Entertainment Weekly's reviews of the Oscar nominees -- See what our critics had to say about the movies and performances

By EW Staff
Updated January 30, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Ray: Nicola Goode

It’s no small feat to see every Oscar-nominated flick before the Feb. 27 ceremony. So, if you’re trying to get caught up with the biggies, let us help. Read on to find out which movies and performances our critics recommend, and which ones you can skip without losing your credibility as an Oscar watcher.

Image credit: The Aviator: Andrew Cooper TO AIR IS HUMAN But Scorsese’s flamboyant biopic (starring DiCaprio, right) isn’t quite divine

Howard Hughes made lavishly expensive movies, slept with countless Hollywood stars (and thousands of women beyond that), and, most obsessively, did more than perhaps any other single figure to envision and create the technology of air flight as we know it. He dreamed big, and lived big too — bigger than anyone around him — and as you watch Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, there’s a sleek, almost tactile pleasure to be had in getting swept up in the gale force of a man who smashed through limits because he didn’t see them. Scorsese spins his camera through ’30s deco nightclubs, and he sends it soaring into the air right along with Hughes, who was like an insatiable reckless kid when it came to testing out the planes that he’d designed. Simply put, Howard Hughes was someone who didn’t want to come down. The Aviator‘s camera work, it should be said, is a lot more commanding than its psychology, yet even when what you’re watching doesn’t add up, the movie, like Hughes, cruises along on a vibe of propulsive ambition. You can feel the kick Scorsese got out of making it, and the kick is infectious.

The Aviator doesn’t waste any time setting up the grandiosity of Hughes’ drive. After a dreamy bathtub prologue, in which the young Howard’s mother tests him out on the spelling of quarantine (the film’s OCD equivalent of Rosebud), the movie plunges us right into the shooting of Hell’s Angels, the World War I aviation epic that Hughes directed in the California desert and bankrolled, to the then-insane tune of $3.8 million, with his family’s oil fortune. It’s 1927, and Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is all of 21, is a speeding human bullet who’s come blasting out of Texas. The movie he’s trying to make is an advertisement for the fearless seduction of flight; spectacular excess is its lure. Hughes wants to control everything — actors, planes, the weather — and even 24 cameras aren’t enough for him. When he goes up into the air with a small army of bombers for a dogfight sequence, the rickety biplanes zoom in every direction, flying within inches of each other, but Hughes stands right up in his cockpit so he can grab a better shot.

DiCaprio, at first, looks and sounds disquietingly boyish, like a 16-year-old in a high school production of Guys and Dolls. Yet he’s a dynamo of an actor. Tall and boundlessly confident, with a tar slick of hair and eyebrows that scrunch down in playful cunning, he makes this handsome whippersnapper’s youthful energy an expression of pure, irrepressible ambition. To court Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Hughes pilots a futuristic water plane right onto the set of Sylvia Scarlett, and the moment he has whisked her away, the clickety-click attraction of their personalities is palpable. Blanchett doesn’t just do a great impersonation of those glorious Hepburn vowels, which make her sound like a yawning kitty cat; she nails the stubborn decency that drives that severe singsong. The movie cuts from Hughes stroking her bare back to his inspection of a silver plane in which the rivets are jutting out too far, and when he orders his engineers to render the surface more aerodynamically smooth, we get what he’s after: flight as heady as sex.

As you watch The Aviator, the vision, the crazy daring, the go-go thrust of Hughes’ personality spills right into the scope and exuberance of the movie itself — and into our desire to see Scorsese pull another major achievement out of his hat. I’m afraid, though, that he doesn’t quite do it. The movie is studded with marvelous moments, like a jaw-dropping plane crash in which Hughes slices through entire blocks of Beverly Hills, yet it has a deeply flawed trajectory. Hughes spends far too much of the film’s second half battling the corrupt Senator Brewster (Alan Alda) for the right of TWA, the airline Hughes owns, to fly the world skies along with Pan Am. His antimonopoly stance is unassailable, yet the fight comes off as a generic anti-corporate crusade. It doesn’t work as a consummation of Hughes’ majestic vision.

More crucially, The Aviator fails to present Howard Hughes as an entirely coherent human being. Scorsese and his screenwriter, John Logan, don’t shy away from the destructive insatiability of Hughes’ womanizing, or from his contamination fears, which escalate into full-blown mania. Yet his dark side is at once there and not there: The undertow of lust never quite surfaces in DiCaprio’s performance, and Hughes’ germ phobia, as well as his obsessive-compulsive repetition of certain phrases, is treated as a prominent yet strangely arbitrary, almost meaningless aspect of his inner life. Faced with a congressional hearing, he steps out of his madness as if it were a pair of old trousers. Scorsese, I think, is so invested in making The Aviator upbeat and rousing that the movie never quite reveals, the way that Kinsey or Ray or A Beautiful Mind or even a good E! True Hollywood Story do, how its hero’s vision and his grand torments could be flip sides of the same temperament. The Aviator mostly pays lip service to Hughes’ demons, though it does make charged American-movie poetry out of his dreams.

Image credit: Finding Neverland: Clive Coote AYE, EYE PATCHES CAN GET YOU OSCAR NODS Depp works his gentle magic as the man behind Peter Pan

Johnny Depp doesn’t always play gentlemen, but even when he takes on the role of a slurry sea rascal (Pirates of the Caribbean), an opium-hooked Holmesian detective (From Hell), or — still his greatest character — the worst filmmaker of all time (Ed Wood), he inevitably comes off as a gentle man. It’s the essence of his on-screen nature. He’s the rare actor whose exquisitely chiseled, ”perfect” features communicate not just romantic and erotic charisma but a kind of spiritual ideal. Call it grace. In Finding Neverland, Depp, as the Scottish-born turn-of-the-century playwright J.M. Barrie, portrays a fellow who is openly gentle to the core, and the actor just about wraps the movie around his lilting delivery and quiescent gaze.

It’s 1903, and Barrie, a celebrated figure within the London cultural world, has slid into a bit of a valley. His latest play, Little Mary, is a bomb, and his marriage appears to have hit an even deader spot than his career. In his cozy town house, seated at dinner in a crisp tuxedo, he exchanges icy pleasantries with his wife (Radha Mitchell), a beautiful yet terribly proper Victorian killjoy who is anxious to expand her husband’s social connections but shows no interest in stoking his creative fire. But then Barrie, strolling through the casual green grandeur of Kensington Gardens, meets the newly widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her eager, restive brood of four boys. To entertain them, he pretends that his Saint Bernard is a circus bear, and he dances a merry waltz with the animal right in the middle of the park.

It’s a lovely scene — silly in the best sense, which is to say that in Edwardian London, the willingness to appear ridiculous in public is really a rebellion against civility. It’s Johnny Depp committing what no other actor can perform quite as well: a gentle blasphemy. Sylvia, played by Winslet with a winsome melancholy, has no income to speak of and must therefore kowtow to the wishes of her mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), a puritan scold who serves the same wet-blanket function within the Llewelyn Davies home that Barrie’s wife does in his. Taking refuge in each other, Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies clan envelop themselves in a conspiratorial bond of play, imagination, and innocent romance. The boys enjoy a surrogate father who teaches them to fly kites and make up stage plays. Barrie, meanwhile, finds the warmth he has been missing at home, as he and Sylvia cultivate a quiet platonic love. This surrogate family of latter-day childhood moves him to write the play he calls Peter Pan.

Finding Neverland is a caressingly sweet literary fairy tale ”inspired by true events” (though there’s evidence that Barrie and Sylvia were not, in fact, platonic). The director, Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), working from a script by David Magee, has crafted a placid domestic variation on Shakespeare in Love, with Barrie drawing his inspiration, and much of the detail, for his revolutionary play out of a relationship that has infused him with life. There are additional echoes of Dreamchild, the splendid 1985 Dennis Potter fantasia that dramatized the forbidden underpinnings of Lewis Carroll’s invention of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. If Finding Neverland is a lesser movie than either of those two, that’s because its portrayal of Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family is more touching and fully felt than anything about his actual creation of Peter Pan.

Barrie, we learn, had already invented Neverland: It’s the paradisiacal lost world he wrote about in his diary as a boy, when his brother’s death forced him to grow up before he expected, or wanted, to. Finding Neverland flirts with childhood as a kingdom of haunted purity, yet as Barrie conceives and stages Peter Pan, the film grows literal-minded and a touch scattershot. He sees the four Llewelyn Davies boys jump up and down on their beds in a pillow fight and imagines them floating out the window — a beautiful notion that, for some reason, becomes almost a trivial afterthought when the young actors begin to fly around on their wires on stage. When Barrie envisions Sylvia’s mother with a hook instead of a hand, we giggle knowingly — but that’s virtually the only nod to the vengeful captain. The movie depends so much upon our foreknowledge of Peter Pan that it never discovers the story’s magic anew. Finding Neverland is studded with little pleasures, like Dustin Hoffman’s marvelously crusty turn as Barrie’s cynical theater backer (I guess that counts as a Hook reference), and there’s an irresistible three-hankie moment near the end when Barrie’s stage actors perform the play at home for the ailing Sylvia. The movie glows, all right. It just never soars.

