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"It's officially fall, one of the most difficult times for finding top quality movies."
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"I don't think you can write a more diverse screenplay."
"Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu exploded onto the scene with his gut wrenching "Amores Perros" and this film is his American coming out party."
"If you haven't been schooled on the two previous installments, get thee to a preciousssss video store now!"
2003 Fall Movie Preview   

The leaves are turning colors, the temperatures are getting cooler, and the summer blockbusters have fizzled out. Yes, it's officially fall, one of the most difficult times for finding top quality movies. For unlike television, which showcases a return of all your favorite shows after a summer hiatus, the fall film season is typically awash with filler material until late November when the heavy pennant races begin.

Of course, I'm speaking of film awards (not baseball) and this year's big award contenders seem to hone in on the historical genre - Nicole Kidman leads an ensemble in the Civil War epic "Cold Mountain," Tom Cruise turns Japanese as "The Last Samurai," Russell Crowe fights with the British Navy in "Master and Commander," Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid put up the good fight in "The Alamo," and "Lord of the Rings"...well, it's an ancient period piece all on its own. Sliding in between all those timelines are a few potential blockbusters: Mike Meyers takes on Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat;" Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus return for the finale in "The Matrix Revolutions;" and Quentin Tarantino's first volume of "Kill Bill" has Uma Thurman on a blood slashing rampage.

Yet even with all of the heightened expectations, I still find myself recovering from a summer filled with disappointment. "The Hulk," "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "Charlie's Angels 2" - all major duds. And heading into this final quarter, I'm determined not to be suckered into another overproduced, special effects extravaganza. Thus, in filtering through the final quarter's major releases, I tried to identify films that actually mean something, that tell a good story and make good use of the two plus hours allotted. It wasn't easy. But as they say, even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn. So, without further adieu, here's my list of ten films that have that potential to deliver - some big, some small, some just right.

1.   The Station Agent.    (October 3)   A big time favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival with audience awards for best drama, screenplay, and a performance from Patricia Clarkson. And I don't think you can write a more diverse screenplay. It's about three loners - a struggling artist, a homeless dwarf, and an overly friendly hot dog vendor - each determined to find friendship while maintaining a certain degree of personal space.

2.   Mystic River.    (October 8)   Directed by Clint Eastwood with award winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) and a handful of resurging stars - Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon. It's the story of three kids growing up in a rough, Irish neighborhood outside of Boston whose lives are forever altered following an abduction and whose lives then reconnect 25 years later when a local murder brings them together. The film is already gaining momentum as Eastwood snagged the Golden Coach award at Cannes.

3.   Intolerable Cruelty.    (October 10)   I'm a sucker for the Coen brothers and this film represents their first foray into the mainstream. Returning Coen veteran, George Clooney ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") plays a sly divorce attorney who falls in love with his client - a superficial, money hungry divorcee portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's a cat and mouse game for the ages in a big budget bonanza of the Coen's quirky comedy.

4.   The Human Stain.    (October 31)   Originally slated for a September release, the film was pushed back to position itself better for the Academy Awards. And it's no wonder. The star power is overwhelming - Sir Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, and Academy Award winning director, Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer). It's based on the best selling mystery by Philip Roth and follows Coleman Silk, a light skinned African American college professor who passes himself off as white and Jewish only to have his career discredited after a racial slur leads to inquiries about his past.

5.   21 Grams.    (November 14)   A re-emerging Sean Penn stars in this drama along with Benicio del Toro ("Traffic") and Naomi Watts ("The Ring") about three strangers brought together after a horrific car accident who must deal with not only the repercussions from the accident but the repercussions in their personal lives. Note: 21 grams represents the amount of weight each individual loses at the exact moment of death. Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu exploded onto the scene with his gut wrenching "Amores Perros" and this film is his American coming out party.

6.   Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.    (November 14)   The film clips don't do anything for me and the title is a bit rickety, but it's hard to sink a film when it has Russell Crowe commanding the ship. Steering the HMS Surprise amidst the War of 1812, Crowe portrays the heroic Captain Jack Aubrey during a fateful mission to intercept an American battleship in the Great South Sea. Typhoons, shipwrecks, seasickness, and mutiny are all included. And keep in mind, this film represents the 10th novel in a 20 novel set by Patrick O'Brian!

7.   In America.    (November 26)   The semi-autobiographical account of an Irish immigrant family and their struggle to make it in New York City as told through the perspective of their two young daughters. It's written and directed by Jim Sheridan, whose previous works such as "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father" have garnered 13 Oscar nominations alone. This was another hit at Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival - a coming-of-age story for the entire family.

8.   The Last Samurai.    (December 5)   I know, I know. Tom Cruise in a period piece? The thought of Cruise, the epitome of the modern man, in a historic drama are "Far and Away." But here, Cruise takes on the role of Nathan Algren, a displaced Civil War veteran who comes to Japan on a mission impossible - upgrading the Japanese army to modern fighting weapons and techniques while disbanding the traditional ways of the samurai. Of course, Nathan becomes sympathetic to the old ways and gets into a conflict of monstrous proportions. Ironically, Cruise exited from "Cold Mountain" (see below) with ex-wife Nicole Kidman to partake in this film. And although Cruise is somewhat foreign to the period piece genre, director Edward Zwick is not. He won praise in 1990 for the large-scale, Civil War epic known as "Glory."

9.   The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.    (December 17)   The trailer looks astonishing and the anticipation is brewing as Peter Jackson wraps up the trilogy with this, the final installment of the Tolkien masterpiece. It's bigger, it's darker, and it could be the crowning achievement not only for Aragorn (son of Arathorn), but for Jackson as well, who considers this his most cherished in the series. The finale follows Frodo Baggins and his comrade Samwise Gamgee on the final leg of their journey to Mount Doom to rid the world of the One Ring and save mankind from the forces of evil. And if you haven't been schooled on the two previous installments, get thee to a preciousssss video store now!

10.   Cold Mountain.    (December 25)   One of the most potent movies of the fall season with the most stars and filmmaking power. Noteworthy producer Sydney Pollack has brought together the team responsible for "The English Patient" (including director Anthony Minghella) to present this Civil War love story based on the Charles Frazier bestseller. It's about a Confederate soldier left for dead on the battlefield who makes a long and dangerous journey home to reunite with his long lost love. Starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, and more. Oh, and it's the largest budgeted picture Miramax has ever put forth. Founder Harvey Weinstein is banking on a winner with a whopping $83.5 million.

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