Steven Spielberg has an intriguing habit of lying low for several years, and then releasing two films in quick succession.
In the early summer of 1993, he unleashed remarkably lifelike dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” and wound up with the year’s top box-office hit. Six months later, “Schindler’s List” arrived and eventually took home seven Academy Awards, including best picture and director.
In a few weeks, Spielberg will release two films within days of each other … and while he’s unlikely to duplicate his magnificent 1993 winning streak, he could come darn close. “The Adventures of Tintin” is certain to be a box-office smash, while “War Horse” already looks to be a likely contender for this year’s best picture.
And these are just two titles from an impressive roster of holiday releases.
The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve has become the cinematic land of Oscar bait: a release pattern designed to keep prestige titles fresh in the minds of those who select Academy Award nominees.
The unfortunate result, of course, is that many of the following films — some of them undoubtedly quite worthy — will be lost in the shuffle. Even the most dedicated movie buffs generally see only two or three per week during the holiday season, but when big-studio marketing strategies have become based almost entirely on opening weekend box office receipts, slow performers are cast adrift.
Madness. Sheer madness.
The following list is by no means complete; it mostly reflects the Hollywood blockbusters likely to garner 90 percent of the media’s attention. A few films (as noted) will be released only in select markets at the end of the month, in order to qualify for Oscars, before gaining wider release in January.
However you look at it, though, it’s gonna be a marvelous — if busy — month for movies.
Already in release
“The Descendants” — Although director/co-writer Alexander Payne’s melancholy drama opened a few weeks ago at Sacramento’s Tower Theater, it’ll go wider this Friday. Payne, the mastermind behind 2004’s “Sideways,” teams here with George Clooney, starring as a Hawaiian resident and “back-up parent” who, after his wife winds up in a coma, must step up and look after their two daughters. But things never are that simple in a Payne film; he and co-scripters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash — working from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel — hurl a lot more angst into this mix. Both Clooney and co-star Shailene Woodley, as the elder daughter, are attracting considerable Oscar buzz.
“New Year’s Eve” — Director Garry Marshall sold a lot of tickets to last year’s star-laden “Valentine’s Day,” despite the corny premise and predictable storylines … and why not? The tradition of celebrity-heavy ensemble romantic dramas dates back to Hollywood’s infancy in the 1930s, and with good reason: Viewers love cheerful, frothy escapism. This time out, the myriad love stories will feature Ashton Kutcher, Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Lea Michele, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank and — goodness! — quite a few others.
“The Sitter” — Jonah Hill channels his stockier, numbnuts, pre-“Moneyball” persona for an aggressively vulgar comedy from director David Gordon Green, who unleashed the popular dim-bulb hit, “Pineapple Express.” Hill stars as a suspended college student who unwisely agrees to baby-sit the kids next door. Since the R rating comes from pervasive profanity, violence and drug content, this obviously ain’t gonna be a family-friendly outing along the lines of 1987’s “Adventures in Babysitting.”
“Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” — Seriously? Must we? This time out, Alvin, Simon and Theodore — joined by the Chipettes from the previous film — accidentally go overboard while on a cruise ship, and wind up marooned on a gorgeous tropical island … which apparently isn’t as deserted as it seems. Sigh…
“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” — Looking to salvage a reputation badly dented by off-screen behavior and box-office duds such as “Lions for Lambs,” “Valkyrie” and “Knight and Day,” Tom Cruise returns to the safety of his can’t-miss franchise. IMF veteran Ethan Hunt (Cruise) finds his organization shut down after being accused of bombing the Kremlin; allied with a new team of rogue agents, Hunt looks to clear their reputation. This film’s best behind-the-scenes mystery concerns whether veteran animation director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) can make the leap to live action. The initial release will be only on IMAX screens; the film opens widely on Dec. 21.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” — Just one word sells this one: Moriarty. Director Guy Ritchie’s marvelous re-boot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed consulting detective was a well-deserved smash hit two years ago, thanks to the droll team of Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Watson). Both actors have returned for this sequel, which matches our heroes against their fiercest adversary, played by Jared Harris. The choice supporting cast includes Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Rachel McAdams returning as Irene Adler, and Noomi Rapace — the original Lisbeth Salander — as the mysterious Sim. Goodness, how can it miss?
