Bad Santa
Dir. Terry Zwigoff; writ. John Requa & Glenn Ficarra; feat. Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, John Ritter (R)
Bad Santa is vile. Snot-dripping and alley-pukey, pants-pissing and rotgut-swilling vile. It does not have redeeming social merit; it will not enrich your soul or teach you the meaning of Christmas. It starts bleak and goes down from there. The premise takes the old caricature - the drunken department store Santa Claus - and makes it cartoonishly extreme, then adds a twist: This Santa (Thornton) is a safe cracker, and every year, he and his partner (a dwarf who wears an elf costume) go to work for a new store, taking pictures with kids and casing the joint for a Christmas Eve heist. But Santa has lost all interest in keeping up appearances, and instead curses at children and sodomizes shoppers in the Big and Tall department dressing rooms. In almost any other film, Santa would be shown the road to salvation, but Bad Santa would rather sit around boozing and making fun of America's two-month celebration of December 25. JD

Dir. & writ. Gus Van Sant; feat. Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Kristen Hicks, Matt Malloy, Timothy Bottoms (R)
Not a dramatization of Columbine per se, Elephant imagines a very similar horror, this one also perpetrated by two male students in a typical middle-class high school, and focuses on the day leading up to it. This movie, which among other things demonstrates the horrible inadequacy of the standard "docudrama" in the face of truly shocking events, is rich enough to demand countless conversations. Rather than wring drama from history and move on, it wants to provoke us into those conversations while singing a requiem. The film director Gus Van Sant leaves behind is a haunting meditation on questions we can probably never answer. JD

Dir. Jon Favreau; writ. David Berenbaum; feat. Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, Daniel Tay, Mary Steenburgen (PG)
Elf exploits Will Ferrell's most innocent childish side, one that he has elsewhere used to play just play dumb. Here, Buddy is not stupid but guileless, a human raised by Santa's helpers who travels to New York City in search of a lost father who is (Buddy is shocked to learn) on Santa's Naughty list. Buddy sets out, in pointy hat and yellow leotards, to walk from the North Pole to the Big Apple, through (as he later tells anyone who will listen, and many who won't) the Candy Cane Forest and alongside the swirling, twirling Gumdrop Sea. Ferrell proceeds with a few perfect gags to become one of Manhattan's most amusing wide-eyed newcomers: He feasts on discarded chewing gum, races through revolving doors, and is delighted to accept the advertising flyers that more savvy tourist reject as trash. As Elf goes through the motions of a standard Christmas-spirit-boosting fable, with unlikely changes of heart and spontaneous sing-alongs, it remains true to the pure heart at its center. JD

House of Sand and Fog
Dir. Vadim Perelman; writ. Perelman, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III; feat. Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonthan Ahdout (R)
House of Sand and Fog tells the story of desires that collide over ownership of a house. Kathy (Connelly), a recovering alcoholic whose husband left her eight months ago, is evicted from the property her late father purchased more than 30 years before. The action is erroneous, based on Kathy's failure to pay taxes she in fact never owed, but before her rights can be restored, the house is sold at auction to an Iranian immigrant family, the Behranis. Kathy is soon reduced to transience, sleeping in her Bonneville and spying on the strangers who have appropriated her bedroom. "They're already more at home there than I ever was," she says of the Iranian invaders. Rich in textures of mist and murk, House of Sand and Fog, which itself deserves packed houses, is a graphic reminder of how brittle are the bricks with which we try to build our lives. Our deeds can always be contested. SGK

The Human Stain
Dir. Robert Benton; writ. Philip Roth (novel), Nicholas Meyer; feat. Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Anna Deavere Smith (R)
Coleman Silk (Hopkins), an aging classics professor, has been booted from the university he helped rejuvenate because an innocent remark was misconstrued as racism. The professor has a secret weapon against such charges - he is from an African-American family, though his light skin allows him to pass for Jewish - but he refuses to expose his past. Silk tumbles into an affair with a woman from another world: Young, uneducated, and far too sexy for a man of Silk's standing, Faunia Farely (Kidman) is a walking Viagra tablet with dark secrets and a volatile estranged husband. Like the eloquent but aging man it portrays, director Robert Benton's film alternates between grace and sluggishness, and, like its lead character, The Human Stain just has too much to conceal. JD

