Serious Thesps: Penn vs. Spacey vs. the Brit pack

Even the critics who’ve taken Hollywood to task for producing a glut of underwhelming movies have to admit the problem doesn’t rest with the performers. There’s a crowded pack of first-rate thesps jockeying for the honors here:

Sean Penn tackled Cassavetes in “She’s So Lovely” and took home honors at Cannes. In “The Boxer,” Daniel Day-Lewis and “Breaking the Waves” star Emily Watson teamed up with Jim Sheridan, the man who helmed Day-Lewis into the Oscar circle with “My Left Foot.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh grappled with Henry James in Agnieszka Holland’s “Washington Square” and while Helena Bonham Carter took on James’ “The Wings of the Dove” and she and co-star Allison Elliot delivered brilliant takes on the classic roles. Ralph Fiennes has again drawn strong notices for “Oscar and Lucinda,” while Samuel Jackson adds another Tarantino turn to his resume with “Jackie Brown” and newcomer Matt Damon co-wrote himself into the Oscar race with “Good Will Hunting.”

Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey also had a good year, packed with diverse roles in “Albino Alligator,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

If the health of cinema were dependent upon its thesps there’d be no cause for alarm.

Action Icons: Nic Cage vs. James Bond

Given the recent bombardment of James Bond hoopla, MGM would have you believe that action icons originate with Pierce Brosnan’s latest escapade. Yet Nicolas Cage, the actor who once was synonymous with quirky movies, kept his intensity rolling this year on his way to cementing his reputation as action star.

After being pitted against red-hot Travolta in Paramount’s “Face/Off, which grossed $112 million domestically, and besting John Malkovich and Ving Rhames in BV’s “Con Air” ($101 million), Cage is now known as the man casting directors are begging to have save the day. Already, Cage has been signed to lead in upcoming actioners “Snake Eyes” and “Superman Reborn.”

The runner-up, at least in hype, is Brosnan. Not only will he save the world in the Bond follow-up “Tomorrow Never Dies” (which is expected to be huge worldwide) but he saved a town from a volcano in “Dante’s Peak.”

Speaking of volcanoes, other “must-consider” contenders have to include Tommy Lee Jones; even though “Volcano” did little more than trickle, “Men in Black” once again thrust the thesp back in the tough-man role, especially with the “Fugitive” sequel being readied.

His “Men” co-star Will Smith continued his journey north as a new action-hero following megasuccess “Independence Day,” On the list of perennial contenders: Harrison Ford again touched auds with “Air Force One,” Bruce Willis fell short twice in disappointments “The Fifth Element” and “The Jackal,” Sylvester Stallone went dramatic in “Cop Land” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s usual juggernaut slipped — auds never warmed to his characters in “Jingle all the Way” and “Batman and Robin.”

Screen Queen: Julia Roberts vs. Minnie Driver

It’s been a good comeback year for pretty woman Julia Roberts, who, with a little help from co-star Rupert Everett, managed to woo audiences to the otherwise ordinary “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” The pic earned more than $126 million dollars domestically for Sony, and along with the Mel Gibson starrer “Conspiracy Theory,” proved that auds were willing to pay to see Roberts in the type of lighter roles in which she excelled, before donning period garb for duds such as “Mary Reilly” and “Michael Collins.”

Playing Eve Harrington to Roberts’ Margo Channing this year was “Wedding” co-star Cameron Diaz, who brightened the screen in “Two Lives Less Ordinary” and the dismal “Keys to Tulsa,” and will star in Terry Gillian’s widely anticipated “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” next year.

Indie favorite Julianne Moore also proved her big-budget muscle in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” as well as getting good critical buzz for her performances in the Sundance pic “The Myth of Fingerprints” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.”

1997 was also kind to Brit actress Minnie Driver, who held her own against John Cusack’s hit man in “Grosse Point Blank” (with a clean American accent) and registered a strong, assured performance as Matt Damon’s upper-class squeeze in the year-end Oscar-bait pic “Good Will Hunting.” Her lucky streak, which began with “Circle of Friends” and “Big Night,” should carry her through 1998 when she appears in Sandra Goldbacher’s arthouse pic “The Governess” and Paramount’s “Hard Rain.” Of course, Roberts will also have a busy year with the remake of “The Women,” Terrence Malick’s “The Moviegoer” and Chris Columbus’ “Goodnight Moon.”

Funny Guy: Carrey vs. Williams

At the box office, Jim Carrey still rules .

After failing to reach the $100 million mark in ’96 with “The Cable Guy,” the rubber-faced king of box office returned to form last spring with Universal’s “Liar, Liar.”

The high-concept comedy, which featured classic Carrey facial contortions and broad physical humor, reached $300 million worldwide and solidified the prankster’s place atop global box office lists.

Challenging Carrey for the title of Prince Whimsical was “Bean,” Rowan Atkinson. The comic, whose Charlie Chaplin-like predicaments have made the British joker a household name on the other side of the pond, was finally introduced Stateside (though he did have a small role in 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral”). The PolyGram pic is inching toward $50 million domestically, but it’s worldwide take is close to $160 million, an astounding sum for any movie star.

The year’s other contenders included Robin Williams (“Flubber”) and Howard Stern (“Private Parts”),