We’re steadily working our way through the year’s hottest upcoming properties. We kick things off with the movie that probably has the greatest on-paper odds of being an awards juggernaut nine months from now.
Director: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Domnhall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Garret Hedlund
Plot: The story of Olympic long-distance runner Louis Zamperini. As a member of the United States Air Force, he was shot down during WWII and survived many days at sea, only to be thrown into a Japanese POW camp.
Pros: Well, in terms of prestige, it has just about everything going for it. The story looks to involve the glorious camaraderie of sport, the agonies of war, and the inspirational tug of a survival tale. If told right, this could be a rousing tear-jerker with a fascinating historical figure at its center. Angelina Jolie is just about the closest approximation of royalty that America has, and her husband, King Brad the Benevolent just won his first Oscar for producing 12 Years A Slave. Could Jolie follow it up with an award of her own? She recently debuted some footage from the film’s war scenes at CinemaCon in Las Vegas barely 48 hours ago, and word is that it all looked pretty impressive.
Cons: Jolie is still very untested as a director and her debut film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, apparently had a lot of self-important conviction and not a whole lot else. The middlebrow feel of this project reminds me a lot of her fellow heartthrob-turned-director George Clooney, who has had middling directorial success despite picking scripts that look safe on paper. I foresee a similar fate for Jolie unless she can make her hero’s tale into something truly interesting and literate. The slate of actors is also far from a slam-dunk. Jai Courtney is most well-known for co-starring with Bruce Willis in the terrible A Good Day to Die Hard, Garret Hedlund did nothing to elevate the tedious Tron: Legacy, and Domnhall Gleeson has done little of note besides playing one of Ron Weasley’s brothers. Jolie will not only have to make her story snap, but will have to coax great performances out of some very green talent.
#39: Pawn Sacrifice
Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Robin Weigert
Plot: Tobey Maguire (pictured above auditioning for the lead role in 1980’s Zombie Beach Party) stars as American chess champion Bobby Fischer, around the time of his legendary match with Boris Spassky.
Pros: There are some great character actors in this cast: Live Schreiber, Robin Weigert, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg. And chess is one of the most ancient, mentally stimulating games out there. It’s survived the test of time. When did we realize how damn smart computers are? When they beat us in chess! It should certainly be possible to make an interesting dramatization about the way chess legend Bobby Fischer played the game, in much the same way that Aaron Sorkin and Bennett Miller managed to make baseball trades exciting in Moneyball.
Cons: The problem is making things more exciting isn’t really Edward Zwick’s thing. He likes some action but he also likes making that action stately and a little pompous, as in Legends of the Fall. Don’t get me wrong, I have an enduring soft spot for Legends, but if you’re looking for someone to reinvent the way we see history, Zwick probably isn’t your man. Also, among such a remarkable list of actors, why cast the tepid Maguire in the lead role? Did Edward Zwick even watch The Great Gatsby? Because I will never unsee the almost psychotically bland ineptness of that performance.
Director: Jean-Marc Valee
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
Plot: A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe.
Pros: I loved Into the Wild, and we might be due for another great self-reflective odyssey film. Witherspoon has not been impressive in quite some time, but a solo turn like this could be just the showcase she needs to vault herself back into contention with the finest young American actresses. A decade of mediocrity can never erase Tracy Flick from my heart! On top of that, Jean-Marc Valee directed last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, which won two acting Oscars and earned a Best Picture nomination. If he can work his magic with actors for a second consecutive time, it’s entirely possible that he could be back in the Oscar hunt at this time next year.
Cons: Then again, I wasn’t all that impressed with Dallas Buyer’s Club, and I thought that the direction was the weakest element of that film. Valee may just be a journeyman director who helmed a strongly acted issue drama ably enough to keep it afloat. This time there does not appear to be a big, capital-I issue tied to the film, so it will probably have to succeed solely on what Witherspoon and Valee bring to it. Valee hit a nice single with Dallas Buyer’s Club, but I need to see him actually knock a film out of the park before I predict success on his name alone. And once again, when was the last time Reese Witherspoon even gave a good performance? Wait, I’m looking it up. Okay, yeah, she hasn’t been good since 2005’s Walk the Line, when she won the whole thing. I’d love to see a comeback, but I’m not betting on it just yet.
