And now it gets heavy. December is when the big guns come out, both at the multiplex and the art house, as awards season is in full swing and distributors are vying for slots on those year-end top tens. This month’s indie preview includes everything from low-key documentaries and character studies to star vehicles and Oscar hopefuls, reminding us that in this season of gluttony, there’s always another movie to see.
Release Date: December 2 Director: Kent Jones
Pure movie-nerd pleasure, this exhilarating and entertaining documentary from film historian Jones doesn’t just delve into the interviews that yielded one of the must-have cinema texts, or the undying influence of that volume on today’s filmmakers (many of whom appear to sing its praises); it’s like a film adaptation of that book, with modern masters like Scorsese, Fincher, and Bogdanovich walking us through Hitch’s methodology, and explaining what they learned from him. Breezy, funny, and informative, it’s a Christmas gift to film nerds the world over.
Release Date: December 3 (NY), December 11 (Los Angeles) Director: Charles Poekel Cast: Kentucker Audley, Craig Butta, Maria Cantillo
Every year, the trailers roll into the neighborhoods, and a certain kind of (usually) guy sets up shop, selling Christmas trees to the locals and sleeping in a generator-heated trailers between shifts. Writer/director Poekel’s seriocomic drama concerns one of those guys, a heavy-hearted gent named Noel (of course), who’s been doing it for five years but is having a tougher time getting in the holiday spirit this season, thanks to a recent break-up. Poekel doesn’t manufacture conflict and doesn’t even get that concerned about plot; he just gets into this guy’s head for a while, tracking the logistics of this particular, peculiar gig, and ably capturing how heartbroken desperation can lead you to seize on any kindness from the desired sex. It’s a modest film, to say the least, but the kind of lived-in character study we don’t get enough of anymore.
Release Date: December 4 Director: Spike Lee Cast: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, John Cusack
Spike Lee’s latest, which transports the plot of the Greek classic Lysistrata to the gang war-torn streets of Chicago, is brazenly unruly and wildly uneven — which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering how narrative discipline is apparently just not in Lee’s directorial DNA anymore. But its missteps are forgivable; taken as a whole, the film pulses with a brash energy and angry confidence that’s been sorely missing from his work of late. It’s good to have him back.
Release Date: December 4 Director: Justin Kurzel Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jack Madigan
Australian auteur Kurzel reimagines the Scottish play as Shakespeare by way of Braveheart, supplementing the text with blood-and-mud battles and full-throated, earthy performances by Fassbender and Cotillard. It’s a brisk, haunting adaptation, owing more than a little of its aesthetic to Polanski’s foggy take, but delving deeper into its protagonist’s hallucinations, waking nightmares, and ultimately, his madness.
Release Date: December 4 Director: Paolo Sorrentino Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
The latest from Great Beauty director Sorrentino is luminously photographed and impeccably designed — unsurprisingly. Set at a luscious resort spa, and spending much of its time in the company of good-looking, interesting people, it is in many ways less a movie to watch than one to luxuriate in. But it goes deeper than its handsome surfaces; this is a story about interior journeys, about coming to terms with not only your own mortality, but also the demons you’ve managed to dodge all your life, until you can’t avoid them anymore. It’s a deceptively offhand movie, and a casually haunting one.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Release Date: December 4 Director: Jeanie Finlay
So here’s a bizarre and, these days, forgotten footnote to the Elvis legacy: Jimmy Ellis was a country and rockabilly singer who bore an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Mr. Presley. Not long after the King’s death, his old (and now sketchy) label Sun Records swiped the story of a fiction novel called Orion and rechristened Ellis with the moniker, sending him into the studio and out on the road — in a Lone Ranger-style mask — to perform songs in the Presley style, encouraging the conspiracy theory. It’s a fascinating story well told by director Finlay, and a poignant examination of what it must’ve been like to end up so tantalizingly close to fame, and yet (in all those high schools and dive bars and local TV studios) so far from it at the same time.
