Also coming, but as of this writing unseen by me, are a live-action version of Peter Pan; Ben Affleck’s latest caper Paycheck, Steve Martin’s new comedy Cheaper By The Dozen, from the United Kingdom and Luxembourg Girl With A Pearl Earring based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel, and House Of Sand And Fog, from the novel by Andres Dubus III and starring Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Frances Fisher, and Ron Eldard.

I wrote extensively about Elephant in my Toronto Film Festival article. It’s in town and a definite must-see. Director Gus Van Sant’s movie is a visual ode to teenage obsession and tragedy. It may be a fictional work, but those are real high school students you’re looking at, most of whom helped write the dialogue and hold the digital cameras that glide and hover. Watch this non-linear film as if it were a ghost story. The spirits of past and future dead are your guides. The movie jumps back and forth in time. You’re eavesdropping on private lives and personal thoughts. The film is both an interpretation of the shootings at Columbine High School and a stunning commentary on the twisted thoughts and easy solutions of some youth. There are nuggets of truth that sear and moments that make you feel as if you’ve been slammed against a wall.

Another masterful non-linear film is 21 Grams. It’s an American feature from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros), and it tells the story of very different people. Sean Penn’s an ailing mathematician trapped in a loveless marriage to an Englishwoman (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Naomi Watts, whose performance anoints her as the best actress of 2003, plays a comfortable suburban housewife, happily married and the mother of two little girls. Benicio Del Toro is an ex-convict who has turned to preaching Christianity to find inner strength. These three strangers will come together with difficult consequences due to a tragic accident. All will learn exceedingly uncomfortable truths about courage, guilt, passion, and emotional pain. The gritty movie is about coincidence and the sheer luck of the draw. It is rigidly adult and utterly watchable.

If you need to laugh over the holidays, you’ve got four choices: Stuck On You, Mona Lisa Smile, Something’s Gotta Give, and Calendar Girls. I recommend Calendar Girls and Something’s Gotta Give, but let’s take the rejects first. In Stuck On You, Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear are good and personable actors trapped in a one-joke, one-note comedy about conjoined brothers who head to Hollywood because one of them (Kinnear) wants to be a movie star. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did the go-to-Hollywood gig too, but at least with them, the gags were fresh. As for Mona Lisa Smile, think Dead Poets Society with teeth. Julia Roberts provides the dental glow as a free-spirited teacher at Wellesley College in the 1950s. She breaks all the rules, becomes chummy with her girl charges, and practices feminist principles, but there are loose plot threads all over the place and enough sentimentality to choke a Pollyanna. As for revisiting the 50s’ cultural wars, well, nobody ever gave Hollywood credit for depth.

Better, much better, are Something’s Gotta Give and Calendar Girls. The former features Jack Nicholson as a robust, albeit aging, record company executive who likes younger women until he discovers the power and passion of the brilliant Diane Keaton, who can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. She’s fantastic and delivers lines like a champion. The pairing is solid, and, even if some of the scenes run on too long, the movie’s a sharp-witted pleasure. Calendar Girls is this season’s Waking Ned Devine, an English trifle with sparks and flair and an understanding that sweetness doesn’t have to be sickening. Helen Mirren and Julie Walters lead a cast of colorful characters; many of them women of a certain age who find out that being naked in a calendar has its advantages.

Cold Mountain is based on Charles Frazier’s novel about a Confederate Army deserter who only wants to rejoin the proper, but spunky, woman he loves. He’s Jude Law and she’s Nicole Kidman. Law is outstanding even if his adventures start to feel like Dorothy’s visit to Oz. As for Kidman, she’s too modern to be a Southern belle. Near the end she’s wearing a fashionable black coat and tailored slacks as she hunts down the bad guys. She’s Annie Hall in the foothills, and it takes you out of the movie. Renee Zellweger is terrific as the farmhand who helps Kidman survive her separation from her would-be lover. The movie has stunning early scenes of Civil War battle hell, but as it meanders down the road home, it gets silly. Fortunately, Law and Zellweger keep you alert.

Big Fish and In America are quirky entries in the holiday showcase. Big Fish is enjoyable in that garish circus way that director Tim Burton does so well. There’s also a deep well of emotionalism in the movie that is never forced. The story is about a young man (Billy Crudup) who is hoping to learn some truths about his dying father (Albert Finney) by retracing stories and myths his father told him about himself. Ewan McGregor is the father as a young man. The three actors are top-notch and also enjoy Helena Bonham Carter, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Steve Buscemi, and Robert Guillaume in supporting parts. The movie has Crudup exploring a past that takes him on delightful encounters with odd folks of every stripe.

Speaking of mythology, what’s with the myth of America as the pot of gold? In America follows an Irish family that has come to New York City. Once again, the poor are shunted aside and the newcomer is in for a zany ride to success. The family’s two daughters are the focus of the film, and you’re going to love them or loathe them. I found them annoying, cloying, and best in bed without supper. There’s a dreadful subplot about a black artist with AIDS, serving as the film’s quasi-ogre, which seems to belong in another movie. The manipulative film is frantic, antic, and, finally, sappy beyond belief.

As for the one Christmas blockbuster, that behemoth is The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, and you can read all about it in Short Takes elsewhere in this issue. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

The Christmas movie season is sort of like the Toronto International Film Festival. Scores of films are jammed together, screenings run one after another, and then, of course, you’ve got people to talk to and parties to attend. Booking patterns being what they are, some movies that play New York and Los Angeles in December for potential Academy Award consideration don’t open around the rest of the country for weeks. For example, the colorful Big Fish is not scheduled to hit Buffalo until January 9 and you’ll have to wait until February 6 for the superbly acted gambling study The Cooler. A bunch of frisky older women in North Yorkshire, England go nude for charity in the comic Calendar Girls, which is your New Year’s Day treat.