"Vincent & Theo" and "The Grifters" had their local premieres at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend, two wildly disparate works that demonstrate the independent spirit by virtue of their makers' singular, uncompromising sense of vision.

Though "The Grifters" is getting rave reviews in some corners and "Vincent & Theo" is being raked over the coals in others, I found the latter much more fulfilling. Though, as you will see, they are really apples and oranges.- "VINCENT & THEO" demonstrates the unique style of Robert Altman, the director of such marvelous modern classics as "M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and many others, but who also gave us such incomprehensible pap as "Quintet" and "H.E.A.L.T.H."

He is a filmmaker marked by his ups and downs because they seem to have been so far up and so far down.

That, unfortunately has caused Hollywood money men to abandon him, the result being that he has had trouble developing financing for his next project.

At first glance, Altman and Vincent van Gogh may seem ill-matched - so much so that even Altman admits he at first had no interest in doing the film. Yet, there is something about the life of van Gogh that has inspired Altman to do his best work in some years.

A large part of this has to do with Altman's eccentric approach, which somehow clicks perfectly with his eccentric subject.

The film opens with a modern documentary-style set-piece, the auctioning off of a van Gogh painting at Christie's for literally millions of British pounds. We still hear the auctioneer escalating the ridiculous bidding as we meet Vincent and Theo van Gogh in one of their seemingly endless arguments about the former's poverty-ridden life and his inability to sell anything he paints. Further, the scene has the Dutch van Gogh brothers speaking with thickly British accents - and darned if Vincent isn't downright cockney, even resorting to "bloody" as an expletive.

The device is intentional, of course, to make more palatable the English-affected speech patterns of the title characters in the company of actors who have distinctly Dutch and French accents. And it works; for the rest of the film you won't even notice.

The story follows both brothers, together and apart, as Vincent pursues his art and his demons and Theo tries to make a career and a family for himself. In the scenes with Vincent, Altman's fascinating design repeatedly makes literal van Gogh's haunting canvas images, whether dark or sunny. And Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue is kept to a minimum as silence enhances the momentum of many moments.

Further, he has managed a real coup in the casting of Tim Roth as Vincent, as the actor truly embodies a van Gogh the audience will at once envy, pity and wonder about. Paul Rhys is also good as Theo, though his is a more foppish, less flamboyant role.

Altman tends to let his constantly moving camera move a little too much at times, closing in on his actors, then slowly pulling back again, often to no apparent purpose. But there is no question that "Vincent & Theo" should put the director back on the map - and maybe persuade Hollywood's money men to give his next project another look.

The PG-13 film, which contains nudity, sex, profanity, drugs and violence (an R rating might not have been out of line here), is also a nice companion piece to Paul Cox's recent "Vincent," a documentary that was, like "Vincent & Theo," based on the correspondence between the two brothers.

- "THE GRIFTERS," rated a hard, deserved R for considerable violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity, is gritty, rough and downbeat. Not that it's without humor - in fact it often takes on the air of dark satire.

But like the Jim Thompson novel on which it is based, "The Grifters" is the blackest of film noir, with characters whose evils will catch up with them - whether violently or psychologically.

John Cusack plays the central character, a young con artist who is stockpiling a nice nest egg, but who has no real life. His new girlfriend is portrayed by Annette Bening, a hooker whose heart is not of gold - and whose motives are never really clear until the film begins to wrap up its loose ends.

Bening wants him to get involved in a big con - one that is more dangerous but with much higher stakes. Cusack, who really isn't that good anyway, is satisfied to pull small jobs and slowly build his savings.

Then there's his mother, played by a blond Anjelica Huston, who works racetrack scams for a very nasty mobster (Pat Hingle). Huston hasn't seen Cusack in years but looks him up when she's in Los Angeles. She takes an immediate dislike to Bening, but Cusack isn't about to accept any motherly advice, having given up on a mother-son relationship years before.

What happens as these three individual, strong-willed personalities clash is full of surprises, some of them rather shocking. Let's put it this way - "The Sting" it ain't.

The actors are all terrific, with Huston a particular standout. British director Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons"), who also co-wrote the sharp script, is uncompromising in this, his first American film, giving us great detail and clever dialogue that is alternately funny, touching and horrifying.

"The Grifters" is a cynical film that continually catches the audience off-guard; if you're into dark film noir, it doesn't come much darker than this.