* 21 Grams
In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams, tragedy is finally given the respect it deserves. The story is told in a series of fragments. Flashing forward and back, the audience is given glimpses of its three main characters. Paul (Sean Penn) is on the cusp of death, waiting for his heart condition to finally claim him. Cristina (Naomi Watts) is a suburban wife with two children and a doting husband--who is soon to be scarred by an accident of epic proportions. Jack (Benicio del Toro) is an ex-jailbird turned fundamentalist Christian who can't escape the tragedies of his past which, like the repeated scenes of this film, keep returning as his future. The previously mentioned accident binds these three into an unwanted triad, sending each on a skidding path with their pasts, and sealing what seems to be a predestined fate. (Wm. Steven Humphrey) Fox Tower 10

* American Splendor
As an examination of the self-loathing artist, American Splendor is arguably a better film than Adaptation, thanks to the auto-on-autobiographical nature of the material and the on-the-nose performances by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, combined with disarmingly deadpan voice-overs and interview interstitials with Harvey Pekar himself. (Shanon Gee) Kennedy School

* Bad Santa
Despite his crippling, perpetual drunkenness, Willy (Billy Bob Thornton) possesses a strange gift: he can crack a mean safe. Every Christmas he and his fiery dwarf friend (Tony Cox, hilarious) team up as a Santa/elf team to work the papier-m=ché North Pole in some generic department store, case the joint for a few days, then sneak in after hours and rob it. It's a ridiculous premise that feels almost like an afterthought as director Zwigoff relentlessly mines the angst-riddled depths of his characters. Regal Cinemas, etc.

* The Barbarian Invasions
A Canadian dramedy about a man dying of cancer who reconnects with his son, ex-wife, and old lovers before he kicks the bucket. Fox Tower 10

A German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer created the mold for "peacemaker through violence." During World War II, he helped led a religious rebellion and eventually a bomb plot against Hitler. After fleeing to America, he returned with high hopes of killing der Fuhrer--and single-handedly almost stopped him. A remarkable, little told true story (with a very unhappy, very un-Hollywood ending). (Phil Busse) Guild Theater

* British Advertising Awards See review this issue. Whitsell Auditorium

Bubba Ho-tep
Bubba Ho-Tep has an ingenious premise: Elvis (Bruce Campbell)--who didn't die, but instead swapped places with an Elvis impersonator--is stuck in a dilapidated rest home, spending his days desperately trying to convince nurses and visitors that he's The King. Unfortunately, the only person who'll believe Elvis' claims is another rest home resident: JFK (Ossie Davis), who insists that he survived his assassination, was dyed black, then stuck in the retirement home thanks to a Lyndon Johnson-led conspiracy. Elvis and JFK soon notice their geriatric compatriots are dying off even more often than usual. After some investigation, they discover that the culprit is an evil, soul-sucking mummy, Bubba Ho-Tep. So, as only two American mega-icons can, the two combine forces to kick some undead Egyptian ass. (Erik Henriksen) Laurelhurst

The Cat in the Hat
Staying true to the original Dr. Suess classic, two siblings are tempted by a talking cat into wrecking their house. Surprisingly, this live action version nicely captures Seuss' sense of unbridled mischief. In a startling turn, the kids who play Conrad and Sally are completely charming and non-annoying. Their mom (Kelly Preston) is hot and believable, and Alec Baldwin is a goddamn hoot as her slimy boyfriend. Though Seuss purists may pooh-pooh the appearance of a slimy boyfriend, rest assured you'll thank your lucky stars Alec Baldwin is here--because Mike Myers STINKS! Regal Cinemas, etc.

