At the multiplex, the last two months of the year are traditionally of two minds: prestige and pure fun.
It's the awards season, when serious cinema vies for Oscar gold. And it's the holiday season, when lighter films offer stressed families a mental escape (as in vampire love story Twilight or the animated Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa).
This year, it's the awards race that is looking loopy. The road to Oscar is just beginning, and it already has taken more twists and turns than any in recent memory.
There's of course the usual question: Which movies will be worthy of competing for the Academy Award? But now there is: Which ones will really open in time to qualify?
Some thought to be in the running have dropped out, including the Robert Downey Jr.-Jamie Foxx homeless musician drama The Soloist (bumped to next spring) and the Viggo Mortensen apocalyptic drama The Road (based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, author of last year's best-picture winner, No Country for Old Men).
There have been other shifts: The Daniel Craig Holocaust-resistance saga Defiance was shifted back and now clings to a small run on Dec. 31 — the last day to qualify for awards.
Another World War II-era film, The Reader with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, was moved up to compete this year instead of next, causing a very public war between its powerful producers, Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein.
If the Motion Picture Academy recognized behind-the-scenes drama, these movies would definitely be contenders.
"Basically, every studio is tight for money and making their bests bets for the Oscar in a much less general way," says David Poland of Movie CityNews.com.
"It costs so much money to be in the Oscar race that if they don't have to be in it, they're getting out. The result is a lot fewer movies vying for best picture."
The complex dynamics of the race are showing.
"The illusion that this all happens because a movie is good is out the window," Poland says. "The reality is, there is a structure and a business to campaigning for an Oscar."
He predicts further shuffling. "I'm hearing that some films may be getting back into the season because there are so few movies in play."
Broadway to Oscar?
Among the prestige films with high Oscar hopes are two adaptations of popular Broadway plays: Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a dueling nun and priest in the drama Doubt, and Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as a dueling reporter and ex-president in Frost/Nixon.
Intimate films such as The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke as a struggling brawler, and Slumdog Millionaire, about a poor Indian kid competing in the regional version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, are shaping up to be strong competitors.
Several star-powered studio vehicles also are lining up for the gold, including Seven Pounds, with Will Smith as a mysterious man trying to give away everything for a chance at redemption; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with Brad Pitt as a man who ages backward; and Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, about a racist retiree who grapples with his prejudice in a gang-infested neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio reunite for the first time since Titanic in Revolutionary Road.
A Time to Experiment
Jeff Bock, box-office tracker for Exhibitor Relations, says this is the time of year when stars try more unusual roles.
"If you're Will Smith," he says, "this is when you do a film that pushes you as an artist or is closer to your heart."
Or closer to your homeland. Three Aussies — Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, and filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) — have teamed up for Australia.
"It looks like a throwback to enjoyable moviemaking and escapism," Bock says of the epic-sized romance. "Maybe this is Baz's Titanic."