Yesterday, we appraised the big releases of September and October, doing our best to determine which among them could be most worthy of your patronage. Today, we do the same for November and December’s coming attractions, applying investment advice to the boxers, super spies, Jedis, and CGI rodents of the year’s final two months. And as we did in part one, we’ve compiled a YouTube playlist of trailers for most of the films below. Spend (and watch) wisely.
Spectre (November 6)
The details: Forty-some years after Diamonds Are Forever, the shadowy international crime syndicate SPECTRE is back to make life difficult for 007. Though everyone involved swears that Christoph Waltz is playing some new villain, and not iconic Bond baddie Blofeld, we’ve been Khaned before on such matters. Either way, expect the usual mixture of action and sex appeal—the latter courtesy of both star Daniel Craig and beautiful new Bond girls Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci—from this 24th installment in the immortal espionage franchise.
Best-case scenario: Returning director Sam Mendes helms a Bond movie as weird, exciting, and artful as his last one, Skyfall.
Worst-case scenario: Craig finally gets bored of his blockbuster duties, and his fourth turn in the tux is as dreadful as Pierce Brosnan’s, Die Another Day.
Worth the risk? Yes. Mendes and Craig make a mean team. And to be honest, 007 is always worth a roll of the dice. It’s not like one of these movies comes out every year.
The Peanuts Movie (November 6)
The details: Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, Snoopy, and apparently even Shermy are back on the big screen, via computers and for the first time in decades, in a new animated film from Blue Sky Studios, produced by Paul Feig and co-written by the son and grandson of Charles M. Schulz. That the movie is about the Little Red-Haired Girl moving into his neighborhood will hopefully not force a reimagining of Charlie Brown as an underdog hero with a dream.
Best-case scenario: Feig’s skill at evoking the hilarious heartbreak of growing up gets its strongest workout since Freaks And Geeks, and Snoopy engages in various fantasy antics.
Worst-case scenario: The song that Meghan Trainor has recorded for the movie (despite a seeming lack of basic familiarity with the characters) plays on a loop throughout. Or, more realistically, Blue Sky’s efforts to revive the old Peanuts movies results in something like Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown meets Rio.
Worth the risk? Probably. The restrained use of computer animation, bringing some extra depth and shading to the familiar Peanuts style, indicates that the beloved characters are in good (or at least respectful) hands.
Trumbo (November 6)
The details: Bryan Cranston leads a character-actor-heavy cast as Dalton Trumbo, the popular novelist-turned-screenwriter who was blacklisted from Hollywood for his Communist ties and imprisoned for contempt of Congress. Despite being officially banned from the industry, Trumbo continued to work, winning two Oscars under pseudonyms. Helen Mirren co-stars as Hedda Hopper, the notorious Tinseltown gossip columnist and McCarthyist attack dog.
Best-case scenario: Cranston—a gifted and charismatic comic actor who’s just as good when he’s deadly serious—finally gets a big-screen role that plays to all of his strengths, and viewers get to enjoy the likes of Stephen Root, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Louis CK playing a variety of historical and composite figures.
Worst-case scenario: A 2000s HBO movie, which is exactly what this looks like.
Worth the risk? For the cast alone. If nothing else, director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet The Parents, and their assorted sequels) seems to have built up a good creative relationship with Cranston. The two are already working on a movie about Lyndon B. Johnson—for HBO, of course.
Spotlight (November 6)
The details: The Pulitzer-winning Spotlight team at The Boston Globe that broke the story about child sexual abuse by clergy members in Boston gets the movie treatment.
Best-case scenario: A stacked cast—Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup—brings the necessary gravitas for the story, which was written by The West Wing’s Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win), the latter of whom also directs.
Worst-case scenario: Hollywood cheapens an already-dramatic story. The overwrought version of XTC’s “Dear God” that soundtracks the trailer isn’t a good sign.
Worth the risk? When has a movie with an excellent cast ever been bad?
Brooklyn (November 6)
The details: A shy Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) struggles to adapt to the hustle and bustle of 1950s New York. Eventually, she’s forced to choose between the affections of a nice Italian boy (Emory Cohen) and those of an equally nice Irish lad (Domhnall Gleeson) back in her hometown. The story comes courtesy of a novel by Colm Tóibín, adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby.
