Season's screenings: Hollywood comes bearing gifts

Al Alexander

It’s the holiday season yet again and per usual Hollywood comes bearing a sleigh full of gifts, or a sack full of coal, depending on how you look at it.

Either way, you cannot accuse the studios of being cheap, given the level of talent – and budgets – involved. I mean we’re talkin’ big. Stars like Meryl Streep, Robert Downey Jr., George Clooney, Robert DeNiro, and Oscar-winning directors Peter Jackson and James Cameron, whose sci-fi fantasy, “Avatar,” comes with a Nordstrom’s-worthy $300 million price tag.

It’s the smaller, more personal pictures, though, that are likely to score big when Oscar nominations are revealed Feb. 2. And at the top of that list, expect to see “Up in the Air,” the latest heartfelt dramedy from “Juno” director Jason Reitman, and “Invictus,” Clint Eastwood’s emotional charged ode to rugby, race relations and Nelson Mandela.

Even the Oscar co-hosts, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, are getting in on the action in “It’s Complicated,” a romantic comedy in which they vie for the affections of Streep, looking as lovely as ever.

For the kids, there’s an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” sequel (Or is that “Squeakquel”?), and “The Princess and the Frog,” a Disney production that nostalgically returns to the old pen-and-ink style of animation.

But the one I’m most looking forward to is Downey’s portrayal of the title character in “Sherlock Holmes.” It’s a role I’m sure he’ll infuse with his usual wit and charm, as he pursues leads and the affections of a gun-toting Rachel McAdams.

It opens Christmas Day. But to get you in a Holmes state of mind a bit sooner, I offer the following clues to help you seek out what you’re looking for in the days leading up to Dec. 25, beginning with:

December 4

UP IN THE AIR: George Clooney could very well pick up his second Oscar for his superb portrayal of a corporate vermin (he fires people for a living) forced to re-evaluate his life after a still wet-behind-the-ears efficiency expert (Anna Kendrick) threatens his vagabond lifestyle by grounding the frequent flyer and forcing him to take a desk job in Omaha. It’s his worst nightmare, but the movie is a dream thanks to director Jason Reitman (“Juno”), who brings his now familiar blend of humor and pathos to the proceedings.

BROTHERS: In a remake of the Danish melodrama “Breodre” (starring “Gladiator’s” Connie Nielsen), Natalie Portman plays a young mother who hooks up with her brother-in-law shortly after her husband is reported missing in action in Afghanistan. But just as they are about to get more cozy, guess who walks through the front door. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhall play the brothers, who bring a whole new meaning to sibling rivalry. Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”) directs from a script by David Benioff (“The 25th Hour”).

EVERYBODY IS FINE: Robert DeNiro continues his journey downward with yet another cookie-cutter movie. This time he plays a neglectful father trying to reconnect with his three adult children, played by Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell. Let the sap flow. Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Divine”) directs.

SERIOUS MOONLIGHT: As a tribute to her late friend and “Waitress” co-star, Adrienne Shelly, Cheryl Hines moves behind the camera to direct a Shelly-penned script about a woman in her 40s (Meg Ryan) faced with the possibility of losing her man (Timothy Hutton) to a young babe (Kristen Bell). So, like any rational woman, she ties the creep to the toilet and holds him hostage until he realizes the error of his way.

ARMORED: An Iraq War veteran (Columbus Short) returns home and scores a job as an armored guard. But when finances get tight, he’s lured into an inside plot to relieve the company of $42 million. As you’d expect, things don’t go well. Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne co-star.

TRANSYLMANIA: A “Naked Gun”-type spoof of teen vampires movies, which are parodies in and of themselves. I’m betting this one bites.

THE STRIP: Jameel Khan’s low-budget comedy examines the lives of five box-store workers, as they contemplate taking life a little more seriously after one of them decides to get married.

December 11

THE LOVELY BONES: Peter Jackson’s eagerly anticipated fantasy/drama centers around a murdered teenager (“Atonement’s” Saoirse Ronan) caught in a dream-like void between heaven and Earth, as she looks down on her family during the search for her killer. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play her grief-stricken parents, while Stanley Tucci is requisitely creepy as a neighborhood pedophile.

