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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Indie films alive and well

PARK CITY, Utah -- This was an especially satisfying Sundance Film Festival. Day after day, clicking off three to four screenings, I became heartened by the good health of independent films. Of course, thanks to the dumbed-down movie distribution system and bookers with blinders, some of the films I liked most may never play in some cities (or states). But at least they exist, and thank God for cable and video stores.

I was blind-sided by the grand jury prize for "The Believer," about a Jewish anti-Semite. I'm not sure what writer-director Henry Bean's message was (and his post-award comments about his "love and hate for my religion" were little help). I'm surprised that the jury passed over the majestic depth and confidence of Todd Field's "In the Bedroom," or, if it wanted to go for "edgier" work, Christopher Nolan's "Memento."

"Edgy" was the favorite buzzword at Sundance this year. It seemed to refer to a visual style that called attention to itself, but some of the films that ventured closest to the edge were masterful in their control. "In the Bedroom" is an example: Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, who got a special jury award, are as good as actors can be, showing us a marriage that works and then breaks down after a tragedy.

"Memento" deserved its screenwriting award for Nolan, whose story is the most daring exercise in concentric circles since "The Usual Suspects." Guy Pearce stars as a man who tries to avenge the murder of his wife, even though he suffers from short-term memory loss and can remember only for a few minutes at a time. The last line is classic: "Now, where was I?"

Kate Davis' winning documentary "Southern Comfort" focuses on two rural Georgia couples that both consist of male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals. You'd expect such a doc to be set in San Francisco, not in the land of pickup trucks, mobile homes, outdoor barbecues, rifles, Marlboros and beer in long-necked bottles. Robert Eads, once named Barbara, is the hero of the movie: a chain-smoking, bearded transsexual who dies of ovarian cancer after no doctor in the area will agree to treatment ("My other patients would be embarrassed").

No more challenging and delightful film was shown than Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," about the odyssey of a hero seeking the meaning of life and dreams. Its metaphysical and scientific discussions hold up as ideas and entertainment, and the animation underlines the content and makes it sparkle.

Tilda Swinton creates a masterful performance in "Deep End," as a mother who wants to protect her 17-year-old son from a 30-year-old predator, and who finds herself concealing a murder, warding off a blackmail attempt and dealing with a family health crisis. The film's most fascinating thread involves how one of the blackmailers develops sympathy for her plight.

Allison Anders' "Things Behind the Sun" also lingers in my memory. Kim Dickens gives a courageous performance as a rock singer who drinks and seeks sexual trouble because of a childhood rape. One of the most beautiful things about the film is the way her wound is healed by a visit to the house where the rape took place where the Latino woman who now lives there instinctively senses that she needs a friend, and is one.

Lili Taylor plays a stubborn housewife who turns her life around in Bob Gosse's "Julie Johnson." She throws out her domineering husband, signs up for night-school classes, discovers a flair for higher math and is amazed when she and her best friend (Courtney Love) become lovers. But the film isn't simply an intellectual rags to riches; a third act explores the deeper implications of the woman's need to change, and her friend's limitations.

Another electrifying actress is Piper Perabo in Lea Pool's "Lost And Delirious." This was one of the most purely absorbing and entertaining films of the festival, the story of three boarding-school girls, with Perabo as a heroine in love with grand passionate gestures. Her energy and exuberance lift the film into the realm of courageous, heedless romance.

Why do so many Korean films explore the far reaches of sex and violence? I heard on CNN today that sex is being taught for the first time in South Korean secondary schools. Judging by films such as Ki-Duk Kim's "The Isle," they don't have much to learn. This is a film with sideways connections to "Woman in the Dunes," the Japanese classic. It's about a mute woman who runs a sort of floating motel; small fishing huts stand on barges that float in a lake, and she and her boat are the only connection to shore. She develops a passion for one of the fishermen, a shady character, and their relationship escalates into sadomasochism so unexpected and extreme that even a hardened Sundance audience was, yes, shocked.

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