Written by Sarah

Holiday movie season is upon us. This is an unusual period for films since indie and arthouse fare is vying for attention in awards season and studios are releasing the (mostly family friendly) tent pole properties they think have a little more breeding than their summer counterparts (Sherlock Holmes and Avatar were last year’s splashy franchise-starters).

Here’s a peek at the top ten holiday releases, and some of the high-profile indie/art house releases opening in December. The first number is the opening weekend estimate followed by the total theatrical gross, and all estimates are North American grosses only.

Barney’s Version
This one’s just for you Canucks. Paul Giamatti stars in this adaptation of a beloved Canadian novel of the same name. Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike and Canadians Scott Speedman and Rachelle LeFevre also star. Giamatti is an art-house favorite and reviews were generally positive coming out of the Venice and Toronto film festivals this fall—everyone noted Giamatti’s performance more than anything.

Expectations: With a limited release and not much by way of traditional marketing, I’m giving Barney’s Version a $70K opening and a $5M theatrical run.

Black Swan

By now we’re all aware that this is Darren Aronofsky’s ballerina thriller starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, yes? Oscar buzz is heavy and there is a considerable marketing push leading into the December 3 limited opening. There’s also a lot of good will toward Aronofsky after 2008’s The Wrestler and of course Portman’s name is a plus.

Expectations: I don’t see an artsy, pschosexual thriller playing in malls across America. I’ll go with a $175K limited opening and $20M through expansion in its theatrical run.

Blue Valentine
That NC17 rating has killed Blue Valentine. It probably could have been a strong art house performer based on strong reviews and word of mouth after showings at several film festivals including Sundance, Cannes and Toronto. But that NC17 means many theaters won’t even carry it.

Expectations: What’s just more than “nil”? Let’s say a $40K opening—limited of course—and $150K over the theatrical run, which will never amount to more than a handful of theaters.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Oh thank God a studio release with tracking figures and projections. It’s so much easier to estimate earnings for studio properties because they don’t make a movie before they have a reasonable expectation of what they’ll get back. Narnia 3 is tracking okay and is projected to do better than the disappointing Prince Caspian, mostly due to new showrunner Fox bringing the budget back under $200M.

Expectations: Deathly Hallows should still be pulling $20-30M the weekend of December 10, which may detract from Narnia’s audience. I do think Fox is overestimating their own property and underestimating Harry Potter’s staying power, so I’ll call it a solid $35M opening with a $135M theatrical run. That’s less than Caspian’s numbers but with a reduced budget Fox will say Dawn Treader is a win.

Country Strong
Gwyneth Paltrow’s cache + hot young things Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester + the Minivan’s favorite country husband (Tim McGraw) + marketing as Crazy Heart for women = $$$

Expectations: Given that you can run several hundred screens and still be a limited release, I’ll give Country Strong $10M on opening with $37M via planned expansion in January.

The Fighter

Director David O. Russell and cast Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo are going to try to out-Boston Ben Affleck and his The Town crew. This is another project pushed by a lot of Oscar hype, plus The Fighter has serious studio money fronting its ad campaign (as well as its Academy campaign). TV spots and billboard/posters are everywhere and I feel like I sit through this trailer every time I go to the movies.

Expectations: The initial limited opening on December 10 will make for a softer debut, say about $12M, but this should be a strong performer for Paramount and should wrap up $60M.

Frankie and Alice

This is Halle Berry’s bid for another Oscar nomination. She stars as a woman with multiple-personality disorder, one of whose personalities is racist. Early buzz is mixed—the strongest notes go to Berry’s performance. There’s a planned expansion in February to coincide with Freestyle Releasing’s Oscar campaign so there’s a chance this may reach an audience beyond the art house if word of mouth is strong.

Expectations: Um…I’ll give it $135K opening this December and $3M cumulative. I totally just made that up.

Gulliver’s Travels
I think I would rather watch Jack Black make fart noises for two hours than sit through this 3D massacre of Jonathan Swift’s eponymous book. It got kicked from an initial release slated for summer 2010 and was subjected to a post-production 3D conversion, two things that never inspire confidence in me. Also, Jack Black.

