THE DESCENDANTS (Nov. 16)
George Clooney is a Hawaiian landowner dealing with a wife in a coma, two troubled daughters and an imminent land sale that involves his entire extended family. He’s stressed, to say the least, in this smart dramedy from director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”).
The Bottom Line: With Payne’s precise tone, his assured film about what we save, and what we leave behind, has been an early Oscar front-runner since it bowed as a festival fave. J.N.
HAPPY FEET TWO (Nov. 18)
Elijah Wood and Robin Williams return for this 3-D animated musical sequel about an Emperor penguin convinced he can fly. George Miller’s second Antarctic outing comes with elevated expectations: The original won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2007. So it’s a good thing the cast list also includes Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Hank Azaria.
The Bottom Line: Kids love penguins, and parents love penguin movies that kids will happily watch over and over. E.W .
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN — PART 1 (Nov. 18)
After much panting and pursuing, vampire guy (Robert Pattinson) and human girl (Kristen Stewart) marry, consummate and break the heart of lovelorn werewolf (Taylor Lautner). There’s a lot at stake in this penultimate film of Stephenie Meyer’s hot-blooded monster-hit books.
The Bottom Line: As next year’s “Breaking Dawn Part 2” will be, this one is directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters,” “Kinsey”), so “Dawn” could have some bite behind the scenes. J.N.
A DANGEROUS METHOD (Nov. 23)
Before he bares all in “Shame” (see Dec. 2), Michael Fassbender plays a rather buttoned-up Carl Jung, whose affair with a patient (Keira Knightley) causes him considerable consternation. It doesn’t help that his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), has his own strong opinions about the relationship.
The Bottom Line: Yes, there’s sex and obsession. But the most shocking thing about David Cronenberg’s biopic may be how conventional it actually is. E.W .
ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (Nov. 23)
This 3-D animated comedy tells of Santa’s boy Arthur, poised to take over the family business. Sure, he’s got the name, but how is he with the ho-ho-ho’s and the toy-making? James McAvoy is the voice of Arthur; Jim Broadbent is Santa. Lots of elves play themselves.
The Bottom Line: Coming from Aardman Entertainment (“Wallace & Gromit,” “Flushed Away”), director Sarah Smith’s film adds to the unique look of family flicks this season. J.N.
HUGO (Nov. 23)
Martin Scorsese’s movie of Brian Selznick’s best-selling book got a lot of tongues wagging when a work-in-progress screened at the New York Film Festival. Now it’s everyone’s turn to see what the movie maestro of Little Italy does with this tale of a boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives inside a Paris train station in the 1930s, the girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) he pals around with, the robot his dad (Jude law) left for him, and the aging genius (Ben Kingsley) who is a link to the past.
‘Happy Feet Two’
THE MUPPETS (Nov. 23)
The Muppets have had their share of regrettable appearances since we lost Jim Henson. But if there’s anyone who has the right sensibility to bring them back, it’s Jason Segel. With Segel writing and co-starring (alongside Amy Adams), and James Bobin (“Da Ali G Show”) directing, hopes are high for the return of Kermit, Miss Piggy & Co. as they fight to rescue their former theater. The massive cameo list includes Katy Perry, Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Ricky Gervais, and Neil Patrick Harris; it seems everyone wants to join in the fun.
The Bottom Line: We’re betting even Statler and Waldorf are excited about this reunion. E.W .
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (Nov. 23)
During the filming of 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl,” a neophyte English film lover (Eddie Redmayne) falls under the sway of moviemaking, as well as “Prince” director and star Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and, especially, the beautiful and vulnerable Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).
The Bottom Line: Williams and Branagh have been short-listed for Oscar noms for months. Their affectionate, spot-on turns — and a tale of icons with human-size personalities — have given the movie buzz. J.N.
THE ARTIST (Nov. 23)
Anyone hoping for something really different this season will find it in Michel Hazanavicius’s charming romantic comedy-which just happens to be silent, and shot in black and white. French star Jean Dujardin is marvelous as a popular 1920s actor who finds himself being phased out with the introduction of talkies.
The Bottom Line: Who needs sound? (Or color?) This one deserves to become the year’s most eagerly-embraced crowd pleaser. E.W.
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1.’(Andrew Cooper)
CORIOLANUS (Dec. 2)
Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in this season’s big Shakespeare adaptation, a tale of war and brotherhood in (modern-dress) Rome. Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain — has she been in anything recently? — co-star, but attention has focused on Vanessa Redgrave, who reportedly gives a blistering turn as Volumnia, the mother of Fiennes’ doomed, tyrannical general.
The Bottom Line: Maybe English teachers can get their students to theaters by telling students that Voldemort has a side job. J.N.
SHAME (Dec. 2)
The talk of the Toronto Film Festival, this graphically intense drama from British director Steve McQueen demands all of its castmates Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. He’s a successful Manhattanite driven by an all-consuming sexual addiction; she’s the little sister whose own vulnerabilities are almost equally unbearable.
