Malkovich - US
Warhol's 15 minutes of fame is given an absurdist spin by first-time director Spike Jonze, in this superbly executed satire on the pitfalls of celebrity. The premise is fantastical. Thwarted puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) discovers a hidden door which leads into the brain of John Malkovich (playing himself), allowing visitors 15 minutes' occupation of the actor's identity. From this offbeat starting-point, the film ventures into ever deeper and stranger territory, sustaining dazzling levels of invention and stylish wit right up to the final shot. The casting is spot- on and Jonze's decision to play everything straight is what makes the film so funny and surreal.
A Room for Romeo
Brass - UK
Shane Meadows hits top form with his second feature, based around an incident in his childhood. Two schoolboy neighbours befriend a local eccentric. When one of them falls ill, events spiral out of control and the jaunty tone takes on a darker hue. Meadows displays a sure touch, blending humour, lyricism and violence into a highly original whole. Newcomer Paddy Considine, as the loner, is a revelation - Nottingham's answer to the young Robert de Niro, only scarier!
Shattered Image - US
Chilean auteur Raul Ruiz recently dished up his most commercial offering to date, a tricksy, handsomely-mounted adaptation of Proust's Time Regained. Shattered Image pre-dates that film and couldn't be more different. Like Sliding Doors and The Double Life of Veronique, it explores the theme of parallel lives, but through the conventions of an erotic thriller which veers closely at times to self-parody. It's a brilliantly perverse concoction, using stylistic excess and anti-naturalistic performances to push against genre limitations.
The Straight Story - US
A David Lynch film devoid of his trademark film noir atmospherics is strange indeed. Still, it's a total delight, not least because it's so unusual to see a mainstream film deal with old age. Old-timer Alvin Straight's health is failing so he decides on one last trip, to see his ailing estranged brother in the next state. There're a couple of typical Lynchian flourishes but for the most part, the film does play it straight - if travelling across the Midwest on a lawnmower is anyone's idea of straight. Richard Farnsworth came out of retirement to take the lead and gives a perfectly- pitched performance of quiet authority. The understated climax to Straight's journey resonates long after the credits - and contains a lovely surprise cameo.
L'Humanite - France
Director Bruno Dumont was roundly booed when he collected the Grand Jury prize at Cannes for his second film L'Humanite. It's a slow-burning, hypnotic meditation on the big themes - love, death, the nature of guilt - which centres on a small-town policeman's investigation of a young girl's rape and murder. The film achieves a strange, entrancing power through its combination of painterly compositions, flattened performances and a spiritual apprehension of landscape. L'Humanite has yet to secure a distributor in Britain so this may be your only chance to catch what many regard as this year's art house masterpiece.
Shanghai - Taiwan
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's reputation here rests mainly with The Time to Live and a Time to Die, a subtly moving exploration of recent Taiwanese history. In his latest, he turns his attention to the elegant flower houses of late 19th-century Shanghai, where married civil servants gather to flirt over tea with flower-girl prostitutes. As the film unfolds in a series of ravishing tableaux, the formal etiquette is gradually revealed to mask intrigues, conspiracies and horrifying exploitation. As ever, Hou's finely- tuned antennae register the seismic shifts occurring beneath the seemingly unchanging surface of the present. It's an exquisite film which boasts a stellar cast of Asian talent, including the incomparable Tony Leung.
Moloch - Russia
Huge claims have been made on behalf of Alexander Sokurov, regarded by many as the legitimate heir to Tarkovsky's visionary mantle. His last feature, Mother and Son, had the likes of Scorsese and Schrader rushing to proclaimits rejuvenating minimalism. Where that film tended to eschew dialogue and story, this latest feels more conventional. It's 1942 and a holidaying couple must face the impasse their relationship has entered. That couple is Hitler and Eva Braun, and their deliberations will effect more than just their own lives. Whatever your opinion of Sokurov's peculiarly Slavicsolemnity, in his uncanny ability to evoke atmosphere, he is virtually without peer.
Bleeder - Denmark
Nicholas Winding Refn's debut, Pusher, was one of the best films of 1996, a thorough-going assault on the senses reminiscent of early Scorsese. He adopts a slower tempo for this raw study of masculinity and its discontents. A young woman becomes pregnant and her partner is unable to cope with the fact. He witnesses a shooting which precipitates his downward spiral into some disturbingly violent encounters. Refn elicits fearless performances from his cast which, in their sheer full-blooded commitment, call to mind those in Festen. Refn belongs right up there with the cream of Danish directing talent - proving too that there's life outside Dogme.
Show Me Love - Sweden
Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson, this modest, beautifully-observed comedy depicts the roundabout course to true love taken by two girls at opposite ends of the social spectrum. It's set in the sleepy Swedish town of Amal, not the ideal place to embark on a teenage lesbian affair, as the girls discover. Astonishingly, it was a big box-office success in Sweden, giving even Titanic a run for its money!
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TIPS FROM THE TOP
JULIAN SIMPSON, first-time director of a new British film, The Criminal, which stars Eddie Izzard: "I'm looking forward to Steven Soderbergh's The Limey. I've read that he uses clips of Stamp's younger self lifted directly from Poor Cow. I wish I'd come up with that! Soderbergh makes genre films but he never dumbs down."
Krutin Patel, director of ABCD, a US/India co-production starring Madhur Jaffrey. "Cotton Mary, directed by Ismail Merchant, is my choice. Like my film, this one stars Madhur Jaffrey. I think she's one of the greatest actresses to come out of India, and in a way her versatility has still not been fully tapped. In Cotton Mary, she plays a nurse who wants to become British, to strip herself of her culture and become something she isn't. It's the opposite of my film, where she plays a quintessentially Indian mother, trying to hold on to her culture in the US. I'm a big fan of Merchant-Ivory. They always deliver quality. In the States their films have enormous prestige and can attract the biggest stars."
Aisling Walsh, Dublin-born director of the British film Forgive and Forget: "I want to see American Beauty. I like the idea of a big Hollywood film which looks at the problems faced by people in their forties, their relationships and family ties. It's a grown-up movie where so many today just aren't, they're trying to be hip and targeting themselves at twenty-somethings. It's also interesting that it's directed by an English theatre director."
Richard Jobson, the producer of Tube Tales: "It's got to see Spike Jonze's Malkovich. Coming from a musical background myself, I'm pleased to see so many people from promos, like Jonze, breaking into film directing. They can bring a freshness and an iconoclasm which really shakes things up."