OK, this is it.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is when Hollywood hauls out its biggest guns, hoping to lure you and yours away from all that turkey-gorging and gift-opening.
But it’s not just box office they’re after. This is when so many of the prestige pictures land in theaters, the ones that will be collecting a lot of those little gold statues when Golden Globe and Oscar season rolls around in early 2016.
And some of our biggest stars are involved. Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell all have movies coming out in the next four weeks.
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With this in mind, we present our 12 Films of Christmas, and as with any good Santa, there’s a little something for everyone.
THE CONTROVERSIAL MOVIE
It has been a long time since director Spike Lee made a film that has seized the public’s imagination. From Miracle at St. Anna to Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, many of his recent films have totally slipped under the radar or were poorly reviewed. This could be a return to the days of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X for him, as it involves a topic that has been in the news this year: the ongoing bloody gang violence in Chicago.
The film, starring Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson and Wesley Snipes, already has generated controversy because of its name. Many in Chicago have complained about a title that compares the Windy City to an active war zone like Iraq. Lee was even confronted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel over the issue. According to the Chicago Tribune last month, Lee has defended the title “as an accurate depiction — a blend of Chicago and war-torn Iraq. He pointed out that during roughly six weeks of filming on the South and West sides, hundreds of people in Chicago were wounded by gunfire.”
“What I didn’t like was him trying to paint me as this villain,” Lee said. “I’m not the bad guy, but that’s how he was trying to portray it. Do I have the guns? Am I the one pulling the trigger?”
THE ADVENTURE MOVIE
In the Heart of the Sea
Director Ron Howard hasn’t had a lot of box-office luck lately — the auto-racing film Rush in 2013 was critically admired but didn’t draw big crowds — but that might change with this seagoing tale based on an 1820 incident in which a captain and his crew find themselves menaced by an angry sperm whale. They end up shipwrecked and turning to cannibalism. The event apparently inspired Moby Dick.
Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw star in what should be an epic. The fact that Warner Bros. pushed its release from March to the heart of Oscar season means they must have liked what they saw and have high hopes audiences will too.
THE BIG MOVIE
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This is by far the most anticipated film of the year, if not the decade. J.J. Abrams (the “Star Trek” reboots, Mission: Impossible III) has been put in charge of reimagining George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga for Disney, and there’s a lot riding on this reportedly $200 million project. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are back, but they’re joined by such newer faces as Oscar Isaac, Simon Pegg, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Domhnall Gleeson in what is designed to be a kickoff to a new trilogy.
Except for one terminally ill Houston fan — who was allowed to see the film last month before he died — Abrams and Disney have been keeping a tight lid on the film. They’ve opted to not even show it to such critics’ groups as the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle so these organizations can consider it for their well-publicized year-end Top 10 lists.
So it’s possible that, if fans are disappointed or word-of-mouth is bad, it could tank. But considering that advance ticket sales have already raked in more than $50 million, that doesn’t seem likely. As Yoda might say, “Become the biggest movie of all time this film could.”
The dynamic duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are together again as sisters who decide to throw a party in their family home before it gets sold. But Fey and Poehler aren’t the only calling cards. Director Jason Moore struck female-empowerment comedy gold in 2012 with Pitch Perfect and screenwriter Paula Pell is a veteran of Saturday Night Live. The supporting cast is equally noteworthy and includes John Cena (funny in Trainwreck), SNL’s Kate McKinnon, John Leguizamo and Maya Rudolph.
However funny Sisters turns out to be, it has the box-office advantage of being a female-led comedy alternative to the sci-fi (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2), action (Spectre), sports (Creed), children’s movies (The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur), romance (Brooklyn), and dude hijinks (The Night Before) that will be playing alongside it in the multiplex.
THE HISTORY LESSON
The Danish Girl
Talk about Oscar bait. Star Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor trophy for last year’s The Theory of Everything and director Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech won Best Picture in 2011.
And then there’s the fact that it’s a period piece, deals with a controversial issue and has the aspect of physical transformation, and you’ve got a big box of Oscar catnip. Set in Copenhagen in the early ’20s, The Danish Girl tells the story of Einar Wegener (Redmayne), the first person to attempt gender-reassignment surgery.
Though the film has drawn some fire for not casting an actual transgendered person, Redmayne’s performance is getting kudos. “Leaving aside complaints in the LGBTQ community about the lack of authenticity or courage in having a cisgender actor portray transgender experience, the film’s reluctance to shock or offend will no doubt boost its appeal for middlebrow art house audiences,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter after seeing the film at the Venice Film Festival in September. “Ultimately, the film’s chief strength is as a vehicle for Redmayne, following his Theory of Everything Oscar win with another full-immersion physical and emotional transformation into a brave real-life figure.”
