New York Film Festival Wanders Far From the Beaten Path

But not so far that it overlooks major releases like 'Strange Days'

THIS hasn't been a banner year for film festivals. At international events from Cannes to Montreal, critics and audiences have found excellent cinema a surprisingly rare commodity in recent months.

Of course, at large-scale festivals like Cannes and Montreal the lack of quality may be partially masked by the huge quantity of movies being shown. This option isn't available at the annual New York Film Festival, a highly selective affair that limits its program to about two-dozen features - a courageous but risky policy that shines a bright spotlight on every picture fortunate enough to be chosen. Freed from the task of sorting through hundreds of movies jostling for attention, spectators can focus full attention on each attraction and search for new insights into the current state of world cinema.

It's clear that festival programmers wandered far from the beaten path in their quest for quality this year, since many offerings are by less-than-famous directors, and a large number have yet to find commercial distributors.

This marks a major change from last year, when Miramax Films seemed to dominate the lineup and movie after movie traveled directly from Lincoln Center to theatrical screens.

This year's proliferation of little-known pictures is all to the good, since a major reason for attending filmfests is to discover movies that illuminate the human condition without necessarily having the crowd-pleasing attributes required by profit-minded exhibitors.

There's much to treasure in so-far-unreleased pictures like Terence Davies's sensitive family study The Neon Bible, the vibrant musical Flamenco by Carlos Saura, and Hou Hsiao-hsien's evocative melodrama Good Men, Good Women.

Along with these valuable offerings, the filmfest is presenting several movies now appearing in theaters. Perhaps the most provocative is Strange Days, an ambitious science-fiction drama that's sure to have audiences arguing for months. Set on the eve of the 21st century, it centers on a former cop who now hustles software for an illegal entertainment device that pumps sensory impressions directly into the brain - and might provide clues to the murder of a popular rap singer, whose death could trigger the biggest race riot of the millenium.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow with astonishing technical prowess - and enough grisly violence to raise a controversy all its own - the film races to a climax that's either a slam-bang happy ending or a blatant ideological cop-out, depending on your point of view. Compounded of both art and exploitation, it was a commendably unconventional choice for the "Centerpiece" evening midway through the festival. Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Juliette Lewis are the stars.

Also destined for debate is Dead Presidents, directed by the Hughes Brothers, who are rising to the top rank of today's African-American filmmakers. The first major film to explore connections between urban violence and military indoctrination, it's a bruising but stimulating experience.

Moviegoers who prefer conversation to action may favor Kicking and Screaming, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the year's most promising first-time filmmaker. The characters are 20-somethings who keep rattling around their college campus after graduation for the excellent reason that they can't think of anything better to do. Full of sly observations and laugh-out-loud dialogue, the movie is as smart and irreverent as the people it's about. It also matches them in lack of an ultimate goal - the story loses momentum in its last half-hour or so. But you can't help liking it all the same. Chris Eigeman and Parker Posey head the cast.

Similarly irresistible is Augustin, a short and sweet French comedy about an aspiring actor who supports himself with run-of-the-mill jobs while dreaming of the brilliant career that's surely about to change his life. Directed by Anne Fontaine, it stars Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc in one of the most uproarious comic performances I've seen in ages.

Coming to theaters later in the year are Lamerica, a touching and intelligent drama in the neorealist tradition by Gianni Amelio, perhaps the greatest of today's Italian filmmakers; Shanghai Triad, a first-rate gangster yarn by Chinese director Zhang Yimou; and The White Balloon, a near-perfect study of childhood adventure by director Jafar Panahi and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami, two masters of Iranian cinema.

Also due for release are Land and Freedom, an earnest melodrama by the great political filmmaker Ken Loach, and Carrington, featuring Emma Thompson as the celebrated British painter and Jonathan Pryce in a much-praised performance as her highly unconventional lover.

And some three months after it captivated Cannes audiences, the touching drama Georgia has finally been picked up for distribution by Miramax, which means movie fans everywhere can soon enjoy Jennifer Jason Leigh's extraordinary portrayal of a troubled rock-and-roll singer trying to renew a loving relationship with her sister.

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