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” — Longtime John Le Carre fans devoured the 1979 miniseries that starred the incomparable Alec Guinness as weary espionage veteran George Smiley; Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (the original “Let the Right One In”) hopes to breathe fresh life into the book, with Gary Oldman taking over for Guinness. The story, set in the early 1970s, concerns Smiley’s return from semi-retirement, when he’s asked to ferret out a Soviet agent who has penetrated MI6. The big question is whether Alfredson and scripters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan can do justice to Le Carre’s dense novel in a two-hour film. Be patient; this one won’t open widely until Jan. 6.
“Young Adult” — Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who brought us the sweetly funny and wonderfully edgy “Juno,” concentrate this time on adults behaving badly. Charlize Theron stars as recently divorced novelist Mavis Gary, who returns to her Minnesota hometown with the specific intention of pursuing her former high school beau (Patrick Wilson). Alas, he’s happily married, with children … but this doesn’t slow Mavis in the slightest. Comedy? Tragedy? Probably a bit of both…
“Albert Nobbs” — By now, everybody has seen the publicity photos of Glenn Close, cross-dressing in this 19th century saga of an Irish woman who disguises herself as a man, in order to find work. Unfortunately, the impersonation proves too successful, and “Albert” discovers, as the years pass, that she’s trapped in a fictitious personality of her own creation. Close also co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on a short story by Irish novelist George Moore. Patience, again; this one won’t open widely until late January.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” — Absolutely the season’s most-anticipated project, as legions of novelist Stieg Larsson’s readers wonder whether director David Fincher and an English-speaking cast can top — or even equal — Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev’s mesmerizing 2009 version. After all, Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salandar, in the minds of many; how can the largely unknown Rooney Mara hope to compete? Well, let’s have a little faith; Fincher is quite talented in his own right, and he’s joined by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and a choice cast, led by Daniel Craig as crusading journalist Mikael Bromkvist. After all, two years ago, nobody knew who Rapace was either…
“The Adventures of Tintin” — This project is a gamble for Spielberg in two respects: the motion-capture “animation” that many viewers still regard as distracting and irritating, and the use of a character who — while enormously popular in Western Europe, since his 1929 debut at the hands of Belgian comic book writer/illustrator Hergé — never has dented the U.S. market. Still, the trailer is enormously exciting, and the adventure-laden plot follows the young reporter (voiced and “acted” by Jamie Bell) as he helps Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) find a sunken ship before Russian villain Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig again) beats them to the punch. I’m certainly game!
“We Bought a Zoo” — Trust director/co-scripter Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”) to orchestrate what is certain to be the season’s biggest family hit. Grieving widower Matt Damon moves his family to the Southern California countryside, where he purchases a run-down zoo in the hopes of renovating and reopening the operation. Cameron has Americanized the setting from the English countryside of Benjamin Mee’s 2008 book, a real-life charmer that sold itself with its full title: “We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever.” Can’t miss.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” — Director Stephen Daldry’s eclectic drama, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, stars young Thomas Horn as a 9-year-old amateur inventor, jewelry designer, astrophysicist, tambourine player and pacifist, who searches New York for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father (Tom Hanks), who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The script comes from Eric Roth (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Munich”), and the supporting cast includes Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis and John Goodman. Sounds plenty intriguing, but be patient; it won’t open widely until Jan. 20.
“War Horse” — Goodness, the preview alone is enough to raise throat-gulping sobs. Spielberg has adapted Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel — which became an enormously popular play in London’s West End and then Broadway — about Joey, beloved horse of a young farm boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). The horse is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France, to serve on the front lines of World War I; although too young to join the British Army, Albert determines to find and retrieve his four-legged friend. Bring plenty of Kleenex.
“The Iron Lady” — Meryl Streep tackles no less than Margaret Thatcher in director Phyllida Lloyd’s biographical drama, which traces the United Kingdom’s former prime minister from her political origins — rising through the ranks of a male-dominated world — to the increasingly unpopular political decisions that eventually saw her driven from office. Abi Morgan’s screenplay already is generating controversy, both for its content and somewhat cavalier treatment of important figures in Thatcher’s life (such as her children), but we’ll have to wait until Jan. 13, to render our own verdict.
— Read Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this article at www.davisenterprise.com