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Winter film guide: All the movies you should see in December

A round-up of everything new and noteworthy hitting theaters this month

December 5: Wild

What it is: A film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of the same name, in which she decides to rebound from years of destructive choices by hiking more than 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone.

Why you should care: Wild became a New York Times bestseller (and an Oprah's Book Club selection) on the back of Strayed's powerful, personal story, which looks to have been faithfully translated to the big screen. It's been nearly a decade since Reese Witherspoon won the Best Actress Oscar for Walk the Line, and she's long overdue for a meaty leading role that fully shows off her talents. Director Jean-Marc Vallée led both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscar wins in last year's warmly received Dallas Buyers Club, and both Witherspoon and Laura Dern (playing Strayed's beloved mother) are contenders for a similar nod here.

What else is coming out: Life Partners, a slight but charming comedy about two best friends (Gillian Jacobs and Leighton Meester) dealing with life in their 20s; Dying of the Light, a painfully generic Nic Cage thriller with a long, troubled production history; The Pyramid, a low-budget horror movie about mummies or whatever.

December 12: Inherent Vice

What it is: Director Paul Thomas Anderson teams again with The Master star Joaquin Phoenix for an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's loopy, sprawling detective novel, which follows a P.I. attempting to find his ex-girlfriend's missing boyfriend.

Why you should care: From the deadpan bleakness of Boogie Nights to the oddball romance of Punch-Drunk Love to the epic scope of There Will Be Blood, the only constant in director Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography is the quality of his work. Inherent Vice looks to continue that trend with a customarily massive cast, including Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Michael K. Williams, Benicio del Toro, and Owen Wilson. Following a premiere at the New York Film Festival, early reviews for Inherent Vice have been mixed to positive — but if you're looking for something unusual this holiday season, it's clearly your best bet.

What else is coming out: Top Five, a well-received comedy about a sellout comedian (Chris Rock) trying to reinvent his life and career; Exodus: Gods and Kings, a big-budget biblical epic starring Christian Bale as the man who wants the Pharaoh to let his people go.

December 17: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

What it is: In the wake of a fateful encounter with the dragon Smaug, the third and final Hobbit movie sees armies of men, elves, orcs, and dwarves assembling for a massive battle to determine the future of Middle-Earth.

Why you should care: The Hobbit movies have never measured up to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which told a grander, more complicated story with more energy and conviction. But after a slow start in 2012's An Unexpected Journey, the series improved immensely with last year's Desolation of Smaug, and the final entry promises to be the best of all. The Battle of the Five Armies isn't just the last Hobbit movie; it's Peter Jackson's final trip to Middle-Earth, and the connective tissue between the Hobbit movies and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which stands as the defining blockbuster franchise of the 2000s. Expect Jackson to pull out all the stops as he makes his last stamp on Tolkien's fantasy universe.

What else is coming out: Annie, a modern remake of the beloved musical starring Quvenzhane Wallis as as the titular little orphan; Song of the Sea, a gorgeously animated movie from the director of 2009's Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells; Mr. Turner, an acclaimed biopic chronicling the life of legendary British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall); The Gambler, a remake of the 1974 crime drama of the same name, with Mark Wahlberg replacing James Caan in the lead role; Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the latest entry in a soul-deadening franchise that invites talented actors to slum it by caricaturing historical icons.

December 25: Selma

What it is: A historical drama focusing on the voting rights marches of 1965, which were organized by a team of civil rights leaders that included Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why you should care: After a rapturously received screening at the AFI Film Festival, Selma instantly cemented itself as a Best Picture frontrunner. As Martin Luther King, Jr., David Oyelowo leads a talented cast playing real-life historical figures: James Bevel (Common), Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), George Wallace (Tim Roth), and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Selma's trailer promises to take a movement many Americans weren't alive to witness and bring it to vibrant life.

What else is coming out: Into the Woods, a splashy, star-studded adaptation of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical; American Sniper, a based-on-a-true-story drama about Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history; Big Eyes, a Tim Burton drama about the life of artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings of big-eyed children sparked a craze that led to a legendarily bizarre legal battle with her husband; The Interview, a raunchy comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as a pair of idiots charged with killing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; Unbroken, an Angelina Jolie-directed biopic of World War II hero (and P.O.W. camp survivor) Louie Zamperini (Jack O'Connell).

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