Best-case scenario: This low-key charmer manages to finds its audience, sweeping moviegoers off their feet with its sincerity and gentle humor.
Worst-case scenario: A wave of intense homesickness greets every expat who finds their way into the theater.
Worth the risk? Yes. It’s a more resonant tale of young romance than An Education, Hornby’s last adapted screenplay on the topic. And Ronan is lovely in what feels like her first truly adult role.
Rings (November 13)
The details: Paramount Pictures is clearly hoping 10 years is enough time to wash the stink of The Ring Two out of audiences’ memories. This new one continues the story of Samara and her hatred of home video entertainment, and features Johnny Galecki and Matilda Lutz fighting to save people who watch what is now probably a haunted Snapchat, and then die seven days later, possibly from social media embarrassment.
Best-case scenario: The movie remembers what made the first one (and its Japanese inspiration) so damn scary, and director F. Javier Gutierrez emphasizes tension over jump cuts and jarring sound cues.
Worst-case scenario: Oh, deer.
Worth The Risk? We really want this one to work, but Akiva Goldsman co-wrote the screenplay. Yes, the same Akiva Goldsman who wrote Batman & Robin.
By The Sea (November 13)
The details: Having directed a somewhat wrongheaded Bosnian-language romance (In The Land Of Blood And Honey) and a “triumph of the spirit”-type World War II POW flick (Unbroken), Angelina Jolie applies her heavy-handed touch to… an arty, Euro-styled breakdown-of-a-marriage drama. Set in France in the 1970s and shot by longtime Michael Haneke cinematographer Christian Berger, the movie stars Jolie and real-life husband Brad Pitt as an American couple drifting apart during a visit to a seaside town.
Best-case scenario: Working with more personal material, Jolie finally displays instinct and individuality behind the camera and some vulnerability in front of it.
Worst-case scenario: An over-indulgent vanity project of heavily improvised arguments and slow camera movements.
Worth the risk? Given Jolie’s sometimes ham-fisted tendencies as a director, a viewer expecting a complex and subtle exploration of marital crisis may be in for disappointment.
Love The Coopers (November 13)
The details: Four generations of the Cooper family gather for Christmas Eve dinner, and hijinks ensue, “leading them all toward a surprising rediscovery of family bonds and the spirit of the holiday,” says the official description.
Best-case scenario: The overqualified cast—Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, Ed Helms, and Amanda Seyfried—lifts the film above the clichéd concept.
Worst-case scenario: The script is by Steven Rogers, whose past scripts include P.S. I Love You, Kate & Leopold, Stepmom, and Hope Floats (average Metacritic score: 46), and director Jessie Nelson has only directed two other features, I Am Sam and Corrina, Corrina. The cast has their work cut out for them.
Worth the risk? Doubtful.
The 33 (November 13)
The details: The inevitable movie retelling of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped in a gold mine for nearly 70 days while the world watched.
Best-case scenario: The world only saw what was happening above ground during the ordeal, so a look into how the men coped while trapped 200 stories underground could be engrossing. The film is based on the epically titled book Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories Of 33 Men Buried In A Chilean Mine, And The Miracle That Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar, and it was made with the cooperation of the miners and their families.
Worst-case scenario: The trailer hits all the expected beats—the man who’s about to have a child; the elder who’s just two weeks from retirement; uh, Bob Gunton as Chilean President Sebastián Piñera—soundtracked to a ballad about not giving up, so this has all the makings of a glorified TV movie.
Worth the risk? If you’re stuck on a plane and looking for something to watch…
Entertainment (November 13)
The details: With The Comedy, writer-director Rick Alverson unearthed something pitiful and desperate lurking underneath the shock-comic irony of Tim Heidecker. The filmmaker’s follow-up attempts the same for Gregg Turkington, who plays a lonely, bitter variation on his stand-up alter ego, Neil Hamburger. One of the most aggressively un-commercial films to play Sundance this year, Entertainment alternates antagonistic on-stage performances with scenes of existential ennui in the American Southwest.
Best-case scenario: Future Hamburger fans are turned on to Turkington’s vulgar, taboo-teasing routine, seeking out more of his bizarre performance art.
