December is the most anticipated month of the year for film lovers. This is when Oscar season kicks into high gear. Strangely, though, 2012 is almost completely devoid of typical holiday movies; the only one that even comes close is the just-released Rise of the Guardians, an animated film featuring a buffed-up Santa Claus.
Instead of good tidings and cheer, this year the movie studios are giving you Middle Earth, a couple going through a mid-life crisis, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a slave revenge fantasy and, of course, a musical about miserable people in France.
Without further adieu, here are the five most anticipated films of the holiday season:
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (December 14)
Nine years after writer/director Peter Jackson delivered the final masterpiece in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's returning to Middle Earth with The Hobbit.
Reasons why it's so anticipated: Seeing familiar characters like Gandalf, Gollum and a younger version of Bilbo Baggins — not to mention cameos by Legolas and Galadriel — feels like returning home again. Jackson promises an experience that's truer to life than ever seen before, thanks to filming at 48 frames per second (although not everybody will get to see it). And it's Jackson getting back to what he does best — following two underwhelming films, King Kong and The Lovely Bones.
Possible reasons to worry: After the smashing success of the first trilogy, can The Hobbit live up to such high expectations? And then there's the fact that they're splitting a 310-page book into three separate movies. The second, The Desolation of Smaug, will be released in December 2013, and the finale, There and Back Again, will hit theaters in July 2014. The original trilogy made sense because there were three books; can Jackson justify doing the same to The Hobbit?
THIS IS 40 (December 21)
Writer/director Judd Apatow takes two supporting characters from Knocked Up and gives them their own movie.
Reasons why it's so anticipated: A few clunkers aside, Apatow has been making hilarious movies since 2004. The film stars Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann, who almost always deliver the goods. At the very least, it looks a lot better than The Guilt Trip and Parental Guidance, the other two "comedies" being released in December.
Possible reasons to worry: It's a pseudo-sequel, and everyone knows it's difficult to re-create the magic a second time around, especially when you're expanding certain characters' roles. Plus, it's the only film on this list that's not vying for an Oscar nomination, so expectations must be lowered accordingly.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (December 21)
Director Kathryn Bigelow takes on one of the biggest stories of world in recent years — the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden.
Reasons why it's so anticipated: If there's anyone to trust with such heavy material, it's the director who successfully turned a low-budget film about a bomb specialist in Iraq — The Hurt Locker — into a Best Picture winner. There's also the natural curiosity to see exactly how the world's most wanted man was brought to justice, even in a dramatized manner.
Possible reasons to worry: Much like Jackson, can Bigelow repeat her earlier success? Will the controversy around the film — did Bigelow have access to top secret information? — overwhelm the final product on the screen? Oh, who am I kidding? This is already the film to beat come Oscars time.
DJANGO UNCHAINED (December 25)
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino continues his obsession with B movies with a story about a slave out for vengeance, with Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio on board.
Reasons why it's so anticipated: Tarantino's style is an acquired taste, but for those like me who love his work, a new movie from him is cause for celebration. Although his films have always pushed the boundary of good taste, dealing with slave-era America in such a manner is his boldest bet yet. Plus, the soundtrack is sure to be killer.
Possible reasons to worry: Did I mention that he pushes the boundary of good taste? This is also Tarantino's first film since his longtime editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010. Will new editor Fred Raskin be able to rein in Tarantino's wild impulses like Menke did?
LES MISERABLES (December 25)
One of the best-known musicals of all time finally makes its big screen debut.
Reasons why it's so anticipated: Have you seen the original trailer? If not, stop what you're doing and watch it now: It's that good. Big stars like Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe have left vanity behind and given themselves over to this tale of sorrow and redemption. Plus, director Tom Hooper — who made The King's Speech into an Oscar-winning phenomenon — had his actors sing their lines live on set, lending their actions an even deeper sense of authenticity.
Possible reasons to worry: Well, if you don't like musicals, you've probably already skipped over this entry. Otherwise, this is one of the surer bets of the season.
And the runners-up are:
The Impossible, the story of a family ripped apart by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand; Amour, a French-language film about an elderly couple whose love is tested by infirmity; and Promised Land, starring Matt Damon as a worker for a natural gas company who comes to question his line of work.