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Winter Movie Survey - 1


By Kat Murphy
Special to MSN Movies

Jazzed at the prospect of two months packed with holiday pleasure, from Thanksgiving turkey feasts to Christmas' orgy of gift-giving and getting? Jump-start your cinematic fun by turning off your Smartphone and your iPad and your monster-screen TV! 'Tis the season when movie marquees sparkle and shine, luring us into 2012's biggest, best and sexiest flicks. During November and December we're invited to become cinematic gluttons, banqueting on lashings of Oscar-worthy fare as well as extra servings of rich big-screen entertainment. But then comes the New Year hangover: January's the month traditionally designated as a dumping ground for second- and third-tier movies, oddball flicks, product that Hollywood doesn't know how to market ... in short, holiday leftovers.

Happily, MSN's Winter Survey is ready to guide you through the blizzard of new releases, signposting the good, the bad and the ugly.

Oscar bait: The dudes

Brooding nobly on the "Lincoln" one-sheet, Daniel Day-Lewis looks every inch the Great Emancipator -- it's the kind of potent image that commands Oscar's instant attention (though the actor's Lincoln-light voice may disappoint). Working from Doris Kearns Goodwin's monumental biography "Team of Rivals," Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner dramatize the beleaguered president's final months in office, as he struggles to reconstitute a nation. Day-Lewis is backed by a team of worthy thespian "rivals" in this holiday heavy-hitter: David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Bing: More on Joseph Gordon-Levitt | More about Daniel Day-Lewis

Showcasing the character of another legendary American president, "Hyde Park on Hudson" stars Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a dashing, not yet wheelchair-bound patrician with an eye for the ladies. When England's king and queen visit FDR's home on the Hudson River to enlist an ally in a looming world war, the president juggles foreign and very personal affairs. In his first starring role since "Broken Flowers," the brilliantly eccentric Murray might well spike Oscar interest.

While Spielberg's "Lincoln" guarantees gravitas, "Les Miserables" will surely play emotional arpeggios on moviegoers' heartstrings. Once a hard-hitting novel by Victor Hugo, this longest-running stage musical comes to the screen courtesy of Tom Hooper, 2010's (unworthy) winner of Best Director honors for "The King's Speech." With Russell Crowe as obsessed cop Javert, forever in pursuit of Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman's noble ex-con -- both Aussies singing up a storm -- we're sure to be emotionally gobsmacked as we spectate through the seedier environs of 19th-century France.

Leaving history (and years of stop-motion filmmaking) behind for modern-day ills, Robert Zemeckis' "Flight" zeroes in on the redemptive journey of an alcoholic pilot (Denzel Washington), lionized when he successfully lands a damaged plane but is subsequently exposed as a drunk. Good to see Washington stepping out of formulaic action-hero roles to play an ordinary Joe who falls from grace. If Denzel brings his A-game, a third Oscar could be in the cards.

Transitioning from the possibly sublime to the potentially ridiculous, picture Sean Penn in full Goth mode, haloed by a coal-black scraggly mane, sporting raccoon eyes and carmine lips, his drifty delivery smeared by decades of dope. In "This Must Be the Place," Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging, once-famous rock star scouring America for the Nazi war criminal his Holocaust survivor father hunted until his recent death. Hard to say whether this deeply oddball role will garner awards attention for the activist-actor, who's already got two Oscars in hand.

Oscar bait: The divas

Hollywood's really pillaging history and best-selling novels this season: Joe Wright and Keira Knightley ("Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement") have hooked up again to reinterpret Tolstoy's romantic epic "Anna Karenina." (Tom Stoppard, Oscar winner for "Shakespeare in Love," adapted the novel.) Action is largely confined to a single theater, to emphasize the stylized, highly public roles played by Russian high society. Can Knightley deliver on her promise to turn Karenina into an anti-hero? Will Tolstoy be softened and prettified, made palatable to audiences less than fascinated with moral-ethical nuances when it comes to amour fou?

Seems like it's always something: if not aristocratic infidelity, then the catastrophic tsunami that roars through "The Impossible." Oscar buzz has singled out Naomi Watts' performance as a woman vacationing in Thailand with her husband (Ethan Hawke) and three kids just in time for disaster. An "impossible" fight for survival gives Watts her a chance to shine as super-mother. (Spanish director J.A. Bayona helmed "The Orphanage," a scary, heartbreaking ghost story about a "madonna" who risks everything to heal dead children.)

"Rust and Bone," another heartbreaker about distaff courage, could give Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose," "The Dark Knight Rises") a shot at a second Oscar. When a woman who trains killer whales suffers a life-altering accident, she finds support from an unlikely source: a bare-knuckle boxer. "Rust and Bone" has been trailing buzz since the Cannes Film Festival. Could it follow in the footsteps of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a ruined-body drama that bagged four Oscar noms?

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Hot properties

Still touting European gems, "Amour" is a must-see. Directed by the usually cerebral master Michael Haneke, this tale of loving, long-married folks facing the vicissitudes of growing old has been hailed as wise, warm and deeply moving. The fading beauty of two legendary stars of French cinema -- Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both in their 80s -- adds to "Amour"'s power and poignancy.

We've come to think of Taiwan-born director Ang Lee as a native son, as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Taking Woodstock" seem uniquely American fictions. "Life of Pi" is more exotic: A young boy (Suraj Sharma) survives the sinking of his ship, then finds himself alone in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Adapted from a best-selling novel, "Pi" is all about faith, what sustains a soul in extremis. While paying homage to the natural world, the film is a visual-effects marvel. Much anticipated, this mysterious and beautiful movie could be an Oscar magnet.

In "Silver Linings Playbook," also adapted from an acclaimed novel, Bradley Cooper's lost soul, just out of the loony bin, finds himself marooned with his football-obsessed parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, Oscar-nommed for "Animal Kingdom"). Having lost his wife, his job and his house, he finds sort of safe harbor with a sympathetic widow (Jennifer Lawrence) who's wrestling with her own issues. Helmer David O. Russell earned a Best Director Oscar nom for "The Fighter," another movie about familial-crazy and a son's redemption.

Two very muscular movies -- one by a woman, the other by Hollywood's most flamboyant cinephile -- dominate Christmas Day. Kathryn Bigelow won a Best Director Oscar for "The Hurt Locker," a first for a woman. Now her "Zero Dark Thirty" details the hunt for Osama bin Laden, showcasing tenacious teamwork and risk-taking among many agencies and operatives. Look for Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to show the emotional and physical strain of this notorious black-ops mission.

If Bigelow follows the tradition of American classicists like Hawks and Hitchcock, "freestyling" Quentin Tarantino is an eclectic sampler of every genre under the sun. This year he gifts us with "Django Unchained," a mutant meta-movie sporting genes from a spaghetti-Western franchise and sex-and-slavery exploitation flicks like "Mandingo." Bounty hunting, slave-owner sadism, the search for a lost slave-wife -- that's the stuff that powers Tarantino's latest roller-coaster ride through the body of cinema. "Unchained" fellow travelers include Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, RZA, et al.

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