Worst-case scenario: Current Hamburger fans go in expecting something closer to a stand-up special, and instead are confounded by the numerous scenes of him staring miserably into the desert, making sad phone calls to his daughter, or interacting with various oddballs played by various famous people (like John C. Reilly and Michael Cera).
Worth the risk? Alverson’s M.O. is more or less the epitome of “not for everyone.” Maybe find a few minutes of The Comedy online and decide from there if you fit into the target demographic of this distinctive, divisive indie.
James White (November 13)
The details: Girls’ Christopher Abbott is almost unrecognizable in Josh Mond’s debut feature James White, playing a spoiled, reckless New York rich kid who has to grow up quick when his father dies and his mother’s cancer returns. Mond holds tight on James as he spends his days living like a drunken, self-absorbed libertine, and his nights taking care of his mom as she slips into fevered dementia. This is a nuanced character sketch, about a complicated, not-always-likable guy.
Best-case scenario: Audiences everywhere will see what the Sundance attendees saw in James White, and the film becomes a critically acclaimed, awards-nominated sleeper hit.
Worst-case scenario: An understandable aversion to arrested adolescent city-dwellers—not to mention stories about terminal illnesses—works against the box office chances of one of 2015’s best films.
Worth the risk? Absolutely. Mond is from the same indie collective that produced Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene, and James White is similarly artful, with both funny and nail-biting moments, and an uncanny understanding of how people use real-life crises as an excuse to indulge their innate jerkiness.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 (November 20)
The details: Presumably picking up right where last year’s first Mockingjay left off, part two finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) contending with an uprising that needs her leadership, along with an apparently brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and the largely uninteresting Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Francis Lawrence returns to direct the rest of the movie that was partially released to paying audiences last year.
Best-case scenario: Lawrence ’n’ Lawrence continue with what worked so well in the first Mockingjay (emotional YA drama that touches on propaganda, war, and their costs) with the added bonus of a story that’s actually allowed to resolve.
Worst-case scenario: A last-minute addition of Mockingjay—Part 3 introduces the first franchise to be halved annually and infinitely.
Worth the risk? By this point, audiences should know what they’re getting with a Hunger Games movie, particularly one that’s really just the extended second half of one they’ve already started. Paradoxically, the lack of real risk is one of the series’ main drawbacks.
Carol (November 20)
The details: Cate Blanchett was considered the Best Actress front-runner at Cannes for her role in Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price Of Salt, which dared to celebrate a lesbian romance during the 1950s. But it was Blanchett’s co-star, Rooney Mara, who actually won the prize.
Best-case scenario: The movie inspires heated arguments about which of its two stars shines brighter, which rage on until someone sensibly points out that it doesn’t really matter, since they’re both fantastic, and Carol is much more than the sum of its performances in any case.
Worst-case scenario: Some folks at Cannes found Carol a mite chilly, given that it’s about a passionate love affair. These people are delusional—in one electrifying moment, Blanchett’s Carol involuntarily jumps when Mara’s Therese merely touches her hand—but delusions can be contagious.
Worth the risk? Hell yes. This ranks among Haynes’ best work, confirming him yet again as one of the most valuable and idiosyncratic voices in the history of American cinema. Expect to see it on numerous top 10 lists at year’s end.
Secret In Their Eyes (November 20)
The details: Juan José Campanella’s fine, Oscar-winning 2009 Argentine thriller The Secret In Their Eyes (based on an Eduardo Sacheri novel) loses a definite article but gains a star-studded English-speaking cast in writer-director Billy Ray’s American remake. Ray moves the action from Argentina to Los Angeles, and has Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman playing law-enforcement officers whose close working relationship is tested when a case becomes personal.
Best-case scenario: The remake’s so good that it inspires people to go back and watch Campanella’s version.
Worst-case scenario: It’s so bad that it turns people away from ever watching the original.
Worth the risk? Perhaps! The big question is whether the screenwriter of Captain Phillips and Shattered Glass (the latter of which he also directed) can find an analogue for The Secret In Their Eye’s political subtext in his new setting. If he can, this could be the kind of smart, adult genre filmmaking we don’t see enough.
