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2012’s Most Anticipated Movies: Dark Knight Rises, Hunger Games, More

From "The Dark Knight Rises" to "The Great Gatsby" in 3-D, all the movies to get excited about this year.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The Hunger Games (March 23)Director: Gary Ross. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson.

Adapted from the bestselling series of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins and directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville), The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old in a post-apocalyptic world who competes in the titular annual televised event that pits boy and girl “tributes” against each other in a battle to the death. The sci-fi drama is the first film to be adapted from Collins’s trilogy of books, which have sold more than 8 million copies, and the film, which carries a budget of $100 million, also features supporting turns from Woody Harrelson as Katniss’s mentor, The Kids Are All Right’s Josh Hutcherson as her fellow combatant, and rocker Lenny Kravitz as her stylist. Think Twilight meets The Most Dangerous Game.

The Avengers (May 4)Director: Joss Whedon. Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson.

Written and directed by TV nerd-god Joss Whedon, who’s responsible for the shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, as well as co-writing the screenplays for Toy Story and X-Men, this unofficial kickoff to the summer-blockbuster movie season is based on the Marvel Comics superhero team of the same name. When the Norse god of mischief, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), threatens the fate of mankind, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of the peacekeeping agency S.H.I.E.L.D., recruits a team of superheroes to pull the world back from the brink of annihilation, including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and a new face—the expert bow-and-arrow marksman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Expect an orgy of superpowers and explosions in what we hope isn’t the New Year’s Eve of superhero films.

Dark Shadows (May 11)Director: Tim Burton. Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer.

Based on the cult TV series, this gothic vampire saga marks the eighth collaboration between spooky auteur Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Opening in 1752, the Collins family immigrates from Liverpool, England, settling in Maine. There, the family son, Barnabas (Depp), becomes a wealthy playboy who then overplays his hand and breaks the heart of a witch (Eva Green), who buries him alive. Barnabas is freed in 1972, where he finds his mansion in ruins and occupied by a motley crew of bizarre relatives, including the family matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her rebellious teenage daughter (Chloë Moretz). Any Burton-Depp pairing is enough to get excited, and this is, surprisingly, Burton’s first crack at a vampire film. The last time he dealt with vampires was with Bela Lugosi in 1994’s Ed Wood—a role that won actor Martin Landau the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The Dictator (May 11)Director Larry Charles. Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Megan Fox, Ben Kingsley.

Will this be our generation’s The Great Dictator? Inspired by Zabibah and the King, an Iraqi romantic novel allegedly penned by the late Saddam Hussein, the film tells “the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed,” according to Paramount Pictures. Sacha Baron Cohen will play the aforementioned dictator, Gen. Adm. Alladeen, from a country called the Republic of Wadiya, and from the look of things, the character appears to be heavily based on the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Larry Charles, who previously helmed Baron Cohen’s acclaimed mockumentaries Borat and Brüno, is back in the director’s chair of this comedy-satire, which also stars Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, and Megan Fox—as herself.

Moonrise Kingdom (May 25)Director: Wes Anderson. Starring: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray.

Every filmmaking effort from auteur Wes Anderson is cause for celebration, and here, the director returns with a live-action film following his critically acclaimed animated effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The 1960s-set film centers on a young teenage couple that flees their New England town. A search party is led by the local sheriff (Bruce Willis) and the girl’s distraught parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Anderson is an expert in depicting dysfunctional families (see The Royal Tenenbaums), and the film’s all-star cast also features Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, and Harvey Keitel.

Rock of Ages (June 1)Director: Adam Shankman. Starring: Tom Cruise, Julianne Hough, Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, an aspiring rocker (newcomer Diego Boneta) and an aspiring actress (Julianne Hough) fall in love and try to make it in the rock scene of 1987. The movie musical will feature music from Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Journey, Poison, and more, and also boasts a massive ensemble cast, including Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, and the film’s biggest draw: Tom Cruise, continuing to blaze his comeback trail as Stacee Jaxx, the lead singer of a hair metal band called Arsenal. The role recalls the egomaniacal motivational speaker he played in Magnolia that should’ve landed him an Oscar. And director Adam Shankman’s last film musical, Hairspray, was a lot of fun.

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Prometheus (June 8)Director: Ridley Scott. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron.

Michael Fassbender, it seems, can do no wrong. After a massive 2011, including acclaimed performances in X-Men: First Class, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, and Shame, the actor will star as an android in Ridley Scott’s (Alien, Blade Runner) long-awaited return to the sci-fi genre, Prometheus. The film is set in the late 21st century, as the crew of the spaceship Prometheus stumbles upon an extraterrestrial civilization that yearns to discover the origins of humanity. Joining Fassbender is Swedish Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace as an archeologist/scientist, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron as a villainous corporate suit. Though originally conceived as a prequel to Scott’s Alien, the film is by most accounts not directly linked to the sci-fi franchise.