Image credit: Million Dollar Baby: Egon Endrenyi DO YOU FEEL LUCKY? WELL DO YA? A revitalized Eastwood hatches a knockout boxing tale with costar Swank

It is no idle exaggeration to say that one doesn’t, by and large, remember the women in Clint Eastwood films. They may be girlfriends or troublemakers, but they are seldom more than adjuncts decorating the core drama of masculine aggression, vengeance, and redemption. So when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a feisty 30ish diner waitress with a toothy bright smile and no discernible boxing talent, begins to work out at the quaintly dilapidated Los Angeles gym run by Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), and then pesters the crusty, scowling ringside veteran to manage her, I braced myself for Eastwood’s The Karate Kid, Part V. But Million Dollar Baby, which Eastwood directed from screenwriter Paul Haggis’ adaptation of the hard-hitting boxing-world stories of F.X. Toole, turns out to be a movie of tough excitement and surprise, even grace. It may be a classically staged tale of an underdog’s triumph, but each scene is packed with authentic feeling, and if you think you know where Million Dollar Baby is headed — have no fear, you don’t.

Frankie, a vintage Eastwood loner, with close-cropped white hair that evokes Paul Newman’s and a rasp so scratchy and deep it seems to emanate from his soul, started out as a ”cut man,” the member of a boxing team who patches up fighters’ ripped and bloody faces so that they can go back to the ring for more punishment. His job was to be a healer who brings the pain. In the years since, Frankie has coached many boxers, some successfully, but his flaw as a manager is his lingering reticence: He’s so cautious that he holds his fighters back from the dangers — and glories — of a title bout. When his current contender ditches him, the movie does a supple job of dramatizing how he’s drawn to give Maggie a few pointers out of pure pity, which turns into habit, which then merges, over time, with his grudging affection for her down-home scrappy spirit. The film scarcely needs its too-corny-to-be-believable subplot about Frankie’s estranged daughter, to whom he writes a (returned) letter every week: The chemistry between Eastwood and Swank is touching and spiky and true. It is also gently, unstatedly romantic.

Eastwood turns Frankie’s gym into a saddened home of losers and dreamers, with Morgan Freeman, in full world-weary twinkle, as Scrap, Frankie’s one-eyed former fighter and only friend. For a while, Million Dollar Baby is a gritty fairy tale in the tradition of Rocky and The Color of Money. Under Frankie’s hand, Maggie develops a knockout punch as fearsome as Sugar Ray’s, and if her success requires a modest suspension of disbelief, that is more than trumped by the violent bravura of the fight scenes. It may be easier, in the relatively novel world of female boxing, to accept that a fighter could triumph through sheer hunger and will; Swank’s performance embodies those qualities with fetching moxie. But then Million Dollar Baby takes a sudden dark turn. Does it work? Let’s just say that I never expected Clint Eastwood to do his finest filmmaking in years in a movie that evokes the tender religio-extravagance of Douglas Sirk.

Image credit: Ray: Nicola Goode OUT OF SIGHT The very definition of blind ambition

On stage, Ray Charles rocked his body back and forth, jolted by the pleasure of the music he was making, and he’d swivel his head upward as if channeling those jolts straight from heaven. Jamie Foxx, in his brilliant performance in Ray, captures those joyfully severe movements with uncanny spiritual precision, to the point that you forget you’re watching an impersonation. Lip-synching to the sexed-up gospel tumult of actual Charles recordings like ”Mess Around” or ”I Got a Woman,” Foxx feels his way into every groove and tremor of that voice — the sheer locomotive power of it, and the shades of gravelly tenderness, too. As a musical biography, Ray is driven by the primal excitement of rock-and-soul at the moment of its discovery. The songs are staged not as ”classics” but as spontaneous, thrilling eruptions of sound and temperament that flowed right out of the brusque life force of Charles’ personality.

At one point, Ray is on stage with his band and has to fill out 20 minutes of performance time, and he essentially makes up ”What’d I Say” on the spot. He tosses off that ominous bass line, topped by sparkly piano curlicues, then improvises the outrageously erotic call-and-response with his backup singers, the Raelettes. The music gets everyone so delirious that they’re only too happy to moan out the chorus. Even off stage, Ray has a supple musical charm. Foxx plays him with the eager singsong purr of a jazz hipster, yet his slightly hurried, skip-stutter voice, accompanied by a tuck of the head, is an elaborate seduction. He always appears to be posing a question, but by the time he’s done he has given you an order without you knowing it. When things don’t go his way, the purr turns to a cutting growl. In a hotel room with his chief mistress (Regina King), who has just announced that she’s pregnant, Ray tinkles away at a new song — ”Hit the Road Jack” — then forces her to sing it. They face each other down in an indelible duet of resentment.

Directed by Taylor Hackford, from a script by Hackford and James L. White, Ray has its pop-Freudian elements, as well as a sprawling episodic structure that’s a bit lumpy, notably in the last half hour. The flashbacks to Ray’s childhood have the sharecroppers-village-at-Disney World tone of The Color Purple. Yet at the film’s center is a man of startling complexity and egocentric magnetism who forged every moment of his destiny, thereby sentencing himself to stand alone. Ray is the rare Hollywood biopic that does justice to the heroism, as well as the demons, of an American genius.

Early on, Ray Charles Robinson, looking stiff and vulnerable, outwits a racist bus driver by claiming that he lost his sight at Omaha Beach. Ray, we learn, actually went blind at 7, the victim of glaucoma treated with an acidic salve. Yet his ability to lie wins us over. Despite his affliction, he sees three steps ahead of everyone else. He has the guts (and ears) to get around without a cane, and he’s a master of every popular style, from country to blues to Nat ”King” Cole. He’s also the master of psyching out anyone who thinks they can take advantage of a blind black man.

On the road, Ray insists on being paid in single-dollar bills so that no one can cheat him, and when he begins to headline, and women swoon at his gruffly insinuating sound, he sizes up groupies by rubbing their forearms to figure out if they’re fine-boned enough for him. Ray’s obsessive shrewdness pays off. He signs a historic deal with Ahmet Ertegun, the visionary mogul of Atlantic Records (played by Curtis Armstrong, drawing on the same geek charisma he showed 20 years ago in Revenge of the Nerds), and he wins the heart of a reverend’s daughter, Della Bea (Kerry Washington). For Ray, however, marriage isn’t the same thing as settling down. He’s got his babes on the road, and also his beloved heroin habit.

King and Washington bring stirring fury and devotion, respectively, to the women who adored Ray but couldn’t own him. Ray’s tragic flaw is the flip side of his most admirable quality: As a musician and a man, he’s wired not to compromise his will. Other artist biopics, like Lady Sings the Blues, have dealt with infidelity and smack addiction, yet there’s a tonic levelheadedness to Ray‘s vision of a pop star’s temptations. It portrays them without apology, as the expression of a man who achieved what he did by doing what he desired at every turn, letting no one — not even those he loved — stand in the way of his appetite for life. That appetite finally threatened to consume him, yet it was also the fuel for music that remade the world. The savvy beauty of Ray is that it never pretends you could have had one without the other.

Image credit: Sideways: Merie W. Wallace BOTTLE BOND Sideways (starring Giamatti and Church) exhibits male-pattern boldness

For some filmmakers — particularly younger American directors who till the soil of an indie aesthetic originally fertilized by sex, lies, and videotape — artistic growth is linked to the mastery of an increased degree of technical difficulty: As they find their voice and polish their style, these bright fellows juggle more, get fancier in their storytelling. For Alexander Payne, whose gloriously wise and warm Sideways is on a very short list for best American movie of the year, a creative growth spurt has brought him to a looser, deeper, and more reflective place. And homeland moviemaking, as well as movie lovers, reaps the pleasures.

Who could have guessed that contentment would become him? In Payne’s first work set beyond the psychic confines of his hometown of Omaha (Citizen Ruth begat Election, which begat About Schmidt), he has found mature happiness in a California backyard far from the prairie. Sideways unfolds in the rambling vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley, where a couple of old college roommates — now men of a certain early-midlife rumple — have journeyed to taste wine (well, sometimes just to drink) and to forget, temporarily, that they have already swallowed so much manly disappointment. Miles (Paul Giamatti) knows the misery of failing to flower and wallows in a tender depression (familiar to any adult, thanks to Giamatti’s exquisite definition) over a busted marriage and unpublishable novel; he’s a wine connoisseur prone to drunkenness, with a particular passion for the hard-to-grow grape that produces pinot noir. Jack (Thomas Haden Church, flying way past TV’s Wings in a career-defining performance) knows the failure of settling for shallow soil; he has adapted his acting dreams to the realities of commercial voice-over work and now must curb his hearty appetite for women to fit the reality of a forthcoming wedding to a respectable girl he knows he ought to appreciate more than he does.

