Ho! Ho!…Ho? How is it that the holidays are here already? It’s a time to give thanks, a time to reflect, a time to spend lots of QT with those nearest and dearest. … which inevitably sends most of us screaming to the multiplex for a few hours of escape. But, good news! It’s also the time when studios unleash their brightest baubles of films, those features poised to bring in the bucks and the little gold men. This year we’ve got a little bit of everything: big, weepy love stories; quirky, heartwarming comedies (is there any other kind these days?); musical mayhem with bloodshed; the return of Daniel Day-Lewis; and Will Smith attempting to save the good planet Earth … again. We’ve made a list and checked it twice. Here are the nine must-see movies of this season.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
“I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” So intones Daniel Plainview, the misanthropic figure at the center of the highly anticipated There Will Be Blood. This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since the (much maligned) 2002 Punch-Drunk Love, and the writer-director chose to loosely base his script on the 1920’s Upton Sinclair book Oil! Mr. Anderson tends to make movies that people like to argue about (whether or not you think Magnolia is overrated or a modern masterpiece can be a relationship deal breaker), but so far the initial chatter on this one has been across-the-board positive. Daniel Day-Lewis stars. … And, well, when hasn’t he been amazing? The film is set in turn-of-the-century California during the oil boom, so expect plenty of media analysis about the politics of oil; but more importantly, it tackles the scary lust for and corruption of power. Paul Dano co-stars (hooray for the boys from The Girl Next Door!) as a young preacher who may or may not stand in Mr. Plainview’s way (look out!), and we’re guessing Mr. Anderson means it when he says there will be blood, okay? Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood did the score (sorry Aimee Mann), and our only concern is that there doesn’t seem to be a female of any note anywhere in this flick. (Paramount Vantage, Dec. 26)
Phew! A lighthearted film to liven up the mix comes in the form of Juno, the second film from Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman, following up on his success with Thank You for Smoking. Juno is the name of the title character (played by Ellen Page), a young teenage girl faced with an unplanned pregnancy who decides to give her baby away to a worthy couple. The father of the baby? Superbad’s Michael Cera, looking younger, more nervous and skinnier than ever. Enter Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner (who, by the way, would make an excellent real-life couple—sorry, Ben!) as the young couple who hope to adopt. (It’s nice to see Mr. Bateman cracking wise on the big screen again, and reunited with his Arrested Development son, Mr. Cera.) Supporting members of the cast are equally as impressive, and include (very tall) Allison Janney, Rainn Wilson and J.K. Simmons. Expect Juno to be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine. (Fox Searchlight, limited, Dec. 15)
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR
What can we say about a movie that boasts this much talent? It was written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Mike Nichols, and stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Blunt and Ned Beatty. Amazing or spectacular mess? We can’t wait to find out. (Universal, Dec. 25)
GRACE IS GONE
When Grace Is Gone premiered at Sundance, it inspired the kind of crazy bidding war one could only imagine happening on Entourage (it ended at around 5 a.m. after seven hours). The movie stars John Cusack as a man whose wife is killed in service in Iraq, and who is left the uneasy task of telling his young daughters the news. Mr. Cusack, whom we’re always happy to see no matter how many bombs he may be in (cough, Martian Child) is being buzzed over as an Oscar contender, and since it was Harvey Weinstein who came out of the film’s bidding war victorious, expect a huge end-of-the-year publicity campaign. (Weinstein, Dec. 7)
The Savages is one of those movies that it’s hard to imagine going over gangbusters at a pitch meeting: Two siblings reunite to take care of their mostly absentee father who is suffering from dementia. Doesn’t exactly scream holiday box office gold, does it? And yet, due to the tremendous performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman—it’s been said before but needs to be said again, this guy is just so darn good—and Laura Linney (who has truly perfected the art of high-strung) this movie is a small but excellent one. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins, whose last feature-length film was 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, carries the same cool aesthetic look and quirky feel as executive producer Alexander Payne’s films. (Ms. Jenkins is married to Mr. Payne’s writing partner, Jim Taylor.) While the situation the actors find themselves in is grim, Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Linney manage to eek out some truly hilarious moments that resemble, for better or for worse, real life. (Fox Searchlight, Nov. 28)
