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," Ang Lee helms the adaptation of "Life of Pi" 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 the full rundown. Dates are subject to change and some films are only in limited release.
'Life of Pi'
Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain
Story: Ang Lee steers this adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel about an Indian boy who finds himself adrift on an ocean alongside a Bengal tiger.
Buzz: Critical response to the movie after the New York Film Festival was fairly glowing. Praise went to screenwriter David Magee, who managed to stay faithful to the beloved bestseller, while viewers appreciated a film that looked spectacular enough to merit its use of 3-D.
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson
Story: Remember that 1984 cult classic that starred Patrick Swayze and preyed on our Cold War-era fears by portraying a Colorado town invaded by communists? Only one thing is more improbable than that plot: the idea that someone thought, "Now is the time for a remake."
Buzz: A long delay between conception and opening weekend usually indicates trouble. In this case, the release of Dan Bradley's directorial debut was first thwarted by distributor MGM's Chapter 11 restructuring and further delayed by the ridiculed post-production decision to transform the Chinese intruders into North Koreans.
'Rise of the Guardians'
Stars: The voices of Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, Alec Baldwin
Story: The Dreamworks-produced CG-animated feature sounds like "The Avengers" for the little guys, as Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny and a Russian-accented Santa team up to take down the evil Pitch, a bogeyman who threatens to infiltrate the dreams of children.
Buzz: Early word is that the movie, based on books by William Joyce, could shape up to be a fairly run-of-the-mill adventure. In a season somewhat deficient in kid-friendly features, "Guardians" has one thing going for it: a lack of competition.
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.
Stars: Josh Stewart, Christopher McDonald, Navi Rawat
Story: This sequel to the nearly identically titled "The Collector" follows a sadistic serial killer's unsavory survivor, who is blackmailed into tracking down his former captor in order to save a young female hostage.
Buzz: If "Saw V" proved anything, it's that even uninspired horror movies can reap a follow-up. This appears to be the same old torture porn featuring a guy in a mask, people in cages, menacing surgical kits and even a few spiders, and it all arrives on the big screen thanks to Marcus Dunstan, the writer-director behind none other than "Saw III," "IV" and "V."
'Killing Them Softly'
Stars: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini
Story: Pitt once again teams with writer-director Andrew Dominik ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") and plays a too-cool hit man hired to get to the bottom of a hold-up that occurred during a mob-sponsored poker game.
Buzz: Critics got a first look at the crime film when it competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Early response was positive to the grungy, dialogue-heavy metaphor for capitalist greed.
Stars: John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Olivia Thirlby
Story: A Los Angeles husband and wife take in a seductive artist as a houseguest, and she not only overstays her welcome, but also oversteps some big boundaries.
Buzz: It-girl Lena Dunham wrote the script with director Ry Russo-Young, and audiences can expect some of those stark discomfort-inducing foibles that crop up so often in "Girls," Dunham's HBO series.
'The Waiting Room'
Story: Documentarian Peter Nicks chronicles what happens over 24 hours at a hospital in Oakland, Calif., that caters largely to uninsured patients.
Buzz: When the film screened at Silverdocs this year, the eye-opening example of cinema verite showcased the humor, heartbreak and humdrum banality of hospitals while bringing the human dimension to a raging political debate.
'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.
'Waiting for Lightning'
Story: The documentary focuses on daredevil skateboarder Danny Way, whose contribution to the sport includes jumping over the Great Wall of China.
Buzz: It's not exactly a new story; a boy from a broken home finds solace - and glory - in adrenaline rushes. The target audience of extreme sports fans will find a lot to enjoy, including footage of unthinkable feats and interviews with skateboarding god Tony Hawk and surfer Laird Hamilton, among others.
'Hyde Park on Hudson'
Stars: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams
Story: Multiple narratives unfold in director Roger Mitchell's historical fiction, which looks at the affair between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret "Daisy" Suckley in 1939 during a weekend visit from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Buzz: Preliminary reports sound the alarm to an overload of plot points, not to mention a scene between FDR and Daisy that could make some audience members a tad squeamish. Uncomfortable trysts aside, Murray is garnering major accolades for his performance, again certifying that he's come a long way since "Meatballs."
'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.
'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").
'Rust and Bone'
Stars: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure
Story: An unlikely relationship forms between two struggling individuals in this French film.
Buzz: The movie, written and directed by Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet"), was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and the feedback was largely positive both for the bittersweet tale and Cotillard's performance as a killer whale trainer coming to terms with a horrific accident.
'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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Already in theaters
'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2'
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner
Story: After four years, the box office juggernaut reaches its conclusion with a raging interspecies battle that finds vampire Edward and werewolf Jacob fighting on the same side - along with Bella, naturally.
'A Royal Affair'
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard
Story: The film is based on the true tale of Christian VII, the mentally ill 18th-century Scandinavian monarch who was openly dismissive of his wife. So she slept with his doctor-confidante.
Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Story: Prepare for another movie version of Leo Tolstoy's anguished masterpiece about an aristocratic woman who has an affair with a count and suffers the harsh consequences.
Story: The documentary follows "National Geographic" photographer James Balog on a painstaking trek to set up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic in order to chronicle changes in glaciers.