Dec. 3, 2012 at 8:16 AM ET
Thanks for the early gifts, Hollywood! November was a magical movie month ("Skyfall," "Lincoln") and December is shaping up much the same way -- some great cinema offerings are out there, if you can take a break from shopping and cookie-baking or family-visiting. Here's a look at our top picks.
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
Those furry-footed guys are back again. Bless you, J.R.R. Tolkien, for being so prolific that we can not only get three movies out of the "Lord of the Rings," but three more out of the much shorter "Hobbit." (Will "The Silmarillion" be next?) "Unexpected Journey" begins the saga as Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf head off to the Lonely Mountain on a quest of their own. Plenty of familiar faces from "LOTR" are back for the ride.
'Monsters Inc.' in 3-D
It's been more than a decade since Pixar monsters Mike and Sulley trotted onto the scene in 2001's "Monsters Inc." Now that treasured animated film is getting the 3-D treatment, and even kids who weren't born when the movie came out can now see the "Monsters" on the big screen. If they like what they see, start counting down to June 21, when the prequel, "Monsters University," will come out.
'This Is 40'
They could have called it "Knocked Up 2: Electric Boogaloo." The "Knocked Up" sequel, "This Is 40," reunites us with Paul Rudd (Pete) and Leslie Mann (Debbie) as they fight their way through their 40s. If you like director/writer Judd Apatow's sense of humor and his family (Mann is his wife in real life, and their daughters play Mann and Rudd's daughters onscreen), you'll be knocking on this one's door. ("Bridesmaids" fans, Melissa McCarthy steals her scene in the trailer.)
'Zero Dark Thirty'
We'll never know exactly what went down on May 2, 2011, when Navy SEALs burst into Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound and killed the world's most wanted terrorist. But "Zero Dark Thirty" may give us as good a shot as any. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal won Oscars for "The Hurt Locker," so if you appreciated that well-crafted war film, you know to expect a classy production here.
Whatever you think of his personal life and various tabloid headlines, Tom Cruise has developed from a young "Risky Business" and "Top Gun" heartthrob into a credible action hero. ("Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" proved that.) He's now taking on the book-favorite character of Jack Reacher, author Lee Child's stoic, drifter hero. (One weird note: Reacher is noted in the books as being 6'5" while Cruise is ... not.) If the film's a hit, Child has more than a dozen more Reacher books that could be mined.
Oh, a Quentin Tarantino movie. It will surely open quietly in a few arthouse theaters and no one will see -- ha, just kidding. The iconic director has lined up big stars (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz), an intriguing story line, and his trademark over-the-top blood-splattering and smart dialogue. In "Django Unchained," Foxx plays a freed slave who hooks up with a white bounty hunter (the wonderfully creepy Waltz) in hopes of reuniting with his wife, who's been sold. It opens on Christmas Day. Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, peace on earth, now pass a bit of the old ultra-violence.
Hollywood's pulling out all the stops for this one. Legendary novel. Powerhouse Broadway musical. Star-studded cast. Christmas Day release. If you've dreamed a dream while seeing "Les Mis" in a theater, or even if you've just been sucked in by a wasting-away Anne Hathaway in the trailer, or even if you enjoyed George Costanza singing "Master of the House" on "Seinfeld," this is your big present. Russell Crowe even joins Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried and the rest in song.
Which film is at the top of your list this month? Tell us on Facebook.