2011 was a disappointing year for American cinema, at least for me. I saw many films that I admired and that have stuck with me (13 Assassins, Bellflower, Drive, Meek’s Cutoff, and Take Shelter spring immediately to mind), but none that I loved. You’ll notice that none of those five films grossed more than $35.1 million (Drive), and that they averaged a box office take of $7.7 million. My tastes do not exactly dovetail with most audiences’.
Mainstream fare, meanwhile, with the exception of Captain America (better than it had any right to be) and X-Men: First Class (very good indeed) was…execrable? Last year’s slate of blockbusters was more egregious in its mediocrity (see: Green Lantern) and unoriginality (see: all the sequels and remakes) than any year in recent memory. As for the “prestige” films, I saw only one Best Picture nominee (The Descendants, which was…fine, I guess), but don’t feel the need to ever see the others, aside from The Tree Of Life.
But in return for enduring those twelve months, I get…this year.
The disappointment of Prometheus notwithstanding, 2012 has already given film fans two quality blockbusters in The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, as well as solid-to-excellent smaller films like The Cabin In The Woods, The Grey, Haywire, The Hunter, Killer Joe, Moonrise Kingdom, The Raid: Redemption, and Safety Not Guaranteed.
This fall, however, brings not only several releases I’m looking forward to, but at least a couple of films that have the potential to become favorites, and perhaps even classics.
My ten most anticipated releases for the rest of the year follow below. I probably won’t be writing too much more on film until my year-end wrap-up, but I will tweeting reactions to most of what I see (@patrickhume). For continuing coverage of this fall’s releases, I would point you to Drew McWeeny’s Motion/Captured, hosted at HitFix.
The Master (September 14)
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams
Why I’m Excited: After making his mark with Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), and then releasing one of the best films of the decade in There Will Be Blood (2007), any new project from Anderson is a cause for excitement. His grasp of imagery, his instinct for character, and his obsession with the psychology of America make for a potent combination. Coupling that with Phoenix’s return to the screen alongside Hoffman, unquestionably one of the greatest actors in the world, and there’s every reason to think The Master will be another cinematic landmark.
Looper (September 28)
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt
Why I’m Excited: Johnson’s first two features, high-school noir Brick (2005) and con-man fable The Brothers Bloom (2009), demonstrated his unique, intellectual vision, though were not always friendly to the casual viewer. In Looper, though, it seems as if Johnson might have found a way to marry his complex instincts to a science-fiction premise that will hook audiences in from the get-go. Gordon-Levitt and Blunt are among the best performers of their generation, and Willis one of our most under-appreciated marquee stars. Incidentally, the taciturn Willis described Looper as “the best thing I’ve ever done” in a recent interview with Esquire.
Argo (October 12)
Directed by Ben Affleck, written by Chris Terrio from an article by Joshuah Bearman, starring Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman
Why I’m Excited: If you had tapped me on the shoulder in 2003 while I was suffering through Daredevil and told me that Affleck would go on to become one of the better directors around, I would have asked you if you were blind. (Get it?) It’s hard to argue with Gone Baby Gone or The Town, though, and now Affleck is stepping out of his comfort zone, leaving contemporary Boston behind for a period piece based on real events in Washington, Los Angeles, and Iran. The involvement of Affleck and producer George Clooney secured an all-star ensemble cast, giving able support to Affleck’s evolving directorial style.
Seven Psychopaths (October 12)
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson
Why I’m Excited: After taking the theatre world by storm with pitch-black comedies like The Lieutenant Of Inishmore and The Pillowman, McDonagh made a successful transition into film with his Oscar-winning short Six Shooter (2005) and cult favorite In Bruges (2008). His instinct for finding absurdity and pathos in the bleakest of situations and his whip-smart dialogue look to be on point here, with a cast anchored by previous collaborators Farrell, Rockwell, and Walken, all of whom respond well to McDonagh’s particular brand of madness.
