A lull in the end-of-year Grownup Movie frenzy allows us to focus on one of the year's best performances, plus a look at the enduring popularity of a long-gone comic strip.
The New Stuff
After months of triumphant film festival screenings and a limited release, finally everybody gets to see Bruce Dern in his career-defining performance. He's 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).
Dear Mr. Watterson
The most grownup comic strip of the past half-century may well have been the one about a little boy and his imaginary tiger friend, Calvin and Hobbes. It's been nearly 20 years since Bill Watterson stopped drawing the strip, 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.
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
Birth of the Living Dead
In 1968 George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead, and changed the way movies scare us. This entertaining documentary retraces Romero's shuffling footsteps to midnight movie immortality.
If you're an actress, get yourself directed by Woody Allen: Here he casts Cate Blanchett as a latter-day Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers in San Francisco. Smart, tragic and funny, it's Woody and Cate at their best. 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
Michael Fassbender is the latest in a long line of movie lawyers who discover representing bad guys isn't always the best career move. The script is by Cormac McCarthy; the director is Ridley Scott ( Blade Runner, American Gangster); and the cast includes Brad Pitt. Unfortunately, the movie is a bit of a mess.
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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 this.
Naomi Watts stars as the star-crossed Princess of Wales. Here Diana is divorced and has taken up with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (played by Sayid Jarrah, best known as the Iraqi torture expert on Lost, but cleaned up considerably here). Now the lovers must somehow find happiness while eluding the paparazzi's eye. Wonder how that'll turn out. A Princess Grace movie is coming next year; our look at the two princesses America loved
If you have kids, they've probably read this 1991 sci-fi neoclassic, which despite its interplanetary war setting is considered must-reading for U.S. Marine Corps trainees (really!). The film, starring Asa Butterfield as a fighting child prodigy, offers Harrison Ford both as the kid's mentor and a reminder of how much the science fiction movie genre still owes to Star Wars.
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.
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
This comedy about four old pals reuniting for a bachelor party in Las Vegas gets its laughs from the chemistry of its stars: Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Kevin Kline. The cast also makes the film's more dramatic moments - dealing with loneliness, loss and the passing of youth - unexpectedly effective. Throw in Mary Steenburgen as a sympathetic saloon singer and you've got a movie that's light years smarter than its stupid trailers would have you think. FULL REVIEW
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl are great fun as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, rival kings of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s. Ron Howard, who cut his directing teeth with Grand Theft Auto in 1977, seems right at home depicting the brutal beauty of high-octane racing.