The Good Dinosaur (November 25)
The details: Between 2006 and 2013, Pixar released a movie every year, but that streak was broken in 2014 when the studio decided that The Good Dinosaur—its deep-into-production film about an alternate Earth where dinos survived into the human era—needed to be completely retooled. Whole characters and plotlines were reportedly scrapped, and most of the voice cast replaced. Now that The Good Dinosaur is finally ready to be seen, will it come across as a cut-and-paste job—especially in comparison to this past summer’s Pixar masterpiece Inside Out?
Best-case scenario: [Insert boilerplate praise for Pixar’s mostly impeccable record for producing inventive, affecting family films.]
Worst-case scenario: [Insert dinosaur-themed analogy, with words like “lumbering” and/or “extinction.”]
Worth the risk? Pixar’s always a good gamble, although The Good Dinosaur’s teaser trailers so far have been circumspect about what the movie’s actually like, which gives some cause for concern.
Creed (November 25)
The details: The trend of putting indie newcomers at the helm of big-budget reboots and sequels continues with this late-coming Rocky spin-off written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Rising talent Michael B. Jordan—who played the lead in Coogler’s debut, Fruitvale Station—stars as boxer Adonis Johnson, son of Apollo Creed, the heavyweight superstar played by Carl Weathers in the first four Rocky movies. Sylvester Stallone reprises his role as the Italian Stallion, this time tasked with serving as a mentor figure and a link to the father Johnson never knew. Though it functions as a direct sequel to Rocky IV, Creed seems to be taking a less over-the-top approach to the material, which means that viewers will probably never learn whatever happened to Paulie’s robot.
Best-case scenario: An affecting boxing drama, bolstered by strong performances, the totemic presence of Stallone, and moody camerawork by underappreciated cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler).
Worst-case scenario: A strained, over-serious entry in a series that turned completely ludicrous a good five Rocky movies ago.
Worth the risk? The last Rocky movie, the Stallone-directed Rocky Balboa, is one of our favorite late franchise entries, and this one looks to be playing to the series’ strengths—that is, its fascination with what motivates people to get in the ring. Take that as a “yes.”
Victor Frankenstein (November 25)
The details: Oh, wonderful, another origin story. This one banks on audiences being eager to see what Dr. Frankenstein’s life was like before he started sending electrical charges through hulking corpses and abbey-normal brains. It’s told not from the perspective of its titular mad scientist (James McAvoy, cornering the market on young versions of iconic characters), but from that of mad lab assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe).
Best-case scenario: The film, which is being put out by Fox, is either so good or so bad that Universal scraps its rival plans for an expanded-universe franchise starring the various monsters, Frankenstein’s included.
Worst-case scenario: A new run of prequels shows what The Wolf Man was up to before he got bitten by a werewolf, how the Phantom Of The Opera passed his time before he got horribly disfigured, etc.
Worth the risk? There’s no mention of “The Monster” on the IMDB cast list, meaning this could be a Frankenstein movie that never actually shows Frankenstein bringing a dead body to life. Does that sound cool to you?
The Night Before (November 25)
The details: The dramatic stuff from October behind him, Seth Rogen gets back to business being a good-natured, inebriated oaf opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie. The trio play best friends whose 14-year tradition of getting shit-faced on Christmas Eve is coming to an end, so they decide to go out with peak debauchery.
Best-case scenario: Gordon-Levitt and Rogen worked well together in director Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, and the screenplay is co-written by Rogen’s partner, Evan Goldberg. If nothing else, a Rogen/Goldberg joint is reliable for some laughs and good-natured hijinks.
Worst-case scenario: Another Rogen/Goldberg comedy that confuses vulgarity with hilarity.
Worth the risk? For Thanksgiving-weekend entertainment, it’s a low risk.
The Danish Girl (November 27)
The details: An adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel, itself a fictionalized re-telling of the life of Lili Elbe, the transgender artist and model who became one of the first people to receive sex reassignment surgery. The film was originally developed as a project for Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) with Nicole Kidman attached to star as Elbe, though the role went to Eddie Redmayne after Tom Hooper took over—possibly the only time in the history of Hollywood that a project has traded one star for another of the opposite sex without a script re-write. Alicia Vikander—who seems to be in everything this year, but is in fact in only seven movies—co-stars as Elbe’s wife, erotica illustrator Gerda Gottlieb.