THE MONEY MOVIE
The Big Short
Director Adam McKay doesn’t exactly do high-brow. He wrote Get Hard and directed Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. But he’s going for something more serious with The Big Short, a financial thriller based on the Michael Lewis bestseller. Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Selena Gomez, Finn Wittrock and Max Greenfield star in this story about four guys who take on the big banks in the wake of the financial collapse.
In addition to attracting an A-list cast, McKay even got Led Zeppelin to give permission to use their track When the Levee Breaks in the end credits. The band is notably stingy in offering its approval for anything.
THE FOOTBALL MOVIE
Most sports-themed movies boil down to the highs and lows of personal achievement and counting down to the big game. Not Concussion. It’s more of a thriller starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who initially discovered the relationship between playing football and brain trauma. His findings were disputed by the NFL. There’s already a lot of buzz about how the movie is a body blow to the organization.
Writer Joe Giglio, on NJ.com, recently wrote, “If anything can actually change the conversation about the NFL, Concussion … might be the tipping point. While fans now know some of what CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) can do to players and how dangerous concussions are, the film is ready to open wounds about what information the league withheld from former players and just how terrifying it was for doctors to move forward with exposing the truth.”
Concussion also stars Albert Brooks, Luke Wilson, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Stephen Moyer (True Blood).
THE ALL-STAR MOVIE
The last two times Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and director David O. Russell teamed up, they came up with the Oscar-nominated American Hustle in December 2013 and Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook in December 2012. So there’s a lot riding on yet another Russell family drama being released during the holidays.
Joy, about four generations of a powerful family who made their money with an invention called the Miracle Mop, looks like it will continue the tradition. In addition to Cooper and Lawrence, the cast includes Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen. USA Today, based on a clip, has already hailed the film for taking Lawrence back to her indie film roots. They write: “The clip doesn’t reveal much of the Miracle Mop movie, but it’s a nice reminder of the days when Lawrence was still a rising indie film star and not always brandishing a bow and arrow or shout-acting at people.”
THE TARANTINO MOVIE
The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino has been in the news lately for his comments regarding police killings of African-Americans that prompted some police to call for a boycott of the director’s work. How this is going to affect what happens with The Hateful Eight remains to be seen. But even without the boycott, the film would probably generate its share of controversy. Tarantino had already threatened to kill the movie after the first draft of the script was leaked on Gawker last year.
Beyond that, The Hateful Eight will be shown in some theaters in 70mm, a film technology not used much anymore in the age of digital filmmaking and projection.
Like his last film, Django Unchained, it’s set in 19th century America, but is not about slavery. Instead, it’s about a group of bounty hunters trapped in a Wyoming blizzard. But this being a Tarantino movie, you can rest assured they don’t hold hands and sing I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing until help arrives. Channing Tatum, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern and Tim Roth star.
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu won the Oscar for Best Director for last year’s Birdman, the film that also won Best Picture. So there are high expectations for this film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Lukas Haas. Set in the 1820s, it focuses on a man — left for dead in the wild after a bear attack — who seeks revenge on those who abandoned him. If nothing else, The Revenant may be the longest of the year-end films, clocking in at over 150 minutes.
Let’s hope that sitting through the epic isn’t like the experience of making it, which some described in The Hollywood Reporter as “a living hell.” Iñárritu has received criticism for his insistence on realism, at the possible expense of the well-being of his crew, some of whom quit. But he told The Hollywood Reporter: “I have nothing to hide. There were problems, but none of them made me ashamed. … When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, ‘Wow.’ ”
THE LOVE STORY
It’s the 1950s and Cate Blanchett is a well-off socialite married to handsome Harge (Kyle Chandler). Her life seems to be perfect — except for one little thing. She has struck up a relationship with a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) in the deparment store she frequents. The troubled triangle is at the heart of this film based on a story by Fort Worth-born writer Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley).
The director is Todd Haynes, who traveled this terrain earlier in his career with Far From Heaven, which starred Dennis Quaid as a closeted gay man in the ’50s. Word of mouth on Carol is very strong, with the film pulling a sold-out crowd to the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth earlier this month. There’s lot of Oscar buzz around Blanchett’s performance, with Variety pondering whether she’ll get a nomination for her work in Carol or Truth.
The original Point Break in 1991 was not only a novel take on the bank heist thriller — the FBI infiltrates a gang of robbers who are also surfers — but it had a notable cast (Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis) and was the breakout film for director Kathryn Bigelow, who would go on to do The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. It has become something of a cult film over the years, to the point where there’s now a reboot with a bunch of new young guns, including Luke Bracey, Edgar Ramirez and Teresa Palmer. And instead of being surfers now, they’re extreme-sports athletes.
There’s been a lot of online chatter about whether Point Break can capture the “Fast and Furious” crowd. The films have similar DNA in terms of lots of pretty young people, impressive stunts and the kind of movie-made heists that have little to do with real life but look really cool. Aside from Tarantino, there isn’t a lot for action fans under the tree this holiday, so Point Break could be right on point.