* 21 Grams
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)

* 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. (Justin Wescoat Sanders)

* 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.

* Big Fish See review this issue.

* Cheaper by the Dozen
A remake of the 1950 film, this time starring Steve Martin as a dad with 12 kids.

Cold Mountain See review this issue.

The Cooler
The Cooler is a small, unremarkable film that has been getting a decent amount of attention due to one simple thing: sex. In the film, director Wayne Kramer has managed to give audiences something all too rare in films these days, and that something is a sexy scene that not only causes the audience to flush, but makes sense to them as well. But the film itself feels cluttered and unfocused, especially as it limps toward a ridiculous climax that not only doesn't work, but nearly undermines the entire picture. (Bradley Steinbacher)

* Elf
Elf begs the question: Can Ferrell carry a feature-length film, and can he do it wearing tights? The answer is yes, because Ferrell, for all his goofiness, has the uncanny ability to take himself utterly seriously. (Justin Sanders)

* Equilibrium & 28 Days Later
Starring Christian Bale, 2002's Equilibrium is a sci-fi adventure about a man who seeks to overthrow the "system" that doesn't allow people to have any feelings. Followed by the fast moving modern zombie classic 28 Days Later.

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?

The House of Sand and Fog See review this issue.

In America
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)

* In This World
Two Afghani cousins embark on a grueling escape from their homeland to London. The boys' 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, all while in imminent danger.

* it (independent tuesdays)
The very cool Nocturnal continues to bat a thousand with this monthly event at which budding filmmakers can show off their wares. This month's theme is the "holiday hootenany." All are welcome to show films; just call 239-5900 or email jef@nocturnalpdx.com

* Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
After greeting the first two films with slack-jawed reverence, I found myself viewing the third with a kind of grumpy anticipation. What I soon discovered, however, was that the begrudging-ness of my affection for the film was no match for Peter Jackson's swashbuckling craft. If this is just a fantasy, Jackson seems to say, it's going to deliver on every level available. And it does. Unburdened from the need to be relevant, the director reveals a far deeper mission: to make these absurd surroundings not only cinematically credible, but emotionally resonant. (Sean Nelson)

* 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. (Justin Sanders)

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

* 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)

* Master of the Flying Guillotine
In Master of the Flying Guillotine (1974), the One Armed Boxer (OAB) returns to battle an opponent who refuses to have his beans refried. While Flying Guillotine may look like just another old blind coot, in actuality, he's a high-kickin' get-up-and-go grampa who has a flying hat he uses to chop off his enemy's heads! So after receiving news that two of his disciples have been done in by OAB, he gets madder than a poodle in a pigpen and storms off to get revenge.

Mona Lisa Smile
There is an extraordinary scene in Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile, an emotionally brutal few moments in which the perilously cracked veneer blocking the anger within Kirsten Dunst's privileged and viperous Wellesley girl splinters away, releasing a storm of cruel, outward criticism in footage that aches with the character's underlying self-hatred. Rather than strike back, however, the girl's classmate (Maggie Gyllenhaal) wordlessly wraps her arms around the shaking, still screaming student, and by sheer force of empathy directs the torrent to cease. This scene is in the tradition of Newell's Enchanted April, and it helps demonstrate the director's canny awareness of the secret language spoken silently among women. (Kathleen Wilson)

* Monster See review this issue.

Paycheck See review this issue.

* Peter Pan See review this issue.

* 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)

* 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)

* There's No Business Like Show Business
Starring a young Marilyn Monroe and featuring the soulful songs of Ethel Merman, There's No Business Like Show Business shows the rise of a singing, dancing, drinking Irish family that performs a fantabulous vaudeville show.

* The Triplets of Belleville See review this issue.