It's time for Hollywood to get serious about self-congratulation. Or else give The Dark Knight every major Academy Award and call it a year.
After 11 profitable months — mostly vulgar comedies, popcorn action and wayward drama — Hollywood enters the holiday movie season when the year's most accomplished films are traditionally released. Some even make money. But that isn't why they're here.
This is the industry's chance to convince itself that what it does is truly art, and everything before just pays the bills. Winning an Oscar or Golden Globe — or just being nominated — puts the pandering stuff in the rearview mirror for an actor, filmmaker or studio.
Restaurant seating improves. Agents rework deals. The good life gets even better, with awards banquets and posh parties all the way through Feb. 22, when the Academy Awards end the insanity.
There's still room on the calendar for fast-buck features such as Cadillac Records (Dec. 5), Nothing But the Truth (Dec. 19) and The Spirit (Dec. 25). But we're focusing on 14 holiday offerings expected to contend for year-end prizes, plus five others that will be satisfied with boffo box office results.
As always, release dates are subject to change. Happy holidays.
The envelope, please
Some movies are born into award season greatness; others have that potential thrust upon them by early critical raves or gilded pedigrees. These seven movies expected in the Tampa Bay area before the New Year fit the bill:
Milk | Dec. 12
Harvey Milk was San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, later murdered by another politician. Sean Penn plays Milk in director Gus Van Sant's biopic, and appears poised for a run at a second best actor Oscar.
Seven Pounds | Dec. 19
Will Smith got an Oscar nomination for The Pursuit of Happyness, directed by Gabriele Muccino. They team again under emotional circumstances with Smith playing a man making amends for an auto accident that claimed seven lives.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button | Dec. 25
If the haunting preview trailer for David Fincher's fantasy is any indication, this is a best picture frontrunner. Brad Pitt stars as a man born old then aging backward, meeting the love of his strange life (Cate Blanchett) somewhere in the middle.
Frost/Nixon | Dec. 25
Frank Langella earned a Tony for bringing President Richard Nixon to life on Broadway. Now he's a likely first-time Oscar nominee in director Ron Howard's adaptation, dramatizing Nixon's epic battle with TV interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen).
Valkyrie | Dec. 25
Tom Cruise has a lot riding on this one. He plays one-eyed German Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, hatching a scheme to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the height of World War II. If this doesn't work, Cruise's only career salvation may be Risky Business II.
Slumdog Millionaire | Dec. 26
The indie sleeper of the awards season, Danny Boyle's vibrant yarn about an Indian orphan grown into a game show phenomenon is equal parts Quiz Show and Oliver Twist, with edge-of-your-seat drama and a Bollywood beat.
Doubt | Late December
Another Broadway smash, with a pair of Academy Award winners — Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman — squaring off as a domineering parochial school principal and a priest suspected of child abuse.
Each year, a number of films open in New York and Los Angeles by Dec. 31 for awards consideration, then delay wider distribution. You'll hear about these ambitious movies in national television ads and interviews long before getting chances to see them:
Che | Jan. 9
Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro portrays Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's four-hour epic (that may be divided into two parts).
Gran Torino | Jan. 9
Clint Eastwood is a perennial awards favorite, so directing and starring as a Vietnam War veteran forging a shaky bond with Asian-American neighbors may deliver another Million Dollar Baby surprise.
The Reader | Jan. 9
In post-war Germany, a former concentration camp guard (Kate Winslet) faces trial for war crimes.
The Wrestler | Jan. 16
A semiautobiographical performance by Mickey Rourke as a washed-up pro wrestler has generated awards buzz and armchair psychology.
Defiance | Jan. 16
Polish-Jewish brothers (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell) seek revenge and sanctuary for villagers persecuted by Nazis.
Last Chance Harvey | Jan. 23
Strangers stranded at an airport (Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson) fall in love overnight.
Revolutionary Road | January
The Titanic team of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite, playing an embattled married couple in 1950s suburbia.
Just for fun
Not all holiday movies are aiming for Oscar gold. Diverting some of your shopping dollars will suffice.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Dec. 12): Remaking the 1951 sci-fi classic, Keanu Reeves plays an alien visitor threatening to destroy our world before we do.
The Tale of Despereaux (Dec. 19): A well-read mouse (voice of Matthew Broderick) comes to the rescue of a princess (Harry Potter's Emma Watson) in this animated adventure.
Yes Man (Dec. 19): Jim Carrey can't say no, making him want to cry "uncle," in a comical fantasy perhaps too similar to his truth-telling compulsion in Liar, Liar.
Marley & Me (Dec. 25): A married couple (Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson) learn valuable life lessons from their dog. Based on John Grogan's bestselling book.
Bedtime Stories (Dec. 25): Bad boy Adam Sandler starring in a family-friendly flick? Maybe this is the day the Earth stands still.