'Tis The Season For Hollywood Blockbusters

The giant orb in 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' i i

The arrival of an enormous orb in New York's Central Park triggers a global upheaval in the remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

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The giant orb in 'The Day The Earth Stood Still'

The arrival of an enormous orb in New York's Central Park triggers a global upheaval in the remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Twentieth Century Fox
Despereaux i i

Of mice and Matthew Broderick: He voices a medieval mouse on a mission in The Tale of Despereaux. Universal Pictures hide caption

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Despereaux

Of mice and Matthew Broderick: He voices a medieval mouse on a mission in The Tale of Despereaux.

Universal Pictures
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn i i

Reformist priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) provokes suspicions when he takes an interest in a Bronx-based school's only black student in Doubt. Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Films
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn

Reformist priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) provokes suspicions when he takes an interest in a Bronx-based school's only black student in Doubt.

Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Films
Michael Sheen as David Frost i i

Michael Sheen stars as David Frost in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, centering around the TV host's famed interview with the disgraced Richard Nixon. Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures
Michael Sheen as David Frost

Michael Sheen stars as David Frost in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, centering around the TV host's famed interview with the disgraced Richard Nixon.

Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures
Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg i i

Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) plots to assassinate the Fuhrer in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie. United Artists hide caption

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Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg

Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) plots to assassinate the Fuhrer in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie.

United Artists
Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Wheeler and Kate Winslet as April Wheeler i i

Revolutionary Road: In their first movie together since Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio's and Kate Winslet's characters find that life in the suburbs might make them want jump ship. Francois Duhamel/Paramount Vantage hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Duhamel/Paramount Vantage
Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Wheeler and Kate Winslet as April Wheeler

Revolutionary Road: In their first movie together since Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio's and Kate Winslet's characters find that life in the suburbs might make them want jump ship.

Francois Duhamel/Paramount Vantage
Izabella Miko as Madelaine Bonderont i i

Izabella Miko plays the chanteuse Madelaine Bonderont in the nightclubs-and-mobsters film noir Dark Streets. Jack Zeman/Samuel Goldwyn Films hide caption

itoggle caption Jack Zeman/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Izabella Miko as Madelaine Bonderont

Izabella Miko plays the chanteuse Madelaine Bonderont in the nightclubs-and-mobsters film noir Dark Streets.

Jack Zeman/Samuel Goldwyn Films

'Tis the season for all manner of entertainment, but for some reason, yuletide blockbusters have lately tended toward the apocalyptic — last Christmas, the marquee movie was I Am Legend, about a worldwide plague. This year, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, disaster isn't viral — it's extraterrestrial, though it arrives in a nicely pressed suit.

An otherworldly Keanu Reeves? Sounds plausible. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a remake of a cold-war thriller from the 1950s, which means it will fit right in at the multiplex alongside all sorts of horrors from a decade before that — Nazi horrors. Stories about Hitler's Germany are often regarded as Oscar bait, and this year, they're everywhere you look.

The film Good, for instance, brings us a liberal writer who's appalled when his novel becomes a propaganda tool for the Third Reich. The Reader has Ralph Fiennes discovering that a woman he'd had an affair with was once a guard at Auschwitz. In Defiance, three brothers go underground to battle the Germans. And in Valkyrie, Tom Cruise plays a Nazi officer leading a conspiracy to assassinate the Fuhrer.

Death and destruction not your thing at Christmastime? How about some social mayhem? It comes in various comic styles — domestic mayhem in the home-for-Christmas comedy Nothing Like the Holidays; dog-powered mayhem in Marley and Me; kid-oriented mayhem in Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories; animated, French-accented rodent mayhem in The Tale of Despereaux; and Jim Carrey-style mayhem in Yes Man, a comedy about a guy who has always said no, but who changes his tune — saying "yes" to everything, no matter how outrageous the proposition.

Changing your life is something of a theme for the holidays, though mostly in more serious stories. There's Wendy and Lucy, about a woman who heads to Alaska to get a new start, and Seven Pounds, in which IRS agent Will Smith changes other people's lives as a way of finding redemption in his own.

The French award-winner Secret of the Grain tells of a dock worker who quits his job after 35 years to open a restaurant. And in Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet struggle with a theoretically comfortable suburban existence that isn't nearly as comfortable as they expected.

Revolutionary Road is the first film DiCaprio and Winslet have made together since Titanic. Gran Torino, on the other hand is the first film Clint Eastwood has made since ... what, The Changeling, three weeks or so ago?

The difference is that the 78-year-old Eastwood isn't just directing Gran Torino, but also starring in it — as a guy who's getting on in years, but who sounds less like an old Clint Eastwood than like the Clint Eastwood of old: "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have messed with?" his war-veteran character growls in one scene. "That's me."

Eastwood will turn out to have a softer side in Gran Torino, as will a pretty fearsome-looking Mickey Rourke, playing an over-the-hill tough guy with health and family issues in The Wrestler.

"In this life, you can lose everything you love, everything that loves you," he tells an audience. "A lot of people told me that I'd never wrestle again. The only one who's going to tell me when I'm through doing my thing is you people here."

Rourke is giving an outsized, very physical performance in what is essentially an intimate independent film. A couple of historical figures are central to grand performances in grander films — Benicio Del Toro plays Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in Steven Soderberg's two-part, six-hour drama Che, and Frank Langella recreates on screen his award-winning stage performance as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon — the story of the former president's dramatic post-Watergate TV interviews with talk-show host David Frost — in which Tricky Dick famously argued that "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal."

Michael Sheen, who played Frost on Broadway, recreates the role here; the producers of another stage-to-film adaptation — the Pulitzer Prize-winner Doubt — opted for new stars. On screen, it's Meryl Streep glowering as the 1960s school-principal nun who becomes suspicious about a reformist priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when he takes an interest in the Bronx-based school's only black student — and who launches a crusade against him, armed only with her suspicions and her moral certainty.

Serious stuff this Christmas season — so serious that there's even a really wrenching animated film, Waltz with Bashir, which deals with an Israeli soldier's repressed memories of a wartime massacre.

Happily there will also be stories for escapists, including a century-spanning romance that opens on Christmas Day. It's taken from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who ages in reverse. Alas, as he's getting younger, the love of his life is getting older. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett star in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that's inspired high hopes in Hollywood with its digital-effects wizardry and an offbeat story scripted by Eric Roth, whose other credits include Forrest Gump.

It still sounds downbeat, though — "I'm just thinking how nothing lasts," Pitt's Benjamin says, "and what a shame that is" — so let me leave you with a picker-upper. It's a film noir with music, a nightclubs-and-mobsters saga set in the blues-, booze- and jazz-fueled '30s and dedicated to the New Orleans musicians who were affected by Hurricane Katrina.

It's called Dark Streets, and early glimpses make the cinematography look pretty sumptuous. And the soundtrack is powered by high-wattage musicians from Etta James and Aaron Neville to Chaka Khan and Dr. John. So however it ends up looking on screen, it will certainly brighten the holiday's sound.

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