The road-trip tour of vineyards is Miles’ bachelor-party gift to Jack. But Jack, in his hale and horny way, gives as much back to his frumpier friend, encouraging him to keep writing, keep believing in himself — and keep his pecker up, as Jack has every intention of doing in his last week of what he calls ”freedom.” The two men kibitz and bicker, often to unforced hilarious effect (the unimprovably lovely script by Payne and his regular writing collaborator, Jim Taylor, is based on a novel of the same name by Rex Pickett). And before too long Jack has put the moves, lustily reciprocated, on a wine pourer named Stephanie (Under the Tuscan Sun‘s Sandra Oh, the welcome fizz in any movie), and Miles is stumbling toward a connection with Stephanie’s soulful friend, a local waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen, nothing less than a revelation 20 years into her career). There may be no more breathtaking scene of tentative intimacy between a contemporary man and a woman than the nighttime conversation Miles and Maya conduct on Stephanie’s back porch — he describing the difficulty and reward of nurturing pinot grapes (by which he means himself), she musing on the living qualities of wine as it swells to its peak of drinkability and then declines (by which she means herself).

Sideways takes scenic detours for piquant adventures. A manicured golf course, with its rituals and formalities, becomes the site of a satisfyingly violent expression of male apoplexy, and when Stephanie learns that her new beau has neglected to mention his upcoming wedding, she employs a motorcycle helmet as a cudgel in a liberating yee-haw of fury. The movie swings like that, from snapshots of the very daily and bathetic (the boys stop to visit Miles’ mother in her ticky-tacky town house off the freeway, the decoration of which is a Payne specialty) to X-rays of the very extraordinary and complicated that make up the modern-day American man’s ticking soul. The camera work is casual, unshowy; the smooth-groove accompanying score, by Rolfe Kent, sounds like the jazz-beat stuff guys like Miles would listen to at home alone. Miles flosses his teeth, Jack blasts his socks with an anti-odor mist because that’s what grown men who know what needs to be done do.

It’s an intoxicating feeling when a movie excites and enlivens us like this — and there’s a particular giddiness to be had in thinking about what movies can (but don’t often) do for one’s soul after imbibing such a fine vintage. It’s damned hard to resist piling on the grape-based metaphors in admiration. So here’s a toast to Sideways. Drink deep.

Image credit: Hotel Rwanda: Frank Connor HEARTBREAK ‘HOTEL’ Rusesabagina (Cheadle) stood tall in the face of the Rwandan genocide

Hotel Rwanda filters the story of that country’s shocking 1994 genocide through the actions of one man, an African hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who saved the lives of more than 1,200 refugees while anarchic killing madness reigned for a hundred days, unchecked by the rest of the world. He did so by housing them at his establishment despite dire personal risk and by using his skills as a worldly hotelier as well as his compassion as a decent human being. He did so despite the fact that he, a member of the ruling Hutu tribe, might just as easily have been killed by his own clansmen for harboring hunted Tutsis (whom the Hutu extremists called ”cockroaches”). He did so because his wife is a Tutsi (the family now lives in Belgium) and because he is a good man. Rusesabagina survived because, against all odds, he got lucky; the more than 800,000 dead Tutsis were not so fortunate.

In many ways, of course, such a powerful true story trumps all quibbles with the storytelling, especially for an audience so recently moved by the terrible news (and images) of death by natural destruction in the Indian Ocean, against which the rivers of blood from man-made destruction seem even more obscene. And those quibbles by no means diminish the honor due to Rusesabagina, or the glow of Cheadle’s intense performance. The superb actor holds on to his subject’s ”ordinariness,” never playing hero. (Sophie Okonedo from Dirty Pretty Things plays a wife gentle enough to strengthen a man’s courage.)

Still: As directed and co-written by Terry George (Some Mother’s Son), Hotel Rwanda is a big, square drama that insistently drapes an unasked-for cloak of greatness on Rusesabagina’s shoulders while waving a finger of shame at the United Nations and the entire global coalition of the unwilling. It is a bad day for narrative, if not for diplomacy, when there is only one 3-D character among the entire U.N. lot, clad in their blue helmets, and that role is rasped by Nick Nolte with moral remorse rather than his more usual hint of dissolution. Hotel Rwanda is a strange history lesson that leaves us more overlectured than properly overwhelmed.

Image credit: Being Julia: Alex Dukay DARLING, I FORGIVE YOU FOR ‘MARS ATTACKS’ Bening stuns as a theatrical grande dame in full bloom

When I think back to The Grifters, the image that comes to mind is Annette Bening’s face sparkling. She played a hip-twitching femme fatale, but her duplicity wasn’t just clever and sexy — it had joie de vivre. Bening enjoyed a couple of other good roles (Bugsy, Richard III), but in movies like The American President and American Beauty you could feel her reining herself in. Her presence grew domesticated and a bit lackluster. It was tempting, if not necessarily fair, to say that her highly publicized role as the Woman Who Tamed Warren Beatty had robbed her of that luscious sparkle. Now, at last, she’s got it back. In the puckishly contrived Being Julia, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s Theatre, Bening is cast as a celebrated British stage performer of the 1930s who is always acting, even when she thinks that she’s being sincere, and Bening once again makes duplicity look electric.

Adored by the public, revered by the critics, Bening’s Julia Lambert appears nightly in popular plays at the ritzy West End theater managed by her impresario husband (Jeremy Irons), a benign Svengali who knows just how to pamper and cajole the best out of her. Julia lacks for nothing, but she’s getting on a bit — the lines in her face can’t lie — and when she lets herself be seduced by Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), a dashingly shallow American social climber who looks to be half her age, we assume that she’s using the bedroom romp to recharge her batteries. The affair, instead, becomes pure melodrama — a scandal-lite tempest of amour and jealousy, with Julia improvising an elaborate scheme to ensnare and punish Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), the pretty young actress who has become her rival.

Julia, you see, has manufactured the entire brouhaha (without quite being aware of it). She convinces herself that she’s in love with a foolish cad in order to fuel the tempestuous glory of her onstage art. It’s no longer unusual to see an American actress who can play believably in a British period piece, but Bening does something delectable and rare: She makes Julia a baroque drama queen, bursting into rooms in a flutter of flamboyant wordplay, yet she grounds the character in an earthy American sensuality. Julia is haughty but not superficial, flip without being a flibbertigibbet. Being Julia flirts too heavily with soap opera clichés, but it has enough surprises to keep you guessing, and for Annette Bening it’s the liveliest of comebacks.

Image credit: Maria Full of Grace: Christobal Corral Vega UNEASY RIDER Moreno (with John Alex Toro) gives a tenacious dignity to the title character in ”Maria”

Fancy storytelling techniques are superfluous when the subject is as intrinsically exotic as a pregnant teenage Colombian flower-factory worker on her maiden airplane trip to New York as a ”mule” transporting drugs in her gut. Still, Joshua Marston’s feature debut, the extraordinary Spanish-language drama Maria Full of Grace, unfolds with a simplicity that’s as breathtaking as its inevitability is harrowing. As played with a clear gaze and tenacious dignity by newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno (co-winner of the prize for best actress at this year’s Berlin Film Festival), Maria Alvarez could be any impoverished young woman in a dead-end village, itching for whatever freedom a girl like her can scrounge.

And scrounging depends on quick wits and the vagaries of luck, both good and bad: A friend of a friend knows a guy in Bogotá, kindly as an old uncle, who hires Maria as a human pack animal and then sits with her as she swallows her load of 60-odd latex-wrapped pellets of heroin destined for the U.S. (The handheld camera watches dispassionately, with quiet attention to the miserable transaction, and leaves the cringing to the transfixed audience.) Maria’s clingy, less resourceful best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), signs up for a me-too stint, and becomes one more responsibility Maria doesn’t need. Lucy (Guilied López), a fellow mula met in passing, becomes a comrade in desperation.

Terrifying things happen to Maria, and yet they unfold, under Marston’s control, with the surprise of natural coincidences rather than plot twists bent for impact. Maria’s interrogation in an airport U.S. Customs room is a tense marvel, as empathetic toward the skillful customs agents as it is toward the virginal-looking, shiny-haired drug smuggler (so far from the image of evil cartel bosses). In contrast, the movie pauses in equally marvelous acknowledgment of the thriving Colombian community in Queens, N.Y., where Lucy’s upstanding immigrant sister lives, a model of hardworking American averageness.

”Maria Full of Grace” doesn’t let its protagonist off the hook for her sins — the girl is no saint in an illegal underworld reeking with crime and death, nor is she intended to be so. But neither does this outstanding film — the worthy Dramatic Audience Award winner this year at Sundance — lose sight of the effect a moviemaker’s grace can have on our forgiveness of sinners.

