IF you want to track the latest trends in American commercial film, watch the Academy Awards ceremony Monday night.
But if you're curious about new directions in serious cinema around the world, look at the lineup for this year's New Directors/New Films festival. It runs March 20-April 5 at the Museum of Modern Art here, which has sponsored this series every spring since 1971, in partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
What does the program reveal about current tendencies among promising young filmmakers? The festival's own literature highlights two patterns:
* An interest in "defiant acts" and "rebellion" against various conditions and conventions. These include the seeming limitations of old age in "Children of Nature" from Iceland; physical illness in "The Living End" from the United States; social oppression in "Five Girls and a Rope" from Taiwan; and political repression in "Lovers" from Spain and "Adorable Lies" from Cuba.
* Continuing vitality on the American independent scene, which has contributed six non-studio productions - five narrative features and a documentary - to the lineup.
From conversations with programmers of the festival, I can add a couple of further indications regarding contemporary trends. One is an increasing amount of attention by filmmakers to homosexual-related issues, including but not limited to the challenges posed by AIDS.
Also notable is a new creativity among American producers of independent films. Producers generally receive less public attention than directors and performers, especially when they don't operate within the Hollywood studios. But the most gifted of them are mastering fresh techniques for getting innovative movies into production outside the mainstream, and bringing them before wide audiences when they're completed.
Besides giving clues to broad trends, New Directors/New Films has an excellent track record for introducing pictures that go on to success in regular movie theaters. What films may make the biggest splashes this year - commercially, critically, or both? Some of the contenders:
Proof, from Australia, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. This extremely dark comedy, which has won numerous Australian Film Institute Awards, centers on a skeptical and sardonic blind man who has developed a love-hate relationship with the art of photography.
Other characters include his best friend, who describes to him pictures he can't see, and a crafty woman who works as his housekeeper. The film is small in scale and inconsistent in its accomplishments, but its emotions are complex and its story is original.
Finding Christa, from the US, directed by Camille Billops and James Hatch. A recent prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, this documentary traces the effort of an African-American woman to locate her mother, who gave her up for adoption when she was four years old. She ends up with two mothers, one who bore her and one who raised her, and they're quite different from each other.
The film has a wonderful heart as it focuses on an increasingly visible aspect of contemporary family experience. It is made rather amateurishly, though, and this detracts from its impact.
Satan, from Russia, directed by Viktor Aristov. Billed as a post-modern "Crime and Punishment," this dark drama begins with the senseless killing of a young girl, then follows the protagonist as he torments his lover - whose daughter was the murder victim - with a phony ransom scheme.
The film has a timely concern with links between personal and political corruption, although its sometimes rambling story is not as concentrated as one might wish.
Motorama, from the US, directed by Barry Shils. If any picture is going to emerge as this year's "Slacker," it has to be this wildly inventive road movie about a 10-year-old boy cruising the highways in a Mustang, determined to collect eight premium-cards that will garner him the $500 million prize in an oil-company contest.
Written by Joseph Minion, whose credits include such bizarre beauties as "After Hours" and "Vampire's Kiss," the film features more cameo appearances than any picture since "Around the World in 80 Days." Highway life will never be the same.
Films from 13 other nations - ranging from Turkey and Portugal to Hungary and Ukraine - are also represented on the program.