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Jeff Marker's holiday movie guide
Penelope Cruz is one of many beautiful women who try to inspire a burnt-out film director's inner muse in "Nine."

The most wonderful movie time of the year: One of the biggest movie holidays of the year, we talk to moviegoers and experts about what they're seeing.

Movie snacks offer more variety, but still include popcorn: It's just not the same without some popcorn, candy or even cookies.

Hollywood's 2009 campaign to pull us away from shopping and egg nog and into theaters doesn't offer as many new releases as last year. But several fine films already playing or finally coming to our area should make this another strong holiday movie season.

The thinnest category this week is family films fit for younger kids. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" opens this week, leaving a trail of obnoxiousness in its wake. I can't imagine why you'd subject your children or yourselves to that one, especially when "The Princess and the Frog" is still playing.

Nor is there much for those craving something more highbrow. Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," Heath Ledger's final role, looked to be a holiday release but has been pushed back to January. Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," again starring Penelope Cruz, opens on Christmas Day, but you'll have to drive to Atlanta to see it.

What we will get is a good mixture of crowd-pleasers. Here's a rundown of the best holiday movies playing locally.


Now playing, rated PG-13

James Cameron has produced a $300 million contradiction. "Avatar" is one of the greatest visual spectacles in movie history. At times it reminded me of seeing "Star Wars" for the first time, so completely rendered and complex is the world Cameron and his crew of hundreds have created. Their attention to detail and nuance is unprecedented. The story they tell within that world, though, is as ham-handed as it gets. A synopsis of the "Avatar" story? John Smith and Pocahontas meets Dances With Wolves, wrapped in a video game concept, then utterly ruined by an anti-military message. Pay for the ticket and geek out over the visuals, but be ready for the sour aftertaste you'll experience because of the movie's politics.

‘Up in the Air'

Now playing, rated R

Rarely has a single film captured the spirit of an entire year as accurately as "Up in the Air." A faltering economy and unfeeling corporate world has forced us all, to one degree or another, to reassess what's most important in our lives. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who fires people for a living, goes on exactly that search for meaning when he is forced to train recent college graduate Natalie (Anna Kendrick). "Up in the Air" manages to be hilariously funny while still showing sympathy for the unemployed or underemployed, and inspires without becoming saccharin. This might be the best of 2009.

‘Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire'

Now playing, rated R

Another candidate for best picture of 2009. "Precious" (lets shorten the ridiculously long title) is emotionally intense and raw, which makes it an unconventional film to see during the holidays. However, we have to seize the opportunity to see art films on the rare occasion they make it to Gainesville. It's bound to be a difficult viewing experience, yet uplifting nonetheless.

‘Sherlock Holmes'

Opens Friday, rated PG-13

Guy Ritchie's makeover of the world's greatest detective is a right good time. The story is good enough, but the real joy comes from watching Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, who are perfectly cast as Holmes and Watson. Warner Bros. wants this to become the start of another franchise, and it's one of the few times I'd like to see that happen. The mystery plot might not be sophisticated enough to satisfy the Arthur Conan Doyle aficionados, but Downey and Law have the makings of a great action comedy team.

‘It's Complicated'

Opens Friday, Rated R

It's not difficult to peg this one. Nancy Meyers directed "What Women Want" and both wrote and directed "Something's Gotta Give" and "The Holiday." That should tell you exactly what to expect from "It's Complicated." The cast gives us plenty to get excited about, though. Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin in a love triangle, supported by John Krasinski, Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, and Nora Dunn. A fine holiday date movie for the grown-ups-also something we have to take advantage of when we can.


Hopefully it comes to town, rated PG-13

A great cast and gorgeous cinematography bring to life the musical about film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) who has run out of inspiration. To rediscover his creativity and finish the film, he visits the many women who have served as his muse. The movie features very little dancing, instead emphasizing the great score and a parade of fabulous women: Sofia Loren, Judy Dench, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, and Marion Cotillard, who ultimately steals the show. And the movie's re-creation of mid-60s Rome is nearly as beautiful as the cast. Unapologetically sexy, but in a way that celebrates rather than demeans women.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.