The holiday movie season zeroes in on family, greed and corruption
Anticipated films range from biopics to musical dramas
Celebrated directors like Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers and Scott Cooper release new films
Following a fall movie season filled with tales of gritty survival and the resilience of the human spirit, now comes family dysfunction and corruption.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the cineplex will boast a selection that zeroes in on greed (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and con artists (“American Hustle”), plus families lost ("Out of the Furnace”), found ("Philomena”), comically troubled ("August: Osage County”) and created from operating systems ("Her”).
What a merry season, right? Here are the 10 movies that we can’t wait to dig in to over the next six weeks – for a more comprehensive guide to titles to watch for, check out the holiday movie guide above.
1. “Philomena” (November 27)
What it’s about: Judi Dench stars as an older Irish woman who teams up with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to find the son she had out of wedlock 50 years earlier. It’s based on the true story of Philomena Lee, who, as a pregnant teenager in the ‘50s, was left at a convent where she was forced to give up her child for adoption. (If you want to catch up on the story behind the film, Martin Sixsmith chronicled the journey in the 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”)
Who it stars: Directed by Stephen Frears, “Philomena” also stars Michelle Fairley, Mare Winningham and Sophie Kennedy Clark, who portrays the younger version of Philomena.
The buzz: Critics and audiences fell in love with this movie when it screened at the Venice Film Festival. “Philomena” isn’t without its flaws – some have complained that the script can veer toward righteousness – but they’re easy to overlook with Dench and Coogan (who also co-wrote the script) anchoring the touching drama.
2. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (November 29, limited)
What it’s about: Based on the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, this biopic from Justin Chadwick promises to introduce moviegoers to the man who became a legendary leader. Obviously, that’s a huge promise that inevitably will go unfulfilled – after all, this is the long and influential scope of Mandela’s life we’re talking about. Still, Chadwick, with a screenplay from William Nicholson, retraces Mandela’s rise from boyhood to revolutionary leader to international icon.
Who it stars: Idris Elba (Mandela), Naomie Harris (Winnie Mandela), Tony Kgoroge and Terry Pheto.
The buzz: With such a valuable story at stake, Idris Elba’s performance is being closely watched as a potential contender this awards season. And while early reviews have been mixed, everyone’s agreed that Elba shines as Mandela.
3. “Out of the Furnace” (December 6)
What it’s about: The story of a desperate man seeking justice for his family has been told with success earlier this year – see Hugh Jackman’s “Prisoners” – but Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” is taking a different approach. This crime thriller centers on brothers Russell and Rodney Blaze. The former is a blue-collar steel mill worker who spends his nights caring for their terminally ill father. The other brother, Rodney, is an Iraqi war vet who literally loses himself in an infamous crime ring. When police fail to locate Rodney, Russell takes the search for his missing family into his own hands.
Who it stars: Christian Bale (Russell Blaze); Casey Affleck (Rodney Blaze); Zoe Saldana; Woody Harrelson; Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker.
The buzz: “Out of the Furnace” has two draws right off the bat. There’s the return of Scott Cooper as a writer/director following his massive 2009 success with “Crazy Heart.” And then there’s the crazy strong line-up in the cast that left the Hollywood Reporter calling the drama solidly well-acted.
4. “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” (December 13)
What it’s about: If you really need to know what “Desolation of Smaug” is about, start with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” as that’s the basis for Peter Jackson’s trilogy. But Jackson has taken some liberties with translating Tolkien’s children’s classic to the big screen. As hobbit Bilbo Baggins joins 13 dwarves on their mission to reclaim their land from the vile dragon Smaug, the crew encounter mythical obstacles as well as a character of Jackson’s own imagination, Evangeline Lilly’s elf Tauriel.
Who it stars: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins); Ian McKellen; Richard Armitage; Orlando Bloom; and Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug.
The buzz: The first installment of “The Hobbit” franchise, 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” was criticized for both its unconventional film speed and its meandering pace. This time around, trailers have emphasized the greater stakes and action at play in “Desolation of Smaug” – and whenever Cumberbatch is the villain, you know you’re in for a fun time.
5. “her” (December 18, limited)
What it’s about: A modern but sincere love story, “her” follows a lonely, heartbroken writer named Theodore who finds love 2.0 with an operating system. Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the OS is a female personal assistant named Samantha who can put Siri to shame.
