"It's magic time," Jack Lemmon proclaimed right before he stepped into a take for one of his movies. As a movie critic, I say it to myself before the lights go down. It's a way of exorcising anything that might get in the way of enjoying the picture.
In a media age that's taken the art of handicapping from sports to politics and fine-art auctions, it's impossible to walk into a movie without knowing whether it has "buzz."
So why leave the buildup to studio flaks? Here's what some of the peaks and valleys look like when you have nothing to go on but the titles and the talent involved.
Just rest assured that before the films unspool, I'll be murmuring, "It's magic time."
Lovely and Amazing
Horton Hears a Who!
The studio that made the Ice Age cartoons hosts as many virtuosos as Disney/Pixar; all they've needed is better stories. They've got a great one in this Dr. Seuss classic about an elephant who bonds with a speck and learns, "After all - a person's a person. No matter how small." (March 14)
Leatherheads. In the new millennium, it takes a tough man to make a tender movie. Director-star George Clooney promises to get the balance right by setting a romantic triangle in the Roaring '20s milieu of early pro football. Renee Zellweger plays the object of his desire, and John Krasinski (The Office) the fellow who wants her, too. (April 4)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This year's franchise entries include The Chronicles of Narnia No. 2 (May 16), James Bond No. 22 (Nov. 7) and Harry Potter No. 6 (Nov. 21). But none rouses higher hopes than Indiana Jones No. 4, which strikes new ground as, to quote George Lucas, "a B science-fiction movie of the '50s." (May 22)
Body of Lies. The CIA has been a prime movie subject in theory. It threatens to become one in fact with this Ridley Scott movie, featuring two stars in peak thespian condition (Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio) and, perhaps most important, a script by William Monaghan, whose last credit was The Departed. (Oct. 10)
Lost and Delirious
Cassandra's Dream. To quote Bill Maher's New Rules circa 2005, "Stop pretending Woody Allen movies don't completely suck." Will there be anything fresh for Allen to discover in Bonny Old London when he returns to the scene of his crime movies Match Point and Scoop with this story of felonious brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell)? (Jan. 18)
Fool's Gold. Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey: Unless there's been some unreported transmigration of souls, it's not likely they've turned into Tracy and Hepburn in the four years since How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. (Feb. 8)
Revolutionary Road. It's got the terrific Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in their first team-up since Titanic, but it's also directed by Sam Mendes, whose American Beauty became an Oscar winner built on chic and hype. Expect tons of curdled emotion. (Dec. 19)
Bedtime Stories. We loved Hairspray, Adam Shankman, but when you said it inspired some critics to reconsider your big-star comedies, such as The Pacifier, we got worried. And your next stars Adam Sandler as an architect who rediscovers family values by reading stories that come true to his niece and nephew. It might turn out great, but on paper - gag me with a baby spoon. (Dec. 25)
Dazed and Confused
Jumper. Doug Liman directs the second Star Wars trilogy team of Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson in a thriller about teleportation and the National Security Agency - but is it the Liman of the sizzling The Bourne Identity or the soporific Mr. and Mrs. Smith? (Feb. 14)
Pride & Glory. The ever-busy Colin Farrell co-stars with Columbia's own Edward Norton in this tale of a New York police family tested by a corruption scandal, and the director and co-writer is Gavin O'Connor (Tumbleweeds, Miracle). But this was shot almost two years ago. Let's hope the delay has nothing to do with quality. (March 14)
Get Smart. Casting Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway as bumbling super-spy Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 sounds, well, smart - until you see that the director is Peter Segal, who did the coarse, mediocre remake of The Longest Yard. (June 20)
Valkyrie. Tom Cruise stars as the ringleader of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The creative team (including director Bryan Singer) gave us The Usual Suspects (1995) 13 years ago, and the supporting cast includes Kenneth Branagh. The big question mark is Cruise. He stole what there was to steal in Lions for Lambs; maybe this one will have critics leaping on couches. (Oct. 3)