Brad Pitt in Burn After ReadingBURN AFTER READING

Brad Pitt is so adorably dim-witted in the Coen brothers' espionage comedy Burn After Reading, and John Malkovich is so hilariously profane (and singularly weird), that it's a little heartbreaking to admit just how disappointing the actors' debut outing with the Coens actually is. From 1984's Blood Simple to last year's No Country for Old Men, the filmography of Joel and Ethan has been chockablock with enjoyably eccentric throwaway characters. Until now, though, I'd never seen a Coen brothers movie that was nothing but a series of enjoyably eccentric throwaway characters; Pitt, Malkovich, and the film's other hard-working performers provide a decent enough time, yet I still left Burn Without Reading feeling a little bewildered and annoyed, and counting the months - hopefully not too many - until the siblings' next endeavor.

United 93UNITED 93

The question of whether it's too soon for United 93 is endlessly debatable. Yet United 93 we have. And having seen Paul Greengrass' dramatic re-creation of those shattering minutes aboard the doomed Newark-to-San Francisco flight on the morning of September 11, 2001, it seems that the timing of its release isn't just acceptable but - for this particular film, at any rate - absolutely essential.

Charlize Theron in Aeon FluxAEON FLUX

By all rights, Aeon Flux should be godawful. (Certainly, Paramount is treating it like it is, as the studio opted against pre-release screenings for fear of lousy advance notices.) Set some 400 years in the future, director Karyn Kusama's film - a big-screen vehicle for MTV's Liquid Television character - takes place after 99% of the earth has been eliminated by a virus, the most humorless 1%, apparently, having been left to roam the earth. Charlize Theron's Aeon leads a Spandex-clad revolt against the government, and the movie is, for the most part, a joke; the effects are particularly shoddy, and as they recite their clunky dialogue, you feel badly for several performers - when they were being feted as Oscar nominees, did Theron, Frances McDormand (in a red fright wig), Sophie Okenedo and Pete Postlethwaite ever think it would come to this? (The film's one impressive performance comes from Marton Csokas, who's like a more rugged version of Kevin Spacey.)

Frances McDormand and Charlize Theron in North CountryNORTH COUNTRY

At a serious, well-intentioned "issue movie," you will periodically hear from a sect of the audience whom I refer to as the tsk-ers. Tsk-ers are especially vocal at works in which the leading figure - always righteous and noble, and prone to suffering in silence - finds him- or (generally) herself experiencing painful hardships in the cause of Doing the Right Thing, while their families, friends, and the world at large all turn against them.

Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta GiveSOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE

In Something's Gotta Give, a sixtysomething womanizer, currently dating a twentysomething auctioneer (!), finds himself, for the first time ever, falling in love with a woman roughly his age, and - wouldn't ya know it? - it's his girlfriend's mother! Has there ever been so High a Concept? A forced, jokey premise like this is usually enough to make me hide under my theater seat; it's a situation so nakedly designed to provide good-natured chuckles and muffled sobs that a hardened cynic like me walks into the movie with all defenses immediately up.

SeabiscuitSEABISCUIT

Seabiscuit arrives as such a breath of fresh air - an inspirational period piece in a sea of noisy, formulaic action drivel - that you wish to God the movie was better than it actually is.

James Franco and Robert De Niro in City by the SeaCITY BY THE SEA

If Robert De Niro ever decides to quit acting, I hope he receives retirement benefits from the NYPD. In Michael Caton-Jones's police melodrama City by the Sea, De Niro plays Vincent LaMarca, who is, by rough estimate, the 7,000th cop character he has played onscreen in the past two decades.

Almost FamousALMOST FAMOUS

Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical hymn to the joys and heartbreaks of rock 'n' roll, is filled with extraordinarily lovely details and an uncanny fondness for the film's 1970s setting. It's engaging, gorgeously lit, and filled with goodwill. The things it's not are believable, challenging, or memorable. It has obviously been made with great love - Crowe spent years trying to turn his youthful experiences into a movie - and Crowe's attention to the minutiae of the rock scene is heady and alluring. But Almost Famous ends up as far less than the sum of its parts, a movie so intoxicated by its period that elements like character and conflict barely exist; despite its look and the rave reviews being showered on it, the film itself feels empty.