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15 Films To See in December

15 Films To See in December

December at the movies is not unlike a log jam. Distributors squeeze any film that has even the slimmest of Oscar potential onto at least a screen or two in New York and L.A. for a qualifying run. So please forgive for us for being curt, but we have a lot of titles to go through this month. The only other context you need is as follows: the smaller, more adult, and typically indie and foreign films on this list are in need of far more attention than the others, so if any of them sound of interest, we recommend you not waste time in seeing them if that’s a possibility where you live. They won’t last long in cinemas. 

It’s looking like a solid finish for an already strong year cinematically. There’s but only a few titles left to be screened for critics before 2014 is put to bed, and then we have months of awards campaigning to get us through the early days of a new year. Make sure to chime in if we forgot any good films worth seeking out.

Synopsis: A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe.
What You Need to Know: Fox Searchlight is all but ready to ante up with its very high chip count of award friendliness: “Dallas Buyers Club” helmer Jean-Marc Vallée looks back at home in a similar edgy-lite, based-in-truth hopefulness; Reese Witherspoon giving a “brave,” unvarnished performance; Nick Hornby adapts Cheryl Strayed’s Oprah-approved bestselling memoir. No doubt “Wild” comes seemingly pre-packaged for Oscar glory. Not too fast, though, as our Telluride review found that the film “never really earns its hard-fought struggle for redemption and personal reinvention.” However, it should be noted that plenty of other critics have found much to praise.
Release Date: December 3rd.

Zero Motivation
Synopsis: Female Israeli soldiers are posted to a remote desert base and spend their time pushing paper until they can return to civilian life.
What You Need to Know: Our A- review out of Telluride name-checked other military satire classics like ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ “M.A.S.H” and “Stripes,” but does “Zero Motivation” do more than just present a possible cinematic first (following Israeli female soldiers)? A resounding yes, it would seem: “A surprisingly insightful coming-of-age tale, utilizing the milieu of the military to look at desire, loneliness, identity, fitting in and many aspects of everyday complex female life (we’ll bet you anything someone like Lena Dunham is gonna turn up as a huge fan). Perhaps most significantly, ‘Zero Motivation’ is the discovery of an exciting new original voice in cinema, who happens to be really funny, intelligent and female. We can’t wait for more.”
Release Date: December 3rd.

Miss Julie
Synopsis: Over the course of a midsummer night in Fermanagh in 1890, an unsettled daughter of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy encourages her father’s valet to seduce her.
What You Need to Know: Acting legend (and Bergman favorite) Liv Ullmann returns to the director’s chair for the first time in nearly 15 years with this adaptation of the infamous play by August Strindberg. Starring the near-ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and the always welcome Samantha Morton. Our B+ TIFF review ended by stating, “Ullmann’s version of ‘Miss Julie’ exists in a special cinematic category; it’s toxic, it’s hypnotic, and passionately translates Strindberg’s genius instinct for enlightening the multi-layered psychological spectrums of human desire for lust and power. It’s unforgettable in every sense of the word.”
Release Date: December 5th

Inherent Vice
Synopsis: In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.
What You Need to Know: Uhh, do the letters P, T and A mean anything to you? If you’re a Playlist regular, chances are you wait with bated breath for every new film from the modern master (like us!). He continues to evolve and carve out his unique style with every new work. “Inherent Vice” is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon‘s stoner detective novel. It’s a charming, funny mix of ’70s era paranoia, weed humor and mystery (don’t expect a coherent narrative: not what this movie is about, folks). If Anderson nailed the tone of the book, the film should come off as “The Long Goodbye” meets “The Big Lebowski.” According to our review, he did: “Big, wonderfully oddball, sometimes confounding and beautiful, ‘Inherent Vice’ supplies good dosages of stoner giggles. But its doobage is potent and reflects some heavy ideas you’ll need to unpack and meditate on for a long while.”
Release Date: December 12th

Top Five
Synopsis: A comedian faces a crossroads in his life.
What You Need to Know: Managing Editor Kevin Jagernauth listed this as one of his top (5, wink wink) films from this year’s TIFF. Amongst all the praise in his review from the festival, he also drew highfalutin comparisons to the work of Richard Linklater and Eric Rohmer, while also categorizing this latest work in the vein of recent work by Louis C.K., Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow. “While there are many meta layers to ‘Top Five,‘ it avoids the trap of simply being a celebrity vehicle about celebrity by displaying a surprising heart beneath its very funny surface.”
Release Date: December 12th

