Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (Buena Vista) wasn't nearly the smash hit of his two previous directorial efforts, Braveheart and The Passion Of The Christ; maybe that's because it lacks those films' strong messages or Gibson's polarizing anti-Semitic ravings, though its release amid an unusually crowded field of Oscar contenders is more likely to blame. Either way, the lack of broad-scale acclaim shouldn't be taken as a referendum on the contents of the film, which is a vividly realized, surprisingly personal jungle adventure, set among Mayans in pre-Conquistador days…

Letters From Iwo Jima (Warner Bros.) shows a U.S. invasion and victory from the Japanese military perspective, as they dig tunnels, lay in supplies, and prepare to fight off the Americans with almost no resources save their own increasingly shaky discipline. Director Clint Eastwood and co-screenwriters Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita make the historical bad guys into sympathetic characters by dividing them into blinkered, remorseless traditionalists and homesick grunts. To some extent, the movie cheaply manipulates audience sentiment, yet it's frequently effective, showing how people in wartime make impossible choices with dreadful repercussions…

Though Steven Soderbergh has proven capable of delivering crackling entertainment to a mass audience, his frequent experiments in form—from the radical Schizopolis to the DV toss-off Full Frontal to the willfully peculiar small-town procedural Bubble—reveal his cool, academic nature. Much like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, Soderbergh's The Good German (Warner Bros.) seeks not merely to pay tribute to Hollywood's past, but to recreate it as meticulously as possible. His facsimile of post-war house directors like Michael Curtiz misses a certain amount of soul in the process, but it's still infused with sophistication and surprising depth…

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Fans of Notes On A Scandal should note that it makes a fine double feature with Venus (Miramax). Both films (released within a week of each other last year) feature beloved, aging film icons (in Venus' case, Peter O'Toole) entering queasily co-dependent, untoward relationships with younger lust objects, and both films are deeply disturbing, notable mostly for stellar acting and for the way they crank up the quiet tension while raising hackles…

Don't be fooled by the title: The Italian (Sony) comes from Russia and offers a surprisingly harsh look at the state of the nation in the guise of a story about an orphan in search of his mother. Even when director Andrei Kravchuk lets the formula kick in, he and his rundown locations nicely undercut any sentiment.