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From 'Avatar' to 'Nine,' 21 movies for the holidays

With computer effects, Sam Worthington, left, and Zoe

With computer effects, Sam Worthington, left, and Zoe Saldana become aliens in James Cameron's "Avatar." Photo Credit: MCT/Handout

The busy holiday season is here, which means you have shopping to do, dinners to prepare and in-laws to avoid. Somewhere in there, the studios hope, you'll find time to see a movie.

Which to choose?

Fox is hoping it will be "Avatar" (opening Dec. 18), the sci-fi adventure from James Cameron with a reportedly humongous budget of $500 million. It's already the most talked-about film of the year, though whether it will connect with audiences remains to be seen. Its star, Sam Worthington, is a relative unknown, and its reliance on computer-animated actors could be a liability rather than a draw - just ask Robert Zemeckis, who replaced humans with pixels in "Disney's A Christmas Carol" and "Beowulf," both box-office disappointments.

That means there's room for competition. Also on Dec. 18 comes "Nine," a musical from director Rob Marshall (of the Oscar-winning "Chicago") with an A-list cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman and Penélope Cruz. On Christmas, Warner Bros. will unleash "Sherlock Holmes" with Robert Downey Jr. sexing up the fusty fictional sleuth. And Fox will go up against itself Dec. 23 by releasing "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel" five days after "Avatar."

For more serious-minded filmgoers, the studios are also rolling out several movies based on novels, including Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalypse drama "The Road" (Wednesday), Walter Kirn's semicomedic "Up in the Air" (Dec. 4) and Alice Sebold's thriller "The Lovely Bones" (Dec. 11). Even long-dead writers Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams have new movies coming out.

In case you find a few spare hours this season, here's a list of major movies to choose from through January.

 

ME AND ORSON WELLES (Wednesday)

Director Richard Linklater

The story A young actor (Zac Efron) joins Welles' legendary Mercury Theatre company and falls for an older woman (Claire Danes).

Big shoes Newcomer Christian McKay steps into the role of the larger-than-life Welles.

 

OLD DOGS (Wednesday)

Director Walt Becker

The story Bachelors Robin Williams and John Travolta are suddenly put in charge of 7-year-old twins.

Family affair Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston, and daughter, Ella Bleu, play major roles.

 

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (Wednesday)

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker

The story In New Orleans, pretty Tiana kisses a frog prince.

Post-racial society? We'll find out when Disney's first animated African-American princess bows on-screen.

 

THE ROAD (Wednesday)

Director John Hillcoat

The story After the apocalypse, a drifter (Viggo Mortensen) tries to protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Charlize Theron co-stars.

Track record Another movie based on a Cormac McCarthy novel. The last one, "No Country for Old Men" (2007), won the best picture Oscar.

 

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE (Friday)

Director Rebecca Miller

The story Robin Wright Penn plays a woman whose life only seems perfect. With Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves and Blake Lively.

Lit flick Miller's screenplay comes from her own novel.

 

BROTHERS (Dec. 4)

Director Jim Sheridan

The story After a decorated Marine (Tobey Maguire) goes missing in Afghanistan, his wife (Natalie Portman) and brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) grow closer than they expected.

Oscar alert The A-list cast, esteemed director ("My Left Foot") and topical storyline could be a recipe for gold.

 

UP IN THE AIR (Dec. 4)

Director Jason Reitman

The story Frequent flier George Clooney meets his match in savvy traveler Vera Farmiga.

Recession special Clooney's job as a corporate downsizer provides several scenes - some funny, some not - in which folks lose their jobs.

 

A SINGLE MAN (Dec. 11)

Director Tom Ford

The story A college professor (Colin Firth) loses his lover (Matthew Goode) and seeks solace from a friend (Julianne Moore). Fashion director Ford makes his writing-directing debut; based on Christopher Isherwood's novel.

Gay downplay? The film's poster, showing Firth and Moore in bed, has drawn criticism from gay-themed blogs.

 

INVICTUS (Dec. 11)

Director Clint Eastwood

The story In apartheid-era South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) help unify the country.

It's true Based on John Carlin's book, "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation."

 

THE LOVELY BONES (Dec. 11)

Director Peter Jackson

The story From heaven, a murdered girl (Saoirse Ronan) helps lead her family to her killer. With Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon and Mark Wahlberg.

No rest for the wicked Tucci plays the villain here, his third major role of the year after "Julie & Julia" and "Blind Date," which he also directed.

 

AVATAR (Dec. 18)

Director James Cameron

The story In this high-tech, 3-D, sci-fi extravaganza, a wounded soldier (Sam Worthington) inhabits a virtual new body and travels to an inhabited moon named Pandora.

No pressure The last feature film Cameron directed was "Titanic."

 

NINE (Dec. 18)

Director Rob Marshall

The story Womanizing film director Daniel Day-Lewis juggles his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his mother (Sophia Loren), a movie star (Nicole Kidman) and many others.