Best-case scenario: Tom Hooper makes another well-acted, middle-brow, crowd-pleaser fictionalized biopic in the vein of The King’s Speech.
Worst-case scenario: Redmayne—whose casting has already attracted some controversy—speaks exclusively in the breathy, compressed whisper he used in Jupiter Ascending. Actually, that wouldn’t be that bad.
Worth the risk? Hooper’s oppressively wallpapered, wide-angle-lens-heavy visual style gets plenty of ribbing from serious film types—partly on account of The King’s Speech’s Best Picture and Best Director wins against The Social Network—and often teeters on the edge of kitsch. If that kind of thing doesn’t bug you, have at it.
I Saw The Light (November 27)
The details: A new Hank Williams biopic, starring Tom Hiddleston as the Hillbilly Shakespeare, tries to top 1964’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, another Williams biopic starring George Hamilton and Red Buttons. It’s based on Colin Escott’s well-respected biography of the late singer, which came out in 1994. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a long road to getting I Saw The Light made; when it was announced back in 2009, it had taken five years to finalize the deal. Now it’s taken another six to make it to theaters.
Best-case scenario: Hiddleston is an excellent actor, and his surprise performance last fall at the Wheatland Music Festival showed he can carry Williams’ music, which he’ll be singing for real in the film. Elizabeth Olsen will play Williams’ first wife and chief muse/tormentor, and she and Hiddleston portraying the couple’s tempestuous relationship could be great.
Worst-case scenario: Or it could be histrionic. It’s unclear how many of Williams’ experiences I Saw The Light covers, but biopics’ tendency to try to cram an entire life story into two hours rarely works. Williams died young, but there’s a lot to tell.
Worth the risk? Yes, especially if Hiddleston and Olsen go full Phoenix and Witherspoon.
Hitchcock/Truffaut (December 2)
The details: Like many of the icons of the French New Wave, François Truffaut started out as a critic before turning to directing. In 1962, he spent several days in Los Angeles interviewing one of his favorite filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock. The resulting book—officially called Hitchcock, but usually referred to as Hitchcock/Truffaut—became an important touchstone and influence for generations of critics and directors, and remains one of the musts of any film-related reading list. This documentary, directed by critic Kent Jones, approaches both the filmmakers and the book from a critical and historical perspective, and is aided by extensive interviews with the likes of David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Arnaud Desplechin.
Best-case scenario: You learn a lot about both film history and theory from a talking-head doc that never over-simplifies its subject matter, but always presents it with clarity.
Worst-case scenario: You are left bored out of your mind because you’ve already read all of these things a million times before and would rather be at home reading photocopies of early Jacques Doniol-Valcroze reviews with a French-to-English dictionary.
Worth the risk? Sure, if you like hearing smart people talk about their craft. Though it’s pitched at entry-level film buffs, it still offers plenty of insight, much of it coming from Fincher and the eminently interviewable James Gray.
Krampus (December 4)
The details: Trick ’R Treat’s Michael Dougherty makes his return to the horror genre with Krampus, about a Yuletide demon given life by a child’s lack of holiday spirit. As young Max’s home is besieged by bloodthirsty versions of classic Christmas icons, he and his unhappy family must come together and fight if they want to live to see Boxing Day.
Best-case scenario: Krampus is being described as a horror-comedy, and with comedy vets like Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner receiving top billing, we’re inclined to believe that’s a good thing.
Worst-case scenario: Maybe there’s a reason it’s been eight years since Trick ’R Treat.
Worth the risk? December is traditionally a lean time for horror movies, so even if Krampus isn’t great, it’s an opportunity for genre fans to get their fix.
Youth (December 4)
The details: Set in a ritzy Swiss spa, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to The Great Beauty stars Michael Caine as a world-famous conductor navigating relationships with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and his best friend (Harvey Keitel, playing a celebrated film director), while simultaneously being inundated by memories, fantasies, and regrets.
