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Selectivity Is a Key for New York Film Festival

September 24, 1999|CLIFF ROTHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — 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.

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