It's the most wonderful time of the year ... for movie lovers. The run-up to Christmas is jam-packed with films the studios believe are their finest of the year, withheld from release till now in the hopes that they'll catch the eye of critics preparing their best-of lists and Academy members on the lookout for potential Oscar nominees. (Apparently, Hollywood doesn't think even serious movie lovers have memories longer than a few months, or we'd see these movies spaced out over the course of a full year.)
Cineastes outside the New York, Los Angeles and Toronto art-house circuit may have to wait until into January for some of the Awards Bait flicks below, and some may never go into general release if the big-city critics don't respond favorably to them. (Release dates are also subject to change.)
But never fear. There are also plenty of Holiday Crowd-Pleasers on offer in wide release through the holidays, too, hoping to take advantage of all the kids off school with nothing else to do and all the shoppers at the malls, where so many multiplexes are conveniently located.
And then there are the Holiday Leftovers, those flicks with nowhere else to go, and some small hope of their ignominy being lost in the glare of twinkling lights. See? Even lovers of bad movies have something to look forward to.
Fair Game (Nov. 19, locally, see the full review here): Otherwise known as Valerie Plame: The Movie. The role of Lefty Outrage is tailor-made for and played by Sean Penn.
Made in Dagenham (Nov. 19): Ladies fight for pay equality in 1960s England. Sass is involved. And spunk. Look for an Oscar nomination for Sally Hawkins as the head sassy, spunky lady.
127 Hours (Nov. 24, locally): James Franco gets stuck down a desert canyon, and must cut off his own limb to escape. Yeah, that's pretty much it, but director Danny Boyle makes it all arty, and turns what could have been a simplistic horror movie into a celebration of life. It's a tough film to watch, but a hugely rewarding one.
The King's Speech (Nov. 26): You heard it here first: Colin Firth will win this year's Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the charmingly prickly English monarch — George VI — who overcame a stutter to beat Hitler. Seriously. A fantastic peek at an unexpected footnote to history, and not your usual costume drama.
Black Swan (Dec. 3): Natalie Portman is a tormented ballerina who turns into a bird when she can't cut it in the brutal world of professional dance. Word is, it's way more disturbing than it sounds.
I Love You Phillip Morris (Dec. 3): Jim Carrey goes serious and funny as a gay con artist who falls in love with Ewan McGregor ... because no one can resist Ewan McGregor.
The Company Men (Dec. 10): Sad Ben Affleck is sad when he gets laid off from his job as an asshole MBA, and learns to be a better husband and father. It's the new American dream.
The Tempest (Dec. 10): Julie Taymor takes on Shakespeare, and she's got Helen Mirren as a gender-switched Prospero. So just give her the Best Actress Oscar now.
Casino Jack (Dec. 17): Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff. Hilarious.
Rabbit Hole (Dec. 17): Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart are the grieving parents of a dead child. It's based on a play, so you know it ain't some Oxygen Network crap. Bring Kleenex.
True Grit (Dec. 22): The Coen brothers remake the classic flick (outside of Colorado this time). There's sure to be tons more blood than there was in the original, because it's the Coens, and it could reinvigorate the Western as a hot genre. Expect Oscar noms for Jeff Bridges and likely Matt Damon as well.
Country Strong (Dec. 22): Gwyneth Paltrow probably hopes that some of that Coal Miner's Daughter cred wipes off onto her portrayal of an alcoholic Nashville superstar.
Another Year (Dec. 31): What can make a happy couple unhappy? Let Mike Leigh tell a story about them. Bonus awards-baiting for the English accents all around.
Blue Valentine (Dec. 31): The tale of how a romance dissolves between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Happy, it ain't.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (Nov. 19, see the full review here): OMG! Harry is back, fightin' Voldemort and stuff! But I kid. I'm totally psyched to see this, and I already know how it ends ... just like everyone else who will see it. And we're all still psyched! Woo-hoo! Just don't think about the fact that Part 2 won't come our way till summer.
The Next Three Days (Nov. 19, see full review here): Russell Crowe is a mild-mannered college literature prof who turns all action-hero-y to bust his wife out of prison after she's convicted of a murder she did not commit ... or did she? Think The Fugitive for the 21st century. And it's so damn good, and Crowe so damn effective, that it could cross over into Awards Bait realm, with a Best Actor nom for its leading man.
Tangled (Nov. 24): Rapunzel gets the Disney treatment with the addition of a cool, wise-ass dude sidekick, so all the little boys can pretend they're not seeing a princess movie. Should earn roughly $12 gazillion, mostly from Happy Meal toys.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Dec. 10): I presume the big, scary but gentle lion is still here, plus more adventure with talking mice and such. What's not to love?
The Fighter (Dec. 10): Mark Wahlberg does Rocky. This cannot miss. Really.
The Tourist (Dec. 10): Angelina Jolie is mean to Johnny Depp, but we hear he likes it like that. Moms and dads can take in this sexy spy/crime thriller when they drop the kids off for their fifth Potter viewing.
How Do You Know (Dec. 17): Another James L. Brooks look at love and life among modern urban sophisticates. Could even be an Awards Bait for Jack Nicholson, who's always awards bait in James L. Brooks movies (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets).
Tron: Legacy (Dec. 17): A sequel to the 1982 movie that warped the entirety of Generation X with its vision of virtual reality? Yeah, this'll be huge. Though it's hard to imagine how it could possibly expand the realms of big-budget sci-fi like the original one did. What new realms are there for Hollywood to explore when it's revisiting nearly 30-year-old crusty flicks?
Little Fockers (Dec. 22): I personally don't see the appeal in the ritual humiliation of Ben Stiller in this third installment in the ritual-humiliation-of-Ben-Stiller franchise, but the other two made obscene amounts of money, and this one will too.
Burlesque (Nov. 24): Some are predicting the second coming of Showgirls in this tale of a wannabe stage entertainer (Christina Aguilera) who is taken under the wing of an old pro (Cher). Prepare to be blinded by glitz and glitter and hammy performances. Could be a new classic of cheese.
Faster (Nov. 24): Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is out for revenge over some wrong that's been done him. Forget chestnuts roasting: Those loud popping sounds you hear are the peals of gunfire. Because nothing says the holidays like a cold-blooded killing spree.
Love and Other Drugs (Nov. 24): Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway are two selfish sociopaths who discover true love while basking in each other's egotistical glow. Yes, it's intended to be romantic.
The Nutcracker in 3D (Nov. 24): A horrifying attempt to bring the classic ballet to life, this laughably bad kiddie flick combines Nazi-esque rats, nauseating 3D, and truly terrible songs. I hope they make a sequel called Tchaikovsky's Revenge.
The Warrior's Way (Dec. 3): This martial-arts Western may well have been designed to capture that underserved audience: guys who didn't find that new Japanese first-person shooter game for Xbox under the Christmas tree.
Yogi Bear (Dec. 17): A very bad melding of animation and live action brings the desperately unfunny Hanna-Barbera ursine to "life." Also features washed-up TV personalities in 3D.
Gulliver's Travels (Dec. 22): All those who have ever insisted that the magic of the classic novel must be brought to the screen with Jack Black's shirtless flabby belly in the starring role are getting their holiday wish. Brought to you by the Night at the Museum people, so expect lots of bad jokes about history and literature.