Just weeks before it returns from a galaxy far, far away, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the clear leader of the pack among this year’s holiday releases. But if the trailers for other top contenders are truthful, it won’t be the only interesting, inspiring, delightful gift of the season.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Directed by: J.J. Abrams (“Mission: Impossible III,” “Star Trek”).
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and a posse of newcomers.
What to expect: A sky-high rejuvenation of a beloved pop culture classic. It picks up the legacy 30 years after “The Return of the Jedi,” and is 100 percent George Lucas-free. Danger, thrills, epic action, gorgeous alien suns, redesigned light sabers and Han friggin’ Solo’s Millennium Falcon outracing squadrons of speed-screaming TIE fighters. The trailers alone, looking like they were made in the world’s coolest editing suite, dynamite the roof of your mind. (Dec. 18)
THE BIG SHORT
Directed by: Adam McKay (“Anchorman”).
Starring: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling.
What to expect: A funny, cynical roller coaster of greed and Wall Street corruption, in which McKay moves from his lowbrow comedy roots to a dramatic heavy hitter. Carell plays a real-life stock specialist who made zillions betting against greedy banks during the collapse. The film, based on a nonfiction bestseller, has become a surprise entry in Hollywood’s awards season. Carell’s eccentric performance has Paramount pushing him for a second consecutive best actor nomination following last year’s true-life thriller “Foxcatcher.” (Dec. 18)
Directed by: David O. Russell (“Three Kings,” “American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter”).
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper.
What to expect: Intimate drama that also pokes you in the ribs. Russell’s first woman-centered film is loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, who overcomes hard times, invents the Miracle Mop, earns a fortune and struggles to retain her family. With the starring trio of his last two hits, this promises the thematic heft of “Erin Brockovich” and “Mildred Pierce” told through Russell’s manic style. Any film that features the enchanting Lawrence pumping a shotgun is sure to hit its bull’s-eye. (Dec. 25)
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino (you know his movies).
Starring: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
What to expect: A bloody, tongue-in-cheek twist on western classics. While traveling to the gallows with a prisoner — a brassy woman reputedly much deadlier than she looks — a bounty hunter stops at a snowbound Wyoming stagecoach station. Who of the six secretive characters inside could be her accomplices? The setup echoes the false identities and blood-spattered dialogue of “Reservoir Dogs.” Get ready for the signature Tarantino winks to action film tropes. Who else can make Mexican standoffs so brutally anxious, brutally droll and brutally brutal? (Jan. 8)
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman (writer of “Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and stop-motion specialist Duke Johnson.
Starring: Voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
What to expect: A study of human nature, with puppets. Kaufman’s brilliant mind trips are tragicomic explorations of life’s bedrock issues. This animated reality bender follows a depressed author flying to Cincinnati for a speaking assignment. There the introvert meets a baked-goods sales rep who might (or might not) be his true love. Kaufman’s dark, funny probes of serious questions make him one of the most imaginative and idiosyncratic moviemakers around. (Dec. 30 in some cities)
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”).
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy.
What to expect: A harrowing survival story. DiCaprio plays an expert frontier guide in the 1820s who is attacked by a bear. Abandoned near death by two fur trappers, he goes 300 miles in the winter wilderness for vengeance. Based on a real incident turned into a western classic novel, the film is a revenge saga of biblical scope. Shot in virtually inaccessible locations only in natural light by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, it promises to be the most visually stunning film in recent memory. (Jan. 8 wide)