Movies are the only Christmas presents that give you a chance to peek inside the package before the big opening. And few holiday seasons offer more cinema surprises than this one: When was the last time nine literary adaptations came out all at once? It’s not too startling that three chockablock-with-yocks comedy sequels will slug it out at the box office, but so will three astonishingly somber dramas about AIDS, Vietnam, and the Holocaust. This is the year Julia Roberts rescues the Supreme Court from murder most foul, Macaulay Culkin dons dancing shoes, Debra Winger becomes an English intellectual’s yenta, hunky Johnny Depp goes homely again, Kurt Russell cleans up the Old West, and full-fledged fantasist Steven Spielberg tackles humanity’s grimmest reality. The season also offers a mute (Holly Hunter as a 19th-century frontier pianist), a coot (grizzled Clint Eastwood as a Texas manhunter), and a surefire hoot (Robin Williams in outrageous drag as Mrs. Doubtfire, a matron with blazing bosoms).

The wildest drama of all, of course, is the Hollywood free-for-all itself. The studios have been hoarding some of their biggest potential blockbusters for this mad, lemminglike race for your holiday dollar and saving their prestige items for the narrow year-end window of Academy Award opportunity. Moviegoers will have to be on their toes to catch the flicks that catch their fancy — each week the last-minute entries will be bumping one another off the screen more ruthlessly than the bad guys in Batman and The Pelican Brief. Here’s our sneak peek at what’s coming up from the stars and starmakers, which big names are apt to wind up with the sugary goodies, and who is likely to take their lumps of coal. Quick, check out what’s at your local movie house — there are only a few Oscar shopping days left!

Early Entries
Getting out ahead of the pack is always a risky move in Hollywood. If a movie clicks, it’s clear sailing through the holidays. If it doesn’t, even a star vehicle can get trampled by the time the Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off.

Carlito’s Way
Opened Nov. 10. Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller. Directed by Brian De Palma.
Why It Jumped the Gun: Universal is betting it can ride the coattails of Pacino’s Oscar win for Scent of a Woman. So the sooner it’s released, the better.
Will It Last? Pacino as a ’70s crime lord? Fans could decide Al’s already been there, done that. But sometimes familiarity also breeds success.
Who Gets the Credit If It Clicks: Pacino.
Who Takes the Fall If It Stiffs: De Palma, who still labors under the shadow of Bonfire of the Vanities.

My Life
Opened Nov. 12. Starring Michael Keaton, Nicole Kidman, Queen Latifah, Haing S. Ngor. Directed by Bruce Joel Rubin.
Why It Jumped the Gun: Despite stabs at humor, this drama about facing death by cancer is no jolly holiday treat. It’s now or never.
Will It Last? Keep the life support nearby: As the failure of last year’s Lorenzo’s Oil showed, audiences are deep in denial when it comes to disease.
Who Gets the Credit If It Clicks: Keaton, for making the reaper seem not quite so grim.
Who Takes the Fall If It Stiffs: Ghost writer Rubin — who wrote as well as directed My Life — can probably crawl away, since it’s Columbia chairman Mark Canton (Last Action Hero) who’s already hanging on by his fingernails.

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