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Indie hits and misses.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  It's easy to be cynical about American indie films these days, especially if you've sat through one too many 20-something whinefests. I'm sometimes tempted to paraphrase Steve Martin's tirade in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—if you're going to tell a story, HAVE A POINT! But the preponderance of mediocrity in the American arthouse still leaves room for occasional bursts of energy and originality.

Bursts like Buffalo '66 (1998, R), a movie that succeeds almost entirely on artistic moxy. Writer/director/star Vincent Gallo is so confident of his talent, and so sure that audiences will find him as fascinating as he does, that he carries the film through rough patches of writing and pacing. He casts himself as Billy, a loser fresh from prison who comes home to Buffalo desperate to convince his clueless parents he's actually been working as a government big-shot. To aid in the deception, he kidnaps a young woman (the always welcome Christina Ricci, in her best role yet) and forces her to pretend she's his wife. What he doesn't count on is a.) Ricci enjoying the pretense and b.) him falling in love with her. The film winds its way through an absurd conspiracy to kill a Buffalo Bills place-kicker, but the subtext is Billy slowly learning how to deal with the real world. It's a weird movie and a flawed one—a bizarre sequence with Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara as Gallo's parents is both hilarious and a little off, as if Gallo himself wasn't sure what kind of home Billy could have come from. But Gallo and Ricci are compelling, and the filmmaking is full of bravura invention. It's the kind of strikingly personal movie the indie boom was supposed to encourage.

That's more than you can say for High Art (1998, R), which is the kind of movie the indie boom has produced much too often. Also a directing debut, this time by Lisa Cholodenko, High Art has all the depth of a glossy magazine cover. It combines two indie clichés—the romantic junkie and the chic lesbian—to give us Lucy (Ally Sheedy in a much-heralded comeback), a talented photographer who's let her muse lapse as she's surrendered to a heroin addiction. She's reinvigorated after meeting Syd (Radha Mitchell), her naive downstairs neighbor. Soon, the two of them are rolling around in dewy sapphic sex scenes and Lucy's ready to go back to work. This is soap opera drama masquerading as gritty realism; only Sheedy manages to transcend the hackneyed screenplay, bringing a rawness to her role that the rest of the film lacks.

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