Winter Sleep
Synopsis: A former actor runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his young wife, with whom he has a stormy relationship, and his sister who is suffering from her recent divorce. As the snow begins to fall, the hotel turns into a shelter as well as an inescapable place that fuels their animosities.
What You Need to Know: To a very particular brand of cinephile, Turkish writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) is something of a deity in world cinema. His leisurely style was practiced by the late, very-great Andrei Tarkovsky and other similarly patient and painterly modern auteurs like Carlos Reygadas and Andrei Zvyagintsev. A Cannes favorite for more than a decade now, this latest work won him the Palme d’Or. This writer found it to be his best, most immersive film to date, despite the 3 hour, 15 minute runtime, with some of the most incisive character work and dialogue (some scenes last for 30 minutes!) of an already very strong movie year. Though Jessica Kiang found it less-than agreeable to her taste, we’d argue it’s well worth your time. Just make sure you know what to expect before you take the plunge.  
Release Date: December 19th

Mr. Turner
Synopsis: An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner‘s life.
What You Need to Know: Despite being something of a rarity in the filmography of British master filmmaker Mike Leigh, known more for his modern kitchen sink dramas than sweeping historical biopics (though he did find great success with 1999’s “Topsy-Turvy”), “Mr. Turner” is nonetheless a bold, beautiful piece of work that also gives character actor great Timothy Spall a leading role worthy of his particular talents. Oli Lyttelton in his review out of Cannes focused in particular on the film’s look: “It’s not often that you describe Leigh’s work as a feast for the eyes, but between the photography and the immaculately detailed, lived-in production design, that’s very much the case here.”
Release Date: December 19th

The Gambler
Synopsis: A literature professor/high stakes gambler runs afoul of a loan shark and his bodyguard-like gangsters while he has an affair with one of his students.
What You Need to Know: A remake of the James Caan-starring, James Toback-scripted film of the same name from 1974 sees Mark Wahlberg learning the hard way when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Written by Oscar winner William Monahan (“The Departed”) and directed by ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise starter Rupert Wyatt, whose underseen but quite good 2008 film “The Escapist” looks more analogous to this crime tale. Our review out of AFI Fest was lukewarm, but there are some around The Playlist water cooler who liked it more.
Release Date: December 19th

Two Days, One Night
Synopsis: A young Belgian mother discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job.
What You Need to Know: You should seek it out and watch it immediately. “Two Days, One Night” sees the beloved Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne in top form with one of their best films to date (which is really saying something). This time out, the pair has a bonafide movie star in the lead with Marion Cotillard (if the Academy overlooks her for this role, it’ll be a huge mistake). Her character must endure one test of character after another in what is easily the most emotionally-satisfying, nail-bitingly tense and suspenseful films of the year. By the end credits, it’s sure to leave you in a puddle of your own tears. Our Cannes review was spot-on: “It’s nothing as simplistic as a happy ending, but it couldn’t be more uplifting and affecting, and we left the theater with our hearts nearly bursting.”
Release Date: December 24th

The Interview
Synopsis: The host and producer of a popular celebrity tabloid TV show land an interview with Kim Jong-un, but the CIA recruits them to assassinate the North Korean dictator instead.
What You Need to Know: No reviews as of yet for this fresh breath of comedy in this ultra-serious and uplifting holiday movie season. We’re just hoping leads James Franco and Seth Rogen can re-capture the glory of “This is the End,” a wonderful special effects comedy that was also directed by Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg. Fingers crossed it’s at least insane and often funny, taking the ridiculous premise and doing something ballsy with it.
Release Date: December 25th

Synopsis: Chronicling Martin Luther King’s famous march of civil rights that changed history.
What You Need to Know: “‘Selma’ is vital correspondence, filmmaking lived on the streets where brutal facts were ignored then reported, and now snatched back from history to sustain a spirit few films can or will possess. It is stunning humanistic cinema on a mainstream scale, made by a group of unconventional artists.” Damn. The opening sentences of our “Selma” review mark it as a must-see. Indie director Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”) seemed an unconventional choice to helm a biopic about MLK Jr., but appears to have been a wise one. Star David Oyelowo has been doing fine work in all kinds of films (see him now in “Interstellar” and later in “A Most Violent Year”), but now gets a great shot at leading man glory.  
Release Date: December 25th