Best-case scenario: You thoroughly enjoyed Sorrentino’s previous English-language effort, This Must Be The Place, and will appreciate the opportunity to experience a similar tone and aesthetic without the distraction of Sean Penn playing (essentially) The Cure’s Robert Smith.
Worst-case scenario: You thought This Must Be The Place was a trainwreck, and will still find yourself allergic to Sorrentino’s largely rhythmic approach to cinema, which in this instance verges on the operatic.
Worth the risk? Yes. Caine, Keitel, and Weisz are all terrific here, and Sorrentino is in superlative form, creating meaning from the juxtaposition of images as much as from narrative and dialogue. And the movie isn’t the dirty-old-man leerfest that its ad campaign will likely suggest.
In The Heart Of The Sea (December 11)
The details: Originally intended for a March release, Ron Howard’s adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller portrays the 1820 sinking of a whaling ship in the South Pacific, accounts of which provided some of the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. A slimmed-down Chris Hemsworth stars as Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, which goes down in the South Pacific after being rammed by a sperm whale. Expect plenty of water being thrown in people’s faces and a CGI leviathan.
Best-case scenario: A rousing, effects-driven maritime adventure flick with enough characterization to satisfy those still hoping for a Master And Commander sequel.
Worst-case scenario: Something to tune in and out of during a transatlantic flight.
Worth the risk? Sure. Despite a reputation as Hollywood’s definitive middlebrow director, Howard’s shown a facility for this kind of material before. After all, what is Apollo 13—arguably his most enjoyable movie—but a shipwreck survival story set in space?
The Lady In The Van (December 11)
The details: Based on the 1999 West End play of the same name, this film recounts the true story of a woman who spent 15 years living in a van parked in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett. That source material was nominated for the Olivier Awards’ Play Of The Year, and original star Maggie Smith, who was also nominated for her performance in the theatrical run, returns as the titular character for this big-screen adaptation.
Best-case scenario: A charming, eccentric British comedy in the vein of East Is East or The Full Monty.
Worst-case scenario: A charmless, “quirky” British comedy in the vein of Saving Grace or Waking Ned Devine or countless others.
Worth the risk? Despite the excellent cast, the trailer looks pretty dire. Take a pass on this one—it’ll probably work better as a mildly agreeable rental with the family over the holidays.
Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens (December 18)
The details: The galaxy far, far away is under new management, the keys to the empire passing from George Lucas to the suits at Disney. The Force Awakens will kick off not just a third trilogy, but a whole new expanded universe of prequels, spin-offs, and tangentially related Star Wars entertainment. Set 30 years after the events of Return Of The Jedi, episode seven reunites Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie, while also finding room for new characters played by John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and various configurations of 1s and 0s. All plot details are strictly rumors at this point, but you can bet that lightsabers will be involved.
Best-case scenario: Director J.J. Abrams, working from a script he co-wrote with Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan, applies the non-cerebral zippiness of his Star Trek films to a space franchise that could really benefit from it. In the process, he blots out all memories of the Lucas prequels and manages to approximate that general feeling the original films provoked. What’s it called again? Oh, yeah: fun.
Worst-case scenario: It’s all winks and callbacks and joyless fan service, more fetish object than movie. Think Super 8 in space.
Worth the risk? Yes, but who are we kidding here? Like just about every sentient being in the known universe, you’ll be there opening weekend.
Sisters (December 18)
The details: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler confront Star Wars head-on with a comedy about two adult sisters who are devastated to learn that their parents are selling their childhood home. Tasked with cleaning out their bedroom, the sisters decide to throw one last party at the house as a symbolic farewell to their adolescence.
Best-case scenario: Golden Globes sweethearts Fey and Poehler starring in the female Old School with a touch of that wicked Mean Girls wit.
Worst-case scenario: The initial trailer for the film relies more on scatological humor—one prominent gag involves a music box being stuck in a supporting character’s butt—than sparkling dialogue, raising the question of whether Fey and Poehler’s chemistry is enough to overcome even the dumbest script.
Worth the risk? Either you’re a Force Awakens person or you’re not. This movie is for those who are not.
