Once a day traditionally defined by Jewish people going to temple—er, Silver City—Christmas has been more recently embraced by those who actually celebrate Christmas as the holiest of cinematic high holidays (because gentiles have also come to the realization that it’s an ideal way to not have to talk to your relatives for two hours).
So which of this season’s blockbuster offerings are most worthy of your shekels? Allow our team of movie critics to break it down for you. (Click on the titles to read their full reviews; for showtimes, visit our friends at Toronto.com.)
PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE EXCUSES FOR ARRIVING A FEW MINUTES LATE TO TURKEY DINNER
Life of Pi (9/10): Though there’d been talk of adapting Life of Pi for the screen ever since Yann Martel’s novel wowed its first reader, it’s very fortunate that the task took 11 years to achieve.
A Late Quartet (8/10): Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ivanir, Catherine Keener, and Christopher Walken are a joy to watch in A Late Quartet, Yaron Zilberman’s wintry drama about an eminent New York classical ensemble that begins to fall apart after its aging cellist (Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Anna Karenina (8/10): Having previously served as director Joe Wright’s leading lady in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Keira Knightley rejoins him to play the titular role of the aristocrat’s wife who has a scandalous affair with a dashing if feckless cavalry officer in 1870s Moscow.
56 Up (8/10): Every seven years, a group of Brits who we first met as schoolkids in the 1964 TV doc Seven Up!have allowed viewers to peer into their lives. 56 Up maintains the high standards for thoughtfulness and emotional richness set by its predecessors, which have arrived every seven years over the last half-century.
Skyfall (8/10): No other Bond movie has looked so consistently gorgeous. From the terse, Bourne-like chase through Istanbul in the opening scene to cinematographer Roger Deakins’ astonishing use of the middle section’s Shanghai and Macau locations to Bardem’s deliciously theatrical entrance, Skyfall succeeds so well as a source of visual pleasure that its other virtues are almost beside the point.
The Central Park Five (7/10): Based on the book by Sarah Burns and co-directed by the author with her husband, David McMahon, and her doc-legend dad Ken Burns, The Central Park Five is a conventionally rendered but dramatically compelling account of the infamous 1989 gang-rape in New York City and the media firestorm and legal travesty that ensued. (Opens Dec. 25.)
The Hobbit (7/10): The hard-edged, harshly lit images give Peter Jackson’s film a look that variously suggests both the ugliness of ’80s TV movies shot on analog video and an overlong intro for an Xbox game. Thankfully, it’s less jarring once the storyline picks up some momentum.
BETTER THAN AN AFTERNOON SPENT BREAKING DOWN UNWRAPPED GIFT BOXES FOR THE RECYCLING BIN—BUT NOT BY MUCH
Hyde Park on Hudson (6/10): Murray’s FDR certainly is witty—and the highlight of the movie—but director Roger Michell’s nostalgia-drenched biopic is very much a lightweight, soft-focus treatment of the man.
Silver Linings Playbook (6/10): The films of David O. Russell have often benefitted from a certain degree of chaos. But compared with equally raucous predecessors like Flirting With Disaster and I (Heart) Huckabees, the director’s latest gets skittish whenever it strays into darker, rougher terrain, preferring to keep it cuddly despite the fact that its core subject is one man’s struggle with mental illness.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (6/10): With this fifth installment in the blockbuster franchise spawned by Stephenie Meyer’s fantasy series about a skittish teenager and the supernatural hunks who love her despite her terrible posture, The Twilight Saga arrives at the kind of suitably grandiose finale that should appease the world’s legions of Twi-hards.
Django Unchained (5/10): Once again mixing his characters’ displays of verbal dexterity with explosions of extreme violence, Tarantino applies the same revenge-fantasy template to the Ole South that Inglourious Basterds did to the Third Reich, but with far less cunning or potency. (Opens Dec. 25.)
Jack Reacher (5/10): Though underwhelming as a holiday-season Tom Cruise vehicle after last year’s slickly proficient Mission: Impossible installment, Jack Reacher makes at least one fresh move by casting Werner Herzog as the movie’s shadowy villain.
Playing for Keeps (5/10): Though this featherweight dramedy starring Gerard Butler is merely perfunctory in terms of anything that happens on screen, Playing for Keeps is plenty interesting as a case study on some of the effects that the recession has had on Hollywood.
This Is 40 (5/10): If Judd Apatow’s 2009 dramedy Funny People struck you as an excessively insular exploration of the anxieties of film-biz folk residing in Los Angeles’s wealthiest enclaves, then This Is 40 will have you wishing its narcissistic characters were driven right off the continent and stranded in ocean waters.
LESS ENJOYABLE THAN EATING GRANDMA’S STALE FRUITCAKE
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (4/10): Worlds Away probably doesn’t mean to suggest that Hell is Cirque du Soleil. But what other conclusions can we draw about a film whose protagonist gets sucked underground only to discover the subterranean home-base of the world’s most famous performance troupe, who proceed to assault her with elaborately choreographed displays of their unholy flexibility?
Deadfall (4/10): With the holiday movie season getting ever more crowded with competitors, it’s hard to believe this botched thriller will attract many viewers beyond the ones it’s likeliest to get. Those would be James Bond fans who accidentally misread Deadfall’s title on the marquee.
Killing Them Softly (4/10): In his second film with Brad Pitt, after 2007’s similarly ambitious but far more admirable The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, writer-director Andrew Dominik moves the story in George V. Higgins’ crime novel, Cogan’s Trade, from mid-’70s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans. But Pitt’s star power is not enough to stop the movie from coming apart at the seams.
Les Misérables (4/10): The decision to let his cast belt their songs live on-set instead of to a pre-recorded vocal track not only results in some dodgy performances, but clashes with the arch artificiality of the period backdrops. (Opens Dec. 25.)
Rust and Bone (4/10): If not for Marion Cotillard’s performance as a woman trying to start her life anew after losing her legs in a horrific tragedy, director Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to his superior prison flick A Prophet would be completely undone by its ludicrous plot and reprehensible sexual politics.
The Guilt Trip (4/10): While nobody expects dazzling craftsmanship in a broad studio comedy, the direction here is so lazy that Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen—promisingly cast as an archetypally loving and fractious Jewish mother-boychick pairing—seem stranded in their own star vehicle.
The Impossible (3/10): A slickly produced thriller set in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami,The Impossible is a perfect storm of bad filmmaking ideas.
ALSO OPENING DEC. 25
Parental Guidance: We’re not allowed to tell you about this Billy Crystal/Bette Midler vehicle until it opens on Christmas Day, at which point our review will be posted to http://www.thegridto.com/culture/film/.