* Cheaper by the Dozen
A remake of the 1950 film, this time starring Steve Martin as a dad with 12 kids who moves from a small town to Chicago where he's offered a job as the football coach at Northwestern. Also stars the real sexiest man alive, Ashton Kutcher. St. Johns Theater

* A Christmas Story & Scrooged
Little Ralphie's epic struggle to get a Red Ryder BB gun is hilariously depicted in this Christmas classic based on the book by Jean Shepherd. And btw, it's Darren McGavin's greatest role besides. Followed by Scrooged starring Bill Murray in a fairly dumb and depressing comedy based on A Christmas Carol. XV

* The Company
Neve Campbell and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago star in this dance-centric film about a young woman (Campbell) who is conflicted about becoming a principal dancer in her company. Free screening on Tuesday, December 23 at Cinema 21 with one or more non-perishable food items. Cinema 21

The Cooler See review this issue. Fox Tower 10

* Die, Mommie, Die
Set in 1967, and starring Frances Conroy, Natasha Lyonne, and Jason Priestley, the story of a washed up pop diva who may or may not have poisoned her husband to death. A whodunit, double-cross-filled comedy that's low on substance, high on camp. Hollywood Theatre

Dirty Pretty Things
An African illegal immigrant works as a cab driver by day and a hotel desk clerk by night, despite his training as a doctor. When he does sleep, it's on the couch of a Turkish illegal immigrant (Tautou from Amelie). He soon discovers an illicit kidney-selling scheme that is preying on fellow immigrants. Frears' London is engaging in that it's a place where corruption is taken for granted, but unfortunately the plot resolves itself mechanically. (Andy Spletzer) Laurelhurst

* Edward Scissorhands
An Avon lady happens upon Edward (played by Johnny Depp), a loving boy with scissors for hands. She good-naturedly brings him back to her suburban neighborhood, but society has difficulty accepting him. Clinton Street Theater

Elephant shows us a couple days in the life of two grumpy teens who go all Vice City on their Portland high school. Both the boys are cardboard characters who shop for guns on the internet, play violent video games, and have a brief homosexual affair. Neither is likeable, neither evokes sympathy. Their fellow high school students, however, are worse. (Katie Shimer) Fox Tower 10

* Elf
It's no secret that Will Ferrell is one funny mo-fo, and yet to this point in time his movie roles have been limited to comic relief. Elf begs the question: Can Ferrell carry a feature-length film, and can he do it wearing tights in every scene? The answer is yes, because Ferrell, for all his goofiness, has the uncanny ability to take himself utterly seriously. (Justin Sanders) Regal Cinemas, etc.

* Gothika
In the psychologically disarming scare-tradition of The Ring, Gothika tells the suspenseful tale of Dr. Miranda Grey, a gifted shrink (Halle Berry) treating Chloe, a mentally disturbed woman (Penelope Cruz), who's convinced the devil himself is raping her, "filling her with fire." "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy," Chloe tells Grey. Pretty soon, Grey figures out what that means when, after having a frightening encounter with a beaten and shivering woman on a bridge, Grey wakes up in the very insane asylum where she works--as a patient. (Julianne Shepherd) Lloyd Mall, Movies on TV

The Haunted Mansion
This movie has plenty of scenes copped directly from the original ride, and most of them are letter-perfect. It's one of the prettiest haunted houses you're ever going to see on screen--but you'll have to ignore Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Tilly to enjoy it. (Dan Howland) Regal Cinemas, etc.

Jessica Dark Angel Alba stars as a music video choreographer faced with a difficult choice: Sleep with hunky Mekhi Phifer, or have her career ruined? Honey, this is 2003: you can have BOTH. With cameos by Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, and Lil' Romeo! Regal Cinemas, etc.

