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2012 winter movies play it by the book

Ahh, the holiday season. When it's so nice to climb into flannel jammies, pour a steaming cup of cocoa and settle by a roaring fireplace with a good book. • Who am I kidding? This is Florida, and the last thing we need for the holidays is more warmth. The book's a nice idea, though. At least Hollywood thinks so. • Not that movie studios want you staying home to enjoy great literature. Theater marquees during this holiday season will resemble library shelves, with titles ranging from Anna Karenina to Life of Pi, and authors as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien and Victor Hugo. • It's no coincidence that the holidays also mark the start of awards season, and nothing in Hollywood says "prestige" louder than "based on the bestselling book." • Our annual holiday movie guide focuses on the remaining 2012 films most likely to join the list of Academy Award contenders. You'll notice a couple of big names in genre flicks missing: Tom Cruise as author Lee Child's tough guy Jack Reacher (Dec. 21) and Brad Pitt in George V. Higgins' crime yarn Killing Them Softly (Nov. 30). • Neither should Gerard Butler (Playing for Keeps, Dec. 7), Barbra Streisand (The Guilt Trip, Dec. 19) or writer-director Judd Apatow (This is 40, Dec. 20) rush to make plans to attend Oscar night at the Hollywood's rechristened Dolby Theater. Those movies aren't even based on bestsellers. • But these 12 movies appear to be charming the academy members, as literary adaptations often do. When it comes to handing out awards, Hollywood likes playing by the book.

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This year's holiday movie season began in earnest Wednesday with the debuts of three award contenders:

Life of Pi (PG-13)

Ang Lee's movie is a sumptuous 3-D fantasy based on Yann Martel's novel about a boy's survival at sea, sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Life of Pi beautifully realizes 3-D's potential as a storytelling device rather than a gimmick, keeping viewers fascinated through the movie's misguided climax. Full review

Silver Linings Playbook (R)

This is writer-director David O. Russell's followup to The Fighter, based on Matthew Quick's novel. Bradley Cooper stars as a man dealing with bipolar disorder, a dysfunctional family led by Robert De Niro and an equally unstable love interest (Jennifer Lawrence). Full review

Rise of the Guardians

William Joyce's book becomes a frenetic, frequently beautiful 3-D animated film, featuring a Justice League of childhood icons. Santa Claus (voice of Alec Baldwin) leads the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) in a mission to prevent evil Pitch Black (Jude Law) from making all dreams nightmares. Full review

NOV. 30

Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley slips back into her corsets to play the tragic title character of Leo Tolstoy's novel. The story has been filmed plenty of times — famously with Greta Garbo — but never before like this. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) keeps most of the drama confined to a theater with inventive blocking and set changes, and a tone reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.

DEC. 7

Hitchcock

A buffet for film buffs, starring Anthony Hopkins in an adaptation of Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Hopkins is superb as expected, and Helen Mirren matches him as Hitch's wife and creative consultant Alma Reville. Some details of Sacha Gervasi's movie are jaw-dropping, like Hitchcock ordering the purchase of all copies of Robert Bloch's Psycho, so audiences wouldn't know how his movie ends.

DEC. 14

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

One ring rules them all but three movies aren't enough to cover J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of Middle-earth. Director and co-writer Peter Jackson revives his Lord of the Rings wizardry by turning to Tolkien's first adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen). They're joined by a band of dwarves on a quest to reclaim treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug. Expect a cliffhanger: Two more Hobbit flicks are slated for release in 2013 and 2014.

DEC. 25

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo's sweeping novel set in 19th century France inspired two dozen conventional film and TV versions before it became a Broadway musical smash. Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) tackles the sing-through pursuit of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) during revolutionary times. Anne Hathaway as Fantine appears headed back to the Oscars show, this time as a nominee. She dreams a dream of time to come.

Django Unchained

Okay, so it's not based on a book, but it's Quentin Tarantino, so what's a !@#$%&@#$%&! supposed to do? The Q-man turns his grindhouse revisionism to spaghetti Westerns, with a side order of blaxploitation. Jamie Foxx stars as a former slave hellbent on freeing his wife, aided by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). There's Oscar buzz for Leonardo DiCaprio as "inglourious" plantation owner Calvin Candie.

Four more Hollywood gifts to moviegoers are on layaway, opening in L.A. and New York before New Year's Eve to be Oscar-eligible, and few other places until early 2013. It's a strategy intended to sustain visibility and momentum until the nominations are announced Jan. 10. • Coincidentally, all four latecomers aren't based on books, although it's easy to find reading material on their subjects. Here's the skinny plus suggestions for your Kindle, Nook or perhaps a library visit:

JAN. 4

Promised Land

Matt Damon and John Krasinski (TV's The Office) co-wrote this environmental drama, and respectively co-star as a natural gas industry representative and the farmer whose land he wants to buy for fracking purposes. Other farmers sell, and soon find their fields destroyed by the drilling technique. Read about it in Tom Wilbur's Under the Surface.

Hyde Park on Hudson

The talk of the Telluride Film Festival was Bill Murray's deft impersonation of Franklin D. Roosevelt, carrying on an affair with his cousin (Laura Linney) and entertaining King George VI (the stuttering one) and Queen Elizabeth during a weekend in upstate New York. Read Margaret Suckley's diaries and letters from FDR in Closest Companion, edited by Geoffrey C. Ward.

JAN. 11

Zero Dark Thirty

The Hurt Locker's Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal take aim at the decadelong hunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie reportedly focuses on a CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) sorting clues leading to the 9/11 terrorist attack leader, and Navy SEAL Team Six forces closing in. Read No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden by Mark Owen and Kevin Maurer.

DATE TO BE ANNOUNCED

The Impossible

A British family separated by an earthquake and tsunami struggle to find each other in decimated Thailand. Based on a true story, Naomi Watts plays the mother, Ewan McGregor the father, but the awesome special effects are the star of the preview trailers. Read William W. Lace's account of the disaster in The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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2012 winter movies play it by the book 11/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 4:13pm]

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