Before assessing the Hollywood output designed to fill us all with holiday cheer (Jerry Bruckheimer's action extravaganza, Oliver Stone's historical war epic, Tim Allen after a Botox injection ... y'know, that sort of thing), let's take a brief look at a few titles flying a bit beneath the blockbuster radar.

Colin Firth and Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones: The Edge of ReasonBRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON

I have a friend who does a bit based on a seminal Laverne & Shirley gag. In nearly every episode of that sitcom, one of the titular characters would say, "There's no way this situation could get worse!" or "What's that smell?" and Lenny and Squiggy would cluelessly burst through Laverne's and Shirley's door; if someone around us says something like "That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen!" my friend will mime a door opening and exclaim, with perfect greaser-nerd cadence, "Hello!" That gag is pure sitcom-honed irony - that is, obvious irony - and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the follow-up to 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary, is like a continuous loop of that Lenny and Squiggy routine.

Danny Huston and Nicole Kidman in BirthBIRTH

It's pretty easy to see why audiences hate Jonathan Glazer's Birth, which features Nicole Kidman as Anna, a grieving widow who believes that the soul of her late husband, Sean, is alive in the body of a 10-year-old boy with the same name.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Shaun of the DeadSHAUN OF THE DEAD, THE GRUDGE, and SAW

Halloween has come and gone, but three horror flicks are currently in theaters and - surprise! - two of them are actually good.

My first article for the River Cities' Reader appeared in Issue 18, way back in March of 1995. (You know how long ago that was? Tom Hanks had only one Oscar.) Serving as the Reader's film critic was, and still is, a terrific gig - for an avowed movie fanatic who loves to write, the chance to expound on the state of cinema has always been about more than giving a particular work a "yay" or "nay" vote; it's given me, in a minor way, the opportunity to analyze an entire culture, to try to understand what's in the heads of those who make films, and those who distribute films, and the millions of us who view them.

Team America: World PoliceTEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

There are so many satirical objects in Team America: World Police, and so many different levels of parody going on at once, that the movie was almost guaranteed to be a mess, and indeed, a few of its stances - particularly those against knee-jerk Hollywood liberals - come off as a little weak.

James Hetfield in Metallica: Some Kind of MonsterMETALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster has the sort of title guaranteed to repel viewers who might love it the most. This warts-and-all documentary, chronicling the two-plus years devoted to creating Metallica's St. Anger CD, is like the best episode of Behind the Music ever made, offering an intimate look at the relationship between guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, and detailing the nightmare involved in getting the group recording again after a five-year hiatus. The movie will be Mecca for metal fans, yet its appeal isn't totally insular. Audiences who may be loath to sit through a doc on any heavy-metal group might not realize what directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have fashioned here; Some Kind of Monster is one of the finest recordings of the collaborative artistic process ever committed to film, a hard-edged and endlessly fascinating look at the excruciating work that goes into the making of an album. And for those for whom documentaries are even less appealing than heavy metal, it must be said that the film is one of the funniest and most shockingly touching screen works of the year, This Is Spinal Tap with actual human beings at its core. It's a thrilling experience.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before SunsetBEFORE SUNSET

Richard Linklater has directed some marvelous films in the past - particularly Dazed & Confused, The School of Rock, and (his best work until now) 1995's Before Sunrise - but he has never created one as stunningly, ravishingly alive as Before Sunset.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut

DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT

After I first saw Donnie Darko on DVD some 16 months back, I did something I'd done only once or twice before, and never again since: I returned to the main menu, hit "Play," and watched the movie again.

Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain & the World of TomorrowSKY CAPTAIN & THE WORLD OF TOMORROW

Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow might be the movie year's most refreshing surprise, especially when you consider how disastrous the results could have been.

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