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In recent years, the film industry has found a niche market in the November and December months almost on par with the summer blockbuster season. According to recent estimates, the days in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in particular have been the highest-grossing week of the year for moviegoing since 2000. A prime time for otherwise lower-end films to shine at the theaters alongside last-minute Oscar hopefuls, this season is one that is often full of hype on both art house and pop culture releases. In addition, many of the more anticipated Thanksgiving releases continue to dominate cinemas across the country, making the decision on what to see a formidable one. There are, however, a few that are particularly capturing reviewers’ and audiences’ attention.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensThe expected franchise to beat in terms of ticket sales is “Star Wars,” with its newest installment, “The Force Awakens,” hitting theaters Dec. 18. “The Force Awakens” marks a new beginning for the film series in more ways than one: not only is it the first “Star Wars” to be released since Disney’s acquisition of the franchise, but it will also be the first not directed by George Lucas. J.J. Abrams, known for his work on the “Star Trek” reboot films and the television series “Lost,” has stepped up to the role of directing all movies in the new projected trilogy, with Lucas staying on the crew as a correspondent. While Disney has kept the specifics of the plotline under close guard, the general premise will follow three new characters 30 years after “Episode VI” and their interactions with the original cast. New players in the saga include Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Max von Sydow.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2As one franchise reopens in the winter 2015 season, another prominent one makes its curtain call: namely, “The Hunger Games,” which released its final film, “Mockingjay: Part Two,” on Thanksgiving weekend. Projected to stay in the box office ratings for several weeks in the tradition of its predecessors, the film follows Jennifer Lawrence’s now-iconic role of Katniss Everdeen in her final battle against the tyrannical Capitol government, led by President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland. Rumored to have a single major change to the subject material, the finale is being promoted as the action-based counterpart to its predecessor, “Mockingjay: Part One,” which focused more on the behind-the-scenes political battle between the rebels and Snow.

The Hateful EightAnother attention-drawing release, this one far outside the realm of franchise films, is “The Hateful Eight,” the latest Quentin Tarantino Western. Set to release Christmas Day, it stars Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a post-Civil War bounty hunter and his fugitive. As they are en route to the town of Red Rock, Ark. where Russell is set to bring Leigh to justice, the two travelers come across a group comprised of renegade sheriffs, generals and other bounty hunters. After a snowstorm, all eight take shelter in a haberdashery on a mountain pass and end up stranded in the harsh Wyoming landscape. “The Hateful Eight” is expected to carry the same sort of intense violence and blood-soaked atmosphere Tarantino has become known for and is likely to follow the success of his past films.

The Big ShortAmong the December arthouse releases vying for Oscar nomination is “The Big Short,” based on Michael Lewis’s bestselling account of the 2000s housing and credit bubble. Its plot hinges on a quartet of financial outsiders who attempt to game the system created by the government banking system in the name of profit, played by an all-star combination of Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale. Geared towards docudrama enthusiasts and intellectual moviegoers, it is set to release Dec. 11 in some theaters before its nationwide release Dec. 23.

CarolAlso vying for an Oscar is “Carol,” a 1950s period romance concerning a topic that continues to dominate modern discussion. Cate Blanchett plays a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who finds a new fascination in a Manhattan department store clerk, portrayed by Rooney Mara. The two women struggle with their increasing feelings for each other and with Blanchett’s husband’s increasing suspicions. Adapted from the 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” it hit theaters Nov. 20 and is already attracting attention for its depiction of hot-button LGBT issues.

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