With November done, there's only a few weeks left of 2012, and as ever, they're positively stacked with movies. The month is back-loaded with the usual mix of family fare, blockbusters and awards hopefuls, and no less than sixteen major movies will hit screens between the 19th and the 28th of December. To help you sort the wheat from the chaff, we've picked out ten of the key releases that, whether they work or not, will be dominating the conversation all the way into 2013. Check them out below, and let us know what you're most looking forward to in the comments section.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Synopsis: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit of modest ambitions, until the wizard Gandalf and a band of unruly dwarves turn up on his doorstep, beginning an adventure in search of gold and a giant, terrifying dragon.
What You Need To Know: After a long-delayed development process that saw the film held up by MGM's bankruptcy and a change of director when original helmer Guillermo Del Toro got bored waiting around for a start, the first part of Peter Jackson's return to Middle-Earth, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is finally hitting theaters at the end of next week. The film's had its fair share of controversies of late; the disappointing unveiling of the 48fps footage, which Jackson hopes is the future of cinema, along with the questionable decision to split the slight book into three parts. But many of those rewatching Jackson's original trilogy in the lead up to the new film are rediscovering why they fell in love with the films the first time around, and there's no indication so far from footage or from early buzz from otherwise embargoed screenings, that he's dropped the ball the second time around. Most reviews, including our own, conclude that Jackon has lost none of his touch for big spectacle filmmaking and action setpieces, though that 48fps stuff has been jarring for critics. It may end up suffering in comparison to the weightier 'Rings' films, but there's no reason to expect anything but one of the best blockbusters of the year, made with Jackson's trademark love and care.
When? December 14th
Synopsis: Former military policeman-turned-drifter Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) becomes embroiled in a case of a military sniper accused of five murders, but who may have been set up by a more sinister foe…
What You Need To Know: This time last year, Paramount had the big hit of the season with Tom Cruise and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" — a tired old franchise given new legs by the sublime direction of Brad Bird, even despite a ropey script. The studio and star are hoping to repeat their success this year, with the first in what's hoped to be a new franchise based on the hugely popular books by Lee Child, starring his character Jack Reacher. Adapting the book "One Shot" and taking the director's chair for the first time in 12 years is "The Usual Suspects" writer Christopher McQuarrie, while the supporting cast has been filled out with reliable names like Richard Jenkins, Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Robert Duvall and, in a genius stroke of casting, Werner Herzog as arch-villain The Zec. The casting of Cruise himself has been controversial — Reacher in the novel is a giant of a man, more Dwayne Johnson than Tom Cruise. But the actor seems to be starting to turn some of that negative buzz around with fans, and word from early screenings is that the movie is a muscular, taut throwback '70s-style thriller, like something that Don Siegel or Walter Hill might have made back in the day. How it holds up at the box office against more traditional four-quadrant fare is anyone's guess, but we're certainly intrigued enough to check it out, not least for the chance to see Cruise square off against the director of "Aguirre: Wrath Of God."
When? December 21st
"This Is 40"
Synopsis: Pete and Debbie, the supporting players of "Knocked Up," get their own solo outing as they face marital, parental and financial difficulties as they enter their fifth decade.
What You Need To Know: Having faced disappointing reviews and box office performance with his last film, "Funny People," Judd Apatow's gone back to familiar territory, picking up with some old characters for "This Is 40," returning to Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, along with his kids Maude and Iris, to examine the arrival of middle age. A cast of ringers has been assembled, with both familiar Apatow gang staples — Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel, Chris O'Dowd, Lena Dunham — and some newcomers, including, excitingly, veterans John Lithgow and Albert Brooks (who reportedly walks away with the movie) as the lead duo's parents. The film's been screening widely for a while, and it doesn't seem like Apatow doubters will necessarily be won over — it's apparently long, unruly, plotless and focused around the old chestnut of "white people problems." But those who enjoyed the writer-director's films to date seem to find the one of his more satisfying outings. So an acquired taste, perhaps, but in a season full of weightier fare, this may be one to scratch the comedy itch for audiences who know what they're getting themselves into.
When? December 21st
"Zero Dark Thirty"
Synopsis: A dramatization of the decade-long hunt for Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama Bin Laden, seen through the eyes of a young CIA agent (Jessica Chastain).
What You Need To Know: After flirting with "Triple Frontier," Kathryn Bigelow finally set out, with collaborator Mark Boal, to follow up her Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker" with a film about the failed hunt for Osama Bin Laden, only to find one major stumbling block; Seal Team Six caught and killed the terrorist leader. Nearly a year later, Bigelow finally got underway on her project, now with a completely different script, and the film finally hits theaters in limited release this month before going wider in January. With breakout star Jessica Chastain leading a cast that includes most of our favorite actors — Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass and a few dozen others — hopes were always high, and most reviews, including ours, suggest that those expectations have been met, with a detailed, gripping procedural that might not be for everyone, but is certainly winning over many, many fans, and should be a serious awards season player. When we reviewed the film a week or so ago, we called it "a transfixing drama, flecked with powerhouse, engaging action beats" that "will surely test casual moviegoers" due to being "dense, crushingly systematic and disciplined with a payoff that everyone already knows about." But with an extraordinary cast, not least Chastain, and Bigelow at the peak of her game, it's going to be essential for fans of "The Hurt Locker" and beyond. It's "an electric, sprawling and ambitious effort that’s easy to become absorbed by, and a picture that should impress those keen on the director’s intelligent, composed and determined brand of filmmaking."
When? Limited release on December 19th, before opening wide on January 11th.
Synopsis: A long-married pair of Parisian music teachers, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) must face life after Anne is crippled by a stroke.
What You Need To Know: For Michael Haneke, the man behind films like "Funny Games" and "The Piano Teacher," "Amour" feels like something of a sly joke. But in fact, the Austrian director's latest, the winner of his second Palme D'Or in a row after taking it for "The White Ribbon" back in 2009, is titled entirely appropriately. Starring two bona fide legends of French cinema in Trintignant and Riva, with a third, Isabelle Huppert, as their daughter, set entirely within their Paris apartment, and shot with Haneke's usual austerity, it's as bruising a watch as you might expect from the director, but also the most tender and heartfelt film he's ever made, one which has seen him win new fans. Both leads, who anchor the film, are extraordinary; our Cannes review wrote of Riva that "She is simply unbelievable… a remarkably physical performance," and at every level it's clearly the work of a master. As we closed off our review back in May we said, "'Amour' is the work of a filmmaker who isn't afraid to ask the big questions about human nature, and it seems the director has hope for us yet." Perhaps not the security blanket that some will be after over the holiday season, but an extraordinarily powerful piece of filmmaking that will surely be cinephiles' number one choice of the month.
When? December 21st
"On The Road"
Synopsis: An adaptation of Jack Kerouac's seminal beat novel, about two carefree friends traveling the U.S. in the late 1940s
What You Need To Know: Many of the films on this list have been in the works for some time, but none for as long as "On The Road" — Marlon Brando flirted with the project way back in the 1950, and Francis Ford Coppola (a producer on this take) has been developing it for decades. But it took "The Motorcycle Diaries" helmer Walter Salles to finally bring it to the screens, and after an extended time in the edit room (the film shot a few years back), it finally premiered at Cannes in May. With a cast that combines hip young gunslingers (a revelatory Garret Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge) with reliable older hands (Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard, and Salles' fine sense of period, it seems to be about as good a stab at an essentially unfilmable book as you could ask for. Our Cannes review said the movie is "scenic and episodic, full of youth's passion, but with a shade of the future yet to come dimming the brightness of its vision." Hedlund, Stewart, Mortensen and Adams all stand out, as does Eric Gautier's cinematography, and Salles pulls off a faithful adaptation. There are intrinsic problems with the material: "the film is full of things — having sex, doing drugs, being free — that are far more enjoyably experienced by one's self as opposed to watching other people enjoy them on screen," and we were left "wishing for a little less literary fidelity and a little more cinematic storytelling." But it's a more-than-respectable attempt, and one that Beat fans should appreciate more than most.