Synopsis: A portrait of the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II.
What You Need to Know: This film is destined to be in the awards conversation, with its based-in-truth, hopeful story of overcoming adversity, Angelina Jolie makes her sophomore directorial feature, completing a year that saw her release the highest grossing movie of her career in “Maleficent” this summer. Leading man Jack O’Connell is destined to be a star, based on nothing else except his electric performance in this year’s sadly underseen but all around terrific “Starred Up.”
Release Date: December 25th

American Sniper
Synopsis: The true story of the deadliest Navy S.E.A.L. sniper in history.
What You Need to Know: Clint Eastwood’s “Nation’s Pride”? Most likely doubtful, as the legendary actor and filmmaker is not one to get super jingoistic in his work, but he‘s certainly not afraid to question how it can be misguided and re-appropriated by others agendas (just look at his WWII double feature “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letter From Iwo Jima”). Our review from AFI Fest even called it a spiritual sequel to ‘Flags’: “[Bradley] Cooper [gives] a convincing portrait of a hero to fellow soldiers and a slowly cracking soul at home. Eastwood wisely trains the camera on Cooper’s face and keeps it there — he knows his actor can carry the story’s emotion when other aspects fail it. Four or five stunning sequences, including an intense firefight finale set during a sand storm, prove Eastwood still has his own capable handle on cinema as well.”
Release Date: December 25

Synopsis: In a Russian coastal town, a man is forced to fight the corrupt mayor when he is told that his house will be demolished. He recruits a lawyer friend to help, but the man’s arrival brings further misfortune for him and his family.
What You Need to Know: Already name-checked in the above “Winter Sleep” entry, Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev (“The Return,” “Elena”) is one of the best filmmakers working today. In a more just world, his films —all of them austere, gorgeously rendered takes on familiar genres, but for the most part all modern day noirs— would be unmissable events. With this latest work (the Russian submission for the Foreign Language Oscar), he took home the Best Screenplay award at Cannes (some say it was close to taking the big prize from “Winter Sleep”). The script is dense, layered and filled to the brim with complexity and real pathos. “Leviathan” is one of the year’s very best films, in a way like a filmic Russian take on “The Wire.” Our A grade review said as much: “If there was ever any doubt as to Zvyagintsev’s position as one of world cinema’s foremost auteurs, it’s put to rest here. His filmmaking has always been superb, but he’s never taken on the state of his nation in the way he does here. And that makes ‘Leviathan’ not just masterful but also hugely important.” Don’t miss it!
Release Date: December 31st

A Most Violent Year
Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.
What You Need to Know: A throwback of sorts, talented upstart writer/director J.C. Chandor’s (“All is Lost,” “Margin Call”) latest is complex and for adults who want smart cinema. In a way, it’s a crime epic, but that’s mostly just on the surface. Another A grade review from the Playlist had nothing but positives to bestow on the film: “‘Margin Call’ was about people who had all the money in the world, until they didn’t; ‘All is Lost’ was about an expert seaman who had total control of his journey until he lost it. ‘A Most Violent Year’ feels like that vertiginous moment when you may have tipped your chair too far back, but extended to two hours. [It] asks you to watch and listen and pay close attention; it also rewards that investment with subtle, real pleasures and provocations. Set in that messy place where crime, business, law and politics intersect — which is to say, the real world — “A Most Violent Year” is a slow-burn drama about what kinds of compromises you’ll make in order to tell yourself you haven’t compromised.” 
Release Date: December 31st

Honorable Mention & More:
This month is stuffed more than the Thanksgiving turkey you spent the last week digesting, so of course there’s plenty of big blockbuster fare like “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies,” Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and Disney’s “Into the Woods.” But you know about them already. There’s also Tim Burton‘s latest, “Big Eyes,” which we hope is better than his output from the last decade-plus.

Stranger and more off-the-beaten path fare is out there for the more curious and hard-working cinephile. “Goodbye To All That” is a favorite of several on the staff; “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles” should be catnip for any fan of the legendary auteur; and weirdo Japanese director/actor Hitoshi Matsumoto (“Big Man Japan”) has a new one called “R100” that we can’t wait to see. And Sergey Loznitsa (“My Joy”) has a documentary coming about the Ukranian protests, called “Maidan.”

Happy movie watching folks, and a happy new year! Let us know what you’ll be seeing in the comments. Thanks for reading. 

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