December is an awkward time at the movies. The Oscar race is winding down, with studios cranking out the last of their prestige pictures. At the same time a ton of people have time off, and want to spend that watching dumb cinema. There will be blockbusters that get acclaim and acclaimed movies that become blockbusters. But then there’s still a third “Night at the Museum” entry, plus a movie where Seth Rogen and James Franco try to kill Kim Jong-un. Here’s how the divide this year goes:
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Dec. 12)
What: The Ten Commandments story — most famously told in the 1956 Easter staple “The Ten Commandments” — gets told again, this time by a nonbeliever (Ridley Scott) and with Christian Bale attempting to wipe away memories of Charlton Heston. Good luck!
How populist?: Midwestern audiences ate up tiny religious films like “God’s Not Dead”; in fact, that film made only $40 million less in America than the super-pricy “Noah.” Then again, though this is a full-on biblical epic, it’s actually 100 minutes shorter than the Heston.
Top Five (Dec. 12)
What: Chris Rock’s third go at directing is an improv-heavy dramedy about a Chris Rock-like movie star (played by Chris Rock) hitting it off with a reporter (Rosario Dawson) the day of his new drama’s release.
How populist?: Rock made this independently, and it has a rough, handmade quality that could serve as an antidote to studio comedies, including ones Rock himself has made.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Dec. 17)
What: Only five armies? The final chapter in an epic take on a 300-page novel intended for children finally comes to a close, and surely it will test how much Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced dragon fighting you can stand before going insane.
How populist?: These things are bizarrely popular, especially considering how padded out and ass-woundingly long they are. But hey, what’s good for Martin Freeman is good for the world (maybe).
Annie (Dec. 19)
What:It’s been 32 years since the John Huston movie of the sometimes blood-curdling stage musical, so here’s one with Quvenzhane Wallis, plus Jamie Foxx as a toupeed Daddy Warbucks — or, wait, he’s called Will Stacks? Where’s the fun in that?
How populist?:Little girls rarely get movies tailored for them, so maybe don’t screw this one up?
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Dec. 19)
What:Sad but true: These are the most successful films Ben Stiller has ever been involved with. This one comes with a deep melancholic streak: Among its cast members are late performers Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney.
How populist?:These are popular, but why?
Into the Woods (Dec. 25)
What:Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and a bunch of other popular stars round out Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical, in which fairy tales are mashed together.
How populist?:Remember when musicals were dead? The only catch is Sondheim is a musical lover’s musical writer, though his often difficult and densely written tunes are here tacked onto a very clever pastiche — with a grim second half, incidentally.
The Interview (Dec. 25)
What:The movie that could get us destroyed by impoverished and ill-equipped North Korea stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as reporters asked by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un.
How populist?:Franco is secretly a prolific director of arty films; Rogen’s own movies (like “This is the End”) are broad comedies. That said, the last time Rogen attempted to storm the holiday movie box office, it was the middling “The Guilt Trip.”
Wild (Dec. 3)
What:Reese Witherspoon portrays Cheryl Strayed, who hiked some 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Don’t worry: There are a lot of flashbacks, plus a script by Nick Hornby.
How prestigious?:Witherspoon goes back to her indie roots, when she was one of the most exciting budding stars. Her Strayed is not only haunted — with a deeply traumatic history involving death,divorce and drugs — but also hilariously cranky.
Still Alice (Dec. 5, limited; Jan. 16, wide)
What:Julianne Moore gets Alzheimer’s.
How prestigious?:Moore is getting raves for this, just as she got raves for the still forthcoming David Cronenberg film “Maps to the Stars.” Ditto Kristen Stewart, who, with this and “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” seems to abandoning Hollywood and reminding people she’s a really good actress.
Inherent Vice (Dec. 12, limited; Jan 9, wide)
What:Thomas Pynchon doesn’t lend himself well to movies, but if anyone could pull it off it’s Paul Thomas Anderson. Joaquin Phoenix plays a hippie P.I. in the ’60s on a seriously convoluted case. (No, really: It’s practically impossible to follow or summarize.)
