Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel
Winter is a great time to be a movie lover: The weather outside is frightful, but the films inside promise to be delightful -- or at least well made, thought provoking, and entertaining. (Yeah, it's tough to call the violent revenge movie Out of the Furnace or the Afghanistan-set war drama Lone Survivor delightful). From blockbusters like Disney's animated smash Frozen and the sure-to-be hilarious Anchorman 2 to Oscar hopefuls like Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell's American Hustle, here's the scoop on the hottest cinematic tickets this winter.
Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesIn Theaters: Nov. 27
The Buzz: Disney has a hit on its hands with this animated musical, about spunky princess Anna (Kristen Bell) who goes on a quest to find her sister, Elsa the Snow Queen (Idina Menzel), whose power to turn everything she touches to ice has plunged the kingdom into eternal winter. In its first 12 days in theaters, the movie earned a staggering $134 million and, in its second week of release, toppled The Hunger Games: Catching Fire from the top perch at the box office. Here's why: Frozen has received overwhelmingly positive reviews and a rare A+ CinemaScore grade (how audiences rate movies); it features two strong female heroines, a dreamy mountain-man love interest (Jonathan Groff), and a goofy snowman sidekick named Olaf (Josh Gad), who harbors a weird fondness for summer and just might have Frosty beat in the lovability department; and it boasts gorgeous animation, as well as plenty of show-stopping Broadway-esque musical numbers. Just one small warning: If you take your little ones to see Frozen, be fully prepared to listen to the soundtrack (which has climbed to No. 4 on the iTunes charts) on repeat until the spring thaw.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Courtesy of CBS FilmsIn Theaters: Dec. 6 (limited); Dec. 20 (expands)
The Buzz: The latest film from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen follows couch-surfing musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he struggles to make it in Greenwich Village's budding folk-music scene during one fateful week in the winter of 1961. A bearded Justin Timberlake costars as the best friend whose wife (Carey Mulligan) may be pregnant with Llewyn's love child (oops!). And, yes, all three of them sing live in the film, which boasts the legendary T Bone Burnett as music producer. "We didn't want Oscar to lip sync it," Ethan Coen told The Hollywood Reporter. "You can tell." Luckily, the Julliard-trained Isaac was up to the challenge, and it shows: The finished product has drawn glowing reviews from critics and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Isaac. Could an Oscar nod for Oscar be next?
Out of the Furnace
Kerry Hayes/Relativity MediaIn Theaters: Dec. 6
The Buzz: Most reviews for this bleak revenge drama — in which Christian Bale plays a blue-collar ex-con on a mission to hunt down the meth king (Woody Harrelson) responsible for his brother's (Casey Affleck) disappearance — agree on two things: It doesn't live up to the potential of its exceptional cast, and it's still worth seeing because the actors, especially Bale, deliver powerful performances. Here's what critic Richard Roeper had to say on the matter: "One hesitates to dive into the reference bag to say 'a young Brando' when lauding a performance, but Bale is that good here. That GREAT here." Even more impressive is that Bale achieves this greatness not through dialogue, but by silently conveying his character Russell's inner struggle... which is why the actor wrote down Russell's thoughts to prepare for the role. "I think that when you're playing more stoic, more quiet characters like this, you know, no one is ever just sitting and thinking nothing. Everybody's thinking something," he told On the Red Carpet. "It's just whether they chose to verbalize it or not... And the quiet characters, they're having a conversation in their head all the time."
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
NEW LINE CINEMA/THE KOBAL COLLECTIONIn Theaters: Dec. 13
The Buzz: The second movie in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy finds wizard-warrior Gandalf (Ian McKellan), unlikely hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and his equally diminutive dwarf companions continuing their quest to reclaim the dwarves' treasure and home from the fearsome dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Diehard LOTR will either be psyched — or mortified — to see that Orlando Bloom's bow-wielding elf Legolas plays a major role in the film (his character never appeared in J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit), as does his butt-kicking love interest Tauriel (Lost's Evangeline Lilly), a brand-new character created to add a strong female presence to the series. A self-professed Tolkein purist, Lilly herself initially had her doubts about the role — but ultimately came around. "The reaction will be the reaction," she told Entertainment Weekly. "It is scary. I’m touching wood right now, but I actually believe [Tauriel is] going to become a favorite. She is a bit of a breath of fresh air in many ways. And I don't think that's ever a bad thing in any story."
