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Opening in 2006...

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Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2006 1:55 pm | Updated: 2:47 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Big budgets do not necessarily make for good back stories, a principle you'll find at work in the movie industry every day. So instead of ranking the 2006 movie releases in terms of box-office potential, why not preview them in terms of buzz, controversy and good, old-fashioned tabloid allure? Can we do less?

THE DA VINCI CODE

In a nutshell: Implicated in the murder of a colleague, Harvard symbology expert Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) goes on the lam to clear his name and unravel a centuries-old Christian mystery.

Why it ranks: Besides the stellar supporting cast (Audrey

Tautou, Ian McKellen, Paul

Bettany), A-list director (Ron

Howard) and on- location murder scene at the Louvre, no reason, really. Unless you count that international-bestseller- disavowed-by-the-Vatican business. Juicy.

Release date: May 19

SUPERMAN RETURNS

In a nutshell: After a lengthy sojourn on planet Krypton, the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth to battle old nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and continue his fantastically ineffective courtship of Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth).

Why it ranks: Superman as home-wrecker? Offered the chance to run away with the Man of Steel, director Bryan Singer ended his long-standing “X-Men” love affair. What about the children?

Release date: June 30

CASINO ROYALE

In a nutshell: British blondie Daniel Craig (“Munich”) replaces Pierce Brosnan as the womanizing super-spy, here matching wits with a casino mogul (as of yet uncast) who uses his winnings to finance terrorism.

Why it ranks: Billed as a throwback to the elegant, tightly plotted Bonds of yore. Paul Haggis (“Crash”) scripts.

Release date: Nov. 17

FLIGHT 93

In a nutshell: Director Paul Greengrass directs this real-time account of the events aboard United Flight 93, the hijacked Sept. 11 commercial jet that crashed in rural Pennsylvania when passengers stormed the cockpit.

Why it ranks: How can it not? If Greengrass does for Sept. 11 what he did for Northern Ireland in “Bloody Sunday,” the film should be incisive, clear-eyed and harrowingly authentic.

Release date: April 28

GRINDHOUSE

In a nutshell: Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”) and Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) split directing duties up the middle in this two-headed horror/martial arts epic.

Why it ranks: With both filmmakers seemingly at the height of their creative powers, this could be the geek-chic event of the decade. Don't pretend you don't want it.

Release date: Sept. 22

X-MEN 3

In a nutshell: Divisions deepen between the X-Men and their Brotherhood nemeses when a cure is found to treat mutations. Meanwhile, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is paid a visit by an old friend (Famke Janssen). Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman and most of the original cast return.

Why it ranks: Kelsey Grammer as Beast? Sweet. But having “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner replace Singer feels like a major trade-down.

Release date: May 26

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3

In a nutshell: Tom Cruise returns as government operative Ethan Hunt, this time to rescue his love (Michelle Monaghan) from the clutches of a sadistic villain (Philip Seymour Hoffman). J.J. Abrams (“Alias”) directs.

Why it ranks: Anything that gets Cruise back on the talk-show circuit must be regarded with a mixture of loathing and glee. Hide your couches.

Release date: May 5

V FOR VENDETTA

In a nutshell: This Wachowski brothers-produced freedom-fighter saga will answer two questions: What would England look like as a 21st-century totalitarian fascist state, and what would Natalie Portman look like bald?

Why it ranks: Bumped from its original November 2005 release date because certain scenes bore an unsavory resemblance to the Tube bombings in London.

Release date: March 17

MARIE-ANTOINETTE

In a nutshell: A naive Viennese girl (Kirsten Dunst) becomes queen of France at age 19 and finds herself just a bit spoiled by her plush new surroundings. Could this wonderful dream ever end?

Why it ranks: Sofia Coppola's follow-up effort to “Lost in Translation” looks like her most ambitious, and riskiest, film to date.

Release date: Oct. 13

INSIDE MAN

In a nutshell: Denzel Washington plays a cop who tries to talk down a criminal mastermind (Clive Owen) when the latter's “perfect heist” spirals into a hostage situation. Or does it?

