* Bad Santa
Thank the Lord someone has finally helped take the piss out of Christmas with a pure, spitefully cynical spirit. And that person, surprisingly, is Billy Bob Thornton. The usually despicable actor is the pants-wetting, booze-swilling Man in Red crowning the sour Christmas tree that is Bad Santa. Allowing me to review this movie was one of the best Christmas gifts I could receive this year; it's the antithesis of a feel-good film--actually, it's a feel-shitty film that, if you love brutal humor, will warm you like spiked eggnog. (JENNIFER MAERZ) Grand Illusion, Fri-Sat 11 pm.

A thriller about possession, by Seattle production team Kris Kristensen and Brian McDonald, best known for 2001's White Face. Grand Illusion, Tues Dec 28 at 7, 9 pm.

It's a Wonderful Life
Shortly after It's a Wonderful Life's 1946 release, Agee, the most astute and eloquent American film critic of all time, noted the film's grueling aspect. "Often," he wrote, "in its pile-driving emotional exuberance, it outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind." These aesthetic cautions are followed, however, by a telling addendum: "It is nevertheless recommended," Agee allowed, "and will be reviewed at length as soon as the paralyzing joys of the season permit." Paralyzing joys are the very heart of George Bailey's dilemma; they are, to borrow words from George's father, "deep in the race." The sacrifices George makes for being "the richest man in town" resonate bitterly even as they lead to the finale's effusive payoff. Those sacrifices are what make It's a Wonderful Life, in all its "Capraesque" glory, endure. (SEAN NELSON) Grand Illusion, Weekdays 6, 8:30 pm, Sat-Sun 3:30, 6, 8:30 pm.


After the Sunset
In which a superthief (Pierce Brosnan, apparently laying off the Pilates) ponders retirement in paradise while his FBI nemesis (Woody Harrelson, pupils fully dilated) hovers in the wings waiting for a slip-up. There's the germ of a clever premise here--invincible man of action done in by inertia--but any initial potential is thoroughly stymied by shoddy execution and mounting narrative indifference, culminating in a final heist that makes The Great Muppet Caper look like a piece of crackerjack precision. Director Brett Ratner (Red Dragon) appears to be aiming for a genially sloppy, Rat Packish tone (St. Frank is mentioned more than once), but the shambling results come off more as a bunch of slumming actors grinning at each other while rapidly developing melanoma. (To be fair, this does mark a significant improvement over the director's previous efforts.) On the plus side, Salma Hayek wears a constant slew of severely overstuffed bikinis, which honestly may be worth a matinee. (ANDREW WRIGHT)

The Aviator
See review this issue.

Bad Education
See review this issue.

Blade: Trinity
The first movie in the Blade series is by far the best; the last is certainly the worst. But Blade: Trinity, which is directed by the writer of all three films, David S. Goyer, is not horrible--in fact it has the strongest dialogue in the series. What makes Trinity generally inferior is this: It's really two films instead of one--two films that are not at all complementary. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Desperate single women can be cute and funny. Moony, jealous women who obsess over their fancy boyfriends are neither cute nor funny. And that's all you need to know about this exceedingly lame movie. (ANNIE WAGNER)

Christmas with the Kranks
It would be a more enjoyable experience to drink egg nog vomit than to spend five minutes watching this crap. (JENNIFER MAERZ)

Viewed scene by scene, the unfettered, constant venom on display in this film is bracing, thrilling, and almost as much fun to watch as it must have been to perform. Taken as a whole, however, it proves to be a bit too much of a bad thing. (ANDREW WRIGHT)

Fat Albert
Mushmouth is allliiiiiiive! And coming soon to a theater near you.

Finding Neverland
Marc Forster's third film, Monster's Ball, was complete and utter nonsense. His fourth film, Finding Neverland, is ordinary and dry nonsense. Monster's Ball miserably failed to address the problem of racism; Finding Neverland simply fails to address the problem of death. Clearly, Forster is a director of the middling order. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

The Flight of the Phoenix
An update of the 1965 film about plane-crash survivors who attempt to reconstruct a new plane from the wreckage.