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Courtesy of Paramount PicturesIn Theaters: Dec. 18
The Buzz: If you've been trapped in a glass case of emotion for the past nine years, eagerly anticipating a sequel to 2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, your release is imminent. Everyone's favorite mustachioed 1970s news anchor (Will Ferrell) and his rabble crew of colleagues — including Paul Rudd's "Sex Panther"-wearing man on the street Brian Fantana, David Koechner's sexist sportscaster Champ Kind, Steve Carrell's simple-minded, trident-wielding weatherman Brick Tamland, and Christina Applegate's sassy co-anchor Veronica Corningstone — are finally back for more off-the-wall antics. When we catch up with Ron and co. this time around, they've all hit rock bottom... until they reunite to help launch a 24-hour news channel in 1980s New York City. If the film is half as inspired as the promotional blitz (the cast recently had a hilarious showdown with One Direction on Saturday Night Live, while Ferrell-as-Burgundy has anchored a local North Dakota newscast, interviewed Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on ESPN, appeared in a slew of Dodge commercials, and even announced the Olympic curling trials), we're all in for a treat. So until Dec. 18... stay classy, America!
Courtesy of Warner Bros. PicturesIn Theaters: Dec. 18 (limited); Jan. 20 (wide)
The Buzz: We rely on our mobile devices for so much, it's sometimes like we're having a love affair with them — at least that's the way Adaptation) director Spike Jonze sees it in his latest film. Set in the near future, Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as a soon-to-be-divorced writer who falls in love with the sultry, smart, funny Samantha... who happens to be the voice of his computer/smartphone operating system (quite understandable since Scarlett Johansson provides said voice). Sure, the plot sounds like it could be a two-hour add for Apple, but before you start cracking Siri jokes, do yourself a favor and check out the trailer, which strikes the perfect balance of heartbreak and hope as the characters struggle to connect in this crazy age in which we live. "On one level, the film is about technology and the way we use it to try and connect," Jonze told Entertainment Weekly, "but it's also about this moment and the way we're living our lives." Also strong pluses for the film are supporting turns by Amy Adams and Rooney Mara, and a soundtrack by Arcade Fire. Also a good sign: Weeks before its release, Her is already racking up awards, nabbing a spot on AFI's list of the top 10 films of 2013, taking best picture of the year and best director honors from the National Board of Review, and winning best director and best picture (tying with Gravity) from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Siri, can you say "Oscar contender"?
Francois DuhamelIn Theaters: Dec. 20 The Buzz: Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and The Fighter costars Christian Bale and Amy Adams reteam with acclaimed director David O. Russell for this tale based on the FBI's 1970s ABSCAM operation. Bale, almost unrecognizable with a real gut and comb-over, and a firecracker Adams, flaunting more accents and skin than ever before, play a con duo (and lovers) who — after being nabbed by a hotshot agent (Cooper, sporting a sweet, sweet perm) — are forced to help the Bureau take down crooked New Jersey politicians (including Jeremy Renner) and Miami mobsters. Lawrence plays Bale's disenchanted housewife, who gets entangled in the whole thing. As if the stellar pedigree, out-of-control '70s hair and clothing, and wins for best picture and best supporting actress (for Lawrence) from the New York Film Critics Circle weren't enough of a draw, there's also the matter of a steamy kiss... shared by Lawrence and Adams. "Well, I feel like Jennifer really made that contribution," Adams told reporters at the film's New York press conference. "I came up with the idea, but she executed it in a way that felt driven purely from character. It didn't just feel like a moment where two girls are going to kiss onscreen — it felt emotional." Hey, however you want to sell it, Amy.
Saving Mr. Banks
Ruby Films/ The Kobal CollectionIn Theaters: Dec. 20
The Buzz: One film legend portrays another in this movie about the behind-the-scenes struggle to adapt Mary Poppins from book to big-screen hit, with two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks mining his deep reserves of charm to play Walt Disney. Fellow two-time Academy Award victor Emma Thompson has already won for her turn as prickly Poppins author P.L. Travers, who fights Disney tooth and nail to make sure Hollywood doesn't bastardize her beloved book. This resulted in some pretty epic battles between the two — which required both actors to bring their A-game every day. "It's not a casual tennis game at the club on a Saturday, it's actually the Wimbledon Finals," Hanks told the NY Daily News of the pair's onscreen fireworks. "You've got two people they've got their spins, their lobs, their backhands, they have an entire mental game that they have prepared." Early reviews suggest that all that gamesmanship made for a final product that is utterly super (califragilisticexpialidocious).
