What should I go see?

That's the question of the week as people ponder the unfathomable 85-film schedule for the Sundance Film Festival, which began showing movies in five Park City theaters - and one in Salt Lake City - on Friday.Last year there were only 61 movies screened and that seemed insurmountable to even the most faithful moviegoing fanatics. (Not to mention short films and seminars.)

The question of what to see is not easily answered because, aside from a few retrospective films, nearly everything is a brand-new unknown quantity.

The thrust of the festival is the American independent competitions, 16 dramatic and 15 documentary films, each made with a personal vision and usually on a shoestring budget.

"We're always looking for something that works on its own merits," says festival program director Geoff Gilmore. "An amalgamation of aesthetics, innovative without having to be avant-garde."

The dramas include such wide-ranging subjects as a look at a troubled rural Utah family ("Sure Fire"), a black-and-white fantasy based on a story by the Brothers Grimm ("The Juniper Tree"), a look at troubledyouth in the projects ("Straight Out of Brooklyn") and a comedy about unrequited love ("A Little Stiff").

The documentaries examine AIDS ("Absolutely Positive"), celebrity impersonators ("Legends"), American neo-Nazis ("Blood in the Face") and the Nazi resistance movement in Germany during World War II ("The Restless Conscience").

But, as Gilmore points out, there is much, much more:

- A series of Japanese films. "It's the last 10 years of Japanese cinema in a very brief retrospective. We're trying to show off Japanese filmmakers you've never heard of.

- A series of films from Mexico. "Mexico is one of the few Latin American film industries which is, relatively speaking, moving in the right direction. It's a film culture that has often been dismissed by people in the know in the United States who argue, `There's never anything good.' My response usually is, `How do you know? What have you seen?' "

- A tribute to Robert Altman, who will be an active participant in the festival. Films to be shown are "Nashville," "Three Women," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," Popeye," "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" and the "Tanner '88" cable TV series. "Altman's been a maverick within the industry since he's begun. His films have always been artistically interesting, socially and politically provocative, and he's a filmmaker who has somewhat faded from view in the past couple of years." Gilmore added that the latter should change with Altman's new film about van Gogh, "Vincent & Theo," which will be shown during the festival as a premiere.

- A retrospective of the late British filmmaker Michael Powell's work, including "The Thief of Bagdad," "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "A Matter of Life and Death," "Gone to Earth" and "Tales of Hoffmann." "Here's a filmmaker who really did not get immediate recognition when his work first came out. Yet, he has been a real inspiration to filmmakers. And he very much embodies the independent spirit."

- A screening of "Belle de Jour," the 1966 Luis Bunuel film starring Catherine Deneuve. "It hasn't been shown in the United States in 15 years, it's not available on video and this is a new print. In addition, Bunuel was as independent as a filmmaker can be."

- Premiere films include "Enid Is Sleeping," a black comedy starring Elizabeth Perkins and Judge Reinhold; "Mindwalk," which has a poet, politician and physicist debating a range of subjects, with Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston and John Heard; and "Whore," directed by the eccentric Ken Russell and starring Theresa Russell (no relation). " `Whore' is Ken Russell's response to `Pretty Woman,' " according to Gilmore. (Perkins, Heard and the Russells will introduce their films at the festival.)

- Of the panel discussions, three are expected to be exceptionally popular: Two sessions with Altman, one following a screening of "Vincent and Theo" and the other with "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who scripted "Tanner '88"; and one titled "Sex and Cinema: Women - Objects or Actors?" to be held following the world premiere of Ken Russell's "Whore." Both Russells will participate in what promises to be a lively discussion following the screening.

FESTIVAL SCHEDULE

FRIDAY

Egyptian: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," 10 a.m.; "Sure Fire," 1 p.m.; "Twenty-One," 4 p.m.; "The Grifters," 7 p.m.; "Iron Maze," 10 p.m.; "Swan Lake - The Zone," midnight.

Holiday I: "Bicycle Sighs," 10 a.m.; "Absolutely Positive," 1 p.m.; "To Sleep, So As to Dream," 4 p.m.; "Legends," 7 p.m.; "Poison," 10 p.m.

Holiday II: "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," 10:15 a.m.; "In the Shadow of the Stars," 4:15 p.m.; "Daughters of the Dust," 7:15 p.m.; "Zazie," 10:15 p.m.

Holiday III: "Takeover," 10:30 a.m.; "Broken Meat," 1:30 p.m.; "Coney Island," 4:30 p.m.; "Stop Short," 7:30 p.m.; "Maria's Story," 10:30 p.m.

Prospector: "The Juniper Tree," 10 a.m.; "End of the Night," 1 p.m.; "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," 4 p.m.; "Hangin' with the Homeboys," 7 p.m.; "Short Wave," 10 p.m.

Sundance: No screenings.

Trolley Corners: "The Thief of Bagdad," 6 p.m.; "Little Noises," 8:30 p.m.

SATURDAY

Egyptian: "History of Character Animation," 10 a.m.; "Gone to Earth," 1 p.m.; "Intimacy," 4 p.m.; "Enid Is Sleeping," 7 p.m.; "Slacker," 10 p.m.; `Archangel," midnight.

Holiday I: "Privilege," 10 a.m.; "Paris Is Burning," 1 p.m.; "Blood in the Face," 4 p.m.; "Trouble Behind," 7 p.m.; "A Little Stiff," 10 p.m.

Holiday II: "Lola," 10:15 a.m.; "Straight Out of Brooklyn," 1:15 p.m.; "Amazonia," 4:15 p.m.; "Queen of Diamonds," 7:15 p.m.; "Nashville," 10:15 p.m.

Holiday III: "The Restless Conscience," 10:30 a.m.; "American Dream," 1:30 p.m.; "One Cup of Coffee," 4:30 p.m.; "Thank You and Good Night," 7:30 p.m.; "Christo in Paris," 10:30 p.m.

Prospector: "The Grifters," 10 a.m.; "Trust," 1 p.m.; "Requiem for Dominic," 4 p.m.; "Little Noises," 7 p.m.; "Discovery Program," 10 p.m.

Sundance: "History of Character Animation, Program II," 2 p.m.; "Iron Maze," 4:30 p.m.; "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," 7:30 p.m.

Trolley Corners: "Utama Giru," 6 p.m.; "Sure Fire," 8:30 p.m.