As the fall draws closer, it brings with it the start of Oscar season, when every studio unveils its biggest, buzziest and most dramatic films in an attempt to earn some recognition on the biggest night in Hollywood. And while every year does turn out a great deal of excellent films and incredible performances, at a certain point they all start to feel the same, with one domestic drama blending into another and period pieces all attempting to outshine each other. But there is some variety hidden amongst the Oscar bait, with some films providing original, interesting stories or creative twists on classic plots. In case you’re looking to add some variety to your fall film lineup, we’ve run down the best, most original awards bait hitting theaters this fall. Once December hits, however, it's every moviegoer for himself.
Interstellar Smack dab in the middle of Oscar season, Christopher Nolan will finally unveil his latest epic, Interstellar. Part post-apocalyptic drama, part space opera, part Hollywood blockbuster, and Phase II of the McConaissance, the film follows a group of explorers who set off in for a wormhole that will allow them to travel from one solar system to another in search of resources that can save the earth now that it’s run out of food. So, you know, just your usual low-key, easy to follow, low-stakes story. Opens: November 7
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby Every year, there’s at least one Oscar baity film the centers on a relationship falling apart, but The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby puts a new spin on that old classic by creating an epic, two-part film that tells the story from both his (James McAvoy) and her (Jessica Chastain) perspectives. Since premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews, we’ve been waiting impatiently for our chance to see the film. As it turns out, we’ll actually get two: a one-film version which blends both sides together will be released along with the original two-film version. Opens: September 12
The Boxtrolls Of all the films being released at the end of 2014 – war epics, biopics, highly-anticipated comebacks – one of the most exciting is an animated film about the friendly trolls who live under the sewers of a small English village. That’s because The Boxtrolls is the latest film from Laika, the stop-motion studio that has made such wonderful films as Coraline and ParaNorman. Like its predecessors, The Boxtrolls looks like an incredibly detailed, magical, funny adventure, but unlike them, we’re hoping that the studio will finally be able to get the recognition they deserve for their labors of love. And with no Disney or Pixar films to compete, they might finally have a shot. Opens: September 26
Gone Girl We know, we know: you’re probably sick of hearing about Gone Girl. But the buzz surrounding the film, its stars, the book it’s based on doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, so you might as well embrace it. Besides, it gives us yet another opportunity to study the enigma that is Ben Affleck’s career. Will he get a third Oscar for this? Will it finally make people take him seriously as an actor and filmmaker? Are we all going to stop praising him the second the first trailer for Batman V. Superman comes out? Nobody knows. Opens: October 3
Sony Pictures Releasing
Fury It wouldn’t be awards season without a World War II drama, and 2014 is no exception. However, in addition to the typical slate of inspiring biopics and domestic dramas about the home-front, Brad Pitt and David Ayer are offering Fury. It’s a small-scale – well, as small scale as a world war gets – film about the lives and missions of a single tank crew tasked with venturing behind enemy lines, and it features a cast of acclaimed, yet underappreciated actors like Logan Lerman, Jon Berenthal, and Michael Pena. Just when you thought you’d seen every single war drama that’s been made, there finally comes one that’s actually intriguing. Opens: November 14
Kill the Messenger His Avengers co-star Robert Downey Jr. might have a higher-profile film opening that day, but we’re much more interested in Jeremy Renner’s Kill the Messenger. Based on the true story of Gary Webb, a reporter who uncovered the CIA’s connection to the Nicaraguan drug trade, the film centers on the manhunt that Webb became a part of after going public with his evidence. It’s the biggest, most intense role that Renner has had since The Hurt Locker, and after years of being overlooked in favor of his showier co-star, we’re excited to see him get some of the attention he deserves. Opens: October 10
Birdman Everyone love a comeback story, right? Well, how about one that’s a little more surreal? That’s what Michael Keaton is going for with his upcoming film Birdman, which takes places over the course of the several days in which washed-up actor Riggan Thompson, who made his name as superhero, attempts to mount a comeback with a play that he wrote, directed and is starring in. With Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu at the helm and a cast featuring Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Edward Norton, we’d be interested in this even if it weren’t Keaton’s first big film in years. Opens: October 17
Beyond the Lights After winning over audiences everywhere with her breakthrough role in Amma Asante’s Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is set to prove that she can do more than just period pieces with Beyond the Lights. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a Rihanna-like pop star struggling with being a puppet for her pushy stage mom and greedy record executives, who finds joy in a relationship with down-to-earth cop Kaz (Nate Parker). The story might be familiar to anyone who saw Britney Spears’ “Lucky” video, but it’s the perfect opportunity for Mbatha-Raw to really showcase her talent with a role that requires her to sing, dance, fall in love, and break our hearts. Opens: November 14
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
The Last Samurai sure didn't come in last this weekend at the box office.
The sweeping Japanese epic, starring Tom Cruise, debut at No. 1, taking the top honors with a reasonable $24.4 million*.
