January’s wintry mix — Oscar, boxoffice contenders

January isn’t one of Hollywood’s biggest months at the boxoffice, but it typically is an interesting one for moviegoers thanks to its unique blend of specialty dramas competing for Oscar consideration and mainstream movies targeted to core audiences like families, women and horror fans.

Here’s our ZAMM.com look at some of the key films arriving throughout January, a month in which every weekend will see a logjam of pictures that either are opening or expanding their runs. There are spoilers in some of the plot synopses that follow, so please be careful reading these if you don’t want to know too much about the films’ stories before you see them. As always, check out our Zamm Cam movie previews to see if these are films you think you’ll enjoy before you spend money to buy tickets.

The first non-holiday weekend of 2009 is Jan. 9-11, which will see eight films opening or expanding their runs as Hollywood tries to start the New Year on the right foot. Despite a year long recession, moviegoing held up very well in ‘08. Audiences showed they were willing to spend whatever it takes to manage to escape from grim reality for a few hours — as long as there are movies playing that they really want to see. And Hollywood will certainly be looking in January to see signs that that spending is continuing in ‘09!

One of January’s biggest potential boxoffice hits is 20th Century Fox and New Regency’s romantic comedy “Bride Wars”, opening wide Jan. 9. Directed by Gary Winick, it stars Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Kristen Johnston, Bryan Greenberg and Candice Bergen. It’s the story of two best friends whose relationship changes for the worse when their weddings accidentally wind up being set for the same hotel on the same date and neither one will switch days.

Winick directed the 2004 romantic comedy fantasy “13 Going on 30”, which starred Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo, and has also directed episodes of TV’s “Lipstick Jungle” and “Ugly Betty”.

IFC Films’ Oscar contender drama “Che”, directed by Steven Soderbergh, begins its theatrical release Jan. 9 following an Academy qualifying run in late December. Soderbergh won the best directing Oscar in 2001 for “Traffic” and also was nominated that year for directing “Erin Brockovich”. Both films also received best picture Oscar nods.

“Che” is actually two two-hour movies that are being exhibited separately. The first episode focuses on Che Guevara joining a band of Cuban exiles led by Fidel Castro who reached the Cuban shore from Mexico in 1956 and within two years managed to topple the US-friendly regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The second episode is about Guevara’s efforts to start a new revolution in Bolivia, which ultimately resulted in his capture and execution.

Starring are Benicio Del Toro, Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt, Ryan Gosling, Demian Bichir, Roberto Urbina, Lou Diamond Phillips, Kahlil Mendez, Julia Ormond, Franka Potente, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Rodrigo Santoro, Santiago Cabrera, Elvira Minguez and Jorge Perugorria.

Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow’s Oscar hopeful drama “Gran Torino” goes into wide release Jan. 9. Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, it’s first film role since his Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby”. Eastwood is a longtime Academy favorite. He was Oscar nominated for best directing in 2007 for “Letters from Iwo Jima”. He won the best directing Oscar in 2005 for “Million Dollar Baby” and also was a best actor nominee. In 2004 he was Oscar nominated for directing “Mystic River”, which also received a best picture nod. Eastwood won best director and best actor Oscars in 1993 for “Unforgiven”

In “Gran Torino”, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an iron-willed veteran living in a changing world, who’s forced by his immigrant neighbors to confront his own long-held prejudices.

Overture Films’ romantic comedy “Last Chance Harvey” expands its run Jan. 9. Directed by Joel Hopkins, it stars Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Richard Schiff and Liane Balaban.

Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, who’s close to losing his dead-end job as a jingle writer in New York. Warned by his boss that he has just one more chance to deliver, Harvey goes to London for a weekend to attend his daughter’s (Balaban) wedding but promises to be back on Monday morning to make an important meeting — or else. Arriving in London, he learns his daughter’s opted to have her stepfather (Brolin) walk her down the aisle instead of him. Doing his best to hide his devastation, he leaves the wedding before the reception, but misses his plane. When Harvey calls his boss to explain, he’s fired on the spot. Drowning his sorrows at the airport bar, he strikes up a conversation with Kate (Thompson) and the growing connection between them unexpectedly transforms both their lives.

TriStar Pictures’ drama “Not Easily Broken” opens wide Jan. 9. Directed by Bill Duke, its stars Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson, Maeve Quinlan, Kevin Hart, Wood Harris, Jenifer Lewis and Bill Duke. In “Broken” a couple’s strength and faith are tested after the wife is injured in a car accident and her husband becomes attracted to another woman.