When? December 21st, in limited release
Synopsis: An English couple and their children on holiday in the Indian Ocean are torn apart by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and set out on desperate quests to find each other again.
What You Need To Know: Based-in-fact tsunami drama "The Impossible" marks the long-awaited return of Juan Antonio Bayona, who made a strong debut with 2007 ghost story "The Orphanage," and this charged, emotional drama (which seems to include some impressive effects) looks like it will once again be a picture that earns him strong attention. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts topline the film, along with three young British actors, and it looks like they had quite the tough shoot, with astonishing scenes of devastation. All that said, the film's been divisive since premiering at TIFF; it won some raves at the festival, but also some stern detractors, including our own Kevin Jagernauth, who found it "manipulative and over-the-top… there isn't an emotional beat that the director doesn't sledgehammer," and being one of many who took issue with the way the film emphasizes its European leads at the expense of Thai natives. But others have been kinder, and Bayona's first film was impressive enough that those of us who haven't seen "The Impossible" yet are up for giving him the benefit of the doubt until we get eyes on it ourselves.
When? December 21st
Synopsis: A freed slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to track down his wife (Kerry Washington) and liberate her from her plantation owners, led by the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
What You Need To Know: It's always felt like Quentin Tarantino was destined to make a Western, and twenty years into his career, he's finally made it with his eighth feature, "Django Unchained," a Spaghetti Western homage that delves into one of cinema's last great taboos — American slavery. Jamie Foxx plays the title character (with original Django Franco Nero making a cameo) with "Inglourious Basterds" Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill and more in a ridiculously stacked cast (even excluding those like Kurt Russell, Sacha Baron Cohen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who were cast but bailed for various reasons). Footage from the film has looked better and better over time, and again, while Tarantino may be unlikely to win over those left cool by his work, fans should be in hog heaven with a near-three-hour blast of violence, swagger and Ennio Morricone cuts. Let's be honest, anything else hitting this Christmas is kind of a sideshow.
When? December 25th
Synopsis: The big screen version of the hit stage musical, following a convict unable to escape his past as France simmers on the edge of revolution.
What You Need To Know: Well, almost everything is a sideshow, bar the film that looks like it'll be one of the biggest awards players this year, and a huge box office to go with it; the adaptation of stage musical smash "Les Miserables," from Oscar-winning "The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper. The filmmaker has assembled a top-drawer cast, led by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, and he's done something that's rarely done with the musical form, having the cast sing live on set, rather than lip-sync to pre-recorded vocals. It's a bold take, and Hooper's trademark visuals double up on that. The majority of the early word from screenings has been ecstatic, the film proving to be a crowd pleaser at least the size of its stage counterpart. There are certainly naysayers out there who take issue with the style, or with some of the performances, but it seems like it'll be worth a look if only to see Anne Hathaway's sure-to-win-an-Oscar take on "I Dreamed A Dream."
When? December 25th
Synopsis: A natural gas company salesman come to a midwestern rural town to try and convince its inhabitants to let his company try the controversial process of fracking.
What You Need To Know: It's been fifteen years since Matt Damon last helped write a screenplay, a surprising gap of time given that it launched his career and won him an Oscar. But finally, Damon's teamed up with "The Office" star John Krasinski, working from a story conceived by novelist Dave Eggers, for "Promised Land." Originally intended as Damon's directorial debut, overruns on "Elysium" put paid to that, and it ended up marking his reunion with "Good Will Hunting" director Gus Van Sant. An environmentally-minded Capra-esque "Local Hero"-style tale, the film also stars Rosemarie DeWitt, Frances McDormand, Scoot McNairy and Hal Holbrook, which is the kind of cast that we're always happy to buy a ticket for, and the trailer suggests a solid and sturdy kind of drama with another strong central performance from the ever-reliable Damon. Early word has been somewhat lukewarm, but between the cast, the subject matter and the always-worth-checking out Van Sant at the helm, you could do a lot worse this December.
When? December 28th