Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson
Plot: An innocent priest gives confession to a man who was molested by a clergyman as a young boy. With his abuser now dead, the man has decided to exorcise his frustrations by targeting another man of the cloth. The man tells the priest that he will give him one week before he kills him.
Pros: Brendan Gleeson is one of our finest actors, and he has shown himself to be capable of balancing heavy pathos and bawdy humor, often in the same movie (In Bruges, directed by McDonagh’s brother, Martin). Gleeson has actually turned in great work for John Michael McDonagh before, in his black comedy The Guard from a couple years back. Word from Sundance is that Calvary is another strong pairing between the two, and another chance for Gleeson to show off his ability to work both the funny bone and the tea#19r ducts.
Cons: Well, it doesn’t have a definite release date yet. It’s a small film from Ireland, so it’s going to need to play its cards early and aggressively if it wants to finally earn Gleeson, or itself, some awards recognition.
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johannson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr., Bobby Canavale
Plot: A chef who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing back together his estranged family.
Pros: Jon Favreau is still growing as a director, but I like him quite a lot when he’s on. He made Iron Man into one of the absolute best superhero movies, balancing breathlessly fun action sequences with quieter moment of character-building, and anchoring it all around one of the finest performances of Robert Downey, Jr.’s career. He also wrote Swingers back in the day. It sounds like this movie could be something personal for him, a chance to tell a quiet, intimate story centered on character. If he can bring his solid blockbuster fundamentals to an insightful character study, it could be an indie dramedy with a really sturdy sense of storytelling. The big cast of talented actors is a good sign too.
Cons: Favreau’s last two feature films were Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, which were both big, blockbuster disappointments. For that reason, it’s probably good that he’s going back to a more subdued style, but he will still need to rediscover his confidence as a director. If not, I see this ending up as a diverting but meandering half-step on Favreau’s steady road to improvement.
#18: Big Eyes
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
Plot: A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.
Pros: Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are two of the best actors working today. Adams has entered Kate Winslet territory with 5 Oscar nominations and no wins, so you can sense she’s hungry to knock another performance out of the park. After American Hustle, it seems like Adams is ready to take some time off from supporting work and sink her teeth into more interesting lead roles. Paired with someone as great as Waltz, this could be one of the most electric acting showcases of the year. Moreover, many people believe Burton’s best film to be 1994’s Ed Wood, another biography of an idiosyncratic artist. That one took home an acting Oscar, so maybe Big Eyes can do the same.
Cons: Strangely enough, the weak link in this collaboration is Tim Burton. Personally, I’ve always found Burton a little overrated to begin with. But even if I were to concede that Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice are two of the greatest films ever made, the fact remains that they came out decades ago! The Burton we have now is the guy who constructs soulless CGI tentpoles like Alice In Wonderland. His last film was a misguided film adaptation of a TV show nobody cares about with another phoned-in Johnny Depp performance. Sure, the description of Big Eyes’ plot sounds more promising than anything he’s done in some time, but no amount of true story intrigue, great acting, or strong writing will save the film if Burton is unable to knit his parts into a coherent thematic whole.
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara
Plot: Set in 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman.
Pros: Rooney Mara is hitting her stride after an amazing limited role in The Social Network and great leading work in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Cate Blanchett is already an acting legend, now coming off the strongest performance of her, or anyone’s, career. Todd Haynes is a unique, powerful voice in cinema and I absolutely loved his Bob Dylan non-biopic I’m Not There, which contains Blanchett’s second greatest performance. These three major talents are taking on one of the most important works of feminist fiction, The Price of Salt. One can never entirely predict how combinations of talent will shake out, but the math is all there for something intense and rich.
Cons: It honestly sounds like a match made in heaven, but will probably also end up being what some might call “difficult”. I personally hope it is, but that usually results in polarized reviews, rather than unanimous praise.
#16: Men Women & Children
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring; Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer
Plot: Follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways the internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives.
Pros: Rosemarie DeWitt and Judy Greer are both wonderful, sensitive actresses. Adam Sandler has been close to great before. Jennifer Garner is a limited actress, but Jason Reitman got touching and subtle work out of her in Juno. And the plot is just vague enough to be extremely promising. Is this Jason Reitman taking on an Altman-style thematic ensemble film. Given the wonders he has performed with his actors in almost every film, the idea of the ever-brave Reitman trying out this genre has my interest all the way piqued.
Cons: If anything hurts him, it’s that the heretofore-untarnished director is coming off his first real defeat with this year’s Labor Day. Granted, that soapy drama has its defenders, but Reitman’s far from the hurtling momentum he had coming off Juno and Up In the Air. We also live in a post-Crash age where you don’t have to go far to find a big, everyone-is-connected-through-x ensemble drama. A good one comes along every now and again, but with so many out there, the majority of them inevitably end up coming off as pedantic and unoriginal.
#15: Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver
Plot: A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.
