Winter movie viewing has always been a bit of a challenge. Unlike summer (with its sweltering packs of crowd-pleasing action and comedy) and fall (with its striving, auteur-driven awards hopefuls), the winter movie season doesn't have as clear an identity. It's an often contrary mix of late-breaking Oscar buzz, middlebrow popcorn movies the studios hope will lure in holiday shoppers, and a dumping ground for flicks those same studios have lost faith in. It's a jungle out there, and it takes a bit of work to hack through the underbrush to get to the good stuff.
But sharp-eyed audiences can still read the signs. Is that an Oscar-caliber director at the helm of a superhero movie? A romantic comedy maestro looking to return to classic form? Jeff Bridges? Here's a handful of movies we think stand a great chance at being remembered — hopefully fondly — when the season's over.
'Tron: Legacy': Dec. 17
On the Hollywood Reboot Spectrum, "Tron: Legacy" is officially a sequel, though Disney hopes audiences unfamiliar with the original don't stay away. After all, the 1982 "Tron" was so cult in its appeal that it inspired a "Simpsons" joke about how few people had actually seen it. (Sorry, Professor Frink!) But 28 years later, it has one thing going for it: original star Jeff Bridges is flying high, his "Crazy Heart" Oscar still warm in his hands. In "Legacy," he'll play mentor to his onscreen son (Garrett Hedlund), who enters the video-game world his father invented and later disappeared into. Bridges will also play a digitally rendered version of his 1982 self, an effect that has the movie veering on "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" territory. And if you don't remember that effects-dominated throwback movie ... well, that's the point, unfortunately.
'How Do You Know?': Dec. 17
Reese Witherspoon finds herself in the middle of a love triangle with Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, who apparently are vying for the title of World's Handsomest Comic Actor, and also, presumably, her heart. Before 2004's "Spanglish," director James L. Brooks was seen as a can't-miss font for popular, heartfelt comedies that transcended their genre and became classics. "Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News," "As Good As It Gets." It's a strong track record. But "Spanglish" did happen, and it wasn't pretty, and now we're forced to wonder if the spell's been broken. On the bright side, Witherspoon, Wilson and Rudd are infinitely more likable as romantic leads than Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni were, with Rudd in particular looking like he's in fine comedic form. And best of all, Brooks has his secret weapon: Jack Nicholson, who plays Rudd's father/lawyer. Two of Jack's three Oscars were won with Brooks in the director's chair.
'True Grit': Dec. 22
Jeff Bridges steps into the spacious cowboy boots once filled by John Wayne as Joel and Ethan Coen remake the 1969 Western about a past-his-prime lawman who helps a young girl track down her family's killers. It's a bit of a reunion for Bridges and the Coens, who teamed up on 1998's "The Big Lebowski." Even if the Coens are in "No Country for Old Men" mode, you can probably expect to find some dark comedic edges here that weren't present in the original. Bridges won't exactly be The Dude on horseback, but Matt Damon's vainglorious Texas Ranger character looks to be pure Coen obliviousness. The big story might end up being young Hailee Steinfeld, who looks to stands toe-to-toe with Bridges, Damon, and Josh Brolin and show some grit of her own. Opening at the end of the year, this one has obvious hopes for awards. Certainly the filmmakers and their star know a thing or two about that.
'Country Strong': Dec. 22
What are we supposed to make of Gwyneth Paltrow? A best actress Oscar at age 26 left her with nowhere to go but headfirst into a formidable backlash. One that couldn't have been helped by movies such as "Bounce," "Shallow Hal," and "View from the Top," to say nothing of GOOP. (We will say nothing of GOOP.) After the "Iron Man" movies eased her back into the public's good graces, she's sticking her neck out again with this tale of a down-on-her-luck faded country songstress who finds herself inspired by a cute young thang whose career is on the uptick, played by Garrett Hedlund. Think "Crazy Heart" but with a gender reversal and hopefully less boozy drooling. This might also be the movie where "Gossip Girl" Leighton Meester finds her big-screen breakout as she plays Gwyneth's No. 1 competition.
'The Green Hornet' : Jan. 14
Hands up if you remember the 1966 TV series about the newspaperman-by-day, superhero-by-night and his karate-inclined sidekick? OK, hand-raisers, you are probably NOT the target audience for Seth Rogen's slacker-fication of the superhero. (That's OK, you're not the target audience for ANY superhero movies these days. You're free to enjoy them anyway.) At first glimpse, Rogen might seem an odd fit for the masked-crimefighter genre (particularly one whose roots go back to radio days), but after so many atypical superheroes in the last two decades, it's starting to seem like just about anybody can anchor one of these things. (Except you, Eric Bana, as "The Hulk." Sorry.) Behind the camera, Michel Gondry might also seem an odd fit, but the "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" director did hone his craft on music videos, and from the looks of preview footage, he's giving us all a welcome break from dark-and-gritty as a superhero rule.
'The Eagle': Feb. 25
Friends, Romans, countrymen ... pack a raincoat, we're heading for Scotland! Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell take their swords and sandals into the mountains in this adaptation of the Rosemary Sutcliff novel. Tatum must cross Hadrian's Wall into the barbaric highlands in order to avenge his father and return to Rome his legion's lost symbol: the golden eagle. Director Kevin Macdonald ("State of Play," "One Day in September") is looking to revive the Roman action-adventure genre for the first time since "Gladiator" (and hopefully get more attention than Neil Marshall's overlooked "Centurion" from earlier this year. Channing Tatum has been poised to make the leap from swoon-worthy hot boy ("Step Up," "Dear John") to action-ready leading man. "G.I. Joe" couldn't do it — maybe this can. Good luck keeping audiences from swooning at the hot boy anyway, though.