When the news of the day becomes too much to bear or you need a mental break from the hustle and bustle of Christmas, take solace in the comfort of grand cinema. Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 17, and the final batch of contenders include films from powerhouses such as Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction) David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, The Wrestler) and Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman, Babel, 21 Grams).
Youth (in theaters Dec. 4)
At the age of 77, Jane Fonda is experiencing a Hollywood heyday. She is a boardroom beast in HBO’s The Newsroom (which wrapped its final season last year). She plays one of the title characters in the Netflix hit Grace and Frankie, and her latest role in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth has critics buzzing about a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel) are lifelong friends vacationing in the Swiss Alps. As they segue into their so-called “Golden Years,” each man ponders the riddle of life. Fred refuses to resurrect his music career — despite the incessant urging of his daughter (Rachel Weisz) to get his mind and body in condition to perform for the Queen. Mick is crafting what could be his final screenplay starring his muse, Brenda (Fonda). Mingling alongside these illustrious artists is Jimmy (Paul Dano), a young actor struggling to make sense of his next performance. Each character is fueled by emotion, but the psychological perils of creativity — and the expedient nature of Father Time — are caging their inhibitions.
In the Heart of the Sea (in theaters Dec. 11)
Ron Howard captures the enchantment of wonder like no other filmmaker. Audiences soared through the passion and torment of John and Alicia Nash’s love story in A Beautiful Mind. We explored the depths of the human spirit in Apollo 13, we taste the fountain of youth in Cocoon, and we believe Allen and Madison found eternal bliss under the sea in Splash. This year he has teamed up with screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) to bring one of the most legendary works of American Romanticism to the big screen.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was inspired by the real-life disaster of the New England whaling ship the Essex as it was assaulted by a mammoth-sized whale in the winter of 1820. However, the book only tells half the story. In the Heart of the Sea depicts the aftermath aboard the ravaged ship, as the surviving crew members brave storms, suffer the wrath of starvation and battle their individual demons of despair. The ship’s captain (Benjamin Walker) searches for direction on the treacherous sea, while his first mate (Chris Hemsworth) is transfixed on conquering the elusive white whale.
Son of Saul (in theaters Dec. 18)
After winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, critics believe this Hungarian film is not just a shoe-in for Best Foreign Language Film, but it could also nab nominations for screenwriting and cinematography.
Saul (Geza Rohrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz working as a Sonderkommando — a German Nazi death camp prisoner forced to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims — when he finds the body of a boy he takes for his son. Thus begins his quest to find a rabbi to preside over a proper burial. Other workers stage an uprising when they learn of their impending extermination, but Saul remains focused on giving his son the opportunity to finally rest in peace.
The Big Short (in theaters Dec. 23)
Director Adam McKay is responsible for cult classics such as Anchorman, Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. This year he changed course and adapted Michael Lewis’ acclaimed non-fiction book into a cinematic elixir featuring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Steve Carell and Melissa Leo.
When the big banks, media and government refuse to acknowledge the pending economic collapse, a team of four outsiders (Pitt, Bale, Gosling, Carell) decide to take matters into their own hands. But, their naivety may get the best of them as their bold investment takes them spiraling into the dark underbelly of the financial system where every move is suspect.
45 Years (in theaters Dec. 23)
Writer/Director Andrew Haigh (Looking, Weekend) is an enticing storyteller who illuminates the power of love. He bucks conventional norms to reveal timely narratives of unvarnished truth, and elicits a rawness from his characters exposing the scars of passion we all carry.
Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are one week away from celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. Plans are moving along swimmingly until Geoff’s haunted past comes roaring into the present. The body of his first love has been discovered — frozen and preserved in the icy glaciers of the Swiss Alps. As details of the case are revisited, skeletons are rattled and secrets are unearthed. A successful anniversary party becomes the last thing on Kate and Geoff’s minds, while the sturdy pillars of their 45-year marriage begin to crumble.
Joy (in theaters Christmas Day)
Writer/Director David O. Russell goes with what he knows. He continually fine-tunes troupes of actors who allow his artistry to soar. His latest cinematic force reunites the tantalizing trio that made Silver Linings Playbook a smash: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. This is Lawrence’s third film with Russell, which will fortify her stance as the most accomplished actress of her generation.
Joy is a story of a family across four generations, centered around the eventual matriarch and founder (Lawrence) of a family business dynasty. Throughout childhood and into adulthood, Joy suffers lost innocence and betrayal. She escapes the tumult of being raised by her parents (De Niro and Virginia Madsen), and molds her emotional wounds into a suit of armor. Joy’s dreams for herself and her children become impenetrable as she emerges atop the high-stakes world of commerce with an empire generated by defiance and ruled with integrity. As boss of both family and enterprise, she weaves a web of entanglement where ally and adversary are interchangeable, and loyalty — both inside and outside the family — is always in question.
The Hateful Eight (in theaters Christmas Day)
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino is back in action, and the roster of stars reads as a Who’s Who of past Tarantino films: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Zoe Bell, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern. Tarantino newcomers Jennifer Jason Leigh and Channing Tatum top off the cast of illuminating characters.
This post-Civil War film noir tells the tale of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his fugitive prisoner (Leigh). While racing toward the town of Red Rock, Wyoming, the duo encounters another bounty hunter (Jackson) and a sheriff (Goggins). This unlikely team seeks shelter in a stagecoach stopover located on a mountain pass, but they are greeted with discern by four more strangers. The lodge quickly becomes a backdrop of vengeance as the eight travelers soon learn they may have reached their final destinations.
The Revenant (in theaters Jan. 8)
Leonardo DiCaprio is arguably the greatest actor of his generation, but he hasn’t received much love from the Academy throughout his career. Despite an incomparable resume spanning more than 20 years, DiCaprio has only been nominated a total of four times: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio was snubbed out of nominations for Django Unchained, Inception, The Departed, Catch Me if You Can and Gangs of New York. But The Revenant could be his game changer — critics claim this year’s Oscar for Best Actor is DiCaprio’s to lose.
Revolutionary writer/director Alejandro G. Inarritu has rebounded off the success of last year’s Birdman with a revenge odyssey about legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). While exploring uncharted wilderness with his hunting team in the 1800s, Glass is gravely wounded in a bear attack. His crew makes the decision to leave him for dead, forcing Glass to utilize every survival skill in his repertoire to find a way home to his family. Consumed by grief and fuming to avenge his honor, Glass treks through wintry terrain to hunt down John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) — the former confidant who abandoned him.
*This piece also appeared in the Loyola Phoenix.