This past year in cinema has been like many others: some good films, some bad films, everything in between, and even a few great ones. As is always the case in this last month of the year, studios and distributors have in theory saved a lot of their best for last — or, more accurately, the films that will make for the best Oscar campaigns. But even with the admittedly cynical outlook, it’s hard to deny that, even with this oncoming logjam of big titles, awards season is good for movies overall. There will be lots to choose from, and some of us will grow increasingly weary or excited as we catch up. But anything that gets the public’s focus on going to the movies and talking about them is exciting.
There’s been plenty of chatter behind the scenes at Playlist HQ of late, as the staff puts together our massive best of 2015 coverage (which already began in earnest yesterday). Expect plenty more to come on that front, along with earliest possible takes on all of the upcoming big titles. And taking an early look at our staff top 20 films of the year, compiled and ranked according to our individual top 10s, reminds us that even if you found 2015 to be worse than others, in this era where more than 600 new titles are released every year, there’s always great stuff coming out, as long as you’re willing to dig for a lot of it. Happy holidays and happy (movie) hunting folks. We’ll see you at the cinema.
Synopsis: Filmmakers discuss how François Truffaut‘s 1966 book of the same name influenced their work.
What You Need To Know: There are only a handful of truly must-own books about filmmaking. In this documentary, New York film critic and programmer Kent Jones adapts and expands upon the book of the same name that holds space in most cinephiles’ personal collection. Our Cannes review was kind to the doc, even if it does nothing out of the ordinary with the material. But what material to play with: Narrated by Bob Balaban, featuring a smorgasbord of famous filmmakers espousing their love for the text, a host of archival pictures from the days-long interview between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock as well as exclusive audio excerpts from their actual chat, this is basically catnip for film geeks. “Perhaps for anyone who has never read the book, this is a good primer… And for those of us who own our own dog-eared copies, the film provides a reason to revisit, rather than reassess. Hitchcock is essential; Truffaut is essential; the book is essential; Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut” is not quite so, but it’s a very enjoyable appendix.”
Release Date: December 2 (Limited)
Synopsis: Macbeth, a Thane of Scotland, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself.
What You Need To Know: Anyone else find it strange how muted the release is looking for this epically awesome-looking take on one of Shakespeare‘s most popular and continuously relevant plays? Well, there are reasons for it, but none of them seem good from our vantage point. The Weinsteins are backing their surer bets for Oscar campaigns (“Carol,” “The Hateful Eight“) and thus shifted this Justin Kurzel (“The Snowtown Murders“)-helmed adaptation to their genre department, Radius-TWC, along with a deal with Amazon that will see the film streaming on their Prime service after an almost definitely brief theatrical run, even with stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard leading the way, and strong notices out of Cannes this year (we called it a “remarkable movie, a scorched-earth rendering of a classic story that achieves importance without tipping into self-importance”). Our writers on the ground must’ve known in advance that it would be mistreated up on release. Just take a look at our feature, written not long after the premiere, listing 5 innovations over previous incarnations. When The Playlist goes to bat for a film, you should pay attention. Move fast if you want to see this “Macbeth” in theaters.
Release Date: December 4 (Limited)
Synopsis: A modern-day adaptation of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.
What You Need To Know: As hit-or-miss as he is as a director, Spike Lee is still a draw and worth seeking out — especially when he’s in incendiary mode, as it appears he is with his latest, “Chi-Raq.” Our review just dropped, and right from the off, Rodrigo Perez makes it clear that “It’s been difficult to be an apologist in the last few years” with his mostly failed efforts commercially and critically (if you somehow forgot about his two Hurricane Katrina docs and his fiction features “Inside Man” and “25th Hour“). “Bold and provocative as you might expect, “Chi-Raq” is Lee’s most vital narrative in over a decade. However, this is also a relative term; the director’s latest joint is still maddeningly uneven, didactic and sloppy; [it] only occasionally lives up to its reputation as Lee’s return to form.” Even still, the themes and politics in Lee’s sights here are truly important, and need to be discussed, so consider us excited even with the divisive reviews.
Release Date: December 4 (Limited)
Synopsis: A modern adaptation of “One Thousand And One Nights” divided into a three-film epic set in Portugal.
