As the calendar year comes to a close, film-going audiences will be bombarded with a gaggle of releases ranging from Oscar contenders to Hollywood blockbusters to small art-house fare. 'Tis the season for choices at the multiplex, but how does one go about prioritizing? What follows is an attempt at separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
The first must-see film of the holidays is Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, which arrived last Friday, Nov. 13. An anti-war Western dressed up as classic Wuxia, this story of a trained killer operating at the height of the Tang Dynasty is both abstract and poetic. The visuals are lush with color and detail while the swordplay is swift. Hopefully you've had the chance to see it already on the big screen at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, but if not please stop reading this article, rectify that immediately and get thee to the Landmark Hillcrest.
On Friday, Nov. 20, the Digital Gym Cinema brings Jafar Panahi's sublime Taxi to San Diego. The master director continues to release new content despite the Iranian government's attempts to thwart his creativity by way of a filmmaking ban and an order for house arrest. Like his previous two films This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Taxi functions as a type of protest cinema against these efforts. Panahi drives around Tehran posing as a cab driver, engaging in conversations with passengers that may or may not be staged. By merging documentary and fiction, he explores the fragile nature of artistic expression within an oppressive environment.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part II will be released Friday, Nov. 20, in anticipation of the Thanksgiving Holiday. This will be the franchise's final segment and promises all out war between badass revolutionary Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and forces of capitalistic evil led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) has helmed the last three entries, providing the series with fluid action set pieces and strong widescreen visuals.
Ryan Coogler's Rocky reboot, Creed, releasing on Wednesday, Nov. 25, stars Michael B. Jordan as the son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed who attempts to make his mark on the boxing world with the help of Mr. Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Despite my hatred for Coogler and Jordan's previous collaboration Fruitvale Station, this seems like a great attempt at a unique kind of genre revisionism, paying homage to its predecessors while putting a fresh spin on these characters.
Pixar will release its second film of 2015, The Good Dinosaur, also on Wednesday, Nov. 25. I've got it on good authority that this mostly non-dialogue film about a world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist will be an emotional and highly visual experience. I'll have more on this one next week.
Friday, Dec. 4, brings the release of Spike Lee's latest satirical powder keg entitled Chi-raq, the nickname local residents have given Chicago due to the epidemic levels of violence occurring in certain impoverished neighborhoods. Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes and Angela Bassett, the film appears to be a colorful, blunt exploration of America's contradictory stand on race and gun violence.
Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders and Paolo Sorrentino's Youth also arrive on Dec. 4. I'm not high on either of these European art films but each offers its share of interesting moments, specifically in their semi-serious critiques of celebrity culture.
Pretty much everyone on the planet looks poised to attend a screening (or 10) of J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Friday, Dec. 12. The long awaited Episode 7 of the classic science fiction series originated by George Lucas seeks to hook a new generation with its bravura special effects, visual wonderment and catalogue of toys.
Christmas time brings the release of multiple Oscar contenders, including Adam McKay's satirical drama The Big Short on Wednesday, Dec. 23, about the credit and housing crisis that crippled the country's economy during the mid 2000s.
A trio of heavy hitters opens on Christmas Day. First there's David OíRussell's weird biopic Joy starring Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, the inventor of the miracle mop. Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro co-star, making this a bona fide Silver Linings Playbook reunion.
Todd Haynes' 1950s-set Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as secret lovers is a stunning melodrama that should vie for multiple Academy Awards. In the tradition of Haynes' other work, the romance between the two characters is passionately handled but not immune to societal judgment and tragedy.
The Leonardo DiCaprio / Alejandro González Iñárritu Western The Revenant promises to be a harrowing and exhausting experience, following one man's quest for revenge after his son is brutally murdered. Just take a look at the beautifully dirty and grueling trailer and you'll get a sense of the film's epic scope.
After the new year, look for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (Jan. 8), a talky and bloody Western set almost entirely in a snow swept mountain lodge. The film stars Kurt Russell as a dedicated bounty hunter attempting to bring a fugitive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to justice who encounters a cast of shady and dangerous competitors.
Finally, Charlie Kaufman's new stop motion animation Anomolisa (Jan. 15) continues the writer/director's obsession with memory, emotion and meta filmmaking. Featuring the voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan, this drama looks at a lonely customer service representative's attempt to find love despite the crippling doubt of insecurity. Kaufman explored similar themes in his screenplays for Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The holiday release schedule looks more promising than usual (the Point Break remake aside). Hopefully the aforementioned films will make up for what has been an overall disappointing fall. Now you've got your marching orders, so good luck.