ME AND ORSON WELLES: Little-known British stage actor Christian McKay creates a dead-on impersonation of a young Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age yarn about a 17-year-old (Zac Efron) catching on with the iconic Mercury Theater group in the days leading up to its acclaimed production of “Julius Caesar.” Claire Danes co-stars as Zac’s elusive love interest.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG: Rumors that traditional pen-and-ink animation are dead have been greatly exaggerated in the mind of Disney’s animation chief, John Lasseter, who commissioned Ron Clements and John Musker (the guys responsible for “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid”) to create a tale about an African-American princess (a Disney first) who turns into an amphibian after kissing a frog.

INVICTUS: Clint Eastwood is back for his annual run at the Oscars with an inspirational tale about how a seemingly insignificant rugby team helped unite South Africa shortly after Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) came to power. Matt Damon plays the team’s coach. Note: Both of Eastwood’s best-picture winners, “Million Dollar Baby” and “Unforgiven,” co-starred Freeman. Might this mean a third Oscar for Harry Callahan’s alter ego?

SKIN: Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) plays the daughter of white Afrikaners (Sam Neill, Alice Krige) struggling to re-assimilate with black society after she is no longer accepted by whites.

December 18

AVATAR: James Cameron’s eagerly awaited $300-million 3D outer-space extravaganza finally arrives in theaters. But can it possibly live up to outrageously high expectations? Given that Cameron is responsible for two of the highest grossing movies of all time (“Titanic,” “Terminator 2”), I wouldn’t bet against it.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?: Hugh Grant, in a role he could do in his sleep, plays half of an unhappily married couple (Sarah Jessica Parker his surly spouse) forced to reconcile after they witness a murder and are sent from New York to Wyoming as part of the Witness Protection Program. What do you want to bet that the low-key country life makes them better people?

CRAZY HEART: Jeff Bridges is getting lots of Oscar buzz for his portrayal of a horndog country singer forced to confront his many marriages and transgressions under intense questioning by an inquisitive journalist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

December 23

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL: If you liked the first one (and I’m betting that includes no one over age 10) this promises to deliver more of the same nutty high jinks, as the rodents enter high school and suffer the slings and arrows of first love.

December 25

NINE: Daniel Day-Lewis follows the lead of another two-time Oscar winner, Meryl Streep, by starring in a musical. He plays a movie director juggling the seven women in his life as he prepares to helm his ninth film. Based on Federico Fellini’s classic “8½,” “Nine” is directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) and co-stars a bevy of beauties, including Oscar winners Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: Now free of Madonna, Guy Ritchie gets back to the business of making pictures people want to see. And he couldn’t have found a better lure than Robert Downey Jr., who plays the iconic detective in a hunt for an evil occultist (Mark Strong). Will it be spellbinding? It’s elementary, my dear Watson (Jude Law), especially with the gorgeous Rachel McAdams as the master’s feisty love interest.

IT’S COMPLICATED: Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep play a divorced couple that cannot seem to keep their hands off each other, much to the consternation of Alec’s young wife (Lake Bell) and Meryl’s flummoxed, wannabe suitor played by Steve Martin. The picture is the latest from writer-director Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give,” “What Women Want”), who is out to prove that bedroom shenanigans shouldn’t be limited to people under 35.

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS: Heath Ledger fans rejoice. Terry Gilliam provides you one last chance to see the late, great actor in action in this phantasmagoric tale about a troubled traveling showman who provides his audience the opportunity to tap into their subconscious. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell co-star.

YOUNG VICTORIA: Emily Blunt gets in touch with her inner prude by donning wigs and corsets to play Queen Victoria in her formative (and most chaste) years. She’s pure, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a host of gold diggers eager to get inside her bloomers. With a script by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) this one sounds like a royal treat.

A SINGLE MAN: Colin Firth, one of our most under appreciated actors, scores the role of a lifetime in this Toronto Film Festival favorite about a gay man struggling with the loss of his life partner. Julianne Moore co-stars.

BROKEN EMBRACES: Penelope Cruz looks to successfully defend her 2008 Oscar win with this semi-autobiographical tale from Pedro Almodovar about a beautiful actress developing a close bond with a celebrated film director.

Al Alexander may be reached