The 12 films of Christmas

Hot prospects and smart alternatives for the holiday movie season.

Hard to believe, but the holiday season is in full swing at the multiplex. The last few weeks have already seen the release of some big blockbusters (2012, A Christmas Carol) and at least one surefire Oscar contender (Precious, which had a smash limited release last weekend and was just announced for a Fri., Nov. 20 opening in Tampa bay), and Hollywood promises the best is yet to come. With six weeks until January, here are 12 must-see titles to close out the decade.

Friday, November 20

What's hot: The Twilight Saga: New Moon

They're hot, moody and in love. Only problem: He's a vampire who's gotta get a move on, driving her into the arms of a group of vampire-hating werewolves. For more on New Moon, check out the See&Do on the next page.

Counter-programming: An Education

Tampa Theatre will be opening director Lone Scherfig's An Education in direct competition with the vampires. Starring Carey Mulligan as a 17-year-old student who falls in love with a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) only to get an early lesson in heartbreak, An Education made film-fest waves earlier in the year after the film picked up an Audience Choice Award at Sundance.

Wednesday, November 25

What's hot: The Road

Nothing like pushing back from the Thanksgiving table and taking your gravy-stained holiday shirt to the movies for what looks to be the most depressing film in years. The Road is based on No Country For Old Men author Cormack McCarthy's novel of the same name, and stars Viggo Mortensen as a man trying to shepherd his young son to safety across a post-apocalyptic American wasteland filled with murderous strangers. Every frame of the preview sends a cold chill down my spine.

Counter-programming: Fantastic Mr. Fox

A polar opposite of The Road, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the jaunty first animated feature from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), who somehow manages to make the jump from live action with all of his filmmaking idiosyncrasies intact. Based on a Roald Dahl book, Fox features A-list vocal talent (George Clooney, Meryl Streep) and Anderson regulars (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson) in a delightful and visually stunning tale of a mischievous fox who disregards the safety of his community to start stealing from three murderous farmers. Fantastic Mr. Fox is that rare animated film that will appeal to parents more than their kids.

Friday, December 4

What's hot: Everybody's Fine

Robert De Niro stars as a widower who suddenly finds himself cut off from his family without the wife who served as a lifeline and connection to his kids. Soon Bobby heads on a road trip to visit each of his adult children and try to reforge their common bond. Everybody's Fine is a remake of Italian director Giuseppe Torntore's Stanno tutti bene, a well-regarded film from the early 1990s, and the cast in addition to De Niro (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore) looks as solid as they come. It's been a few years since De Niro made a good movie, so let's hope Everybody's Fine is a return to form rather than more of the same.

Counter-programming: The Messenger

Iraq war films have garnered little to no attention at the box office, with this summer's universally hailed The Hurt Locker only managing $12.5 million domestically. The Messenger, the story of an American soldier responsible for notifying military next of kin who falls in love with one of the widows he contacts, hopes to break the Iraq war film jinx by spending exactly zero time in desert war zones watching men with guns loudly shoot it out. Early critical word on The Messenger is positive, but it remains to be seen whether audiences will ever embrace this type of material.

Friday, December 11

What's hot: Moving to New York or L.A.

There are two huge releases this weekend, but you have to live in New York or L.A. to see them. First: The Lovely Bones is director Peter Jackson's adaption of a wildly popular Alice Sebold novel, adding built-in box-office potential. Expect to see it appear locally in January. Second: Clint Eastwood's Invictus, the director's take on Nelson Mandela's efforts to unite his country by seeking to host the 1995 Rugby World Championships during his first term as president of South Africa. Counter-programming: Don't ask

Decided to stick it out in the Bay area, huh? In return for your loyalty, you can check out Did You Hear About The Morgans?, a lame-looking rom-com starring High Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as an unhappily married couple forced into the witness protection program, or Disney's The Princess and the Frog, an animated film I won't describe because you don't want to see it anyway.

Friday, December 18

What's hot: Avatar

Titanic director James Cameron returns with a mega-budget affair the producers promise will redefine 3D moviemaking, Hollywood blockbusters and perhaps the world as we know it. It's tempting to dismiss Avatar as an overhyped sci-fi rehash, but if anyone can pull this off it's Cameron, who has a history of delivering on his excessive budgets while inventing new technology in the process.

Counter-programming: The Young Victoria

Anglophiles rejoice! Emily Blunt is earning rave reviews for her turn as a young Queen Elizabeth navigating the early days of her reign in this film from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée.

Friday, December 25

What's hot: Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Jr. stars as English literature's most revered private dick in writer/director Guy Ritchie's (RockNRolla) big-budget adaption of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Jude Law is on hand as Holmes' faithful assistant Watson, as is the lovely Rachel McAdams (The Time Traveler's Wife) as Holmes' love interest (provided rumors of a Holmes-Watson tryst don't pan out, of course).

Counter-programming: Up In The Air

George Clooney stars as a road-warrior corporate consultant who specializes in firing people in director Jason Reitman's follow-up to Juno. Along the way he develops relationships with two women, a sexy fellow traveler (Vera Farminga) who digs the unattached lifestyle and the size of Clooney's rewards account, and a fresh-out-of-Columbia ladder-climber (Anna Kendrick) who threatens the older man's lifestyle with the development of an even colder way to terminate people. All three performances are award-worthy, and Up In The Air is sure to head up many year-end 10-best lists. Trust me: I've seen it and it's that good.

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