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
We love it when filmmakers put the fun back into dysfunction—where would the movies be without family neurosis to probe?—and with the holidays fast approaching there’s no better time to see a film that will reassure you that your family isn’t the craziest one around. And boy oh boy, does Noah Baumbach’s latest, Margot at the Wedding, manage to do that! Nicole Kidman (forehead distractingly wrinkle-free) plays the title character, a conflicted and complicated drinking and pill-popping mother that takes oversharing to a new cringing extreme. Jennifer Jason Leigh (a.k.a. Mrs. Baumbach) plays Ms. Kidman’s more spiritualized (yet just as complicated) sister on the occasion of her wedding (to a restrained Jack Black), and the two women manage to convey a lifetime of shared family trauma and competitive rivalry skillfully and subtly. The movie is much darker than Mr. Baumbach’s last film, the heartbreakingly wonderful The Squid and the Whale, but Margot has many of his signature elements: naturalistic dialogue, a washed-out watercolor palette and achingly awkward moments that will have viewers shifting uncomfortably in their seats. We promise you’ll walk away feeling better about your own familial issues (not to mention weirdly grateful you’re not a boy going through adolescence). (Nov. 16, Paramount Vantage, limited)
We don’t know what to make of the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. On the one hand, it has reteamed Johnny Depp (happily not in his pirate suit) with his favored director, Tim Burton. On the other, musicals have been more miss than hit since Chicago (see: Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Rent), and this one, a bloody romp about a man falsely imprisoned who returns to seek vengeance through murder, might be a truly hard sell. That said, if anyone was going to make this source material great, it’s Mr. Burton. Rounding out the cast is Sacha Baron Cohen (who must be psyched not to be Borat), the awesome Alan Rickman, and Mr. Burton’s female muse and real-life love, Helena Bonham Carter. There’s been much Internet speculation as to whether Mr. Depp actually belts out his songs, or pulls a Rex Harrison à la My Fair Lady. We don’t care! Some fairly reputable sources have named this the film to beat this year. (DreamWorks SKG/Paramount, Dec. 21)
I AM LEGEND
Holy smokes, this movie looks crazy! We’re guessing this is going to be the one that all the boys will flock to see at the IMAX on 67th street, ’cause you know when it’s Will Smith and saving the world is on the line … the box office will follow. I Am Legend follows the sole human survivor after a catastrophic infection wipes out the planet. Expect shots of Mr. Smith chilling out in an eerily empty New York City, racing cars up Fifth Avenue, hitting golf balls off of deserted buildings (at least he seems to have a very good-looking German Shepherd as a companion). But! He’s not alone, and from the trailer we’re guessing … vampires? Zombies? Hard to say, but it looks incredibly scary, and we’re expecting hysteria over the bird flu to crop again by the time the credits role. (Warner Bros., Dec. 14)
It’s been far too long since there’s been a grand, dazzling, sock-you-in-the-guts-and-tear-your-heart-out epic love story at Oscar season. So cheers for this year, which brings the ludicrously lovely Atonement. Adapted faithfully from the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, it’s directed by Joe Wright, who did the very excellent retread of Pride & Prejudice in 2005. His leading lady from that picture, Keira Knightley, returns here, and never has a period picture done more for an actress than the late 1930’s setting has done for Ms. Knightley, who literally gleams on celluloid. Atonement begins on a hot and languid afternoon in the English countryside where misunderstandings and false accusations spiral into a lifetime of regret (trust us when we say that never before has the use of a dirty word set off such a riptide of consequences). Co-starring with Ms. Knightley is James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland), playing the wrongfully accused man; we’re betting on him as the next hot Scot to become leading man material. Mr. Wright seems to have a knack for capturing the golden hues of pastoral settings, but it’s his treatment of World War II, specifically his depiction of the evacuation of Dunkirk, that will make jaws drop (one seemingly endless panoramic beach segment is practically worth the ticket price alone). Inevitably folks will compare Atonement to The English Patient, which may or may not be fair to either film. All we know is that the past couple of years the Academy has awarded fairly unromantic films—Crash (don’t even get us started) and The Departed—the top honor. The time might be ripe for this one to come in and clean up. Oh, and bring your tissues! (Focus Features, limited, Dec. 7)
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