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Holiday Sneaks

Hollywood's Year-End Clearance

Yep, everything must go . . . to the cineplex as studios roll out their best Oscar bets in hopes of luring audiences who find family togetherness overrated.

November 12, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the most enjoyable film you've never heard of, was an extravagant success at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. Its sophisticated take on acrobatic Hong Kong action films won more fans at the Toronto and New York events in September. When is it going to appear in theaters? December.

Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning "All the Pretty Horses" was the literary rage of 1992, and the Billy Bob Thornton-directed version was said to be a Cannes contender. When is it going to appear in theaters? December.

"A Hard Day's Night," starring the young and restless Beatles, was a huge hit back in the day, 1964 to be exact, and a fully restored version with a few new songs added debuted at the Sundance Film Festival nearly two years ago. When is it going to appear in theaters? December.

The Coen brothers' sublimely wacky "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," a one-of-a-kind mixture of Southern and Greek mythology, made it to Cannes, and it opened the AFI Film Festival in mid-October as well. When is it going to appear in theaters? December.

"Vertical Limit," an action-adventure film about mountain climbing with a coming-attractions trailer that has had audiences swooning, could probably open any month of the year and make a profit. In fact, it was at one time scheduled for the summer, but when is it going to appear in theaters? December.

Does anyone sense a pattern here?

No matter when they started or where they came from, those suspects in a movie company's lineup that are deemed most likely to find success all seem to be assigned release dates in the six-week period from mid-November to the end of December, the fabled holiday season.

It's not just that studios are suspicious, hidebound or imprisoned by tradition (though of course they are). And it's not like some films don't have practically a birthright to be released at this time of the year: The Jim Carrey-starring "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," from the modern children's classic, would look silly as silly can be if it came out in July. It's that Hollywood feels there are real reasons (or at least as real as reasons get in executive suites) for this kind of overload.

First off, better films get released in the fall because of a general feeling that the industry members who nominate and vote on Oscar choices early in the new year are afflicted with cinematic Alzheimer's and would not remember an involving piece of cinema that played in theaters in February, March or even July. While this piece of wisdom has self-fulfilling prophecy written all over it, every time a late release like "Shakespeare in Love" beats an early release like "Saving Private Ryan" at the wire, it gets reinforced.

The industry also feels that ordinary moviegoers are, for whatever reason (the snap in the air, the schoolbooks on the table, the holiday spirit), more receptive to serious films in the late fall. This year, the most prestigious items on tap land in three overlapping categories.

Films With Literary Origins

* "The Claim," in which Thomas Hardy's very British "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is retold amid the grandeur of California's Sierra Nevada during the Gold Rush years.

* "The House of Mirth," from the Edith Wharton novel, directed by artistic Brit Terence Davies and starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

* "Quills." Lest we forget, the Marquis de Sade was a heck of a scribe in addition to all those other things, and director Philip Kaufman dots the i's, crosses the t's and flashes the whip.

* "State and Main." No slouch in the writing department either, David Mamet presents a penetrating yet surprisingly warm satire on what a Hollywood movie company does to a small New England town.

Films With Artistic Roots

* "Before Night Falls." Painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel takes a look at the troubled career of the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas in a biopic that was an award-winner at the Venice Film Festival.

* "Pollock." Actor-turned-first-time-director Ed Harris wisely stars himself as the tormented Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, Marcia Gay Harden as his wife, Lee Krasner, and Harris' wife, Amy Madigan, as Peggy Guggenheim. Well done all around.

* "Shadow of the Vampire." Speaking of acting and artistry, Willem Dafoe gave the best performance seen at Cannes as the actor Max Schreck, who, in this backstage story about the filming of the classic vampire drama "Nosferatu," is in fact a vampire himself.

Films From Top Directors That Need Special Handling

* "An Everlasting Piece." Barry Levinson looks at "the troubles" in Northern Ireland through the hairpiece business.

* "Chocolat." Lasse Hallstrom describes the power of that confection in a small French town.

* "The Gift." Sam Raimi investigates a psychic in a small Georgia town.

*

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