Who it stars: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore); Scarlett Johansson (Samantha); Amy Adams; Chris Pratt; Rooney Mara; Olivia Wilde; and Portia Doubleday.
The buzz: With director Spike Jonze at the helm, “her” made an ostentatious splash on the film festival circuit this year, setting it up for lots of attention in its limited release. The story raises so many questions about social engagement and matters of the heart in the digital age, and it doesn’t hurt that Phoenix, Johansson and Adams turn in strong performances as well.
6. “American Hustle” (December 18)
What it’s about: Pulling inspiration from the FBI’s Abscam operation of the late 1970s, “American Hustle” is a glorious pairing of criminals and the law in an effort to suss out corrupt politicians. The story centers on con artist Irving Rosenfeld and his partner Sydney Prosser as they’re forced to work with FBI agent Richie DiMaso to pull off the sting.
Who it stars: A cast doesn’t get much better than this: Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso); Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld); Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser); Jeremy Renner (politician Carmine Polito); and Jennifer Lawrence (Irving’s wife Rosalyn) all star.
The buzz: With so many marquee names – some of whom are reteaming with director David O. Russell after winning over audiences with 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook” – “American Hustle” looks to be all but a slam-dunk with audiences and critics.
7. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (December 20)
What it’s about: In the folk scene of Greenwich Village in 1961, a musician by the name of Llewyn Davis is struggling to make something of his career. Formerly of a folk music duo, Davis is attempting to craft solo stardom while relying on the kindness of friends to help keep a roof over his head. He’s talented, yes, but not at all likeable, as the audience learns while following Davis from one couch to the next.
Who it stars: Oscar Issac (Llewyn Davis); John Goodman; Garrett Hedlund; Justin Timberlake; and Carey Mulligan.
The buzz: Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this humorous drama, and T-Bone Burnett executive produced the soundtrack. Like “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” the music from “Inside Llewyn Davis” is as integral to the project as the performances.
8. “Saving Mr. Banks” (December 20)
What it’s about: Before 1964’s “Mary Poppins” became a classic, a battle was waged between the character’s creator, P. L. Travers, and the man who promised his daughters he’d turn the mystical nanny into a movie, Walt Disney. “Saving Mr. Banks” recounts Disney’s persistent wooing of Travers and the behind the scenes give-and-take that led to “Mary Poppins” being made.
Who it stars: Tom Hanks (Walt Disney); Emma Thompson (P. L. Travers); Colin Farrell; Paul Giamatti and Bradley Whitford.
The buzz: Directed by John Lee Hancock, critics have praised Disney for not turning “Saving Mr. Banks” into a self-admiring love letter – a feat owed in great amounts to the performances of Hanks and Thompson.
9. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (December 25)
What it’s about: In the 1990s, penny stockbroker Jordan Belfort was living a life of extreme decadence won from his fraudulent scheming – that is, until his house of cards began to crumble and resulted in his arrest. Belfort’s swindling, already captured in his memoir “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is making the leap to the big screen with Leonardo DiCaprio as the “wolf” himself.
Who it stars: Directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street” also stars Jonah Hill; Margot Robbie; P.J. Byrne and Jon Favreau.
The buzz: The movie’s release recently had a close call when it looked like it was going to drop off the 2013 calendar altogether; thankfully, Paramount is still going to make the cut with the December 25 release date. The combination of Scorsese and DiCaprio isn’t always a sure thing – remember “Shutter Island”? – but we’re placing our bets with this delicious look at the perils of excess.
10. “August: Osage County” (December 25)
What it’s about: The story here originated with Tracy Letts’ award-winning 2007 stage production, which has been transformed for the screen with John Wells at the helm. “August: Osage County” reunites the three daughters of the Oklahoma-based Weston family, grounded by cancer-stricken matriarch Violet, after a painful loss. What results is a darkly funny examination of the ties that bind.
Who it stars: This cast is virtual awards-season catnip, packed with the likes of Meryl Streep (Violet), Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, Ewan McGregor and Sam Shepard, among others.
The buzz: Early reviews from film festivals suggest that “August: Osage County” hasn’t rid an ounce of its theatricality as it moved from stage to screen, and Meryl Streep in particular goes big with her role. Yet subtle and compelling performances from supporting cast, mixed with the story’s juicy, humorous drama, should nonetheless make it a draw.