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High hopes for a flock of holiday flicks

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A Beautiful Mind, Dec. 25. The other big bio-pic due Christmas Day is Ron Howard's portrait of John Forbes Nash Jr., who won the Nobel Prize for turning the tables on Adam Smith and originating a new approach to economics. Russell Crowe plays the mentally troubled genius, in a mode closer to "The Insider" than "Gladiator," which is cause for thanks. Jennifer Connolly plays his wife, and Ed Harris plays a government agent who's anything but what he seems to be.

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Gosford Park, Dec. 26. Fans of "Upstairs, Downstairs" should line up eagerly for this well-groomed comedy of manners, which takes a not-so-discreet peek at the lives and loves of practically everyone in an English mansion during a hunting-party weekend 70 years ago. Robert Altman is cinema's most accomplished painter of character-crowded canvases like this - his "Nashville" and "The Player" helped invent and refine the genre - and he's close to top form here, thanks to expressive camera work and passionate performances by Maggie Smith (upstairs) and Alan Bates (downstairs), among many others.

Vanilla Sky, Dec. 14. If that sounds a little high-toned for you, float down to earth with this romantic comedy that insiders are touting as "Jerry Maguire" redux. Tom Cruise plays a womanizing businessman who learns life lessons from Penelope Cruz as his best chum's girlfriend. If their box-office records run true to form, Cruise plus Cruz should equal sure-fire success.

The Royal Tenenbaums, Dec. 21. The holiday season is perfect for family reunions, but what if J.D. Salinger were in charge of the party? The author of "Franny and Zooey" had nothing to do with this emotionally charged comedy, but some observers have felt his influence hovering over the story of three gifted youngsters (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson) who haven't lived up to their promise. Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston play their parents. Wes Anderson directed, hoping for a commercial breakthrough after the critically acclaimed "Rushmore," which did better with art-minded critics than diversion-hungry audiences.

The Majestic, Dec. 21. Jim Carrey was the Grinch last Christmas, but this year he's taking a more serious turn. The time is the 1950s, when a Hollywood blacklist crippled the careers of artists with left-wing political views. Carrey's character is one of them, and he's lost his memory to boot. Bob Balaban is a commie-hating congressman on his trail, and Martin Landau is the movie-loving showman who befriends him. Will director Frank Darabont recapture the intelligence of "The Shawshank Redemption" or sink into the sentimentality that made "The Green Mile" seem 10 miles too long? At least he's made a movie that's not behind bars this time.

Monster's Ball, Dec. 26. Or maybe you like a penitentiary picture now and then? If so, check out this brooding drama about a family that's produced three generations of prison guards, including Billy Bob Thornton as a bigoted bully who falls in love with the grieving widow (Halle Berry) of a black man he helped execute. It's not a happy tale, but there's acting talent to spare.

And there's more. Science-fiction buffs can look forward to Kate and Leopold, with Meg Ryan as a present-day businesswoman wooed by a 19th-century nobleman who's traveled forward in time, and Impostor, with Gary Sinise as a scientist who may or may not be an alien.

Fans of Kevin Spacey, who played his own version of a possible alien in "K-PAX" earlier this fall, are waiting for The Shipping News, about a writer investigating his deceased wife's secret life. Iris stars Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as author Iris Murdoch at very different stages in her life.

Just before New Year's, Cate Blanchett will open as Charlotte Gray, a Scottish woman fighting the Nazis. And 2002 will debut with Brotherhood of the Wolf, a man-against-monster French melodrama that hopes to launch 2002 by beating "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at its own action-packed game.

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