- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

With the summer movie season a distant memory, attention shifts from crowd-pleasing to prestige titles. Fall is the principal qualifying season for annual awards eligibility, as neither movie critics nor voting members of Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can be trusted to remember much of anything they saw during earlier seasonal gluts.

Perhaps an exception will be made this year for Michael Moore’s timely hatchet job on President Bush, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which may even benefit from a sour-grapes surge of loyalty in the film colony if the president is re-elected.

Perhaps Mr. Moore’s candidacy will remain confined to the documentary category, despite its numerous fictional elements.

If so, award aspirations are likely to repose in literary adaptations, biographical dramas and topical melodramas that generate an exceptional emotional response.

Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” anchored the last three Christmas holidays, uniting popular and critical esteem. In two of those years, the “Harry Potter” films also were prodigious hits when they opened a few weeks earlier.

In terms of drawing potential, the only comparable franchise attraction this holiday season is “Ocean’s Twelve,” which reunites director Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and other participants in the “Ocean’s Eleven” update of 2001.

The first prestige production of this fall season is an adaptation of a famous Victorian novel, William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” vividly reconfigured by director Mira Nair after about 70 years of neglect by Hollywood.

It almost certainly will make Reese Witherspoon, the new incarnation of Becky Sharp, an Oscar prospect as best actress for the first time. The film also will be difficult to ignore in the scenic craftsmanship categories.

“Vanity Fair” is the first of three film versions of comic novels of English origin, widely separated chronologically. “Bright Young Things,” Stephen Fry’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies,” will be an art-house attraction next weekend.

The “Bridget Jones” sequel, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” reuniting Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, is this year’s Thanksgiving best seller from England.

Joining these novels as literary source material will be the contemporary plays “Closer” and “Proof.” These screen adaptations have stars to conjure with: Miss Roberts and Jude Law in the former, directed by Mike Nichols, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins in the latter, directed by John Madden.

There’s also the season’s big musical, “The Phantom of the Opera,” Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza, co-starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Ros-sum, Minnie Driver and Simon Callow.

Jude Law will be a fall season unto himself, much like Ben Stiller in the first half of the year. Mr. Law will appear in no fewer than six movies, starting in two weeks with the experimental science-fiction yarn “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” which will surround him and Miss Paltrow with computer-graphic settings and effects.

Mr. Law has several supporting roles, including a turn as Errol Flynn in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” which revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes.

The movie designed to revolve around Jude Law is Charles Shyer’s remake of “Alfie,” Michael Caine’s breakthrough hit of 1966. Those who remember the original may be surprised to find Mr. Law’s cad transplanted as well as updated. He pursues sexual conquests in the New York City of “Sex and the City.”

Arguably the most overdue of Oscar-eligible major directors, Mr. Scorsese finally may have the inside track with “The Aviator,” which recruits Cate Blanchett to re-enact the Hughes-Katherine Hepburn romance of the late 1930s.

However, the biographical competition looms as the busiest of the season: Jamie Foxx impersonates Ray Charles for director Taylor Hackford in “Ray”; Kevin Spacey impersonates Bobby Darin under his own direction in “Beyond the Sea”; Colin Farrell attempts to sit high in the saddle for Oliver Stone as Alexander the Great in “Alexander”; Liam Neeson hosts epochal orgies of the 1940s as Indiana University sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in “Kinsey,” abetted by Laura Linney as his spouse; and, on a more innocent note, Johhny Depp portrays playwright James Barrie at the time of “Peter Pan” in “Finding Neverland.”

There’s even a conspicuous biographical component in new documentary features: “Bush’s Brain” will target the president’s political strategist, Karl Rove. The one-sided nature of this year’s political documentaries will get a slightly different emphasis from George Butler, who showcased Arnold Schwarzenegger years ago in “Pumping Iron.” Mr. Butler has used Douglas Brinkley’s laudatory biography of John Kerry, “Tour of Duty,” as a blueprint for “Upriver,” a movie replica.

Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey will star in elaborate film versions of notable children’s books, “The Polar Express” and “Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events,” respectively.

Jude Law is also in “Lemony Snicket.” These attractions — along with the new animated features from DreamWorks and Pixar, “Shark Tale” and “The Incredibles,” respectively — figure to be the season’s most reliable family entertainments. Not to slight “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” of course.

A number of humorists will be back in harness, for better or worse.

John Waters bids to gross out the pack early on with “A Dirty Shame,” which exploits Tracey Ullman as a sex-starved Baltimore housewife and seems to derive from a lewd script that has been gathering dust for at least 30 years.

The “South Park” team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone reach back for the marionette look of “Thunderbirds” in a topical animated spoof titled “Team America World Police.”

David O. Russell of “Flirting With Disaster” returns with an ensemble of Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Naomi Watts, the inevitable Jude Law and Jason Schwartzman in “I Heart Huckabees.” James Brooks has a role for Adam Sandler in “Spanglish.”

Wes Anderson relies on Bill Murray again for “The Life Aquatic.” Alexander Payne of “Election” sends Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church on a wine-tasting tour of California’s Santa Barbara County in “Sideways.”

Jennifer Lopez gets a double chance to transcend the Ben Affleck misadventure. She co-stars with Richard Gere in “Shall We Dance?” a remake of the Japanese hit about a businessman who falls in love with ballroom dancing. “An Unfinished Life” finds her co-starring with Robert Redford in a domestic tear-jerker directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Washingtonians who made a cult hit of Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March” back in the 1980s should be cheered to learn that he’ll have a new documentary feature in release, “Bright Leaves,” which chronicles the tobacco culture of North Carolina.

One hopes for something exceptional in Terry George’s topical melodrama “Hotel Rwanda,” which stars Don Cheadle as a hotel manager who shelters hundreds of potential victims during the massacres of 10 years ago.

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