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Holiday Movie Cheat Sheet: What New Releases to See and Skip This Season

Holiday Movie Cheat Sheet: What New Releases to See and Skip This Season

Even if you can’t find a theater near you that’s playing “The Interview” this week, this is still one of the most crowded holiday release schedules in recent memory. If you only look at the newest titles opening on Christmas Day, it might be easy to forget the large volume of movies that opened earlier this year. But at Indiewire, we spend much of our time sifting through a crowded marketplace to find the best options anyway, so this is a pretty standard challenge.

READ MORE: The Best Films and TV Shows of 2014 According to Indiewire’s Staff

Read on for a rundown of the movies opening this week and some analysis — from this perspective of this critic, anyway — on whether you should commit time to them over the long weekend and ahead of the new year. 

American Sniper” (Opens Wide on December 25)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Based on the memoir and wartime experiences of former marine Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the movie follows Kyle through a series of tours in Iraq as he deals with split-second decisions behind the scope of a gun; meanwhile, he attempts to be a supportive husband to his pregnant wife (Sienna Miller). It’s a tough, dour look at the various moral and practical challenges both on the battlefield and off it, the sort of thing one might expect from 84-year-old director Clint Eastwood.

SHOULD I SEE IT? Overall, “American Sniper” is a satisfactory thriller with some intriguing observations about the pratfalls of American duty and the disillusion experienced by many soldiers when they return home. From its very first scene, the movie enacts a first-rate state of suspense that more than makes up for Eastwood’s misfire earlier this year with “Jersey Boys.” That being said, the largely humorless plot grows monotonous after a while and the tension dissipates during the especially grim final act. But Cooper delivers a stern, focused performance that ranks among his best to date — in the same year where he played an animated raccoon named Rocket in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” no less — and the battle scenes are grippingly staged. It’s no “Hurt Locker,” but anyone seeking a tense examination of war’s various paradoxes won’t be let down. However, if you’re just looking for an intense drama, consider the next option first.

A Most Violent Year” (Opens in Limited Release on December 31)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Set in Long Island in 1981, writer-director J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to “Margin Call” stars Oscar Isaac as a heating oil mogul whose business is threatened by a string of robberies. Together with his fiercely supportive wife and accountant (Jessica Chastain) as well as a no-nonsense lawyer (Albert Brooks), Isaac’s character battles to track down the people responsible for his predicament while fending off a probing district attorney (David Oyelowo) curious about Isaac’s own finance sources.

SHOULD I SEE IT? If you’re in the mood for expert storytelling with a suspenseful edge, you can’t do much better than this. With just three features, Chandor has proven himself an eloquent chronicler of American survival stories, and “A Most Violent Year” is his most elegant feat yet: An old school New York crime movie in which the source of the crime is continually in the shadows. Aided by cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot Christmas Day opener “Selma,” which stars Oyelowo) and some first-rate performances by Isaac and Chastain, “A Most Violent Year” delivers an energizing narrative in which Isaac’s struggle to stay afloat becomes infectious. (There’s some first-rate chase scenes, too.) Channeling vintage Sidney Lumet, Chandor’s gripping story is at once a lively tale of combating deceit and a more intimate look at the ills of capitalism. 

Big Eyes” (Opens Wide on December 25)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Tim Burton directs this biopic about the experiences of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose domineering husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit for her distinctive work throughout the sixties while forcing her to continue painting in secret. Eventually, Margaret took Walter to court, where the judge ordered them to a painting duel in the courtroom.

SHOULD I SEE IT? Tim Burton completists obviously have no choice, but “Big Eyes” is a pretty tame effort any way you slice it. While it’s technically exciting to see Burton return to the realm of intimate character studies for the first time since 1994’s “Ed Wood,” the 20 year wait doesn’t justify the hype. A well-intentioned and resolutely minor period drama, “Big Eyes” isn’t exactly a catastrophe, but its bland depiction of a fascinating story perhaps better served by the documentary treatment shows no evidence of the visionary creator behind the camera.

“The Gambler” (Opens Wide on December 25)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) directs this straightforward remake of the 1974 film starring James Caan. Here, Mark Wahlberg takes on the lead role as a struggling professor who must hustle to make enough money from gambling to repay his debt to gangsters before they kill his girlfriend.

SHOULD I SEE IT? Why bother? The original is available is available on Netflix. That being said, “The Gambler” may not be a total waste of your time if you’re looking for a pretty basic distraction and can tolerate Wahlberg reaching for dramatic extremes. As Michael Nordine puts it in our review, Wyatt “directs with less reckless abandon than his protagonist but a similar lack of angst. For all the hundreds of thousands of dollars being thrown around, ‘The Gambler’ is much closer to a friendly game of poker with some loquacious, quick-witted friends than a glimpse at the gambling world’s dark underbelly.” One possible bright spot: With Brie Larson as the girlfriend in question, the movie also provides an excuse to see the “Short Term 12” breakout star working her way into the studio game.

Into the Woods” (Opens Wide on December 25)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical follows a series of fairy tale characters, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, in a series of overlapping stories set in a magical kingdom. It’s here that an evil witch (Meryl Streep) orders a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) to carry out her bidding with the promise that she’ll give them a child.

