Hollywood rolls out its winter movies, but which will be award contenders?

Okay, Hollywood, you have one more month to salvage 2011 from becoming one of the most humdrum movie years in recent memory.

Hopefully you've saved the best for last, as usual.

The holidays are lots of things to lots of people. To movie studios they're an opportunity to prove themselves capable of more than 3-D comic book/video game adventures, dumb comedies, dumber horror and sequels supported by undiscerning audiences.

This is when art drives Hollywood rather then commerce. Of course, if commerce wants to hitch a ride, that's fine, too, and somewhat reassuring. Few expected The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Fighter or True Grit to become box office hits at this time last year.

But that kind of success for sophisticated cinema requires more patience than usual. Genuine award contenders need to keep awareness and momentum building into 2012, keeping them fresh in the minds of Academy Awards and Golden Globes voters. That means slow rollouts, first in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for awards and gradually to medium-sized markets like Tampa Bay or smaller.

As always, the release dates listed are subject to change by distributors reading review and box office results like peppermint tea leaves. Check our upcoming releases listing each week to learn any new wrinkles.

Best wishes for safe, happy holidays, and better movies, too.

DECEMBER | AWARD CONTENDERS .

Young Adult (Dec. 16)

The story: A divorced author (Charlize Theron) returns to her hometown to rekindle romance with her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). Trouble is, he's happily married with children. This comedy reunites the Juno director (Jason Reitman) and Oscar-winning screenwriter (Diablo Cody).

The buzz: Reitman's previous two movies (Juno, Up in the Air) were best picture nominees, so there's academy respect. Cody needs to prove that she isn't a one-hit wonder, while Theron's career has been slumping for years. If everyone's on their game, Young Adult can be in the running through awards season.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 21)

The story: The search for a missing woman sends a crusading reporter (Daniel Craig) and a kinky computer hacker (Rooney Mara) rattling through a wealthy family's skeletons. Preview trailers threaten a practically shot-for-shot remake of the original Swedish version. Director David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) seems too smart for that.

The buzz: The enormous popularity of Stieg Larsson's book trilogy ensures an adapted screenplay nod, and "Lisbeth Salander" gives Mara the kind of role that voters can't ignore, if done properly. Beyond that, major prospects are limited unless Fincher pulls off something spectacular. The only remake of an import to ever win a best picture Oscar is The Departed.

The Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 21)

The story: The fan-boy combo of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson adapt a comic book series that's enormously popular . . . in Europe. Not so much in the U.S. of A. Tintin is a young Belgian reporter with a whip-smart dog named Snowy, embarking upon a swashbuckling treasure hunt off the coast of Morocco. Spielberg uses motion capture animation to disguise the presence of Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis and Jamie Bell.

The buzz: Maybe a best animated feature Oscar nod, or for John Williams' umpteenth stirring musical score. Or maybe Spielberg and Jackson are overestimating this one's appeal.

In the Land of Blood and Honey (Dec. 23)

The story: Angelina Jolie makes her screenwriting and directing debut with a somber tale set against the Balkan War. Danijel (Goran Kostic) is a Serbian soldier who was smitten with a Bosnian woman named Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) before the war. Years later, she's a captive in the prison camp he commands.

The buzz: Only Jolie's popularity puts this one on the academy's radar. But she's making it tough for voters by insisting upon subtitles for the U.S. release, even after shooting an English-language version. There are also irate feelings from Muslim groups about Ajla falling in love with her torturer. Probably the longest odds for major awards on this list.

The Artist (Dec. 25)

The story: A silent film star (Jean Dujardin) believes talkies are a passing fad, hitting bottom while the ingenue he discovered (Bérénice Bejo) rises to the top. Director Michel Hazanavicius crafts both a valentine to the era and a spoof of vintage musicals from A Star Is Born to Singin' in the Rain. You almost forget that you're watching a black-and-white, mostly silent movie.

The buzz: No other movie enchanted festival audiences as much, or raised as much discussion of why it can't win major Academy Awards. Dujardin, channeling Gene Kelly, won a best actor prize at Cannes and like Hazanavicius seems a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Selling voters on the notion that despite its Gallic core The Artist isn't a foreign import improves its best picture chances.

War Horse (Dec. 25)

The story: During World War I an English lad (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey are separated when the steed is drafted for military service. Directed by Steven Spielberg with all the battleground grandeur that cinematographer Janusz Kaminski can capture and composer John Williams can score.

The buzz: Relatively no-name actors make acting nominations unlikely. Word has it that the horse delivers the best performance, anyway. Spielberg in wartime immediately conjures fond memories of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List for academy voters. War Horse is a definite best picture player, as long as it doesn't wind up being another dull Empire of the Sun or daffy 1941.