Son Of Saul (December 18)
The details: Winner of the Grand Prix (second prize) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this formally remarkable but grueling Holocaust drama, made by a first-time Hungarian director, depicts the efforts of one Auschwitz Sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner kept alive to run the gas chamber) to properly bury the body of a boy he claims is his son.
Best-case scenario: The film’s release gets moved to a date that isn’t smack in the middle of the holiday season, allowing people to properly steel themselves for an experience that, while ultimately rewarding, doesn’t exactly make the case for humanity’s inherent goodness.
Worst-case scenario: Despair. Hopelessness. Suicide. Merry Christmas!
Worth the risk? A qualified yes. Director László Nemes shoots Son Of Saul in extremely shallow focus, keeping the horrors of the gas chambers barely visible in the background; the focus is on Saul, who dominates the frame throughout. That’s the source of the film’s power, and it also makes it easier to take.
Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip (December 23)
The details: Hope you like puns, or better yet, words slightly tweaked to include “chip,” “munk,” or related terms. America’s foremost CGI rappers are back, and this time, they’re starring in a film that takes the never-fail “premise based on an easily resolvable misunderstanding, if only anyone would talk to each other” to even sadder heights. (Roger Ebert’s “Idiot Plot” was coined for just such a film as this.) Believing Dave is going to dump them as soon as he proposes to his girlfriend, Alvin, Simon, and the one that constantly farts have three days to reach him and stop the proposal.
Best-case scenario: A real-life Doc Brown invents a time machine, travels back to the mid-’00s, and murders everyone involved with developing the original film, thereby preventing it from ever having become a series.
Worst-case scenario: Your kids demand you take them to see this.
Worth the risk? Exhibits A, B, and C, your honor.
The Hateful Eight (December 25)
The details: For what the posters and trailers remind viewers repeatedly is his eighth film, Quentin Tarantino has assembled an impressive group of actors—most of them returning Tarantino players—for a snowbound Western about a group of outlaws, bounty hunters, and assorted miscreants who find themselves stranded together in a remote mountain cabin during a blizzard. Betrayal, gunplay, and lots of tough-talking Samuel L. Jackson dialogue ensue.
Best-case scenario: Shot using anamorphic lenses that haven’t been used since the ’60s and with an original score by Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight could see Tarantino surpass his usual exploitation influences and make an old-fashioned Western epic worthy of Sergio Leone.
Worst-case scenario: Much of the early buzz surrounding The Hateful Eight focuses on its cinematography, and with the extensive re-writes that have occurred since the first draft of the script leaked online last year, The Hateful Eight could end up as an unfocused example of style over substance.
Worth the risk? Even if it’s a mess, it’ll be a well-shot, well-acted mess, so yes.
Point Break (December 25)
The details: It’s been four years since news of a Point Break remake, um, broke, and we’re no closer to understanding why: It’s not as if Kathryn Bigelow’s original has aged badly over the last 25 (!) years, and other recent early-’90s do-overs (e.g., Total Recall) have been dismal. The assignment of updating the timeless story of an undercover cop infiltrating a ring of surfing bank robbers has fallen to The Fast And The Furious cinematographer Ericson Core, while Luke Bracey and Edgar Ramirez are (wet)-suiting up in the roles that made Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze action-movie icons. No word yet on whether this version of Johnny Utah is still “young, dumb, and full of come,” but one suspects that the filmmakers won’t mess with that little bit of cinematic history.
Best-case scenario: Core has an eye for athletic action, and the film’s globe-trotting production plan—with scenes shot in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Venezuela, and India—sounds tantalizing. Perhaps this will be the rare example of a blockbuster remake with added value…
Worst-case scenario: …Or maybe it will be the latest excuse for critics to decry the lack of originality in Hollywood filmmaking. The trailer, which suggests that Bodhi and his gang do more extreme-sports now than simply surfing and sky-diving, isn’t particularly promising.
Worth the risk? I knew a guy who took risks. His name was Bodhi and he was a great man. But we all know what happened to him in the end.