Brave (June 22)Director: Mark Andrews. Voices: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson.

This 3-D computer-animated family film is notable not only for being Pixar’s first fairy tale, but also for being its first movie boasting a female protagonist. Conceived as a fairy tale in the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm and somewhat darker in tone than previous Pixar efforts, Brave is set during the 10th century in the highlands of Scotland and follows Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), an archer-princess whose unconventional behavior inadvertently leads to chaos in the kingdom. The film marks the feature directorial debut of Mark Andrews, who served as story supervisor on the Pixar films The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and is also noteworthy for being the first Pixar movie since the passing of cofounder Steve Jobs.

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 4)Director: Marc Webb. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans.

Directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), this superhero blockbuster marks the first entry in a rebooted Spider-Man film franchise following the abysmal Spider-Man 3. Nerdy outcast Peter Parker (The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield) discovers a dark secret from his past that leads him on the path to becoming Spider-Man. The film also stars “it” actress Emma Stone as his love interest, Gwen Stacy; Rhys Ifans as the film’s villain, Dr. Curt Connors, who transforms into 9-foot-tall reptile The Lizard; and Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Parker’s Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Sony is already planning sequels to the film, which will be released in 3-D and IMAX 3-D—usually a good sign.

The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway.

The third and final installment in filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and sees Gotham experiencing a rare moment of peace. Batman (Christian Bale), a fugitive from justice after assuming responsibility for Harvey Dent’s crime spree, is drawn back to the city following an ominous warning from the mysterious Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) that hints at evidence of Occupy Wall Street undertones, painting the Dark Knight as the “1 percent”: “You and your friends better batten down the hatches because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Batman is then drawn back to Gotham to do battle with the muscle-bound menace Bane, played by Tom Hardy.

Argo (Sept. 14)Director: Ben Affleck. Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler.

Based on the 2007 Wired magazine story, “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran,” Argo marks the third filmmaking effort from director Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town), and it’s another thriller. The setting is the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and the CIA and the Canadian government team up to rescue six diplomats held hostage by convincing the Iranian government that they are really crew members scouting locations for a sci-fi movie, entitled Argo. Affleck, who will also play the film’s lead, recruited some of his favorite TV actors for his movie, including Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Friday Night Lights’s Kyle Chandler, as well as vets John Goodman and Alan Arkin, in what appears to be another intriguing film by one of Hollywood’s most unlikely A-list filmmakers.

The Gangster Squad (Oct. 19)Director: Ruben Fleischer. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin.

Long thought of as one of filmdom’s most talented actors, Ryan Gosling became a certifiable phenomenon in 2011, crossing over from the indie world into the mainstream thanks to his ab-tastic role in Crazy, Stupid, Love, as well as a series of Gosling-centric Internet memes. Here, The Gos stars as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, an LAPD officer who leads the charge against Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and his East Coast gangsters, who infiltrated Los Angeles in the 1940s and ’50s. The role will reunite Gosling with his Crazy, Stupid love interest Emma Stone and features a talented ensemble cast, including Josh Brolin, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, and Nick Nolte.

Skyfall (Nov. 9)Director: Sam Mendes. Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes.

While the last entry in the James Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace, was a clumsy affair featuring a lackluster villain, Oscar nominee Javier Bardem will play Bond’s nemesis in the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall. Here, Agent 007 (Daniel Craig), while struggling with his relationship with boss M (Judi Dench), must hunt down the people who attacked his spy agency, MI6. The $150 million budgeted blockbuster will reunite director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) with Craig, who gave the actor one of his first Hollywood roles in 2002’s Road to Perdition, and will feature Bardem playing his first villain since his Oscar-winning role as assassin Anton Chigurh in 2007’s No Country for Old Men. The cast also includes Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney in undisclosed roles, Naomie Harris as a field agent, and Ben Whishaw as Bond’s tech wiz, Q.

Gravity (Nov. 21)Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Starring: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock.

Ever since his brilliant Hollywood filmmaking debut, 1995’s A Little Princess, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has been one of the world’s most intriguing filmmakers. Whether it is a sexy love ménage à trois (Y Tu Mamá También), a Hollywood franchise (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), or a post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama (Children of Men), Cuarón has never failed to impress. His first film since 2006’s Children of Men is Gravity, a sci-fi drama centered on two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, who are the only survivors of a damaged space station and must fight for survival. Cuarón created special, groundbreaking cameras to shoot the 3-D movie, which has been described as “Kubrick-esque,” It’s rumored to incorporate plenty of CGI and to open with a stunning 20-minute tracking shot.

