Here’s what to expect at the theaters this month.
The big one: Wild*
Producer Reese Witherspoon, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée adapt Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, with Witherspoon playing a young woman who hiked more than 1,000 miles to get her life back on track. The film cuts between Strayed’s long walk (during which the stories about her near-disasters and strokes of good fortune make her a legend among other hikers) and her previous adventures in drug and sex addiction (which she fell into after the death of her beloved mother, played by Laura Dern). Witherspoon gives one of the year’s best performances in a role that requires her to alternate between unlikability and heroic pluckiness; while Wild pushes its tearjerking/feel-good elements hard, the result is so effective and uplifting that it’s hard to fault the movie too much. Wild is going to be hugely meaningful to a lot of people.
- Concerning Violence*… The Black Power Mixtape director Göran Olsson takes an even more radical approach to the docu-essay form by combining archival footage of the African liberation movement with text from one of colonialism’s fiercest critics, Frantz Fanon.
- Dying Of The Light… Don’t get too excited about the prospect of an action picture starring Nicolas Cage, executive produced by Nicolas Winding Refn, and written and directed by Paul Schrader, given that the latter has already disowned the film for being “reedited, scored and mixed without my input.”
- Miss Julie*… An aristocrat played by Jessica Chastain engages in seductive power-games with a servant played by Colin Farrell in Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s classic play.
- Nash… Here’s a documentary for anyone who’s ever watched NBA point guard Steve Nash and thought, “What’s this guy all about?”
- Night Will Fall*… The story of the rediscovery of Alfred Hitchcock’s shelved Holocaust documentary Memory Of The Camps gets told by The Act Of Killing/Into The Abyss producer André Singer.
- Pioneer… Insomnia director Erik Skjoldbjærg returns with a tense drama about a deep-sea diver trying to get to the bottom of a catastrophic accident during the installation of an oil pipeline.
- The Sheik… Here’s a documentary for anyone who’s ever watched the pro wrester The Iron Sheik and thought, “What’s this guy all about?”
- Still Alice*… Julianne Moore’s performance as an upper-middle-class Alzheimer’s patient in this indie melodrama won so much acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival that the movie has become an unexpected entrant into the 2014 awards race.
- Zero Motivation*… The Jury Prize-winner at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, this Israeli comedy follows the daily drudgery and petty rebellions among a group of female soldiers.
And: The Barefoot Artist, By The Gun*, Comet, Inside The Mind Of Leonardo*, Lap Dance, Poker Night, The Pyramid*, Take Care
The big one: Inherent Vice*
Any new Paul Thomas Anderson film is a major cultural event, as is any new Thomas Pynchon novel, so a PTA adaptation of a Pynchon novel is almost unbearably exciting. And while early reviews from Inherent Vice’s festival screenings have been mixed, the enthusiasts have said that Anderson has made something thrillingly new here: a druggy, noir-inflected comedy that draws equal inspiration from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the dense spoofs of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker in telling the story of a hippie P.I. (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Whether Inherent Vice turns out to be a masterpiece or an ambitious misfire, it’s going to be one of the 2014 movies that cinephiles can’t miss.
- The Captive… Writer-director Atom Egoyan returns to the theme of lost children, but judging from the howls of derision that greeted this chilly thriller at Cannes, he hasn’t exactly made another The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica here.
- The Color Of Time*… James Franco, Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, and Zach Braff all appear in this group-directed 2012 NYU Film School project, which adapts the poems of C.K. Williams.
- Exodus: Gods And Kings… Director Ridley Scott and star Christian Bale turn the life of Moses into a supernatural action epic. (But how will they handle the controversial Biblical passage where Moses supposes his toeses are roses?)
- Free The Nipple… Inspired in part by police citations for public breastfeeding, this film documents activists’ attempts to raise awareness in New York City about gender-biased laws against toplessness.
- Little Feet*… American independent-film stalwart Alexandre Rockwell has been getting some of his best reviews in decades for this black-and-white, 16mm, hourlong vignette about children lost on the streets of Los Angeles.
- R100*… The reliably strange Japanese director Hitoshi Matsumoto follows his cult favorites Big Man Japan and Symbol with a pitch-black comedy about a man who can’t figure out how to cancel his membership to an S&M club that sends women out to beat and humiliate him in public.
- Son Of A Gun… Ewan McGregor plays a veteran criminal who protects a younger thug (played by Brenton Thwaites) in prison, and later imposes himself onto the kid’s life on the outside, as his mentor/boss.
- Top Five… Chris Rock has had a spotty career as a movie writer-director-producer-star, but given the raves from the Toronto festival, Rock may have a hit on his hands with his latest auteur project: a romantic comedy about a vain comic and the journalist who challenges him.