The Revenant (December 25)
The details: Alejandro G. Iñárritu chases his Best Picture winner Birdman with an expensive and ambitious Western opus. Leonardo DiCaprio plays famous fur trapper Hugh Glass, who survived a bear attack and then dragged himself 200 miles across the county in a quest for vengeance against the comrades (Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, and Domhnall Gleeson) who abandoned him. The production ran over budget and behind schedule, hemorrhaging crew members; in a Herzogian display of fortitude, Iñárritu banned his producer from set, refused to use CGI for the more difficult shots, and instructed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot only by natural light. Will the film even be ready in time for its Christmas release?
Best-case scenario: The Revenant turns out to be every bit as spectacular as the first trailer makes it look—a survival drama for the ages.
Worst-case scenario: Iñárritu slices up the chronology of this primal true story, emerging with a bearskin Babel or an Old-West answer to 21 Grams.
Worth the risk? Just read the Wikipedia page on Hugh Glass and try to claim with a straight face that you don’t want to see a movie about that shit.
Daddy’s Home (December 25)
The details: Doting, milquetoast stepdad Will Ferrell has to compete for the affection of his wife’s kids when their shyster biological father (Mark Wahlberg) comes to live with them.
Best-case scenario: Ferrell can play a good straight man, and Wahlberg has comedy chops, and between them is the always-welcome Linda Cardellini. Ferrell and Wahlberg attempting to one-up each other for the affection of their suggestible children could land some good laughs.
Worst-case scenario: Or not. We’re just guessing here, but Ferrell will probably learn to be little less uptight, and Wahlberg will learn that being a good dad also means providing stability. The filmography of co-directors Sean Anders and John Morris doesn’t inspire much confidence: Horrible Bosses 2, Dumb And Dumber To, We’re The Millers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, She’s Out Of My League. Writer Brian Burns produced and wrote for Entourage, so…
Worth the risk? No. If the family insists on hitting the theater around Christmas, Point Break will probably be more entertaining.
Snowden (December 25)
The details: Edward Snowden gets the award-season biopic treatment, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as “the most wanted man in the world,” per the footage-free first trailer. Directed by Oliver Stone, from a script he co-adapted from two non-fiction books on Snowden’s life, the film boasts an enormous cast, with everyone from Nicolas Cage to Shailene Woodley to Melissa Leo appearing as real people caught in the orbit of Snowden’s historic NSA leak.
Best-case scenario: The Oliver Stone who made JFK and Nixon shows up for work again, applying his conspiracy-thriller paranoia to the surveillance age.
Worst-case scenario: The Oliver Stone who made W. clocks in instead, resulting in another fangless dramatization of current events.
Worth the risk? It’s been quite a while since Stone made anything particularly worthwhile, and it’s hard to imagine him topping the real-life hotel-room scenes in Citizenfour for pure urgency. Maybe wait on the reviews.
Joy (December 25)
The details: David O. Russell’s new movie was originally announced as a biopic of Joy Mangano, an inventor and entrepreneur, but Russell’s more recent descriptions of the character make her sound like more of an amalgam “inspired by” the real woman, in keeping with the loose “some of this actually happened” style of American Hustle. Also in keeping with Russell’s recent work: the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the title character, alongside Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, all of whom have appeared in three Russell movies in a row.
Best-case scenario: Russell’s partnership with Lawrence, Cooper, and De Niro continues to produce some of their strongest recent work in a movie too freewheeling and electric to qualify as a regular biopic.
Worst-case scenario: The wheels fly right off and Russell makes the sloppy but essentially conventional movie he’s been accused of making the last few times out.
Worth the risk? Yes. Even lesser Russell has a style and energy all its own.
Concussion (December 25)
The details: This year’s heartfelt true-story Christmas movie comes courtesy of Will Smith, who stars as real-life neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu. The film recounts his discovery of traumatic brain injury during the autopsy of Hall Of Famer Mike Webster, and his subsequent efforts to alert the public to the debilitating effects of the sport. Needless to say, this is not the NFL’s preferred choice of family film for your holiday consumption.
Best-case scenario: A thoughtful and provocative drama about a serious issue in contemporary sports.
Worst-case scenario: Treacly message-movie cheese.
Worth the risk? Director Peter Landesman’s last film, Parkland, doesn’t inspire confidence. Plus, Will Smith has had more misses than hits lately. You’re probably better off seeing The Force Awakens again.