* Images of the World and the Inscription of War
Harun Farocki's 1988 film explores the relationship between photography, drawings, and human perception, and, ultimately, the finality of progress. In 1977, members of the CIA re-examined aerial photos taken over Poland during WWII. What were originally meant as maps of Nazi bombing targets became detailed overviews of Auschwitz. The camp was overlooked, because no one was looking for it. With ginger simplicity, Farocki created an extraordinary documentary of documents, laid out and connected through a studied combination of visceral images and narration. (Julianne Shepherd) Lighthouse Cinema

In America
Claimed to be his most personal film yet, In America is based roughly on the time director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) spent in New York City in the early '80s. For the sake of authenticity, it was co-written by his daughter, who was a girl during this time. The movie begins with a tense moment: A young Irish family in a beat-up car is attempting to enter the land of milk and honey from Canada. The immigration officer sternly looks at the girls, the husband and wife, and then breaks into a smile: "Welcome to the United States of America." Once in, they travel to the heart of New York City, settle in a rundown apartment, and begin to build a new life as illegal immigrants. (Charles Mudede) Fox Tower 10

* In This World
Two Afghani cousins embark on a grueling escape from their homeland to London. First both of the boy's parents must pay huge sums of money to transport them, then the two find themselves in crowded shipping containers, refugee camps, and among people who don't speak their language. Hollywood Theatre

The Last Samurai
The year is 1876, and Tom Cruise plays Civil War hero Nathan Algren, who has been reduced to a drunken, carnival sideshow attraction. To make a quick buck, he accepts a post overseas training Japanese soldiers to battle samurai insurgents, and bring the country's military machine into the modern age. Unfortunately, his trainees are forced into battle far too early, and Algren is taken captive by the enemy. Befriended by the group's leader (Ken Watanabe), Algren must decide if he should betray his own army to join a coup led by ass-kicking samurai. The only logical answer: Shit, yeah. The directing/producing team of Edward Zwick and Marshall Hersovitz are well adapted for encapsulating war down to the internal struggle between a man's honor and his duty. The downside is their use of pretty boy Tom Cruise, and their insistence on painting pictures in colorful, overly romantic tones. (Wm. Steven Humphrey) Regal Cinemas, etc.

* Love Actually
Yes, it's frequently saccharine, and it's a Christmas movie, but it has an incredible cast. Any movie with Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, and Laura Linney is going to have to work its ass off to suck. Love Actually doesn't even work its ass off. Several of its many love-themed story threads are genuinely moving, and several of its scenes are surprisingly hilarious. Regal Cinemas, etc.

Love Don't Cost a Thing
But it cost loads of dough to remake the perfectly serviceable Can't Buy Me Love. Regal Cinemas, etc.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
The year is 1805 and Napoleon is running roughshod over Europe. The only thing stopping France from infecting the whole of the continent is the tiny island of England, which may be lacking in ground forces, but kicks ass on the high seas. Russell Crowe plays Cap'n "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, one of Britain's finest seamen, who runs afoul of a Frenchy frigate boasting twice the guns and manpower. Barely escaping with their lives, Cap'n Jack becomes obsessed with the Froggie warboat, and vows to send ship and crew to the bottom of the briny blue. (Wm. Steven Humphrey) Regal Cinemas, etc.

The Missing
The fact that The Missing is directed by Ron Howard should be a tip-off that it isn't the supernatural and eerie tale promised by the advertisements. Set in 1885 New Mexico, the story starts with intriguing promise. Maggie (played by Cate Blanchett) is a single mom raising two daughters. When her eldest sets out to town one day, she is abducted by an evil shaman and his lawless pack of Navajo Indians, who plan to sell her and several other frontier teens in Mexico. With the cavalry and the sheriff unable to help out, Maggie, along with her long-absent father (Tommy Lee Jones), take off after the kidnappers. What could have been friction between frontier families and Indians, between Christianity and witchcraft, instead turns into long, drawn-out galloping scenes and achingly empty conversations between Maggie and her desperado father. (Phil Busse) Avalon, Bagdad Theater, Milwaukie 3 Theater

Mona Lisa Smile See review this issue. Regal Cinemas, etc.

