Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy

BY LEAH ROZEN

CRITIC'S CHOICE

DRAMA

Actors always claim it's more fun playing a bad character than a good one. And Judi Dench clearly has a blast—and gives a brilliantly nuanced performance—portraying a truly evil woman in this deliciously sour film. As Barbara Covett, a spinster teacher at a London school, she craftily insinuates herself into the life of Sheba Hart (Blanchett), a vulnerable new teacher with whom she becomes obsessed. When Barbara discovers Sheba—who's married and has kids—is having sex with a 15-year-old male student, her jealous fury only increases her cunning.

Notes walks a fine line between high camp (latent lesbian goes nutso!) and superbly observed character study. Director Richard Eyre (Iris, also starring Dench) deftly ratchets up the suspense while keeping his characters believably human. Blanchett and Nighy, as Sheba's kindly hubby, each give exquisitely textured performances. But in the end, Notes belongs to Dench. Seething and scheming beneath a matronly tweed jacket, she's simultaneously diabolically scary and hugely pathetic. (R)

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Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, Robin Wright Penn

DRAMA

There's no faulting this movie's performances or its serious intentions—but they add up to zip. That's because it's all too apparent that writer-director Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain) is manipulating his characters so much here that they are more puppets than people. Law plays a trendy urban designer in London who, though married to moody Penn, begins an affair with a widowed Balkan refugee (Binoche). Everyone moons about endlessly, trying to figure out what will make them happy, except for a gabby hooker (Vera Farmiga, amusing in a cheerful cameo) who knows that sometimes a steaming cup of java on a cold night is enough. (R)

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The busy Aussie star was also top-notch in '06's The Good German and Babel. Crave even more Cate? See her Oscar-winning turn in '04's The Aviator—or check out these films.

Little Fish (2005) In a little-seen drama from Down Under, Blanchett was haunting as an ex-junkie. (R)

Veronica Guerin (2003) She offered an impassioned portrayal in a bio of a crusading Irish journalist. (R)

Pushing Tin (1999) In a so-so comedy about air-traffic controllers, Blanchett was hilarious as a brassy Long Island housewife. (R)

Elizabeth (1998) Blanchett's Virgin Queen made history live. (R)

Director-producer Wan, 29, is the twisted genius behind horror hit Saw and its mutant offspring. (Saw III, which he executive produced, is out on DVD Jan. 23.) So what films make the Malaysian-born Aussie shiver?

JAWS "Made me fear the ocean for life."

POLTERGEIST "Saw it at age 7. Been fascinated by creepy dolls ever since."

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) "It haunted me, not with its slasher-style killings but with its malign, unnerving atmosphere."

PROFONDO ROSSO (DEEP RED) "A murder mystery with a bizarre edge that only Dario Argento, one of my favorite horror directors, could conceive."

LOST HIGHWAY "I love [director] David Lynch's ability to take everyday situations and give them such a frightening alien quality."

FROM POWER RANGERS TO DREAMGIRLS

Seven years ago, he was the green Power Ranger on kids' TV. Now, as Effie's songwriting brother C.C. in Dreamgirls, Robinson, 33, says, "I'm showing the world what I'm capable of."

HOW WAS WORKING IN TV? Power Rangers was my first gig. I look at it as an internship because it got my technique up. [The 1960s-set NBC series] American Dreams was art that mattered. I felt like my grandfather in that era.

DO YOU GET TEASED ABOUT POWER RANGERS? All the time! Jennifer [Hudson] poked fun at me.

WHAT WAS DREAMGIRLS'SET LIKE? Really fun and comfortable. Jamie [Foxx] and I were always cracking jokes and making up songs. On my birthday we tried our hardest to get Beyoncé to sing a goofy song we made up, but she couldn't handle it!

WHAT'S NEXT? A prequel to Lonesome Dove. I am [Dreamgirls co-star] Danny Glover's character. The night before I read, Danny put in a good word for me. Maybe that helped a little bit.

Hoping to win your Oscar pool next month? Then you'd better see the movies likely to be up for Best Picture and acting honors when nominations are announced Jan. 23. Although all these films opened in New York City and L.A. in late 2006, many are only going into wide release now. Here's a quick refresher on the contenders:

THE QUEEN Helen Mirren (above) is a shoo-in for a Best Actress nod for her magisterial turn as Queen Elizabeth II in the days right after Princess Diana's death. A Best Picture nomination is also likely. (PG-13)

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DREAMGIRLS This musical is disappointingly uneven, but Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson are dynamite. They'll be nominated and a Best Picture nod is possible. (PG-13)

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THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND Sure-bet nominee Forest Whitaker (above) offers a bravura turn—he's a charming joker one minute and a raging paranoid the next—as Ugandan despot Idi Amin in a vivid thriller. (R)

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VENUS Likely to be competing against Whitaker will be Peter O'Toole for his moving and wonderfully sly portrayal of an aged actor lusting after a cranky young woman. (R)

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BABEL It's looking promising that this ensemble drama, which cross-cuts among stories around the globe, will land a Best Picture nomination. And it's possible that Brad Pitt (above, with Cate Blanchett) and a costar or two could wind up with supporting acting nods as well. (R)

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LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA Best Director candidate Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers) returns to Iwo Jima, this time viewing the WWII battle through the eyes of Japanese soldiers (including Kazunari Ninomiya, above). (R)

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THE DEPARTED Martin Scorsese could finally win an Oscar (after five earlier directing nominations) for a rip-roaring crime flick. And Leonardo DiCaprio may land a Best Actor nod. (R)

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CHILDREN OF MEN Smoldering Clive Owen (below, with Julianne Moore) has a shot at a Best Actor slot for this superb futuristic thriller. (R)

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