The Bottom Line: The NC-17 rating has only increased anticipation among arthouse fans. E.W.
NEW YEAR’S EVE (Dec. 9)
As overpacked as Times Square on Dec. 31, Garry Marshall’s follow-up to “Valentine’s Day” features (deep breath): Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Ludacris, Lea Michele and a whole bunch of other people falling in and out of love.
The Bottom Line: If writer Katherine Fugate has come up with a script worthy of this celestial cast, it could be a party everyone will want to attend. E.W.
THE SITTER (Dec. 9)
Before he slimmed down, Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”) shot this family comedy about a college guy conned into taking care of the kids next door. Sam Rockwell, Jessica Hecht and Method Man costar. Directed by David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”).
The Bottom Line: Good on Hill for his healthy new physique, but for comedy’s sake, let’s hope this big man-meets-little-kids movie matches the standard set by the late John Candy. J.N.
W.E. (Dec. 9)
Madonna’s latest directorial effort — to be honest, awaited by no one who saw her first attempt, 2009’s “Filth and Wisdom” — tells the fictional story of a modern-day woman (Abby Cornish) who has a connection, in initials and emotion, to Wallis Simpson, the twice-married American socialite whose affair with England’s King Edward VII (James D’Arcy) caused the royal to abdicate the throne in 1936. Simpson is played in flashback by Andrea Riseborough; Laurence Fox plays Bertie, aka King George VI, the role that won Colin Firth an Oscar last year.
The Bottom Line: No one begrudges the Material Girl her ambitions. But if she ever decides to direct a story about, say, an Italian-American Michigan gal who becomes a pop culture icon, we’re all ears. J.N.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Dec. 9)
After earning raves for his Swedish vampire film, “Let the Right One In,” Tomas Alfredson tries his hand at a more traditional project: an adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 best-seller about a retired British agent (Gary Oldman) racing to uncover a Soviet mole. Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and Ciarán Hinds co-star.
The Bottom Line: There should always be room for a strong thriller with a great cast. The only question is whether contemporary audiences will care about the Cold War themes. E.W.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Dec. 9)
Tilda Swinton plays a haunted mother who wonders if her lack of parental affection led her teenage son (a spooky Ezra Miller) to a shocking act of violence. Directed by Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”), and co-starring John C. Reilly.
The Bottom Line: Less of a dissection of post-Columbine disaffected youth than a story of a woman’s trip through fractured guilt, Ramsay’s film will surely divide audiences. Prepare for serious post-movie discussions. J.N.
YOUNG ADULT (Dec. 9)
Director Jason Reitman reteams with his Oscar-winning “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody for this romantic dramedy about an unhappy author (Charlize Theron) who returns home determined to attract her ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) — despite the fact that he’s moved on.
The Bottom Line: Cody could use another big-screen hit after the disappointment of “Jennifer’s Body,” so it’s a good thing Reitman (“Up in the Air”) has yet to fail. E.W .
Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in ‘Hugo.’
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIP-WRECKED (Dec. 16)
It seems as long as the makers of this family film series can come up with puns, we’ll have as many “Chipmunk” films as a wild rodent has nuts stored for winter. This year’s entry finds the squeaky trio and their pals the Chippettes flung overboard a cruise ship — surely an annoyed parent didn’t do it — only to wash ashore on an island, where shenanigans await them.
The Bottom Line: Justin Long, Anna Faris and Amy Poehler are again the voices of the furry. As for humans, Jason Lee makes another cameo as Dave, with Alyssa Milano and David Cross supporting him. J.N.
CARNAGE (Dec. 16)
Roman Polanski adapts Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning play, about two Brooklyn couples whose veneer of civility cracks as they negotiate on their children’s behalf. But here’s what really matters: the feuding foursome are played by Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz.
The Bottom Line: They may not have much fun together, but we’ll happily spend an evening with this crowd. E.W.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (Dec. 16)
Baker Street purists balked at all the irregularities in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 actioner, but no one can say that stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law aren’t tweedy-cheeky perfection as the great detective and Dr. Watson. Here, they face Prof. Moriarty (“Mad Men’s” Jared Harris). Rachel McAdams returns, with Noomi Rapace and Stephen Fry (as Sherlock’s older brother, the just-as-interestingly named Mycroft Holmes) joining the fray.
The Bottom Line: Downey’s been in the stratosphere since his rocket-launch comeback. That this mega-sequel will at least be an RDJ special is elementary. J.N.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL (Dec. 16)
Say this for Tom Cruise: he gives his all to any mission he accepts. And his shaky track record as of late offers extra motivation to make the return of Ethan Hunt — now a rogue agent working entirely off the grid — the popcorn event of the season. Given the cartoonish elements of this action franchise, we love the idea that Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) is directing. Support from fellow spies Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton can only help.
