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The Best of the Rest

As we head down to the wire in what may be one of the fiercest Oscar derbies in years, a scorecard to the remaining contenders (and also-rans).

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Iris
Directed by Richard Eyre
Starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet
Opens December 14 (Miramax)
Dame Judi Dench is already a front-runner in the Best Actress Oscar sweepstakes for her performance as British novelist Iris Murdoch, who succumbed to Alzheimer's disease in 1999. Kate Winslet plays Iris as a younger woman, and Jim Broadbent is heartbreaking in the role of Oxford literary critic John Bayley, Iris's doting and devoted husband. What could have been a treacly disease-of-the-week TV movie may turn out to be the love story of the year.

The Royal Tenenbaums
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelica Huston, Ben Stiller, and Bill Murray
Opens December 14 (Disney)
Wes Anderson's curse is that he's the critics' darling, so when The Royal Tenenbaums, his portrait of an eccentric New York family, premiered at the New York Film Festival this October, it was so smothered in advance hype and inflated expectations that some disappointment was almost inevitable. With expectations suitably lowered now, the film should be received much better in its main release, and there may even be a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination waiting in the wings.

Vanilla Sky
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz
Opens December 14 (Paramount)
Paramount has kept this remake of a surrealistic 1997 Spanish thriller à trois (it also starred Penélope Cruz) under tight wraps (we do know it's set in New York now), but we're less nervous about the onscreen chemistry between Cruise and Cruz than we are about the Cruise-Cameron Crowe combustion. If these two can't rebottle some of their original Jerry Maguire electricity, the Sky may fall.

Piñero
Directed by Leon Ichaso
Starring Benjamin Bratt, Talisa Soto, Mandy Patinkin, and Rita Moreno
Opens December 14 (Miramax)
Heroin addiction and prison rape are hardly standard Christmas fare, but this gritty bio-pic about Puerto Rican poet, playwright, and actor Miguel Piñero (best known for his prison play Short Eyes and frequent appearances on Miami Vice) gives TV heartthrob Benjamin Bratt a chance to display his brooding, dark side.

Lantana
Directed by Ray Lawrence
Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey, and Geoffrey Rush
Opens December 14 (Lions Gate)
This indie release from Australia, highly touted along the festival circuit, uses the narrative pretext of a murder investigation to probe the inner workings of several interlocking middle-class marriages. Based on Andrew Bovell's play Speaking in Tongues, which is currently playing Off Broadway.

The Majestic
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, and Laurie Holden
Opens December 21 (Warner Bros.)
After scoring big with films based on Stephen King tales (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), director Frank Darabont cuts loose here with an original story that takes place in 1951, with Jim Carrey playing it straight as a blacklisted Hollywood writer who gets amnesia in a car crash and wakes up in a small town. Naturally, he winds up working at the local movie theater. A little Capra, a little Sturges, and a whole lotta schmaltz just might be the perfect formula.

Kate & Leopold
Directed by James Mangold
Starring Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, and Liev Schreiber
Opens December 21 (Miramax)
Jack Finney's classic novel Time and Again, about time-traveling New Yorkers, meets Sex and the City in this story of a suave nineteenth-century aristo (Jackman) transported to modern Manhattan to woo a neurotic yuppie (Ryan). There are few straightforward romantic comedies on the Christmas lineup, so this low-budget entry has a real shot.

Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius
Directed by John Davis
Starring the voices of Patrick Stewart, Martin Short, Debi Derryberry, and Rob Paulsen
Opens December 21 (Paramount)
Paramount enters the computer-animated battleground with Jimmy Neutron. You may not have heard of it, but your kids have. The G-rated film is being massively promoted to the Nickelodeon crowd.

Joe Somebody
Directed by John Pasquin
Starring Tim Allen, James Belushi, and Julie Bowen
Opens December 21 (Fox)
Jimmy Neutron's only rival for simple-minded family fare. No Oscar fodder here, just dopey fun for fans of Tim Allen who aren't ready for schizophrenic mathematicians, novelists with Alzheimer's, or Sean Penn playing a retarded man.

Ali
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jon Voight, and Jamie Foxx
Opens December 25 (Columbia)
Michael Mann nevers does anything small or quiet, and this long-awaited bio of Muhammad Ali should be thunderous, brutal, and controversial. Expectations are already high, with the film being touted as a best-picture nominee and Will Smith practically a sure thing for Best Actor. Eat your heart out, Spike Lee -- this is the film the race- and sports-obsessed director always wanted to make.

Monster's Ball
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, and Sean "Puffy" Combs
Opens December 26 (Lions Gate)
Billy Bob Thornton, coming off The Man Who Wasn't There and Bandits, goes for the year-end trifecta with his unsettling performance as a Georgia prison guard who falls in love with the widow (Berry) of one of his charges on death row (P. Diddy in his first big dramatic role). A dark, quirky love story, with plenty of death and sex (pretty hot sex, reportedly, between Billy and Halle). Obviously, Lions Gate is doing a little holiday counterprogramming with this one.

Charlotte Gray
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
Starring Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup
Opens on December 28 (Warner Bros.)
A romantic tale of WWII in which a Scottish woman (Blanchett) joins the war effort by parachuting into occupied France in search of her RAF lover, only to land in the arms of a handsome French resistance fighter (Crudup). Blanchett, as always, is luminous.

Black Hawk Down
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, and Tom Sizemore
Opens December 28 (Columbia)
The boldest holiday release of all may be this true-life account of the disastrous Delta Force raid on Mogadishu during the 1993 war in Somalia. Knowing as we do now that Mohamed Farah Aidid, the warlord who caught us with our choppers down, had connections to Osama bin Laden, is this really what audiences want to see right now? Stylish director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Hannibal) will no doubt take us on a harrowing and visceral journey, and that may carry the day. Oscar-potential galore.


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