They're back...

At the movies, it was a summer to forget - unless a steady parade of feuding felines, digital dinosaurs, and artificial apes is your idea of Hollywood at its finest.

Oh yes, "Pearl Harbor" made plenty of money - and it made even more in a reissue over Labor Day weekend. (They used to reserve that treatment for classics, didn't they?) But the season hasn't exactly been memorable, or stirring, or even entertaining, by Hollywood's own best standards.

And it certainly hasn't had great performances, except for the prettily filmed bomb in "Pearl Harbor" that looked so graceful as it swooped toward its target.

The grand old studios aren't bereft of grand new talents - they've just forgotten how to give stars material worthy of their abilities. Tim Roth with a monkey face? Julia Roberts in a fat suit? Gimme a break.

But things are about to change, if Tinseltown's barrage of pre-autumn publicity is any indication. Good acting is apparently back in style, and optimists are looking forward to meaty performances mixed in with the fantastic formulas, awesome camera tricks, and spectacular special effects that have become integral aspects of American movies.

Anthony Hopkins as a mysterious stranger. Johnny Depp as a Victorian sleuth. Cate Blanchett as a country-music fan in love with two crooks. Kevin Spacey as a man who may or not be an interplanetary alien. Sound enticing?

As if to make us squirm a little more this fall, some of the most performance-friendly fare will wait in the wings until after Thanksgiving, when some of Hollywood's most glittering names will show what they can do with unusually challenging roles. That's when Jim Carrey will go poignant as a small-time screenwriter in The Majestic, Will Smith will tap the complexities of a great prizefighter in Ali, and Gene Hackman will play the wandering father of a complicated family in The Royal Tenenbaums, to mention just a few tantalizing prospects.

Nor will the weeks before Thanksgiving be devoted entirely to high-toned acting. The most eagerly awaited treat, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, takes its cachet more from J.K. Rowling's novels and director Chris Columbus's track record ("Gremlins," "Mrs. Doubtfire") than from burning desires to see Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe act up a storm. Animation will also strike again - the Disney fantasy Monsters, Inc. is the one to beat - and the inescapable Arnold Schwarzenegger is looming in Collateral Damage, a political thriller sure to have more thrills than politics.

Still, the studios appear to have turned a corner, and we may not have to check our brains at the popcorn counter quite as often as during the long, tepid summer. Here are some of the pictures inspiring this hopeful prediction:

Hearts in Atlantis, Sept. 28. No current star is more gifted than Anthony Hopkins, and not since the late Alec Guinness has there been a more versatile actor, swinging from the histrionics of "Titus" to the horrors of "Hannibal" without missing a beat. He's also a hard worker, with two pictures - the other is "Bad Company," opening Christmas Day - on tap this season.

"Hearts" takes its cue from Stephen King's book about a 12-year-old boy (Anton Yelchin) with a self-centered mother (Hope Davis) and an enigmatic new acquaintance (Hopkins) who may be able to help him.

On paper, this seems an ideal role for Sir Anthony, who gets to be ominous (Where did he come from? What's he really up to?) and comforting (Somebody's got to protect that kid!) by turns.

The screenplay was penned by veteran writer William Goldman and directed by Scott Hicks, who showed in "Shine" that he knows how to handle eccentric heroes. But don't expect Hopkins to follow up with a concert tour, as the real-life "Shine" character did, though his on-screen work could put him in Oscar territory once again.

K-PAX, Oct. 26. Speaking of versatility, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges are also at the top of the list. Wags are already joking that Spacey's name made him the ideal actor to play a man who claims he's from a distant world, and Bridges honed his extraterrestrial skills in "Starman," perhaps his best-liked picture.

The project sounds a bit like "Twelve Monkeys" redux - a hero with mysterious origins, a sympathetic psychiatrist who takes his story seriously, and so on - but that's not a bad precedent to follow, and director Iain Softley may give it the sensitive touch that made his "The Wings of the Dove" a superior drama. Alfre Woodard and Mary McCormack are also on hand.

The Man Who Wasn't There, Nov. 2. And then there's Billy Bob Thornton, who was an unknown quantity until "Sling Blade" made him a star. He now ranks with the busiest of them all, appearing in no fewer than three major offerings before year's end. The others are Bandits with Bruce Willis and Monster's Ball with Halle Berry.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" comes from the idiosyncratic Coen brothers, who shot it in black and white to mirror the mood of their neo-noir story about a 1940s barber who decides to enliven his life with blackmail, skullduggery, and small-business investment.

He isn't the only talented performer here, with Coen insider Frances McDormand as his cheating wife and "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini as her sleazy employer. But even if he doesn't win the top acting honors, Thornton will make waves with what's surely the craggiest face and most picture-perfect hairdo we'll see all year.

Shallow Hal, Nov. 9. Where are the women in this parade of stars? Let's face it, Hollywood still lags behind much of the modern world when it comes to equal opportunity, but Gwyneth Paltrow will come to the rescue here - even if she does inherit Julia Roberts's fat suit from this summer's "America's Sweethearts."

Jack Black plays the title character, a dumpy male chauvinist whose policy of romancing beautiful women gets shaken when his love for overweight Paltrow makes him perceive her as slender and sexy. That's how we'll perceive her through much of the movie, too, since the filmmakers will surely want to capitalize on her super-svelte image.

The comedy was directed by the Farrelly brothers, who brought out a whole new side of Cameron Diaz in "There's Something About Mary" and may do the same for Paltrow now, especially if "Shallow Hal" turns out to have hidden depths - or at least more lowdown laughs than this summer's "Osmosis Jones" provided.

These movies suggest the promise of the coming season, and there are plenty more I'm looking forward to. Another fine actor, Denzel Washington, plays his first cop in Training Day, with Ethan Hawke as a fledgling antidrug agent. Novocaine has Steve Martin playing his second dentist (the first was in "The Little Shop of Horrors"), up to his molars in a murder scheme. Ben Stiller stars in Zoolander, about a male model cracking an assassination plot.

Robert Redford returns in The Last Castle, about military corruption, and Spy Game, a Tony Scott thriller. Gene Hackman stars in Heist, a David Mamet crime drama. Richard Linklater blends reality and dreams in Waking Life, and David Lynch travels to Mulholland Drive for the surrealistic story of a wannabe actress and a new friend who can't remember her own identity.

Johnny Depp scours London for Jack the Ripper in From Hell, a Victorian thriller that brings the Hughes brothers far from their usual turf of modern African-American life.

And then there's "Harry Potter," already prompting more buzz than any picture in recent memory. Will he muster enough sorcery for an exciting transition from page to screen? In November, we'll find out.

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