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Holiday Movie Preview, 2014
Posted By: Sam, on host
Date: Monday, October 6, 2014, at 14:47:08

The holiday/awards season is upon us. This is where I get to talk about
biopics (by contrast, summer is when I get to talk about brightly-colored
spandex). Over the course of about two months, 80% of the best movies of 2014
will be released, and many of them will be lost in the crush. Here's what
has caught my eye so far:

October 10 - St. Vincent

Bill Murray plays a mentor-next-door for a young boy. Melissa McCarthy and
Naomi Watts (!) factor in somehow. Its debut at the Toronto Film Festival
generated some good buzz on this.

October 17 - Fury

Brad Pitt plays an army sergeant making a final push into Nazi Germany in the
waning days of World War II. That synopsis doesn't really tell you much --
Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds, and 1941 all deal with World War
II too, but you wouldn't mistake any of them for each other. But based on the
choice of director, David Ayer, I'm guessing this will be a gritty,
realistic depiction of war. Ayer's previous film, End of Watch, was exactly
this kind of take on the buddy cop genre. I was not a fan of it, but Ayer's
direction did elevate the material.

October 17 - Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, a talented director who makes films generally too
overbearing for my taste (Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful), looks to be trying out
a gentler tone for this comedy-drama about a has-been actor, once celebrated
for playing a superhero, trying to rebuild his career on Broadway. That the
actor playing the actor is Michael Keaton, whose career peaked when he played
Batman 25 years ago, makes the project all the more interesting. The
supporting cast is equally interesting: Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Edward
Norton, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan.

October 24 - White Bird In a Blizzard

A teenaged daughter's mother disappears. You'd think a thriller beginning that
way would mark the start of a perilous race against time to find her, but
this appears to be more of a slow-burning character piece. The film focuses
on how the disappearance affects the girl and how its impact isn't fully
registered right away. The main character is played by Shailene Woodley,
who has had a remarkable year in film already, both Divergent and The Fault
In Our Stars garnering her significant media attention. I haven't decided yet
what I think of her (Divergent not having demanded much of her), but White Bird
seems like it will be a defining test: it's the sort of project that could be
great if she's great in it and fall apart if she can't get the nuance and
complexity of the role just right.

October 31 - Nightcrawler

As the IMDb puts it, "a young man stumbles upon the underground world of
L.A. freelance crime journalism." Really? There's an underground world for
that? Like, if you take a wrong turn in the wrong part of town, you blunder
into a secret ring of crime journalists?

Anyway, the stars are Jake Gyllenhaal (who has made some pretty interesting
acting choices recently) and Rene Russo (who I miss, as she's been scarce on
the screen since her promising late-90s run). But the director is Dan Gilroy,
making his directorial debut after penning such films as Real Steel and The
Bourne Legacy. I am not inspired with confidence.

October 31 - Before I Go To Sleep

Nicole Kidman stars in a twisty amnesia thriller. There have been a lot of
these over the years, but it's a concept that never really gets old, as there
are so many interesting things you can do with it. (I have a particular
fondness for Mirage from 1966, starring Gregory Peck.) Memento might remain
the high water mark on innovation in the amnesia subgenre for a long time, but
if Before I Go To Sleep is half as good, that's good enough.

November 7 - Interstellar

Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a bad movie. I'm sure he will
sometime, and maybe it will even be this one, the first Nolan movie whose
trailer has failed to inspire me. But I wouldn't bet against him. Many
great movies don't condense well to the trailer format. It helps that the
cast is terrific: Matthew McConaughey has been doing the best work of
his career lately, Anne Hathaway is always magnetic on screen (so much that
dumb online backlash had to be invented to rein her in or something), and
Jessica Chastain is one of the best screen actresses working today. But it's
really Nolan's track record that has me revved up for this.

November 7 - The Theory of Everything

A biographical adaptation of the life of Stephen Hawking, with a particular
emphasis on his relationship with his wife Jane. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity
Jones play the leads. The film has released in some territories and has
enjoyed a stellar reception.

November 14 - Foxcatcher

One of the favorites in the Oscar race is this biopic of Olympic wrestler
Mark Schultz. Channing Tatum plays Schultz, who in turn makes a cameo as
"Weigh-In Official #1." Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell, Anthony Michael Hall,
Sienna Miller, and Vanessa Redgrave round out the cast. Director Bennett
Miller has been in the Oscar race before, with Moneyball and Capote, and seems
almost certain to be in it again.

November 14 - Dumb and Dumber To

The studio would like to pretend there wasn't already another Dumb & Dumber.
No, let's give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they just forgot there
already was. It's not like "Dumb & Dumberer," which did not feature the
original cast, was all that memorable.

This time, however, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels agreed to reprise their roles,
perhaps because their careers aren't allowing them the breadth of options
that they had 20 (!) years ago. I am kind of embarrassed to admit that the
lowbrow original mostly won me over, but I don't see any reason to assume
this career revival sequel has anything but an uphill climb.

November 21 - The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in this film about the cracking of the
Enigma code during World War II. Keira Knightley co-stars. I'm mostly
unfamiliar with director Morten Tyldum's work, but I did love his previous
film Headhunters, a fun, twisty crime caper.

November 21 - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

I am amused that splitting the final volume of a YA series is now standard
practice. When that plan was announced for Harry Potter, I remember lots of
heated debate about whether that was a good move and/or just a studio
cash-grab. In that case, the final Harry Potter book was one of the longest
and certainly the densest of the series, so it made sense. But Mockingjay
does seem like a more demanding story than its precedessors, so I'm not sure
why a split was needed here.

Not that I particularly care to make any premature judgments: the final book
can succeed or fail as a single movie, and it can succeed or fail as two.
So far, the film series has been solid -- I loved the first two entries --
so I'm particularly looking forward to the next.