Still, the figure wasn't quite what Cruise is used to getting with his opening films. Samurai failed to match the box office king's previous blockbusters including Minority Report, which opened in 2002 with $35.6 million, and Mission: Impossible 2, with a whopping $57.8 million in 2000.
"Considering what we faced on the East Coast, we're very, very pleased," Dan Fellman, president of distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures told Reuters, referring to the bad weather in that area, which dumped more than a foot of snow, closed airports and left thousands without power.
Samurai was followed by another newcomer, the hip-hoppin' Honey, which premiered in second with $14 million, while The Haunted Mansion, which almost took the top spot last week, came in third place with $9.5 million.
The delightful Elf continued to hold its own in the fourth spot with $8.1 million, while last week's No. 1 The Cat in the Hat tumbled to fifth with a measly $7.3 million.
The re-release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, did well this week in a limited run in 126 theaters, earning a total of $431,000. Next week, the second installment The Two Towers will get a similar re-release, as fans gear up for the "Tuesday Trilogy" Dec. 16, with the first two installments playing back-to-back, leading into the opening of the third and final The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at midnight Dec. 17.
THE TOP TEN
Warner Bros.' R-rated The Last Samurai debuting at No. 1 with an ESTIMATED $24.4 million in 2,908 theaters. Its $8,399 per theater average was the highest of any film playing wide this week.
Samurai is an epic about a battle-worn war hero who has lost his soul but finds redemption in an ancient Japanese society he once perceived as the enemy.
Directed by Edward Zwick, it stars Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn and Timothy Spall.
Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated toe-tapper Honey opened in second place with an ESTIMATED $14 million in 1,942 theaters ($7,209 per theater).
The film follows a talented dancer as she makes her way in the fast-paced world of hip-hop.
Directed by Bille Woodruff, it stars Jessica Alba, Mekhi Phifer and Lil' Romeo.
Buena Vista's PG-rated horror comedy The Haunted Mansion dropped to No. 3 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $9.5 million (-61%) at 3,122 theaters (unchanged; $3,043 per theater). The film based on the Disney theme park attraction has accumulated approximately $46.1 million so far.
Directed by David Berenbaum, it stars Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Nathaniel Parker, Marsha Thomason and Jennifer Tilly.
New Line Cinema's PG-rated holiday comedy Elf fell just one spot to fourth in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $8.1 million (-62%) at 3,119 theaters (-83 theaters; $2,605 per theater). Its cume is approximately $139.6 million.
Directed by Jon Favreau, it stars Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel and Mary Steenburgen.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Universal Pictures' PG-rated Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, last week's box office champ, dropped considerably to fifth place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-70%) at 3,409 theaters (-55 theaters, $2,141 per theater). Its cume is approximately $85.5 million.
Directed by Bo Welch, it stars Mike Myers, Dakota Fanning, Spencer Breslin, Kelly Preston, Alec Baldwin and Sean Hayes.
Miramax Films' R-rated dark comedy Bad Santa slipped just one spot down to No. 6 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $7 million (-42%) at 2,091 theaters (+86; $3,385 per theater). Its cume is approximately $27.2 million.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, it stars Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Tony Cox and John Ritter.
Warner Bros.' R-rated horror thriller Gothika fell three notches to seventh place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $5.3 million at 2,205 theaters (-177; $2,415 per theater). Its cume is approximately $49.6 million.
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, it stars Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Penelope Cruz and Bernard Hill.
Sony Pictures' R rated Western The Missing dropped one spot to eighth in its second week with an ESTIMATED $4.4 million (-59%) at 2,765 theaters (unchanged; $1,597 per theater). The tense drama about a frontierswomen trying to rescue her kidnapped daughter has taken in approximately $22.1 million so far.
Directed by Ron Howard, it stars Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Jenna Boyd and Eric Schweig.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13-rated naval epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World fell three places to take ninth in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $3.8 million (-68%) at 2,344 theaters (-359 theaters; $1,621 per theater). Its cume is approximately $72.6 million.
Directed by Peter Weir, it stars Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany.
Universal Pictures' R-rated romantic comedy Love Actually rounded out the top 10 in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $3.7 million (-55%) in 1,672 theaters (-34 theaters; $2,213 per theater). Its cume is approximately $48.9 million.
Directed and written by Richard Curtis, it stars Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley and Bill Nighy.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $91.7 million, down 27.18 percent from last weekend's $126 million take but up a hefty 33.90 percent from last year's $68.5 million.
Last year, MGM's PG-13-rated Die Another Day stayed in first place in its third week with $12.8 million at 3,347 theaters ($3,837 per theater); Warner Bros. R-rated sequel Analyze That debuted in second place with $11 million in 2,635 theaters ($4,188 per theater); and Warner Bros.' PG-rated Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets dropped to third in its fourth week with $10 million in 3,387 theaters ($2,978 per theater).