Will moviegoers be facing a winter wonderland or merely a big chill?
That's always the question asked at this time of year, when the studios stop fidgeting with their fall releases and bring out the big guns of the holiday season. It's that window of opportunity when studios hope their movies will rake in gobs of cash (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chicken Little), gobs of awards (Memoirs of a Geisha, Brokeback Mountain) or gobs of both (The Producers, King Kong). Oscar-bait performers (Sean Penn, Judi Dench) and directors (Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen) will be making the rounds, but so will individuals who have as much chance of seeing glittering prizes (that means you, Johnny Knoxville) as Michael Moore has of being the Republicans' presidential nominee in 2008.
On paper, the season holds promise: I'll endure dreadful-looking releases like Cheaper By the Dozen 2 if the trade-off is that such highly anticipated titles as Walk the Line and Jarhead live up to their potential. However, to paraphrase the sports cliché "That's why they play the games," that's why we watch the movies -- to see whether they confirm or shatter our expectations. With that in mind, here's a look at the titles headed our way over the next two months (and beyond), films that will hopefully prove to be worth their weight in Oscar gold.
PLOT: A small chicken known for his unreliability must convince his neighbors that the sky really is falling, the collateral damage caused by invading aliens.
TALKING POINTS: This computer-animated effort from Disney features vocal work by Zach Braff, Joan Cusack, Fred Willard and... Adam West?... Regardless of the film's quality, if I'm forced to watch its trailer one more time (it's seemingly been attached to every motion picture released since early spring), I might have to go on a KFC rampage for revenge.
PLOT: Disturbed by what's taking place around him, a Marine (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to make it out of the Gulf War alive.
TALKING POINTS: Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs, with Jamie Foxx and Peter Sarsgaard backing up Gyllenhaal as fellow Jarheads... With its timely tale of a warmongering President named Bush sending young Americans to their deaths solely for self-serving interests, expect this film to receive lots of ink on Op-Ed pages.
PLOT: An unassuming employee (Claire Danes) at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills finds herself being romantically wooed by a wealthy older gentleman (Steve Martin) and a struggling younger slacker (Jason Schwartzman).
TALKING POINTS: Martin also wrote the screenplay, based on his own novella... This is the first of Danes' two year-end offerings, the other being The Family Stone.
GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN'
PLOT: Hoping to leave his life of crime behind, a prominent drug dealer (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) tries to cut it as a rap star.
TALKING POINTS: Just as director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) successfully turned Eminem into a box office draw with 8 Mile, director Jim Sheridan (In America) hopes to do the same with 50 Cent... Terrence Howard, who starred in this past summer's similar Hustle & Flow (about a pimp trying to make it as a rap star), appears in a supporting role.
PLOT: Two business executives (Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston) married to other people carry on an affair until a blackmailer comes calling.
TALKING POINTS: With two films out this winter (this and Rumor Has It), Aniston hopes to make headlines for her professional assignments rather than her personal ups and downs, while Owen will seek to build on the newfound clout established by his Oscar-nominated turn in last year's Closer.
KISS KISS BANG BANG
PLOT: After a thief on the run (Robert Downey Jr.) stumbles into an audition for a detective film and lands the leading role, he finds that his technical advisor on the project will be a gay PI (Val Kilmer).
TALKING POINTS: Shane Black, best known as the creator of the Lethal Weapon series, makes his directorial debut.
PRIDE & PREJUDICE
PLOT: In 19th century England, the Bennett sisters seek suitable husbands, though pretty Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) has her hands full with a love-and-hate affair with Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen).
TALKING POINTS: Bridget Jones's Diary and Bride & Prejudice both updated Jane Austen's classic story, but this marks the first straightforward theatrical rendition since the Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier version from 1940 (though there have been several TV adaptations since then, most notably the 1995 miniseries that made Colin Firth a star)... As the girls' parents, look for Donald Sutherland's understated acting to balance out Brenda Blethyn's expected histrionics.
PLOT: While home alone, two brothers discover a board game that, when played, magically whisks them into outer space.
TALKING POINTS: If this plot sounds suspiciously like Jumanji minus the jungle setting, that's because both films are based on books by children's author Chris Van Allsburg... Jon Favreau, better known as an actor (Swingers), previously directed the holiday smash, Elf.