#37: How To Train Your Dragon 2
Director: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, America Ferrera
Plot: While on one of their adventures, Hiccup and his dragon Toothless discover a secret ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider. The two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace of Berk.
Pros: I loved 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon because it was subtly heart-warming, beautifully visualized, and had one of the most cathartically thrilling scores of recent years. My girlfriend loved it because Dreamworks modeled Toothless the dragon after a cat rather than a dog, which is a rarity for CGI animals who are not cats. Best of all, with the one-two punch of 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, it proved that Dreamworks had deeper and more moving films in them than the deathless Shrek franchise led me to believe. Sequels are risky business, but I love the original so much that I have nothing but the fondest hopes for it.
Cons: It’s thrilling to see a sequel that surpasses its predecessor (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Toy Story 2, The Godfather II), but the reason for that is it’s a special, occasional treat, like having waffles with ice cream for dinner. More often than not, sequels do not improve upon or even live up to the originals. Just look at the last time Dreamworks pulled this exact move, and then try to remember if you actually finished Kung Fu Panda 2 before passing out on the couch.
#36: The Fault In Our Stars
Director: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern
Plot: A girl and boy fall in love through their cancer support group.
Pros: Shailene Woodley is following up a phenomenal performance in last year’s The Spectacular Now, which was itself the follow-up to her great work in The Descendants. It never hurts to see Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern either. Every year, a film on nobody’s radar suddenly blows up and becomes the talk of the film world. It’s hard to predict when and where that will happen, but it does happen semi-regularly and having a cast this great can only help.
Cons: The director is a virtual unknown and a great many indie movies have disappointed with plot synopses like this one. Even if the individual ingredients give me hope that it could be one of the year’s unexpectedly great small films, there’s no way to predict where indie lightning will strike. I have no doubt that a number of small films will surprise us this year, but there is just as good a chance that this will not be the one. Why did it not play Sundance, where so many good indie productions make their stand? And maybe I’m putting too much pressure on Woodley. The cream of her work is quite delicious, but she did just put out the mediocre Divergent a couple weeks ago. As much as I’d like all of her films to be home runs, Woodley is just a young professional trying to advance herself one project at a time. Who’s to say this isn’t just some modest little movie she did to increase her name recognition?
#35: Nymphomaniac- Parts I and II
Director: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBouef, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe
Plot: When Gainsbourg’s self-described nymphomaniac is found beaten in an alley, she recounts her strange sexual history to the man who rescues her.
Pros: Well, in this case, I’m cheating a bit because both parts of the film already have some decent reviews. Not a consensus by any stretch, but enough to indicate that this will be the kind of uncomfortably stimulating experience one expects from troubled Danish auteur Lars Von Trier. The prickly iconoclast last made 2011’s beautifully nihilistic Melancholia, and he is now working again with his frequent collaborator, the beautiful and talented Charlotte Gainsbourg. The entire cast has my interest piqued and it’s good to see that Von Trier is still pushing his films to strange, dark places.
Cons: Well, the real con is that you’ll be lucky to see a film like this get an Independent Spirit award, much less anything major. Even if the movie is good, the con for Von Trier fans is that it’s always an uphill climb for one of his hypnotically sinister works to get proper recognition on a mainstream level. Be happy that the films are challenging and thoughtful, but don’t get your hopes up that the majority of people will ever see them.
#34: Exodus: Gods and Kings
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Joel Edgerton, and Sigourney Weaver
Plot: This will be Ridley Scott’s retelling of the story of Moses with Christian Bale as the bush-befriending prophet. It will focus specifically on the Exodus, in which the Jewish slaves of Egypt escaped their captors.
