COLUMN: 2014 Holiday Movie Preview

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The lackluster fall movie season for 2014 was dominated by Denzel Washington killing people with home improvement equipment in "The Equalizer" and Ben Affleck dodging media and criminal blame in "Gone Girl."  Under those headliners, just at it happens every year, a few Oscar contenders made an early splash in fall.  Those films include "Gone Girl," "Fury," "Birdman," "St. Vincent," and "Whiplash."  

That was fall, but the calendar has turned to November.  That's when things really ramp up towards the end of the year.  The holiday movie season of November and December is what really starts and decides the Oscar race every year and this year's schedule of films is no different.  There are some real contenders here looking to make people forget about "Birdman" and "Gone Girl."  Let's see what happens.  Here is my complete "Holiday Movie Preview" for 2014.  Enjoy! 

NOVEMBER 7

"Interstellar"-- This is your opening blockbuster-in-waiting for the holiday season from director Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey.  You have to be living under a rock to not hear about it yer.  "Interstellar" made its early arrival this past Tuesday and here is my full review of what is looking to be the most polarizing film of the year.  (trailer)

"Big Hero 6"-- Disney's 54th animated feature borrows a kid-friendly roster of ragtag heroes from Marvel Comics (which Disney has owned since 2009).  "Big Hero 6" is about a kid inventor and his robot assembling unlikely heroes to fight a masked super villain.  This is Disney's first attempt to tap the Marvel stream and the results look outstanding.  This will be your go-to family movie of the month in competition with "Penguins of Madagascar."  Disney strikes first.  (trailer)

"The Theory of Everything"-- Inspired by his ex-wife's memoir and directed by Academy Award-winning documentarian James Marsh ("Man on a Wire"), this drama profiles the early life and accomplishments of noted scientist and thinker Stephen Hawking.  "Les Miserables" star Eddie Redmayne transforms into the physicist and Felicity Jones plays his first wife Jane.  This film is firmly in Oscar bait territory.  (trailer)

"A Merry Friggin' Christmas"-- Joel McHale and a few of his "Community" writers have put together a black comedy about a forgetful father trying to survive the stressful family Christmas before him.  This small release will be getting more attention as one of the final works of Robin Williams, who has a small role.  (trailer)

NOVEMBER 14

"Foxcatcher"-- Get your Oscar radars ready, because this one is going to ping loudly.  Steve Carell transforms in a paranoid schizophrenic wrestling coach to a pair of Olympian brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) is this twisted true crime story from Bennett Miller, the director of "Moneyball" and "Capote."  Carell is getting a ton of attention for this and you'll see why just from the trailer.   

"Dumb and Dumber To"-- The comedy sequel everyone always dreamed of arrive 20 years later with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels returning to their iconic clueless buddies, Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, under the direction of the Farrelly brothers.  A ton of time has passed to see if these two can still be funny.  This will be either a classic or a trainwreck.  (trailer)

"Beyond the Lights"-- Rising newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Belle" and "Larry Crowne") plays a popular music recording artist who stumbles with fame and career ambitions until finding love from a young police officer (Nate Parker of "Red Tails" and "The Great Debaters") that saved her life.  Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love and Basketball" and "The Secret Life of Bees"), this film has been making the festival rounds in Toronto and Chicago to positive reviews.  (trailer)

"Rosewater"-- TV personality John Stewart took time off from "The Daily Show" to write and direct his first feature film here with "Rosewater," which chronicles the interrogation and imprisonment of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) while covering the country's volatile presidential elections.  This too has been working the film festival circuit to strong reviews.  One of which was made by one of my own Guest Critics who saw "Rosewater" at the Toronto International Film Festival.  (trailer)

"The Homesman"-- All you need to say is "Tommy Lee Jones" and "western" and you have something to work with.  Better yet, the Academy Award winner is directing this drama that competed at the Cannes Film Festival.  Jones plays a former criminal trying to make amends by escorting a group of women (led by Academy Award winner Hilary Swank) across hostile territory.  (trailer)

NOVEMBER 21

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1"-- Even greater than "Interstellar," here is 2014's best remaining shot at dethroning "Guardians of the Galaxy" as the highest grossing movie of the year.  The beginning of the end is here with the final film chapter split into two parts.  It all builds up to this with Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks leading the conflict.  This film is going to make bank.  It's just a matter of how much because I think $400 million is just about automatic.  (trailer)

"The Imitation Game"-- Every year there is a polished piece of Oscar bait coming from Britain that sweeps Oscar favor and scores Oscar nominations.  "The Imitation Game" is this year's lead contender for that honor to follow the likes of "The King's Speech."  Benedict Cumberbatch gives an amazing lead performance as Alan Turing, an early pioneer of computers, who helped British intelligence crack the Nazi Enigma codes that led to victory in World War II.  Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong co-star.  I was able to catch this film early at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  It's the real deal.  (trailer)

