Winter Movie Guide: A season of Oscar bait (and boxing geriatrics)

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence go '70s in "American Hustle." Credit: Francois Duhamel
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence go ’70s in “American Hustle.”
Credit: Francois Duhamel

It’s late November and we’re honestly only up to our kneecaps in Oscar season. While “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and (yeesh) “Prisoners” have already captured audiences’ more serious (or “serious”) side, December features a bounty of prestige — as well as some proudly dumber fare that will ease our addiction to endless biopics, grimy backwoods dramas and movies where a sad Ben Stiller has fantasies about wooing a girl.

‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ (limited: Nov. 29)
Prestige level: High. Unlike the year’s other Mandela film — “Winnie Mandela,” with Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard — this is moneyed and sweeping.
Possible quality: Stress “long.” People’s lives rarely have a pleasing dramatic shape, and even the journey of the South African freedom fighter and president can seem endless. Then again, Idris Elba!

‘Out of the Furnace’ (limited: Dec. 4; everywhere: Dec. 6)
Prestige level: You would think a grimy drama pairing Christian Bale with “Crazy Heart” director Scott Cooper would rank in the rafters. But the gutter noir plot, involving murder and revenge, is not what brightens AMPAS members’ days.
Possible quality: Gutter noir is, of course, preferable to Oscar cheese, and as far as “gritty” lower class romps go, the science here is tighter than in “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (limited: Dec. 6, everywhere: Dec. 20)
Prestige level: They’re incorrigible eccentrics who follow their insane muse, but Coens are loved by the Oscars, and voters will probably go gaga over their look at the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, specifically an uncompromising, unpleasant musician (Oscar Isaac).
Possible quality: This is the Coens in bleak/sadistic mode, which is to say that the film is a mordant hoot to those with a dark sense of humor.

‘American Hustle’ (limited: Dec. 13; everywhere: Dec. 18)
Prestige level: The once controversial David O. Russell, who still has a movie in limbo — “Nailed,” shot in 2008 — has improbably reformed into an AMPAS favorite. He rounds up some of his former stars to go “Boogie Nights” on the tale of the feds trying to bust up Jersey ‘hoods.
Possible quality: Russell has a chaotic style that made both “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” atypically manic and abrasive Oscar bait. Still, the last time Christian Bale acted for him, as he does here, he was a pure showboaty ham.

‘Saving Mr. Banks’ (Dec. 13)
Prestige level: Where’s the roof? Disney tells the story of one of its greatest successes, “Mary Poppins,” with Emma Thompson as its strident creator, P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt.
Possible quality: Travers hated hated hated the movie. She despised it. But that’s not a nice story, so Disney do what they did to classic fairy tales: They sanitize it, making Travers a grump who gradually comes around to the cultural overlords making mincemeat of her work. And this will become the story that most people know. The magic of Disney!

‘Her’ (limited: Dec. 18; everywhere: January)
Prestige level: Well, hipsters will like it. Spike Jonze’s latest concerns a lonely Los Angelino (Joaquin Phoenix) in the very near future who falls in love with his newfangled, highly personable Operating System (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
Possible quality: Jonze usually works with collaborators (Charlie Kaufman, Dave Eggers), but flies solo here. And it turns out he’s a talented writer, too, and his film even makes a ballsy gambit: He doesn’t portray human-on-OS love as bad.

‘The Past’ (limited: Dec. 20; everywhere: eventually)
Prestige level: Two years ago Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won the foreign language Oscar for “A Separation,” his gutting look at one serious ethical mess. His follow-up looks at another breakup, between an Iranian man (Tahar Ramin) and his French wife (Berenice Bejo).
Possible quality: This is simple: “A Separation” is awesome, and “The Past” is supposed to be, by most accounts, almost as awesome.

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (Dec. 25)
Prestige level: Remember that old James Thurber story about a wallflower with an overactive imagination but no willpower to change his real life? No more! Now Mitty (Ben Stiller, who also directed) is a shy guy who suddenly finds himself, like, doing crazy stuff, in turn teaching us about carpe diem and such.
Possible quality: If you can overlook how this completely nixes the entire point of Thurber’s tale — as well as all those empowering Arcade Fire and Arcade Fire-style musical cues — then have at it!

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Prestige level: After a couple films in which he begged for his Oscar, Martin Scorsese finally got his trophy by playing beautifully profane with “The Departed.” And word is this rollicking look at hedonistic stockbrokers (Leonard DiCaprio, etc.) is “Goodfellas” but with even more evil characters.
Possible quality: Many are complaining about the 165-minute length, as though tons of Scorsese in revved-up mode was a bad thing.

‘August: Osage County’
Prestige level: This is a dysfunctional family reunion picture with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale and Benedict Cumberbatch and Abigail Breslin and even Juliette Lewis. And it’s based on a Pulitzer-feted play by Tracy Letts.
Possible quality: Previously, Letts’ movies (“Bug,” “Killer Joe”) have been handled by William Friedkin, who gets the playwright’s trashy/obnoxious streak. This one was handled by John Wells, a TV vet who made the sleepy “The Company Men.” Also, is it a good idea to give Streep both an accent and a drug problem?

These aren’t getting Oscars (or at least not “serious” ones)

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (Dec. 13)
Peter Jackson’s supersized take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s initial, more child-geared trip to Middle Earth, is in its middle three hours, which promises more Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced dragons and less sickly hedgehog.

‘Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues’ (Dec. 20)
Despite the entire world’s concentrated attempt to ruin it through endless quoting, Will Ferrell’s first stint as mustachioed ego monster Ron Burgundy is rather hilarious. And let’s not forget that Ferrell is at his best when collaborating with director Adam McKay (“Step Brothers,” “The Other Guys”).

’47 Ronin’ (Dec. 25)
Japan got Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai,” and now its esteemed “national legend” — a much-filmed tale of revenge — gets headlined by Keanu Reeves. The onetime Neo recently helmed the sharp “Man of Tai Chi,” so hopefully some of the quality rubs off.

‘Grudge Match’ (Dec. 25)
A dream of both boxing enthusiasts and cinephiles — Rocky vs. Jake LaMotta — comes to us slightly belatedly, with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro as old-timers who took 30 years to settle a rivalry.


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