Harry Altman in SpellboundSPELLBOUND

I have always considered it a personal mission to convince people that documentaries can actually be fun - recently, I enjoyed a hard-won victory when my mother (who, as she is wont to say, "gets enough drama in life") acceded to watch Bowling for Columbine and found herself liking it - and, bless their hearts, the folks at the Brew & View appear to as well.

John Hawkes, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, and John Cusack in IdentityIDENTITY and CONFIDENCE

By some bizarre coincidence, this past weekend saw the arrival of two new films, Identity and Confidence, that share an almost frightening number of similarities.

Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, and Heath Ledger in Monster's BallMONSTER'S BALL

In Marc Forster's sterling drama Monster's Ball, Halle Berry portrays Leticia Musgrove, the wife of a convicted murderer (Sean Combs), who takes the graveyard shift of an all-night Georgia café to support herself and her pre-teen son (Coronji Calhoun). One of her repeat customers is corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), son of an unrepentant racist (Peter Boyle) and father of a damaged, depressed son (Heath Ledger). Through a series of tragedies, Leticia and Hank find spiritual and sexual solace in each other's company, and Monster's Ball asks the question that, sadly enough, must still be asked in modern-day America: Can black and white find a middle ground and truly exist in harmony?

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.

Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in Meet the ParentsMEET THE PARENTS

I'm not sure that any movie genre is harder to critique than the Sitcom Disguised as Feature Film. You know the sort: a comedy, usually with faux-dramatic undertones, filled with likable actors playing likable people (even the antagonists are more pesky than dangerous), where the characters' dilemmas are sorted out neatly in under two hours, and with no serious harm coming to any of them in the end. The dialogue is moderately witty, the physical gags are predictable but amusing, the lighting is overly bright, and the score is bouncy, with moments of sap when the characters show their "souls." What's to discuss? You know going in what to expect, and when the film in question is pulled off well, as Jay Roach's Meet the Parents is, you leave feeling serene and comfortable.

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