How prestigious?:This is so goofy and weird that it will almost certainly be polarizing, even among the critical cognoscenti. The audience for this is specific and small, though those who get it will be passionate.
The Gambler (Dec. 19)
What:A remake of one of the ’70s grimmest ’70s films, this potty-mouthed drama (written by “The Departed”’s William Monahan) stars Mark Wahlberg as a self-destructive rich kid who owes a ton of money to three different, scary people.
How prestigious?:Despite a new ending, this keeps the miserable ’70s vibe, and Marky Mark — who can be dour in dramas — is as electric here as he is in comedies like “I Heart Huckabees.”
Mr. Turner (Dec. 19, limited)
What:Mike Leigh, everyone’s favorite super collaborative English filmmaker, is back with another immaculately researched historical piece, this one about 19th century sea painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall).
How prestigious?:Leigh crafts his movies with the actors, and Spall is one of his frequent and best thespians. If Spall doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, he should get a special trophy for his amazing and frequent mouth noises.
Two Days, One Night (Dec. 24, limited)
What:Marion Cotillard teams with deservedly esteemed Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, playing a woman fighting to keep her job.
How prestigious?:Few filmmakers are as reliably same-y as the Dardennes, and luckily their shtick is peerless. Despite her A-list status, Cotillard fits right into their world — but then, she’s both a star and a real actor.
Big Eyes (Dec. 25)
What:Tim Burton tries his hand at plain (which is to say not fantastical) drama, telling the true story of artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) falsely claimed her works were done by him.
How prestigious?:The last time Burton did a biopic was “Ed Wood,” which nabbed Martin Landau an Oscar. This one shares the same writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who know a thing or two about subverting the genre.
Unbroken (Dec. 25)
What:Three years ago Angelina Jolie surprised holiday viewers with the super-bleak “The Land of Milk and Honey,” which she directed. She does it again, this time telling of Louie Zamperini, a WWII-era Olympian who spent 47 days on a raft and then another two-and-a-half years in a POW camp.
How prestigious?:Jolie has the clout to do whatever she wants, but it’s not yet clear what kind of filmmaker she is. This sounds like a classic “triumph of the human spirit” type deal, but “Milk and Honey” was so dark and this may be too.
Selma (Dec. 25, limited; Jan. 9, wide)
What:Of course Hollywood has never made a Martin Luther King Jr. movie. On the other hand, the first one was made by a black female filmmaker, the talented Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”), with David Oyelowo as MLK.
How prestigious?:This might be the most prestigious film of the year — and, amazingly, it might also be genuinely great. The focus is only on the Alabama voting rights marches in 1965, rather than his whole life, and those biopics tend to be the most rewarding.
American Sniper (Dec. 25, limited; Jan. 16, wide)
What:What did you do this year? Because compared to Clint Eastwood you did nothing. At 84 the actor-filmmaker has directed two features in 2014 alone, this one with Bradley Cooper as America’s most “successful” sniper.
How prestigious?:Eastwood badly needs a hit, his last run of pictures having been neither critically nor commercially loved. That’s not to say they weren’t good.
Leviathan (Dec. 25, limited)
What:Happy holidays! Here’s a Russian drama loosely based on the book of Job, about a drunken everyman whose life is gradually undone by an evil bureaucrat, an old friend and his neglected wife. It’s also not to be confused with the 2012 documentary of the same name (or the 1989 underwater “Alien” ripoff starring Peter Weller).
How prestigious?:This is Russia’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film, from the very acclaimed Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Elena”).
A Most Violent Year (Dec. 31, limited)
What:In 2011, every movie seemed to star Jessica Chastain. She’s everywhere in 2014 too, with December bringing both “Miss Julie” and this drama about an immigrant (Oscar Isaac) trying to keep afloat in 1981 New York City.
How prestigious?:The director is J.C. Chandor, who’s on a roll with “Margin Call” and “All is Lost.” And hey, this Chastain person has the goods.
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