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Holiday Movies Stocked with Oscar Bait

We need a front runner.

The holiday decorations are already in stores, yet -- well, that doesn't really mean anything. They've been up since September.

The point is, the end of the year is approaching, and there aren't any real sure-fire Oscar monsters out there, films that seem certain to dominate nominations.

The holiday season is always ripe with Oscar bait. And who knows, somewhere out there may lurk this year's "Slumdog Millionaire," a film that slides under the radar, wows critics and audiences and is all of a sudden pulling in "Gone with the Wind"-type nominations (and, eventually, wins).

Which film will it be? Making such a prediction is a fool's errand.

Naturally, that won't stop us. Here are 10 films that, going on somewhat-educated guesses, might have a shot at hauling in a lot of hardware.

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (in theaters in limited release): Lee Daniels' film is harrowing yet hopeful. It boasts an outstanding debut from Gabby Sidibe as an overweight, illiterate girl who is pregnant for the second time by her father, as well as a powerhouse performance by Mo'Nique as her vile mother. Mo'Nique is a lock for a nomination.

"The Messenger" (opens in limited release on Nov. 13): There's a lot of talk about Woody Harrelson's performance as a member of an Army unit that notifies the next of kin after a soldier has been killed. And while he's good, Ben Foster steals the film as his partner, a man damaged both physically and emotionally who forges a bond with a widow.

"The Road" (opens Nov. 25): The film version of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel finally arrives, with Viggo Mortensen as the man struggling to survive and keep his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) alive in a grim, post-apocalyptic landscape. Good news: It's not as depressing as it sounds. Not quite.

"Up in the Air" (opens Dec. 4): If there's a front-runner for a front-runner, this is it. George Clooney is great as a hired gun companies bring in to lay off employees in Jason Reitman's timely film that cuts deep, but retains compassion. Nominations all around, we figure.

"Invictus" (opens Dec. 11): Let's see -- Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. All it lacks is Meryl Streep in some sort of supporting role and you could start inscribing the names right now. As it is, the film, about Mandela campaigning to get the 1995 World Cup for South Africa, also has Matt Damon. Hopes are high.

"Avatar" (opens Dec. 18): What lands an effects-laden science-fiction film on this list? Its writer and director, James Cameron. The last film he directed walked off with a boatload of Oscars (heh-heh). Now he's back with this, a project he's worked on for years. We know it'll LOOK great. But will it be great? Or even good? We'll find out soon enough.

"Nine" (opens Dec. 18 in limited release): Not the animated film released earlier this year. Instead, it's director Rob Marshall, back in song-and-dance mode. Daniel Day-Lewis stars in a musical adaptation of Fellini's "8 1/2." Ambitious, much? Could be a failure, but even if it is, it'll be an interesting one.

"It's Complicated" (opens Dec. 25): Speaking of Meryl Streep (weren't we?), she stars in this romantic comedy, along with Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin (next year's Oscar hosts) and John Krasinski. Of the lot, we'd kind of like to see Krasinski get a nod, even if he would seem to be the least likely candidate.

"Sherlock Holmes" (opens Dec. 25): The previews make it look as if pop-culture's most-famous detective is a mixed martial arts fighter, but surely there's more to it than that? Bound to be. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Holmes, Jude Law as Dr. Watson and Guy Ritchie (we can no longer go to "Mr. Madonna" as a punch line) directs. Kind of hoping for something weird, as well as something great.

"The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" (opens Dec. 25 in limited release): In this case, we don't have to hope for weird. We can pretty much guarantee it. Terry Gilliam directs, after all. Heath Ledger died during filming, and was replaced by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Christopher Plummer stars as the title character, whose traveling show is a little more complicated than it seems.

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