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Feeding the buzz about 'best' films

PARK CITY, Utah Of course I've seen all the wrong films so far at the Sundance Film Festival, according to the touts who whisper in my ear before screenings. It is always this way. You think you're seeing wonderful films, and everybody assures you that you've missed the masterpieces and are hopelessly out of the loop.

If I am to believe what I hear, the biggest bidding war is over "Happy, Texas," a movie about two escaped convicts, posing as a gay theater couple, who are hired to direct the annual Little Miss Fresh-Squeezed Beauty Pageant. William H. Macy plays the secretive local sheriff.

The audience favorite is said to be "Three Seasons," the first U.S. feature to be shot in Vietnam since the war, interweaving four stories of transition. It has received two standing ovations, unheard of at Sundance. And the underground buzz is about "The Blair Witch Project," a weird experimental horror film. I'll report on all three films later.

Of the films I have actually seen, many are very good. I have been telling the touts about them, so they can share the anguish of having missed the "best" films. Actual reviews will await their openings, but here are notes:

"Ravenous," by the British director Antonia Bird ("Mad Love"), is a very dark Western about an isolated Army cavalry unit in the wintertime California mountains, and how cannibalism is introduced into their circle by a vampirish outcast. This is one of the creepiest horror films in many a moon, starring Guy Pearce, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies and Robert Carlyle as the stranger with odd tastes.

"Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." is the latest documentary by Errol Morris. He finds odd subjects, and Fred A. Leuchter Jr. is one of the oddest: An engineer who specializes in designing updated and "humane" electric chairs, gas chambers and lethal injection machines. His business is booming, until he takes a commission to study the gas chambers at Auschwitz. He claims they wouldn't have worked; experts attack his methods, and his death business falls off.

"The Loss Of Sexual Innocence," by Mike Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas"), is one of the festival's most daring and innovative films. It has the kind of freedom of form seen in works by Kieslowski and Tarkovsky, as it examines the way sex, guilt and knowledge interact in several lives; the background story is an interracial version of "Paradise Lost." Julian Sands and Saffron Burrows star.

"Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" is already a hit in the U.K.; it's a twisted crime comedy about villains and double-crosses, told in a style between film noir and MTV. Sting stars in a cast of hot young Brits and Scots.

"Valerie Flake" stars Susan Traylor in one of the year's most uncompromising performances, as a woman whose bitter and aggressive style conceals deep wounds. She meets a nice guy (Jay Underwood), patient and understanding, and his niceness seems to make her suffer even more. Bleak, darkly comic, wholly original.

"A Slipping-Down Life" stars Lili Taylor, a heroine at Sundance, as a small-town woman whose life is pointless, she feels, until she grows obsessed with a local rock singer (Guy Pearce, again) and carves his name in her forehead. Oddly enough, this leads not to a movie about stalking, but to a romance: The singer falls in love with her, although their relationship is far from simple.

"Home Page" is a haunting documentary set at the time when the Web was shifting from individual anarchists to corporate megasites. It centers on Justin Hall, bright, articulate, and with a peculiar hairstyle, as his Web page makes him an early Web superstar, and then follows him on an odyssey to San Francisco, where he intersects with the Web empires of Wired magazine and Internet pioneer Howard Rheingold. Justin and others talk of their online friendships (their lives seem primarily devoted to producing fodder for their Web pages); the movie wonders how fulfilling their virtual relationships really are.

"Guinevere" is a comic, touching love story about a 20-year-old (Sarah Polley) who meets a much older wedding photographer (Stephen Rea) and falls for his bohemian lifestyle; she has low esteem and he helps her to flower. But is this because he has a big heart or because it's a good way to score with chicks?

Sundance featured two tributes this year. Laura Dern, whose acting has distinguished such independent films as "Smooth Talk," "Wild at Heart," "Rambling Rose" and "Citizen Ruth," was honored at the Piper-Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision on Monday. Isabella Rossellini was the emcee, Peter Bogdanovich discussed Dern's work in "Mask," and I joined her for an onstage Q&A. The night before, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, director and producer of "El Norte," were honored by a 15th anniversary screening of their epic classic, which was the first of the Sundance Institute summer workshop screenplays to make it to the screen.

Six more films tomorrow. Gotta get some sleep. The buzz goes on.

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