In America
Dir. Jim Sheridan; writ. Jim, Naomi, & Kirsten Sheridan; feat. Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou (PG-13)
In America, whose title is a bit grandiose for a film confined almost entirely to a few bleak blocks in Manhattan, is not a Bergmanesque anatomy of anomie. It is the spirited story of how New York City resuscitates four Irish immigrants, and their vital signs are always robust. We learn nothing about the Sullivan family's lives in Ireland or what motivated them to leave, except perhaps a desire to put behind them the trauma of losing a child. Yet for a clan of affectless zombies, they greet the bright lights of Broadway with remarkably ecstatic awe. The film is rich with anecdotes about starting over in America, but it is more successful at invoking than evoking magic to connect them all. SGK

The Last Samurai
Dir. Edward Zwick; writ. John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, Zwick; feat. Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall, Shin Koyamada, Koyuki, Tony Goldwyn (R)
A veteran of the Civil War and the Indian campaigns, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired to turn raw Japanese conscripts into an efficient fighting force adept in using the latest battlefield equipment. But in the first skirmish, against a band of rebel samurai, Algren's pupils are routed, and he is taken prisoner. Forced to winter with the insurgents in a picturesque mountain village, Algren goes native. Within a few months, he is fluent in Japanese and fluid in his use of traditional swords, knives, and sticks. By springtime, he is fighting beside Katsumoto (Watanabe), the charismatic leader of the samurai, in violent confrontation with regiments that by now have leaned to use their bayonets and howitzers. Katsumoto and his allies, including Algren, apply their admirable ideals of discipline and concentration to the business of butchery. They behead their captured enemies and, when defeated, disembowel themselves. These last samurai, who follow orders without question, are the ancestors of kamikaze pilots and Aum Shinrikyo terrorists. The Last Samurai is an elegantly realized epic, but it is also a training film for Hamas and Al Qaeda. SGK

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Dir. Peter Jackson; writ. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens; feat. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Johy Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving (PG-13)
The movie is often thrilling beyond words, both on the battlefield and in the highly charged discussions that turn out to be Middle Earth history-in-the-making. For all the spectacle and grandeur, though, it's tempting to argue that the one thing to be cherished most in the series is Sean Astin's simple, unassuming Samwise Gamgee. Sam is so indispensable to the quest that even Frodo's sweetest praise seems offensively meager; he is the humblest, bravest, most loyal, and most selfless person on screen (which is high praise considering the noble crew Tolkien created), and Astin as an actor brings all those virtues to his performance. If Sam doesn't make you cry a little, you may be an orc. JD

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Dir. Peter Weir; writ. Weir & John Colley, based on novels by Patrick O'Brian; feat. Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Lee Ingleby, Max Pirkis (PG-13)
Before his death three years ago, Patrick O'Brian published 20 volumes of vivid historical fiction that, focusing on naval captain Jack Aubrey and ship's physician Stephen Maturin, recreate life on a British man-of-war during the early 19th century. Napoleonic france was the adversary, and the United states, an upstart former colony, had to be put in its place. Combining the first installment in the series, Master and Commander, with a later one, The Far Side of the World, the first cinematic adaptation of O'Brian's work is as nimble as its title is unwieldy. One of the most striking changes that Peter Weir, the Australian director who has worked in the U.S. for more than two decades, made to O'Brian's meticulously researched fiction was to have the hostile frigate be French instead of American. SGK

Matrix Revolutions
Dir. & writ. Andy & Larry Wachowski; feat. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau Jr., Lambert Wilson, Mary Alice (R)
"What is the Matrix?" It can now be told: It's a war movie dressed up like mysticism. A video-game sham. A big tease with no payoff. A three-art exercise in diminishing returns. One pretty good movie with two sequels that never should have been made. Not only does the action here fail to break new ground - it doesn't even get in the vicinity of the old ground. The bulk of the action is video-game crap with people in CGI exo-skeletons shooting CGI bullets at CGI flying robots. if you get scared playing Nintendo, you might take this stuff seriously. JD