Cloud Atlas (October 26)
Directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, adapted by the Wachowskis and Tykwer from the novel by David Mitchell, starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and Jim Sturgess
Why I’m Excited: The Wachowskis have never yet equaled the success or impact of The Matrix (1999), but in Cloud Atlas they may have at last found a project in sync with their visual flair and heady philosophical interests. With its interweaving timelines and actors performing in multiple roles, Cloud Atlas has the potential to be an absolute mess, but it’s not often that we see an independent science-fiction film with this kind of ambition (or budget.) I’m also intrigued that the siblings have welcomed Tom Tykwer, best known for Run Lola Run (1998), into their brain trust; I have a feeling that the addition of an outside influence will serve to temper some of the meandering that made the Matrix sequels and Speed Racer such a slog.
Flight (November 2)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by John Gatins, starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, and Bruce Greenwood
Why I’m Excited: After a decade experimenting with motion-capture technology to mixed success in The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), and A Christmas Carol (2009), Zemeckis returns to live-action filmmaking with Flight. Best known for the Back To The Future trilogy (1985-1990), Forrest Gump (1994), and Cast Away (2000), Zemeckis apprenticed under Steven Spielberg and shares his mentor’s talents for commercial cinema with a brain and a heart and breathtaking action. His tackling here of modern conceptions of heroism has the perfect vehicle in Washington, in a welcome return to something substantive after a string of forgettable roles (The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable, Safe House).
Skyfall (November 9)
Directed by Sam Mendes, written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, starring Daniel Craig, Judy Dench, and Javier Bardem
Why I’m Excited: I liked Quantum Of Solace (2008) much more than most, but I will admit it seemed a step backward after the seismic jolt that was Casino Royale (2006). MGM’s financial troubles allowed the Bond producers the chance to regroup and get the Craig era of the franchise back on track. I think everyone involved knows that Craig’s ultimate legacy as Bond, which seemed almost assured after Casino Royale, now rests on whether or not Skyfall can equal the earlier film in critical and commercial acclaim, and have stepped up accordingly. Sam Mendes, known for sophisticated dramas like American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008), brings a level of cachet and sophistication that should serve the film well, and Bardem seems poised to add another to his list of great screen villains after his turn in No Country For Old Men (2007).
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14)
Directed by Peter Jackson, written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, and Richard Armitage
Why I’m Excited: After planning to act only as a writer and producer, Jackson instead returns to the epic fantasy world he created in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-2003) as a director. With almost all of the familiar faces returning from the earlier films, joined by Freeman as the titular Bilbo Baggins and Armitage as dwarven leader Thorin Oakenshield, this first film in a new trilogy will also benefit from ten additional years of special-effects technology, no doubt meaning even more stunning vistas and bravura action sequences. While there are some questions about Jackson’s decision to shoot at 48 frames per second and to adapt this much shorter novel as three films rather than one or two, his comfort and familiarity with Tolkien’s world should make for another arresting theatrical experience.
Les Misérables (December 14)
Directed by Tom Hooper, written by William Nicholson from the novel by Victor Hugo and the stage musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and Herbert Kretzmer, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway
Why I’m Excited: One of the great musicals of the latter half of the 20th century finally comes to the screen, starring perhaps the only viable crossover actor we have right now in Jackman, alongside an array of other fine performers. The bombast and spectacle of the musical is not for everyone, but the historical context and timeless themes of hope, justice, and family serve to ground Les Misérables more than most examples of the form. Moreover, I think Hooper is the perfect director to avoid sentimentality and cliche while letting the beauty of the music shine through.
Django Unchained (December 25)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kerry Washington
Why I’m Excited: Tarantino may be more open about his incorporation of other directors’ styles and techniques than most, but I am in the camp that feels his synthesis of these elements creates something unique and compelling all on its own. After making his first period film in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Tarantino sticks with the historical settings here, modifying his vernacular without losing his propensity for controversial subject matter or over-the-top violence. Add in a rare villainous turn from DiCaprio and another collaboration with Waltz after his Oscar-winning role in Basterds, and I’m looking forward to ending the year with a savage condemnation of slavery delivered via six-shooter, rifle, and whatever other implements might come to hand.