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By Michael Calleri

Two Academy Award nominees and a soggy mess are this week's new choices at the movies.

"The Illusionist" is a wonderful fable, a beautifully animated tale about a down-on-his-luck traveling magician. It's one of this year's Academy Award nominees for best animated feature.

Legendary French director Jacques Tati wrote the screenplay in 1956, but it never became one of his enchanting films, nor was it ever made by anyone else.

The task of making "The Illusionist" fell to France's Sylvain Chomet, who delighted audiences with his "The Triplets Of Belleville" in 2003.

Chomet brings Tati's exquisite script to glorious life. This is a superb movie, alluringly paced and practically wordless, rich with comic gestures.

Chomet has expertly designed the story, set in the late 1950s, about an old illusionist who travels to cities with his three-legged table, his top hat and his rabbit. He's not completely washed up, but he's not exactly drawing crowds either. He senses he may be finished as a magician, but dreams die hard.

His journey takes him from Paris to Scotland, where he encounters a strange girl, not quite a waif, but maybe. She convinces him to go with her to Edinburgh. They find the quaint city to their liking, and take shelter with circus folk.

At the heart of the picture is the delicate friendship between the illusionist and the girl. At times she seems markedly young and innocent, at other times strangely wise and mature. Their relationship is chaste.

The movie is infused with a sense of longing, of melancholy. Some of that melancholy is caused by a wild new form of musical entertainment, rock and roll, which threatens the deep-rooted traditions of the classic vaudeville music hall. The illusionist can make a rabbit disappear, but the passage of time can make him disappear as well.

"The Illusionist" is French, but the spoken dialogue is minimal. There are no French or Gaelic subtitles (for Scotland). There's something delightfully liberating about watching a foreign movie that advances primarily with images.

Chomet is an animation master. He delivers 80 minutes of sheer pleasure, telling his story about the bloom of youth and the encroachment of old age with sublime precision.

British director Mike Leigh has received an Academy Award nomination for the original screenplay of his "Another Year," one more slice-of-life story from a master of the genre. Leigh has been nominated five times for original screenplay and twice for directing.

"Another Year" is as simple and quirky as anything we've come to expect from Leigh. It's about a happily married husband and wife, North Londoners, who have an equally happy son.

They are all successful. Dad is a geologist. Mom's a behavioral counselor. Their son is a lawyer.

They gladly face the task of finding a suitable lady for their son, who wants to get married and be just as contented as his parents. They all relish life.

The good news here is that these three are not cloying at all. They are accomplished people, and we are pleased to get to know them.

The husband and wife are Tom and Gerri. Of course, they're absolutely aware of the comedy in that. Tom and Gerri are slowly coming to terms with the fact that soon they will be facing retirement.

Perhaps needless to write, there is a rub. There has to be a rub. Almost everyone around Tom and Gerri -- their friends, coworkers and relatives -- are miserably unhappy. Sad. Blue. Wishing for better. The dynamics are terrific.

Leigh has a magnificent ear for the pleasures of the English language. His characters speak the way real people speak. There's no wasted dialogue and some of it is very funny.

Not much you would consider action happens in "Another Year." This is a movie about the way people relate to each other and interact.

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are perfect as the most complete married duo you may ever know. Lesley Manville as Gerri's coworker, a chronic complainer of the highest order, is remarkable.

"Another Year" is something special. Fans of Leigh's work should delight in it. Newcomers should give it a chance.

James Cameron is one of nine people getting a producer credit for "Sanctum," a movie to avoid unless you enjoy feeling like your pocket's been picked.

Reportedly, Cameron lent director Alister Grierson special underwater 3-D cameras, but it seems as if Grierson didn't use them. The 3-D effects are worthless.

"Sanctum" is about a team of underwater divers on an expedition to the largest cave system on Earth, the Esa-ala Caves of Papua, New Guinea. A tropical storm blocks the divers' exit and forces them deep into the waterlogged caverns, where a river flows. They become mired in a mediocre struggle to find another way out.

One by one, they will die, either from the bends or panic or a ludicrous refusal to put on the right equipment. Some will argue, like the stern-taskmaster father and his pretty-boy teenage son. One will deceive the others.

Through it all, the dialogue by John Garvin and Andrew Wight is unintentionally hilarious, and the acting is atrocious, including a performance from Alice Parkinson as Victoria that is one of the worst I've ever seen.

There are no thrills, no frights and no creatures. There's bat guano, but no bats. Just stalagmites and stalactites and water, water everywhere.

Being divers, why didn't they just reverse swim to the entrance of the rapidly flooding cave? We may have a new standard for dumbest movie ever made.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 8, 2011