Image credit: Vera Drake: Simon Mein GET YOUR TEA ON Leigh’s dazzling portrait of a 1950s abortionist

You can almost smell the damp wool and feel the worn china teacups of an exhausted 1950s London in Mike Leigh’s stunning and compassionate period drama Vera Drake. In fact, it’s not too much of a leap to say you can take the pulse of postwar Britain, guided by old proprieties but modernized by harsh necessity, in Imelda Staunton’s blazing performance in the title role. Staunton’s Drake is a wifey, a mum, one of the stalwarts of the Commonwealth no blitz could defeat. Patient and steady with her husband (the wonderful Phil Davis), clucking like a round hen after her grown children, and cheerful even as she briskly cleans the homes of the more prosperous to make ends meet, she’s a sensible pillar of the neighborhood. And the magnificently sturdy Staunton, who has staked her ground for years in smaller colorful parts (e.g., the nurse in Shakespeare in Love), claims the role with gestures as precise as the definitive way she clutches a handbag or climbs the flight of stairs to her front door; hers is a great prizeworthy performance as a practical soul not nearly as mousy as her wardrobe suggests.

Drake does something else, too, a bit of freelance she keeps from her family: She helps women with unwanted pregnancies. Which is to say, Vera Drake is an abortionist, just as upbeat and matter-of-fact while performing illegal procedures with her secret instruments — she hums, always — as she is in the kitchen at suppertime. And in dramatizing the clash of moral and legal right and wrong, with patience and soulful fair-mindedness for all sides of the crisis (there’s a trial at the climax), Leigh goes to someplace new and deeper in his lifelong cinematic interest in class bonds and conflicts.

As with Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s glorious 1999 release, set a century ago, the filmmaker finds artistic liberation in the strictures of reproducing a past era. Invigorated in Vera Drake by passionate attention to 50-year-old atmospheric truth, the estimable British specialist in ensemble realism, famous for Secrets & Lies and Life Is Sweet, shows once again how modernity coexists with the persistence of tea cozies.

MEMORIAL DAZE Sweet dreams are made of this

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be the first movie I’ve seen that bends your brain and breaks your heart at the same time. The screenplay, by Charlie Kaufman, keeps whirling the audience into new and unexpected dimensions, yet you never question where you are, because there’s an uncanny, seductive logic to every twist. Kaufman doesn’t just think outside the box — he makes you think that the box is scarcely worth saving. Early on, Joel (Jim Carrey), shy and gangly, with a shock of hair that covers his forehead, has a mysterious, itchy compulsion to ditch the New York commuter platform where he’s on his way to work. He squeezes his way onto a train that takes him to the east end of Long Island, and though the whim makes no sense, either to him or to the audience, the moment that he spies the sexy, blue-haired Clementine (Kate Winslet), a neurotically intense motormouth flirt who chats him up on the train, it feels like destiny.

So does everything else in the movie. ”Eternal Sunshine” begins, in effect, at the bitter end of Joel and Clementine’s relationship, when he discovers that she has had her memories of him entirely erased. Devastated, Joel pays a visit to Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), the dowdy mad scientist of memory elimination, who occupies what looks like a modest dentist’s office. Once there, Joel decides to undergo the procedure himself. As he lies, first in the office, then in his bed, in a trancelike sleep, his head strapped into a giant silver cap that is hooked to blinking machines run by Mierzwiak’s tech-dweeb assistants (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), his memories don’t die hard. They die softly, sadly. They’re like peak moments of lost love unspooling in the revival theater of his mind.

After ”Being John Malkovich” and ”Adaptation,” we expect teeming, manic-to-the-max invention from Charlie Kaufman, only this time he’s not just playing, he’s searching. He has become the most exciting screenwriter in America by doing something that most writers only dream of: He gets the audience addicted to the freedom and craziness of his mind. ”Eternal Sunshine” gives off a dizzy romantic charge, as Kaufman and the director, Michel Gondry (the two collaborated in 2001 on the top-heavy trifle ”Human Nature”), lead the audience on a puckish, ingenious science-fiction ride that is really a journey into the beauty — and fragility — of connection.

Each of Joel’s memories unfolds before us at the moment it’s being wiped out. In something like reverse order, we watch the story of his relationship with Clementine: how it flowered and degenerated between one Valentine’s Day and the next. The potato dolls in Clementine’s apartment; the night she and Joel lay on the frozen Charles River; the day he dodged his fears of fatherhood by telling her she wasn’t stable enough to raise a child; Clementine’s psychedelic series of changing hair dyes; the fights and cuddles — as Joel remembers everything, he enters into, and interacts with, those same memories, pleading with them to change in some way. But they can’t.

”Eternal Sunshine” has a lilting psychological fancy, yet it works because it’s also rough and real and intimate and alive, with Gondry using a handheld camera to stage backward leaps in time that feel, in execution if not tone, highly influenced by ”Memento.” Kaufman, never shy about excess, keeps multiplying the structural complications. A subplot with Kirsten Dunst as another Mierzwiak assistant is nifty and clever; the one with Elijah Wood’s Patrick exploiting the memory procedure for his own gain is a tad underdeveloped. Yet the cumulative impact leaves the audience happily and profoundly buzzed.

Carrey has often played timid, stammering nerds, but this is the first time he has eradicated any hint of stylization. He makes Joel a deeply vulnerable ordinary man, too ”nice” for his own good, haunted by dreams of romance he’s scarcely bold enough to voice to himself. We can see why he’s attracted to Clementine — she’s the sort of highly eroticized, let’s-try-anything girl who’s a geek’s idea of romantic danger — and, more mysteriously, why she digs him: The way Winslet plays the role, her volatility masks a deeply fractured soul. These two couldn’t be more different, yet deep down they’re matching wrecks.

The idea of blanking out every last thought of a failed romance, even if it means losing pleasure to get rid of pain, has a blithe topical spookiness; it’s like an Orwellian satire of a world moderated — neutered — by psychiatric drugs. Kaufman and Gondry, though, aren’t out to score didactic points but to dramatize how even our closest relationships are, in effect, stories that unfold in the ways we tell them to ourselves. The ”flaws” of Joel and Clementine’s edgy bond create the very electricity that holds it together. Joel, embracing his memories, comes to appreciate the fragile glory of each and every moment simply for being that moment. Watching ”Eternal Sunshine,” you don’t just watch a love story — you fall in love with what love really is.

Image credit: Collateral: Frank Connor A FARE TO REMEMBER Cruise takes Foxx on a wild ride in Mann’s thrilling ”Collateral”

No formula for popcorn moviemaking has grown quite as stale as the buddy action comedy. The worn-to-the-bone spectacle of two men, usually cops, occasionally from opposite sides of the law, yoked together despite their differences (white versus black, straight arrow versus wild card) is a genre that has curdled into slick hypocrisy, since the thrust of every buddy movie is that both men, deep down, are really the same. In effect, they add up to a two-headed monster that won’t stop yapping at itself.

Collateral, Michael Mann’s tensely funny and alive Los Angeles night-world thriller, is, in its own twisty way, a very high-stakes buddy movie, yet it doesn’t look like one, because it leaps off from a situation more jangled and threatening than we’re used to. This time the ”buddies” really are at odds. Vincent (Tom Cruise), a contract killer who dispatches victims with the ease of a yuppie stockbroker ordering a round of drinks, is trying to eliminate five witnesses in a drug case during the space of just 10 hours. He needs to get around quickly, and so, as the dusk melts into the evening, he offers $600 to Max (Jamie Foxx), a very mellow cabbie who knows the flowing car-jam patterns of the L.A. grid as if they were mapped out on his brain like an air-traffic-controller’s panel. As Max sits parked in an alleyway, the hitman’s first victim lands, with a bloody crash, on his windshield. At that point, the cabbie is stuck. He’s forced to help stow the body in the trunk, and he becomes Vincent’s hostage and driver, as well as his wary pupil in casual Nietzschean self-glory.

There’s a world of difference between a movie that plays a situation as…a situation, and one that inspires us to think, ”What, exactly, would I do in this predicament?” ”Collateral,” a propulsive action morality play, generates suspense by dividing our sympathies in clever and unexpected ways. Vincent, whose silver-gray suit is exquisitely coordinated to his hair and designer stubble, both of which look crafted from iron filings, is presented as a cool scoundrel, but he’s got Max’s number; he mocks him — rightly — for not having the courage to pursue his dream of launching his own deluxe limo service. Cruise gets to deliver one of those literate-sociopath speeches about how killing someone isn’t that big a deal, since most of us don’t blink an eye at all the slaughter on the nightly news. An actor can’t put over dialogue like that unless he’s embraced the allure of its meaning, and Cruise, with his perfectly angled delivery, gives it just the right touch of icy conviction.

