After a packed October filled with plenty of great films, November feels lighter and as a result slightly easier to navigate between the must-see and the must-miss. So it’s no surprise that this month sees a deluge of prestige awards contenders making their way to screens as the Oscar race heats up. I can vouch already for “Foxcatcher,” a legitimately excellent film that should be a big awards contender (even if it’s a huge bummer, more on that below), but what of the others?
We’ve already seen most of the films described below at various festivals, so consider this list as our homework turned in early. We’re pretty confident rather a lot of money will go to the inevitably massive grosses for a few of the blockbusters coming shortly (one of which made by a guy who’s last name rhymes with rollin). Though the year is winding down, there’s still so much to come out that we feel like our head might explode like that poor guy in “Scanners.” Alas, good problems to have. Let us know if we forgot any titles worth check out.
Synopsis: With humanity’s time on Earth coming to an end, a team of explorers undertakes the most important mission in history; traveling beyond this galaxy to discover whether mankind has a future among the stars.
What You Need To Know: Christopher Nolan. McConaissance. Big budget, original, space-set science fiction. IMAX. What more do you need? All the pre-release hype and distracting, extraneous noise aside—film vs. digital debates, multiplex owners upset with its unique release, the almost inevitable Nolan backlash (our review was not kind to “Interstellar”)— we can’t see this soon enough.
Release Date: November 5th on Imax and 35mm, November 7th wide.
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Synopsis: A documentary concerning one of the great museums of the world: The National Gallery in London.
What You Need To Know: Compared to his last theatrically released doc, “At Berkeley,” which ran a butt-numbing yet never boring four hours and four minutes, documentary legend Frederick Wiseman’s latest clocks in at a cool 180 minutes and is comparatively a brief walk in the park. Our man at Cannes this year loved ‘Berkeley’ and enjoyed “National Gallery” enough to grant it a B+ grade, even calling the two films companion pieces and the filmmaker’s latest “the most nourishing example of cinematic brain food you’ll have all year.” Sure, it’s an “eat your vegetables” film, but Wiseman’s work is not to be tossed aside as dry, lifeless documentaries. His immersive, observational filmmaking style, in which he drops the audience into the setting free of explanatory cards or talking heads, is compelling stuff.
Release Date: November 5th
“Big Hero 6”
Synopsis: A special bond develops between plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax and prodigy Hiro Hamada, who team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes.
What You Need To Know: Our intrepid festival covering machine, Jessica Kiang, for whom there is no distance too far to keep her from seeing a film, was lucky enough to catch the world premiere of Disney’s latest CG animated release at the Tokyo Film Festival. She liked it well enough, highlighting the cross-cultural qualities of the movie but also pointing out the conjoined corporate interests at play (this is after all an adaptation of a Marvel comic property). All business details aside, it sounds like a right good time at the movies for the family. Kiang even admitted to shedding a few tears at times, something we at The Playlist—a tough-to-please, highly suspect hive of black-hearted cynics— always appreciate. If you can get our tear ducts gushing, well then, something’s working. By no means a perfect movie according to the review, but nonetheless one that “clearly has had lots of care lavished on almost every aspect of its conception and execution, and to echo a weighted phrase frequently returned to, to various levels of heart-tugging effect: with ‘Big Hero 6’ I am satisfied with my care. You, and any bright-eyed moppets of your acquaintance, probably will be too.”
Release Date: November 7
“The Theory of Everything”
Synopsis: A biopic about the relationship between famed physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane.
What You Need To Know: Lest you forget, it’s awards season, so it’s no surprise that a lot of the “heavy hitters,” like this latest narrative work from Oscar-winner James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), feature traditional elements common to awards bait: biopic regarding a troubled/tortured genius; a love story that endures physical/mental hardship; a physically demanding performance from the lead. This was one of the key films discussed in a recent podcast about festivals and reductive Oscar narratives, and though the film, which sounds an awful lot like “A Beautiful Mind, part deux,” does fall right in the Academy’s wheelhouse of inoffensive/inspiring “serious” filmmaking, our review at TIFF looked past these obvious, surface-level issues, managing to find several things worth praising even though it will likely “disappoint diehard fans of Hawking’s science” as it focuses more on the love story than his career: “The film is a boilerplate biopic, but with stunning cinematography and a couple of fierce performances, [it’s] nothing if not an accomplished and emotional work of cinema.”
Release Date: November 7th
Synopsis: This film tells the true story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born, London-based journalist who ran afoul of the Tehran establishment while covering the 2009 presidential election for Newsweek, and was imprisoned and tortured for more than 100 days.
