And just like that, 2014 is about to come to a close, but not before a massive rush of flicks enter the marketplace. December is typically one of the most crowded months of the cinematic calendar and this year is certainly no exception. So as distributors scramble to find an audience for a strong mix films – some hoping to gain awards momentum, others vying for healthy holiday sales – join us as we sort through what’s heading to the multiplexes and arthouses in the home stretch of 2014. And here we go…
10) AMERICAN SNIPER
Two-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) bulked up to portray real life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle held the distinction of being the most lethal sniper in American military history, with over 150 confirmed kills while serving four tours of service in Iraq. American Sniper is based his autobiography, detailing his service and the troubles he experienced away from service, and Jason Hall (Paranoia) turned it into a screenplay. More importantly, American Sniper comes courtesy of Clint Eastwood, who’s made a habit of last minute films that break into the awards race (Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima) and films centered around war (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima.) Sienna Miller co-stars as Kyle’s wife.
Buzzometer: 4/10 – There’s little doubt that Warner Bros. is going to sell Eastwood’s name front and center in the marketing for American Sniper; however, even that may be a hard sell to some audiences. The director hasn’t had a hit with audiences since 2008’s Gran Torino and since has made middling fare like Invictus, J. Edgar and this past summer’s Jersey Boys, all films that failed to catch on with critics and audiences, suggesting the famously un-fussy filmmaker may have lost touch. Also, Eastwood’s curious stint at the 2012 Republican National Convention raised eye-brows for both red and blue state fans which may have ramifications for a film connected with a divisive war. Then again, American Sniper was the secret screening at the recently completed AFI Fest (the film earned bonus points for screening on Veteran’s Day) and early reviews look promising, with the majority of critics praising Cooper’s determined and persuasive performance. At any rate, seems like perfect Christmas Day fodder.
Release Date: December 25th (limited)
9) A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
1981, New York City is the setting for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s latest, an American Dream drama starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) as an immigrant hoping to get his piece of the pie in a dark and unforgiving climate. Isaac portrays Abel, a well meaning businessman who gets entangled in a world of corruption during what has historically been noted as one of the most dangerous times in New York City. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) portrays his wife and the impressive ensemble cast includes Albert Brooks (Drive), David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the upcoming Selma), Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), Alessandro Nivola (American Hustle) and Christopher Abbott (Martha Marcy May Marlene.) Chandor directed from his original screenplay.
Buzzometer: 4/10 – Most impressive for A Most Violent Year is that it marks suck a stark about-face from Chandor’s previous film, the sparse one-man survival drama All is Lost, just as that film was far removed from his wordy 2011 debut feature Margin Call (for which he received a surprising screenplay Oscar nomination). Clearly, Chandor refuses to be boxed into a corner and his enticing latest feature looks to further build an eclectic filmography. A Most Violent Year had its world premiere as the opening night film at AFI Fest where early response was strong, with many critics pointing that film made favorable comparisons to the work of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network.) However, despite early acclaim and a sterling ensemble, it may be difficult for A24 Films to persuade moviegoers to this dark and gloomy morality drama during the holidays.
Release Date: December 31st (limited)
8) TOP FIVE
Written, directed and starring Chris Rock, Top Five centers around Andre Allen (Rock), a successful comedian turned movie star negotiating the balance between art and commerce. Rosario Dawson (Alexander) portrays a journalist and catalyst to Allen’s personal and professional woes. While Top Five is Rock’s only third foray into directing (following misfires Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife), one ace up is sleeve is how many comedy stars he was able to squeeze into his latest, including Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracey Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer and Sherri Shepherd.
Buzzometer: 5/10 – Top Five was the big breakout hit of the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, with many critics favorably comparing the comedy to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (to this day, one of the very few genuine comedies to win the Best Picture Academy Award.) The afterglow of its world premiere led to one of the biggest festivals sales of all time and confidence for Paramount Pictures to try and mount an awards campaign behind it. With a great reception thus far, a confident and funny trailer, and a December marketplace in need of laughs (hopefully used to thoughtful and meaningful effect), Top Five might be an apt title after all.
Release Date: December 5th (limited)
7) EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
The Old Testament has been getting some big budget redoes as of late. Earlier this year, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah released into theaters and now 3-time Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott unleashes Exodus: Gods and Kings, telling the story of Moses (Christian Bale) and his rebellion against Ramses (Joel Edgerton of The Great Gatsby). Ben Kingsley. Sigourney Weaver, and Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul co-star in the script written by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (New York Minute), Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener), and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). For Scott, it’s a chance to show off in similar epic fashion as he did with the 2000 Oscar-winner Gladiator. The question is whether reaction can come anywhere in the same ballpark.
