keitel in "Holy Smoke," Jim Broadbent in "Topsy-Turvy," Cameron Diaz in "Being John Malkovich," Bob Hoskins in "Felicia's Journey," among others.

Some of the key films being shown at the festival include:

* Though it neither opens nor closes the festival, "Being John Malkovich" will nonetheless generate some of the biggest media waves. An inventive, almost metaphysical fantasy-comedy-drama, it is an uncategorizable film that surprises at every turn as a sad-sack puppeteer discovers a hidden doorway that gives entryway to inhabit John Malkovich's body for 15 minutes. It's a stunning directorial debut by Jonze, who moves over from music videos and commercials.

* Mike Leigh worked steadily and quietly with films about working-class lives in England, such as "Life Is Sweet," until "Secrets & Lies" blew him to the mainstream two years ago. He attacks the subject of 19th century operetta collaborators Gilbert and Sullivan in "Topsy-Turvy" with the same vigor, scabrous humor and non-artifice that he's invested in his contemporary pieces. Broadbent, who plays the gruff, cantankerous Gilbert, already won the acting prize at the Venice festival two weeks ago. Allan Corduner is also a standout as Sullivan. Attention to period detail in sets and costumes is flawless.

* Jane Campion, best known for her mainstream hit "The Piano," comes back strongly with "Holy Smoke," which features powerhouse performances by Winslet and Keitel. Keitel gustily dons a dress to challenge Winslet's rebuke of his machismo as an American cult deprogrammer summoned to "save" Winslet, who has been transformed by an Indian guru.

* Atom Egoyan also hit it big two years ago with "The Sweet Hereafter." His "Felicia's Journey" is another haunting film of longing, loss and redemption. It again features a troubled, middle-aged male protagonist--this time Hoskins--whose muted, though intensely tragic portrayal, will also undoubtedly garner an acting nomination.

* Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is just about the only filmmaker on the planet, apart from Baltimore renegade John Waters, who can create a cinematic homage to mothers and women while at the same time populating his films with a mesmerizing array of memorable transsexuals, drag queens, prostitutes, lesbians and a nun. Almodovar crossed over to larger audiences with "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," and his film "All About My other," which won him the best director award at Cannes, is being hailed as his most accessible film.

The strength of the American independent film is a sentiment echoed by the festival selection committee members, and confirmed by the robust lineup, among them "julien donkey-boy," "Boys Don't Cry," "Dogma" and "The Woman Chaser."

"There are more films by younger American independent filmmakers than in a long, long time," says Vogue film critic John Powers. Adds Pena: "I wouldn't call it a resurgence, though, as much as a continued vitality of independents made outside mainstream sources."

"julien donkey-boy," the first American film following the rigidly purist aesthetics of the Scandinavian Dogme group, uses digital technology, miniature hand-held or hidden cameras, freeze-frames and non-actors among the actors to tell the story of a schizophrenic man living with his troubled family and assisting at a school for the blind.

Kevin Smith's "Dogma" takes on Catholic orthodoxy in a corporate era of artistry-by-committee and play-safe themes, and has already been criticized by religious factions for its supposedly heretical story of two lapsed angels, played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

And "The Woman Chaser" is that quintessential Cinderella film festival story: an unsolicited submission that nobody knew about, entered "cold" by a first-time filmmaker, which ends up so enthusing the selection committee that it gets chosen. The early-1960s-era film noir adaptation of Charles Willeford's pulp-fiction novel stars Patrick Warburton--"Seinfeld's" Puddy--as a crooked used-car salesman turned movie director.

"It just appeared over the transom, unsolicited," Pena says. "We were knocked out."

Astonishingly, more than a third of the films in this year's festival are French productions or co-productions. France's pervasive presence underscores the growing strength and vitality of its film industry.

"The '90s have witnessed the emergence of very exciting French filmmakers who have continued to mature and whose work is even more provocative and interesting," Pena says. "French cinema is going through a very good time."

And the strong roster of directors with work being screened--Raul Ruiz, Manoel de Oliveira, Claire Denis, Leos Carax, Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet--doesn't cover many of the younger directors making waves.

"It's clear that the landscape is larger than it used to be," says French film office director Catherine Verret, who points out that even the Spanish festival opener, Almodovar's "All About My Mother," was financed with French money.

An interesting Petrie dish is the crossover appeal of Japan's animated "Princess Mononoke"--that country's biggest native box-office hit, exceeded only by the American "Titanic." Even if dubbed by hip actors such as Claire Danes, Billy Crudup and Minnie Driver, the mystical, mythical action-adventure/love story/folklore-fable set in 15th century Japan tests whether American audiences will respond to animation without chirpy animals, musical teacups and Eurocentric fairy-tale story lines and quick pacing.

The festival also shines a spotlight on Pietro Germi, once one of Italy's most popular and successful directors and largely forgotten since his death in 1975. Germi's most famous film, "Divorce--Italian Style," won the 1961 Oscar for best foreign film. "Using [F. Scott] Fitzgerald's notion that 'there are no second acts in American life,' I want to give a second act to great unknown Italian films and filmmakers," says Antonio Monda, professor of filmmaking at New York University and curator of the 12-film Germi retrospective.

"Germi was one of the greatest, and secondly, one of the most underrated. I dare to change that judgment."

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