August: Osage County
Courtesy of The Weinstein CompanyIn Theaters: Dec. 25
The Buzz: Meryl Streep plus Julia Roberts in an adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a no-brainer Oscar-bait formula if ever there was one — so it's no surprise that the buzz for this unabashedly melodramatic film is off the charts. Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis play the strong-willed Weston sisters, who return to the rural Oklahoma town where they grew up when their father (Sam Shepard) disappears. Streep plays the dysfunctional matriarch of the clan, whose explosive emotional and physical battles with her onscreen daughters have been a focal point of the film's marketing campaign (see the hilarious poster). While the conflict makes for riveting entertainment, Roberts says those intense scenes — including the one in which she tackles Streep — weren't exactly her favorite. "It was definitely terrifying to anticipate, but once we were doing it, it was so correct and it was so necessary for this powder keg that's bound to go off at some point that it was pretty gratifying," she told ABC News. "I was glad when it was over though."
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Courtesy of 20th Century FoxIn Theaters: Dec. 25
The Buzz: Ben Stiller directs and stars in an adaptation of James Thurber's beloved 1939 short story, which was made into a hit Danny Kaye film in 1947. Stiller's big-budget, effects-heavy update follows a gentle Life Magazine photo editor (yep, Stiller) who escapes the mundaneness of his everyday life by imagining himself in wild adventures that take him from outer space to the North Pole. But when the search for a lost negative sends him on a globetrotting quest, he gets to live out those fantasies — in a sense, having his dreams come true. While Stiller is known for outlandish, not-so-realistic comedies like Meet the Parents, Night at the Museum and Zoolander, he wanted the tone of Mitty to strike a different chord. "We wanted to create a world that was sort of real but also in its own world a little bit," he said at a press conference after the film's premiere, "[with] a tone that you felt... you could believe it could happen even if it's a little bit hyper-real."
The Wolf of Wall Street
James Devaney/WireImageIn Theaters: Dec. 25
The Buzz: The latest collaboration between legendary director Martin Scorsese and acting powerhouse Leonardo DiCaprio had us hooked from the moment we saw Leo flaunt his stellar '90s-era dance moves in the trailer. Of course, there's a lot more bite to Wolf than that. The film documents the real-rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a crooked stockbroker who made millions upon millions through securities fraud in the '90s — and it appears that Scorsese had a ball capturing that period of Wall Street excess: ginormous yachts, lavish, cocaine-fueled pool parties, professional dwarf-tossings in the office (yep, that's in the trailer too), and playing garbage-can basketball with rolled-up hundred dollar bills. Dwarf-launchings aside, DiCaprio sees Belfort as somewhat of a spiritual companion to his bootlegging tycoon in The Great Gatsby and his loathsome slave owner in Django Unchained. As the actor told Entertainment Weekly, "They're all deeply American stories about wealth and the ways in which these men try to hold on to and achieve that wealth." Originally slated for a Nov. 15 bow, the film was pushed back to give Scorsese more time to fine-tune the edit; judging by Wolf's recent inclusion in AFI's top 10 films of '13, the extra time was a good investment.
EMMETT/FURIA FILMS/ENVISION ENTERTAINMENT/FILM 44/THE KOBAL COLLECTIONIn Theaters: Dec. 27 (limited); Jan. 10 (wide)
The Buzz: Based on Marcus Luttrell's best-selling memoir, Lone Survivor tells the harrowing real-life tale of a botched 2005 Navy SEAL operation to neutralize Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch star as the four heroic SEALs who are tasked with "Operation Red Wings" but instead find themselves ambushed by 140 Taliban when their position is compromised. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) doesn't pull any punches in depicting the SEALs' brutal battle for survival, with an epic 40-minute sequence that rivals the opening of Saving Private Ryan in its ferocity, carnage and ambition. When all was said and done, a total of 19 U.S. soldiers had lost their lives in the operation (including 16 sent to rescue the initial four), something that got Wahlberg worked up during a Q&A after the film's Nov. 12 premiere. "It just really upset me that those guys were never gonna see their families again," the actor said, according to The Wrap. "For actors to sit there and talk about, 'Oh I went to SEAL training,' and I slept on the — I don't give a f*** what you did. You don't do what these guys did. For somebody to sit there and say my job was as difficult as somebody in the military's. How f***ing dare you."
Jack Ryan: The Shadow Recruit
Courtesy of Paramount PicturesIn Theaters: Jan. 17
The Buzz: Tom Clancy's CIA hotshot Jack Ryan is back for a fifth go-around, but he won't be played by Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October)... or Harrison Ford (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger)... or Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears). Nope, the mantel has now been passed to Star Trek star Chris Pine for a reboot that, unlike previous Ryan movies, isn't based on a Clancy novel. Instead, Shadow Recruit goes back to the drawing board to tell Ryan's origin story, with Keira Knightley playing his future wife, Kevin Costner as his CIA mentor, and director Kenneth Branagh (who last helmed Thor) as the shady Russian oligarch who just might be trying to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack. While most modern spy movies feature heroes who kill baddies without a second thought, told Cinema Blend that his Jack Ryan isn't one of them: "Ken [Branagh] and I talked about that in the beginning of the process thinking, well, what would that look like? If there was a bad guy and the good guy kills the bad guy, but even still, it's like, you've just killed a human being and what does that mean and how does that effect the person?" Wonder if James Bond thinks about that stuff...