Buzzometer: 6/10 – While the lily white ensemble cast has raised a few eyebrows (not much, it appears has changed since Cecil B. DeMille made The Ten Commandments in 1956), the moody atmosphere of the marketing materials has done quite a bit in wiping the cobwebs clear. The brooding (and quite contemporary) acting styles of Bale and Edgerton should at the very least make Exodus: Gods and Kings watchable and entertaining. Plus, the parting of the Red Sea, no matter how many times it’s been done before, should be a eye-catcher to gets butts to the theater.
Release Date: December 12th
6) THE INTERVIEW
The Interview wins for best high concept premise of the holiday season as it features James Franco and Seth Rogen as dimwit reporters recruited to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Directed by Evan Goldberg and Rogen (This Is the End), The Interview casts Franco as a schlock tabloid journalist who with his producer (Rogen) learns the North Korean ruler is a fan of their Entertainment Tonight-like show and hope to interview him as a mark for journalistic legitimacy. That is, until the C.I.A. – headed by Agent Lacey (played by Emmy nominee Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex) changes course with a plan to take him out. R-rated antics and a heartfelt bromance likely ensue. Dan Sterling (whose prior credits include South Park and the HBO series Girls) wrote the screenplay from a story by Rogen and Goldberg.
Buzzometer: 6/10 – With a controversial premise, The Interview marks perhaps the most ambitious project yet from Team Seth Rogen. Mixing the political with the absurd might make for strange and mighty uncomfortable bedfellows, but at the very least shouldn’t be boring. Sony had enough confidence in the film to move it from a late summer to a Christmas Day release, so that says something.
Release Date: December 25th
Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken tells the harrowing true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces in World War II. Zamperini’s story has interested Hollywood for some time – Universal Pictures (who is serving as distributor) bought the rights all the way back in the late 1950s with a hope that screen legend Tony Curtis would star. All that was needed apparently was time and the passion of Jolie (well, maybe that and an award-winning book by the same name). Newcomer Jack O’Connell (Starred Up, 300: Rise of an Empire) stars as Zamperini in this adaptation of Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography. Jai Courtney (Divergent), Domnhall Gleeson (Frank), Garrett Hedlund (TRON: Legacy), Finn Wittrock (currently frightening on American Horror Story: Freak Show) and Japanese pop star Miyavi co-star. William Nicholson (Les Misérables), Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants) and Joel and Ethan Coen (yes them) wrote the screenplay and 10-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Prisoners) manned the camera.
Buzzometer: 6/10 – Unbroken, at least on paper, reads like a test tube baby created to win Academy Awards. Think about it – it’s a period piece set in and around World War II, featuring a true story about a real life prisoner of war (Zamperini passed away this year) directed by an Academy Award winning beauty and member of Hollywood royalty. The only thing that bring things down to earth a bit is that this is only Jolie’s second outing as a director – has anyone seen her debut 2011 feature In the Land of Blood and Honey? – and early reaction seems a bit tempered, as to be expected for a movie that’s been rolling out its Oscar campaign at least ever since the Winter Olympics last February, when clips of Unbroken were first aired. That being said, how can you not be at least a little bit curious?
Release Date: December 25th
4) INTO THE WOODS
The classic musical – first staged in 1987 – makes it to the big screen with an all-star cast courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures. Shepherded by Oscar nominated director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), Into the Woods tweaks and subverts the world of fairy tales and makes for a mostly mature offering due to Steven Sondheim’s complex melodies and James Lapine’s deepening book. Meryl Streep plays The Witch, who conspires to teach and provoke a variety of characters, including many classic fairy tale standards (and more than a few with long held traditions within Disney’s own wheelhouse). Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), her prince (Chris Pine), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) all make appearances in a story that involves a curse revolving around The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) and their inability to have children. Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski co-star. Lapine adapted Into the Woods to the screen.
Buzzometer: 6/10 – There’s been speculation for months that the movie version of Into the Woods would be a neutered version of the fairly adult play under the purview of Disney, and then there were statements suggesting that’s not the case at all. In truth, Into the Woods is a ballsy endeavor – the play features complex and often mature themes that intermingle with fairy tale conventions. Softening the themes may make the film more accessible to families throughout the holiday season but may sharpen the ire of critics and fans of the musical; playing faithful to the source material may result in a tiny box office share. If it works, though, golly it could be genius.
Release Date: December 25th
3) THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the whole hobbit flock return for the epic conclusion to Peter Jackson’s three part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. When we last left, the nefarious dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) had the upper hand in obliterating all of Middle Earth. All the regulars are back including Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage and Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. Jackson and co-horts Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh wrote the screenplay with Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim).
Buzzometer: 7/10 – No matter what, the fan base will turn out in droves – the previous two Hobbit films as well as the three, by all accounts better, The Lord of the Rings films rank among the top moneymakers of the world in film history. However, is there anything to be said in fatigue in the whole Middle Earth arena? Probably not for the conclusion, but a long break feels in order.
