Technically I'm retired, but that needn't stop me from assigning grades and making glib remarks, need it...?

Tumbleweeds (Gavin O'Connor): B+

Familiar but thoroughly engaging, thanks mostly to a fine performance by Kimberly J. Brown as Natalie Portman and a stunning turn by Janet McTeer as Susan Sarandon. The latter -- McTeer, that is, not Sarandon -- is now running neck and neck with Cecilia Roth for my personal 1999 Best Actress honors. (Note to Alex Fung, by way of addendum to his 'foreign correspondent' query of two years past: I carefully memorized McTeer's name over a decade ago after enduring a truly dire cancer comedy -- no joke -- called Hawks, in which she played the endearingly gawky girlfriend of either Timothy Dalton or Anthony Edwards, I forget which; it was one of those "shame about the movie, but who was that?!?" experiences, and I now feel vindicated at exceedingly long last.)

Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee): B-

So skillfully made that I think I might have loved it had I been able to discern even vaguely what the hell it's supposed to be about. Fine acting (sorry, Jewel doesn't embarrass herself), strong direction, intriguingly antiquated dialogue, a milieu impeccably captured -- but it doesn' go...much of...anywhere...much. And why Jonathan Rhys Meyers is still playing Brian Slade in a Civil War epic must remain one of life's enduring mysteries.

Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter): A

Call it blasphemy if you like, but I'm sorely tempted to declare this endlessly inventive sequel superior to its marvelous predecessor; it may not be quite as fresh and startling, given the similar rescue-mission plot and our increasing familiarity with the possibilities of digital animation, but it's every bit as hilarious and even more improbably moving. I'd been hoping -- quixotically, so I thought -- for inspired, rollicking mayhem comparable to that in the original, and Lasseter & Co. come through in spades*; of the numerous classic sequences, my favorite is the one in which Buzz comes face to face with his former deluded self, cannily allowing us to relive one of the pleasures of the first Toy Story in a new and giddily satisfying context. What I hadn't anticipated for a moment, however, was that the movie would also require our pal Woody to tackle a moral dilemma every bit as wrenching as the one in, say, La Promesse. Supremely entertaining on the surface, staggeringly rich with implications beneath -- this, my friends, is what Art is supposed to be. (I could have lived without the Sarah MacLachlan song, though. Just a quibble.)

* (literally, in a dream sequence so creepy and disturbing that I'm surprised by the 'G' rating; my flesh crawls every time I recall the robotic way that Andy says "I don't want to play with you anymore")

The War Zone (Tim Roth): C+

It's almost like a controlled experiment: two great actors, both veterans of Mike Leigh's 1983 TV-movie Meantime, choose at roughly the same point in their respective careers to make grim dramas about highly dysfunctional families, in each of which Ray Winstone plays an abusive father and husband. The result: Gary Oldman reveals himself to have an intuitive understanding of the medium, making a potentially banal story come vibrantly (if also hideously) alive (see Nil by Mouth), while Tim Roth reveals himself to be, uh, really good with other actors. And is it shallow of me to confess that I'm becoming actively bored by the ol' insect-anagram as a dramatic subject? Maybe there are still a few new and powerful revelations to be mined from The Ultimate Taboo, but if so, this monotonous angst-fest fails to unearth any of them. Anybody seeking a lot of expertly wounded glares, on the other, that's too glib. Let me put it another way: if you believe that the mere presentation, stark and unflinching, of horrific events constitutes art, then you may well think The War Zone a masterpiece. What I saw was irritatingly shallow and self-satisfied -- miserabilism at its most oppressive.

Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton): B-

Tough call on the grade, because there's a lot to admire here, from the Hammeresque production design (which looks every bit as spectacular as the trailers suggest) to the thrillingly kinetic action sequences (I can't imagine that the Bond flick will be half so exciting) to Depp's hammy, hilariously pallid turn as Ichabod Crane ("It is not magic. It is what we call: optics!"). But oh, dear, the script. Granted, Irving's slight tale of the semi-uncanny isn't exactly inherently cinematic, and I don't begrudge the filmmakers their choice to construct an entirely new narrative, using whatever elements of the legend seemed pertinent -- but was this tepid whodunnit really the best that they could come up with? Also, I question the wisdom of the campy, mocking tone that permeates much of the expository material; the movie is often funny, true, but it's funny in a way that ultimately diminishes its other, more significant strengths. This is Burton back in Batman mode, trying and failing to tell a coherent story amid his usual iconic clutter; potentially interesting elements, such as Crane's passion for science and reason and his disturbingly Cronenbergian tools, are raised only to be swiftly abandoned, and what Christina Ricci is supposed to be doing in addition to looking odd I have absolutely no idea. A disappointment, then -- but also required viewing for Burton fans, Depp groupies, and just anybody who's willing to put up with a faintly dull 18th-century episode of "Murder, She Wrote" in exchange for truly eye-popping images.

