Worldwide economic struggles -- and the lingering effects of all that nasty writers' strike business -- have conspired to limit the number of movies that reached theaters in 2009, and as we enter the holiday home stretch, that downturn is more deeply felt: The November-December slate feels a lot lighter this year, continuing a three-year trend of declining studio output.
But quantity matters less than quality, and even though we ended up covering only 10 films for this year's Holiday Movie Preview, they're a varied and intriguing bunch. You've got your heavy-duty action ("Ninja Assassin"), your thoughtful big-budget blockbusters ("The Lovely Bones," "Avatar"), family-friendly fare ("The Princess and the Frog"), and new efforts from dependable directors ("Up in the Air," "Invictus," "It's Complicated"). Heck, there's even a musical ("Nine")!
So the cineplex might not be as full as it was a few years ago, but between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, Hollywood will still be delivering plenty of films worth ditching your home theater to see. Let's take a look together, shall we?
Ninja Assassin (November 25)
"V for Vendetta" director James McTeigue gives the South Korean superstar known as Rain his first shot at a big American breakout with this Wachowskis-produced martial arts thriller about a, well, ninja assassin (Rain) bent on revenge for the murder of his friend. Inspired by Rain's attention-getting supporting work in 2008's "Speed Racer," the Wachowskis arranged for his solo debut, and despite negative rumbles over some last-minute script doctoring by "Babylon 5" co-creator J. Michael Straczynski, action fans have been drooling over "Assassin" since it was announced. It's been awhile since the Wachowskis were involved in something that didn't disappoint, but if you're looking for some Thanksgiving action, here's your best bet.
Up in the Air (December 4)
Writer/director Jason Reitman ("Juno") turns his gaze from unplanned teen pregnancy to midlife crisis with "Up in the Air," a dramedy about a guy (George Clooney) with a soul-deadening job as a sort of corporate terminator for hire. His only joy comes from collecting frequent flyer miles -- and just as he's on the cusp of reaching a personal miles goal, he discovers that his company has decided to keep him permanently grounded at the corporate hub in Omaha. In terms of concept, it's sort of esoteric stuff, but at a more basic level, it deals with themes that have always brought out the best in Clooney -- namely, the high price of walling one's self off from others, the cumulative effects of long-term counterproductive decisions, and the damaged soul that lurks beneath the silver-flecked mane of even the most dapper white-collar stooge. "Up in the Air" killed at Telluride earlier in the year, and the pre-release critical buzz has been outstanding. Critics have been heavily divided over Clooney's "The Men Who Stare at Goats," but this should provide a nice holiday treat for all concerned.
Invictus (December 11)
Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Invictus" is that it took this long for Morgan Freeman to get around to playing Nelson Mandela. Directed by Clint Eastwood, "Invictus" dramatizes Mandela's efforts to heal some of South Africa's post-apartheid wounds by rallying the country around the 1995 Rugby World Cup play of the national team, led by captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Yeah, it's another inspirational sports drama -- albeit one based in admittedly very inspirational real-life events -- but we've seen a million of these because they work, and with Eastwood behind the camera, and Freeman and Damon lighting up the screen, odds seem high it'll work (and produce a few awards) one more time.
The Lovely Bones (December 11)
You wouldn't think a book about a young girl who hovers in limbo after being raped and murdered by a pedophile would stand a snowball's chance of becoming a bestseller -- or, for that matter, of becoming a big-budget holiday movie -- but Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" is no ordinary book, and Peter Jackson is no ordinary director. Jackson adapted Sebold's book himself, co-writing the script with longtime partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyles, and his signature visual style is all over the trailers, which suggest a stunningly surreal interpretation of the text. It hasn't been smooth sailing getting "Bones" into theaters -- it's been in some form of production for nearly a decade, and Jackson's original leading man, Ryan Gosling, was replaced by Mark Wahlberg right before principal photography started -- but it seems to have made the journey none the worse for wear.
The Princess and the Frog (December 11)
Oh, the irony: After the Pixar-fueled rise of CG 'toons contributed to Disney shuttering its traditional animation studios, it took Pixar chief John Lasseter being named head of Disney Animation to bring the old ways back to the Magic Kingdom. Disney gets back to its hand-drawn roots with "The Princess and the Frog," a sassy, New Orleans-set inversion of the Grimm brothers' parable of the Frog Prince boasting voicework from John Goodman, Terrence Howard, and Oprah, plus a soundtrack courtesy of Pixar mainstay Randy Newman. Amphibians haven't been big at the box office since the Muppets took Manhattan, but if anyone can bring them back, it's the studio that invented longform animation. Family film lovers, this is your holiday moment.