Mystic River
For all the "inexorability" and "meditation" of its violence, Mystic River feels desperately contrived. Whether director Clint Eastwood has some deep understanding of the nature of violence remains unclear. What is certain is that he knows how to make a movie, even a dumb one, well worth watching. I only wish someone would send him some better books. (Sean Nelson) City Center 12, Fox Tower 10, Westgate

* Pieces of April
Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, and Oliver Platt, Pieces of April has a look and feel that I hesitate to label "documentary-like." Gritty due to its transfer of digital to celluloid and mainly handheld, there is a certain spontaneity in the film, almost an improvised feel, that is enhanced by the sharp cast. Clarkson is particularly good, becoming the heart of the film that the rest of the group rotates around. (Bradley Steinbacher) Hollywood Theatre

* Pink Panther Strikes Again
Peter Sellers falls into more shenanigans when a former inspector escapes from the insane asylum and tries to kill him. Old Town Pizza

* Shattered Glass
Stephen Glass, a fast-rising writer and editor for the New Republic, scandalized the journalism world in 1998 when it was unearthed that an article he penned for his employer, titled "Hack Heaven," was an outright fabrication. Shattered Glass chronicles Glass' exposure and tumble. Despite some minor flaws, the film shows us in an intelligent fashion how the reputation damage to the New Republic came about, and gives us a smart portrayal of Stephen Glass the man. (Bradley Steinbacher) Laurelhurst, Mission Theater

Something's Gotta Give
Here is a movie so filled with unappealing, uninteresting people, inane, pandering dialogue, and contemptuous pop psychologizing that it is humiliating to watch. I spent most of the film doodling on my notebook, in the dark. Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton spoof their on-screen personas--his cad, her compulsive nervous wreck--so thoroughly that they may very well erase years of good work in the process (and never mind that in this token bone tossed to the elderly among us who are apparently longing for a romantic comedy of their own, the lady is still a good 10 years younger than the gent). And do you really want to see Nicholson's bare ass? (Emily Hall) Regal Cinemas, etc.

Stuck on You
Stuck On You, the Farrelly Brothers latest film, stars Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins named Bob and Walt Tenor. Connected by nine inches of tissue (including a shared liver), the twins live a quiet, happy life in Martha's Vineyard. Walt, though, has dreams; he wishes to move to Los Angeles and become an actor. So off the brothers go. What happens to them in L.A.? In a word: wackiness. Actually, add another word to that: attempted wackiness, for Stuck On You, like Me, Myself & Irene and Shallow Hal, is a failure--far too long and built upon the ricketiest of premises, the picture unfolds in a painfully dull fashion, trudging along for 120 minutes until it reaches its predictable conclusion. (Bradley Steinbacher) Regal Cinemas, etc.

* Tampopo
If you love food, Tampopo is one of the most erotically charged movies ever made about food. A Japanese cowboy/trucker rolls into town and helps the lovely madame Tampopo create the perfect Ramen noodles. There is also an insanely sexy scene where a freaky couple plays tongue hockey with an egg yolk. (Katie Shimer) Pix Patisserie

* This is Spinal Tap
Smell the glove once again with David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls, in this band mockumentary by Christopher Guest. DJ'd Dance party following at 10 pm, air metal bands at midnight. Holocene

Under the Tuscan Sun
Under the Tuscan Sun finds Diane Lane luminous as Frances Mayes, a San Francisco writer who gets totally reamed in a messy divorce and hops a plane to Italy, when single life in the city becomes unbearable. She stumbles across Bramasole, a dilapidated villa in the country that becomes her home. In Tuscany, she finds love, empowerment, and humility. Plus some hot Italian guys! (Brian Brait) Edgefield, Koin Center

* Wings of Desire
Wim Wenders' emotional masterpiece in which two angels contemplate human life, and the monotony of their existence. When one of them falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist, he must reconcile his perpetual spirituality with his desire for earthly pleasure. Brilliantly shot at a perfectly slow pace in black and white and color, and starring Peter Falk as his own quirky self. (Julianne Shepherd) Cinema 21