The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf): C+

Not, thankfully, as maudlin as this year's other Iranian blind-boy flick, but still way too precious for my taste. As in Gabbeh, moments of exquisite lyricism duke it out with sequences of mind-numbing tedium; fortunately, Makhmalbaf tends to bring his pictures in under 80 minutes, so antsiness isn't a major problem.

(Note: This is playing in New York in conjunction with Makhmalbaf's 1996 film A Moment of Innocence, which I reviewed in 1997 under the title The Bread and the Vase. It was my #4 film that year, and has only grown in my memory since (I'll finally be seeing it again this week); I hereby order everybody reading these words to see it if it comes within 50 miles of your home.)

Man on the Moon (Milos Forman): B

Begins absolutely brilliantly, with a confrontational b&w prologue that's very much in Kaufman's spirit. Man, was I excited! Everything after that, however, is disappointingly conventional; the movie basically amounts to Andy's Greatest Hits, and while Carrey (who decidedly does not deserve any awards; like Tom Hanks, he's clearly going to wind up being honored for the wrong performances) expertly recreates the prankster's various provocations, all attempts to give the picture something resembling a soul fall utterly flat. (Courtney Love is a non-presence as his supportive girlfriend, as befits a former grunge girl who now looks right at home on the cover of Mirabella.) I suppose this movie might potentially wow somebody who'd never heard of Kaufman, or who only knew him as that cute Latka guy; but given that much of what we see is a simulacrum, those in the know are likely to remain somewhat detached. That said, Kaufman was unquestionably a demented genius, and watching Man on the Moon is not unlike watching the Beatles tribute band Rain, or a really good Elvis impersonator. Like, oh, say, Andy Kaufman...

Last Night (Don McKellar): B-

Like his acting, McKellar's directorial debut is just a bit too studied in its quirkiness, though it does finally start to loosen up in the closing reels. And is it just me, or is The End of the World too grandiose a subject for a low-budget indie film? Miracle Mile, too, was ultimately little more than an intriguing curiosity, though it does make for a fine sleeper rental if you've never seen it. Come to think of it, Last Night might well have benefitted from some of that picture's urgency; McKellar's conceit, in which the human race has known of its fate for six months and has managed to accept it with good grace, is neither psychologically credible nor terribly dramatic. I tend to prefer wry understatement as a rule, but this scenario really demands something more visionary.

Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen): B

Is it damning with faint praise to call this puckish mock biopic "one of the best Woody Allen pictures of the decade"? Certainly, there's no lack of competition -- how many other directors have made ten feature films since 1990? (Spike Lee is the only other name that leaps to mind.) But since the Woodman has largely been coasting on his laurels for the past ten years, dashing off fuzzy high-concept trifles, his finest recent work -- I'd rank this one alongside Bullets over Broadway and Everyone Says I Love You -- still falls significantly short of the seemingly effortless mix of hilarity and pathos he achieved in Manhattan and The Purple Rose of Cairo and much of Hannah and Her Sisters. Still, one must be grateful for small favors these dark days, and Sean Penn is so sublimely ornery and clueless as allegedly legendary jazz guitarist Emmet Ray that he simply runs roughshod over most of the movie's flaws. (Nice job with the fingering, too, I'd wager, though I don't play myself.) The ending is Manhattan redux, to be sure, but damned if it doesn't work every time (see also Kicking and Screaming).

The Insider (Michael Mann): B-

Generally strong acting and a very compelling real-life scenario are undermined somewhat by a misguided sense of self-importance (Pacino might as well be in Everyman, playing Rectitude) and Mann's usual high-decibel slo-mo histrionics. The early scenes work best, with doughy, white-haired Russell Crowe cannily conveying Wigand's desire to spill his guts by insisting stridently that he will not under any conceivable circumstances do so, nosir, uh-uh, don't even ask, okay I am a bit flushed but what of it? More often, however, we're asked to open wide for the spoon like good little contemporary American 'plexgoers; I felt sorry for poor Colm Feore, playing a Southern attorney, who has to deliver a two-minute-long monologue detailing the emotional strain that Wigand is experiencing -- which we've seen scene after scene of already -- to Wigand himself, as if he were the film's director and were coaching Crowe on the scene about to be shot. I can't deny that the film is pretty entertaining, but it's also ridiculously overlong; by minute 135 or so -- right about when Mann cranked up what sounded like Gregorian chants to signify Inner Turmoil -- I was more than ready to call it a night.