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New films for a new year

As the cinematic calendar resets for the new year, releases remain sparse as big blockbusters are saved for the summer and critically-acclaimed films are either held back for awards consideration or seeking distribution.

Nevertheless, a few options exist for students.

The Oracle previews seven movies hitting the silver screen within 2011’s first three months.

The Green Hornet – Out now

“The Green Hornet” revamps the ’30s radio serial into a movie that jumps on several of Hollywood’s favorite bandwagons – superheroes, remakes and 3-D action.

The story re-imagines protagonist Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) as a playboy who only becomes the iconic masked vigilante once crime lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) murders his newspaper mogul father. Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou plays the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato.

Critics haven’t been kind to the Michel Gondry-directed film, but with an opening weekend box office of $34 million in the sluggish month of January, it may stand as the year’s first blockbuster.

Blue Valentine – Jan. 28

Though critics’ favorite “Blue Valentine” has been playing in select theaters since December, the film’s release expands to Tampa on Jan. 28. The non-chronological plot follows a married couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) as they fall in love and over time find their relationship disintegrating.

“Blue Valentine” initially made headlines when its sexual content got it a NC-17 rating that would’ve stopped it from playing in multiplexes, but was eventually reverted to an R on appeal.

Yet it’s the film’s road to the big screen – which was a 12-year process and involved Gosling and Williams living together for weeks – that now attracts attention.

Sanctum – Feb. 4

After the box-office smash success of James Cameron’s 3-D space fantasy “Avatar,” it’s unlikely one would guess the next movie to use its photography techniques would be an underwater version of “The Descent,” sans monsters.

Yet “Sanctum” – which is executively produced by the director – does exactly that in its tale of cave divers struggling to navigate a deep push into the South Pacific’s Esa-ala Caves.

The action-survival thriller was partially filmed underwater using the Cameron/Pace Fusion 3-D Camera System, and should scare anyone with claustrophobia or fears of drowning.

Cedar Rapids – Feb. 11

In a time when movie studios keep looking for the next surprise big-selling, R-rated comedy – think “The Hangover” – the similarly plotted “Cedar Rapids” seems like a potential contender.

Ed Helms (“The Hangover”) stars as nave insurance agent Tim Lippe, who is sent to an Iowa convention. While there, he meets fellow salesman Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and quickly finds himself on a road of debauchery.

Drunken pool-hopping, raucous partying and beatings are among the wild activities glimpsed within the movie’s trailer – with a cast that also features Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Rango – March 4

The latest 3-D animated film, from Nickelodeon Movies, is “Rango,” the story of a chameleon trying to adapt to his new desert surroundings.

Johnny Depp voices the title character, who is thrust out of his terrarium surroundings and into a hero’s position when he ends up in the animal bandit-infested western town of Dust.

The film is being helmed by “Pirates of the Caribbean” director Gore Verbinski and was acted out in “emotion capture” before the animation process – which should flesh out these CG characters’ personalities.

Paul – March 18

“Paul” reunites the “Shaun of the Dead” pair of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and brings along “Adventureland” director Greg Mottola for a road-trip movie that poses a veritable who’s-who of comedy.

Pegg and Frost play two sci-fi buffs making a pilgrimage to Area 51 when they discover a slacker alien called Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). The trio hits the road after federal agents learn about the intergalactic specimen.

Though the thin premise suggests an R-rated “E.T.,” a strong comedic cast that also includes Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Jason Bateman should be enough to keep it on most moviegoers’ radars.

Sucker Punch – March 25

After adapting the graphic novels “Watchmen” and “300” to film, Zack Snyder’s next movie offers his first original premise – an utterly bizarre-looking action film Snyder describes as “‘Alice in Wonderland’ with machine guns.”

The story follows Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a girl forced into a mental institution who frequently escapes into her imagination. This dream world allows Snyder to include giant dragons, samurai swords and war robots within his movie – which will also be released in IMAX.

“High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens and “Mad Men” actor John Hamm round out the cast.