Three thoughtful films brighten holidays

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An encouraging number of thoughtful movies are emerging during the holiday season.

In the Bedroom is directed by newcomer Todd Field, who has a sensitive eye and a knack for storytelling. The tale centers on a small-town physician and his wife, who aren't quite sure how to take their college-age son's new romance with an unhappily married woman. Their worst fears come true when violence flares between their son and the woman's husband.

The second half of the movie examines the parents' need to cope with a resulting calamity. The climax suggests that drastic measures may be needed in drastic circumstances. More subtly, it hints that the lines separating "moral" and "immoral" people may be more slender and porous than we'd like to believe.

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"In the Bedroom" has earned much praise for its performances - especially by Sissy Spacek, who's both vulnerable and strong as the mother, and Tom Wilkinson, who's a little more rigid than he needs to be as the father. The supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei as the girlfriend, is also excellent.

Monster's Ball is directed by Marc Forster, who also has a sure touch with actors. Billy Bob Thornton plays a Georgia prison guard whose aging father (Peter Boyle) and insecure son (Heath Ledger) share the same profession. His life changes when he falls in love with the widow (Halle Berry) of a criminal he helped execute.

The screenplay zeroes in on absorbing issues like racism, capital punishment, and the ways tragedy can intrude on ordinary lives. Its ethical and intellectual insights wane when the love story kicks in, weakening what might have been a much deeper movie. Still, its performances are wonderful to watch.

Gosford Park is directed by Robert Altman, a towering filmmaker who has explored the American scene in movies from "Nashville" to "Short Cuts."

Now he visits England for the first time, taking a not-so-discreet peek at the British class system about 70 years ago. This territory is familiar if you remember the great BBC miniseries "Upstairs Downstairs," but Altman gives it a new twist with his restlessly roaming camera and incisively satirical approach. He's still near the peak of his powers.

All three films have R ratings reflecting sex, violence, and vulgar language.

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