Intelligent pictures, minus huge budgets and stars

Most major film festivals take pride in surveying the cinema scene as sweepingly as possible, filling their screens with movies by the score. By contrast, the New York Film Festival prides itself on selectivity.

No awards or prizes are handed out here. If you made one of the two-dozen-plus pictures unspooled in this year's edition (through Sunday night) you're a winner by definition, because you triumphed over hundreds of other contenders who failed to make the final cut.

For that and other reasons, this annual Lincoln Center event has become one of the most influential programs of its kind. When brilliant but challenging pictures like Jacques Rivette's magical "Va Savoir" and Magid Magidi's gritty "Baran" open at a theater near you - and they're already on their way to many US cities - you can thank this closely watched festival for providing a critical launching pad.

The Son's Room, by Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti, is the kind of movie that benefits most by building momentum at events like this. It doesn't have a huge budget or glittering stars, and Miramax won't flood newspapers with expensive ads when it begins its commercial run. But it's a warm, gentle drama that audiences here adored, and they're already spreading the word.

Moretti plays a successful psychotherapist with a family life that's wonderful until tragedy strikes: His teenaged son dies in an accident, leaving him to wonder if he and his loved ones can ever recover from their grief. We watch as they grapple with overpowering emotions, gradually realizing that people with generous hearts and unselfish spirits can cope with the worst catastrophes.

"The Son's Room" isn't perfect. The family's domestic routine is too idealized - in real life, even contented households have troubled moments - and Moretti's acting is sometimes below par. The film has scenes of uncommon gracefulness and power, though, and its delicate moods are refreshing.

If you'd prefer a more whimsical treat, the movie to watch for is What Time Is It There? by Tsai Ming-Liang, a Taiwanese director whose reputation has skyrocketed lately. The main characters are a Taiwanese woman embarking on a visit to France and a man who falls in love with her after a momentary meeting just before she leaves. All he knows about her is that she's in France, so he expresses his infatuation by sneaking around Taipei and changing every clock he can find to French time. Meanwhile, she wanders around Paris, having a series of aimless adventures.

This is a slender story, but Tsai's visual style makes it sing. Instead of leaping from shot to shot like a Hollywood filmmaker, he lets his camera linger in a single spot for remarkably long periods, giving us time to explore each image and discover its witty, sometimes hilarious details for ourselves. Asian cinema has grown increasingly popular with American moviegoers, and this wry comedy will surely continue the trend.

Other festival movies headed for theaters include Todd Solondz's mordant Storytelling, which spins two tragicomic tales of suburban misery; Shohei Imamura's colorful Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, a fable-like yarn about an unconventional love affair; and Catherine Breillat's bittersweet Fat Girl, about a young girl unsettled by her sister's burgeoning sex life.

Ironically, one of the program's most touching films - Manoel de Oliveira's exquisite I'm Going Home, a Portuguese drama starring Michel Piccoli as an actor at the end of his career - doesn't yet have an American distributor. If its enthusiastic reception here encourages some enterprising company to take a chance with it, audiences everywhere will reap a handsome benefit.

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