Max, doing what it takes to survive, is forced to help Vincent out of tight spots (as when they’re stopped by a couple of cops), and we find ourselves rooting for him — or is it both of them? — to succeed. Stopping off at a jazz club, the two have an after-hours drink with a veteran trumpeter (Barry Shabaka Henley), who’s inspired by Vincent to reminisce about the time he got to play with Miles Davis. Just as we’re lulled, the reverie crashes, at which point you may realize that you like Vincent, and also hate him, and also dig watching the way his ruthlessness awakens Max from his sweet underachiever’s stupor, forcing him to rely on his guts. Foxx plays Max as a benign loner with a center of honorable sadness; he has a no-frills humanity. The actor wins us over during a long early sequence in which he gives a ride to Jada Pinkett Smith, as a neurotically multitasking U.S. attorney, and the two joust into the flirtation zone without quite realizing it. As the film goes on, Max and Vincent are drawn by Vincent’s treachery into each other’s worlds, yet they remain very much who they are. They never become the two-headed monster.

Shot almost entirely after dark in Los Angeles, ”Collateral” keeps surprising us, and that’s what makes it a zesty night out. It’s been a while since Michael Mann turned away from Big Subjects (”Ali,” ”The Insider”), and the break from significance does him good. He knows how to make the quietest encounters, like Max’s face-off with an angry drug lord (Javier Bardem), simmer and combust, yet the tone stays light; the movie scrambles comedy and bravado in a way that’s reminiscent of ”48 HRS.” I do wish, however, that ”Collateral” didn’t slip, during its last 45 minutes or so, into a more impersonal, revved-up mode of cat-and-mouse suspense. Mann is a whiz at this stuff, yet it comes off as obligatory, and the play of personality that’s the film’s strong suit gets notably tamped down. Cruise and Foxx are so good together because they allow the two characters to get under each other’s skin. They’re buddies and enemies at the same time. They should have stayed that way.

Image credit: Closer: Clive Coote A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND VERY DIRTY WORDS The incandescent stars betray the ordinary, venal roots of the adulterous drama

The participation of four comely stars who gaze with grave flawlessness out of sleek photographic advertisements is half the draw of the made-for-sophisticates psychological drama Closer. The other half lies in the promise of blistering talk about sex — a cruder word would also suffice — from the mouths of such paragons.

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen! Natalie Portman and Jude Law! Talking dirty, nasty, hurtful, and loveless! Why, refined sprite Portman even plays a stripper! And in wordy smackdowns, the foursome enact the machinations of two self-deluding, partner-swapping couples who verbally tear at each other with a hatefulness meant to be quite shocking in this unshockable world.

It does shock, I should say, in the way of men and women doing their psychological worst and most ruthless to push away those they have previously pulled close. I’m just not authentically shocked — not even when Julia Roberts’ character compares the tastes of two men’s semen.

The setting is present-day London. The place, the costumes, the staging of sexual provocation and betrayal are refined studies in luxurious understatement. (The simple white, man-style button-down shirt that Roberts wears as a photographer in her working habitat is a thing of style-setting elegance.) The director is Mike Nichols, who adapted the well-received stage play by British playwright Patrick Marber as if slipping into his own favorite togs for an explosive night with old friends George and Martha, those hissing codependents from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, brought to the screen by Nichols nearly 40 years ago.

Something, though, douses the licks of fiery emotion that ought to make Closer a too-close-for-comfort movie experience. But what? It’s not the cast. Playing the divorced Anna, who finds herself attracted to a mediocre novelist named Dan (Law) while shooting a portrait of the author, Roberts has never reached deeper or exhibited such an interesting complexity; it’s as if the actress has finally grown into the age she’s meant to play and no longer feels the need for coltish wiles and smiles. Clive Owen is stupendous as Larry, the dermatologist who wants Anna, gets Anna, and fights to keep her. (On the London stage, Owen originated the part of Dan.) Tearing into Larry’s viciousness, his competitiveness, his basest, most sex-driven animal self, the British winner from Croupier (and loser, with no blame on his part, from King Arthur) is the throbbing motor with which Closer surges ahead; he’s a galvanizing force.

Law’s Dan is a weak man, a weasel posing as a gerbil: Living with the waifish stripper Alice (Portman), he makes a play for Anna (who rejects him), then messes with Larry’s head, then makes another play for Anna after Larry has won her because, when it comes down to it, Dan is more aroused by sexual competition with Larry than by the women they share. And Law effectively dulls his marketable sex appeal and gets nicely ugly. Portman plays funky, mysterious, tough chick Alice like the best honor-roll Harvard undergrad who ever became an exotic dancer for the tuition money. The dissonance isn’t her fault — it’s a casting director’s world. The polished elements of the production can’t be faulted either. Nichols displayed his affinity for adult content early on with Woolf and Carnal Knowledge, and his brilliant recent success with Wit and Angels in America on HBO attests to his rare talent for transplanting productions from stage to screen in a way that incorporates the best of both mediums.

No, the nearest I can come to understanding this gleaming, hands-off Closer is to present it as a problem of scale. Marber has written a small, blunt play, but one that’s big and dense with violent desires and rages — a plot in which everyone gets tangled with everyone else in the course of skittering away from real intimacy. The sexual pair-offs (to call them romantic is to romanticize them) are as arbitrary as they are calibrated; the words are meant to sting an audience sitting hundreds of feet away. Nichols and his famous players, on the other hand, have made a smooth, ”naughty” movie and pulled the audience in so close that there’s no room for the words to ricochet, to wound. Closer is as indifferent to being loved as any acidic offering from Neil LaBute. But surely the work wants to unsettle. The last thing Marber’s quartet of modern miserables needs is to be admired; they are the very worst of average people, but on screen they have become the very best of the baddest.

Image credit: Kinsey: Ken Regan/Camera 5 ‘KINSEY’ MEASURES UP In the tastefully adult movie, Neeson’s sex scholar reveals the facts of life

Back in the day, this greeting card was deemed hilarious: The cover screamed, ”SEX!” And the inside giggled, ”and now that I have your attention…” There’s no longer any need to send a card, since SEX! has permeated our culture’s yackety conversation — these days it’s an obsession demanding attention in public politics as well as in private bedrooms. So there’s an argument to be made that under conditions of such din, it’s easy to dismiss the furor unleashed by the findings of Dr. Alfred Charles Kinsey more than half a century ago as quaint. Kinsey was, after all, the stern-looking, bow-tied scientist who wrote the books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953); and his considered, nonjudgmental conclusion, arrived at from methodical interviews conducted with thousands of subjects, was that when it comes to SEX!, there’s no such thing as ”normal,” only ”common” and ”rare.” Or to put it another way, lots of different humans have sex lots of different ways — and in this, humans are not so different from one another, after all.

The release of Kinsey dispels all rumors of quaintness. If anything, filmmaker Bill Condon’s considered, nonjudgmental, we’re-all-adults-here take on the researcher and his findings — a portrait of a revolution, really, as well as of a driven revolutionary — proves that when it comes to SEX!, there’s nothing old under the sun. And that when it comes to Kinsey the man, as well as ”Kinsey,” the shorthand for his research, the name still has the power to arouse.

As does Liam Neeson, who plays the title role with his own sexual muscularity tensed into a tight ball. Condon (who wrote and directed with the same sharp delicacy he brought to Gods and Monsters) presents Kinsey as a serious, rather somber, raw-boned man, physically inexpressive, at least with clothes on. Then again, this same son of a radically uptight Methodist minister is seen to be a square Daddy-o who left behind virginal ignorance on his wedding day for a marital life of sexual pleasure with his free-spirited wife, Clara McMillen (played with a quiet roar by Laura Linney); who explored homosexual pleasure with one of his researchers, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), before Martin in turn took Kinsey’s missus to bed; who encouraged the swapping of sexual partners among his research team; and who recorded the sexual histories of pedophiles with the same impartiality he applied to fellows who did it with farm animals.

It’s both marvelous and, perhaps, a scintilla too diverting that Neeson contains Kinsey’s multitudes with such ease; as a result, we’re a little too charmed (and therefore undershocked), even while the movie invites us to make a connection between the man’s relentless commitment to his research (at the risk of damaging personal and professional relationships) and the inhibitions and lovelessness of his childhood. Linney’s ”Mac,” as she was called, is equally a marvel of tolerance, even when deeply upset by her husband’s demolition of sexual boundaries; Sarsgaard is characteristically riveting as the invaluable Martin; and every character, however passing, is casually exquisite and exquisitely cast. Condon has devised an elegant narrative structure that threads Kinseyan interviews between dramatic reenactments and introduces sexual imagery (photos of genitals, made-for-the-movie research footage of coupling) with a calm absence of prurience. The director also allows himself small, downtownish jokes along the way, including the participation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s glam-drag dazzler, Tim Curry, as a prudish professor who preaches abstinence.