Mona Lisa Smile
Dir. Mike Newell; writ. Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal; feat. Julie Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson (PG-13)
Although she has always longed to teach there, Katherine Watson (Roberts), a 31-year-old novice art historian, terms Wellesley "a finishing school disguised as a college." She arrives on the campus in the fall of 1953 determined to "make a difference." Departing from the standard syllabus, which her bright students have already mastered anyway, Katherine introduces them to unsettling modern paintings. But the biggest difference the academic interloper makes is in persuading her privileged young charges to think about their roles in a society that has bred them to be matrons. It is not merely makeup that sets Julia Roberts apart from the pretty women of Wellesley, or Erin Brockovich. Her own Mona Lisa smile is not a simper of submission. It is a sovereign grin, worn by Wellesley students who endure art history with Katherine Watson. SGK

Mystic River
Dir. Clint Eastwood; writ. Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane; feat. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney (R)
Repressed memories of abuse propel the action and compel calamity in Mystic River. Never trust a stranger, according to the unspoken code that governs lusterless life beside the Mystic River, where everyone becomes a stranger. The recurrent motif of someone getting into a car driven by another is a visual reminder that danger lurks in letting go. Despite a few unnecessary digressions and a bothersome, redundant final scene, director Clint Eastwood's understated style parallels the silences that insulate, isolate, and destroy his characters. They inhabit a world in which laconic men are in control, or at least prove their masculinity by acting as if they - and not the force of Nemesis - could hold control. SGK

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Dir. & writ. Robert Rodriguez; feat. Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Rubén Blades, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (R)
Robert Rodriguez falls short of delivering on the promise of an epic film. Even his trademark cinematic flourishes seem reined in. Depp's Agent Sands dominates - pushing even the iconic Mariachi to the sides. As appealing as parts of the film are to a sense of cultural pride, it ultimately leaves viewers wondering whether it is entertainment as empowerment - or exploitation. AP

Something's Gotta Give
Dir. & writ. Nancy Myers; feat. Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Amanda Peet, Keanu Reeves, Frances McDormand (PG-13)
By the end of the film, 50-something writer Erica Barry (Keaton) will have penned a new hit play, swept a dreamy doctor 20 years her junior off his feet, conquered the prejudices of an eternal bachelor, and found love, love, love. From all the writerly wish fulfillment going on here, you would think Woody Allen underwent a sex change. That impression is bolstered when you realize, as in Allen's recent work, that you're not laughing much. It seems that the screenplay's wit is dulled by the same hazy Wrinkle-B-Gone filter that director Nancy Myers cinematographer has pasted to his camera to smooth out the cast's skin. JD

The Station Agent
Dir. & writ. Thomas McCarthy; feat. Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Benjamin, Raven Goodwin, Michelle Wiliams (R)
Fin McBride (Dinklage) is a dwarf, but it's hardly his most defining deviation from the norm - Fin is obsessed with trains. There is a type of film known as a "Sundance movie," where character is more important than genre, guirks are treasured, and action takes a back seat to the kinds of quiet scenes that develop a sense of place. Idiosyncratic in theory, these movies often feel as formulaic as a Hollywood blockbuster in practice. The Station Agent (which won a few awards at this year's festival) is what the average Sundance movie wants to grow up to be: engaging, charming, and witty without often falling back on the easy tricks that keep non-story stories from boring audiences. JD

Stuck On You Dir. & writ. Peter & Bobby Farrelly; feat. Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear Eva Mendes, Wen Yann Shih, Seymour Cassel, Griffin Dunne, Cher, Meryl Streep, Frankie Muniz (PG-13) Bob and Walt Tenor live a normal life in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The brothers are conjoined twins, but that hasn't stopped them from being well-adjusted and successful. Their Quickee Burger business advertises a burger on your plate faster than you can say hold the onions - or it's free. Pity we can't keep the filmmaking Farrelly Brothers to the same promise. This Punch-and-Judy show doesn't auger well for future Farrelly projects: a Special Olympics epic now filming in Austin and a Three Stooges biopic in preproduction. GB

Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff