Time again to prepare for the annual ritual of Hollywood studios donning Santa suits, visiting our local theaters and stocking their stockings with plenty of Oscar bait.
This year, those stockings overflow with award potential.
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Martin Scorsese presents Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street." The Coen brothers strike again with a folksy period piece "Inside Llewyn Davis."
Perennial Oscar contender David O. Russell flashes his mob epic "American Hustle." Tom Hanks racks up some Oscar cred as Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks."
And then there's Ron Burgundy returning in "Anchorman 2."
Not much Oscar potential there.
The movie holiday season -- Nov. 27 to Jan. 3 -- features a wide spectrum of films, including animated comedies ("Frozen"), horrifically violent thrillers ("Oldboy"), desperate comebacks ("Grudge Match"), musicals ("Black Nativity") and science-fiction fascinations ("The Last Days of Mars").
But don't get too excited to see "Jack Ryan" (with Chris Pine) or "Labor Day" (with Kate Winslet). Even though they open on the coasts, it looks like we don't get them until early next year.
Here's the official 34th Daily Herald holiday movie preview filled with every major film scheduled for release at press time.
Remember that Hollywood executives keep messing around with release dates, although big-budget projects are usually locked in because of contracts with powerful marketing partners.
The good news? You don't need 3-D glasses to get the full multidimensional effect of this section. Enjoy!
"Black Nativity" -- Chicago's own Jennifer Hudson stars in this gritty New York street musical (based on the Langston Hughes play) about a Baltimore street kid (Jacob Latimore) sent to live with his New York relatives, the proper Rev. Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife (Angela Bassett). Can you say domestic conflict?
"Frozen" -- In this Walt Disney animated adventure, Anna (Kristen Bell) chases down her naughty sister (Idina Menzel) for using her powers to put the kingdom of Arendelle into a perpetual deep freeze. Josh Gad plays her flaky snowman sidekick.
"Homefront" -- James Franco as a sociopathic methamphetamine kingpin named Gator Bodine? What's not to love about this violence-soaked action thriller starring Jason Statham as a former DEA agent who goes rogue when drug dealers threaten his little daughter?
"Oldboy" -- Spike Lee's remake of Park Chan-wook's 2003 movie (based on a Japanese manga) freaked out a New York preview audience last week with its raw violence and shocker finale. A man (Josh Brolin) gets kidnapped, spends 20 years in solitary confinement, then mysteriously is set free. What was that all about? He decides to find answers. With Elizabeth Olsen and Samuel L. Jackson.
"Philomena" -- Former head of MI6 Judi Dench stars as an English woman who teams with a BBC journalist (Steve Coogan) to track down the son she gave up for adoption because he was conceived out of wedlock in a small Irish-Catholic town.
"Bettie Page Reveals All" -- Mark Mori's doc about the celebrated 1950s sex symbol based on interviews with the star a decade before her death in 2008.
"Out of the Furnace" -- A steel mill worker (Christian Bale) seeks justice for his missing brother (Casey Affleck) when the cops can't find him. Could the local ruthless crime ring that employed him be responsible? Hmmm. With Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard.
"The Punk Singer" -- Sini Anderson's doc about Kathleen Hanna, lead voice of the Riot Grrrl movement during the 1990s. With Joan Jett and Adam Horovitz.
"Twice Born" -- Penelope Cruz stars as Gemma, who falls in love with a dashing American photographer named Diego (Emile Hirsch) while in Bosnia. Civil war interrupts their romance. Years later, she sees that Diego will be displaying photos in Sarajevo. Should she seek him out? With Jane Birkin.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" -- Director Peter Jackson attempts to redeem himself from his last "Hobbit" snorefest. In this second leg of the second trilogy, Bilbo (Martin Freeman, again) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen, again) hook up with the 13 dwarves to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Is the dragon Smaug desolated? We'll see.
"The Last Days on Mars" -- "Don't open the bay door!" a scientist shouts. Too late! The infected astronaut has just entered the building on Mars where Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas and Olivia Wilde are wrapping up the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Didn't anyone here ever see "Alien"? "We cannot let this get back to Earth," Liev mutters. We'll have to see it if does.
"Saving Mr. Banks" -- A comic ditty about Walt Disney's greatest true-life seduction: that of P.L. Travers, author of the novel "Mary Poppins." Travers (Emma Thompson) refuses to let Disney (Tom Hanks) mangle her beloved nanny for the silver screen. Disney goes into a full-court press to persuade her otherwise, but getting the stubborn author to sign on the dotted line proves more challenging than "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." Co-starring Colin Farrell and Paul Giamatti.
"American Hustle" -- David O. Russell directs a headline-ripped drama about an unorthodox FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who forces a con man (Christian Bale) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) into infiltrating the world of New Jersey power brokers and the mob. Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams co-star. If it's Russell, it's good.
"Anchorman 2" -- Will Ferrell returns as legendary San Diego anchorman Ron Burgundy. Need we say more? No, we don't. No, seriously. We don't. OK, it also stars Kristen Wiig, Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. That's it.
"Faust" -- Aleksandr Sokurov's super-artsy interpretation of the classic tale of Faust (Johannes Zeileer), who sells his soul to Satan (Anton Adasinsky) to possess the beautiful Margarethe (Isolda Dychauk). We're promised "elaborate camera movements, a dense soundscape, intricate production design and spectacular locations."
"Inside Llewyn Davis" -- Those wily Coen brothers return with another cinematic puzzle that resembles a character study of the title character (Oscar Isaac, recalling a young Al Pacino), a folk singer in 1961 struggling to make a living. With Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake.
"Walking With Dinosaurs" -- An underdog dinosaur (would that properly be an "underdino?" or "undersaur?") triumphs against all odds in what's billed as "the ultimate immersive, big-screen, 3-D experience." But will it be good enough to make us forget the T-rex in "Jurassic Park"? It's billed on rottentomatoes.com as a documentary ... what?
"August: Osage County" -- Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre originally produced Tracy Letts' stage play about a dysfunctional family that gathers together after the death of its patriarch. Now, it's a movie directed by John Wells. Except maybe for "12 Years a Slave," no movie is more ripe for Oscar picking than this one, starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis and Abigail Breslin and the seemingly omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch.
"Believe" -- Leave it to Bieber. This doc explores how special it is to be a Canadian teen singing idol. With Usher and Ludacris.
"47 Ronin" -- It's kind of like "The Seven Samurai," but with 40 more of them. Keanu Reeves leads a group of warriors to avenge the killing of their leader by a treacherous overlord. (Are all overlords treacherous by definition?) Directed by Carl Erik Rinsch of "The Gift."
"Grudge Match" -- The Italian Stallion vs. the Raging Bull? In the immortal words of Mickey the coach, "He'll murderate him!" Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro star as boxing rivals who give it one more go 30 years after their careers got knocked out. But will their HBO sports special be as popular as the viral social media recording of their street brawl?
"Her" -- From the great Spike Jonze comes a rom-com for the social media age about a lost regular guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls for an artificially intelligent female voice (Scarlett Johansson) on his computer. Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde are her/its competition. But does he really sing a duet with Her? Really?
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" -- "Is that me?" Nelson Mandela reportedly remarked after seeing Justin Chadwick's drama. Nope, that was Idris Elba as Mandela with Naomie Harris as Winnie. Another take on the extraordinary life of a political leader who spent 27 years in a South African prison before becoming the country's president.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" -- Ben Stiller directs himself as the star of this remake of Danny Kaye's 1947 movie adaptation of James Thurber's beloved short story about a namby-pamby guy who daydreams of glory and heroism. With Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn and Patton Oswald.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" -- Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio together again! Leo plays a 1990s crooked banker (we'd ask "Isn't that redundant?" but there are many excellent people in banking). Feels like a natural progression from his work in "The Great Gatsby." Jonah Hill, Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin and the omnipresent Matthew McConaughey join the cast.
"Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" -- The found-footage horror franchise long ago lost its bite. At least this new chapter has shooting guns. Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) feels weird, gets inexplicable bite marks on his arm and pulls something out of his eye attached to a wire. He knows he's in trouble. Then demonic forces are on his butt, and he can't hide because he's "marked."