Avatar (December 18)
James Cameron took more than a decade -- and a budget rumored to be in excess of $300 million -- to create the follow-up to his last film, a little picture you may have heard of called "Titanic." Here, Cameron swaps out Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio for Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, and a whole lot of 3-D CGI action depicting the interplanetary warfare between mineral-hungry humans and a blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall alien race known as the Na'vi. Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paralyzed soldier whose consciousness is implanted in a Na'vi/human hybrid (called -- wait for it -- an Avatar) so he can infiltrate the Na'vi, but complications arise when he develops feelings for one of the natives (played by Zoe Saldaña). It may not take place on a boat, in other words, but it's still a love story that develops against an epic background, something at which we all know Cameron excels. Between the director's geek cred and the reportedly senses-shattering special effects, "Avatar" will need to attract some seriously horrible buzz to keep from being the biggest movie of December.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (December 25)
Terry Gilliam can't seem to make a movie without running up against some sort of seemingly insurmountable problem, and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" had a doozy: Partway through production, Heath Ledger passed away unexpectedly, necessitating a temporary shutdown and a last-minute scramble that saw his role being taken over by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law. But Gilliam has always excelled at creating worlds where anything can happen, and the story of "Parnassus" -- which follows the efforts of the titular doctor (Christopher Plummer) to rescue his daughter (Lily Cole) from the clutches of the Devil (Tom Waits) -- is even more expansive and pliable than most. It's also decidedly less commercial, which is why "Parnassus" toiled in post-production limbo for months before finding a home at Sony, but anyone looking for off-the-beaten-path Christmas fare knows exactly where to turn this year.
It's Complicated (December 25)
Romantic comedies have been given a bad rep after years of crappy, brainless fluff starring actors like Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, and Jennifer Lopez, but once upon a time, few films were smarter than a snappy rom-com -- and few writer/directors currently working have the chops to hearken back to those days like Nancy Meyers, who brought the genre back to grown-ups with "Something's Gotta Give." She goes back to that well with "It's Complicated," which follows a tangled late-life love triangle between a baker (Meryl Streep) torn between starting a relationship with an architect (Steve Martin) and carrying on an adulterous affair with her remarried ex-husband (Alec Baldwin). At a basic level, it's nothing we haven't seen many times before, but Meyers' sharp humor, combined with that sterling cast, promises to deliver the kind of classy Christmas entertainment many families demand on December 25.
Nine (December 25)
Plenty of movies take circuitous routes to the big screen, but Rob Marshall's "Nine" might take the cake, having been adapted from a musical which was inspired by a play that was inspired by Federico Fellini's "8 1/2," and...wait, don't fall asleep! Just because "Nine" has its roots in Fellini doesn't mean it's some arthouse term paper of a movie -- in fact, Marshall has stuffed the cast with a bevy of beauties, including Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, and Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson. (For the cougar lovers in the audience, Judi Dench and Sophia Loren are also involved.) Yes, it's a musical, but even if you're allergic to song-and-dance numbers, ask yourself how solid a script has to be before Daniel Day-Lewis agrees to star in a film -- and remind yourself that Marshall also directed 2002's "Chicago," the last musical to get dudes into a theater for reasons other than date night blackmail.
Sherlock Holmes (December 25)
How do you make Arthur Conan Doyle's houndstooth-and-magnifying-glass sleuth relevant in the 21st century? By making him a quirky, wisecracking badass with the face (and box office clout) of Robert Downey Jr. Then, just to add a little extra incentive for the ladies, cast Jude Law as Holmes' sidekick, Watson, and toss in Rachel McAdams as the corseted hottie who sets the detective's heart aflutter (and, presumably, the male members of the audiences). It's undeniably troublesome that "Sherlock Holmes" is being packaged as a brain-dead action thriller -- and whoever tagged those posters with the atrocious "Holmes for the Holidays" deserves to be pistol-whipped -- but between Downey, Law, McAdams, and Guy Ritchie behind the cameras, it seems safe to overlook any flaws in the trailers or the ad campaign and trust "Holmes" to deliver a rollicking good time.