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The Baltimore Sun

The muscular send-off for the movie holiday season was the soulless technological breakthrough Beowulf, whose computerized "performance-capture" technique wrapped its actors in the digital equivalent of cheese-cloth.

That's actually a splendid irony, for the winter holidays' cinematic strong suit is sure to be the flesh-and-blood performances of America's always-expanding pool of acting talent. In Enchanted, Amy Adams leaps from being an independent-film darling to the sparkling centerpiece of a Disney super-production. This Christmas features a host of engaging African-American actors, whose credits range from specialty cinema to HBO (Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba), bringing unexpected depth and warmth to a mainstream family comedy-drama.

As December rolls around, movie-lovers can anticipate a cornucopia of top performers popping out from packages of wildly differing shapes and sizes. Box-office draws who are also fascinating actors, such as Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp, will once again try to prove that personality and even weirdness may be a major plus for big-studio releases like Depp's Sweeney Todd and Cage's National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Nicole Kidman will continue to leap from intimate to epic challenges, this time in the same month, when she stars both in the fractious family saga Margot at the Wedding and the potential fantasy blockbuster The Golden Compass, based on the first volume in Philip Pullman's series The Dark Materials.

No matter how far and how swiftly Hollywood goes down the digital road, producers of big-budget extravaganzas as well as intimate character dramas know that audiences respond above all to great performances. They've become more wide-ranging than ever in their casting choices, just as today's actors are more flexible and sensible about the vast range of honest work to be done in the popular art of the movies. Cage has shown it's just as honorable for him to be a genial crowd-pleaser in the National Treasure movies as it was for him to wring anguished tears in Leaving Las Vegas.

Of course, there's still a gap between American sweethearts like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and actors' actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, even after they've won Oscars as Hoffman did for Capote. But if Hanks and Roberts nailed the leads in the forthcoming Charlie Wilson's War, Hoffman and Adams snagged sizable supporting parts. Plus, this year Hoffman has already shown he can make an art-house hit out of a sweaty New York suspense film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. And, along with Laura Linney, Hoffman may win an even bigger audience come December with the tart and moving comedy, The Savages, about two siblings struggling with the care of their Parkinson's-afflicted father (Philip Bosco).

Major actor-stars like Depp and Cage and beloved demi-stars like Hoffman and Giamatti have been extending the benefits of the revolution that occurred in the late 1960s with the emergence of Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. When they and (a bit later) Al Pacino exploded onto the movie scene with supernova force, creative vitality itself became charismatic and sexually alluring, and old notions of Hollywood glamour faded into irrelevance. The '60s did have an old-fashioned golden boy in Robert Redford, but he also had the acting chops and the instinct to convey a new sense of irony and "cool" that played into the skepticism of baby boomers. Redford's establishment of the Sundance Institutes and Sundance Film Festival, and his fostering of the American independent film movement, help expand possibilities for future generations of stars like him and stars who look nothing like him.

Today, performers who've anchored franchises like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the Fantastic Four films, and the second Star Wars trilogy move effortlessly to more offbeat and challenging boutique fare this holiday season. Keira Knightley stars in the adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement (directed by Joe Wright, who guided her so skillfully through Pride and Prejudice). Jessica Alba and Hayden Christensen headline the thriller Awake, with Christensen as a heart patient who experiences "anesthetic awareness" during surgery - he's conscious but paralyzed during the operation - and Alba as his troubled wife.

Without sacrificing any of their theater-row street cred, award-winning actors can go in the opposite direction, too. Helen Mirren, last year's Oscar-winner for The Queen, can take a key role in National Treasure: Book of Secrets - and with any luck have as much fun as Ian McKellen did in the otherwise moribund The Da Vinci Code. Actually, the first National Treasure was for me (and many others) the kind of film that The Da Vinci Code should have been: smart, playful, extravagantly amusing. And Cage brought a lot to the fun quotient as a two-fisted history wonk. If in art movies such as Leaving Las Vegas he can plumb limitless sorrows, in commercial projects he can make his hangdog looks turn puppyish.

In general, the explosion of boundaries between "small" or off-center movies and "big" or mainstream pictures has benefited everyone, especially the public. Suddenly, a versatile and consistently inventive character actor such as John C. Reilly (Chicago, The Aviator) can become the center of the new parody of Walk the Line-like movies, Walk Hard, directed by the hottest hand in comedy now, Judd Apatow (Knocked Up).

The new flexibility may be what's made it so easy even for established big-studio box-office draws like Will Smith to hopscotch among genres. No actor has ever moved as effortlessly as Smith does among diverse projects: mindless destruction derbies like Bad Boys II, a thoughtful biopic like Ali, a frivolous romantic comedy like Hitch, and a tough-minded, heartfelt father-and-son saga such as last year's The Pursuit of Happyness. This Christmas he returns to sci-fi with an expensive adaptation of the classic I Am Legend, but why shouldn't an actor come back to his comfort zone, especially if, like Smith, he tends to bring new shadings borne of his varying experiences in movies and in life?

Even Tom Hanks has tired of Tom Hanks, to judge from his bizarre turn in the Coen brothers' botched The Lady Killers and his fatigued walk through The Da Vinci Code. But, sight unseen, Charlie Wilson's War, starring Hanks as a Texas congressional wheeler-dealer who aids the Afghan rebels during the Soviet invasion, may be a return to the vital comic edge that Hanks had when he was starting out.

It's equally intriguing to think of Depp's adapting his irrepressible perversity to the intricate form of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd. And there are pleasures to be had in seeing stars we've grown up with aging gleefully if not gracefully, as Nicholson and Morgan Freeman promise to do in The Bucket List (a to-do list before kicking said bucket). With talents like these working steadily and at their peak, American movies still have a long life ahead.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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