What You Need To Know: “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart makes his feature directorial debut with Gael Garcia Bernal in the lead role. Our Telluride review was tough but fair, even theorizing that “you could almost picture the film as Stewart’s make-good for getting Bahari locked up, since it’s strongly suggested that a comical interview segment Bahari participated in on ‘The Daily Show’ was a principle reason he was accused of being an American spy… In the end, maybe it’s not so surprising that Stewart has made his debut with a feature this earnest, one laden with just barely enough humor to keep critics from accusing him of completely abandoning his ironic sensibilities, since Stewart’s nightly causticity on Comedy Central is obviously a thin veneer overlaying deep reserves of idealism. And, you know, God bless a passion project, especially one that succeeds in large measure in removing the veil over a part of the world that may have as many interesting ideological divides as our own, public lockstep or no.”
Release Date: November 7th
Synopsis: Based on the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler whose relationship with sponsor John du Pont and brother Dave Schultz would lead to unlikely circumstances.
What You Need To Know: Director Bennett Miller has many big fans in these parts, and for good reason. His last two efforts, “Capote” and “Moneyball” were both strong works from a serious and intelligent filmmaker, both moving well past their Oscar bait traits and instead proving that good films can be made despite the above. Still, “Foxcatcher” is a huge step up for Miller. Never a showy director, here he dives deep into bleak and tragic subject matter with impressive results. In many ways an allegory for modern America, Miller and his three outstanding leads (Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo all deserve nominations, if not a win) commit to a story that we know has no happy ending. There’s a largeness to the themes here, but it plays out as intimately as possible, so when tragedy strikes at the end, you really feel it. Nary a false note comes across in its totally engrossing 2 hour, 15 minute runtime, and by the end you’re left feeling ill by a horrible, unnecessary crime committed. We predict it will be the “Zero Dark Thirty” of this year: up for plenty of Oscars, critically praised and appearing in countless top 10 lists, the subject of many think pieces, but almost surely it will win nothing. It’s unafraid to point out our shortcomings as a country. But fear not, it’s really something, and with foggy, atmospheric cinematography to boot (some of the best looking landscapes ever committed to film appear in this film) it’s a beautiful, grand story that should be seen on a grand canvas.
Release Date: November 14th
Synopsis: A claim jumper and a pioneer woman team up to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa.
What You Need To Know: Tommy Lee Jones’ second directorial feature film (he’s made two TV movies as well) sees him working in the Western genre again, but this is set in a more traditional period setting and adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout. Jones stars alongside Hilary Swank —three Oscars between the two of them, for those counting at home— in a tale that at least feigns an interest in feminist perspective for a genre that hasn’t always portrayed women fairly. Oli Lyttelton, who caught it at Cannes, had his qualms about the picture but ultimately called it “an odd enough bird that it’s more than worth the watch,” and opined that “Jones, if nothing else, remains a confident director: it nods more to John Ford (and a little John Huston: ‘The African Queen’ is an obvious touchstone too) than more contemporary takes on the genre, but the old-school classicism suits the material, and Rodrigo Prieto’s photography is never less than gorgeous.”
Release Date: November 14th
“Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1”
Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen is in District 13 after she shatters the games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta and a nation moved by her courage.
What You Need To Know: After the first two entries proved to be big cash cows and received better than expected, sometimes glowing reviews, this first half of the final chapter of the trilogy of books that’s now a quadrilogy of movies may finally stop being the underdog on its way to even more record-breaking at the box office. Director Francis Lawrence is back after his very successful work on ‘Catching Fire’. This is probably the perfect material for this director. Sure, it’s predestined to be a huge hit, but the main thing is not to screw up what many fans already consider to be great material. Lawrence already proved he can do that in this universe, so we imagine he’ll satisfy the die hards and even the casual moviegoers looking to stay hip to the next big zeitgeist-overtaking phenomenon. Oh yeah, this little-known, totally underrated actress, Jennifer Lawrence —maybe you’ve heard of her? She’s in it too.
Release Date: November 21st
“The Imitation Game”
Synopsis: English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.
