Denzel Washington in John Q.JOHN Q.

In Nick Cassavetes' soapbox-lecture-cum-thriller John Q., Denzel Washington stars as blue-collar worker John Archibald, a middle-aged Chicagoan struggling with tight finances but deeply in love with his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), and a great father to their only son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith). While rounding the bases at a little-league game, Mike collapses, and it's revealed that Mike's heart is three times the size it should be; unless the Archibalds can come up with the enormous fee required for a heart transplant, Mike will die. The Archibalds do have health insurance, but because their insurance company recently switched to an HMO (cue the duh-duh-dun music), their coverage is no longer sufficient for Mike's operation, and when all of their other money-raising options have been eliminated, John arms himself, takes the hospital's emergency room hostage, and announces that, yes, Mike will be getting that transplant.

ALI (in theatres): Covering Muhammad Ali's personal and professional life from 1964 to 1974, Michael Mann's biopic has everything except what it can't live without: a reason for being. You really have no better understanding of Ali after seeing the film than you had before; director Mann, along with his topnotch cast and crew, has dedicated an enormous amount of time, money, and talent to a technically adept yet vacuous experience.

Henry Cavill, Dagmara Dominczyk, James Caviezel, and Luis Guzman in The Count of Monte CristoTHE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO

The best reason to see the latest remake of The Count of Monte Cristo is the source material. You can easily shrug off the movie's unimaginative staging, corny laugh lines, and obtrusive score for the chance to enjoy an opulently designed adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' audience-grabbing tale; it's the sort of story that was once called "a ripping good yarn."

Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning in I Am SamI AM SAM

How does one begin to discuss the blinding idiocies of I Am Sam? This comic weepie about Sam (Sean Penn), a mentally challenged Starbucks employee trying to retain custody of his young daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning), is so shockingly offensive, both thematically and as a work of cinema, as to defy rational analysis, so here's a brief checklist of what made me want to bash my head in:

Black Hawk DownBLACK HAWK DOWN

It has been widely reported that Ridley Scott's war drama Black Hawk Down, originally due later this year, had its release bumped up to qualify for year-end awards consideration and, in theory, serve as a balm for a country forever damaged by the tragic events of September 11. There's no reason to refute this, and there might even be a kind of self-serving nobility in Columbia Studios' decision, yet the film in question is a technically impressive atrocity, one that's perhaps even more heinous in light of last fall's terrorist attacks. Although based on true events and Mark Bowden's well-regarded book, Black Hawk Down is jingoistic, dramatically inert, and sometimes shockingly racist; expect nominations and awards to follow.

Gosford ParkGOSFORD PARK

In Robert Altman's Gosford Park, set in 1932 England, a group of well-to-do guests is invited to a country estate for a shooting party, with their numerous servants in tow, and find their weekend disrupted by the murder of their host.

Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, and Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the RingTHE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has now been out for so long, has made so much money, and has been reaping so many critical accolades - it was just named the AFI's Best Picture in its inaugural awards ceremony - that I'm not sure much more needs to be said about it.

Compiling a cinematic Best of the Year list is always tricky business when the article is due before Christmas and you live outside of New York, L.A., and Chicago; while national critics are extolling the merits of Lord of the Rings, Ali, and Black Hawk Down, I find myself thinking, "Hmmm .

Penelope Cruz and Tom Cruise in Vanilla SkyVANILLA SKY

Vanilla Sky could be subtitled Jerry Maguire Climbs Jacob's Ladder to Reveal What Dreams May Come, and if that's not enough reason to run for the theatre's exits, the movie's actual presentation should be.

George Clooney in Ocean's ElevenOCEAN'S ELEVEN

Danny Ocean has an idea. Just paroled from prison, this Las Vegas smoothie (played by George Clooney) decides to rip off three of the city's casinos, the profits from which are all stored in one underground safe. In order to successfully pull off the caper, Ocean assembles 10 of the smartest, shiftiest cons he knows to form a labyrinthine plot that'll net the crooks upwards of $160 million. The problem: The safe in question is more heavily guarded than Fort Knox, and getting in the vault is small potatoes compared to how difficult it will be to leave the area once they have.

Pages