The Oscar race heats up as the year winds down, and the final stretch of 2012 promises a pageant of movies by directors already certified by the Academy. Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth with "The Hobbit," and Alfred Hitchcock even makes an appearance, brought to life by Anthony Hopkins in "Hitchcock."

The crowded field of auteurs also includes fresh inventory from Judd Apatow, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino. Yes, there will be blood, but there will be much more this holiday movie season. Read on for some highlights:

Dec. 7


• Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson.

• Story: The auteur behind the camera goes under the microscope in this biopic that takes place during the making of "Psycho."

• Buzz: If pushing a movie opening back signals bad omens, moving a release up could indicate Oscar-related confidence. In this case, the awards hopeful would most likely be Hopkins, who pulls off Sir Alfred's signature deadpan.

Playing for Keeps

• Stars: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid.

• Story: A one-time soccer star with a raging case of arrested development returns home, tries to win back his ex and fends off some hot-and-bothered housewives after he begins coaching his son's soccer team.

• Buzz: Director Gabriele Muccino has a lot of practice guiding the redemption story, between the fairly well-received "The Pursuit of Happyness" and melodramatic "Seven Pounds." Here's hoping screenwriter Robbie Fox ("So I Married an Axe Murderer") provides a little comedy.

Dec. 14

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

• Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

• Story: It's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of Peter Jackson" when the Oscar-winning director takes on another J.R.R. Tolkien work. Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who accompanies 13 dwarves on a dangerous quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain.

• Buzz: It seemed natural to turn the three volumes that make up "The Lord of the Rings" into three films, but eyebrows raised over transforming the trilogy's shorter, simpler predecessor into a trio of movies - especially given the 2 1/2-hour-plus runtime of this first installment. Jackson may need a ruthless editor, but his track record hints that the film will prove a 3-D vision to behold.

Dec. 19

Monsters, Inc. 3D

• Stars: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Mary Gibbs.

• Story: The adorable Pixar comedy about the day-to-day lives of monsters returns to theaters, this time leaping off the screen.

• Buzz: Sure, it may be a way for Pixar to add to its stockpile of cash, but if putting dependable, age-spanning crowd-pleasers back on the big screen is wrong, we don't want to be right. Or maybe that's just desperation for kid-friendly features talking.

The Guilt Trip

• Stars: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Adam Scott.

• Story: An inventor takes his overbearing widower mother on a cross-country road trip.

• Buzz: It has been more than a decade-and-a-half since Streisand headlined a movie. Hopefully that's some indication of the strength of the script by Dan Fogelman ("Crazy, Stupid, Love").

Dec. 21

Not Fade Away

• Stars: John Magaro, Bella Heathcote, James Gandolfini.

• Story: New Jersey teens pursue their rock-and-roll dreams during the 1960s.

• Buzz: David Chase may be a household name thanks to "The Sopranos," but this semi-autobiographical film is the writer-director's first feature. Expect Chase's trademark sharp dialogue, not to mention a pitch-perfect soundtrack hand-selected by "Sopranos" alum and E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt.

Jack Reacher

• Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall.

• Story: A former army military police officer comes out of hiding to investigate the case of a sniper who killed five people.

• Buzz: Fans of Lee Child's books were dismayed to learn the relatively petite Cruise would take on the role of the towering score-settler. But even the author agrees that Cruise's action-film experience is more important than his stature.

This Is 40

• Stars: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Melissa McCarthy.

• Story: Think of it as a vague sequel to "Knocked Up," which looks at the domestic bluster of supporting characters Pete, Debbie and their two daughters.

• Buzz: Judd Apatow once again brings the raunch-induced laughs, although this buffet of marriage turmoil and parenting grief feels slightly more depressing than past ventures, and not just because Fiona Apple wrote a song for the soundtrack.


• Stars: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock.

• Story: After a doctor applies for an exit visa from East Germany in 1980, she ends up exiled in a tiny rural hospital and scrutinized by Stasi officers.

• Buzz: The German film snagged two awards at the Berlin Film Festival, including best direction, for this taut drama that recalls the Cold War paranoia evoked in "The Lives of Others."

Dec. 25

Parental Guidance

• Stars: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei.

• Story: A couple of grandparents plunge into long-term babysitting duty only to learn that child-rearing isn't what it used to be.

• Buzz: Some of the jokes feel derivative, but this family comedy looks like it could hit pretty close to home for Gen-Xers and their baby boomer parents.

Les Miserables

• Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway.

• Story: The adaptation of the Tony-winning musical is based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel about Jean Valjean, an ex-con on the run.

• Buzz: When the first trailer hit the Web, fans of the musical were split over Anne Hathaway's singing abilities. But Hugh Jackman seems ideally cast as Valjean, and "Les Miz" die-hards should be happy to hear that the movie retains all of the musical's beautiful ballads and catchy ditties.

Django Unchained

• Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio.

• Story: Hark! Quentin Tarantino returns with this spaghetti western-influenced film about a slave who, with the help of a bounty hunter, plots to rescue his wife from her sicko owner.

• Buzz: Tarantino isn't everyone's cup of tea, but moviegoers who love his tales of revenge, dark humor and stylized violence - along with those willing to surrender historical accuracy to artistic license - should receive exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

Silver Linings Playbook

• Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

• Story: A down-on-his-luck man moves back home with his parents and tries to win back his estranged wife, then forms an unlikely friendship with a young spitfire.

• Buzz: The Oscar chatter surrounding David O. Russell's quirky dramedy has only increased since the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it took home the people's choice award. But the director behind "Three Kings" and "The Fighter" isn't the only one receiving accolades; Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for "Winter's Bone," could once again land on the short list for best actress. The film opened in major markets Nov. 21 and is expected to open here sometime in December.