The five-year anniversary of 9-11 might have seemed like the perfect time for Hollywood to address the terrorist attacks and indeed, last year brought both United 93 and World Trade Center.
But the ways the world has changed since that fateful September morning continue to churn in the minds of writers and directors, and in 2007 the most serious season of the cinematic calendar is dominated by films exploring Middle Eastern conflict.
On the basis of star power, Charlie Wilson's 'War' might be the biggest. Oscar favorites Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts star in the true story of a Texas congressman's entanglement with Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979. Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Primary Colors) directs from a script by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin.
But the big names don't end there. In 'Rendition,' Reese Witherspoon, who now out-earns the stalwart Roberts, plays a pregnant Midwesterner whose Egyptian-born husband is suspected of terrorism; Jake Gyllenhaal also appears in the drama from Oscar winner Gavin Hood (Tsotsi).
Peter Berg's 'The Kingdom,' about FBI operatives (played by Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) investigating an attack in Saudi Arabia, was held for the prestigious fall release date after highly successful test screenings.
Paul Haggis is back in the director's seat for the first time since Academy Award upset 'Crash' with 'In the Valley of Elah,' starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon as the parents of a soldier who goes AWOL after returning from Iraq; another Oscar alum, Charlize Theron, also appears.
The ongoing war also figures in the John Cusack vehicle 'Grace Is Gone,' about a father whose wife is killed in battle.
Robert Redford (as star and director) shifts the focus back to Afghanistan in 'Lions for Lambs,' which pads out its pedigreed cast with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. The screenplay is by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also penned The Kingdom.'
A good bet to get a jump on Oscar contenders is the 22nd annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, which runs from Oct. 19-Nov. 15 and usually showcases one of the season's glittery offerings (e.g., 'Being Julia,' 'Volver') before its general release.
Meanwhile, a good bet for the best-picture nominees this year comes in the form of the myriad book adaptations heading to theaters.
The Coen Brothers try their hand at translating Cormac McCarthy to the screen with 'No Country for Old Men,' a crime thriller with Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem that was warmly received in May at the Cannes film festival. 'Bardem' (Before Night Falls) also stars in 'Love in the Time of Cholera'; the Gabriel Garcia Márquez classic is a bit of a departure for director Mike Newell ('Harry Potter' and the 'Goblet of Fire,' 'Four Weddings and a Funeral').
Philip Pullman's fantasy epic 'The Golden Compass,' taken to the screen by 'About a Boy' director Chris Weitz, may allow stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig to shake off the stench of their summer bomb 'The Invasion.' (Another good sign for Kidman is 'Margot at the Wedding,' from 'The Squid and the Whale' director Noah Baumbach.)
Ben Affleck, too, is hoping to continue the non-embarrassing streak he began last year with Hollywoodland by making his directorial debut with 'Gone Baby Gone,' from the suspense novel by Dennis Lehane ('Mystic River').
Another actor who enjoys hanging out behind the camera, Sean Penn, goes on a dark Alaskan adventure with 'Into the Wild,' from Jon Krakauer's best-seller. And 'Beowulf,' from Robert Zemeckis ('Cast Away'), has an appropriately epic cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Ray Winstone and Robin Wright Penn.
Beyond all the sobriety at the multiplex, of course, there are comedies and kid-geared movies aplenty.
The Farrelly Brothers and Ben Stiller get back to their R-rated roots with an update of 'The Heartbreak Kid.' Jerry Seinfeld appeals to a new audience with the animated 'Bee Movie.' The ubiquitous Steve Carell tries out romantic comedy (co-starring with Juliette Binoche and Dane Cook, in one of the weirder combinations in history) in 'Dan in Real Life.'
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