The Must-See Movies of December

By the time December 31st comes around, we'll have a much clearer idea of which direction the awards season is headed, but for now the picture is still a little murky. While we've seen a number of the potential contenders already in The Master, Rust and Bone, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Argo, a number of late-comers to the party are set to emerge over the last few weeks of the year. Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty and Tom Hooper's Les Miserables will probably make the biggest noise, while Judd Apatow's This is 40 and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have to be considered dark horses. But among them, there is also a healthy amount of films not competing for anything other than your hard-earned money, and they've got some pretty big names attached to them.

 What you'll find here are my picks for the biggest movies of December, broken down by weekend, with special emphasis on the Oscar contenders. It's going to be a busy month, so I hope you like popcorn.

December 7th

End of Watch (review here)

Director: David Ayer
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, America Ferrera

What? You say you've seen this movie already? Well, then you're not who Open Road is targeting by this re-release of David Ayer's cop thriller. The film earned some surprising Oscar buzz after a strong debut back in September, and now with the film earning two Independent Spirit Award nominations, including one for star Michael Pena, they are looking to capitalize in a major way. Pena and Gyllenhaal play a pair of LAPD cops who bite off more than they can chew when they take on a violent drug ring.

Quartet (review here)
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon

A film that should play well for those who loved The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, albeit a bit sillier than that one was, Quartet marks the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, adapting Ronald Harwood's acclaimed stageplay. Brit thespians Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins lead a wonderful ensemble in a musically tinged comedy about a retirement home for musicians and opera singers. Smith gets the juiciest role of all as a revered prima donna whose arrival stirs up a hornet's nest of old jealousies and long-held grievances. I described it as a "joyful film with a lot of heart, even more laughs, and characters it's impossible not to fall in love with", and should make for a welcome change of pace this holiday season.

Hyde Park on Hudson
Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman, Samuel West

Telling a story of King George VI worked in winning a Best Picture award for The King's Speech a couple of years ago, so can Hyde Park on Hudson hope for the same results? Well, not if you believe the early reviews. Having seen it I'll leave my opinion aside for now, but the best chance it has at taking home some gold may be in the Best Actor race where Bill Murray slips comfortably into the role of President Franklin Roosevelt. The film largely follows his scandalous extramarital affair with Margaret Suckley(Laura Linney) while the King and Queen of England were visiting his country estate in 1939. Murray was last nominated for 2003's Lost in Translation, and he faces even stiffer competition this time around.

Lay the Favorite
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rebecca Hall
Well, it's been a rough five years for Frears as he hasn't had a well-reviewed film since The Queen. That trend has continued with the gambling comedy, Lay the Favorite, which has been savaged by critics all year long. But bad reviews don't typically faze Bruce Willis, who remains as bankable as ever. He'll play a cocky sports gambler in Las Vegas who takes under his wing a down 'n out cocktail waitress with big dreams.

December 14th

The Girl
Director: David Riker
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Will Patton, Maritza Santiago Hernandez

There are a number of reasons why many are looking towards The Girl as a potential sleeper this awards season. The film is getting a limited one-week run in order to qualify, after turning heads during its premier at Tribeca. Abbie Cornish has been on the verge of a breakout for years, and this is the most complex role she's had since her first two films, Somersault and Candy. More than that, this marks the third unflinching drama from acclaimed director, David Riker(La Ciudad, Sleep Dealer),  telling the topical story of a financially strapped single mother who begins ferrying illegal immigrants across the U.S./Mexico border.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett

It's been a much bumpier road back to Middle Earth for Peter Jackson, with the film beginning as a Guillermo Del Toro project before he departed to tangle with giant robots. But this always seemed inevitable, as nobody relishes the work of J.R.R. Tolkien quite like Jackson, and his enthusiasm for the material has led to bold technological advances such as shooting in 48fps, and expanded the author's rather slight novel so as to create a whole new cinematic trilogy. When all is said and done, these films will connect with the Lord of the Rings to make one of the most epic franchises ever. Delving back into the past of one Bilbo Baggins(Martin Freeman), the story follows the hobbit as he journeys with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves to battle the dragon Smaug.

