The 37th New York Film Festival, presented September 24 through October 10 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was divided between high-profile works from some of the world's most prominent directors and comparatively obscure movies unlikely to visit American cinemas anytime soon. Sometimes the latter category can offer unexpected riches; this year, most of the real gold was to be found among the selections already making their way to the multiplex.

Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother, which was released in November by Sony Pictures Classics, opened the festival to great acclaim. The Spanish filmmaker's trademark visual elan was very much in evidence, with director of photography Affonso Beato helping art director Antxon Gomez's sets to pop in the Almodovar fashion. This story of actresses, mothers, nuns, and transexuals (played by Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, and Antonia San Juan) is a particularly stylish triumph for costume designers Jose Maria de Cossio and Sabine Daigeler; an oft-glimpsed production of A Streetcar Named Desire only adds to the fun.

The theatre also provides inspiration for Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan story, which screened as the festival centerpiece, and which is discussed in great detail on page 30. The closing night film, Felicia's Journey, by Canadian director Atom Egoyan, is steeped in artifice of a different sort. Bob Hoskins plays a catering manager who obsessively watches tapes of his late mother's cooking program as he prepares meals.

Most of the wit in this psychological thriller, released in November by Artisan Entertainment, comes from these 1950s-set images, with actress Arsinee Khanjian dressed in full-skirted floral-print outfits by costume designer Sandy Powell. Working in England for the first time, Egoyan took along his longtime DP Paul Sarossy, but hired a British production designer, Jim Clay, best known for the TV series The Singing Detective.

American films in the festival included Kevin Smith's controversial religious satire Dogma, released by Lions Gate Films in November, and which lists among its credits a wing coordinator/builder (Gregory Ramoundos), who helped turn Matt Damon and Ben Affleck into angels; and Harmony Korine's julien donkey-boy, the first American adherent to the Danish Dogma 95 (no relation to Smith's movie), which decrees, among other restrictions, that no artificial light or settings are to be used in the film.

Boys Don't Cry, Kimberly Peirce's story of Brandon Teena, the young, cross-dressing Nebraska woman who was raped and murdered a few years ago, was highly praised and subsequently released by Fox Searchlight. But the biggest stir among the festival's American films was created by Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, a surreal descent into the world of a puppeteer (John Cusack) who works as a file clerk on the 71/2 floor of a Manhattan office building, where he discovers a portal into the title actor's head.

This is the feature debut of commercial and music video director Jonze, who worked with previous collaborators like DP Lance Acord and production designer KK Barrett to bring the unique world of this USA Films release to life. Of special note are the main characters' lifelike puppets, which are designed by Kamela B. Portuges and constructed by Images in Motion Media, Inc.

The festival's international offerings included two French modernizations of Melville: Claire Denis' beautifully photographed (by Agnes Godard) Le Beau Travail, which transposes the story of Billy Budd to a Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti; and Leos Carax's Pola X, based on the gothic romance Pierre or the Ambiguities. Carax is the director who helmed the notoriously expensive Lovers on the Bridge, and his taste for photogenically sumptuous and/or decaying environments is dutifully served here by DP Eric Gautier, production designer Laurent Allaire, and costume designer Esther Walz.

>From elsewhere across the globe, Youseff Chahine's The Other represented Egypt, Majid Majidi's The Color of Heaven came from Iran, and Set Me Free was a product of Francophone Canada. The latter, a girl's coming-of-age story directed by Lea Pool, captured its early 1960s Montreal setting with evocative finesse, and will be released by Merchant Ivory Distribution in early 2000. New Zealander and festival favorite Jane Campion was back with Holy Smoke, starring Kate Winslet. Visually stunning (courtesy of DP Dion Beebe and production/costume designer Janet Patterson) if dramatically shaky, this drama set in India and Australia was released to American theatres in December by Miramax Films.

But the film with the most magnificent imagery in the festival was the Japanese animated feature Princess Mononoke, directed by the renowned Hayao Miyazaki. Presented in the US by Miramax, with such redubbed English-language voices as Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, and Minnie Driver, this medieval fable of humans' relationship with nature features vivid characters, textured backgrounds, and exciting action sequences that are unrivaled by American animated films.