Who will steal the holiday box office?

Will the Grinch steal Thanksgiving at American multiplexes, giving a jolt of energy to a box-office year that's faring a little less vigorously than industry insiders would like?

Hollywood isn't exactly running scared, but its lights aren't blazing quite as brightly as last year at this time. So far, 2000 has grossed about 1 percent less than 1999, according to the entertainment trade paper Variety. Studios are hoping November and December will turn the trajectory back in an upward direction.

There's nothing much they can do about the situation, though, short of the audience-pounding promotional campaigns they've been waging for months on behalf of their safest box-office bets. It takes time to make a major motion picture, and this winter's crop of wannabe blockbusters and starry-eyed Oscar contenders has been in the pipeline for ages.

So executives can only sit back and hope they made the right choices when they greenlighted this batch - which happens to be long on fantasy and escapism, and short on the comparatively thoughtful fare that the end-of-year season usually brings.

In short, it's hard to predict which products of the dream factory have the best prospects of leading the pack between now and New Year's Eve. Here are some of the leading contenders:

Unbreakable, Nov. 22. What made "The Sixth Sense" such a megahit last year? Child actor Haley Joel Osment surely helped, but his similar work in "Pay It Forward" has failed to spark similar results. So eyes inevitably turn to director M. Night Shyamalan and star Bruce Willis, who have teamed again for this somewhat similar fantasy.

Willis plays an ordinary guy who survives a deadly train wreck without a scratch, and Samuel L. Jackson plays his opposite, a man whose illness makes life an everyday ordeal. The action leans toward supernatural mystery more than conventional human interest, but if these ingredients are mixed in the right proportions, the picture's earnings could be huge.

102 Dalmatians, Nov. 22. Disney released its excellent feature-length cartoon "101 Dalmatians" in 1961, and unveiled its live-action remake - well, mostly live, with a lot of computer enhancement - just four years ago. Now the franchise moves into sequel mode, serving up more of Cruella De Vil's canine-crazy machinations along with those of a French fur merchant who's as greedy and goofy as she is. Glenn Close returns as the wicked dognapper and European superstar Gerard Depardieu makes one of his rare English-language appearances as her shady new partner. Hollywood will also be judging the directorial expertise of Kevin Lima, who made a big Disney splash with the animated "Tarzan" and hopes to do the same with flesh-and blood characters this time around.

Vertical Limit, Dec. 8. Wags are already calling this "The Perfect Snowstorm," but business-savvy observers aren't joking when they predict high-altitude results for this mountain-climbing epic. Chris O'Donnell plays a mountaineer who gives up the game after his father takes a deadly fall, then heads back to the slopes when his sister becomes trapped at a teetering height near the world's second-highest peak. This kind of blend - scenery, scares, and special effects - usually makes its bid in the summertime, but moviegoers may trek to it eagerly if its adventurous premise pays off.

Proof of Life, Dec. 8. The latest movie inspired by a magazine article plunges into the high-anxiety world of hostage negotiators. Russell Crowe plays an abduction expert who falls in love with an engineer's wife (Meg Ryan) while trying to pry her husband (David Morse) loose from South American kidnappers.

Taylor Hackford directed the thriller, hoping for at least as much audience appeal as he whipped up in "The Devil's Advocate" three years ago, and Crowe, still hot from "Gladiator" and "The Insider," is surely hankering for an Oscar nod. Ryan could also surprise us, and it will be interesting to see the latest twist in Morse's low-key career, which stretches from the overcooked fantasy of "The Green Mile" to the avant-garde "Dancer in the Dark."

What Women Want, Dec. 15. Mel Gibson's box-office infallibility came under fire in "The Patriot," but he could score a comeback in this much-hyped comedy about a PR man who discovers he's telepathic - with female minds only - after his brain gets fried in a freak accident.

Among the women who want him are Helen Hunt, fresh from "Dr. T & the Women" and "Pay It Forward," and Marisa Tomei, a gifted star who doesn't always get first-rate roles. Nancy Meyers directed, and it will be fascinating to see if she's successfully ushered Gibson into the romantic territory he's avoided in his otherwise versatile career.

The Family Man, Dec. 15. Nicolas Cage isn't celebrated for romantic comedy either, but the "Moonstruck" side of his personality may shine in director Brett Ratner's take on the "Sliding Doors" genre, about a banker who experiences what would have happened if he'd married the long-lost love of his life. Tea Leoni and Don Cheadle also star.

Cast Away, Dec. 22. Robert Zemeckis directed last summer's spooky "What Lies Beneath" during a 12-month break in the shooting of this unorthodox adventure yarn, which took a pause so that Tom Hanks could lose enough weight to be convincing in the story's second half. His character is an emaciated wreck who's been stranded so long on a deserted island that he's not always sure whether he's alive or dead.

Nick Searcy and the ubiquitous Helen Hunt also appear in the picture, but advance reports stress the one-man-band side of the production, with Hanks carrying the tale almost entirely on his bony shoulders. Will he deliver for the director who guided him to superstardom in "Forrest Gump," or will the whole enterprise look like an overlong "Survivor" rerun? Stay tuned.

Thirteen Days, Dec. 20. A hard-pressed president, his trusted attorney general, and a White House aide wrestle with an international crisis of terrifying proportions. It sounds like another contrived political thriller until you realize that the first two characters are John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and that the emergency is the Cuban missile crisis, an event so dramatic that it's surprising Hollywood hasn't capitalized on it more often. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp play the Kennedy brothers, but audience curiosity will be focused on Kevin Costner as the assistant who advises and counsels them.

Miss Congeniality, Dec. 22. Comedy connoisseurs recall Michael Ritchie's hilarious "Smile" as the funniest beauty-pageant parody of all time, but Donald Petrie's new farce wants to take over that title. Sandra Bullock plays an FBI agent with a strong unfeminine streak (sounds like dubious casting) who infiltrates a beauty contest for professional reasons. The coming-attractions trailer looks promising, but it remains to be seen whether the director of "Grumpy Old Men" can spin similar magic with Gorgeous Young Girls.

All the Pretty Horses, Dec. 25. Successful westerns have been as scarce as silver bullets lately, but Billy Bob Thornton thinks there's life in the old genre yet. He's directed this romantic horse opera from a Ted Tally screenplay based on Cormac McCarthy's bestselling novel. Thornton roped in Matt Damon and Henry Thomas to play spunky buckaroos who ride into Mexico for a thrill and settle down on a ranch illuminated by Penelope Cruz's glowing smile. If we little dogies git along to the ticket window, the picture could revitalize westerns the way "Unforgiven" did eight years ago. If not, look for Hollywood to hang up its spurs for a mighty long spell.

Shadow of the Vampire, Dec. 29. Run to your nearest video store and check out "Nosferatu," the 1921 silent-film classic about a German vampire. Then get ready for this new comic nightmare about the making of "Nosferatu," based on the premise that the movie's star was an actual vampire who agreed to play himself in return for a bite of the leading lady's neck! John Malkovich is fine as the brilliant German director F.W. Murnau, but Willem Dafoe steals the show as the undead actor whose bloodthirsty habits wreak havoc on the set. Directed by the inventive E. Elias Merhige, this cinema-struck fantasy closes the 2000 release slate with shudders and laughs alike, and Oscar will surely take notice of Dafoe's daunting talent.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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