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Holiday movie guide: The season's best (and worst) bets

With a year-end pileup of blockbusters, kids' flicks, adult comedies and major-award contenders, how does the discerning movie shopper choose? Liam Lacey unwraps his guide to a busy season's best (and worst) bets.

N.B. The list of films is completely selective; ratings are out of five, with five being a sure bet and one being a film you'll probably want to skip

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FAMILY MOVIES Arthur Christmas (Nov. 23) From Aardman Animations (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) comes this tale of Santa’s youngest son (the voice of everyone’s favourite elfin Brit, James McAvoy), who bucks the current high-tech gift-distribution system to deliver one overlooked present the old-fashioned way. 4/5

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The Muppets (Nov. 23) Jason Segel (also a co-writer) and Amy Adams play the humans who set out to reunite Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy. The gang learns it’s not easy raising green, as they look to rustle up $10-million to save the Muppet theatre from an oil driller. 4/5

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Hugo (Nov. 23) Martin Scorsese’s first foray into 3-D and children’s entertainment doubles as a homage to the history of cinema. James Cameron has already called it a masterpiece, and word from the New York Film Festival, where it showed as a work-in-progress, suggests this sets a new standard in the third dimension. 5/5

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Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (Dec. 16) The singing rodents go in for yet more helium-voiced harmonies, this time on a desert island. Catnip for kiddies, though adults should prepare to brace and endure. 2/5

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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Dec. 16) Robert Downey and Jude Law bromance it in 19th-century London, in Guy Ritchie’s sequel to his lugubrious 2009 detective thriller. 2/5

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 21) The late Stieg Larsson’s incident-packed thriller will gain style and gravitas in the hands of director David Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian. Rooney Mara stars as the computer-hacking freak genius, and Daniel Crag as the journalist who hires her to help solve a case. 4/5

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The Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 21) Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture adaptation of the Belgian comic strip stars Jamie Bell as the boy reporter who travels the world with his clever dog, Snowy. European reviews praise the technique; Variety calls it a “a whiz-bang thrill ride.” In other words, Spielberg classique. 4/5

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Dec. 21) The fourth Mission film in 15 years stars Tom Cruise as agent Ethan Hunt, who’s obliged to go rogue after someone blows up the Kremlin. Or did that happen in the last movie? Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) must overcome the series’ uneven history. 3/5

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ADULT COMEDIES The Sitter (Dec. 9) The busy Jonah Hill plays a suspended college student who takes on a babysitting job with three rotten kids, leading to a wild night in New York. Sounds like a ruder, lewder Adventures in Babysitting. 2/5

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Young Adult (Dec. 16) Director Jason Reitman and quip-happy screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) reunite for this story of a divorced young-adult-fiction writer (Charlize Theron) who returns to her hometown and tries to hook up with her now-married teen beau (Patrick Wilson). Tuned to the key of quirk. Reitman hasn’t made a weak film yet. 4/5

Photo credit: Phillip V. Caruso

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New Year’s Eve (Dec. 9) Garry Marshall’s sequel to his multistory romantic comedy, Valentine’s Day, includes a groaning buffet of movie and TV stars (Katherine Heigl, Ryan Seacrest, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro) in a series of Manhattan romantic vignettes. Do tickets come with a complementary Alka-Seltzer? 2/5

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Carnage (Dec. 23) Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s satirical play had enthusiastic reviews out of the Venice Film Festival, with the former horror director ratcheting up the tension between two initially civilized couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly; Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) who meet to discuss their kids’ fight at school. 5/5

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OSCAR CONTENDERS Shame (Dec. 2) British visual artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his acclaimed Hunger stars Michael Fassbender as a New York sex addict, with Carey Mulligan as his troubled sister. The talk of this year’s festival circuit, it’s probably not an ideal first-date movie. 5/5

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The Artist (Dec. 9) What’s silent, French and black-and-white all over? No, it has nothing to do with nuns and vows. The answer is The Artist, the Cannes hit – about a Hollywood star whose career stumbles with the advent of sound – is an ingenious frolic, with knowing winks to Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born. 5/5

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Dec. 25) Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) adapts Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a multitalented preteen (Thomas Horn), travelling across New York carrying a key to a lockbox left by his father (Tom Hanks), who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The cast includes Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis. Kleenex sales should go through the roof. 4/5

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War Horse (Dec. 25) Based on a novel and hit stage play, Steven Spielberg’s First World War drama focuses on the relationship between a young man, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and his beloved horse, Joey, who is sold to the cavalry and ends up in both the British and German armies amid the carnage of trench warfare. In contrast to the hyperactive savagery of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg aims for a more leisurely style. Look for such adjectives as rousing, sweeping and epic on the poster. 4/5

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OSCAR CONTENDERS, part 2: THE GREAT IMPERSONATORS My Week with Marilyn (Nov. 25) Michelle Williams, already twice-nominated for Oscars (Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine) immerses herself in the role of the insecure screen siren Marilyn Monroe, in this memoir-based British drama of a young production assistant (Eddie Redmayne) who escorted the star around England in 1957, when she co-starred with an impatient Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in the troubled shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl. 3/5

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The Iron Lady (Jan. 13) Meryl Streep dons false teeth and a power bouffant in this portrait of Britain’s controversial prime minister, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!). Early reviews rave about La Streep, but are less hot on the film, which is more interested in the personality than the policies. 3/5

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A Dangerous Method (Jan. 13) David Cronenberg’s latest film brings to life the twin fathers of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), as flawed hunks spinning often self-serving ideas about sex, father complexes and one troublesome, brilliant female patient (Keira Knightley). Eloquent and impudent, the film represents the respectful depantsing of two of the 20th century’s intellectual giants. 5/5

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