By Pete McQuaid

MediaNews

Christmas season is the best time for the movies.

Not only do you have more free time on vacations (or just love an excuse to stay indoors), but studios also tend to release their best movies toward the end of the year, closer to awards season.

There's plenty to see this December. Here's a primer on some films you can catch while avoiding the cold:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the rest of their merry band of indistinguishable dwarves continue their march toward the Lonely Mountain in The Desolation of Smaug, the superior sequel to An Unexpected Journey.

Smaug, a massive dragon voiced with icy glee by Benedict Cumberbatch, is one of the finest CGI creations ever made, which is odd because the Lord of the Rings series was never known for its special effects. Out now.

Saving Mr. Banks

You might think Saving Mr. Banks focuses on Walt Disney, since the smiling, mustached face of Tom Hanks features prominently in every shot on the commercial.

While this Disney-produced film does cast its founding father in a charming light, it's more about P.L. Travers (played fantastically by Emma Thompson), the difficult author of the Mary Poppins books who's reluctant to give up the rights to them -- to say the least. Out now.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Not sure if you knew, but they made another Anchorman movie.

Will Ferrell's been canvassing the country, making sure even movie-lovers in North Dakota know that his gang is all back for a sequel, which finds Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 news team working for a 24-hour news channel in New York. Out Friday, Dec. 20.

Walking with Dinosaurs

This animated 3D film about the lives of four dinosaur friends looks amazing visually (the CGI dinosaurs were filmed against live-action backdrops).

But why is the main one voiced by John Leguizamo? Out Friday, Dec. 20 Inside Llewyn Davis

The new offering from the Çoen brothers stars newcomer Oscar Issac as the titular Llewyn Davis, an up-and-coming folk singer in the '60s. The film, which is getting rave reviews from the press (it's been out in NYC for a few weeks), also stars Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund. Out Friday, Dec. 20.

American Hustle

David O. Russell, the director of the Lowell movie The Fighter, outdid himself with the wild, opulent American Hustle, an exceedingly loose retelling of the ABSCAM scandal (the disclaimer at the beginning says "Some of this actually happened").

Christian Bale puts on one of his career-best performances, as does almost everyone else in the absurdly deep cast which includes Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro, and Louis C.K.

Oh, and Mickey O'Keefe as FBI Agent #3. Out Friday, Dec. 20.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street isn't an updated version of The Three Little Pigs set at Morgan Stanley. It's Martin Scorsese's three-hour epic about the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese), a stockbroker who founded Stratton Oakmont in the 1980s and became rich through corruption and securities fraud.

Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey costar, continuing to try to prove to people that they are actually legitimate actors. Out Christmas Day.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther, Pacific Rim) stars as the recently deceased former South African President Nelson Mandela. The film is based on Mandela's 1994 autobiography. Out Christmas Day.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller makes a bit of a directing departure from his Zoolander and Tropic Thunder days with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, about a LIFE magazine worker who lives in his own fantastical daydreams.

Funny -- that's what everyone who used to work for LIFE magazine is doing these days. Out Christmas Day.

Her

Joaquin Phoenix's latest weird role is that of Theodore Twombly in Her, directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). Theodore falls in love with his brand-new operating system, which is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Sounds odd at first ... but I mean, who wouldn't fall in love with a computer voiced by Scarlett Johansson? Out Christmas Day.

Grudge Match

You obviously wanted to see 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone box 70-year-old Robert De Niro, because hey, Rocky and Raging Bull were just made a little more than 30 years ago.

So here you have Grudge Match, yet another movie where Alan Arkin is the oldest and crankiest out of all the old and cranky men. Out Christmas Day.

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