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Six from Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah -- A jilted transsexual, a city priest, a rock musician, a man with no memory, a Jewish anti-Semite and a headless chicken. Six movies ranging from good to great. After two more days at the Sundance Film Festival, I review my notes.

"Hedwig And The Angry Inch" looks likely to be one of the commercial hits launched at Sundance this year. It's a weird and lovable musical about an East German who has a sex change operation to pose as an American GI's bride. The operation is botched, the marriage ends in divorce, and Hedwig and her band tour an American restaurant chain where they sometimes have to sing from behind the salad bar.

John Cameron Mitchell, an engaging, androgynous actor who becomes electrified when he sings, stars as Hedwig, and also directed. He collaborated on the original New York and Los Angeles stage play with composer/musician Stephen Trask and many other members of the movie's cast, including Miriam Shor, who plays Hedwig's second husband. The plot hinges on the devastation Hedwig feels when she befriends a young man (Michael Pitt) who later steals all her songs and becomes a rock star.

The plot is like "Rocky Horror" meets "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," with elements of "Cabaret" and Fassbinder. The music is terrific. Despite its gender confusion and frankness about sex, the movie has a certain innocence, and Hedwig is like an opera heroine who keeps on singing as her life collapses around her. The movie has generated a lot of excitement here and rolls out nationally from New Line.

At the other end of every conceivable scale is Eugene Martin's contemplative, profound "Diary of a City Priest." David Morse stars in a quiet, absorbing performance as a hardworking inner-city priest who does his best to meet the spiritual and physical demands of his job but is drowning in more problems than he can solve. The hungry come to his door, the despairing to his confessional, and when well-meaning suburbanites give him an "almost new" car, his first thought is: How long will this last in my neighborhood?

Martin said before the screening that his hero is Robert Bresson, the introspective French filmmaker whose "Diary of a Country Priest" this film obliquely resembles. Watching it, I was aware of how rarely we see true spirituality in practice. We get a lot of "religious" films that are basically sectarian propaganda, but hardly ever a movie that seriously considers the struggle of a man trying to lead a good and useful life_a man quietly trying to be a saint.

A different kind of spiritual struggle takes place in Henry Bean's "The Believer," which has stirred enormous controversy here. Ryan Gosling stars, in one of the best performances of the festival, as a virulent anti-Semite, very bright, who is adopted by an American fascist group - and then even they grow wary of his extremism.

Flashbacks tell the hidden story: This young man was born and raised Jewish and engaged in protracted and articulate arguments with his teachers in religion classes. His basic argument is with God, who he feels is an egotistical bully. His anti-Semitism is partly self-hatred, partly madness, partly just the stubbornness of a bright kid who cannot stand to lose an argument.

No one quarrels with the power or artistry of the film, but "The Believer" inspired many conversations about its content; the protagonist is articulate and unrelenting as he speaks against Jews, and because he is Jewish himself (unlike, say, Ed Norton's character in "American History X"), some feared the film could do more harm than good.

"Memento" has been a buzz-champ since the early days of Sundance; I caught up with it and found out why. Directed by Christopher Nolan, it stars Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential") as a man determined to avenge the murder of his wife. The twist: He has had short-term memory loss ever since the murder and can hold thoughts for only a few minutes. So he resorts to memos, maps, even tattoos on his body, to help him keep track of his progress. Carrie-Anne Moss plays a woman who wants to help him (he sometimes thinks), and Joe Pantoliano is either for him or against him, depending on which memo he reads. This is a movie so deviously constructed it makes "The Usual Suspects" look like Hitchcock. Imagine "Groundhog Day" recycling 10 times an hour.

Kim Dickens gives a brave and strong performance in Allison Anders' "Things Behind the Sun," starring as a self-destructive rock musician who after being raped in early adolescence has spiraled into booze and bad sex.

Gabriel Mann plays a rock journalist who arrives to interview her; his secret is that the rapist was his brother. Don Cheadle is her manager, protector and sad sometime lover; he cares for her, hopelessly. There's raw honesty here, bared nerves and resolution that is not soppy or sappy but elevates to a kind of poetry of reconciliation.

Mark Lewis is the "Cane Toads" man. If you saw that weird and hilarious documentary, about how Australia was infested by toads whose skin turned out to be hallucinogenic, you know that "The Natural History of the Chicken" is no ordinary chicken movie. Lewis finds a woman in West Palm Beach who coddles her rare chicken like a member of the family, others who know their chickens by name, and one family that dreams of paying off the farm after their chicken continues to live and thrive after having its head cut off. There are also the property owners whose lives become impossible after a neighbor starts raising 100 roosters. "I hate to sound ethnocentric," says one tight-lipped neighbor, "but you know you're a redneck if you're raising roosters for cockfighting."

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