Cold Mountain dir. Anthony Minghella

Opens Fri Dec 26.

Big Fish dir. Tim Burton

Opens Fri Dec 26.

House of Sand and Fog dir. Vadim Perelman

Opens Fri Dec 26.

As 2003 creaks to a close, Peter Jackson's The Return of the King appears to be the frontrunner for year-end honors; the 200-minute opus has already been named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle, and the smart money has it taking a number of statues at the Academy Awards. Still, one film may give Jackson's final installment a run for its money, and that film is Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, a burly, brooding romantic epic set during the Civil War and starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger.

Law stars as a young Confederate soldier named Inman who, after being injured in the infamous Battle of the Crater (one of the bloodiest debacles in the "war of northern aggression"), deserts his unit and begins a long trek on foot to his home of Cold Mountain, North Carolina. His inspiration for his desertion: a young, proper lass named Ada (Nicole Kidman), whom he has kissed just once, and who waits for his return on a sprawling farm recently left to her by her deceased father. Far too composed for the dirty work of farming, Ada struggles to keep her spread afloat, and as Minghella's film floats back and forth between her and the traveling Inman, the couple's desire for one another, as well as both of their transformations--Ada from fair to tough, Inman from carefree to broken--give the picture its thrust.

Minghella, director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, steers Cold Mountain into a few minor rough spots (including a somewhat clumsy beginning, and an occasionally annoying performance by Renée Zellweger as a lodger who helps Ada on her farm), but the picture as a whole delivers a big, heartfelt epic. It is a film that is both affecting and passionate, and it makes you believe that no matter how many inane love stories Hollywood produces, romance still isn't dead.

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Less successful than Cold Mountain, Tim Burton's Big Fish is an ungainly, rambling piece of work built upon a bed of lies. The liar: a man named Ed Bloom who has spent his life spinning outrageous tales about himself, including run-ins with witches and giants, Siamese twins, and massive, uncatchable fish (hence the title). His life slipping away due to cancer, Ed (played in his later years by Albert Finney) refuses to admit the truth about his past, holding steadfast to his fabrications. This stubbornness does not sit well with Ed's son, Will (Billy Crudup), who, as he watches his father fade, wants nothing more than to cut through Ed's lies in an attempt to finally understand him.

Essentially a Forrest Gump-like yarn (minus, thankfully, the Reagan-era feel-good puffery), Big Fish is its most enjoyable when Burton is allowed to stretch his legs and walk through Ed's mythical history. As played by Ewan McGregor (whose Southern accent is decidedly suspect), the young Ed is a man filled with idealism and joy, and as his tales take him from his small hometown to Korea (with stops at a mysterious village and a circus along the way), Burton's eye produces a number of startling images. Unfortunately, these images don't make for a fully engaging picture; sappy and cluttered, the entirety of Big Fish doesn't quite hold together. It is a well-meaning effort, but it ends up missing its marks.

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House of Sand and Fog is about many things, including stature and safety, racism and compassion, history and addiction. What it is not about, sadly, is subtle directing; blessed with great performances and an interesting story, the film is nearly derailed by ham-fisted direction from first-time director Vadim Perelman. Which is too bad, since Perelman definitely has talent with actors--if only he'd let up on the thundering score.

Based on the novel by Andres Dubus III, the film revolves around a small, pleasant home in Northern California. The owner of the home is a recovering addict named Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), who hides within its walls while attempting to pull her life together. Trouble arrives, though, in the form of government paperwork--specifically, documents that wrongly state Kathy owes back taxes. Kathy protests but it is of no use; rudely kicked out of her own home, she can only watch as it is sold off in an auction.

The highest bidder at the auction: a former Iranian colonel named Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) who, having fled Iran in the 1979 upheaval, is currently living beyond his means with his wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). To Massoud, Kathy's home represents a step toward his family's former elegance, and before Kathy can contact a lawyer, he's already making plans to sell the property off for a tidy profit.

What follows this setup is a bitter squabble over the rights of an owner versus the rights of a purchaser, with both Kathy and Massoud coming to the argument with the certainty of being right. It is a difficult situation rendered almost impossible due to Kathy and Massoud's failure to communicate, and as the fight for the house slowly spins out of control, others--including Massoud's wife and son, and a local police officer named Lester (Ron Eldard) who falls for Kathy--are pulled into its gravity, all leading up to a conclusion that is truly shocking and heartbreaking. That is, at least, if you can hear it over James Horner's overpowering, completely unnecessary score.