Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Vanessa Redgrave | R |

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

DRAMA

This is likely the one to beat for Best Picture at Academy Awards time. Atonement has all the elements that make Oscar voters swoon: a sweeping love story, a period setting, gorgeous and rich Britishers swanning about on a grand country estate, war scenes and a high-falutin literary pedigree. None of which would matter if this romantic drama wasn't stunningly good which, happily, it is. Like the ravishing, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Ian McEwan novel upon which it is based, Atonement dazzles.

On a hot summer's day in 1935, 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) looks out her window to see her older sister, Cecilia (Knightley), angrily strip to her scanties and jump into a fountain in front of Robbie Turner (McAvoy), son of the family housekeeper. But seeing is not understanding; viewing this scene and several more to come, Briony fails to grasp that Cecilia and Robbie, who's soon off to medical school, are falling in love. Her misinterpretation of events will lead to tragic consequences that will haunt all three for the rest of their lives.

Atonement works on multiple levels. It's a love story, filled with heartbreak, but it's also a probing examination of how a tale is told and just who controls its final outcome. Director Joe Wright proves as elegantly adept here at bringing a book's pages to life as he did with 2005's Pride & Prejudice. Knightley and McAvoy couldn't be better, or better matched. If McAvoy isn't the next Jeremy Irons (forget Jude Law, already), then the sun has indeed set on the British Empire.

Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green PG-13 |

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FANTASY

Here's this holiday season's bid to nab the Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter crowds. But Compass, the first of three promised films based on English novelist Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, fails to draw viewers into its complex fantasy world as fully as its predecessors. Its heroine (Richards), a 12-year-old girl, must escape the clutches of the all-powerful Magisterium, which seeks world domination, and the Magisterium's emissary (Kidman), a lacquered gorgon. Compass' look is richly imagined, and there's a rip-roaring battle between two computer-generated polar bears partway through, but the story is confusing at the beginning, few characters fully establish themselves, and the ending, setting up a sequel, is a cheat. Craig fans will be disappointed at how briefly the 007 star shows up (and how fully clothed he remains). Note: Compass is too scary, and complicated, for kids under 10.

Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman PG-13 |

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COMEDY

All's well that starts off badly. At the beginning of this refreshingly irreverent comedy, Juno (Page), 16, finds out she's preggers after having sex one time with a shy high school classmate (Cera, of Superbad). Bad for her. For viewers, the movie grates at first because everyone in it speaks in an annoying, exaggeratedly smart alec fashion. Quickly, though, you get in step with the film's distinctive, rat-a-tat-tat rhythms and grow ever fonder of the winsome Juno and the way she and her family deal with her predicament. Page, an elfin bundle of comic energy, gives a performance that's fresh, wise and full of heart. There are also admirable turns by Garner and, especially, Bateman as a yuppie couple eager to adopt Juno's baby.

John Cusack, Alessandro Nivola | PG-13 |

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DRAMA

Too numb to grieve upon hearing that his soldier wife, Grace, has died in Iraq, Stanley Phillips (Cusack) piles his two daughters into the family car for an impromptu road trip. During the journey, he struggles to accept Grace's death and grows closer to his kids, grappling with how to tell them that Mom isn't ever coming home. Grace is a film of quiet, carefully crafted scenes that build upon each other to pack an emotional wallop. Cusack, looking puffy and walking with a pigeon-toed gait, gives a revelatory performance as a man who slowly begins to see that life can and will go on.

• The proud Chicagoan, 41, gets Oscar buzz as a dad who loses his wife in Iraq in Grace Is Gone.

THIS IS A REAL TEARJERKER. WHAT WAS THE DRAW? It came from a place of outrage when the war started and Bush banned photos of soldiers' coffins coming home. I wanted to cut through politics and get to universal truths about suffering.

HOW DID YOU PULL OFF LOOKING SO ... AVERAGE? It's a little bit of trickery and 10 extra pounds. If you wear tight pants, you look bigger.

STILL IN TOUCH WITH THE GIRLS WHO PLAY YOUR KIDS? I call when I'm in Chicago. I told [Shélan O'Keefe, 13] I'd meet her for tea, and I haven't yet. I've been properly chastised.

The British newcomer, 13, beat out 10,000 girls to play Lyra Belacqua in The Golden Compass, alongside Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

YOU REALLY TOOK A SHOT AT JAMES BOND? We had a snowball fight on-set. I hit Daniel and he came over, without saying anything, picked me up and dumped me in a massive pile of snow.

YOU'RE TOUGH! DID YOU HAVE FUN WITH NICOLE TOO? I asked her if she could do the nose thing that she does in Bewitched. She said she'd have to practice before she could show me.

The Snatch director (and Madonna's husband), 39, revisits the heist genre for his new film, Revolver. Ray Liotta stars as a gangster named Dorothy.

HOW DID YOU GET RAY LIOTTA TO WEAR SPEEDOS? We gradually tricked him out of his clothes. He lost like 20 lbs. of lard when he realized he was going to spend the majority of the film in his underpants.

YOU ALWAYS GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS FUNNY NICKNAMES. DO YOU HAVE ANY AT HOME? No, but [Madonna] was very unhappy about being called Madge when that first started. Then someone told her it was an abbreviation of Your Majesty. Ever since, she's settled in quite nicely, that Madge.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING A DIRECTOR AND A DAD? Running a movie set is infinitely easier than running a household with three kids.