Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Blythe Danner, Barbra Streisand, Teri Polo
COMEDY

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It's hard to believe that Hoffman and Streisand, each of whom has been making movies for more than 35 years, have never paired up onscreen before. Any yenta (or casting director) worth her matchmaking skills should have seen these two were made for each other, as they prove with glorious gusto in Meet the Fockers, a sequel to 2000's Meet the Parents.

The premise this time is that male nurse Gaylord Focker (Stiller) is introducing his freethinking folks (Hoffman and Streisand) to the more conformist, uptight Byrneses (De Niro and Danner), the parents of his fiancée (Polo). The whole crew rendezvous chez Focker near Miami, where old jokes from the first movie (such as ex-CIA agent De Niro's lie-detector grilling of his prospective son-in-law) are reprised and new ones (Papa and Mama Focker can't keep their hands off each other) are introduced.

This isn't highbrow stuff by any stretch, but much of Fockers is funny (although parents considering bringing children should be aware that the humor tilts strongly toward the smutty). Returning director Jay Roach keeps things moving at a speedy clip and is blessed with a willing cast. De Niro sticks to crinkling his eyes in suspicion while the ever-graceful Danner tries to reassure him. But newcomers Hoffman and Streisand are the ones who merrily make off with the movie. Hoffman, prancing about like an adorable elf, and Streisand, dropping Yiddishisms and making like a randy earth mother, give Fockers its biggest laughs and even a dusting of familial warmth. (PG-13)

Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Jude Law, Timothy Spall
FAMILY
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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"No one ever listens to kids," sneers villainous Count Olaf (Carrey) in this engaging movie based on the popular series of macabre children's books by Daniel Handler. The count's words begin to seem all too true as a trio of plucky orphaned children try in vain to convince adults that Olaf is plotting to get rid of them.

Carrey, nearly unrecognizable in multiple ingenious disguises, is excellent. He obviously relished, in the same way he did when he played the Grinch, the chance to ditch his bland good looks in favor of an exterior matching his inner goof. Streep, as an aunt prone to paranoia, is a fretful delight. Lemony, directed with a sure hand by Brad Silberling, is too scary for kids under 8, but any-one older (including adults) will enjoy this one thoroughly. (PG)

Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler, Patrick Wilson, Minnie Driver
MUSICAL

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It is not a good sign when you're rooting for the monster. The wan hero (Wilson) and heroine (Rossum) of this lush, lengthy (2 hours and 23 minutes), ho-hum version of Lloyd Webber's long-running stage musical are such bloodless ninnies that a viewer keeps hoping the masked villain (Butler) who haunts a 19th-century Parisian opera house will prevail in his attempts to capture the love of a young singer.

Fans of the stage version who adore Lloyd Webber's syrupy tunes and Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe's banal lyrics may be won over by the full-tilt romanticism and luxe trappings that director Joel Schumacher (Veronica Guerin) brings to Opera. But he never makes it sing. (PG-13)

Dennis Quaid, Miranda Otto, Giovanni Ribisi, Tyrese Gibson
ACTION

In this workmanlike adventure film, a cargo plane ferrying a group of oil workers from a remote site in Mongolia crashes in the Gobi desert. The survivors, led by the stalwart pilot (Quaid) and a mysterious tag-along passenger (Ribisi) claiming to be an aeronautical designer, hope to fashion a new plane out of the scraps of the old one.

Directed by John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines), Flight of the Phoenix is a competent update of a 1965 James Stewart picture. The survivors are now a multicultural mix, and the oil crew boss is a woman (Otto). The film faithfully follows the survivor-tale formula efficiently and with flashes of humor. A buff Quaid eases comfortably into the action hero mold and doffs his shirt—revealing abs most fab—with welcome frequency. (PG-13)

Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum
COMEDY

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This movie never quite jells. Bits and pieces work, and it's always a pleasure to watch Murray have his wondrously dry way with a scene, but for a film in which much of the action takes place aboard ship, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou fails to work up enough of a wind to fill its sails.

The title figure is a famed 52-year-old oceanographer and documentarian going through a rough patch. "I know I haven't been at my best this past decade," Zissou (Murray) says, an understatement given his rocky marriage and tanking box office. He is a burnt-out case and he knows it, but that doesn't stop him from trying to impress a worshipful young man who may be his son (Wilson) and a pregnant journalist (Blanchett, in another crisply amusing performance), both of whom tag along on Zissou's latest expedition.

Director-cowriter Wes Anderson, who managed to stay on the right side of preciousness with his idiosyncratic earlier films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, crosses the line this time. Aquatic seems willfully eccentric without ever letting the rest of us in on the joke. (R)

Down for the Count: The list of 10 Favorite Films of 2004 in PEOPLE's Dec. 27 issue included only 9 movies. Million Dollar Baby was inadvertently omitted. For the full list, go to www.people.com/magazine.

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen.