Director: Darren Aronosfsky
Starring: Russell Crowe
Plot: It’s the story of Noah’s Ark. Read a book. There’s a good one I can recommend.
Pros: Darren Aronofsky is one of the most talented American directors working today and he is good at making great big films (Black Swan) as well as films that feel more intimate (The Wrestler). He has a fantastic track record with actors, and I can never count out Crowe, even after the embarrassment that was Les Miserables. The material should already be pretty gripping on its own, so watch out if Aronofsky finds a creative new way to tap into this antiquated story.
Cons: Most of my qualms come from what has been a terribly lackluster TV marketing campaign. Also, why is this releasing in the doldrums of March, while Ridley Scott’s biblical picture gets to come out in December during peak movie season? Are they trying to stand out by debuting at a quieter time or do they just know they have a disappointing product?
#29: Sin City: A Dame To Kill For
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Eva Green, Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Josh Brolin, Rosario Dawson
Plot: The town’s most hard-boiled citizens cross paths with some of its more reviled inhabitants.
Pros: Sin City was not only a giddy rush of fun and menace, but has also stood the time as a genuinely great film. I think it’s easily Rodriguez’s best, so maybe this second trip to the well with beloved graphic novelist Frank Miller will be a worthy return to form for the cult director. Mickey Rourke should have gotten Supporting Actor traction for his work as Marv, so it thrills me to no end to see the vulnerable bruiser returning. If they can just give us another potent collection of moody noir stories, it will at least be worth seeing.
Cons: Well, for one thing, production problems. The film was supposed to debut last year and then didn’t, because Rodriguez was still struggling with post-production. The last time a strongly hyped, visual smorgasbord film got pushed back a year, it was Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. That did not go so well. For any of us. Also, I’m sorry to say it, but Rodriguez just isn’t that great of a director. I love Sin City and I liked Planet Terror quite a bit, but I think the Machete films are a chore to sit through. If this weren’t a Sin City sequel, but just another Robert Rodriguez film, it’s an open question whether it would even make my list.
#28: Jersey Boys
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken
Plot: Jersey Boys is a musical biography of the Four Seasons-the rise, the tough times and personal clashes, and the ultimate triumph of a group of friends whose music became symbolic of a generation.
Pros: I hear very good things about the Jersey Boys stage show. If handled right, the film could be a rousing and loving tribute to a great musical group. Clint Eastwood has made a number of great films in the past, from A Perfect World and Unforgiven to Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. One other thing I am excited to hear is that, instead of casting a famous face, he has chosen John Lloyd Young for the lead role of Frankie Valli. Young won the Tony Award in 2006 for playing Valli on stage, so it’s good to know that Eastwood prioritized voice and talent over name recognition.
Cons: Okay, first off, Clint Eastwood has not made a really good movie since 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima. I found The Changeling, Gran Torino, and Hereafter to all be tedious and heavy-handed. And I barely remembered seeing the modest Invictus 24 hours after the fact. At age 83, it’s entirely possible that the Hollywood icon’s best work is finally behind him. But most importantly, we’re looking at a musical from a man who has never directed a musical number in his life. If he pulls this off, he will be doing a lot more than just returning to form. Eastwood will be succeeding in a genre that is erratically different from anything he’s ever tried before.
Director: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman
Plot: A terminally ill scientist downloads his mind into a computer. This grants him power beyond his wildest dreams, and soon he becomes unstoppable.
Pros: This is a very talented group of actors. Depp has maybe lost his step these days, but his strong voice work in Rango wasn’t so long ago, and I firmly believe he will come back from his schticky exile. This concept sounds pretty interesting and I’m always happy to see a good sci-fi project. But, I’m most excited by the director! First-time director Wally Pfister is the long-time cinematographer of Christopher Nolan, which makes him one of the non-Ledger related reasons that The Dark Knight is amazing. Pfister has one of the finest eyes working in film. Just think what Inception would have been without the incredible camerawork and you’ll get a sense of what an important cinematic artist he is. Whatever happens with this project, good on him for taking the bold first step into directing! I’m excited to see what he does with it.
Cons: In terms of its release date, it managed to clear the early year dumping season, but it’s still a mighty early debut (April 18). This could indicate a lack of studio confidence, or a feeling that this is a merely decent effort from a brand new director. Of course, that’s the other problem. Pfister has composed magnificent images for Nolan’s films, and it’s always heartening to see a director who knows how to set up a shot (hello, Stanley Kubrick!). But being a director is also a completely different ball of wax from cinematography, and there’s no guarantee that Pfister will be able to make that difficult transition.
#26: Maps To the Stars
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska
Plot: Complex look at Hollywood and what it reveals about Western culture.
Pros: Cronenberg is the creepy-cool pride of Canada, a filmmaker who has been making unnerving, stimulating films for decades now. While his two latest, A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, were not slam-dunks, I understand they were thoughtful and worthy efforts. I love A History of Violence and I think it’s high time for him to make a grand resurgence. Could this shadowy look at Hollywood be his own personal Mulholland Drive?
Cons: No, I’m not going to say Robert Pattinson. I actually hear he and Cronenberg worked well together on the director’s 2012 film, Cosmopolis. If anything, the challenge will be making sure the satire lands. Hollywood may be an easy target, but that also makes it hard for show business satires to truly stand out. Maps could be insightful and darkly funny, or it could just be glib and lazy.
Director: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Michael Pena, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal
Plot: A battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Wardaddy and his men face odds in their attempts to strike at Nazi Germany.
Pros: I have heard that Ayer helped direct Jake Gyllenhall and Michael Pena to arguably the best work of their respective careers in 2012’s End of Watch. If he can find great character shading in a police officer drama, then this World War II film should give him an even bigger canvas to paint on. If he can work that same kind of magic for the still-Oscarless Brad Pitt, there’s no telling how far the film might go.
Cons: The story of Ayers thus far is that he crafts middling-to-very-good cop dramas. He wrote S.W.A.T. and Training Day. Most recently, he directed End of Watch, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, which scored good reviews. The characters in this upcoming project are soldiers instead of law enforcement officers, but will this be essentially more of the same for Ayers? If Fury is to be a big contender at the end of the year, Ayers will need to grow by even bigger leaps and bounds as a writer and as a director.
#24: Suite Francaise
Director: Saul Dibb
Starring: Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Margot Robbie
Plot: During the early years of German occupation of France, romance blooms between Lucile Angellier, a French villager and Bruno von Falk, a German soldier.
Pros: Michelle Williams’ last film, My Week With Maralyn, came close to netting her an Oscar even though the movie itself wasn’t all that good. Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) is an international star who appears to be on the rise. Margot Robbie was quite impressive last year in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. If this talented cast can make the promising material sing, this could be one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.
Cons: The director’s last major film, The Duchess, was just passable. As promising as this historical romance sounds on paper, we’ve seen a great many swooning prestige pictures fall flat. At the end of the day, the film will need to actually have the goods if it wants to be more than just a bargain bin romance novel in period piece clothing.
#23: Into the Woods
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt
Plot: In this adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s acclaimed musical, a witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.
Pros: The last time a Steven Sondheim musical became a movie, 2007’s Sweeney Todd, it received rave reviews and ended up being the best film of Tim Burton’s career (that’s my opinion anyway). If this Sondheim adaptation is anywhere near as good, it could do the same thing for Rob Marshall, who directed the Oscar-winning Chicago back in 2002. The cast is dynamite and I hear that Anna Kendrick is a spectacular singer.
Cons: Rob Marshall is really a middling director at best. Since directing Chicago, he has yet to make a film that is even remotely good. Memoirs of A Geisha was incredibly lackluster and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was terrible. Even if he’s returning to his bread and butter by doing a musical, let’s not forget that 2009’s Nine wasn’t much to look at or listen to. If he couldn’t direct a good performance out of Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s to say he can do any better with Meryl Streep?
#22: Magic In the Moonlight
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone
Plot: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.
Pros: Woody Allen is just coming off of Blue Jasmine, one of his best films in years, and one in which he captured the best performance of Cate Blanchett’s career. Colin Firth is a great actor and Emma Stone is a fantastic, funny young talent. In fact, based on what I’ve seen of Stone, I think she could turn out to be one of the best Woody surrogates of all time. All of these people have momentum, and that has to count for a lot.
Cons: Momentum typically does count for a lot. Unless you’re Woody Allen, in which case you eye it suspiciously and slowly back away from it. Allen is known for producing a strong film and then following it up with a disposable trifle or a tone-deaf dud. The last time he even followed up a good film with another good film was with 1997’s Deconstructing Harry, which came a year after his musical, Everyone Says I Love You. More often than not, he follows up Midnight In Paris with To Rome With Love or Match Point with Scoop. If you’re a gambler, the odds really favor Magic In the Moonlight being a disappointment.
#21: The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
Plot: A biography of the English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, who helped crack the Enigma code during World War II.
Pros: Alan Turing is a fascinating historical subject and the British cast is very good. We’ve been eagerly awaiting the triumphant arrival of Benedict Cumberbatch, who continually picks up new fans for his excellent work in Sherlock. The director is relatively green, but his last two films (Headhunters and Fallen Angels) have gotten reasonably good reviews. Perhaps more refreshingly, it sounds like they have been exciting, tense pieces of work. If he can bring a little energy to this historical biopic, he’ll already be ahead of most of his competitors.
Cons: My hesitation is that we’ve been expecting Cumberbatch to fully arrive for years now, but he’s still got one foot in the lobby. His major projects last year were August: Osage County and The Fifth Estate, both of which ended up falling below expectations. I know Cumberbatch is a great actor, but the movie is going to need to feature more than a strong performance from him if it’s going to be worth our time. Making a biopic that is fresh and interesting is a notoriously tricky task, as so many end up feeling didactic and episodic. After his Julian Assange biography flopped last year, it’s not so difficult to envision the same thing happening this year. The team behind this project seems ready to tackle the challenge, but it will still be a challenge.
That does it for now. Check in tomorrow, when we start to crack into the real meat of the year. New films from David Fincher, Jeff Nichols, Jason Reitman, and Tim Burton are all soon to come!