Stand Up Guys (review here)
Director: Fisher Stevens
Cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin

Lionsgate shocked everybody when it was announced they'd be releasing the geriatric crime comedy Stand Up Guys for an Oscar qualifying run, but they have reason to at least have some internal optimism. The Academy loves any opportunity to see Hollywood royalty grow up and act their age(think Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets or About Schmidt), and this film has three screen legends doing just that. Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin play old partners-in-crime coming to terms with their lives and the mistakes they've made painting the town red in one wild and crazy night. While much of the attention will be focused on Pacino, it's Walken who gives the most genuine and reserved performance of all and could be a real sleeper for Best Supporting Actor.

December 19th

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintigant, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Riva

So the flipside of the Academy voters being up there in terms of age and welcoming movies like Stand Up Guys, is that they're also willing to consider joyless films like Amour. By now Michael Haneke(The White Ribbon, Funny Games) has built up a solid reputation as a director capable of incredibly powerful material, unfortunately nearly all of it is bleak in one way or another. Amour is no different, centering on an older married couple dealing with one's slow and painful death. It's probably not something to take the family to or watch on a really bad day.

The Guilt Trip
Director: Anne Fletcher
Cast: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Colin Hanks, Adam Scott, Yvonne Strahovski, Casey Wilson

If you drew Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in the "Odd Pairings" betting pool then you are definitely a winner. The guy from Pineapple Express and that Yentl lady make for an oddball duo in a heartwarming family comedy written by Dan Fogelman, the red-hot scribe behind Crazy Stupid Love. He seems to be walking a similar balance of humor and familial angst here, with Rogen continuing his trend of atypical performances as an inventor who invites his lonely mom along on a road trip so he can reunite her with a lost love. Fogelman has proven to a solid writer capable of this sort of material, but Anne Fletcher's presence hints at a fairly lightweight film.

Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini

Long in the making, slowed by rewrites, hampered by protests, and then nearly buried under a cloud of conspiracy, Kathryn Bigelow's hunt for Bin Laden film has been one of the most fascinating to watch develop over the last couple of years. Reuniting with screenwriter Mark Boal, who helped her take home five Oscar wins for The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has chosen to take a cold, dispassionate look at one of the most important moments in U.S. intelligence history. The title is military jargon for thirty minutes after midnight, which is shortly before Seal Team Six engaged and killed the terrorist leader after nearly a decade of men and women working behind-the-scenes trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

December 21st

Jack Reacher
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall, David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog plays the villain. That should be all one needs to say. But unfortunately, for many it isn't, and Jack Reacher has been the subject of quite a lot of controversy ever since the diminutive Tom Cruise was signed to play Reacher, who in Lee Child's novels is a strapping 6" 5' brute of a military man. Those unfamiliar with the author's books won't care, and will see Cruise leading another high octane action film the same way he did at this time last year with Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol. The story has Reacher punching and kicking his way through a case involving a sniper who may or may not have killed five people in a shooting spree.

The Impossible
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor

A surprise entry into the Oscar race a few months ago, The Impossible tells the harrowing story of one family's attempts to survive the deadly 2004 Tsunami in Thailand. Some of that buzz has faded since, but with the film recently screening for press(I've seen it but can't review yet) the talk is beginning to pick up again. Watts carries most of the picture herself as a mother putting her own grievous injuries aside for the sake of her son, while many will be scratching their heads over Bayona's ability to recreate the tsunami's devastation with such chilling precision.

This is 40
Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Megan Fox, Melissa McCarthy, Albert Brooks

Is Judd Apatow's quasi-sequel to Knocked Up truly an Oscar contender, or is Universal just pulling our chain and keeping the popular filmmaker happy? Minus Seth Rogen or Katherine Heigl, the film is yet another of the director's looks at midlife crisis, focusing on the characters of Pete(Rudd) and Debbie(Mann) as they deal with the rigors of growing older, raising a family, and staying in love. Early word has been a bit mixed, and after the critical and box office failure of Funny People, Apatow films are no longer considered a sure bet.