Why it ranks: It isn't every day that Spike Lee directs non-race-themed thrillers with general appeal. He makes them even less frequently with Jodie Foster, here playing a nettlesome attorney who disrupts Washington's investigation.

Release date: March 24

AMERICAN DREAMZ

In a nutshell: Wannabe music stars compete in a wildly popular reality TV show in this satire of celebrity saturation from “American Pie” director Paul Weitz. Mandy Moore plays a Kelly Clarksonesque competitor, and Dennis Quaid plays the U.S. president.

Why it ranks: Obviously a topic ripe for satire, but will celebrity-saturated audiences get it?

Release date: April 14

THE BREAK UP

In a nutshell: Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn play an estranged couple who vie for control of their condominium love nest after calling it quits. Peyton Reed (“Down With Love”) directs.

Why it ranks: Because we deeply, desperately want to see Vaniston work.

Release date: June 2

LADY IN THE WATER

In a nutshell: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Village”) directs the story of an apartment-building super (Paul Giamatti) who fishes a young damsel (Bryce Dallas Howard) out of a swimming pool, only to discover that she's an enchanted nymph from a bedtime story trying to find her way home.

Why it ranks: Sounds sweet and straightforward, but the Shymeister always manages to surprise us.

Release date: July 21

A SCANNER DARKLY

In a nutshell: Keanu Reeves plays a futuristic narcotics cop who, because of a personality-splitting side effect of a popular street drug, becomes his own worst enemy. From the Philip K. Dick novel.

Why it ranks: Director Richard Linklater shot the movie using the same nifty rotoscoping technology that made “A Waking Life” such a delicious trip.

Release date: March 31

THE PAINTED VEIL

In a nutshell: An adulteress (Naomi Watts) finds new meaning in her life and marriage when she joins her physician husband (Edward Norton) in fighting cholera in the Far East. From the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.

Why it ranks: Classy adult dramas during the holidays are all too rare. Watts, in a role originated by Greta Garbo, is an early, early Oscar frontrunner.

Release date: Nov. 17

UNTITLED WORLD TRADE CENTER PROJECT

In a nutshell: Oliver Stone weighs in on the Sept. 11 tragedy with this fact-inspired drama about two Port Authority officers, including one played by Nicolas Cage, trapped beneath the World Trade Center rubble.

Why it ranks: This doesn't sound like the contrarian, conspiracy-loving Stone we know. More to the point: After “Alexander,” why is he still getting work?

Release date: Aug. 11

THE CHILDREN OF MEN

In a nutshell: In a doomsday future where mankind can no longer procreate, an aging hippie (Michael Caine) transports a miraculously pregnant woman (Julianne Moore) to a safe haven at sea. Clive Owen also stars for director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”).

Why it ranks: Virgin births, runaway pollution and Caine in a ponytail? Sounds like fun.

Release date: Sept. 29

SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS

In a nutshell: Rejected by the girl he loves, a perennial loser (Jon Heder from “Napoleon Dynamite”) enrolls in a confidence-building class. Problem is, his instructor (Billy Bob Thornton) has designs on the same girl.

Why it ranks: Director Todd Phillips (“Old School”) has yet to make an unfunny movie, and it remains to be seen whether this R-rated comedy trend (“Wedding Crashers,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) can last longer than a beer buzz.

Release date: July 14

FIREWALL

In a nutshell: When his family is kidnapped, a security specialist (Harrison Ford) is obliged to crack one of his own labyrinthine bank systems to pay their ransom. Virginia Madsen and Paul Bettany co-star.

Why it ranks: Harrison Ford is still alive?

Release date: Feb. 10

MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION

In a nutshell: Pistol-packing, plus-sized Madea (writer-director Tyler Perry) plans a family reunion while managing a delirious spectrum of crises and troubled relatives.

Why it ranks: After Perry made “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” the surprise hit of 2005, it will be interesting to see if audiences continue to respond to his odd fusion of melodrama and cross-dressing slapstick.

Release date: Feb. 24

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