Has Hollywood saved the best for last? That's usually the game plan, as the studios backload their prestige projects for release in the year's final weeks, in hopes that they'll be fresh in the minds of critics making their top 10 lists and voters casting their awards-season ballots. That means you'll be able to take a break from your holiday shopping with the latest work from acclaimed filmmakers Darren Aronofsky, Sofia Coppola, David O. Russell and the Coen brothers. Or, if you have the kids in tow, the new Chronicles of Narnia or TRON movies. There should be something for everyone, as the 12 films selected in our preview will illustrate. Note that release dates are subject to change.
The stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey
The director: Darren Aronofsky
The plot: A ballerina (Portman) wins a role in a New York production of Swan Lake, but is threatened both personally and professionally by her understudy (Kunis).
The buzz: Aronofsky follows up The Wrestler with this offbeat psychological thriller, which won raves in Venice and Toronto, as well as at last month's Austin Film Festival. Portman's performance is already generating plenty of Oscar buzz.
I Love You Phillip Morris
The stars: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro
The directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
The plot: While incarcerated, a Texas con man (Carrey) falls for another convict (McGregor), whom he vows to free from prison.
The buzz: After its well-received debut at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, this offbeat romance (based on a true story) was delayed again and again as its distributor became embroiled in a legal battle. Directors Ficarra and Requa are best known for writing that timeless holiday favorite Bad Santa, and Carrey's performance is said to be one of his best.
The stars: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell
The director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
The plot: An American tourist (Depp) finds himself mistaken for a criminal after meeting a mysterious woman (Jolie) on a train.
The buzz: Does the plot really matter when this Hitchcockian thriller boasts the combined star power of Depp and Jolie? Maybe not, but it's worth noting that director von Donnersmarck, best known for The Lives of Others, co-wrote the screenplay with Oscar winners Christopher McQuarrie ( The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes ( Gosford Park).
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The stars: Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Simon Pegg, Tilda Swinton
The director: Michael Apted
The plot: A magical painting transports Edmund (Keynes) and Lucy (Henley) back to Narnia, where they join King Caspian (Barnes) on a perilous journey.
The buzz: The third installment in the series based on the novels by C.S. Lewis features a new director in veteran Apted ( Nell, Gorillas in the Mist), but otherwise it should be business as usual -- that is, huge business for a franchise that has already grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide.
The stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams
The director: David O. Russell
The plot: With the help of his troubled brother (Bale), an aging boxer (Wahlberg) takes one last shot at the welterweight title.
The buzz: The true story of Massachusetts boxer "Irish" Micky Ward has been Wahlberg's passion project for years. When original director Darren Aronofsky and co-star Brad Pitt both dropped out, Wahlberg recruited notorious hotheads Russell ( Three Kings) and Bale -- a volatile mix worthy of the film's intense subject matter.
The stars: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen
The director: Joseph Kosinski
The plot: A computer programmer (Hedlund) is pulled into the same virtual reality that his father (Bridges) disappeared into decades earlier.
The buzz: Who knew that Disney's cheesy 1982 sci-fi adventure Tron was remembered so fondly? Special-effects technology has come a long way since then, as demonstrated by scenes in which the 60-year-old Bridges is digitally transformed into his younger self.
The stars: Dan Aykroyd, Justin Timberlake, Anna Faris, Christine Taylor, Tom Cavanagh
The director: Eric Brevig
The plot: Smarter-than-average bear Yogi (Aykroyd) and his sidekick Boo-Boo (Timberlake) scheme to steal picnic baskets in Jellystone Park while avoiding Ranger Smith (Cavanagh).
The buzz: Director Brevig ( Journey to the Center of the Earth) sticks to the formula that worked for the big-screen Scooby-Doo movies with this adaptation of another vintage Hanna-Barbera cartoon: live-action humans and CGI critters. Without much competition for the kiddie market, Yogi looks to be the top drop-off spot for children of parents shopping for last-minute gifts.
How Do You Know
The stars: Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson
The director: James L. Brooks
The plot: A former softball star (Witherspoon) is torn between a corporate executive (Rudd) and her baseball-player boyfriend (Wilson).
The buzz: The team of Brooks and Nicholson has a pretty good track record: Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets. But it's the younger cast members who could make How Do You Know a huge holiday hit as well as an awards contender.
The stars: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper
The directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
The plot: A young girl (Steinfeld) hires a gruff U.S. marshal (Bridges) and a young Texas Ranger (Damon) to find her father's killer.
The buzz: To hear the Coen brothers tell it, this is less a remake of the 1969 Western (for which John Wayne won his only Academy Award) than a fresh and reportedly more faithful adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis. Shot primarily in the Texas Hill Country, this could be the Coens' biggest box-office hit, as well as a genuine Best Picture contender.
The stars: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Owen Wilson, Barbra Streisand
The director: Paul Weitz
The plot: The third installment in the "Meet the Parents" franchise finds Greg Focker (Stiller) once again arousing the suspicions of father-in-law Jack (De Niro).
The buzz: Weitz replaces Jay Roach, who directed the first two Fockers comedies, while Dustin Hoffman, who originally sat out this sequel, returned for a week of reshoots after a deal was finally reached. None of the backstage turmoil should affect the box-office prospects for this Christmas blockbuster-in-waiting.
The stars: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius, Michelle Monaghan
The director: Sofia Coppola
The plot: A hard-partying Hollywood actor (Dorff) struggles with the responsibilities of fatherhood when his ex drops off their 11-year-old daughter (Fanning).
The buzz: Following up the offbeat period piece Marie Antoinette, Coppola returns to the world of show-biz ennui that she explored in Lost in Translation. Dorff isn't anywhere near the draw Bill Murray was in that acclaimed film, but this may be the comeback role he's been looking for.
The Company Men
The stars: Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones
The director: John Wells
The plot: In a story ripped from today's headlines, three corporate execs and their families are victims of downsizing and layoffs.
The buzz: The feature-film directorial debut from E.R. honcho Wells is the first major Hollywood narrative film since Up in the Air to deal with economic reverberations from the financial collapse.