‘Tis the season to make those must-see lists and check them twice because Hollywood is poised to present its final batch of Oscar contenders. Over the next six weeks, we will see flicks and performances from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Tim Burton and Bradley Cooper.
Wild – In theaters Dec. 5
Fresh off his success from Dallas Buyers Club (2013), director Jean-Marc Vallee returns to the screen to tell the astounding true story of writer Cheryl Strayed. Vallee has teamed up with screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education, About a Boy) to adapt Strayed’s memoir, Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. After years of living dangerously — heroin addiction, a destroyed marriage, desperate promiscuity – Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) attempts to escape her past by hiking more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Without any experience on the open trail and saddled by haunting memories of her mother and inner demons that refuse to subside, Cheryl’s only resource is her ruthless fortitude. Witherspoon delivers a raw performance that exposes the purity of a tortured soul scavenging for her lost innocence.
Still Alice – Dec. 5 (select cities)
By all accounts, Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is in the prime of her life. She’s a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University, one half of a successful, happy marriage and the mother of three grown children (portrayed by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish).
However, Alice suddenly finds herself in a perpetual state of confusion. After a trip to the doctor, she is slammed with the diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alice is forced to abandon any semblance of her previous life and battle her fate. The push and pull of her prognosis causes rifts in her marriage as her husband (Alec Baldwin) resists the necessary adjustments to their new life.
Moore returns to the power she demonstrated in The Hours, Far from Heaven and The Kids Are All Right with a performance likely to strike Oscar gold.
Inherent Vice – Dec. 12
Academy Award nominated writer, director and producer Paul Thomas Anderson has the innate ability to capture truth and consequence with quiet ease. With films such as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, Anderson uncovers the essence of humanity with a prowess unattainable by most directors. This year he has reunited with actor Joaquin Phoenix (who he directed in The Master) for Inherent Vice.
The film is a departure for Anderson as he slides into the arena of slapstick film noir with the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s acclaimed crime novel of the same name. Phoenix portrays Doc Sportello, a bumbling private eye sent on a mission by his ex-old lady to rescue her billionaire boyfriend from being thrown into the loony bin. The backdrop is the fictitious town of Gordita Beach, California, in 1970, when white supremacist bikers clashed with black power ex-cons, and former hippies meandered the streets in search of a fix. Sportello’s comedy of errors eventually lands him into the heart of a conspiracy bubbling between a flamboyant land developer (Eric Roberts) and a saxophone-playing surfer (Owen Wilson), but the gang of misfits doesn’t stop there. An all-star ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph and Michael Kenneth Williams bolsters Phoenix’s eccentric performance.
Unbroken – Dec. 25
Director Angelina Jolie’s latest film has the seductive traits Oscar finds irresistible: World War II, passion, sports and terror. Joel and Ethan Coen the writing/directing duo of such films as Fargo(1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007) adapted the film from the biography about the life of war hero and Olympian Louis “Louie” Zamperini.
Lieutenant Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is a bombadier in the United States Army Air Force in 1943. After surviving a plane crash over the Pacific, he and two crewmen are adrift in a raft for 47 days before being captured by the Japanese Navy. Zamperini is transferred between various prisoner-of-war camps before landing at the Naoetsu camp, where he suffers under the tortuous hand of prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), nicknamed “The Bird,” until the war’s end.
American Sniper – Dec. 25
Actor Bradley Cooper stars in the true story of a Navy SEAL sniper. His wife is played by Sienna Miller. And the film is directed by Clint Eastwood… I don’t need to say more, but I will.
Chris Kyle (Cooper) serves four tours of duty in Iraq on a mission to protect his brothers-in-arms, and in doing so, becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. history earning him the nickname “Legend.” Eventually, his reputation billows among the enemy, making him a prime target of the insurgents. Chris is forced to maintain grace under pressure in the field while his life back home begins to destruct from within. The Navy has conditioned this warrior to “leave no one behind,” but to which family does this mantra apply?
Big Eyes– Dec. 25
Director Tim Burton (Big Fish, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands) has joined forces with the writing duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt) to present the real-life story of Margaret (Amy Adams) and Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who rose to international fame in the ‘50s and early ‘60s with Walter’s enchanting portraits of waifs with big eyes. The dynamic duo revolutionized the wheelings and dealings of the art industry amidst the crushing lie strangling Margaret’s identity.
Selma – Dec. 25
Following her film’s premiere at the AFI Film Festival this month, director Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow) has critics buzzing about a best director nod, which would be the first ever for an African-American woman. DuVernay has recruited a classically trained stage actor from Oxford, David Oyelowo (Lincoln, Interstellar), to portray Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights marches that changed the course of history. With Oprah on board as the film’s executive producer, Tom Wilkinson (The Grand Budapest Hotel,Batman Begins) in the role of Lyndon B. Johnson and supporting roles from Giovanni Ribisi (Ted, Avatar), Tim Roth (October Gale, Pulp Fiction) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry McGuire, Men of Honor), the film is sure to entice the Academy.
Into the Woods – Dec. 25
Rendered childless by a curse from a wicked witch (Meryl Streep), a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) venture into the woods to secure four magical objects — a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold — capable of reversing their spell.
Fairy tale characters Jack (and his magic beans), Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella are interlocking characters within the film. The story investigates responsibility, the problems that come from wishes and the legacies we leave for future generations. Complete with captivating musical numbers, this tale is born of innocence before melting into a story about those tempting desires of agony and ecstasy.
A Most Violent Year – Dec. 31
How much is the American Dream worth to a man? This is the question Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) must ask himself as he struggles to expand the business of his immigrant family. Set in New York City during the winter of 1981 — one of the most violent years in the city’s history — Abel and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), test the boundaries of their virtues surrounded by the moral decay engulfing their lives.
*This article also appeared in the Loyola Phoenix.