The 26 feature films at this year's New York Film Festival suggest that a spirit of innovation and daring is flourishing among both independent American directors and the more established foreign filmmakers, like Mike Leigh and Hayao Miyazaki, whose new work took off in unexpected directions.

"Directors are taking ideas and themes that have been in their work and going much further than they ever have before," said Richard Pena, the program director for the festival, now in its 37th year.

Leigh, who is known for such contemporary dramas about the working-class British as "Secrets and Lies," makes a startling departure with his new film, "Topsy-Turvy."

The director smiled when asked how he came to the picture, which celebrates--of all people--the 19th-century team of Gilbert and Sullivan, creators of "The Mikado."

"First of all, there's the pure naughtiness of doing what isn't expected," he answered. "Everyone else does period films, and I thought, 'Why shouldn't I, really?' But I was really interested in subverting the idea of the period film. You don't usually get period films where you see the ordinary things that people's lives are about."

"Topsy-Turvy," which will open in Washington early next year, is neither pure biography nor fiction, but an homage to an era. Usually, Leigh guides his actors in creating their characters through numerous improvisations.

In the case of this particular film, however, the actors were basing their characters on actual personages. Says Jim Broadbent, who plays Gilbert, "We had to be rigorous to the known facts, but that became a huge bonus because it made the characters more complex."

Miyazaki, whose seventh feature-length animated film, "Princess Mononoke," also played in the festival, is another prominent director who is expanding the boundaries of a genre. His movie, one of the two most successful films of all time in Japan, is an animated epic about a warrior in ancient times who falls in love with a half-savage princess and joins forces with her to protect the spirits of nature against mankind. The film, which will open here this fall in an English-dubbed version, has the kind of amplitude not usually found in animation: "You wind up comparing it to something like 'Lawrence of Arabia,' " says author Neil Gaiman, who turned the Japanese soundtrack into an English script.

Needless to say, Miyazaki does not create his work with product tie-ins in mind. Nor is he afraid of darkness or moments of violence in his films. Rather, he has an unwavering faith in the sophistication of his viewers, especially children. "I see children as these amazing beings who are born with infinite possibilities," he says through an interpreter.

Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother" and Atom Egoyan's "Felicia's Journey" are two other festival works by established directors who have taken their signature concerns and explored them in novel ways. Almodovar's 13th film marries the sexual role play and exuberance of his previous films with a more deeply developed compassion and seriousness. His tale of a nurse who loses her son and eventually finds a new family in her female (and transsexual) friends is also provocative in how it posits family as a matter of choice, not just of blood.

Similarly, Egoyan in "Felicia's Journey" tracks his signature themes of redemption, loss and the haunting power of memory, but in a locale markedly different from his previous films: England and rural Ireland. The movie, based on the William Trevor novel about an Irish girl who voyages to England and comes under the sway of an amiable psychopath, allows the Canadian to craft a finely tuned world previously outside his sphere.

Jane Campion and Kevin Smith, on the other hand, explore new territory in their work through the forthright way they take on matters of religion and personal faith.

Campion's "Holy Smoke," which features an incendiary performance by Kate Winslet and which will open here early next year, is about a young Australian woman who joins a cult in India and who, at her family's insistence, is confronted with a professional deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel). Tracing the duo's brutal tug of war, the film raises provocative questions about the struggle for power in sexual relationships and the ability of religion to divide as well as to heal.

"Dogma," in contrast, by "Clerks" director Kevin Smith, is a New Jersey-based comedy that addresses questions of faith while telling an adventure tale more on the order of "Ghostbusters." Two banished angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) scheme to reenter the Kingdom of Heaven through a loophole they've found in Catholic dogma. Racing to stop them, and to save mankind, are a woman (Linda Fiorentino) who is a long-lost relative of Christ's and happens to work in an abortion clinic, two loopy prophets and a 13th apostle (Chris Rock). The film has drawn criticism from conservative Catholic groups, but for the 29-year-old Smith--who considers himself a devout Catholic--such criticism is misguided.