JANUARY | AWARD CONTENDERS

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Jan. 6)

The story: Former spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is pulled from retirement by suspicion that a mole is operating in British Intelligence. The cast is impressively British and intelligent: Colin Firth, John Hurt and Tom Hardy, plus someone named Benedict Cumberbatch, so you know he's from across the pond. Based on the novel by John le Carré, emerging from the shadows of a BBC version starring Alec Guinness.

The buzz: The intrigue may be too dense for best picture consideration; academy members typically breeze through DVD screeners until something locks their attention. Oldman has a shot if Guinness' ghost doesn't get in the way, and adapting a classic novel seldom fails to impress voters.

The Iron Lady (Jan. 13)

The story: A glossy biography of Margaret Thatcher, who became Great Britain's first female prime minister and Ronald Reagan's conservative soulmate.

The buzz: Any movie starring Meryl Streep is poised to collect at least one Academy Award nomination — except Mamma Mia!, also directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Streep goes for No. 17 in her illustrious career but hasn't won an Oscar since 1983. Her transformation into Thatcher seems to be this movie's best shot, especially after The King's Speech dominated last awards season.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jan. 20)

The story: The son of a man killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack searches New York for the lock fitting a key his father left behind. Stephen Daldry directs with a screenplay adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's bestselling novel.

The buzz: The serious topic is Oscar bait enough. Add a cast including a pair of previous winners (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock), the screenwriter of Forrest Gump and the love voters displayed for Daldry's The Hours, Billy Elliot and The Reader and you have academy catnip.

Carnage (Jan. 20)

The story: Two married couples meet for the first time after their sons are involved in a playground fight. What is intended to be a cordial discussion deteriorates into a vicious comedy of ill manners. Adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway production, and directed by film maestro and cultural lightning rod Roman Polanski.

The buzz: Not as loud as you'd expect for a Polanski movie starring Oscar winners Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, with John C. Reilly to boot. Maybe it's too stagy for the screen, or perhaps comedy simply isn't what Polanski does well. (Remember Pirates and The Fearless Vampire Killers? You shouldn't.)

Shame (Jan. 20)

The story: A sex-addicted Manhattanite (Michael Fassbender) gets his lascivious lifestyle disrupted when his troubled sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in. Another downbeat shocker from director Steve McQueen, whose 2008 art house hit Hunger sent people scurrying to the exits.

The buzz: McQueen refused to edit his movie for an R, so it will be distributed with an NC-17 rating that practically ruins its chances for Oscar notice. That is, unless the academy wants to prove how adventurous it can be. Graphic sex and frontal nudity typically isn't Oscar's bag.

Albert Nobbs (Jan. 27)

The story: Glenn Close earned raves on the festival circuit, portraying a woman in 19th century Ireland posing as a man to gain employment as a butler. Thirty years later, she's aching to drop the disguise and be herself.

The buzz: Close is playing the nomination game to perfection, visiting key pre-awards festivals in Telluride and Toronto to accept career achievement awards. It's a subtle reminder to the academy that after five nominations over 30 years she has never won an Oscar. This could be her time.

AWARDS AREN'T REALLY IN THEIR PICTURE

Not every movie this season is aiming for awards. These five December offerings are eligible — and could nab a few technical nominations — but are produced purely to pay the studio bills:

New Year's Eve

After the irritating treacle of Valentine's Day, director Garry Marshall returns to spoil another festive occasion. He has a good start, casting a who's who of box office poison top-lined by Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Ashton Kutcher and Hilary Swank. Then he adds pros like Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer completely out of their element with frothy comedy. Dec. 9

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. can certainly kick off a movie franchise (Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes), but he has yet to star in a decent sequel. He reprises his unorthodox sleuth, facing his most notorious foe, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who is plotting political assassination. Jude Law co-stars as Dr. Watson, along with Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo. Dec. 16

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

Proving once again that anything produced for kids during the holidays will be successful. Anything. Dec. 16

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

After five years of flops (and a hilarious cameo in Tropic Thunder) Tom Cruise returns to the scene of his last hit. This time his espionage team is wrongfully accused of bombing the Kremlin, and disavowed by the U.S. government, as it always threatened to do back in the 1960s. Dec. 21

We Bought a Zoo

Escaping the rat race, a widower (Matt Damon) buys and renovates a zoo with all the animal trimmings. The movie marks the return of writer-director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), based on the true-life experiences of author Benjamin Mee. Sounds like the Marley & Me crowd has something to enjoy during the holidays. Dec. 23

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

Hollywood rolls out its winter movies, but which will be award contenders? 11/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 5:28pm]

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