The Bottom Line: Cruise needs to make this one work if he’s going to retain any action hero status. As Hunt says, “We come back with our target. Or we don’t come back.” E.W.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (Dec. 21)
Strong early reviews suggest Steven Spielberg has fashioned the ultimate winter break activity in this animated 3-D adventure, based on three Tintin comic books from the ’40s. Jamie Bell voices the titular boy reporter, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play Thompson and Thomson, and of course no motion-capture experience would be complete without Andy Serkis, who’ll be portraying Tintin’s pal Captain Haddock.
The Bottom Line: Americans don’t yet share the enormous affection Tintin earns overseas. Presumably that’s expected to change, since Peter Jackson’s already offered to direct a sequel. E.W.
ALBERT NOBBS (Dec. 21)
Glenn Close has nurtured this property — from a story by Irish novelist George Moore — since doing it as a stage production nearly 30 years ago. After several false starts, the film’s finally been made, and Close has garnered Oscar talk for her turn as a woman who gets by in 19th-century England by pretending to be a man and getting a job as a gentleman’s gentleman.
The Bottom Line: In the mid-1980s — when Close got her five nearly-consecutive Academy Award nominations — gender-bending roles like this were Oscar mainstays. Back to the future for the “Damages” star? J.N .
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Dec. 21)
Get ready to hear a lot more about Rooney Mara, who beat out countless competitors to land the role of Lisbeth Salander. She won’t have it easy, though: Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium novels” put his heroine through the ringer, and director David Fincher is unlikely to stint on the extreme violence.
The Bottom Line: There’s a huge built-in audience for this thriller trilogy, but fans won’t stand for a weak adaptation. Surely Fincher (“The Social Network”) and Rooney both know how much rests on Lisbeth’s slim shoulders. E.W.
IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY (Dec. 23) Angelina Jolie’s career has become more fascinating as her face and name have become tabloid fodder. The woman herself, however, continually makes the headlines secondary, as with her screenwriting and directorial debut about a cross-cultural Serbo-Croatian romance during the Bosnian War.
The Bottom Line: As the combination of Jolie’s political and cinematic passions, “Blood and Honey” may compete with Brad Pitt’s “Moneyball” for Oscar’s attention. J.N.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO (Dec. 23)
Who hasn’t had the urge to start over? Granted, few people remake their lives by uprooting the kids and moving in with zebras and monkeys, but Cameron Crowe’s family drama is, in fact, based on a true story. It’s unlikely the original participants looked like Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, but sometimes we just have to go with what they give us.
The Bottom Line: Crowe’s family drama has “feel-good movie of the year” written all over it. And that’s just what people want come Christmastime. E.W.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (Dec. 25)
Fans of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel couldn’t have asked for a better team for this adaptation: multiple Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry (“The Reader,” “The Hours,” “Billy Elliot”) directs a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis and James Gandolfini. But the real star is newcomer Thomas Horn, who plays a 9-year-old determined to unlock the mystery left behind by his late father after Sept. 11.
The Bottom Line: There is no easy way to approach the city’s deepest tragedy, and there may not even be a right way. But Foer’s book connected with many, and there’s no reason to doubt Daldry will honor it. E.W.
THE DARKEST HOUR (Dec. 25)
Since the remake of “Red Dawn” may be MIA due to Hollywood wariness, audiences hungry for serious invasion action will have to make do with this sci-fi thriller about Russian teens fighting off unwanted alien visitors. Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella and Olivia Thirlby are Earth’s first line of defense.
The Bottom Line: Director Chris Gorak was behind the scenes on a few recent sci-fi titans (“Minority Report,” TV’s “Taken”), and “Hour” is the sole monster flick this Christmas. To some, that may be a real gift.
WAR HORSE (Dec. 25)
Steven Spielberg’s other big movie this season, after “Tintin,” is this WWI-set tear-tugger about young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his equine pal, Joey. When the cavalry recruits Joey and sends the horse to France to fight in the trenches, Albert enlists to reunite with his four-footed friend.
The Bottom Line: The most successful director in history won Best Picture for “Schlindler’s List,” but this drama — from a book that was also the basis for the Tony-winning play — is his first real shot at another winner since 1999’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Let the horse race begin. J.N.
THE IRON LADY (Dec. 30)
Meryl Streep‘s latest transformation is into Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister whose 11-year leadership of the United Kingdom during the last decade of the Cold War made her a monumental — and, to many, a monumentally unpopular — figure. Jim Broadbent is her husband, Dennis. Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia”) directs.
The Bottom Line: For all those amazing performances over the last 34 years, Streep only has one Best Supporting Actress and one Best Actress Oscar. While her chances this year aren’t iron-clad, this is the first time she’s a world leader. J.N.
This is prestige season, when the arthouses are packed with major Oscar contenders and high-profile stars. But it’s always worth seeking out smaller titles, especially the ones poised to make an outsized impact.
Among the leading contenders for discovery is Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” a festival favorite that’s already earned raves for its depiction of a young lesbian (Adepero Oduye) who has to hide her sexuality from her conservative Brooklyn family.
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