Release Date: December 17th
2) INHERENT VICE
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson goes back to the 1970s in telling his latest – a drug fueled neo-noir starring Joaquin Phoenix (who starred and earned an Oscar nomination for Anderson’s previous picture, The Master) as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a bumbling private detective investigating the disappearance of a former girlfriend. Anderson enlists an A-list ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin (Milk), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Jena Malone (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Benicio Del Toro (Guardians of the Galaxy), Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids) and newcomers Katherine Waterston and Sasha Pieterse.
Buzzometer: 8/10 – Anderson movies have never quite broken out at the box office (his highest grossing film is There Will Be Blood), but his filmography has earned a reputation among critics and cinephiles that runs nearly unparalleled to any other contemporary American filmmaker. With a résumé that includes Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The Master, each of films have proved a greater significance in our modern film culture. With that, Inherent Vice deserves some attention, even if early word on the film suggests this is a confusing, convoluted offering that departs greatly from Anderson’s prior work. Inherent Vice had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival in October and left many critics and festival attendees baffled, while others proclaimed it a wonky master work.
Release Date: December 12th (limited)
Ava DuVernay made a small wave with the acclaimed 2012 indie Middle of Nowhere, picking up prizes from the Sundance Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards in the process. Selma represents a significant jump for her follow-up feature – a deeply textured take on the historic Selma to Montgomery civil rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. The march was one of the great course changes in American history, culminating with the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the very same act that’s currently being picked apart by our government today. David Oweloyo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) headlines as King and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle) plays his wife. The ensemble includes Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), Lorraine Toussaint (Orange is the New Black), Alessandro Nivolo (American Hustle) and Oprah Winfrey, also one of the producers of the project.
Buzzometer: 8/10 – It seemed like for a while this was the little movie that no one was quite know what to make of. The lack of initial buzz was simply because the movie just finished completion. Then a well cut trailer made a deep impression. Then a last minute festival stop changed course drastically. If reaction from the AFI Fest, where the film made its unscheduled premiere, is to believed than Selma delivers the goods. Immediate talk was made of the awards potential and possible commercial viability of the film.
Release Date: December 25th (limited)
ALSO OPENING IN DECEMBER:
- ANNIE– Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) stars in the Will Smith/Jay Z-backed modern update of the classic musical. (Dec. 19th)
- BIG EYES– The latest from Tim Burton tells the unbelievable true story of painter Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams.) (Dec. 25th- limited)
- COMET– Justin Long and Emmy Rossum play star-crossed lovers in this indie romantic comedy. (Dec. 5th- limited)
- FREE THE NIPPLE– Documentary exploring female body norms. (Dec. 12th- limited)
- THE GAMBLER– Mark Wahlberg headlines this remake of the James Caan thriller about a high-stacks gambler. (Dec. 19th- limited)
- LEVIATHAN– Controversial Russian melodrama that won the screenwriting prize at Cannes this year. (Dec. 25th- limited)
- LIFE PARTNERS– A man comes between two best friends– one is straight, the other is gay. (Dec. 5th- limited)
- MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE & WORK OF ORSON WELLES– New documentary exploring the groundbreaking filmmaker/provocateur. (Dec. 10th- limited)
- MISS JULIE– Jessica Chastain headlines this re-telling of the classic August Strindberg play. (Dec. 5th- limited)
- MR. TURNER– Cannes victor Timothy Spall stars as artist J.M.W. Turner in this new film from Mike Leigh. (Dec. 19th- limited)
- NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB– Ben Stiller is back, as is the late Robin Williams in one of his final roles. (Dec. 19th)
- THE PYRAMID– New chiller where a team of archeologists try to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid. (Dec. 5th)
- SONG OF THE SEA– French animated fantasy from the Oscar-nominated director of The Secret of Kells. (Dec. 19th- limited)
- TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT– Oscar winner Marion Cotillard fights to save her job in this Cannes hit from the Dardenne Brothers. (Dec. 24th- limited)
- WILD– Reese Witherspoon hikes the Pacific Crest Trail to find salvation in this new film from Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee. (Dec. 3rd- limited)
- WINTER SLEEP– Top prize winner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival from acclaimed Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. (Dec. 19th- limited)
OSCAR-QUALIFYING RELEASES– A handful of films are being given one-week Oscar qualifying runs in December. Regular engagements will begin next year for these titles, but for one week for audiences in Los Angeles (and possibly New York), something to look out for.
- BLACK OR WHITE– Racial tensions erupt when Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer battle for custody of a small child. (Dec. 3rd)
- CAKE– Jennifer Aniston plays a woman with chronic pain. (TBA)
- MOMMY– Xavier Dolan’s prize-winning drama explores the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and her young son. (Dec. 12th)
- STILL ALICE– Julianne Moore is already getting Oscar buzz for her portrayal of a woman battling early on-set Alzheimer’s. (Dec. 5th)