The Grudge
The problem with the American remake of The Grudge is that the ghost never rests. You want a moment to look at Tokyo, to observe its traffic, its bright shops and busy bars--but that pleasure must be found in another movie (see Lost In Translation), because before the setting cools into the normal rhythms of urban life, yet another victim is being pursued and devoured. The ghost in The Grudge is to horror films what Ebola is to pathology. (CHARLES MUDEDE)

* House of Flying Daggers
House of Flying Daggers, director Yimou Zhang's much-anticipated follow-up to Hero, is an exceptional period martial arts movie, filled to the brim with equal doses of kicks to the head and pathos, which suffers by comparison only to its older, more ambitious, brother. While second-to-none on kinetic dazzle, it never fully escapes a faintly musty retro vibe. (ANDREW WRIGHT)

* The Incredibles
The Incredibles is done in true and beautiful Pixar style, but the action sequences are far more exhilarating than anything seen in Finding Nemo or Toy Story. Plus, the humans aren't annoyingly unattractive, and it's pretty damn funny to boot. (MEGAN SELING)

Into the Deep
As a romantic comedy, Into the Deep comes up drastically short. It's neither funny nor romantic. The chemistry between the main characters (fish with almost no lines and facial expressions that can be described as stoic at best) seems nonexistent until the male is fertilizing the female's eggs, and then--BOOM! Where did that come from? There is scant character development as the camera distractedly follows first one, then another, underwater species with an attention span reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Slacker. The gratuitous squid orgy offers the only titillation. When the entire lot dies after a frenzy of blood-engorged betentacled copulation, we wish the film would die as graceful a death. Instead, it goes on for another 10 minutes while the narrator explains that in the kelp forests, the circle of life and death is infinite--a final irritating example of the lack of respect the filmmakers have for their viewers. One would think this movie was made for small children and not discerning adults who enjoy watching a little hot fish sex. (A.J. GLUSMAN)

The first half of Kinsey is exciting on a micro scale the way Kinsey's work was exciting on a grand one: It demonstrates that reason can prevail over mythology. Unfortunately, because it's a movie, the second half allows mythology--the mythology of narrative--to re-intrude, and the picture grows musty. (SEAN NELSON)

* Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
My boyfriend and I rate movies we see with our kid on the "HH" scale, which stands for "how high?"--as in, "How high does an adult have to be in order to enjoy this?" A film is awarded a number between 1 and 10, with 1 meaning "completely sober," and 10 meaning "higher than all the dirty hippies at Hempfest rolled into a big, dirty ball." I'm happy to report that Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events earned a rare HH 1 after a Saturday morning screening. The movie is faithful to the books, mining the first three for settings, characters, and unfortunate events. Jim Carrey is perfectly cast as the evil Count Olaf, and the pair of roundups cast as the elder orphans, Jennifer Coolidge and Liam Aiken, more than hold their own against Carrey. (DAN SAVAGE)

The Life Aquatic
See review this issue.

The Machinist
I know you've probably read by now that Christian Bale lost a bunch of weight for this film, but I kid you not--NOTHING YOU'VE EVER SEEN BEFORE CAN PREPARE YOU FOR THE SHOCK OF HIS APPEARANCE IN THE MACHINIST. His body literally resembles that of a concentration-camp survivor or advanced anorexia sufferer. The fact that he has transformed himself for a film that would otherwise be a complete throwaway is somewhat perverse, but the fact that he could do it at all is all the evidence you'll ever need of his commitment to acting. (SEAN NELSON)

Meet the Fockers
See review this issue.

* The Motorcycle Diaries
This is a film that should be taken for what it is: a beautifully constructed road movie with a dash of conscience on the side. There is much to despise about Che Guevara later in his life; these early adventures help us understand where the eventual fanatic was born. (BRADLEY STEINBACHER)

* Napoleon Dynamite
In this charming new film, 24-year-old writer/director Jared Hess mines the nebulous area between popular chic and weirdo freak, where outcast attributes are both quality, subtle comedy, and a charmingly dark part of our collective high-school unconscious. (JENNIFER MAERZ)

National Treasure
Ultimately, National Treasure imagines an America that is supremely meaningful, that can be read (or decoded), and has a final reward for those who are super committed to disinterring the mysterious source of its greatness. But at the end of the movie the main mystery remains unsolved: Why was so much money, energy, and talent spent realizing what is evidently a dull and dumb script? (CHARLES MUDEDE)

Ocean's Twelve
The story is a mess, the scam is a fraud, and the performances are lazy and smug, but Ocean's 12 has one major plus: the return of Steven Soderbergh's creative pulse. Visually, he's never been stronger than he is here, delivering a film so thoroughly coated in New Wave sheen that you can't help but be caught up in his energy. The Soderbergh of Out of Sight and The Limey is back, or at least the visual half of him is, and it's definitely a welcome return. Now if he'd just choose smarter projects... (BRADLEY STEINBACHER)

The Phantom of the Opera
See review this issue.