The Weinstein Company’s Oscar contender drama “The Reader” goes wide Jan. 9. Directed by Stephen Daldry, it stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz, Karoline Herfurth and Hannah Herzsprung. Daldry was Oscar nominated in 2001 for directing “Billy Elliot”, his first feature film, and in 2003 for directing “The Hours”.

Set in post war Germany, “The Reader” is about a young man, Michael Berg (Kross plays him as a teenager and Fiennes plays him as an adult) who’s 15 when he begins a long, obsessive affair with Hanna (Winslet), an enigmatic older woman. He never learns very much about her, and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again. To his horror he discovers that she’s a defendant in a Nazi war crimes trial and it soon becomes clear that she’s guilty of war crimes committed when she was a concentration camp guard during World War II.

DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage’s Oscar contender drama “Revolutionary Road” expands its run Jan. 9. Directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Kathy Bates, Ryan Simpkins and Zoe Kazan. Mendes, who is married to Winslet, won the best directing Oscar in 2000 for “American Beauty”.

“Revolutionary Road’s” story revolves around a husband and wife (DiCaprio and Winslet in 1950s suburban Connecticut, who are dissatisfied with life and agree to move to Paris. When their plan is scuttled their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations.

Universal and Rogue Pictures’ horror thriller “The Unborn” opens Jan. 9. Directed by David S. Goyer, it stars Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Meagan Good, Idris Elba, Jane Alexander, Rhys Coiro, Cam Gigandet and Carla Gugino. In “The Unborn”, a young woman is pulled into a world of nightmares when a demonic spirit haunts her and threatens everyone she loves.

The weekend of Jan. 16-18 will see seven films arrive in theaters or go wider. Warner Bros.’ action comedy “Chandni Chowk To China” goes into limited release Jan. 16. Directed by Nikhil Advani, it stars Akshay Kumar, Mithun Chakraborty, Jun Li and Chia Hui Liu. In the film a simple cook is mistaken for the reincarnation of an ancient peasant warrior Liu Shengh by residents of an oppressed Chinese village.

Paramount Vantage’s Oscar contender drama “Defiance” goes wide Jan. 16. Directed by Edward Zwick, it stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, Ravil Isyanov and Mia Wasikowska. Zwick won the best picture Oscar in 1999 for being a producer of “Shakespeare in Love” and in 2001 for being a producer of “Traffic”.

“Defiance”, based on a true story, is about four Jewish brothers living in Nazi occupied Poland during World War II, who escape into the forest where they join up with Russian resistance fighters battling the Nazis. Throughout the war they build a village inside the forest and manage to save the lives of more than 1,200 other Jews.

Paramount’s family comedy “Hotel For Dogs” opens wide Jan. 16. Directed by Thor Freudenthal, it stars Emma Roberts, Jake T. Austin, Kyla Pratt, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon, Don Cheadle, Jimmy Bennett, Johnny Simmons, Troy Gentile and Robinne Lee.

In “Dogs” 16 year old Andi (Roberts) and her younger brother, Bruce (Austin), find themselves in a foster home with a strict “no pets” policy. Andi has to use her quick wit to help find a new home for their dog, Friday. The kids stumble upon an abandoned hotel and begin transforming it into the perfect home for Friday as well as all the strays in the city.

Overture Films’ “Last Chance Harvey” (see Jan. 9) goes wide Jan. 16.

Lionsgate’s horror thriller “My Bloody Valentine 3D” opens Jan. 16. Directed by Patrick Lussier, it stars Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith and Kevin Tighe. In “Valentine”, a remake of the 1981 cult-horror classic, a decades old folk tale about a deranged murderer who kills those who celebrate Valentine’s Day, turns out to be true.

Fox Searchlight’s urban drama “Notorious” opens Jan. 16. Directed by George Tillman, Jr., it stars Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Jamal Woolard, Anthony Mackie, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Kevin Phillips, Sean Ringgold , Ginger Kroll, Marc John Jefferies, Usman Sharif and Valence Thomas. “Notorious” revolves around the life of murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G, from his beginnings as a Brooklyn crack dealer to an East Coast hip-hop sensation.

Sony’s comedy “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” opens Jan. 16. Directed by Steve Carr, it stars Kevin James, Jayma Mays, Keir O'Donnell, Shirley Knight, Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Rannazzisi. Its story is about a mild-mannered security guard who must protect his mall from a gang of highly organized thieves.