What You Need To Know: Now here’s a trilogy worth obsessing over. Super-cool Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes (helmer of the great “Tabu” from 2012) has returned with this loose adaptation of the famous tales that’s a beautiful hybrid of TV and cinema. When he saw it at Cannes, Oliver Lyttelton went understandably nuts for the whole 6+ hour affair. “It’s all pretty universal, and it’s not like the director is single-minded in his themes anyway. For all the film’s politics, ‘Arabian Nights’ can also be whimsical, swooningly romantic, inspiring, fascinating, or deeply sad.” The Euro auteur has an innate talent for picking just the right music, and all the parts deepen into a wonderfully satisfying epic whole. Gomes pulls off one helluva trick: modern slow ‘art’ cinema as grand fable. If the ever-shrinking gulf between long-form TV narratives and punchier movie ones continues in this vein, we all stand to benefit.
Release Date: (NYC only: VOLUME 1, ‘The Restless One’ December 4 / VOLUME 2: ‘The Desolate One’ December 11 / VOLUME 3, ‘The Enchanted One’ December 18)
Synopsis: A retired orchestra conductor is on holiday with his daughter and his film-director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.
What You Need To Know: After winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 2013’s “The Great Beauty,” writer/director Paolo Sorrentino has followed up with another film about an aging artist taking stock of his life. But within those broad similarities, he seems to be having fun, as is his cast (we’re particularly fond of the chemistry between Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel). Our review from the Cannes premiere was less enthusiastic but still found some elements worth championing. “When everything operates at such a high pitch, when each successive scene feels like it’s a climax or a conclusion, early on you simply abandon the attempt to discern any sort of rhythm or flow or overarching meaning. But still, those vignettes and images and hallucinations parade past your eyes like models preening on a catwalk, so it’s all you can do to sit in hasty judgement on each successive wannabe — Bravo! Boo! Boo! and so on.”
Release Date: December 4 (Limited)
“In The Heart Of The Sea”
Synopsis: Based on a 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home.
What You Need To Know: Word’s been mostly quiet for this kinda-awesome-looking whaling adventure, based on the true story (and adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick‘s book “In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”) that went on to inspire Herman Melville‘s classic “Moby Dick.” The release date has been shifted around, landing now in a confident mid-December slot but also one that puts it dangerously close to being completely wiped out by some tough competition. But the trailers so far have been strong, and seeing director Ron Howard shifting away from the more by-the-numbers prestige biopics and awful Dan Brown adaptations he’s been into of late is a good thing in my book. Lead Chris Hemsworth has yet to prove he can carry a non-Marvel movie, but he’s a movie star through and through (he just needs the movies to actually back it up). I love a good lost-at-sea adventure, and with digital effects able to conjure some amazing sights when it comes to the whale attacks, that’s more than enough to get me in the theater. Will audiences follow suit?
Release Date: December 11
“The Big Short”
Synopsis: Four outsiders in the world of high-finance who predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s decide to take on the big banks for their lack of foresight and greed.
What You Need To Know: The big news surrounding this star- and cameo-laden Wall Street takedown is that Adam McKay, director behind many Will Ferrell comedic gems (“Anchorman,” “The Other Guys“), has made a scathing and (gasp!) mostly dramatic piece of work. It’s good to see a filmmaker get the chance to expand his/her artistic horizons, especially when the reviews in advance have been mostly strong. We caught it at AFI Film Fest recently, and our review made it clear there’s a lot to like from this new effort: “In adapting ‘Moneyball‘ author Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, it’s clear McKay has achieved his “Inception” — a studio-backed reward after a string of comedic hits like ‘Anchorman’ and ‘Step Brothers.’ He dabbles in genuine irreverence, political energy, and a formal inventiveness here that is a delight to see, and a constant surprise. To be certain, it’s a drama first with laughs throughout, but few other political dramas this year will feature Jenga as a plot device, use celebrity cameos as pointed commentary (go in unspoiled), or soundtrack a scene with Mastodon followed by the theme from ‘Phantom of the Opera.'”
Release Date: December 11 (Limited; Wide December 23)
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas and set 30 years after “Return of the Jedi.”
What You Need To Know: Come on, there’s really nothing more we can say that matters at this point. Its box-office take will be huge (in other news: the sky is blue) but will it be good? You’re either going to see it, or you’ll be one of the few who don’t. The discussion really starts when it hits screens. See you then.
Release Date: December 18
“Son Of Saul”
Synopsis: In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son.
