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Declaration of Independents 

The St. Louis International Film Festival proves "indie" isn't a category but a way of life

Because the crowd-pleasing and aggressively commercial project My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- not screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival, just everywhere else, bless it -- has rendered the term "independent" utterly meaningless in the movie marketplace, the films at the eleventh annual SLIFF take on added potential for success with audiences. Regardless of who stars in it or who bankrolled the budget, anything goes, and this wide spectrum of works reflects that spirit with some of the year's most anticipated releases -- well, most anticipated by celluloid hipsters, anyway.

Here are just a few choice works included this year: David Cronenberg's oedipal nightmare Spider (starring Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne); the return-to-the-reservation drama The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie (screenwriter of Smoke Signals); Steven Cantor's documentary of the Great Braided One, Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving (featuring American greats ranging from Ray Charles to Lyle Lovett); and Spanish enfant terrible Pedro Almodóvar's latest, Talk to Her. Obviously the idiosyncratic selections are a little richer than your average trip to the multiplex, but with any luck they'll be influencing that trip in years to come.

Featuring a scintillating international menu that's sure to satisfy world-cinema connoisseurs, SLIFF also manages to take the foreignness out of foreign film, as demonstrated by several projects. From Russia, late gangster-movie star Sergei Bodrov Jr.'s Sisters presents a fine reflection of a gradually modernizing culture as experienced by two young siblings -- one rich (Katya Gorina), one poor (Oksana Akinshina), both portrayed with exemplary humanity anyone can find relatable. Although the kids' largely involuntary tour through the Russian mob underground is a bit implausible, their performances are quite winning.

See also Josef Fares' blithe and charming Jalla! Jalla!, a Swedish take on Green Card about a hapless, lovestruck Lebanese immigrant (Fares Fares, whose grand special effect of a nose makes Adrien Brody's honker look teensy). Smells at first whiff like common romantic comedy, but the tough decision between a serious Swedish girlfriend (Tuva Novotny) and a make-believe Lebanese fiancée (Laleh Pourkarim) is inventively directed and a lot of fun. Much like Iceland's 101 Reykjavík and Finland's Levottomat, the film delivers plenty of playful sexuality, and it sets a defining standard for amusing erectile-dysfunction subplots.

Plenty of independent-minded American films adorn the fest, some wryly insightful (George Hickenlooper's The Man From Elysian Fields), some hackneyed beyond belief (Paul Duran's The Dogwalker), but the list of international must-sees goes on and on. Another gem is Bangkok Haunted, one of the fest's three entries from Thailand. Directed by Pisuth Praesaeng-im and Oxide Pang (the latter of whom co-directed Bangkok Dangerous), it's a stylish and eerie series of three ghost stories, each creepier than the last. It's so good it'll probably be snapped up -- like Hideo Nakata's Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) -- to be remade by a major American studio. In the meantime, do not wait for imitations; catch it here. As with the festival in general, it represents independent storytellers set free to do what they do best. -- Gregory Weinkauf

If you laughed at Jackass: The Movie but wondered about the deranged psychology of those performing in it, don't miss the highlight of this year's SLIFF: Paul Hough's The Backyard. A look at the phenomenon of backyard wrestling -- in which teens perform pro-wrestling matches in homemade backyard rings and augment the combat with such weapons as barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bats and flaming boards -- Hough's film initially makes you laugh at the participants (some of whom choreograph the carnage whereas others just go nuts), then dares you not to cry with them as the often twisted psyches are bared. It's unflinchingly honest (and unlike hysterical media reports on the phenomenon, balanced) and, to coin a catchphrase, will lay the smack down on your senses.

Also on the subject of youngsters with possibly twisted minds putting on a show is Hell House, only punishing bodies is not the issue here. It's all about the soul in this documentary about the making of a Halloween haunted house that attempts to scare youngsters in the direction of Jesus by way of such horrors as homosexuality, abortion, suicide and -- in the interests of seeming "with it" -- raves. The whole thing's like a Jack Chick comic tract come to life, and it would be easy to condescend to, but director George Ratliff has not done so. These are real people, and he shows us their real lives without ever condemning their beliefs, though it must be said that seeing an entire congregation speaking in tongues may well induce laughter among those unprepared for the experience. And if fanatical Christians aren't your deal, the festival has the other side of the spectrum covered, too, in Alexie's The Business of Fancydancing, a laudable, if occasionally muddled and overlong, semiautobiography about the life of a gay Indian poet ostracized from his reservation.

And then there are films involving folks who badly need religion, or at least some sort of grounding: Both Amy's Orgasm and Mary/Mary (the latter named for its fixation on the Biblical Madonna-and-whore archetypes) deal with whiny neurotics looking for love, most likely reflecting the insecurities of the director, who, in Amy's case, also stars. If you dig desperate singles determined to sabotage their good relationships, go for the Orgasm: Director/star Julie Davis is at least cute and somewhat appealing, whereas Mary/Mary's protagonist, Emmanuel, is so paranoid he ruins everyone else's happiness as well, with no indication of why we should give two hoots about his misery.

You can also get a good look at some quirkier foreign films than usually see the light of day on these shores: The Spanish Woman is a dreamlike look at an immigrant community in 1960s Australia, Absolute Hundred a grim drama about a washed-up Olympic marksman in the former Yugoslavia and See You Off to the Edge of Town a touching and amusing (though, again, overlong) family drama that follows a Chinese family on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

One might hope that a film called Invasion Anime could help newbies discover the joys of such Japanese animated films as the current Spirited Away, but, alas, Angie Alexander's cheap-looking collection of close-up talking-head interviews shows no depth and worse yet, virtually no clips to back up the talk. Skip it and go see Spirited Away if you haven't yet; you won't regret it. -- Luke Y. Thompson

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More by Gregory Weinkauf

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