"This is a completely pro-faith movie," he says. "It's frustrating when people come down on the film who haven't even seen it." He continues, "The film may have jokes, but at the end of the day it's faith-affirming and devout. I didn't want to get on a soapbox and proselytize. I wanted to do something where there's a lot of faith but where you're entertained as well. After the laughter wears off, you'll think about it."

Religion is not the only thought-provoking topic at this year's festival.

Other films on the festival roster have created a stir either because they address inflammatory issues, toy with traditional notions of how to tell a story, or (as in Spike Jonze's brilliant "Being John Malkovich") do both.

This comedy, based on a script by Charlie Kaufman, is about a disaffected puppeteer (John Cusack) who accidentally finds a secret passageway into the mind of John Malkovich (played by himself), and who decides to set up a business where he will allow people to become Malkovich for 15 minutes. Using edgy camera work, Jonze satirizes our star-struck society and tweaks our complacent definitions of personal and sexual identity.

The 25-year-old director Harmony Korine also pushes thematic and technical boundaries with the second film he has directed, "Julien Donkey-Boy." "Julien," which is about a young schizophrenic, has polarized festival audiences because of its unflinching look at mental illness and its occasionally grisly imagery. Some people find Korine's work disjointed, others hail him as a visionary. He scoffs at the label of "provocateur" that has followed him since he wrote "Kids." "I have no agenda other than to show an image and not take sides," he says.

He is, however, challenging traditional methods of moviemaking. His film is the first American work shot according to the strict Dogme '95 rules set by the Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier ("Breaking the Waves," 1995) and Thomas Vinterberg ("The Celebration," 1998), which include, among other precepts, using only natural light and hand-held cameras.

The French director Claire Denis's new film, "Beau Travail," also breaks with conventional notions of film structure. "Beau Travail," based loosely on Herman Melville's story "Billy Budd," is a stunning film organized more by a sequence of images and emotions than by a clear-cut narrative. It follows a group of Foreign Legionnaires who spend their days in Africa training under the watchful eye of Galoup (Denis Lavant), their second in command. This peaceful existence is shattered by the arrival of a newcomer toward whom Galoup comes to feel a murderous jealousy.

Denis, who has dealt with questions of foreignness before, decided here to work without a conventional script. "I had a diary that I'd written, in Galoup's voice," she recalled, "and then I had also a description of scenes, a little bit like theater directions." In elaborately choreographed vignettes--soldiers exercising, soldiers ironing--she celebrates the male body, not pruriently, but balletically. "I wanted this film to feel like a poem," she says.

Perhaps the most daring film at the festival, however, and one which also deals with issues of sexuality and concealment, is the American director Kimberly Peirce's first feature film, "Boys Don't Cry." Set for release later this fall, it recounts the real life and tragic death of Brandon Teena, a girl who posed successfully as a boy in rural Nebraska until she/he was unmasked, raped and killed by two male friends in 1993. The 32-year-old Peirce, who has a gamine-like intensity, was drawn to Brandon's story as a tale of self-determination undone by prejudice and fear.

"Living in a trailer park, with no money and no role models, she took this imaginative leap to transform herself into her ideal fantasy," she says. "I wanted to understand why she was killed."

The film explores transsexuality and prejudice to create a deeply moving portrait of Brandon and his world; in this intricate moral universe, even his killers become complex. It took more than five years to finance the film and three years to find an actress who could play the role of Brandon and also be able to pass as a man. Finally, Peirce found the radiant Hilary Swank, who does an uncanny job as Brandon.

Although the hatred that her film documents still persists, Peirce allows herself to be cautiously optimistic. "Our society killed Brandon, and our society was not ready to make this movie until last year," she says. "But then Matthew Shepard got killed, and he became an icon where Brandon didn't. Is the culture progressing? I don't know. I think it is shifting. This terrain is becoming more familiar to people. So that at the festival, I can say, 'Here's Brandon, and here's society.' And I can bridge the gap between them by making Brandon understandable."