What You Need To Know: “Depicting the Holocaust on screen has always been a prickly matter,” our Cannes review stated right at the top. “Over time, filmmakers became more confident in attempting it: sometimes sensitively and successfully (‘The Pawnbroker’, ‘Schindler’s List‘, obviously ‘Shoah‘), sometimes in ways that felt crass and exploitative (‘Life Is Beautiful‘). ‘Son Of Saul‘, the first feature from Hungarian director László Nemes, and the rare first feature to premiere In Competition at Cannes, is a much more serious attempt at portraying the Holocaust, and though it has a few elements of its construction that might be questionable, it’s mostly a powerful, thoughtful, and visually striking picture.” Though Oliver Lyttelton found some issues in the very particular visual style of this powerful film, I didn’t share the same reservations. It’s a uniquely visceral, intense piece of cinema in the vein of the ’80s Russian masterpiece “Come and See,” but also stylistically modern in its use of video-game aesthetics and the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio to put the viewer in the perspective of its lead character. It’s a unique take on a tired subgenre, and an experience you won’t soon forget.
Release Date: December 18 (Limited)
Synopsis: In the week leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary, a couple receive an unexpected letter which contains potentially life-changing news.
What You Need To Know: Many of the top brass in Playlist HQ are citing this as their favorite film of the year, which is great because it’s a relatively small, but no less vital and well-made, film compared to a lot of others on this list. We caught the premiere at Berlin this year, and Jessica Kiang in her review made it clear she had strong feelings for this right away. “Andrew Haigh [the excellent “Weekend” and short-lived HBO show “Looking“] has given Charlotte Rampling the best role of her life, has given the Berlin International Film Festival its first unqualified success [of the year], and has given me my first great film of 2015. And he has done all that wrapped in a movie so simple, so elegant, and yet so devouringly empathetic that you might not notice its full magic until a few hours later.” It is indeed a strongly acted and gorgeously lensed week-long tale of a couple in their twilight years, all the better for avoiding histrionic melodrama and instead hitting many subtle moments that lead to a tough, but honest, conclusion. It’s a distant but moving examination of a long life lived together and the secrets that can stay buried for most that time.
Release Date: December 23 (Limited)
Synopsis: In the 1820s, a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, sets out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling.
What You Need To Know: Ever since the trailer dropped, “The Revenant” became an almost instant must-see. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu follows up his Oscar-winning ‘Birdman‘ (taking home three trophies himself) with this harrowing-looking survival/revenge period piece. In the lead is heavily bearded Leonardo DiCaprio — gaining Best Actor steam after early Academy screenings this past week — as Hugh Glass, a man out for vengeance in a frozen 1820s American landscape after his partner (Tom Hardy) leaves him for dead following a bear attack. Much of Iñárritu’s usual team behind the scenes worked on this big-budget project, most importantly DP Emmanuel Lubezki (winner of the last two cinematography Oscars for “Gravity” and ‘Birdman’), who’s one of the first to utilize the ARRI’s new ALEXA 65 camera, the first of its kind in the digital cinema world (aka 6K resolution touted as comparable to 70mm film). The film quickly ballooned over budget during a difficult and much-publicized shoot on location in the South American and Canadian wildernesses. But based on those amazing trailers, the money looks to be all on the screen and worth every penny. This one can’t get here soon enough.
Release Date: December 25 (Limited)
“The Hateful Eight”
Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?
What You Need To Know: Speaking of 70mm, we have Quentin Tarantino‘s latest opus, a western shot on an aged film format (Ultra Panavision 70, giving an unusually wide aspect ratio) with a dynamic cast, most of them a who’s who of Tarantino regulars (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Zoë Bell, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins) and a few newbies (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum). Not much is known yet about the finished film beyond some enticing details: the run time will be about three hours, with an overture and intermission (the 70mm version of the film will also have 6 additional minutes of footage); genius Italian composer Ennio Morricone made a new original score for the film; most of the action takes place in one location, a haberdashery. It appears to be a nice bridge between the indie sensibilities of his early work like “Reservoir Dogs” and the big-budget size and epic scope of his more modern work. Any time Tarantino releases a new film, it’s cause for celebration — but this special 70mm engagement, which will run two full weeks before opening wide in theaters across the county (mostly projected on digital by then), really gets to what he’s about as a filmmaker. Deeply nostalgic for bygone, lost eras of cinema — a time when people used to go out to the movies for their evenings, not just use it to kill two hours before moving on to the next thing — it’s exciting to see him double down on a near-dormant technology with the hope of giving it new life. It’s a risky proposition for him, but if the film’s a hit and good, it will all be worth it.
Release Date: December 25 (Limited, 70mm roadshow only. Check local listings or here for a list of theaters screening on 70mm)
Synopsis: The story of a family across four generations and the woman who rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family-business dynasty.