SHOULD I SEE IT? Eh, if you’re a Sondheim fan, your mind is already made up. The melodies remain intact, while dazzling camerawork elevates the material beyond its stage roots, but it’s basically the same material boiled down to two hours. It’s mostly family-friendly and consistently easy viewing. But that’s only a recommendation if you prioritize those qualities. Marshall’s directing credits don’t sparkle much beyond his work on “Chicago,” a snazzy production that owed much to the music. “Into the Woods” is another respectful ode to its source, but feels constrained by its roots: There are so many overlapping stories that it’s hard to feel particularly invested in any one of them.

“Leviathan” (Opens in Limited Release on December 25)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s haunting epic, which won the screenplay award at Cannes and was recently shortlisted for the Academy Award, unfolds place in a remote Russian village where daily tragedies take on a Biblical quality. The story follows an auto-repairman struggling to save his home from a corrupt mayor hoping to take it over for construction.

SHOULD I SEE IT? It’s not an uplifting experience, but it’s some of the best filmmaking you’ll see at the movies this year. Zvyagintsev has assailed Russian society from the inside out with “Elena” and “The Return,” but none of his preceding features reached the heights of the dark, probing inquiry on display in this beautifully layered narrative. It’s a relentlessly grim experience, but cinematically miraculous, with echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky in its swooning camerawork and probing inquiries into human nature. Like a sprawling novel, “Leviathan” is a deep trip worth the commitment.

“Selma” (Opens Wide on December 25)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Ava DuVernay directs this depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery to protest unequal voting rights. David Oyelowo plays King. The project, which took several years and multiple directors before coming to fruition, has been gathering awards season momentum since early November.

SHOULD I SEE IT? It’s kind of a no-brainer given the climate. In the wake of Ferguson, the Eric Garner protests and other headlines pertaining to police brutality, the scenes in which King and his followers face down with white Alabama police officers undeniably contain a provocative topicality. But that wouldn’t mean much if the movie didn’t work on its own. Fortunately, “Selma” delivers on that front as well: It’s a fascinating look at King’s backroom strategy in his plan to get President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to take action against states making it virtually impossible for black citizens to vote. Oyelowo’s performance is extraordinary: It simultaneously brings the iconic quality of King’s voice from countless speeches to life — even though the ones in the film are scripted — while grounding the character in reality. One scene between him and his wife (Carmen Ejogo) when she confronts him about his infidelity balances off the more dynamic crowd sequences, resulting in a movie that’s at once in tune with familiar historical tropes and willing to peer behind its beaming historical foundation. The narrative isn’t perfect — some of the dialogue is on the nose and the story occasionally meanders. But as a whole, “Selma” manages the rare trick of saluting activism while magnifying the process that makes it succeed. More than that, it reignites the energy surrounding King’s legacy and places it firmly in the present. 

Two Days, One Night” (Opens in Limited Release on December 24)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“La Promesse,” “L’Enfant,” “The Kid with A Bike”) direct Marion Cotillard in this jittery real-time tale in which a woman battles to save her job over the course of a tense weekend: She must convince her employers to vote in her favor rather than accepting bonuses.

SHOULD I SEE IT? It’s an ideal pairing: The Dardennes don’t make bad movies and Cotillard rarely gives bad performances. The filmmakers have never worked with an actress of her caliber before — they usually use unknown quantities — but the gamble paid off, because the actress meshes with the material to mesmerizing effect. From the first scene to the final one, the Dardennes’ roaming camerawork works in congress with Cotillard’s delicate performance to convey the anxieties of seeking job security as her confidence falters. With her supportive husband at her side, Cotillard’s character battles not only to find more supporters of her cause, but also to uncover the stability she needs to confront the task at hand. It’s a thriller about working class struggles: Think “High Noon” by way of Frank Capra and you’re on the right path to ideal holiday season material. It didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, and absolutely deserved to make the cut, so consider a ticket to the Dardennes as a protest vote.

Unbroken” (Opens Wide on December 25)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT? Angelina Jolie directs this WWII survival tale about the recently departed Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a former Olympic champion who became a Japanese prisoner of war during the war. The movie tracks Zamperini’s 47 days at sea following a disastrous plane crash as well as his extreme duress as a POW, where he went head to head with a menacing Japanese lieutenant (pop star Miyavi).

SHOULD I SEE IT? Zamperini’s story has made the rounds in Hollywood for decades, so there’s a certain historical value in seeing the project finally come together. After all that, the plot is fairly conventional and loses steam during its final act, when Zamperini’s valiant perseverence is a little overplayed. Nevertheless, Jolie’s confidence in the material and Roger Deakins’ extraordinary cinematography mean that “Unbroken” never suffers from a lack of polish; it’s a big, old-fashioned wartime survival tale with some terrific set pieces, particularly the gripping sequences set at sea. Jolie, whose directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey” was unjustly ignored by most audiences, shows nearly as much potential for grand gestures behind the camera as she has in front of it. Don’t expect a masterpiece, but “Unbroken” delivers an elegant Hollywood epic of the kind we don’t see too much these days. 

READ MORE: Amy Adams on Making ‘Big Eyes’ and Being a ‘Try-Hard’

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