Release Date: December 4 Director: Andrew Jenks
This fascinating, meticulous, and ultimately moving documentary account of an innocent man wrongly accused is, admittedly, catnip for this viewer. Ryan Ferguson was convicted of a random 2001 murder, almost entirely based on the account of a friend who said he was there, but whose testimony (savvily intercut with his interrogation tapes) is questionable at best and manufactured at worst. Ferguson’s father Bill spent the next nine and a half years tirelessly working to get that conviction overturned, and though an ace true crime documentary (bracingly told via interviews, police tapes, trial footage, and the like), Dream/Killer is, at its heart, the story of a father’s persistence, dedication, and love.
Release Date: December 4 Director: Chris Kasick Cast: Brian Posehn, Paget Brewster, Missi Pyle, Scott Adsit
I can’t even begin to imagine how iconic documentarian Errol Morris ended up executive-producing this lowdown familial-dysfunction-at-the-holidays comedy, but that’s not even the strangest thing happening here. Comic and character actor Posehn stars, in a turn that could do for him what Big Fan did for his buddy Patton Oswalt, in what first appears to be a hard-case character comedy (something W.C. Fields might make if he were around today). But as the darkness of his character and the people around him begins to reveal itself over the course of a hard-drinking family Christmas, it takes some decidedly taboo turns, to great effect. Not all of its beats play, but the all-bets-are-off spirit of the enterprise is certainly welcome during this very safe moviegoing season.
Son of Saul
Release Date: December 18 Director: László Nemes Cast: Géza Röhrig
The title character (masterfully played by Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew working for the Nazis imprisoning him, is merely going about his terrible business — herding his fellow Jews into gas chambers, emptying the pockets of the clothes they’ve left behind, clearing and cleaning the chambers afterwards — when he hears a boy still breathing, if only for an instant. He becomes obsessed with the notion that the boy (who he claims is his son, and most certainly is symbolically) must be blessed and buried, rather than burned with the rest; he sees it as a burden, an obligation, and probably, in some way, a distraction. Nemes’ powerful debut feature is a film of horrible reality and harrowing immediacy; it’s hard to take, but harder still to ignore, or forget.
Release Date: December 23 Director: Andrew Haigh Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
Kate and Geoff Mercer are rock solid; they have an offhand intimacy, their gentle ribbing has decades of backstory, and they’re currently preparing for their 45th anniversary. But a few days before, a letter arrives, and becomes a reminder of the complexity of each other’s secrets; you spend enough of your life with someone, and you can forget they had a life before you. That life becomes an obsession for Kate, magnificently played by Rampling as a woman haunted by a ghost; Courtenay is equally smashing as a man who realizes what he’s doing to her, perhaps too late. The direction by Haigh (Weekend) is subtle and marvelous — he keeps his camera at a respectful distance, moving it only occasionally and gently when he does, and the way even the smallest moments pay off is remarkable.
Where to Invade Next
Release Date: December 23 Director: Michael Moore
Say what you will about the complaints that have haunted him since Roger & Me (and which he does little to avoid here), but much of rabble-rousing lefty documentarian Moore’s latest free-form cinematic essay is very effective indeed, as he “invades” several foreign countries to “steal” the good ideas that could solve some of the considerable problems here in the good ol’ US of A. Moore’s been preaching to the choir for so long now that it’s a cliché to even turn the phrase, but if you’re in that choir, you’ll probably find yourself moved by the holy spirit.
Release Date: December 30 Directors: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Johnson and Kaufman adapt what was once a live radio play into a stop-motion animation story of first flush of infatuation, when everything about another person is simply extraordinary, and the role delusion and self-sabotage play in breaking that illusion. Kaufman’s script is a remarkable balancing act, in which banal chatter takes on the scope and importance of grand opera, conveying how an average person in an average place can lead what amounts to a life of quiet resignation. It’s one of the strangest and most unexpected films of the year, and one of the best.