On the Road
Director: Walter Salles
Cast: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard, Kirsten Dunst

Over the span of three decades, many have attempted to adapt Jack Kerouac's seminal American novel, On the Road, and all have failed. Considered unfilmmable by most, Walter Salles took on the task, reuniting with his The Motorcycle Diaries scribe Jose Rivera to bring another resonant road trip story to the big screen. Riley, Hedlund, and Stewart form the core trio at the heart of the film, who scour the country in search of adventure, inspiration, and the American spirit. Much of the attention will be focused on Stewart in her first big post-Twilight effort.

December 25th

Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson

Talk about coming down to the wire! Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti Western/slavery vengeance film has hit more than its share of road bumps along the way. Much of the supporting cast dropped out, with little word on who replaced them if anybody. Tarantino has been in the editing room up until just a couple of days ago in preparation for a round of press screenings this weekend. Should we be concerned? Probably not, as Tarantino is a director who takes only as much time as is necessary to get his vision on screen. But the film is now locked, clocking in at a hefty 2hrs and 45 minutes, telling the story of a freed slave who teams up with a German bounty hunter to take down an evil plantation owner and free his captive wife. Tarantino turned Waltz into an Oscar winner with Inglourious Basterds, and there's been similar hype surrounding DiCaprio's heelish performance. But will it prove too controversial/violent for the Academy? Only time will tell.

Parental Guidance
Director: Andy Fickman
Cast: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Bailee Madison, Tom Everett Scott

Don't expect any awards for this one, except for maybe a Razzie. Aiming squarely at the Meet the Fockers crowd, with similar levels of humor(meaning Crystal gets hit in the groin a lot), the story centers on the disconnect between two old school grandparents and their daughter's three kids. Probably not going to be a high mark in the careers of Crystal or Midler, but it's coming out at the right time of year to make an impression at the box office.

Les Miserables
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter

Despite astronomically high praise from those who attended early screenings(I'm not allowed to review it yet, unfortunately), there are likely to be two distinct camps for Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. If you're a fan of the long-running musical and shed a tear at the teaser featuring Anne Hathaway's rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream', then chances this is a film that will be high on your list this holiday. But there's just as likely to be others who balk at Hooper's approach, which puts a lot of pressure on actors who aren't necessarily trained vocalists. The production values are incredibly high, just as with Hooper's The King's Speech, and the attention to detail is superb. This one's as close to a lock for a Best Picture nomination as you're likely to get, and Hooper probably for Best Director.

West of Memphis
Director: Amy Berg

Although there have already been three Paradise Lost documentaries chronicling the story of the West Memphis Three, there's West of Memphis proves there's still a lot to be said and plenty of stones that were left unturned. Exec-produced by Peter Jackson, who played a larger role in the public exposure of this case, the film is a detailed point-by-point examination of the murder of three young boys in 1993, and how political corruption, social injustice, and greed railroaded Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin into swift convictions for the crime. The film played to enthusiastic response at Sundance, and I found it to be the definitive look at the West Memphis Three story.

December 28th

Promised Land
Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Frances McDormand, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black

Once envisioned as Matt Damon's directorial debut, he passed the reins over to his longtime colleague Gus Van Sant, while Damon and John Krasinski teamed on the screenplay. Based on a story by Dave Eggers, the film deals with the relevant issue of fracking, and follows a pair of corporate salespeople who attempt to secure oil drilling rights from a small town devastated by the economic crisis. But they run into some unexpected trouble in the form of a science teacher and an environmental activist with a mysterious background.  The film wears its social and political themes on its shoulder, and the tone is decidedly Frank Capra-esque. But now having seen it I'm curious whether audiences have grown tired of this sort of message-heavy film. Obviously, Focus Features doesn't think so as they are giving Promised Land this limited engagement as an Oscar-qualifier.