Note: Unfortunately, movies that open in limited release may not come to Chicago or nearby theaters until later in December (or maybe even January). I wrote about Me and Orson Welles as a November release, and it's just now being released in the Chicago-area on December 11!
Up in the Air (now playing in limited release): Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) makes his living by traveling across the country firing people. Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a new hire traveling with him, has developed a video conferencing system that eliminates the need for employees like Bingham. Also starring Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, and Danny McBride. Directed by Jason Reitman, this film has already received much critical praise; the National Board of Review named it the best movie of the year (Kendrick was named best supporting actress).
The Lovely Bones (December 11 in limited release): Peter Jackson directed this adaptation of the 2002 Alice Sebold novel. After her murder, 14-year-old Susie (Saoirse Ronan) watches her family and friends (and the man who killed her) from her heaven. Also starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weiz, Stanley Tucci, and Michael Imperioli.
Broken Embraces (December 11 in limited release): The relationship between Lena (Penelope Cruz), an actress, and Mateo (Lluis Homar), a filmmaker and screenwriter, is the center of this movie. Director Pedro Almodvar re-teams with Penelope Cruz for a movie about making movies.
Avatar (December 18): Written and directed by James Cameron, who last directed 1997's Titanic, this film uses never-before-seen special effects. Using an avatar, Jake (Sam Worthington) goes on a mission to infiltrate the Na'vi of the planet Pandora, which is rich in a particular mineral needed on Earth. Avatars (a hybrid life-form made from human and Na'vi DNA) are used by humans because the air of Pandora is toxic. Jake is taken in by Neytiri's (Zoe Saldana) family, and his mission on Pandora changes after he spends time with and learns about the Na'vi.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (December 25 in limited release): Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) travels around with a theater troupe and a magical mirror that allows people to experience whatever is in their imaginations. This is Heath Ledger's final film. His character, Tony, goes through several transformations when he enters the mirror; these transformations are played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell.
Sherlock Holmes (December 25): Guy Ritchie directs this new look to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's popular character. Robert Downey Jr. is Holmes and Jude Law plays Watson. From the trailer it appears that Holmes participates in some sort of street-fighting club! Also starring Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, and Kelly Reilly.
I could have written about more December releases because there are so many that look good. Are there any movies coming out this month that you definitely have to see?