The American disease is upon us, and that disease is to rake in the most money in the quickest possible fashion, traditions be damned. Faster, bigger, more exhausting are the bywords. There’s a war being waged that depends more on the mythology of victory than actual victory itself, and even the mythology is screwed up. In many countries, beginning employees receive four weeks of vacation, work 35-hour weeks, enjoy such benefits as flextime, health insurance, and an understanding that it’s better to be refreshed than on edge. In America, health insurance is rapidly becoming a joke (something for the rich to enjoy), flextime has faded as a concept, and “rush, rush, rush” is the catchphrase of most lives. This nation is going to have a collective monumental nervous breakdown, and if you’re lucky, you won’t be standing in its path.

Meanwhile, the corporate overseers at the major movie studios are delivering homogenized films that are shilling for a fantasy society that doesn’t exist: a perfect world where nobody is offended and everybody supposedly goes home satiated. The result is a clash of cultures: artists versus bankers. Even movies that dare to be different are tweaked and focused to make certain every last box office penny can be squeezed out of every last visit to the theater. But, you might say, at least some independent filmmakers are trying to work around the system and make quality movies that dare to make you think, challenge your preconceived notions about movies, and offer up something more than assimilated pap.

Hey, even some indie movies deserve to be tossed onto the trash heap.

The Singing Detective is one of the worst pieces of tripe through which I’ve ever sat. Dennis Potter’s superb 1986 television mini-series is a moody, episodic pastiche of old pop music, film noir and psychology. Potter, died in 1994, but he wrote a screenplay that, in addition to tightening the original tale, switched its action and its cultural frame of reference from England to Los Angeles, and from the 1940s to the 50s. I can’t tell you what was in that screenplay, but the resulting movie is misguided and misshapen. It’s an ignominious bad acid trip of a meandering mess directed by Keith Gordon and starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrian Brody, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, and Alfre Woodward. In it, a detective novelist suffering from a grotesque skin disease, hallucinates musical numbers and dreams up paranoiac plots. Even Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s Gigli could be compared to watching a train wreck. The Singing Detective doesn’t even offer that.

Better indie material can be found in Shattered Glass, which ranks up there with the greatest journalism movies I’ve seen. All The President’s Men and His Girl Friday are my favorites. The film takes a very dry subject, plagiarism, and makes it interesting. The culprit is Stephen Glass, a guy who wrote more than forty articles for the New Republic magazine and faked more than half of them. Screenwriter Billy Ray, making his directorial debut, has created a mystery of sorts as other journalists search for the truth regarding Glass’ printed lies. The entire cast is top-notch, especially an Academy-award worthy Peter Sarsgaard as the magazine’s unpopular editor under whose watch the plagiarism is discovered. Hayden Chistensen as Glass and Steve Zahn as the guy who ferrets out the falsehoods both deliver solid performances. Ranking alongside The Station Agent, Shattered Glass is one of the best movies of the year.

As for rushing the holidays, Elf proves that not all Saturday Night Live regulars will be failures in movies. Will Ferrell plays it straight as a regular person who is raised as one of Santa’s elves, but decides to search for his real family. That’s a nifty plot twist I won’t spoil, but you have to buy into it to appreciate the story line. Ferrell heads to Manhattan where his “fish out of water” persona plays out on the nice side of Midnight Cowboy, if that work had a nicer side. The movie is funny, but its ingrained silliness causes its collapse. It’s a one-joke film. Good joke, but ultimately you need a story and Elf doesn’t really offer much of one.

The big guns of the season belong to Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World. And those guns are cannons on-board a British ship in the early 1800s as it sails around South Africa in pursuit of a French frigate that is pestering whaling vessels, although we have to take the movie’s word for that; it’s never shown. A burly and bellowing Russell Crowe is the captain of the H.M.S. Surprise, and his crew of high-spirited Englishman is, by and large, a happy amalgam. Based on Patrick O’Brian’s popular books, the movie offers plenty of seafaring action, but also delivers some pleasant lulls. They arise from the work of the ship’s Darwinian doctor, well-acted by Paul Bettany, who wants to visit the odd creatures on the Galapagos Islands. The doctor and the captain have a bond that includes playing music on the cello and violin. There’s a wisp of homosexualism in the subplot involving an officer who lacks the respect of the men. As for the captain’s interaction with an angelic young sea hand, a blond urchin straight out of Oliver Twist, I leave that up to your interpretation. He does let the lad, and he can’t be more than 10 years old, be the captain during a battle. Very odd. The film holds your interest, but never quite goes the distance. I suppose there’s intense realism in the look of the ship and the way battles were fought, but the movie just seems to hang there. I never thought it connected as truth. It’s all so linear and pitch perfect, but not in the manner of great masterpieces. Scenes flow nicely together, but they are just that, scenes put into place in a well-made screenplay puzzle as written by the film’s director, Peter Weir.

Love Actually has a huge cast, including Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, and Alan Rickman, etc., but so what. It’s from Richard Curtis, the English chap who wrote Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings And A Funeral, and most of everything connected to Rowan Atkinson’s “Bean” character. The problem with Curtis’ new movie, which he also directs, is that he tries to juggle too many subplots as he follows the lives of eight different couples who are attempting to deal with the psychological and emotional elements of their relationships. The whole thing is set during the frantic week before Christmas in London. The movie’s poster comes wrapped in a bright red ribbon, but so what. The film is so pointlessly manic, and so unChristmasy, that it could have been set during Fleet Week in New York City. Too many characters, not enough common sense. I wrote extensively about In The Cut in my Toronto Film Festival article. The intense movie has its serious detractors, some of whom label it offensive and mean. A California friend of mine called me on his cell phone while walking out of the theater in Santa Monica to furiously fulminate against it. A superb Meg Ryan shatters her screen image as she plays a lonely school teacher who gets into kinky sex with a Manhattan detective (a solid Mark Ruffalo) investigating a series of sick murders in the seedy neighborhood where Ryan lives. Director Jane Campion doesn’t soft-pedal the nudity and grit, which is what is angering naysayers. This is not an ugly movie about poorly concocted characters. It’s a movie about ugly events (that happen in real life, by the way) and about flawed characters dealing with life’s risks and dangers. Don’t hate the movie because you don’t like the characters. As for Katie Holmes, she’s in Pieces Of April as the rebellious daughter hoping to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for her family in her small lower East Side Manhattan apartment. Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt play her parents. The oven fails, April’s boy friend disappears on a mission of some questionable sort (although that’s a cheat, plotwise), and Grandma gets all the good lines because even indie moviemakers can be sexist and ageist to where they marginalize the elderly. The movie fizzles because watching the errant daughter botch up dinner is the stuff of too many familiar sit-coms. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

Calendars for 2004 have been in shops for months. Christmas decorations have been adorning department store aisles for weeks, and Hollywood is already marketing holiday movies. What happened to Thanksgiving? Heck, what happened to November?