The LEGO Movie
Courtesy of Warner Bros.In Theaters: Feb. 7
The Buzz: The CGI LEGO Movie follows Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt), an ordinary LEGO mini-figure who's mistaken for the extraordinary Master Builder and recruited to stop the evil tyrant Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from gluing the universe together. Joining Emmet on his quest are the spunky young Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), sage mystic Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, naturally)... and Batman (Will Arnett). Also appearing in the greatest-hits ensemble of LEGO figurines are Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders, a solid choice), Superman (Channing Tatum) and Green Lantern (Jonah Hill). It's sure to top the must-see-movie list of every kid in America in 2014, and — if the hilarious trailer (we're loving the "Everything Is Awesome" theme song) is any indication — it might just captivate adults as well.
The Monuments Men
Coutesy of Columbia PicturesIn Theaters: Feb. 7
The Buzz: Originally thought to be a huge contender at this year's Oscars, this star-studded film directed and co-written by George Clooney had to be pushed from its plum late-December release so that the special effects could be finished. It promises to be worth the wait. Based on Robert M. Edsel's 2009 nonfiction book about the daring Allied missions during WWII to rescue art masterpieces looted by the Nazis, the film — which stars Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Daniel Craig, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin among others — aims for that sweet spot right on the knife's edge of drama and comedy, and aspires to be a throwback to superb ensemble war movies like The Great Escape. "It's got stars in it. It's got a big score by Alexandre Desplat. It's got a lot of epic shots," Clooney told Entertainment Weekly. "So it'll remind you of all the war films from the '50s and '60s and '70s that we liked so much." With a top-notch cast, history's biggest baddie in Hitler, and that compelling based-on-real-events hook that the Academy loves, Monuments Men might still have its moment in the Oscars sun — just a year later than originally planned.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. PicturesIn Theaters: Feb. 14
The Buzz: If you haven't read the beloved 1983 Mark Helprin novel upon which this film is based, chances are the trailer for Winter's Tale will leave you scratching your head... and wanting to see it. Here's the gist: Irish thief Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) falls in love with a dying woman named Beverly (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay) in 1916 Manhattan, gets pushed off a bridge by gang leader Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), and ends up in present-day Manhattan with no memory of who he is. Enter Jennifer Connelly to help him figure the whole thing out. A longtime passion project for Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the film marks his directorial debut — and, despite no evidence in the trailer, also features Will Smith in a supporting role — so expect it to be a little bit more substantial than the usual romantic Valentine's movie fare.
Courtesy of TriStar PicturesIn Theaters: Feb. 21
The Buzz: Think of this as Titanic on dry land... with an erupting volcano instead of an iceberg. Directed by Resident Evil helmer Paul W.S. Anderson and set in 79 A.D., this effects-driven period piece follows badass gladiator/slave Milo (Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington), who wants nothing more than to win his freedom so that he can marry his true love Cassia (Sucker Punch's Emily Browning). Game of Thrones' Jon Snow's alter ego got all buffed out for the role — and even pumped iron in between scenes while filming. "You feel like a bit of a douche, because they've got like 100 extras, and I'm there going [mimes bicep curl]," Harrington told Hit Fix. "But you know, it's an action film, where I've got my arms out the whole time, so I have to try and look tough." We'd love to say, "You know nothing about being tough, Jon Snow" — but it seems like he does.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
In Theaters: Feb. 28
The Buzz: Everyone's favorite sexagenarian action hero — that'd be Liam Neeson, of course — stars in this twisty thriller that's part Diehard, part Ten Little Indians, with a touch of Downton Abbey tossed in for good measure. During a flight from New York to London, U.S. federal air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) begins getting text messages from someone threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until the government forks over $150 million. When the gung-ho texter starts making good on this lethal promise, Marks teams up with the nice lady in the seat next to him (Julianne Moore) and the pretty flight attendant (Michelle Dockery, adding the aforementioned pinch of Downton) in a race against time, a bomb and a frame-up (the bank account for the ransom money is in Marks' name — twist!) to figure out who the murderer is before everyone onboard joins the "six feet under while a mile high" club.