And The Winner Is…

Over the next two weekends, orcs will battle humans and Confederates will fight the Union, but such vicious rivalries will pale next to the cutthroat competition over box-office bucks and Oscar nods. For award-grubbers and wannabe blockbusters, late December is the last (and most crowded) battlefield. Below, a handicapper’s guide.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; December 17

King indeed: Peter Jackson’s saga—the best big trilogy since Star Wars, and then some—is the one to beat at the box office (definitely) and for awards (maybe) this holiday season. Other films are mere pretenders to the throne.

2. Peter Pan; December 25

In the fight for box-office second place, Pan has two clear advantages: (1) Babysitters are expensive. (2) This and Cheaper by the Dozen are the only PG films opening before New Year’s.

3. Cold Mountain; December 25

Mostly about Oscar, but it should make big money, too. With Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renée Zellweger all over magazine covers and TV, and big explosions for the guys plus big romance for the ladies, Cold Mountain can play as chick flick, prestige picture, and action-epic all in one. It may not own opening weekend, but it’ll have legs.

4. Mona Lisa Smile; December 19

Bona fide marquee queen Julia Roberts—plus Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal—will pique interest. But tepid reviews (like Peter Rainer’s; see page 113), prim politics, and a lack of romance could hamstring it.

5. Paycheck; December 25

If this flops—and it likely will—Ben Affleck may want to rethink his recent comment: “The overexposure this year has been really damaging … the mystique disappears.” Now, Ben, is mystique really your biggest problem?

And The Winner Is…