Expectations: This will fight with Yogi Bear for “biggest stinker of the 2010 holiday season” but I think it eeks by Yogi simply because the poster doesn’t look like something from an episode of To Catch a Predator. I’ll go with $14M on opening and $60M total.

How Do You Know

And the romcom for the 2010 holiday movie season is… One of Reese Witherspoon’s biggest openings ever came during the 2008 holidays (Four Christmases) and she’s hoping for another holiday win with this one. It helps that guys like her costars Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson. That’s a bunch of crowd pleasers but I think this looks like too much of a chick flick to really lure men in. The trailer has gone over fairly well every time I’ve seen it, but I notice a distinct lack of enthusiasm from men.

Expectations: This is up against TRON which is where all the dudes will be. I’ll be nice and say it pulls $16M and lasts for a $55M gross.

Little Fockers

Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand et al are back in the third Fockers movie. There were late reshoots on this which is another bad filmmaking omen. Plus it’s been six years since Meet the Fockers. Are people still into this franchise? Unfortunately, I think they are. People suck.

Expectations: Opening right before Christmas and safe for the family, I’ll give it $47M opening weekend and it will be a juggernaut performer for Universal, raking in $230M.

Rabbit Hole
Nicole Kidman is another previous Oscar winner re-entering the lists with an indie this winter. She’s earned strong reviews as a bereaved mother and there are some Oscar expectations, but Kidman hasn’t fared well in the art house recently. This is being touted as a “comeback” of sorts, though, so that may help.

Expectations: I’ll give it $150K in a limited opening and $15M total based on expansion and positive word of mouth.

The Tourist
It should be really hard to mess up a whodunit thriller with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, shot in exotic locales and featuring boat chases, but somehow, I am not confident in this. Depp looks—this kills me—worse than I’ve ever seen him and the trailer is a little confusing. Is this a heist movie? A thriller? An action comedy? If you can’t tell me in two minutes what the basic genre of the movie is, we have a problem. Of course, cutting a good trailer is a dying art—it could just be a colossally bad trailer.

Expectations: Name recognition alone buys this movie $30M on opening weekend. I think it will just crack the 100 Club with $102M gross. It will place second to Narnia on December 10 in a close race.

TRON: Legacy

December’s beast-in-waiting is the long-awaited sequel to TRON. Starring Garrett Hedlund—who can be seen in Country StrongTRON: Legacy is going to be huge. There’s a built-in audience of twenty and thirty-something guys who fondly remember the 1982 original from their childhoods waiting on this, and the marketing has been so well managed up to now that a new generation is frothing at the mouth, too. TRON: Legacy wowed Comic Con for two years running. Hype doesn’t get any bigger.

Expectations: All the money! No seriously—I’ll be aggressive and give TRON a $60M opening weekend and a $250M theatrical run.

True Grit
The Coen brothers reunite with Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin in this (unnecessary) remake of the John Wayne classic. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld has been stirring up some awards buzz and the addition of Matt Damon and Barry Pepper to the Coen’s troupe adds to the Oscar polish. As he fixed my filling, my dentist told me he really wants to see this movie. Bridges is still working a lot of warm fuzzies from Crazy Heart and everyone likes a good Western.

Expectations: I’m going aggressive again and will call it a $15M opening and I’ll match No Country as the Coen’s highest-grossing movie with $74M cumulative.

Pedobear: The Movie

AKA Yogi Bear. An acquaintance who is a voting member of the Academy told me over Thanksgiving that he would vote for Justin Timberlake as Best Supporting Actor for The Social Network. I’m really hoping Pedobear Norbits JT’s chances (he voices Boo Boo). Also, the Academy DQ’ed this from the Best Animated Feature race on grounds of it sucking (actually, it was because the combination of CGI animation and live-action photography didn’t meet the standards for the category).

Expectations: I don’t care how dead good taste is, no one is seeing this movie. It’s the holiday season’s bomb. I’ll be generous and say it has a $12M opening and a $58M gross. Anyone who does see this will wish they opted for Tangled instead.

(Lainey: agree or disagree? Are you fighting with Sarah? Join us tomorrow for the Weekly LiveBlog. You can yell at her for actually predicting that GOOP’s Country Strong might not be a bust. Heh.)