Beauty and the Beast (June)
A newly restored version of the 1946 Jean Cocteau film arrives just when we need something silvery, cool and beautiful. Jean Marais plays the bewitched, lion-faced count, wearing yards of Flemish lace to set off his fur; Josette Day stars as his Belle. Anyone who hums "Be My Guest" gets a throat full of claws.
Happy Times (a.k.a. The Happy Times Hotel) (July 26 in San Francisco; Aug. 2 in San Jose)
Zhang Yimou, usually a stickler for social-realist seriousness (Not One Less, The Road Home), goes seriously Chaplinesque in a robust satire that follows Pascal's comment "Life is a comedy with a bloody ending." A hapless retired professor (Zhao Benshan) proposes to a hideo-comic fat lady (Dong Lifan), who treats her blind stepdaughter, Wu (Dong Jing), as wickedly as the stepmother treated Cinderella. To help the girl out--and sweeten up his greedy wife-to-be--our hero and a group of his pals convince the neglected stepdaughter that she's been hired as a legitimate masseuse in a fancy hotel.
Hell House (July)
This documentary is one of the year's 10 best. Many fundamentalist churches are trying to counterpunch Halloween. Trinity Church, on Pleasant Run Road, Cedar Hill, Texas, is seen here constructing "Hell House X." It's a Christian fundamentalist haunted house, a scandalous success profiled on CBS for its bad-taste re-enactment of the Columbine shootings and Satan chortling at the deathbed of a dying AIDS patient. The hellbound here are those who commit suicide, die of botched abortions or OD on drugs because of the misery of being molested or raped. In this version of hell, you are the weakest link. The gloom and doom of the most savage Christians is revealed as appealing to sick-humor fans because of its proud negativity in the middle of a positive, striving, superficially happy culture.
One Hour Photo (Aug. 21)
Robin Williams plays a yearning creep of a photo developer who stalks the happy families he sees in the photos. Sounds plausible. Let's encourage Williams' sincere efforts to ease back into mature movies after his years of trying to cozy up to the nation's children with the kind of alacrity that usually results in jail time. First-time director Mark Romanek is apparently aware that in every comedian's heart lurks an assassin.
Spirited Away (September)
The original 2-1/2-hour Japanese version that premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival is slated to be given a Yank-friendly dub job by Disney. Director Hiyao Miyazaki and his Ghibli Studios are the talents behind My Neighbor Tortoro and Princess Mononoke. This rich animated film, the biggest hit in Japanese box-office history, is a ghost story with certain ideas borrowed from Alice in Wonderland, but it's no mere pastiche. An intrepid little girl, whose parents are turned into swine, saves them by getting a job at a traditional Japanese bathhouse that's a haunt for every kind of supernatural critter. It's certain to please those who've seen Miyazaki's inventive work, his delicate use of color and his refusal to make mindlessly simple stories of good and evil.
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Aug. 7)
Kid stuff, yes, but at least it's handmade kid stuff by someone who seems to love children and thinks like them. Director Robert Rodriguez makes his films the low-tech way in Austin, Texas, seemingly without much interference. Moreover, the first Spy Kids' unstudied multiculturalism adorns a way-too-white cinema. (Be sure to explain that last point to your children--that'll ruin it for them, for sure.) This time, the urchins (Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega) stray to a Jules Verne-style island and are sought by their parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Guigino).
Sunshine State (June 21)
John Sayles' newest takes a look at Florida and the dissatisfaction of two small-town wives: Edie Falco (Judy Berlin, The Sopranos) and Angela Bassett (What's Love Got to Do With It?).
Tadpole (July 19) Lovely and Amazing (June 28) The Good Girl (Aug. 7)
After the ghastly Andie MacDowell film Crush, three films agscope out the dynamic of older women interested in younger men. Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing features Catherine Keener as a married woman interested in a young guy (Jake Gyllenhaal of Donnie Darko). In The Good Girl, Gyllenhaal plays the love interest to a slightly older married woman (Jennifer Aniston as a depressed polyester-vest-wearing cashier at "Retail Rodeo"). The shot-on-digital-film Sundance succés d'estime Tadpole stars Aaron Stanford as a preppie kid who has a romantic interest in his new stepmother (Sigourney Weaver). It's school of Wes Anderson, supposedly.