NOVEMBER 28

"Horrible Bosses 2"-- The R-rated comedy ensemble hit from three years ago gets a reunion sequel and a new criminal scheme hatched by the trio of regular guys played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day.  Chris Pine and Christoph Waltz joins the returning antagonists and antagonizers played by Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Jamie Foxx.  (trailer)

"Penguins of Madagascar"-- In "Despicable Me" Minion fashion, the popular sideshow background characters of the "Madagascar" franchise get their own spin-off adventure.  Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private are enlisted into a special task force to help fellow animals.  Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, and John Malkovich join the voice cast fun.  (trailer

"The Babadook"-- Screw "V/H/S Viral" opening on November 21.  This is a real and original horror film with worthiness from Australia.  The foreign favorite from the Sundance Film Festival surrounds child's pop-up story book creature that comes to life to terrorize its readers.  This film is sitting at an astounding 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.  How many horror films do you know can claim that?  (trailer)

"Escobar: Paradise Lost"-- Not a stranger to pictures about the real or fictional Latin and South American drug empire scene, Academy Award winner Benicio del Toro plays real-life Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar in this thriller where we learn about him from the observations of an American surfer (Josh Hutcherson) caught in his web.  (trailer

DECEMBER 5

"Wild"-- Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon teams with director Jean Marc Vallee ("Dallas Buyers Club") for the real-life story of a Minnesota transplant named Cheryl Strayed who walked the entire Pacific Coast Trail from Mexico to Canada as a way to honor her mother and rethink her current state of life.  I've been lucky enough to see this fine film already at the recent 50th Chicago International Film Festival and Witherspoon has an excellent chance to add a second Oscar to her trophy case.  (trailer)

"Top Five"-- Chris Rock steps away from bad Adam Sandler movies to write and direct his first feature film.  Coincidentally, he calls his own number to star as a very successful comedy actor who has made a lot of money on crap films, is set to marry a fellow big star diva (Gabrielle Union), and is having second thoughts about his career and life while completing a biographical retrospective interview with a magazine reporter (Rosario Dawson).  This looks like funny and yet honestly compelling work from Rock.  (trailer)

"The Clouds of Sils Maria"-- In the "hidden gem" department, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche plays an aging theater and movie star with a stalwart and beleaguered personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) who has agreed to come back to a revival of the London stage play that started her career, but as the older secondary role behind a new ingenue (Chloe Grace Moretz) in the lead.  This fine foreign film played at the Chicago International Film Festival and others.  A full review from me will come on its U.S. release.  (trailer)

DECEMBER 12

"Exodus: Gods and Kings"-- Ridley Scott can't stay away from big ticket epics.  He puts his spectacle-sized take on the Biblical story of Exodus focusing on the split rivalry that develops between Moses (Academy Award winner Christian Bale) and Pharaoh Ramsses II (Joel Edgerton of "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Warrior").  Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, and Sigourney Weaver are part of the ensemble.  (trailer

"Inherent Vice"-- Much respected and much maligned filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "There Will be Blood," "The Master") re-teams with Joaquin Phoenix for this adaptation of reclusive author Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel of the same name.  Phoenix plays a loser private detective in the 1970's stumbling his way through solving a disappearance case that is bigger than he can handle.  As with any P.T. Anderson movie, people line up to work with him including Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Katherine Waterson, Benicio del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, and Eric Roberts.  It can't be worse than "The Master."  Can it?  (trailer)

DECEMBER 19

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"-- After dividing J.R.R. Tolkien's popular book into a new meaty trilogy, Peter Jackson has now made it to the final film and trip through Middle Earth.  With a dragon on the loose, a growing evil on the horizon, and multiple races pitted against each other, conflict comes to a head and a conclusion with "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."  Don't forget.  There's still that matter of some piece of mystical jewelry in the possession of an unassuming halfling at the center of the story.  Knowing Jackson, he's been saving the big guns and something special for the grand finale.  His last trilogy finale tied the record for most Oscar wins in a single year.  That's an awfully high bar.  (trailer)

"Annie"-- Getting a one-week jump on the bigger and flashier movie musical "Into the Woods," Will Gluck, the director of "Easy A" and "Friends With Benefits," helms this modern adaptation of the 1977 musical.  Young "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis plays the title orphan who catches the attention and the heart of a wealthy politician (Jamie Foxx).  They're going to attempt to sing this one.  I have faith in Jamie Foxx, but anyone who saw the karaoke scene from "My Best Friend's Wedding" back in the day better be scared to read that Cameron Diaz co-stars at the villainous foster home maven.  Nails on the chalkboard but, hey, if Russell Crowe can star in a movie musical, why not Cameron Diaz?  (trailer)

"Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb"-- Ben Stiller, the late Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, and more return for another set of midnight shenanigans with historical artifacts.  This time, the story heads to London for the Egyptian origins of the magic that makes all of this happen in the first place.  Ben Kingsley, Dan Stevens, and Rebel Wilson are newcomers to the fun.  (trailer)

"The Gambler"-- Taking on a dramatic look thanks to weight loss, Mark Wahlberg leads this remake of the 1974 James Caan film that looked at a college professor with a gambling addiction that causes trouble in his life.  Rupert Wyatt ("Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") directs and Wahlberg is joined by Brie Larson, John Goodman, and Jessica Lange.  (trailer)

"Mr. Turner"-- Third after "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything" as your prerequisite British-made Oscar bait is this story from revered director Mike Leigh about noted neurotic painter J.M.W. Turner, played by consummate character actor Timothy Spall in a plum lead part.  Spall won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer for this rich lead role.  (trailer).

"Winter Sleep"-- Speaking of the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d'Or winner as their top film, "Winter Sleep," gets a limited U.S. release during the holiday season.  It's an enormous 196-minute character study from Turkey about a former stage actor turned hotel owner that slowly learns the error of his ways and what people really think about him.  For those who can't do that math, 196 minutes is over three hours.  Tedious is an understatement from me after I saw this film screened at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  (trailer)

DECEMBER 25

"Into the Woods"-- The extremely busy Christmas box office weekend starts with Disney's ambitious hit musical adaptation from the director of "Chicago."  The fairy tale mash-up of "Into the Woods" gets a grand singing cast in the form of Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Emily Blunt, and Chris Pine who are looking to belt out the proper James Lupine and Stephen Sondheim numbers for hit family film dollars.  (trailer)

"Unbroken"-- Those of you who follow my website know that this Angelina Jolie-directed bio-pic about Olympian and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini has been my prediction as the eventual Best Picture winner since the day after the last Oscars.  I'm not changing my vote.  This far-reaching saga and incredible true story of accomplishment, survival, and redemption will get its chance to shine this Christmas and beyond.  Keep an eye on newcomer star Jack O'Connell.  The kid is going to blow up after this film.  (trailer)

"The Interview"-- Like "Anchorman 2" last year, it wouldn't be the Christmas season without one raunchy comedy to act as counterprogramming to all of the Oscar hopefuls.  You've got that and more with James Franco and Seth Rogen playing a TV host/producer duo who score an exclusive interview with Kim Jong-un in North Korea are a propositioned by U.S. spies to assassinate him.  Even the premise of this film has ruffled the real Kim Jong-un's feathers.  So, if we start a nuclear war you have Franco and Rogen to blame.  Do a better job, Dennis Rodman.  Sheez!  (trailer)

"Big Eyes"-- Flying far more under the radar than his usual movie releases, big-time fantasy director Tim Burton goes small scale with a quirky true story of female artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) takes credit for her artwork and steals her spotlight against the prejudice of gender bias in the pre-Feminism era of the 1950's and 1960's.  This one could be another "Big Fish" that sneaks up on people and Oscar voters.  (trailer)

"American Sniper"-- Much like he did in 1997 ("Absolute Power" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), 2006 ("Flags of our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima"), and again in 2008 ("The Changeling" and "Gran Torino"), Clint Eastwood has the habit every now and then to kick out two full feature films in one year as a director.  He notched "Jersey Boys" this past June and no brings you "American Sniper," the true story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) who, after serving in Iraq, is the most lethal sniper in American military history.  Eastwood usually soars in historical films.  This should be something special right up there with "The Hurt Locker."  Tell me this trailer doesn't grab your attention.

"A Most Violent Year"-- The third feature film from prolific filmmaker and Oscar nominated writer J.C. Chandor ("All Is Lost" and "Margin Call") follows an immigrant family trying to get its foothold in New York City during the crime-stricken summer of 1981.  Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo, and Albert Brooks to-line the cast.  Chandor is batting 1.000 and aims to keep his independent strength going.  (trailer)

"Two Days, One Night"-- This drama directed by the Dardenne brothers (two-time Palme d'Or winners for "Rosetta" and "L'Enfant") is Belgium's official entry in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.  Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard stars as the breadwinning woman of the family who loses her factory job due to an employee vote and absence from work.  She has the film title's amount of time to confront her co-workers and convince them to re-vote and change their mind.  Once again, I was able to see this film at this year's Chicago International Film Festival and it's an excellent small film.  It deserves the attention it gets.  (trailer)

Happy Holidays and let the Oscar race begin!

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