And: After The Fall, Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks*, Tip Top*, We Are The Giant*
The big one: Mr. Turner*
The life of iconoclastic 19th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner gets the Mike Leigh treatment, with Leigh regular Timothy Spall playing the gruff-but-sensitive title character, who treated other people capriciously and suffered public scorn when he started getting more abstract with his line-work and coloring. Mr. Turner meanders through the latter years of Turner’s life, keeping its purpose as fuzzy as some of its subject’s canvasses. But the movie also looks as beautiful as a Turner painting (thanks in large part to cinematographer Dick Pope), and it’s a revealing window onto a past where fine art was a major part of popular culture.
- Annie… Between Harold Gray’s still-excellent Depression-era comic strip Little Orphan Annie, the catchy tunes of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, the presence of Beasts Of The Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis in the title role, and the direction of Easy A/Friends With Benefits helmer Will Gluck, Annie stands a good chance of being not just a hit, but a surprise critical favorite at the end of the year.
- The Gambler*… James Toback’s semi-autobiographical screenplay about a professor with a gambling addiction was made into an excellent 1974 film by Karel Reisz, and now (over Toback’s initial objection, though he’s since become a producer) it’s been made again, with Mark Wahlberg as the anti-hero and Rupert Wyatt directing William Monahan’s screenplay.
- Goodbye To All That… Junebug/Stone screenwriter Angus MacLachlan makes his directorial debut with a North Carolina-set dramedy about a newly divorced middle-aged man (played by Paul Schneider), trying to get his romantic mojo back while remaining an attentive dad to his teenage daughter.
- The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies… Nothing against the Hobbit movies, which have been fine (and have made a lot of money), but after all the hoopla over the multi-Oscar-winning The Lord Of The Rings series, doesn’t it seem strange that this latest Tolkien trilogy is coming to an end without much hype or fanfare?
- Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb… Ben Stiller returns for more special-effects-laden historical adventures, in a movie mostly destined to be a contender for the answer to the trivia question, “What was Mickey Rooney’s final film?”
- Winter Sleep*… This Palme D’or-winning drama from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan concerns a lordly hotelier who spends the winter season arguing with his family and neighbors.
And: If You Don’t I Will*, The Sublime And Beautiful
The big one: Into The Woods
The words “directed by Rob Marshall” invite some skepticism from Broadway musical fans, who remember how terrible his Nine was, and who still wish his (actually pretty good) Chicago hadn’t looked so choppy. But one thing Marshall has going for him is that he respects his material, and after all the abortive attempts by other filmmakers over the years to adapt (and bastardize) Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony-winning 1987 musical Into The Woods, it’s a relief to anticipate a movie version that’s going to put the bulk of Sondheim and Lapine’s funny, tuneful, heartbreaking fairy tale pastiche onto the screen. Also encouraging? A powerhouse cast that includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick. It’s going to be pretty hard for Marshall to screw this up.
- American Sniper*… After making an unsuccessful foray into musicals with Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood returns to more familiar ground with an edgy military drama, based on the memoir of deadly Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, played by a beefed-up Bradley Cooper.
- Beloved Sisters*… This acclaimed German historical romance stars Florian Stetter as late-18th-century writer Friedrich Schiller, who reportedly had a romantic relationship with two sisters, with one becoming his wife, and the other his biographer.
- Big Eyes… Tim Burton re-teams with his Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for a film about the acrimonious divorce and claims of artistic theft between popular painters Walter and Margaret Keane (played by Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams).
- The Cut* (12/31)… Turkish-German director Fatih Akin took a break from making serious films like Head-On and The Edge Of Heaven to direct the charming comedy Soul Kitchen, but his latest (scripted by former Martin Scorsese collaborator Mardik Martin) stars A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim as a man searching for his family in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide.
- The Interview… The controversial comedy in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play vapid celebrity journalists who attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-Un opens on Christmas Day. By New Year’s Eve, we should all be dead.
- Leviathan*… Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (best known for The Return and Elena) converts the Bible’s book of Job into a social satire about a man being ground down by his small town’s corrupt bureaucracy.
- A Most Violent Year* (12/31)… J.C. Chandor follows up last year’s dialogue-free All Is Lost with a much talkier film set in 1981, starring Oscar Isaac as an up-from-his-own-bootstraps New York businessman who wonders how much longer he can resist the corrupt entanglements that weave through his industry.
- Selma*… Buzz is high for Ava DuVernay’s reportedly artful, gripping historical drama about one of Martin Luther King’s most memorable civil-rights marches.
- Two Days, One Night*… According to the reviews from Cannes and Toronto, the ever-reliable Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have made one of their most gripping and affecting films, starring Marion Cotillard as an emotionally troubled factory worker who has the weekend to convince her co-workers to give up a promised bonus so she can keep her job.
- Unbroken… Angelina Jolie stacks the deck for her latest directorial effort, telling the story of Olympian-turned-POW Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell) with the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Alexandre Desplat, and a team of screenwriters that includes Richard LaGravenese and Joel and Ethan Coen.