Films without wizards

December used to be a good month for the kind of movies kids hate. Which may no longer be true, but a few gems can still be found.

Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky

Is it just my imagination, or is the movie industry coming down with a galloping case of arrested adolescence? I hate to grumble at this festive time of year, but this used to be the season when all the studios trotted out their prestige pictures, hoping to have them fresh in Academy voters’ minds when nominating time came around. Some of us wait all year to see what comes out in the last two months.

But as we haul out the holly this year, there are only two movies on everyone’s lips: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Warner Bros.’ opening shot in a planned multibillion-dollar franchise, and The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of New Zealander Peter Jackson’s take on the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy. There’s even a petulant feud among the two films’ prepubescent devotees (deftly lampooned in the comic strip Fox Trot) as to which will be the coolest movie of the year.

Besides those two, there’s the pending release of the incredibly lame-sounding spoof Not Another Teen Movie and the computer-animated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. See what I mean? I feel like glancing out the window to make sure it isn’t really summer, when such popcorn fare usually comes out. If Columbia Pictures hadn’t delayed the release of Spider-Man for retooling in the wake of September 11, the illusion of summer would be even more complete.

The Royal Tenenbaums

So what’s a grown-up to do? Is there any hope for moviegoers who’ve already seen Harry Potter (after all, once should be plenty for anyone) and aren’t planning to line up for The Fellowship of the Ring because they never got around to reading Tolkien in the first place? Actually, yes, there is. Harry and Frodo may get all the hype, but there are at least a smattering of movies on the horizon that could remind us of a time when adult-oriented films in December were the rule rather than the exception.

Opening December 14:

Vanilla Sky:
If you’re one of the few dozen Americans who saw Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar’s romantic sci-fi psychological thriller Open Your Eyes in 1998, you were probably intrigued when Tom Cruise snagged the U.S. remake rights. Since then, Cruise’s Jerry Maguire director Cameron Crowe has signed on, along with Penelope Cruz (reprising her role from the original), Cameron Diaz and Kurt Russell. If Vanilla Sky is anything like Eyes, don’t blink or you’ll miss something important.

The Royal Tenenbaums:
Writer/director Wes Anderson has a small but loyal following. In this comedy of domestic warfare, he reunites with actors from his cult favorites Rushmore (Bill Murray, Seymour Cassel) and Bottle Rocket (Luke and Owen Wilson). He also works for the first time with Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover and Alec Baldwin. If all that’s not enough to get your hopes up, check your pulse—you may be dead.

The Majestic

Opening December 21:

The Majestic:
Jim Carrey plays it straight as a blacklisted 1950s writer with amnesia who wanders into a small town and is mistaken for the town’s lost war hero. Early press releases have invoked the name of director Frank Capra, which may be a bad sign, since no one—least of all Majestic director Frank Darabont—has ever duplicated the Capra Touch. (Pauline Kael once said, “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can—but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.”) On the other hand, Darabont has struck chords with audiences before (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) and he sometimes manages to approximate Capra’s slick populist sincerity. As for Jim Carrey, will he finally snag the Oscar nomination he was robbed of twice (for The Truman Show and Man on the Moon)? Rubbing elbows with the likes of Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, Allen Garfield, Hal Holbrook, James Whitmore and David Ogden Stiers can’t hurt.

A Beautiful Mind:
This one comes out in limited release on the 21st and might not hit Sacramento until after the first of the year. Still, if director Ron Howard can pull off the challenge of making an exciting movie about a math professor, it may well be worth waiting for. Russell Crowe plays John Nash, the troubled Princeton genius who sank into schizophrenia in the 1950s, then battled his way back, amazingly winning the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Judd Hirsch and Christopher Plummer co-star.

Opening December 25:

A Beautiful Mind

The list of releases for Christmas Day 2001 shows what a kid-oriented season this is. Usually, December 25 teems with prestige movies, since it’s the last day a film can open in Los Angeles and qualify for the year’s Oscars. This year, even in the big cities, the Christmas pickings are pretty slim.

Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (about the military debacle in Mogadishu in 1993 that killed 18 American troops and drove the U.S. out of Somalia), is probably a long shot for any awards. But Scott’s penchant for dramatic imagery (and lingering cachet from Gladiator), coupled with the martial temper of the times, could put this one over.

More promising, perhaps, is Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize novel The Shipping News. Remember The Cider House Rules? Chocolat? Hallstrom is becoming the screen’s foremost literary interpreter—a sort of Hollywood version of the Oprah Book Club—and this is his 2001 bid to keep his streak alive. Proulx’s novel combines psychological depth with picturesque locations, right up Hallstrom’s alley, and the cast boasts a lot of talented names: Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Scott Glenn, Pete Postlethwaite (where’s he been lately?) and Cate Blanchett.

The Christmas heavyweight (pun intended) could turn out to be Michael Mann’s Ali. Mann has a knack for densely weighty, brooding urban epics like Heat (a success in 1995) and The Insider (a well-reviewed box office dud two years ago). In filming the socially and politically charged life of Muhammad Ali, Mann just may have a story to match his sprawling proclivities (it’s been 10 years since he made a movie less than two-and-a-half hours long). In any case, in Will Smith he definitely has a star whose personal charisma nearly equals that of Ali himself in his prime. Besides, any movie that features Jon Voight as Howard Cosell and LeVar Burton as Martin Luther King deserves bonus points for inspired casting.

So if you know what to look for, it seems there are a handful of films on their way that might be something you could discuss with a mature adult without blushing, looking over your shoulder, or lowering your voice. Not what we’ve seen in past years, perhaps, but hey, it’s just been one of those years, dominated by Shrek on one end and Harry Potter on the other. Even the summer movies had less bang than whimper this year (quick, describe a scene, any scene, from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).

Ah well, the lineup may not be much, but it’s better than nothing, I guess. At least it’ll tide us over until … until … hmmm. When is Spider-Man coming out, anyway?