One interesting thing to see is how Jennifer Lawrence's career has exploded
over the course of the series: the first film cemented her inevitable rise
to stardom; by the time the second rolled around, she'd bagged an Oscar.
Since then, she's fallen victim to some of the obligatory dumb backlash that
Anne Hathaway got -- and then, seemingly, recovered from it just as fast.

November 28 - Penguins of Madagascar

The scene-stealing penguins from the Madagascar series get their own spin-off.
Too much of a good thing?

December 5 - Wild

Reese Witherspoon suffers a personal crisis and copes with it by undertaking
a 1100 mile hike. This kind of introspective character piece feels like a
change of pace from the director's last film, Dallas Buyers Club, but because
that film got so much awards traction (including Oscars for two of its stars),
there is a lot of interest for what he'll do next.

Deember 12 - Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson tells the story of a detective whose former girlfriend
disappears. The premise sounds conventional, but there are no conventional
Paul Thomas Anderson films. It takes place in 1970, a time period he has
explored in film before, to great effect.

December 12 - Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ridley Scott directs Christian Bale as Moses, leading the escape of the Jewish
slaves from Egypt. I love the biblical epics of years ago, and this seems to
have that kind of huge, epic scope and spectacle to it. But it's half as
revisionist as Noah, from earlier this year, I'll pass.

December 19 - The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy comes to a close with this film, hilariously
subtitled after an episode in the book that takes place almost entirely
off-screen. I don't begrudge Jackson wanting to open the book up for his
movies, but so far he hasn't managed to bring the same life and energy to
The Hobbit as he did with The Lord of the Rings. Still, I'm looking forward
to this and will probably enjoy it even if I forget it shortly afterwards.

December 19 - Annie

Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx star in this new adaptation of the musical.
It might be pretty good, but I guess I don't really see the point: I love
the Aileen Quinn version and don't know why I need another one.

December 19 - Night At the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Likewise I'm not sure why we have more than one of these movies: it was a
charming idea for one movie but stretched thin for the sequel. Now here is
another. Does any other movie this season feel more like a product than a
story? Complicating things will be the poignancy of seeing Robin Williams
in one of his final roles.

December 19 - Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh tells the story of J.M.W. Turner's life. Turner was an eccentric
British painter who played with light and amorphous forms in ways similar to
the French Impressionists -- but he predated them by many years.

Leigh is the perfect director for this material, as the fluid way in which he
works seems to particularly lend itself to exploring rich, complex characters
from history. His work is distinctly British in a way that seldom seems to
catch on in America -- then again, he does have seven Oscar nominations to his
name (five for writing; two for directing).

December 25 - Big Eyes

Speaking of painters, how about a biopic about the painter Margaret Keane?
Amy Adams plays Margaret, and Christoph Waltz plays her husband, with whom
she had a protracted legal battle after he claimed credit for her work.
Fantastic cast, but I'm concerned about the director, Tim Burton, whose
recurring problem is to sacrifice too much substance for style. (Note: Style
over substance is not always a problem in theory -- many great films revel
in style and need no great substance -- but Burton, despite being a great and
unique creative talent, seldom seems to get the balance right.) In a
biographical film, one wonders if his stylistic inclinations might get in
the way even more than usual. Then again, his best film is also a 1950s-set
biography (Ed Wood), so there is hope. Anyway, Adams and Waltz are worth
seeing in basically anything.

December 25 - American Sniper

Clint Eastwood directs Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller in this biographical
story of a Navy SEAL with 150 confirmed kills. Eastwood's directorial record
is not unblemished, but when he's great he's great. A Christmas Day release
is a vote of confidence from the studio and allows for the possibility of
a surprise Oscar nomination after all the precursors pass on it -- as happened
with Eastwood's Letters To Iwo Jima some years ago.

December 25 - Unbroken

Unbroken recounts the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was
taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. The rights to the story
were first secured back in the 1950s and conceived as a vehicle for Tony
Curtis. It took this long to get a film made.

The artistic pedigree is interesting: the screenplay is written by Joel and
Ethan Coen. And the director is...Angelina Jolie? She's not untried as a
director -- this is her third effort; second if you don't count her 2007
documentary -- but a Coens/Jolie collaboration is bizarre, right? Anyway, as
with American Sniper, the release date is a clear vote of confidence. After
Jolie's disastrous reception for In the Land of Blood and Honey, perhaps this
one will earn her some accolades for behind-the-camera work.

December 25 - Into the Woods

Any Stephen Sondheim adaptation is cause for celebration, right? And an
adaptation of my very favorite Sondheim musical is a particular cause for
celebration, right? And an adaptation of my very favorite Sondheim musical
starring Anna Kendrick is a special particular cause for celebration, right?

If only Rob Marshall wasn't raining on my parade. Why they keep asking this
guy to make movies is beyond me: he can't direct his way out of a paper bag.
Look, I liked Chicago too, but I can't watch it without musing on how much
better it would be if it could just hold a shot for longer than half a second
so I can actually watch the dancing.

As for the rest of Marshall's filmography, it's a relentless parade of
mishandled material: Memoirs of a Geisha was pretty but dry; Pirates of the
Caribbean 4 made a tired franchise worse; and as for Nine...let's just say
that Rob Marshall has murdered enough musicals for one lifetime without him
getting his schlockmeister hands on Sondheim too.

December 31 - A Most Violent Year

A crime drama set in 1981, one of the most violent years in New York City's
history, statistically speaking. It stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain
and is directed by J.C. Chandor, whose last couple films (Margin Call and
All Is Lost) were great under-the-radar triumphs. It seems inevitable that
sooner or later he'll make a great film that'll catch people's attention.

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