Kinsey is patient and educational and never (darn it) rude or shocking. Instead, it’s measured and scrupulously matter-of-fact about hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality, and about as tastefully unsensational as a script can be when it includes a scene where the good doctor punctures his penis so he can experience what the pain might feel like to a sexual masochist. Toward the end of the picture, when public outcry has cost the professor his funding, his health is in ruins, and he doubts the value of his life’s work, he’s visited by a mother of grown children (Gods and Monsters‘ Lynn Redgrave, in a stately cameo) who has found lesbian love later in life and wants to thank the man who wrote the books that allowed her to understand herself. And it’s no surprise that the climax of Redgrave’s speech (”You saved my life, sir”) is the snippet selected for the movie ad on TV. While these days, the website of the conservative group Focus on the Family contains a call to arms about ”what you can do to combat [Kinsey’s] influence in your community”), Kinsey enumerates all the ways the snake — SEX! — is already out of the bag.

HEREOS WELCOME Pixar’s latest CGI marvel leaps the competition in a single bound

The onrushing convergence of pop-cultural trends and technological progress has resulted in a lot of dubious achievements lately — cell phones with built-in cameras, low-carb bread, The Swan — but there’s one place, at least, where phenomenal gains in mechanical sophistication have been applied in the service of profound artistic creativity with the power to change the entire movie medium. Yes, I’m talking about the world of Bob and Helen Parr and their kids Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack — the off-duty identities of the family of incognito superheroes at the center of the dazzlingly beautiful, funny, and meaningful (yes!) new Pixar production The Incredibles.

Forced out of business by a resentful, litigious citizenry who look upon outstanding accomplishment as a threat and standardized mediocrity as a defense (yea, as an American birthright), the Incredible clan is settled, as we meet them, into a retro-futuristic, Suburban Anywhere ranch house by the same federal superhero relocation program that has supplied the family with new identities — as Averages. (With esteem inflation being what it is, of course, Average is the new Super; and everyone’s super!) Having hung up his Mr. Incredible costume, Bob (voiced with gruff warmth by Craig T. Nelson, the invaluable lessons of TV’s Coach behind him) now pushes papers at a cold, Brazil-like insurance company; sometimes he chews over the good old days with his fellow hero in hiding, Frozone (ice-cool Samuel L. Jackson). Helen (an alloy of love and steeliness in the voice of Holly Hunter) is now a restless housewife and mother, her days as the infinitely flexible Elastigirl behind her. Veiling her ability to become invisible or to create impenetrable force fields, petulant teenage Violet (a sweet-tart feature debut for radio personality Sarah Vowell) mopes behind her glossy curtain of long hair. And prohibited from discharging the superboy energy that makes him run faster than a speeding bullet, Dash (Spencer Fox) squanders regular-boy energy annoying his teacher and his sister. (Only baby Jack-Jack appears ”normal.”)

Eventually, the Parr elders are lured back into superherodom — with Violet and Dash pitching in as full partners — and into a ripping, high-stakes action-adventure the keepers of the James Bond franchise only wish they had thought of first. The foursome are united against a peevish nemesis, Syndrome (Jason Lee), whose evil is the result of Super-envy. ”You can’t count on anyone — especially your heroes!” Syndrome whines, a guy who has attended too many fan conventions. The family’s escapades in the field are indeed stupendous, an homage to the exploits of classic comic-book masters of the universe. But the true heroism in this spectacular movie — as worthy of a Best Picture nomination as any made with fleshly stars — shines brightest in that suburban house, where Bob, with his midlife bulge and his thinning hair, pines nostalgically for the old days, and Helen marches anxiously forward, bending to her family’s needs. (This devotee of mid-century design and graphics must pause mid-review to admire the Parrs’ housewares, their furniture, their interior decor worthy of a layout in Dwell.)

Having previously explored the bonds of loyalty in his outstanding 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant, as well as in work on that perennial TV masterpiece The Simpsons, writer-director Brad Bird wants most of all to tell these truths: that being super is a right and a responsibility. That mutual trust and respect are not sitcom punchlines. And that family survival necessitates risk-taking valor, too. And so, with not a talking toy or animal in sight, The Incredibles makes adult philosophical points; the movie tosses off state-of-the-culture zingers (”He’s moving from 4th grade to 5th grade!” an exasperated Bob clarifies when Helen chides him about missing Dash’s ”graduation”); the plot detours into hilarious story-line extras (none more divine than the Diana Vreelandish pronouncements of superhero couturier Edna Mode, voiced by the director himself, with a show-stopping soliloquy on the hazards of wearing a cape); and younger viewers are entertained by the same popping Pixarian blend of movement and color that blessed Finding Nemo. The music by Michael Giacchino, who also composes scores for Alias and Lost, contributes a crucial element of bold, ’60s-style adventure sound.

Amid such splendors — groundbreaking technology harnessed above all in the service of a great story, a rich micro-universe of pixel-driven cartoon characters with more depth, complexity, and emotional maturity than those in most live-action dramas, perfectly pitched voice performers (including Wallace Shawn as Bob’s Scrooge-like boss and Elizabeth Peña as Syndrome’s sultry lieutenant) — the command and ingenuity with which Pixar has, once again, raised the level of excellence to which animated movies (and, why stop there, all movies) can aspire is easy to take for granted. Which may be this movie’s greatest feat. All we need to know is that the family headed by Mr. Incredible proves they really are, in tights and out, indeed incredible. And that The Incredibles really is too.

Image credit: Before Sunset: Emilie de la Hosseraye SLOW L’AMOUR Nine years after their Vienna night in ”Before Sunrise,” Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) reunite in Paris

As much as I liked ”Before Sunrise,” Richard Linklater’s lovely 1995 romance in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy talked and talked their way through one long night in Vienna, I can’t say that I was all that jazzed at the prospect of a sequel. The first movie, in its American-indie-gone-Eric Rohmer way, was a tad precious in its youthful ardor. But now that I’ve seen Before Sunset, I’m thrilled that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy decided to team up again. The new film, which unfolds in real time over the course of 80 minutes, is a deeper, darker, altogether more memorable experience. It doesn’t extend the characters so much as fulfill them.

Nine years later, the first thing you notice about Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) is that both are skinnier. Hawke, with thatchy hair and a goatee, has acquired the look of a starving wolf, and Delpy’s willowy Gallic allure is now chiseled with neurotic purpose. The two characters, you’ll recall, had agreed to meet up six months after their brief encounter, but the rendezvous never happened, and they haven’t seen each other since. Jesse, who has written a novel based on the solitary night they spent together, is doing a signing at a Paris bookstore when he first spies Celine. Do the old sparks fly? Yes and no.

As the two wander the city on a sunny afternoon, Linklater’s camera tracking them in lyrical extended takes, they’re as loquacious as ever, yet the years apart loom like a wall between them. It would trample the emotional delicacy of ”Before Sunset” to reveal its surprises, but the film’s mood is at once cynical, hopeful, and worldly-wise; its exploratory zeal is tempered with the cool air of lowered expectations. The dialogue, which is credited to Linklater and the two actors, has more zing this time, and Hawke and Delpy achieve an inspired balance of wariness, flirtation, and nostalgia. To have grown up and embraced your 30s, it seems, is to understand that a night of talk and love is a beautiful mirage; it’s not really life. Or is it?

There isn’t a filmmaker at work today more surprising, or romantic, than Richard Linklater, and the final scene of ”Before Sunset,” set to the great Nina Simone singing ”Just in Time,” is as blissful as anything I’ve experienced at the movies this year. I’m jazzed for a sequel already.

COLD ‘CYCLE’ Hey, before we start this revolution? Road trip!

Even if you didn’t come of age in the 1960s, the name Che Guevara remains singular in its saintly potency. The famous pop poster of Che was like a rendering of the Marxist messiah, that star on his beret as bright as a halo. Other Communist leaders — Mao, Ho Chi Minh, or Che’s compatriot Fidel Castro — had the disadvantage of having to run states, but Che, who died in 1967 (he was killed by the Bolivian army, acting in concert with the CIA and possibly Castro himself), was enshrined forever as the holy freedom fighter of the people.

