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Hollywood heavyweights spar at holidays

For what's supposed to be a peaceable season, the holidays turn brutal at the cinema. Movies don't just compete for box-office receipts, but for artistic credibility via Oscar attention and best-of-the-year lists. This year in particular, the vying movies pair off into one-on-one rivalries, and most of the bouts feature either an out-of-nowhere long shot like Rocky or an against-all-odds comeback bid like Cinderella Man. Here are 12 prize-fighting films ready to rumble.

THE BOUT: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (opens Dec. 9) vs. King Kong (Dec. 14)

THE STAKES: Bragging rights as the next Lord of the Rings, plus the merchandising bonanza based on the furry protagonists

THE TOUT SHEET: Based on the classic children's book by C.S. Lewis, Narnia depicts a group of children who enter an old wardrobe and discover an enchanted, warlike realm, including the Christ-like lion Aslan. Meanwhile, Rings' director Peter Jackson returns with his $200 million dream project, a remake of the 1933 classic of a big ape in the Big Apple, starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody and Jack Black.

UNDERDOG: Narnia director Andrew Adamson helms his first live-action feature following the success of the Shrek movies.

PROJECTED CHAMP: Reportedly three hours long, Kong will be fully twice as long as the perfectly good original. Still, as cinema's reigning 800-pound gorilla, Jackson should prove that Kong remains the eighth wonder of the world.

THE BOUT: Syriana (Dec. 9) vs. Munich (Dec. 23)

THE STAKES: Respectability for tackling "mighty important issues" and extra attention from the mainstream news media

THE TOUT SHEET: The season's two most serious dramas address post-9/11 politics head-on. Traffic's Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan exposes the relationship between the oil industry and Middle Eastern terrorism in Syriana, a knotty tale starring Matt Damon, Amanda Peet and George Clooney. In Munich, Steven Spielberg sheds light on the contemporary war on terror by reconsidering the Palestinian terrorist attack at Munich's 1972 Olympic Games and the complexities of Israel's eye-for-an-eye retaliation.

COMEBACK KID: As a conflicted Israeli intelligence agent, Munich's Eric Bana needs a hit after flopping with The Hulk and the so-so Troy.

PROJECTED CHAMP: Steven Spielberg dominates any cinematic contest, but with Munich racing to meet its late-December release date and Syriana boasting the presence of George Clooney, it'll be a close match.

THE BOUT: Rent (Nov. 23) vs. The Producers (Dec. 26)

THE STAKES: Proof that Chicago's success as a screen musical wasn't a fluke

THE TOUT SHEET: These rival song-and-dance films represent diametrically different notions of musical theater. Rent, based on Jonathan Larson's AIDS-era reinterpretation of La Boheme, won acclaim by reinvigorating theater music with a rock-based score. The Producers, a film treatment of Mel Brooks' stage treatment of his hilarious 1968 film (got that?) about fraudulent Broadway mavens has launched a trend for jokey stage versions of famous movies. Rent and The Producers each respect their Broadway origins, casting many of the same players from the stage shows.

UNDERDOG: The Producers' stage director Susan Stroman helms her first theatrical film.

PROJECTED WINNER: Rent has some strong early buzz, but The Producers' hilarious premise seems idiot-proof.

THE BOUT: Fun with Dick and Jane (Dec. 21) vs. The Ringer (Dec. 23)

THE STAKES: Grudge match over the future of politically incorrect comedy

THE TOUT SHEET: Jim Carrey, former darling of the Farrelly Brothers' gross-out comedies, goes for slightly more wholesome laughs in this remake of the 1977 Jane Fonda/George Segal vehicle featuring cash-poor yuppies who resort to grand larceny. In The Ringer, the executive-producing Farrelly Brothers aim significantly lower by casting Johnny Knoxville as a sneak who pretends to be disabled to compete in the Special Olympics.

COMEBACK KID: Téa Leoni, playing Jane to Carrey's Dick, seeks redemption after Spanglish.

PROJECTED CHAMP: The long-delayed Ringer can't go the distance against the clout of Carrey, who'll strike an unlikely blow against adolescent-level humor.

THE BOUT: Brokeback Mountain (Dec. 9) vs. Transamerica (Dec. 23)

THE STAKES: Acting honors, this year's gay-rights rallying film

THE TOUT SHEET: The Academy, which frequently rewards straight actors who take sexually ambivalent roles, will have its eye on Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's already award-winning tale of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Wyoming cowboys who stay more than friends for two decades. Transamerica plays it more broad and safe by casting Emmy-winning Felicity Huffman ("Desperate Housewives") as a male-to-female transsexual who road-trips cross-country with her long-lost son.

COMEBACK KID: Ang Lee needs a transfusion of artistic credibility after the disappointment of The Hulk (see Munich, Eric Bana).

PROJECTED CHAMP: Despite being the "smaller" film, Transamerica should enjoy a heavy award-consideration push from its Oscar-savvy studio the Weinstein Co., while Brokeback Mountain will have a hard time drawing audiences in Red States.

THE BOUT: Memoirs of a Geisha (Dec. 16) vs. The New World (Jan. 13)

THE STAKES: Oscars for "pretty" categories like art direction and costumes; the Oprah Book Club audience

THE TOUT SHEET: Where would you rather visit: 1930's Japan or 17th-century America? Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Chicago's Rob Marshall, casts Ziyi Zhang as a renowned courtesan in an adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-seller. In The New World, legendary director Terrence Malick recounts the timeless love story of Pocahontas (Peruvian newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell).

COMEBACK KID: Farrell, who needs recovery from the disaster of Alexander

PROJECTED WINNER: Malick may be one of cinema's most lauded craftsmen of nature's splendors, but earlier American period pieces like 1492 have poor track records. Memoirs' tony cast and literary credentials should win the day.



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