What You Need To Know: The other film of note that came up during our fall festival podcast, “The Imitation Game” won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where three of the last six winners have gone on to take the Best Picture Oscar (two others were nominated). Beyond its award possibilities, how is, you know, the actual movie? Playlist editor in chief Rodrigo Perez caught the premiere at Telluride Film Festival this year, and he respected the movie, which stars superstar Benedict Cumberbatch, more than admiring it: “Uneven, but still occasionally resonant, the movie of course reminds us of not only the longtail damage of secrets and lies, but the heartbreaking personal cost endured by Alan Turing. And it’s some of these small moments where the movie feels poignant and not just capably absorbing. Crowd-pleasing and rousing, the movie’s winning third final act will definitely render the picture as solid contender in awards season. ‘The Imitation Game’ is entertaining and well-crafted, but one still can’t help but wish the drama had a bit more bite and nerve throughout.”
Release Date: November 21st
Synopsis: A young couple, Kaia and Andrew, are renovating Kaia’s secluded family estate. Their lives are violently disrupted upon the unexpected arrival of her sister Christine and her fiancé Ira.
What You Need To Know: We almost forgot about this one, but a late reminder from the Editor-In-Chief before going to post secured it a slot on this list. Having caught it at Sundance, Rodrigo Perez found much to admire in this quiet tale of bubbling tension. A healthy portion of his review focuses on budding talents of indie actor Brady Corbet (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), who co-wrote “The Sleepwalker” with director Mona Fastvold. Indeed he’s one to watch, a fearless actor who seeks out difficult roles (“Simon Killer” was one of my top 10 films of last year) while developing an impressive slate of his own projects. “Something is definitely percolating for actor/screenwriter Brady Corbet. Having written the similarly disquieting ‘Simon Killer’ with Antonio Campos and now ‘The Sleepwalker’ with Fastvold, one gets the feeling that Corbet is on the verge of emerging as a unique and fascinating voice in indie cinema…,” Perez wrote. “Years later, we may look back on this film as the beginning of an artistic collaboration we now cherish.” Consider us sold already, but if you need more convincing: “Featuring an opaque, evocative and haunting ending,” this film is “darkly mysterious and extremely accomplished first feature.”
Release Date: November 21st
Synopsis: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
What You Need To Know: Our latest podcast was devoted to the state of the horror genre right now, and this one came up several times as a can’t miss. But why is it coming out in November, after Halloween and also during a very crowded prestige market? Doesn’t make much sense, but then again distribution is a tough game, so maybe smarter folks in charge know something we don’t. The late November release seems like a big vote of confidence for its prospects. We can’t see this soon enough, especially after our review from Sundance called the Aussie horror pic “a terrific examination of the terrors of childhood, the isolating nature of single motherhood, the traumas of grief and the horrors of raising monstrous children.” This feature directorial debut from Jennifer Kent has been finding success at every festival stop and at Park City we called it a “smart, respectful horror that puts character and emotional issues first, yet never at the cost of a delightful and haunting fright. In a movie industry that throws cheapie, found-footage horrors into theaters every quarter to quickly make a buck, ‘The Babadook’ is an increasingly rare breed that should be championed and cottoned to.”
Release Date: November 28th
Honorable Mentions & More:
Because there’s just never enough space to write about everything coming to cinemas this month that looks at least watchable, here’s a brief and final rundown of some others to look out for. We almost forgot to mention Iranian genre piece, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” which Drew Taylor called a new vampire classic in his review (hat tip to our first commenter on the post). We hope that “Escobar: Paradise” is at least better than the fake movie that Vinnie Chase made in “Entourage,” but we may be too generous with that sentiment. “Bad Turn Worse,” which we liked when we caught in 2013 and it was called “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” is a solid Texas-set crime thriller.
Lots of tinier but no less worthy titles are coming too. Brazilian coming of age tale “The Way He Looks Now” makes use of Belle and Sebastian tracks to deepen its story of young love. “Actress” is an indie worth seeking out. “Death Metal Angola” is a doc that looks at, well, the title says it all. “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” stars Joe Swanberg, and director Josephine Decker’s debut feature also screened at Berlin this year, called “Butter On the Latch.” Amir Bar-Lev‘s documentary about the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, “Happy Valley,” sounds compelling too.
Playlist favorite Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”) gets another starring vehicle in “Beyond The Lights.” And director Richard Linklater gets a doc about his career so far in ‘21 Years Later’. “The Better Angels” has a strong cast and is produced by Terrence Malick. Elijah Wood’s small but prolific horror shingle drops “Open Windows,” this time with Nacho Vigalondo at the helm and starring Wood plus Sasha Grey. “V/H/S: Viral” is sure to have at least one good short in the mix.
Lastly, “Dumb and Dumber To”… any one? Hello? “Samsonite, I was way off!”
Happy movie watching folks!