In The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’ gorgeously shot South American road movie, the young actor Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También) plays the 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara in 1952, years before he became the martyr/guru of Latin American communism. The movie has no pretense, really, of dealing with uprise politics. Though clearly meant to reveal the seeds of Che’s revolutionary conscience, it is simply the story of two buddies — handsome, plaintive Ernesto and his beefier, rowdier pal, the biochemist Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) — as they climb onto a noisy Norton 500 motorcycle in Buenos Aires and make their way up the east coast of South America, putt-putting through the ravishing green mountains of Chile and Peru. Along the way, they enjoy some very mild adventures with girls and local ruffians, and Ernesto opens his eyes to the peasants, poverty, and quiet struggle that dot the Edenic landscape. The plain, formative human side of a man who becomes a mythic leader: That sounds like a resonant idea for a movie. Except that The Motorcycle Diaries is glazed over by its worship of Che Guevara. Bernal, with his elegant planed face and serious eyebrows, is a great camera subject, but his Ernesto is nothing more than a sweet, courteous, honorable, rather passive bourgeois. He has little fire and few hints of ego or inner conflict. He’s all positive qualities, like the hero of a great-man biography for fifth graders, and his noble blandness works insidiously. It allows the audience to project their hindsight fantasies of Che onto Bernal’s deeply uninteresting performance.

Ernesto and Alberto end up at a leper colony, where they spend weeks tending the sick with brave devotion. We can believe that Ernesto will make a fine physician, or even the future leader of Doctors Without Borders, but is it too much to ask, Where’s a glimmer of the revolutionary? The man who embraced violence for change? The film operates under the spectacularly simpleminded idea that Marxism came down to ”caring.” In an age of war without borders, perhaps that idea now exerts a reassuring cachet. The Motorcycle Diaries could kick off a new movie trend: Communist nostalgia.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS ANEMONIES? Sometimes you come across a film you want to throw back

Let’s say there’s someone, somewhere, who has never heard of Robert De Niro or Will Smith. Okay, maybe that’s too unlikely. Try this instead: Let’s say there’s somebody who isn’t a Sopranos maven, or a student of the contrasting visions of womanhood offered by movie stars Angelina Jolie and Renée Zellweger. That person may live an otherwise fulfilled and accomplished life, no doubt. But a thorough, in-crowd enjoyment of Shark Tale will not be among those accomplishments, because the noisiest laughs in this watery animated comedy are reserved for those who value self-referential winks above all else.

The movie may float its plot on the unlikely alliance between Oscar (Smith), a boastful little hustler of a fish dreaming of the high life, and Lenny (Jack Black), a big, gentle shark who disappoints his father, Don Lino (De Niro) — capo di tutti of the great whites — with his gummy vegetarian ways. It may supply the stereotypical competition for Oscar’s attention between a pretty, unpretentious girl fish (Zellweger) and a glamorous, gold-digger woman fish (Jolie), with the catch going, of course, to the virginal over the sexual. But the central conflict itself — about how Oscar briefly enjoys a hero’s fame based on a lie — is an artificial reef. The characters are underdeveloped even for 2-D players. And the moral — that being loved and unfamous is more important than being a big shot — is so fatuous as to be condescending. Pleasures, then, go to the gleaners of detail: Don Lino himself bears a De Niro-like beauty spot; Sopranos regulars Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore provide shark-mob voices. GoodFellas director Martin Scorsese has fun sending up his own fast-talking intensity as Don Lino’s puffer-fish foot soldier. And those who know the provenance of the line ”Are you not entertained?” can feel superior to those who don’t.

I’d hate to think that Shark Tale jumps the shark within the genre — that shout-outs to more original antecedents, enhanced by gleaming CGI, now pass for innovation at DreamWorks, the home of Shrek (and the pop-culture-giddy Shrek 2). So I’ll assume that this animated spectacle is a fat, lazy air bubble gone astray before the studio sucks it up to dive deep again.

MEET THE PARENTS Princess Fiona unveils her new look — and hubby — to her folks in ”Shrek 2”

Shrek 2 has a rowdy, jumpin’-jive vivacity. It’s not quite as emotionally rounded as ”Shrek” was (there’s nothing in it that can match the way the first film used the dulcet passion of Rufus Wainwright singing ”Hallelujah”), but it’s got heart and delirium in equal doses, as well as a firecracker rhythm all its own. You never know what’s going to get thrown at you next, and that’s fine, since neither, apparently, do the digital animators, who are madcap masters of the free-association zap. This is a movie in which Pinocchio, in the middle of a daring rescue, hangs from a thicket of puppet strings while the ”Mission: Impossible” theme shimmies and bops, and just as you’re giggling at the throwaway Tom Cruise reference, the wooden boy has to tell a lie to make his nose grow, which is why he’s forced to state that he isn’t wearing women’s underwear. (You heard me.) It’s the deadpan lunacy of the joke that gooses you. ”Shrek 2” takes a little while to get going, but once it does it’s more than clever — it’s a seriously warped pileup of fun.

The first ”Shrek,” for all its nattering brio, was a glorious hymn to imperfection. Shrek, the vulgar, mud-bath-taking, none-too-jolly green ogre, with his lower lip curled forward as if it were a small fist, stomped and groused his way through the movie like a guy who wanted to be anything but a hero, and it was part of the film’s wholehearted spirit to recognize that he acted that way because he was so uneasy about being liked. Driven by Mike Myers’ sensationally cantankerous Scottish bellow, Shrek vanquished the vile Lord Farquaad and rescued the captive beauty Fiona, who matched up with him more than he could guess — but beyond all that, he embraced his inner ogre, and his outer one, too. He conquered his self-hatred, which is what made ”Shrek” the rare animated fairy tale with lasting adult resonance.

Andrew Adamson, one of the original codirectors, has now been joined by Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon, and they face a challenge that’s a bit trickier than the one that confronts the usual Hollywood sequel crunchers: They’ve got to figure out how to turn their prince back into a frog. After his honeymoon, Shrek allows his bride, the pig-nosed princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), to talk him into paying a visit to her parents — the King and Queen of Far Far Away, voiced by John Cleese and Julie Andrews in tones so formal and proper that the two might have come off a deck of cards.

Teaming up with Donkey (Eddie Murphy), whose romance with the Dragon, it seems, didn’t quite work out, Shrek and his bride make the journey in a carriage shaped like a bulb of garlic, finally pulling up inside the kingdom, a posh squeaky-clean medieval suburb studded with a litany of chain stores like Tower of London Records. The satire is actually a bit vague: Is this supposed to be another Jeffrey Katzenberg poke at Disneyfication, or is it just a jab at good old 21st-century mall America? When Shrek loses his temper at a hellacious dinner with his in-laws, you can feel the film working too hard to turn him into a self-doubting monster again. For half an hour or so, ”Shrek 2” is a little earthbound — it’s like the kickoff episode of ”Everybody Loves Shrek.”

The movie throttles into high gear when our hero heads to the woods for a morning hunt with his duplicitous father-in-law and is met, instead, by Puss-in-Boots, a preening tabby-cat assassin voiced by Antonio Banderas with a hilarious, rapid-fire olé panache that makes him sound like a cross between Zorro and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Puss, who slides, as if on an oil slick, between butt kissing and vainglorious bravado, has a priceless mock savoir faire, and once he joins Shrek’s team, the movie attains its appropriate state of helter-skelter rudeness. The other new characters are the unctuously coiffed Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) and his mom, Fairy Godmother, voiced by ”Ab Fab”’s Jennifer Saunders as the most persnickety of spell casters. She’s Martha Stewart with a wand.

In a scene of pure nutzoid glee, Shrek and his cohorts ransack Fairy Godmother’s potion factory, where they end up stealing a glowing beaker of Happily Ever After elixir, which gives the ugly Shrek the makeover of his dreams. It’s a nifty twist, though the satire of our perfectionistic image culture might have had greater bite if Shrek had gotten a little more hooked on his newfound self. No matter. By the end of ”Shrek 2,” Shrek, with a little help from his friends (who now include a freshly baked Gingerbread Man the size of Godzilla), embraces, once again, the role of noble outsider, and he sweeps the audience right along with him. If he can live ”la vida loca,” why can’t we? EW Grade: A-

FLAT NOTE Rossum and Butler in the bland Phantom

There’s a moment in The Phantom of the Opera that achieves a morbid kitsch splendor that the rest of the movie could have used more of. The Phantom (Gerard Butler), in his cape and cravat, his glossy white mask and Strangelovian gloves, is leading Christine (Emmy Rossum), the teenage chorus girl-turned-diva who’s his secret objet d’amour, down a catacomb lined with candelabra that are held aloft by human arms. It’s an image lifted right out of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — but what the heck, at least the director, Joel Schumacher, is stealing from the best.

Christine believes that the Phantom is the ghost of her dead father. As she and her tormented daddy-ghoul admirer make their way to his hidden lair, buried deep under the Opera Populaire in Paris, they sing a macabre duet that climaxes with the descending refrain ”The Phaaaaaan-tom of the op-er-a is there, inside my mind!” It takes a certain fearlessness to craft a line that grandiose, but it would be sheer snobbery to deny that the song, with its blast of old-dark-castle organ, insinuates its corniness. For a moment, the Phantom is right where he should be: inside your mind. The rest of the time, he’s in the world’s most lavish furniture showroom.

