Box-office Blizzard

Good buzz surrounds an avalanche of holiday movies about to roll in.

It's been a fine year at the movies, with creativity perking from major studios to off-Hollywood nooks and crannies. Will this momentum keep up right until Y2K arrives? Advance buzz and previews are raising hopes that the year will roll its final credits on a strong note.

Thanksgiving weekend traditionally starts an end-of-year movie blitz that pits thoughtful offerings against a competing spate of comedies and fantasies, with the weightier fare getting an edge from studio PR departments. Publicists assume we'll respond more favorably to intelligent pictures when autumn's chill is in the air. They also know late-opening movies have the best chance in award competitions, including the Oscar race, because prize-givers have them freshly in mind.

This doesn't mean this Thanksgiving weekend is dominated by cerebral films, as a glance at the current schedule shows: "Toy Story 2" vs. the Arnold Schwarzenegger epic "End of Days" is hardly a battle of intellectual titans! But signs of the season's growing seriousness have begun to arrive, starting with a new offering from Ang Lee, whose interest in family and community values has produced dramas as different as "The Wedding Banquet" and "The Ice Storm."

His latest film, Ride With the Devil, is a sort-of-western set near the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War. The main characters are Southerners fighting in small groups outside the regular Confederate army, including an African-American man who rides with these defenders of slavery out of loyalty to a master who treated him well. Skillfully acted by Tobey Maguire and Jeffrey Wright, among others (including Jewel in her first acting role), the picture examines challenging questions of wartime violence, personal commitment, and what it means to come of age in a society ripping apart at the seams.

If that's not your idea of Thanksgiving fun, there's always Toy Story 2 to fall back on. Moviegoers have wondered since 1995 whether the partnership between Disney and Pixar could produce a sequel as all-around excellent as the original "Toy Story," and it's a pleasure to report that they've come mighty close. Viewers of all ages will have a ball as astronaut Buzz Lightyear and his pals launch a rescue mission for cowboy Woody after a greedy merchant packs him up for shipment to a faraway museum. The plot is surprising, the screenplay is witty, and the cartooning is dazzling in ways that the "Pokmon" franchise never dreamed of.

What does the waning year have in store beyond these current attractions?

Here are some of the films sparking talk and anticipation before their arrival on neighborhood screens:

The End of the Affair, Dec. 3. Neil Jordan has grabbed attention with projects as different as "Interview With the Vampire" and "The Crying Game," and his new offering could generate the most discussion yet. Based on Graham Greene's bittersweet novel, it begins as a sexually graphic love story about a spurned lover who hires a private eye to snoop on his former girlfriend, and ends as a sober reflection on the power of faith and prayer. Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore star.

Sweet and Lowdown, Dec. 3. A new Woody Allen comedy is always of interest, and this time he combines his filmmaking talent with his love for classic jazz. The hero is a loose-living guitarist whose agile fingers make mischief as well as music. The picture has already played on the film-festival circuit, where many viewers found the story and dialogue less substantial than Sean Penn's potent performance.

Cradle Will Rock, Dec. 10. Tim Robbins's sweeping comedy-drama portrays the American theater scene in the tumultuous 1930s, when artistic and political adventures often overlapped with one another. The cast includes John Cusack as a powerful millionaire, Angus Macfadyen as boy-wonder Orson Welles, and Bill Murray as a long-suffering ventriloquist. As idealistic as its main characters, the movie could be a hot contender in the Oscar race.

The Cider House Rules, Dec. 10. Admirers who didn't get enough of Tobey Maguire in "Ride With the Devil" can have a second helping in this adaptation of John Irving's novel, where he plays a young man who grows up in an unconventional orphanage, then chooses a different sort of life in a community of poor African-American laborers. Michael Caine and Charlize Theron also appear in the drama, which could become the biggest hit for director Lasse Hallstrm since "My Life as a Dog."

Topsy-Turvy, Dec. 17. Gilbert and Sullivan devotees rejoice! Mike Leigh, acclaimed for quintessentially modern pictures like "Secrets & Lies" and "Naked," blazes a fresh path in this exquisitely acted drama about the 19th-century musical duo, who search for personal and professional contentment while quarreling with each other, wrestling their latest operetta into shape, and coping with the uncertainties of public taste. Jim Broadbent heads the flawlessly chosen cast.

Man on the Moon, Dec. 22. Jim Carrey plays a performer even more offbeat than he is: the late Andy Kaufman, who considered his appearances on "Taxi" and "Saturday Night Live" mere steppingstones to a brand of entertainment more radically innovative than anything the TV world had ever seen. Fans are hoping for a comedy as smart and head-spinning as Kaufman's own creations, and Carrey's rendezvous with Oscar is surely drawing near.

Snow Falling on Cedars, Dec. 22. The year's generous stream of novels-turned-movies continues in this melodrama by Scott Hicks of "Shine" fame. Set on an island in the Pacific Northwest, the mid-'50s tale focuses on racial strife heightened by memories of World War II and a grisly murder in a quiet fishing village.

Angela's Ashes, Dec. 25. The bestseller list strikes again in Alan Parker's version of Frank McCourt's popular novel about an Irish schoolboy struggling for happiness despite an alcoholic father, a household plagued by death and debt, and a society that thinks charity begins and ends at home. Not calculated to cheer up the holidays, perhaps, but eagerly awaited by the book's countless readers.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Dec. 29. Errol Morris revolutionized the documentary in movies like "The Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control," and here he tackles another subject with much to reveal about today's troubled world: the life of a Massachusetts man who started his career as a designer of equipment for capital punishment and then got caught up in the misbegotten movement to prove that the Holocaust never happened. It's hard to imagine a more intelligently made, chillingly ironic, or compulsively watchable way to close out the movie year.

These films aren't the whole picture, of course. Also headed for screens across America are major entries like Anna and the King, a nonmusical version of "The King and I" with Jodie Foster heading the bill; The War Zone, actor Tim Roth's directorial debut; The Green Mile, with Tom Hanks making yet another Oscar bid; Magnolia, the first movie from Paul Thomas Anderson since "Boogie Nights" made him a filmmaking star; Any Given Sunday, a football film by Oliver Stone, who badly needs a hit; Titus, combining tragic Shakespeare with high-tech effects; and The Hurricane, a socially alert prizefighting drama with Denzel Washington under Norman Jewison's direction.

Also on its way is the tantalizingly titled Fantasia 2000, an updated version of the beloved Disney classic. But it doesn't open until Jan. 1, 2000, and there's plenty to keep movie fans busy in the meanwhile!

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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