Based on . . . the 1982 Broadway musical, itself based on the 1963 film "81/2," inspired by director Federico Fellini's actual life.

 

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKUEL (Dec. 23)

Director Betty Thomas

The story The furry boy-band meets the all-girl group the Chipettes.

Tanks for the helium The voice cast includes Justin Long, Anna Faris and Christina Applegate as well as the live-in-the-flesh David Cross and Jason Lee, who plays Chipmunks creator David Seville.

 

IT'S COMPLICATED (Dec. 25)

Director Nancy Meyers

The story Meryl Streep falls again for her ex-husband, Alec Baldwin. Lake Bell ("Boston Legal") makes it a love triangle; Steve Martin makes it a square.

The more the Meryl After "Julie & Julia," this marks Streep's second major movie this year - and that's not counting her voice in "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

 

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (Dec. 25)

Director Terry Gilliam

The story A traveling road show headed by the good doctor (Christopher Plummer) is chased by the Devil (Tom Waits).

The Ledger factor Audiences will surely want to see Heath Ledger's final film - he died during production - but Christmas is a competitive day for new releases.

 

SHERLOCK HOLMES (Dec. 25)

Director Guy Ritchie

The story The fictional sleuth gets a laddish makeover with Robert Downey Jr. in the title role and Jude Law as his wingman, Watson.

Elementary Take a treasured literary character, add some Brit-style violence and a dash of sex, and you just may have a hit.

 

DAYBREAKERS (Jan. 8)

Directors Michael and Peter Spiereg

The story More vampires, only this time they've taken over and are harvesting humans for blood. With Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill.

Which brothers? Not the Coens, not the Wachowskis - these Australian writer-directors gained notice with their 2003 zombie comedy, "Undead."

 

YOUTH IN REVOLT (Jan. 8)

Director Miguel Arteta

The story Sensitive teen Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) invents a swaggering alter ego named Francois Dillinger (also Michael Cera) to win a girl's heart.

Double duty Cera joins a long line of comedic actors who have played opposite themselves, including Mike Myers ("Austin Powers"), Michael Keaton ("Multiplicity") and Eddie Murphy ("Norbit").

 

THE BOOK OF ELI (Jan. 15)

Directors Albert and Allen Hughes

The story Denzel Washington plays a lone warrior wandering a wasted America in the near future. As you might guess, the future of humanity is at stake.

Twins again The twin Hughes brothers last released "From hell" in 2001.

 

EDGE OF DARKNESS (Jan. 29)

Director Martin Campbell

The story Mel Gibson stars as a Boston homicide detective who searches for his kidnapped daughter and finds out more than he wanted to know. William Monahan ("The Departed") is a co-screenwriter; Campbell directed "Casino Royale."

Eight years That's almost how long it's been since Gibson's last proper acting role, in 2002's "Signs."

 

WHEN IN ROME (Jan. 29)

Director Mark Steven Johnson

The story Magic is in the air when young Kristen Bell travels to Rome and finds herself pursed by several Romeos, including Josh Duhamel, Jon Heder, Will Arnett and Danny DeVito.

Point spread Want to bet that Bell, 29, ends up with DeVito, 65? Didn't think so.

 

 

10 MORE MOVIES TO KEEP IN MIND

 

ARMORED (Dec. 4)

How could any heist involving Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne go wrong? And yet it does.

 

EVERYBODY'S FINE (Dec. 4)

In this remake of a 1990 Italian film, widower Robert De Niro tries to reconnect with his grown children, played by Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell.

 

THE LAST STATION (Dec. 4)

Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) shocks his wife of 50 years (Helen Mirren) by taking vows of poverty and celibacy.

 

SERIOUS MOONLIGHT (Dec. 4)

Meg Ryan is pleased to see that hubby Timothy Hutton has strewn the house with rose petals. Oops - they're for young Kristen Bell.

 

CRAZY HEART (Dec. 16)

A broken-down country musician (Jeff Bridges) opens his heart to a young journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

 

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? (Dec. 18)

Unhappy Manhattan couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant witness a murder, then hide out in Wyoming. It's a comedy.

 

THE YOUNG VICTORIA (Dec. 18)

Emily Blunt, the hapless assistant from "The Devil Wears Prada," ascends to the English throne.

 

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Dec. 23)

In Romania's official foreign-language Oscar entry, an undercover cop is ordered to make a minor drug bust that could have major consequences.

 

THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND (Dec. 30)

Bryce Dallas Howard ("The Twilight Saga: Eclipse") plays a Southern belle who falls for her escort (Chris Evans). Based on a long-shelved script by Tennessee Williams.

 

THE WHITE RIBBON (Dec. 30)

Michael Haneke's latest, set in Protestant Germany on the eve of World War I, involves a pastor, a doctor, a midwife and a mystery.

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