The movie is called "The Illusionist" and it's terrific. It's not important that we know instinctively that Eisenheim is, in fact, the young chap who had been smitten by the lovely Sophie, oh those many years ago. What is important is that we're watching a movie of accomplished detail. We may be a jaded society, and magic might not impress many now, but in the so-called "good old days," the art of magic stunned appreciative theatergoers.

After Eisenheim and Sophie realize their innocent past has caught up with them, the once-youthful crush becomes a full-blown romance. Sex can be magical, too.

It doesn't help that Leopold is already upset that Eisenheim is attracting so much attention. The guy wants to be the center of attention, and no upstart magician is going to detract from his court. So Leopold sends Chief Inspector Uhl to investigate the "tricks" that Eisenheim is performing. Eventually, as he senses all is not well between him and Sophie, Leopold will demand Eisenheim's total destruction. Uhl, for all his bureaucratic bowing and scrapping, is fascinated by the illusionist. He likes the guy and his surprising feats. Which way will Uhl's wind blow?

"The Illusionist" is a movie that is beautiful to look at. Dick Pope's cinematography is lush in its darkness. And Philip Glass' music is delicate and never intrudes upon the goings-on. Director Neil Burger has written a screenplay (from Steven Millhauser's short story) that is as tight as a drum. Burger understands that he's got a solid story and the only tricks he needs are the ones performed by Eisenheim. The illusions are nifty. Advice on the magic seen in the film comes from the legendary Ricky Jay.

The movie is graced with a great cast. Edward Norton is excellent as Eisenheim and brings a subtle perfection to the part. You can really feel the character's devotion to his craft, his love for Sophie and his anger when he realizes he must triumph over Leopold's villainy. As Uhl, Paul Giamatti hits perfect notes of awe and obsequious behavior. Jessica Biel looks and believably acts like a woman who could break men's hearts. And Rufus Sewell makes Leopold dangerous without being over-the-top.

"The Illusionist" is one of the best movies I've seen this year. You sit in the theater and watch the master work his magic and are thrilled by it, just as the people of Vienna are. The romantic triangle is never melodramatic. As Eisenheim's magic becomes more and more astonishing, his illusions soon border on risk-taking. He and Sophie are also taking a risk, flaunting public morals and inflaming the crown prince. Inspector Uhl risks his career and civil service status. And Leopold risks being made a fool of. The dramatic pot doesn't so much overflow as offer a depth of riches. "The Illusionist" is for real.

* * * * * *

Do we really know our neighbors?

Oh sure, we'd like to think we do, but behind the walls of every house lies a world of secrets. Like the secrets of the Hoover family.

On a dusty street in quiet Albuquerque, N.M., live Richard and Sheryl and their brood. What we will learn about them isn't sinister or demeaning or frightening. This isn't a horror movie, although frankly, some folks might find some domestic terror in the goings-on. No, what we learn -- and delight in -- for a very swift 102 minutes is that every family is its own fountain of quirkiness. The film is "Little Miss Sunshine" and it takes a look at the fantasy-driven desperation of one family, which could actually be the fantasy-driven desperation of so many families. This is America, after all, the land of dreams and hopes and iconoclasts. Oh, and losers. Happy, gleeful, secure-in-their-own-skin losers.

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are a husband-and-wife team who make music videos and television commercials. They've taken a jaundiced look at the win-win culture of the country and turned the typical movie family on its head. The two have codirected, from Michael Arndt's sharp, tight screenplay, an antic adventure that is the best road-trip comedy I've seen in years. The film takes a merry and messy band of rebellious outsiders and, with a gentle push, shoves their dreams into the open. Ordinary people? Maybe, but the result is extraordinary.

"Little Miss Sunshine" dwells in the fabled world of kookiness. The result is terrific. Think "Garden City" or "Napoleon Dynamite" for recent similar thematic successes. This small but strong movie charges right out of the starting gate with an opening sequence that superbly introduces the characters. Much of the enjoyment of the film relies on really knowing the quirks and tics of this zany clan.

Richard (Greg Kinnear) is the dad. He's not the most successful of fathers, career-wise, and he has now turned his attention to his self-created motivational program called "Refuse to Lose." If he can only get some publisher to latch onto his theory, well, the sky's the limit. It's a pipe dream worthy of Eugene O'Neill.

His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), isn't thrilled by her husband's fantasy. But for the moment, she holds down the fort because somebody's got to put the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the table. Cook? Not a chance.

Their teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is currently reading the works of Nietzsche; therefore, he's taken a vow of silence until he's old enough to get into the Air Force to become a fighter pilot. He communicates with notes that mostly read, "I hate everyone."

Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a horny old man with a heroin habit. He's also vulgar and profane and stinky. Enter Sheryl's suicidal brother, Frank (Steve Carell), the world's most famous Proust scholar. Frank is depressed because his male lover has left him for the world's second most famous Proust scholar.

Last, but definitely not least, is Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby cherub of a 7-year-old with hopes of becoming a beauty pageant winner. But not just any pageant. She wants to win the Little Miss Sunshine crown. Olive is the most self-assured member of this family of love and dysfunction. She's always been told to never give up on a dream and has been rehearsing her talent routine with Grandpa. It's only natural, then, that everyone jams into the family's battered VW bus to head from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, Calif., so that Olive can win the annual contest.

There are so many layers of interest in the movie that a second viewing might be necessary for some. Richard and Sheryl have no idea that Olive has a talent routine, that being grandpa's territory. Will Dwayne only speak once he's accepted into the Air Force? Will Grandpa's heroin habit kill the dream? Can Frank overcome his lovelorn nature? And doesn't anybody see humiliation heading Olive's way? Of course, the positive-thinking Olive doesn't. The kid's got the determination of a charging elephant. And buckets of wisdom. Family bonding has never been this wild.

As the Hoovers motor along the interstate, there are the expected setbacks and roadside disasters. But I doubt you'll be able to predict what happens along the way. And that's part of the fun of "Little Miss Sunshine" -- its unpredictability. Just when we think we know this family, the rug get pulled out from under them and us -- a very big rug.

The entire cast is letter-perfect. There's not a false acting note in the movie. But even in this strong cast, there's a king of kings. Arkin is hilarious as a man with no understanding or appreciation of polite niceties. Arndt's screenplay is punctuated with moments of love and support, but it might be the melancholy moments that may overwhelm some audience members.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is a movie about malfunctions, regardless of whether the malfunctioning is mental, vehicular or spiritual. The mission to make a winner out of Olive may seem foolhardy, but the Hoovers are a family that ultimately communicates with love, emotion and pride. This is absolutely the best comedy of the summer.

* * * * * *

Director Oliver Stone has always had that man-behind-the-curtain quality, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Say what you will about his movies, and many people don't like them or the perceived politics in them, Stone delivers cinematic exercises that make you think.

Nobody's track record is perfect in so-called Hollywood, and neither is Stone's. But his films are beautifully made, well acted, with solid cinematography and tight editing. I am a fan.

Stone's politics sometimes get in the way of enjoying his work for some moviegoers. With "World Trade Center," he's done a complete about-face. He's made an apolitical movie about a subject that has world politics at the root of its mayhem.

A virtually impossible and daunting task faces audiences who see "World Trade Center." You have to enter the theater with a clean slate. Tough to do, since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, are rigidly fixed in almost everyone's mind -- certainly in the minds of everyone who will see this film. Stone is not retelling the entire saga of that day. He doesn't show the planes crashing into the towers. Much of the information the characters glean is from television, just as it was for Americans on Sept. 11.

What the director and his screenwriter, Andrea Berloff, have chosen to do is concentrate on an aspect of the events of the day. The movie is about the survival and rescue of two New York Port Authority policemen, trapped together under the rubble of one of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings.

Stone and Berloff crosscut between the rescue efforts and the men's family members living out the hours in stark terror. Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena play officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal play their respective wives. Rescuers include Frank Whaley and Stephen Dorff. Other acting names you might recognize include Donna Murphy, Danny Nucci, William Mapother, Patti D'Arbanville and Nicholas Turturro. Some of the cast members are real-life New York City firemen, police officers and paramedics.

Beneath the crushed concrete and mangled steel, McLoughlin and Jimeno were determined to stay alive until help came. Their greatest fear was of falling asleep and never waking up. They drew strength from their faith. Stone doesn't hesitate to use Christian iconography to help tell the story.

Side stories include a Marine who lived miles away from Manhattan, but put on his dress blues and drove to the World Trade Center site to help in the rescue effort. It was a day to forge a bond with one goal in mind: help in any way possible. What Stone has done is to take moviemaking back to the basics. He's telling an old-fashioned rescue tale and he does it very well. That's the thrust of the film. Politics is for another day. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

A young boy becomes smitten with a young girl. The word "smitten" works here because we're in turn-of-the-century Vienna -- the 19th to the 20th. He's from the other side of the dirt road and she's ... well, she's going to grow up to be engaged to Crown Prince Leopold, a stern taskmaster with intense strains of jealousy and large piercing eyes. Her name is Sophie, and beauty, charm and grace are her attributes.

Into Sophie's well-ordered life comes a young man, a magician of sorts. He's known as Eisenheim the Illusionist, and his feats of levitation and assorted other magical illusions (he doesn't call them tricks) are the talk of Vienna.