Pros: The story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt certainly has enough sweep and heft that this could be an extremely satisfying historical epic. Bale is just coming off what is, in my opinion, the finest work of his career in American Hustle, Scott has been great before, and the supporting cast (Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Joel Edgerton, and Sigourney Weaver) have all been great before.
Cons: Bale may be coming off a hot year, but the same cannot be said for poor Ridley Scott, who made what may be the worst film of his career with last year’s The Counselor. We’re many decades removed now from the genius who created enduring science fiction masterworks like Alien and Blade Runner. Seven years have passed since American Gangster, the last time a film of his was even pretty good. Can Scott really pull off an Old Testament epic or will the Red Sea come crashing down on his hopes?
#33: Two Days, One Night
Director: The Dardenne Brothers
Starring: Marion Cotillard
Plot: A woman searches for colleagues prepared to sacrifice their bonuses so she can keep her job.
Pros: The dynamic directing duo from Belgium already has a very strong track record of spare, observational films under their belt, including The Child and The Kid With A Bike, and this time they get to train their handheld cameras over the shoulders of Marion Cotillard, a French actress so beautiful and gifted that she has been able to make the difficult emigration from French acclaim to American stardom.
Cons: The Dardennes rarely, if ever, go wrong, but maybe this will be the film to see them slip. The premise makes it sound like it could be some kind of commentary on today’s harsh economic climate, so they will have to be careful to not get too heavy-handed. Not that this has ever been a problem for them, but it’s the most probable pitfall I can foresee from the plot synopsis.
#32: Clouds of Sils Maria
Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chole Grace Moretz
Plot: Maria Enders (Binoche) has a successful acting career and a loyal assistant Valentine (Stewart), but when a young actress (Moretz) takes on a role in a new movie – the same role which had made Enders famous when she was young – her world starts to crumble. Haunted by her past life, she withdraws to the Swiss town of Sils Maria.
Pros: Assayas is one of the most creatively restless French filmmakers, and one who seems to want to push cinema forward. I very much appreciated his sweet, elegiac inheritance drama Summer Hours back in 2009, and I have heard nothing but praise for his miniseries Carlos. The Oscar-winning Juliette Binoche has never rested on her laurels, choosing to pursue eclectic, risky projects (lalalalala, Chocolat does not exist, lalalala). Based on the past performance of both director and star, I am enormously optimistic.
Cons: Binoche is a fantastic actress, but young stars Stewart and Moretz are less consistent. Granted, Moretz didn’t derail Hugo and I still hold out for Stewart to turn in another performance of Adventureland greatness. But Assayas’ films are artfully rigorous and challenging , so this will likely test them to their marrow. The two young bloods will also have to break out their dancing shoes and keep pace with one of the most understatedly intelligent and accomplished actresses in modern cinema. Here’s hoping Binoche lets them have a little spotlight. Here’s hoping they earn it.
#31: Winter Sleep
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen, Demet Akbag
Plot: The story is set in Anatolia.
Pros: Ceylan is an extremely promising Turkish director with a number of well-regarded, tonally challenging films already under his belt. 2012’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia was a mesmerizing, grueling, perfectly acted police investigation drama and the patience and poise on display there demonstrated that Ceylan is capable of drawing out pitch-perfect performances to complement his stunning images. Just like that great, poetic piece of work, this latest film is set in the Anatolia region of Turkey, a serene and mesmerizingly stark land of hills and plateaus that Ceylan knows how to use to gorgeous effect.
Cons: Uh, that plot description is not me being lazy. Between IMDB and Wikipedia, that’s literally the only piece of information we currently have to go on. “The plot is set in Anatolia.” Could be a rock opera. Could be a tragedy featuring marmots dressed to resemble history’s most famous dictators. Could be both. I am going completely on my blind, unwavering faith in Ceylan’s talents.
And with that we are more than halfway through this thing. In a day or so I’ll post #30-21, which will include a couple of big musicals, a noir sequel, and a collaboration between Colin Firth and Woody Allen. A neurotic, stammering time will surely be had by all!