Seven films are set to open or expand their runs the weekend of Jan. 23-25. Warner Bros.’ Summer of 2008 blockbuster “The Dark Knight” re-opens in an Academy run designed to put it back into theaters while Oscar voters are marking their ballots. Warner has high hopes that Academy members will give “Knight” a best picture nomination and the late Heath Ledger a best supporting actor nom for his acclaimed performance as The Joker.

IFC Films’ dark comedy “Dog Eat Dog” begins an exclusive run Jan. 23. Directed by Carlos Moreno, it stars Marlon Moreno, Oscar Borda, Alvaro Rodriguez, Blas Jaraillo, Paulina Rivas and Andres Toro. In “Dog” two hoods sign their own death warrant when they bungle a job.

Warner Bros. and New Line’s family action adventure “Inkheart” opens wide Jan. 23. Directed by Iain Softley, it stars Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent, Andy Serkis, Eliza Bennett, Rafi Gavron and Sienna Guillory.

In “Inkheart” Brendan Fraser plays Mo Folchart, a father who possesses a secret ability to bring characters from books to life when he reads them aloud. But when Mo accidentally brings a power-hungry villain from a rare children's fable to life, the villain kidnaps Mo’s daughter and demands Mo bring other evil fictional characters to life. In an attempt to rescue his daughter, Mo assembles a disparate group of friends — both real and magic — and embarks on a journey to save her and set things right.

The Weinstein Company’s action adventure “Killshot” opens in limited release Jan. 23. Directed by John Madden, it stars Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Diane Lane, Thomas Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Johnny Knoxville and Don McManus.

In “Killshot” a husband and wife witness a shakedown and then discover that the Witness Protection Program is no match for a pair of ruthless killers who want them dead.

The Weinstein Company’s sci-fi fantasy “Outlander” opens in limited release Jan. 23. Directed by Howard McCain, it stars John Hurt, Ron Perlman, Sophia Myles, Jim Caviezel and Jack Huston.

In &Outlander” a man from another galaxy crash lands on Earth during the time of the Vikings, bringing with him an alien predator.

DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage’s Oscar contender drama “Revolutionary Road” (see Jan. 9) goes wide Jan. 23.

Sony’s Screen Gems label’s horror thriller “Underworld 3: The Rise of the Lycans” opens wide Jan. 23. Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos, it stars Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Steven Mackintosh and Kevin Grievoux.

The film explores the origins of the centuries-old blood feud between the aristocratic vampires known as Death Dealers and their onetime slaves, the Lycans.

Another four titles will arrive in theaters the weekend of Jan. 30 - Feb. 1. Sony Pictures Classics’ drama “The Class” expands its run in New York and Los Angeles Jan. 30. Directed by Laurent Cantet, it stars Francois Begaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Cherif Bounaidja Rachedi and Juliette Demaille. It’s the story of a young high-school teacher in a rough Parisian neighborhood who does not hesitate to push his students in order to motivate them.

Lionsgate’s romantic comedy “New In Town” opens wide Jan. 30. Directed by Jonas Elmer, it stars Renee Zellweger, Harry Connick, Jr., J.K. Simmons,Frances Conroy, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Hilary Carroll, Rashida Jones and Adetokumboh M’Cormack.

Renee Zellweger plays Lucy Hill, an ambitious, up and coming executive living in Miami. When Lucy’s offered a temporary assignment in the middle of nowhere to restructure a manufacturing plant, she jumps at the opportunity, knowing that a big promotion is close at hand. What begins as a straight forward job assignment becomes a life changing experience as Lucy discovers greater meaning in her life and most unexpectedly, the man of her dreams.

Fox’s action adventure “Taken” opens wide Jan. 30. Directed by Pierre Morel, it stars Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Greis, David Warshofsky, Katie Cassidy, Holly Valance, Famke Janssen and Anjul Nigam.

In “Taken” a former government operative comes out of retirement and uses his extensive training to rescue his estranged daughter from a slave trade operation.

DreamWorks and Paramount’s horror thriller “The Uninvited” opens wide Jan. 30. Directed by Charles Guard and Thomas Guard, it stars Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn and John Prowse. In “The Uninvited” after returning home from a brief stay in a mental hospital, a brother and sister’s recovery is jeopardized by their cruel stepmother, aloof father and a ghost that haunts their home.