Pros: Nichols is only four films into his career and every one of them has been well-acted and terrifically paced. Nichols has worked with the ferociously compelling Michael Shannon on every film, and Shannon gave his best performance in Nichols’ unsettling Take Shelter. His last film, the sweet coming-of-Southern-age tale Mud, gave Matthew McConaughey the best role of his career and made my Top 20 for Carnivorous Couch’s year-end wrap-up. Now it looks like Nichols is moving from subtle backwoods fairytale to magical realist road trip movie, which sounds equally quirky and moving.
Cons: This sounds like another wild, unconventional work for Nichols, mixing intimate character drama with a touch of the mythical. My heart applauds his continued courage as an artist but my brain knows the risks inherent in doing something as new and genre-busting as this might be.
Director: Damian Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Plot: A young musician wants to be a top jazz drummer. He attends a top music school and forms a contentious relationship with one of his professors.
Pros: This was the big story out of Sundance this year. In recent years, the festival has given us strong efforts like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Fruitvale Station, so any film that tops the festival merits serious consideration. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is a fantastic young actor and J.K. Simmons (Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson to most of you) is one of the best and most consistent of character actors. This sounds like a fine actor’s duet set against a background of great music. What’s not to love?
Cons: To be clear, awards are not everything, or even anything necessarily. That said, in terms of the film’s road to serious recognition, it may have a tougher path to walk than Beasts and Fruitvale did. The former was a very showy piece of work and the latter had social importance and recent history on its side. And let’s not forget that Fruitvale didn’t even end up getting nominated last year, in spite of having Harvey Weinstein pushing it. Small films will always have their work cut out for them, and it really helps to have some kind of a hook. At the risk of wakening the angry ghost of Keith Moon, drumming is an extremely insular niche world that the average person might not find inherently “important”. This film will have to make its way on the strength of its acting and its music.
#13: Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
Plot: A husband tries to track down his wife, after she goes missing on the day of their wedding anniversary.
Pros: Many adore the book and Fincher did some very solid, kinetic directing with his last novel-based project, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Really, at this point in his career, bet against the man at your own peril. With The Social Network, Zodiac, Fight Club, and Seven already under his belt, Fincher is an exceptional director. I regard the first two as masterpieces and the other two as nothing less than excellent films, so Fincher’s potential for amazing things is beyond doubt. I think it’s only a matter of time before he creates another great film, so maybe this will be it.
Cons: Well, Ben Affleck as a leading man will always be problematic. But my real qualm is that Fincher is just trying to earn mainstream brownie points by taking on another New York Times bestseller. While I greatly admired Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I thought it was mostly just him and some talented actors elevating a moderately engaging pulp mystery into a thinking person’s entertainment. I have the same reservations about this project. Even if Fincher is up to the challenge, a lot hangs on the source material. Is it really good enough – not just entertaining but good enough- for the level of craft Fincher will bring to it? Is there a great film to be made out of Gone Girl, or is Fincher just showing that he knows how to make impeccably crafted films out of well-liked books?
#12: Under the Skin
Director: Brian Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johannson
Plot: A shape-shifting, predatory alien comes to England and takes the form of a beautiful young woman.
Pros: This received a ton of hype when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year. In all honesty, this isn’t the kind of film that’s going to show up on red carpets in 10 months time, and that is just fine. What we can expect is a haunting, well-acted, science fiction tone poem, starring an actress whose career finally appears to be back on the rise again after Her and Don Jon. If this thing is as hypnotically cool and creepy as I’ve been led to believe, then it will stand the test of time far better than some of the more middlebrow fare that appears on this list.
Cons: It’s going to be gloriously weird! What’s the matter, don’t you like weird? If not, have no fear. The year seems pretty ripe with more conventional choices, even just within the sci-fi genre.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts
Plot: A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.
Pros: There is no doubt that Inarritu knows how to make emotionally visceral films. I didn’t particularly care for the self-important hand-wringing of Babel, but even that had some pretty gripping stuff happening behind the camera. It sounds like Birdman could be Inarritu’s first comedic film, which may be just the choice to break him out of his misery porn rut. I’m also fascinated to see what Michael Keaton does with his first major role in what feels like a very long time. Everything about the film’s plot and the talent assembled has me intrigued to see how the pieces will come together.
Cons: The con is that Inarritu has never quite lived up to the high expectations he set with Amores Perros. I liked 21 Grams a lot, but it was also less than the sum of its flashy editing and accomplished acting. With that film and Babel, I also felt he was working with scripts that over-reached for significance, as if he was trying to fool the audience into thinking the film was more meaningful than it truly was. I’m excited by the premise of Birdman, but Inarritu has not instilled real confidence in me in quite some time. At his worst, Inarritu tries to compensate for weak scripts by relying on histrionics. Turning to comedy may be a good way to wean himself off of those tendencies, but does he have the range to find a new style to fill that vacuum?
Almost finished, with only the Top 10 remaining. Stay tuned for a diverse list, filled with high-profile science fiction, epic generational statements, well-acted biographies, and pulpy crime fiction!