Les Misérables (Dec. 7)Director: Tom Hooper. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway.

Based on the celebrated novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables is director Tom Hooper’s much-anticipated follow-up to his film The King’s Speech, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), fresh off a 19-year prison stint for stealing bread—and escaping—assumes a new identity, transforming himself into a wealthy aristocrat. However, his past comes back to haunt him in the form of the fiercely dedicated Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who has dedicated his life to hunting down Valjean. The two men eventually find themselves lost amid the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. Hooper has emerged as an industry specialist in historical dramas, and his Oscar-bait film also stars Anne Hathaway as the forlorn prostitute Fantine, Sacha Baron Cohen as the menacing Thénardier, and Helena Bonham Carter as Mme. Thénardier.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14)Director: Peter Jackson. Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis.

The first installment of a two-part fantasy film that serves as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy sees Rings director Peter Jackson return to the Shire for an epic adventure. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman of BBC’s The Office) leads a group of 13 dwarves on a quest to take back the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the clutches of Smaug, a menacing dragon. Plenty of Rings cast members return, including Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), and of course, the great Andy Serkis as Gollum. Oh, and a special treat for fans of the HBO series Flight of the Conchords: Bret McKenzie as Lindir, a singing elf.

Untitled Osama bin Laden Film (Dec. 19)Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Starring (rumored): Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Rooney Mara.

Not a lot is known about filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s highly anticipated follow-up to her 2009 thriller The Hurt Locker, which took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. What we do know is the film will reteam Bigelow with her Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal and will follow the hunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, including the battle in his Pakistani compound that resulted in his death. So far, only Jason Clarke has been cast in the film, but there are rumors that Warrior co-stars Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are up for roles as Navy Seals, while The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Rooney Mara also reportedly has been approached for a role.

This Is 40 (Dec. 21)Director: Judd Apatow. Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel.

This spinoff of comedy guru Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit Knocked Up follows the film’s married couple, Pete and Debbie, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, who are struggling with their relationship a few years after the events of Knocked Up. “That’s where Judd’s going as he gets older, melding [drama and comedy],” Albert Brooks, who plays Rudd’s father, told the Los Angeles Times, agreeing when a reporter asked him if it was in the vein of Funny People. “He’s developing that [balance] more as more things happen to him; he’s kicking that into his work.” The dramedy also will star Bridesmaids scene-stealer Melissa McCarthy as a parent at the couple’s kids’ school, Jason Segel as his flirty Knocked Up character, Lena Dunham, and Megan Fox—presumably as a temptress.

Django Unchained (Dec. 25)Director: Quentin Tarantino. Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Like Inglourious Basterds, writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a brutal slice of revisionist history. Set in the antebellum Deep South, Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave turned bounty hunter, teams up with his mentor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), to rescue his wife from the ruthless Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first villain role). DiCaprio was supposed to star as Nazi Col. Hans Landa in Basterds, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Waltz eventually replaced DiCaprio in the role and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Will this heinous villain bring DiCaprio a long overdue Oscar victory? Regardless, Tarantino’s Django script was so good it made the 2011 Hollywood Black List of the best unproduced screenplays, even though it was already in pre-production.

The Great Gatsby (Dec. 25)Director: Baz Luhrmann. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire.

Adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, The Great Gatsby shows Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) seduced into the decadent world of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), his enigmatic neighbor who pines Carraway’s fetching—and married—cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The film marks the reunion of DiCaprio and director Baz Luhrmann, who worked together on 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, as well as real-life pals DiCaprio and Maguire, who last shared the screen as young kids in 1993’s This Boy’s Life (that is, if you don’t count the 2001 disaster Don’s Plum, which never saw the light of day). The film will be shot in 3-D, and, judging by Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, will feature some eye-catching costumes and set design.

Lincoln (Dec. 2012/TBD)Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

At 65, celebrated filmmaker Steven Spielberg is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2011, he released two blockbusters around Christmas: the historical epic War Horse and the motion-capture animated film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. This year, he’ll direct Lincoln—a biopic of the president based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis will star as Abe Lincoln, while Sally Field will play his wife, Mary Todd, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt will portray their eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. According to Spielberg, the film will focus on the last few months of Lincoln’s life—including the abolition of slavery, the end of the Civil War, and his assassination. And, after Day-Lewis’s amazing performances as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York and Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, the prospect of him stepping into the shoes of another compelling historical figure is exciting indeed.