0

The Big Pictures: Movie critic Michael Clark highlights upcoming films for the holiday season

Special Photo. Kate Hudson, second from right, stars in the musical "Nine."

Special Photo. Kate Hudson, second from right, stars in the musical "Nine."

Considering this is the last month of the first decade of the 21st century, Hollywood's final chunk of 2009 offerings are, to be kind, not all that initially impressive. With two or three exceptions, there's nothing that really pops out as traditional Oscar bait, and in a year that will yield 10 Best Picture nominees, that's not good. On the upside, there were lots of late summer and early fall titles that will more than qualify for awards consideration in the coming months. As always, all opening dates are subject to change.

Dec. 11:

"The Princess and the Frog" -- With an early platform release across the country in smaller markets, this musical from Disney is the first to feature an animated black female lead character. It has met with some minor controversy because the princess' love interest is not black.

"Invictus" -- Clint Eastwood directs Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of the national South African rugby team in this fact-based sports drama.

"The Lovely Bones" -- Think "Ghost" without the schmaltz. Peter Jackson directs this adaptation of the best-selling mystery novel by Alice Sebold about a recently murdered young girl whose spirit observes her mourning family and the man who killed her.

"Me and Orson Welles" -- Zac Efron makes his first attempt at breaking away from his heartthrob/lightweight image in this drama playing an aspiring actor who bluffs his way into a stage production of "Julius Caesar" helmed by and starring the infamous title character.

"Up in the Air" -- The third effort from filmmaker Jason Reitman is every bit as rewarding and near-perfect as "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno." George Clooney turns in a stunning performance as a for-hire corporate hatchet man obsessed with amassing frequent flyer miles and remaining emotionally sheltered.

Dec. 18:

"Did You Hear About the Morgans?" -- This will either be a big winner or a complete bust. Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play a married couple who witness a murder in New York, are put into the witness protection program and relocated to Wyoming. Sounds like "Green Acres" meets "GoodFellas."

"Avatar" -- After a long big screen hiatus, writer/director James Cameron ("Terminator," "Titanic") returns with this much ballyhooed sci-fi fantasy that promises to seamlessly mix live-action and CGI to brilliant effect. If the overblown trailers are any kind of indicator, it looks far from "brilliant."

Dec. 23:

"Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" -- If watching computerized, helium-pitched rodents getting under the skin of their clueless human roommate and singing hip-hop worked for you the first time, the follow-up will likely do the same.

Dec. 25:

"Nine" -- This musical drama based on the smash stage play stars Daniel Day-Lewis and a cast chock-full of former Oscar-winning ladies, including Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz.

"The Young Victoria" -- Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada," "Sunshine Cleaning") stars as the long-reigning English monarch in this bodice-ripper that focuses on the queen's early life and her scorching, often controversial romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).

"It's Complicated" -- Director Nancy Myers appeals directly to the over-50 female demographic in this romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep as a recent divorcee torn between her slippery ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and a sensible, straight-laced new suitor (Steve Martin).

"Sherlock Holmes" -- Director Guy Ritchie takes the classic British literary sleuth (Robert Downey Jr.) and turns him into a wise-cracking action star. Co-starring Jude Law as Watson and Rachel McAdams as the third-wheel/love interest, this looks and smells a lot like the fiasco that was "Wild, Wild West."

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" -- After the death of leading man Heath Ledger, snake-bit director Terry Gilliam was forced to essentially rework his already tricky, trippy and intricate sci-fi drama. At various points, Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Johnny Depp play "transformations" of Ledger's character.

"A Single Man" -- Set in what looks like the '60s, Colin Firth plays a college professor involved in a relationship with an unstable party girl (Julianne Moore) while having flashback nightmares that center on the death of a young man who might have been his gay lover.

"Broken Embraces" -- Director Pedro Almodovar and frequent collaborator Penelope Cruz team up again in this searing drama about a screenwriter who relives a 14-year-old auto accident in which he lost his sight and his wife.

Early 2010

"Serious Moonlight" -- Cheryl Hines ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") directs the final screenplay by her late friend Adrienne Shelly ("Waitress") about a woman (Meg Ryan) who, fed up with the infidelities of her husband (Timothy Hutton), imprisons him in the family bathroom.

"White Ribbon" -- Director Michael Haneke ("Funny Games") directs this black-and-white period piece set in pre-World War I Germany about the inhabitants of a small village who take part in ritualistic killings.

"Crazy Heart" -- In what looks to be a retread of "Tender Mercies," Jeff Bridges plays a an aging, party-hearty country and western singer whose life story is told from the perspective of a much younger journalist (and possible love interest) played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

"The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" -- Robin Wright and Blake Lively play present and past day versions of the title character, a somewhat ditzy blond married to a much older man (Alan Arkin) who wants to move into an assisted-living facility. The serio-comedy was written and directed by Rebecca (daughter of Arthur) Miller.

"The Last Station" -- Christopher Plummer stars as the famed Russian author Lev (Leo) Tolstoy with Helen Mirren as his wife Sofya in this epic biographical drama.