Holiday movies: Saving the best for last

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 10, 2012 - 2:08 PM

Opening between now and the year's end, these releases look like they could be among the best movies of 2012.

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Keira Knightley as Anna in "Anna Karenina."

Photo: Laurie Sparham, Focus Features

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NOV. 16

ANNA KARENINA

Director Joe Wright ("Atonement") boldly recasts Tolstoy's classic story of forbidden love as a stage play/stylized costume extravaganza. A brilliant script from Tom Stoppard focuses on the story's core, following Anna (Keira Knightley) as she spurns her cold husband (Jude Law) for dashing cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), scandalizing St. Petersburg society. The artifice of the setting becomes a perfect frame for the mannered, play-acting characters.

LINCOLN

Daniel Day-Lewis offers a towering performance as the 16th president. Steven Spielberg's film forgoes his usual visual spectacle to focus on the political struggle of Lincoln's final four months, with the climax of the Civil War and the congressional battle to free the slaves. Day-Lewis makes the Great Emancipator a pragmatist who could be folksy or hard-nosed as events demand. Tommy Lee Jones is a thundering counterweight as Pennsylvania's radical Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln's impatient, implacable political foe.

NOV. 21

LIFE OF PI

Taiwanese director Ang Lee turns Yann Martel's unfilmable novel into a remarkable technical and artistic achievement. Following a tragedy at sea, young student Pi Patel (first-timer Suraj Sharma) is stranded on a lifeboat with a full-grown tiger, where they must learn to coexist or die. The movie is a triumph of immersive 3-D and seamless computer-animation effects in service of a grand adventure tale.

NOV. 30

KILLING THEM SOFTLY

Brad Pitt goes gangster in this violent, darkly funny crime comedy. Pitt rocks a rad goatee and mullet as Jackie Cogan, an enforcer hunting two robbers who ripped off a high-stakes New Orleans poker game protected by the mob. As Pitt's clinically cool killer squabbles over the skimpy budget for the operation and scuffles with his stubborn sidekick (James Gandolfini), the film scores satirical points about a U.S. economy in which murder is just another tool for doing business.

DEC. 14

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Peter Jackson, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Andy Serkis return to Tolkien-land in another tale of "little people" on a perilous expedition with Gandalf the Grey. Fussbudget Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and 13 dwarf soldiers of fortune contend with goblins, giant spiders, ravenous wolves and treacherous Gollum to reclaim a lost kingdom from the fearsome dragon called Smaug. The trailers are tempting teasers of a sweeping Middle Earth epic with high drama, grand adventure and knockabout humor.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

Bill Murray enters the presidential-impersonation sweepstakes as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hosting the king and queen of England at the Roosevelt home in Upstate New York on a prewar weekend in 1939. FDR juggles the competing claims of his wife (Olivia Williams), mother and mistress (Laura Linney) while orchestrating a crucial public appearance for the pompous royals that will win American support for the coming war effort. Murray is a breezy, charismatic delight as the only four-term U.S. president.

DEC. 21

JACK REACHER

Tom Cruise plays a ruthless ex-Army homicide investigator seeking the truth behind five random killings attributed to a military sniper he thinks was framed. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects") likes to undercut audience expectations with audacious surprises, so there may be more in store than a standard mainstream thriller. Good sign: renowned director Werner Herzog plays the heartless villain, which should add a clinically cool, performance-artist vibe.

RUST AND BONE/ THE IMPOSSIBLE

Two riveting arthouse tales of water-based melodrama. In "Rust," Marion Cotillard plays a whale trainer at a French seaquarium who works to rebuild her life after a tragic accident. "Impossible" stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as parents of three young boys who are separated when a tsunami hits their resort hotel. Each film braids scenes of chilling anxiety with heroic determination. Both manage to be genuine and moving through the strength of the stars' affecting performances.

DEC. 25

LES MISERABLES

A fully sung presentation of the heart-rending Victor Hugo novel and stage play, a decades-long story of one man's fight for freedom and another's quest for vengeance. For greater emotional immediacy, director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") insisted that his cast sing live on set rather than lip-synch. Luckily Hugh Jackman (as persecuted ex-prisoner Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (vindictive police inspector Javert) and Anne Hathaway (downtrodden factory worker Fantine) are accomplished vocalists.

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Another Quentin Tarantino expedition into alterna-history. This time he weaves spaghetti western revenge themes into an Old South slavery tale, with a side order of foppish male wardrobe. "Inglourious Basterds" Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz plays a German bounty hunter who frees Django ("Ray" Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx) and promises to help track down the men who sold his wife. Also on hand are Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson as a villainous duo, Kerry Washington and Jonah Hill (!) as a Klansman.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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