Just wait 'til next week, when Santa drops a sackfull of blockbusters on your local multiplex. In the meantime, the wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis (reviewed last week) moves from just a handful of theaters to a whole bunch of them...and one gritty new family/crime drama showcases some of the year's finest performances.
The New Stuff:
Out of the Furnace
Christian Bale and Casey Affleck duke it out for acting Oscar nominations in this flint-edged story of two brothers raised in a Pennsylvania steel mill town. One (Affleck) escaped the town's crushing economy only to end up traumatized by four Army tours in Iraq; the other (Bale) stayed put but descended into a dead-end life of gambling and jail time. When a stab at backwoods boxing goes horribly wrong for the returned vet, his brother stumbles to the rescue, encountering along the way a truly scary hillbilly, played with restrained sociopathic finesse by Woody Harrelson.
Still Out There . . .
12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery leads a powerful cast. Movies from Roots to Django Unchained have shown us the evils of slavery; 12 Years a Slave makes us feel the lash. FULL REVIEW
We'd watch the delightfully quirky Bill Nighy ( The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) if he were handing out food samples at Costco. Here he has to tell his son (Domhnall Gleeson)that the men in the family can travel through time. With Nighy on board, what starts out as a silly rom-com blossoms into a tall tale with some very grownup lessons. FULL REVIEW
All Is Lost
Robert Redford has been a movie star for so long it's easy to forget he's also a great screen actor. Here it's all Redford, all the time, wordlessly battling the elements as a lone sailor on an endless sea. He may well win his first acting Oscar for this one. FULL REVIEW
The Book Thief
Geoffrey Rush ( The King's Speech) and Emilly Watson ( War Horse) play the foster parents of a spunky young girl (Sophie Nelisse) who develops a passionate love for books during the dark days of Nazi Germany. The era's oppressive atmosphere fills the screen like smoke. But it is Rush, in perhaps the most tender performance of his career as the kind-hearted housepainter, who gives this movie its soul. FULL REVIEW
Tom Hanks gives his best performance in years as the captain of a cargo ship overrun by Somali pirates-but the real revelation is Somali actor Barkhad Abdi. He stands toe-to-toe with Oscar-winner Hanks, who generously allows his unknown costar to unfold a complex, surprisingly vulnerable character. FULL REVIEW
Dallas Buyers Club
At the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a tough heterosexual Texas electrician (Matthew McConaughey) gets the dread diagnosis - then sets up a lucrative business smuggling alternative anti-AIDS drugs into the state. McConaughey, who has been rising from beefcake idol to accomplished actor, may nab his first Oscar nomination for his compelling performance.
Dear Mr. Watterson
It's been nearly 20 years since Bill Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes, and although the reclusive cartoonist is nowhere to be seen in this documentary, his presence is felt in the passion of the fans-readers and fellow artists alike-who remain devoted to his work.
We'll never forget the late James Gandolfini as the conflicted mobster of The Sopranos, but in this romantic comedy he's positively cuddly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a woman who discovers that the man of her dreams (Gandolfini) is the ex-hubby of her new close friend.
By now the animation wizards at Disney have this spunky-young-woman-defeats-evil thing down pat, but the real reason to duck into this film is the cartoon short that precedes it. Get a Horse! is a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse cartoon done in the early Disney style circa Steamboat Willie. Director Dorothy McKim even uses archival recordings of Walt Disney himself providing the voice of the world's favorite rodent.
Stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are fine and the film's visual re-creation of a space voyage is breathtaking (especially in 3-D), but cowriter/director Alfonso Cuaron should have launched with a decent script. FULL REVIEW
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Part two in the series based on a kidlit classic. If you're not a fan of the book series, you might enjoy Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci (with purple hair!), Donald Sutherland, and Toby Jones as assorted good guys and villains.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen's most balanced movie ever is a fond look at the early 1960s Greenwich Villlage folk music scene-a moment or two before Bob Dylan turned up and changed everything with his blend of folk and rock. Oscar Isaac is irresistibly mopey as the title character, a struggling folkie for whom suffering is an end to itself. But the real treat comes about halfway through, when Llewlyn hitches a ride to Chicago with a blustery, bloated blues musician played with great aplomb by John Goodman. FULL REVIEW
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
In any other year, Idris Elba's towering performance as Nelson Mandela would land him on anyone's Best Actor Oscar shortlist. Alas, the dance card is probably already full this time around, but that's no reason to miss Elba tracing the life of the South African legend from young adulthood through his 27-year imprisonment. Naomie Harris is at times chillingly intense as his wife Winnie, and director Justin Chadwick ( The First Grader) continues his love affair with inspiring, true African stories.
In a career-defining performance, Bruce Dern is a slightly befuddled fellow who's convinced he's won $1 million in a sweepstakes. Will Forte is the good son who offers to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to claim the dubious prize. Amazing performances all around, directed by Alexander Payne ( The Descendants, About Schmidt). FULL REVIEW
Josh Brolin stars as a businessman who was kidnapped and held in solitary confinement for 20 years...and is suddenly freed. Part of the mystery is, of course, who abducted him. More intriguing: Why did they let him go? Director Spike Lee provides answers aplenty in 104 blood-soaked minutes. Based on a 2003 Korean action flick.
In a season of extraordinary acting accomplishments, Judi Dench gives the performance of a lifetime as the title character, a woman seeking the son she gave up as a child. Steve Coogan, who also wrote the film's moving and disarmingly funny script, costars as the investigative reporter who helps unravel the tangle of deceit and corruption that very nearly choked off the truth behind Philomena's quest. Based on a true story. FULL REVIEW