The Polar Express
Here and there, Polar Express hits on an image or mood worthy of the season, particularly during the early scenes of the magical title vehicle, but the thundering need to make a state-of-the-art prefab classic steamrolls over most of the cheer. On Donner, on Blitzen, on Tron. (ANDREW WRIGHT)

* Ray
Despite a tendency to bathe in the molasses of sentimentality, Ray is a rich exponent of the biopic genre. It'd be crazy not to attribute the film's success to the brilliance of its subject, the inestimably great American composer Ray Charles, and the constant presence on the soundtrack of his songs, but the choices made by the filmmakers certainly don't hurt. Chief among them, the casting of Jamie Foxx, up to now a cloying black comic, and hereafter a dazzling performer capable of inhabiting one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century in a mesmerizing feat of impersonation. Imposing a narrative on a life, especially one filled with so many contradictions (i.e. beloved entertainer/ abusive junkie cheapskate) may be a fool's errand, but this film is satisfying nonetheless. (SEAN NELSON)

* Sideways
While Sideways is a road movie, it's a lazy one; the distance traveled, both physically and emotionally, is short. Blessed with pitch-perfect performances, especially by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church (who really is an actor on the downslope of his career), Sideways is a slight film, to be sure, but it's also one of Alexander Payne's least snide efforts; known for rolling his eyes at his characters as much as he rolls cameras on them, the director keeps himself mostly in check here. (BRADLEY STEINBACHER)

Spanglish is absolutely the worst film of the year, and much of the blame for the film's failure falls on the shoulders of poor Téa Leoni, whose performance is so grating, so irritating, that you cringe whenever she's on screen. This isn't merely a bad performance; it will soon be a legendary one, sure to be referenced in future reviews--a cautionary tale that every actress would be wise to pay attention to, lest they find themselves stumbling toward a similar fate. (BRADLEY STEINBACHER)

* The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
Based on Nickelodeon series, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie appeals to both the easily entertained and those who appreciate the power of double meaning--i.e., an ice-cream bender that causes SpongeBob and Patrick to pass out and wake up crimson eyed and quick tempered. The film follows in the footsteps of smart-ass cartoons like The Simpsons and Ren and Stimpy. Except SpongeBob's moneyshot is a cameo by David Hassselhoff. (JENNIFER MAERZ)

Team America: World Police
Heavily inspired by Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds series (which was recently bastardized by Paramount into a puppet-free "adventure"), the marionette work in Trey Parker and Matt Stone's film is truly amazing. The action sequences, and even the quiet moments, are triumphs of design, beautifully photographed by Bill Pope and far more complicated than any sane person(s) would even attempt, let alone succeed at creating. It's not just an homage to Anderson, it's a completion of the creepy world Anderson was so obsessed with. Team America's comedy may run from inspired to painfully flat, and the politics may be far too simplistic, but Parker and Stone have done one thing better than anyone has before: They've made the greatest marionette movie of all time. (BRADLEY STEINBACHER)

* Vera Drake
The title character, played with impossible pathos and naiveté by Imelda Staunton, is a housekeeper, mother, visitor of shut-ins, and part-time abortionist. She is paid for polishing fireplace grates in rich people's homes, but the latter three functions--feeding and clothing her family of four, putting the kettle on in the cramped flats of various invalids, and pumping the uteruses of troubled women full of a noxious solution of carbolic soap--she performs gratis. The narrative is clearly engaged in modern political struggles, but at the same time it's a bruising, classical tragedy about a woman whose passionate altruism brings pain and suffering upon herself and the people whom she loves. (ANNIE WAGNER)

* A Very Long Engagement
I'm not saying it isn't corny. What I'm saying is that it's a fantastic movie, and unless you're the stated enemy of life and all that makes it worth living, you'll probably fall for it. This is down to two elements: The first is Jeunet's incredible visual flair. As in all his prior works, the canvas for the film is a hybrid of surrealism, magical realism, and purest fantasy. The second element, obviously, is Audrey Tautou, who proves once again that she is the reason God invented sight. As in Amélie (though curiously not in any of the films she's appeared in since), Tautou's wide-open face and massive chocolate eyes are the heart, soul, and entire point of the film, elevating it from an elaborate fable into another life-affirming adventure. (SEAN NELSON)

What the #$*! Do We Know?!
This ungainly, inane film purports to be about quantum physics but is really about the power of positive thinking, with a midlife-crisis plot (starring Marlee Matlin) and some childish cartoon figures and a series of talking heads who can't stop using the word "paradigm." (EMILY HALL)

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