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Movies that matter: The best of the fall bunch

Take a deep breath.

Smell that? No, not burning leaves or crisp fall mornings. I'm talking about the aroma of smart movies.

If the summer movie season is a cotton candy-stuffed roller coaster ride, and Christmas movies are about winning an Oscar, then autumn is an opportunity for reflection.

With the kids back in school and devoting Friday nights to football, Hollywood has packed its fall schedule with movies that are quieter, deeper and more meaningful than summer's confections.

Movies a grown-up might enjoy.

Cynics may argue that the fall season should be labeled "films we didn't know what else to do with."

So be it. Tinseltown's marketing dilemma is our windfall. The titles that baffle Hollywood often provide some of the year's meatiest movies. Several themes emerge from this season's lineup. Movies either directly or tangentially dealing with the ongoing occupation of Iraq and the war on terror are all over the place. Vigilantism, with common citizens taking the law into their own hands, is a recurring theme. Literary adaptations fare well at this time of year. Among them are "The Feast of Love" based on Charles Baxter's best-seller, "Love in the Time of Cholera" from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's epic novel and "Gone Baby Gone" from the pen of Dennis ("Mystic River") Lehane.

And followers of the auteur theory will find some big names offering movies between now and Thanksgiving: David Cronenberg, Robert Zemeckis, Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, for starters.

What should you be looking out for? Based on the plot synopses, trailers, creative teams and my own gut instinct, I've come up with Five Fall Films That Matter.

Check it out:

"No Country for Old Men" (Nov. 21): The Coen brothers direct a story by Cormac McCarthy.

If those words don't make your heart beat a bit faster, it's time to turn in your Moviewatcher card and prepare yourself for golden years filled with "Love Boat" reruns.

In this seething crime drama, a young Texan (Josh Brolin) traveling near the border comes across a heroin-and-cash-filled truck surrounded by dead men. Claiming this treasure for himself, he sets off a series of bloody events that pull in the old-school local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, who apparently spends most of the movie on horseback), a mysterious and seemingly superhuman hit man (Javier Bardem) and a whole slew of unfortunates who get in their way.

The Coens have a long and successful history with noirish subjects ("Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and, of course, "Fargo"), and their supporting cast (Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper) is solid.

Variety calls "No Country..." (a Golden Palm finalist at Cannes this year) "a scorching blast of tense genre filmmaking shot through with rich veins of melancholy, down-home philosophy and dark, dark humor."

That's good enough for me.

"I'm Not There" (Nov. 21, limited): Fans of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan have long noted his chameleonic nature, his ability to reinvent himself and his enigmatic personality.

Given the difficulty of pinning down just who this "Mr. Tambourine Man" really is, why shouldn't he be portrayed by several actors _ including an African-American and a woman?

Hard-to-categorize indie avatar Todd Haynes ("The Velvet Goldmine," "Far From Heaven," "Safe") gives us the Bob Dylan story in a series of vignettes populated by a shifting cast that includes Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett (as the curly-haired Bob of "Blonde on Blonde"), Heath Ledger (the Bob of "John Wesley Harding"), Christian Bale (the Bob of the "Freewheelin' " folkie era), Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross and Bruce Greenwood.

It's a powerhouse cast (the early buzz is that Blanchett is sure to get an Oscar nom) and, of course, there's Dylan's music, too.

"I'm Not There" could be one of those rare films that expands the language of the cinema.

"Into the Wild" (Oct. 5): Yeah, Sean Penn the political activist gets on my nerves, too.

But Sean Penn the actor delivers one brilliant performance after another.

And Sean Penn the director is one of the most uncompromising filmmakers around, a man who tackles stories so scary and upsetting ("The Crossing Guard," "The Indian Runner," "The Pledge") that other directors would be afraid to touch them, and most studios would be crazy to finance them.

So he may be exactly the right man to bring Jon Krakauer's best-selling nonfiction book to the screen. It's the story of Christopher McCandless, a former student athlete who gave his possessions and money to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska, intent on living - and perhaps dying - in the wilderness.

It was a haunting read, and Penn's film might be the book's match. As Christopher, young Emile Hirsch is already getting raves, and the supporting cast - Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook - has plenty of depth. .

"Things We Lost in the Fire" (Oct. 26): After a string of awful movies, this is Halle Berry's chance to prove she really deserves the Oscar she won for 2001's "Monster's Ball."

In this tight, intimate drama she plays a traumatized widow and mother. Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro is a friend of her late husband whose life has been on a downward spiral. She invites him to live with her family; they can provide each other moral support as they work through difficult times.

This setup has the makings for a big, squishy bowl of bathos. But I don't think it'll turn out that way. The film's trailer suggests a tough, humanistic drama about loss and redemption with lots of mano a mano acting.

And director Susanne Bier's track record is encouraging. In recent years local audiences have seen her Danish-language films "Brothers" and "After the Wedding," both uncompromising dramas that find profound meaning where lesser filmmakers would give us sentimentality.

"No End in Sight" (Sept. 14): Now that Hollywood has lost all ability to reflect real life, documentaries matter more than ever.

"No End in Sight" matters more than most.

Charles Ferguson, a former Brookings Institution scholar with a doctorate in political science, has made a film that examines our occupation of Iraq and reveals a Washington environment in which the opinions of military, diplomatic and technical professionals were trumped by ideology. Those who dared question the White House were overlooked or edged out.

None of this is news to someone who's been keeping up on public events, but the power of Ferguson's film (his first) lies in its narrow focus. He doesn't get into the reasons for the Iraq war but rather the manner in which we ran the occupation. Moreover, the film isn't a leftist rant or a Michael Moore-ish satire. Evidently it has no discernable political ax to grind.

The results, according to those who've seen the movie, are damning.

"If failure is an orphan," writes A.O. Scott of The New York Times, "then `No End in Sight' can be thought of as a brief in a paternity suit, offering an emphatic, well-supported answer to a question that has already begun to be mooted on television talk shows and in journals of opinion: Who lost Iraq?"

The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter calls "No End" "a furious if quietly stated indictment" that builds "a compelling case of bad judgment, error, stubbornness and arrogance."