What You Need To Know: David O. Russell has, with his last three films, completely reversed his reputation and career in Hollywood. Now every time he releases a new film, like this latest, a story about the real-life woman who invented the Miracle Mop and created a business dynasty, it’s automatically near the top of the projected Oscar contenders in its release year. Actors keep going back to work with him (Jennifer Lawrence is top billed and looking ace in the role, her first chance at carrying a Russell film on her shoulders) and his last three movies have all gone on to Oscar wins and big box office. It’s almost hard to remember that during his “Three Kings” (a masterwork, one of 1999’s best films) and “I Heart Huckabees” (still misunderstood and underrated) days, he was considered difficult to work with (there’s a long history and even video footage of his temper tantrums). Massive success has a way of changing perceptions. Russell has always been a vital voice, but now that audiences and the industry have caught up, we just hope he keeps doing his thing and making good films. “Joy” looks more focused and epic than “American Hustle,” based on trailers.
Release Date: December 25 (Limited)
Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.
What You Need To Know: Will Smith vs. the NFL, anyone? “Concussion” looks like just the kind of project that Smith used to propel himself into the serious-actor realm right around the early- and mid-2000s with “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” And though it does look like a compelling and important story to tell, one can’t help but feel this may just get buried in this busy movie season. Or not? Americans do love their football (not as much as the cinema though, it’s worth stating), but will they want the more downer storyline that focuses on the mental and physical toll the athletes endure and the behind-the-scenes lack of care from the highest offices of the league? That remains to be seen. For now, it looks like it’s either Smith’s chance at being taken seriously again (after an absence in front of the camera and a few box-office duds) or a movie he should’ve made and released during another, less busy time of year. Hopefully, it’s just worth your time, at the very least.
Release Date: December 25
Synopsis: A man crippled by the mundanity of his life experiences something out of the ordinary.
What You Need To Know: Either everyone who’s seen the latest from genius Charlie Kaufman and his co-director/stop-motion guru Duke Johnson is experiencing some form of mass hallucination, or “Anomalisa” really is a true masterwork. Starting as a play and funded in part by Kickstarter, it took Kaufman a while to put this together. Apparently it was worth the wait. It was snatched up by Paramount for a big sum after premiering at Telluride and almost immediately set up for its late December Oscar-qualifying bow. Our effusive review was part of the chorus: “More than once now Kaufman has posited that life is a slog, a difficult struggle, and the crushing weight of existence can be an overwhelming burden on the psyche. But the delightfully downcast and sometimes masterful ‘Anomalisa’ proves there is more than one way to skin a similar cat, and the unbearable darkness of being can still radiate glimmers of beauty.”
Release Date: December 30 (Limited)
Who wouldn’t want to spend the holidays with Bill Murray? According to Netflix‘s Sofia Coppola-directed “A Very Murray Christmas,” a whole bunch of other famous people may not make it to his TV Christmas special during a nasty snow storm in New York. Not to worry, though; it looks like loads of fun, and it’s good to see Coppola and Murray back together again. It’s supposed to screen in a few theaters, though details have not yet been confirmed; but we know for sure it’ll be on Netflix December 4.
“Sisters” is not, thankfully, a remake of Brian De Palma’s classic ’70s film, but instead a reunion of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in a comedy where they play…you guessed it, a coven of witches—err, I mean, sisters, of course. These two are always great together, but hopefully the movie is worthy of their talents and comedic chemistry.
A few films flying under the radar from European auteurs: Wim Wenders‘ latest narrative work, “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” was shot in 3D (by genius DP and Gaspar Noe regular Benoît Debie) and stars James Franco, Rachel McAdams and Charlotte Gainsbourg. “Life” is the story of photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who took pictures of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) that made the cover of Life Magazine. It’s directed by Anton Corbijn (“Control,” “A Most Wanted Man“).
There are some more comedic efforts to maybe make time for as well: “Daddy’s Home” reunites Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, so good together in “The Other Guys,” for a domestic comedy. “Don Verdean” is the latest from Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite“) and starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan and Jemaine Clement.
And not so much in the comedy realm, even though they could be unintentionally hilarious: The “Point Break” remake is coming, whether you like it or not. “Krampus” is a Christmas-themed horror flick about a demon unleashed on a family’s home. Drafthouse Films’ “The World Of Kanako” should be worth tracking down, given the company’s track record for putting out good left-field films.