There’s a certain kind of movie director who loves to get the audience drunk on stylized, rococo imagery — who thinks and dreams in a wilder shade of purple. He employs sets and costumes of an extravagance that would shame Cecil B. DeMille (if not Jean Paul Gaultier) and, whenever possible, he weaves and swirls his camera as though it were a swooning dance partner. The Fellini of Satyricon was that kind of filmmaker, and so was Ken Russell in his composers-as-rock-gods heyday, and also the Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge. How I wish that Schumacher, in his adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 smash-hit horror operetta, had earned a place among their company. I long, in other words, to agree with all the critics who’ve accused Schumacher of staging this movie as a crime against good taste.

If only! The problem with The Phantom of the Opera is that Schumacher isn’t vulgar enough. The 19th-century sets — pillowy dressing rooms, the opera house with its crystal spaceship of a chandelier — certainly look expensive; one can marvel at the miles of velvet and fake gold leaf that went into constructing them. Yet they’re photographed stiffly, without decadent atmosphere or visual flow. The Phantom’s lair, which should be a place of monstrous mystery, is a brightly lit mess of scattered bric-a-brac, complete with unmade bed; he might be a haunted resident of a sophomore dorm.

Schumacher, the man who added nipples to Batman’s suit, has staged Phantom chastely, as if his job were to adhere the audience to every note. (He should have realized that the songs come with their own glue.) The result is a musical that isn’t liberated from the stage so much as it’s trapped, with waxworks literalness, on screen.

Just because Andrew Lloyd Webber holds a patent on romantic bombast, his music hovering between melody and mush, doesn’t mean that a tasty (if overripe) screen spectacle couldn’t have been fashioned out of The Phantom of the Opera. The songs may be saturated with sentiment, but they fall pleasantly on the ears; they’re like naturally pretty girls who’ve been overly made up. The most memorable number here is ”All I Ask of You,” the duet between Christine and her (non-scarred) beau (Patrick Wilson). It’s a song that, each time it is heard, is supposed to drive the Phantom quietly mad with romantic jealousy, and the gentle, arcing chorus, with its lovely suspended refrain, is just elegiac enough to do the trick.

Emmy Rossum, who looks like Jennifer Beals and sings like Julie Andrews, has an unforced sweetness, not to mention a sublime collarbone, though I wouldn’t have minded if her Christine came off as slightly less pure than an animated Disney heroine. The Scottish actor Gerard Butler, by contrast, exudes little charisma beneath his mask, and he sings like a Meat Loaf stuffed with too much garlic. He’s too roaringly ”overpowering” in the Broadway manner to invite us into the Phantom’s exquisite torment. It scarcely matters how much schlock-rock eloquence the Phantom musters to salute ”the music of the night”: If he fails to break our hearts, then this story can’t take wing.

The Phantom of the Opera isn’t the dud that Evita was, yet it’s stuffed and mounted when it should be shameless and wrenching. The movie achieves a newly stodgy style of corporate excess: Call it under-the-top.

HE’S LOVIN’ IT? ”Super Size Me” documents director Spurlock’s quest to eat nothing but fast food for 30 days

Super Size Me is a deliciously amusing socio-culinary prank. The director and star, Morgan Spurlock, decided to eat nothing but food from McDonald’s for 30 straight days. Without fail, he consumed three square meals — roughly 5,000 calories — a day, pigging out on Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, goopy salads and third-of-a-gallon Cokes; all the while, he monitored his weight and his health, arranging for a trio of physicians to chart his cholesterol, blood pressure, and so forth. Spurlock is tall, sandy-haired, and perpetually amused, with a slightly goofy handlebar mustache and, early on, a bit of a dainty stomach. On Day 2, he can’t even keep down his double cheeseburger and supersize fries, vomiting it all up right on camera.

His tolerance grows quickly, though. As he travels around the country, recording each meal with straight-faced aplomb, ordering the supersize portion every time a cashier asks him if he’d like to, he doesn’t deny that he digs the food. The deep-dish fun of ”Super Size Me” is the way that Spurlock, for the sake of his documentary experiment, forces himself to do what every kid would love to do. He becomes the ultimate Mickey D’s junkie, acting out the quest for instant — and endless — gratification until he’s poised between craving and nausea. Along the way, he talks to a man who has eaten two Big Macs a day for decades with no adverse effects; he shows us schoolkids who can ID a picture of Ronald McDonald but not Jesus; he takes an eye-opening investigative detour into the way that school-lunch programs have been hijacked by junk-calorie marketers; he offers a graphic sequence (scored to ”The Blue Danube”) of an obese man’s stomach-reduction surgery. ”Super Size Me” is witty, gross, smart, outrageous, and so clever it just about pops. The movie lays bare the insidiousness of American fast-food culture by feasting on it in big, hungry bites.

Spurlock, it’s clear, has taken a page or two from Michael Moore, but he’s a far more benevolent muckraker. From the outset, he establishes that his true subject isn’t McDonald’s but addiction — the vast, ruthlessly advertised national religion that fast food has become. At the beginning, a group of children jubilantly chant ”McDONald’s! McDONald’s! Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut!” — a pledge of allegiance they can truly believe in. Spurlock, like Moore, hates the way that corporations have exploited public weakness, and he shows sympathy (too much of it, I would say) for the recent lawsuits against McDonald’s, but he’s really laying the blame where it belongs: on us. Through it all, he casts his own Golden Arches odyssey as a perversely exciting adventure. What happens to Spurlock? He gains nearly a pound a day, and his liver turns to ”pâté.” Yet the real news isn’t so medical. In ”Super Size Me,” we watch a man gorge on McDonald’s until he gets sick of it (literally). He binges for our sins, and by the end you want to see him — and all of us — purged.

WHOLE LOTTA SHAKUR GOIN’ ON The late, great outlaw-poet shines in a new biography

How charismatic was Tupac Shakur? In Lauren Lazin’s resonant and fascinating Tupac: Resurrection, he has a disarming romantic aura, with the elegant cheekbones and liquid eyes of a young sheikh, his head wrapped in a kerchief he wore like a crown. Early on, there’s a startling interview with the 17-year-old Tupac, his hair sculpted into a slightly geeky fade, his smile delicate enough to be called angelic. At the Baltimore School for the Arts, where his driving passion was acting, Shakur had a quality not often associated with figures from the hardcore hip-hop world: innocence. A few years later, after he has reinvented himself as a bad boy devoted to ”Thug Life,” we see him strutting around on stage with an imperioso swagger even arguably better rappers, like Snoop Dogg, couldn’t match. But the innocence never disappears.

”Tupac: Resurrection” interpolates recorded interviews with Shakur, creating the effect that we’re hearing him narrate his life story. It’s a device that might not have worked with a less confessional star, but Shakur leads us deep inside his divided nature. Raised by his mother, Afeni, who was one of the first Black Panthers, he yearned to be both militant and savior, hustler and healer. What fused the two sides is that he remained, in his bones, an actor. When he presents himself as a nihilist street ruffian, it’s not a pose. It’s more like a role that’s become real because of how fully he played it.

The film has been made in a style of layered, flowing density that has its roots (perhaps a bit too recognizably) in MTV, yet Lazin commands that style with unusual intimacy. The conspiracy theories that surround Shakur’s murder are scarcely mentioned. In a larger sense, though, ”Tupac: Resurrection” showcases his movement from teen thespian to rap hero to public outlaw, getting signed from prison by Marion ”Suge” Knight, as a chain of acting out that ultimately sowed the seeds of his destruction. It’s no insult to Tupac to say that he was gangsta rap’s greatest matinee idol, or that he lived the part only too well.

Image credit: The Sea Inside: Teresa Isasi THE DIE IS CAST Sampedro (Bardem) is a charismatic champion for euthanasia rights in Sea

In Spain, Ramón Sampedro was the national hero of a real-life saga about the right to die. The bedridden, quadriplegic former ship’s mechanic, embodied with exquisite care by Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside, tussled with the courts, the church, and his own family for nearly 30 years before getting his wish to end his own life in 1998. (He had the event filmed and it was broadcast on Spanish TV.) Yet while he lived, Sampedro wrote poetry and a best-selling memoir, gave interviews, and charmed those around him — particularly women, who were prone to loving him — through the power of his personality.

All this is conveyed in Alejandro Amenábar’s velvety Spanish biopic. The classy production, with its aesthetic graces, is especially convincing about the charisma of the man, a performance specialty of the great Bardem, who ages believably to a slack-muscled 55, and seduces believably, too (first Belén Rueda as his empathetic lawyer, then Lola Dueñas as a local woman who hopes to persuade her neighbor to live). But for non-Spaniards with less attachment to the case, and perhaps especially for Americans with so many Right To (fill in the blank) causes to choose from, the artistic velvet turns out to clog the emotional heart of the movie. Amenábar (the inventive Spaniard who made The Others) promotes dignity, love, and inspiration with such insistence that there’s relatively little chance to feel Ramón Sampedro’s unendurable pain.