Ho. Ho. Hmmm…

Use your local megaplex as an escape hatch from the holidays with this guide to 15 of the season’s most indifferently anticipated films

Ah, the holidays. It’s that time of year when Sacramento finally settles in to the other of its two monotonous seasons—this being the brown and damp one—and newspaper articles begin with “Ah,” and Thanksgiving and Christmas roll together into one big advertising blitz, and everybody whines about how sick they are of all the crass commercialism (see page 25). And everybody else whines about how sick they are of people whining about how sick they are of all the crass commercialism (see this sentence).

It’s a season as industrious for movie studios as it is lazy for cultural journalists, and everything accordingly starts to feel like filler: the turkey stuffing, the egg nog, the surface-level conversations with detested family members, the newspaper copy and, of course, the movies themselves.

And so, ever-willfully a part of the forcing-the-holiday-crap-on-you problem, we offer a guide, of sorts, to 15 of the season’s most indifferently anticipated new films. As is usually the case, they fall into three basic categories.

1. Movies to which we turn for seasonal edification. These gently instruct us on why the birth of Jesus matters to Western civilization, and how someone like Queen Latifah can explain it to us.

2. Movies to which we turn for controlled self-lobotomization. These films are not explicitly holiday-themed, and often not explicitly intelligent, either. But they are important to us, or so their overseeing studios’ advertising budgets would suggest.

3. Movies to which we turn for avoidance of socialization. Here we tend to find the more “thoughtful” pictures, the “indie” ones, which reinforce our fragile egos and forgive (or perhaps enable) our feelings of superiority to our fellow citizens (or our pretended solidarity with non-citizens).

You can decide which is which. That’s the fun of it, see.

Martin Amis once wrote of “human worthlessness in the face of an indifferent infinity,” which is a nice way of describing how the holidays—let alone daily life in this world—can sometimes make us feel. Is a little diversion, a little escape, really too much to ask?

The holidays impose many public rituals, and moviegoing could be the most consistently rewarding among them; after all, if you have to be around a bunch of assholes for hours at a time, they might as well be strangers in the dark.

We know you have many choices when reading superfluous, uninformed and under-funny holiday movie commentary, and we’d like to thank you for being stuck on your office toilet or a bus trying to hide from co-workers or panhandlers behind SN&R.

I am Beowulf! I am ripper, tearer, slasher! Stoner!

1. Beowulf
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich

Opened: Last week, chump. What’re you waiting for?

Involving: The bane of English majors for 1,300 years, now with 75 percent more hostility toward Christianity! An epic poem for the ages, a tale of heroism and hubris and … uh … Angelina Jolie’s breasts, as much justification for IMAX 3-D as cinema ever will require. Now, we know how attached you were to the Seamus Heaney translation, but surely you’ll find something to like in this, uh, rather revisionist one, partly scripted by comic-book badass Neil Gaiman.

Worth bearing in mind: Winstone as the bodacious Beowulf? Unfairly slenderized by all that weirdly deadening motion-capture animation, but still good, and sort of a thinking person’s Russell Crowe. Malkovich as the unctuous Unferth? Too easy. Crispin Glover as the grotesque Grendel? Inspired.

2. This Christmas
Directed by: Preston A. Whitmore II

Starring: Delroy Lindo, Regina King, Idris Elba, with a “special appearance by Mehki Pfeiffer,” whatever on Earth that means.

Opening: November 21

Involving: an African-American family convening for its first holiday together in several years and getting all dramatic. And you worried that after Ingmar Bergman died no filmmaker would be so qualified to interrogate mankind’s fraught relationship with the Christian god. (That is the true meaning of Christmas, isn’t it?) Well, Mr. Whitmore is here for you. Just try to imagine Mehki Pfeiffer as the next Max von Sydow, and all will be … well?

Probably pushing some luck to ask: Are we sure the guy’s name isn’t Whitemore? Because that’s what the studio execs seem to want from him.

3. Margot at the Wedding
Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicole Kidman and, as the chubby guy who keeps it real, Jack Black, presumably because Philip Seymour Hoffman was busy

Opening: December 7

Involving: more family crisis and estrangement and what not; one sister crashing the other’s wedding; indier-than-thou affectations to rival The Savages (see No. 10); the pedigree of director Baumbach, who established himself as the go-to guy for tragicomic dysfunction with The Squid and The Whale (2005).

Left to say about it: not a hell of a lot.

4. The Perfect Holiday
Directed by: Lance Rivera

Starring: Queen Latifah, Morris Chestnut, Gabrielle Union, Terrence Howard

Opening: December 14

Involving: a girl who asks a department-store Santa to get her divorced mom a husband for Christmas. And you worried that after Michelangelo Antonioni died no filmmaker would be qualified to interrogate post-industrial human alienation. Well, OK, that’s reasonable. But at least this movie has a Barney Miller alumnus among its many, many writers.

You might prefer to call it: The Perfect Holiday-Movie Formula, though you realize that would be too easy.

5. Youth Without Youth
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz

Opening: December 14 in most cities but probably not ours

Involving: Coppola’s return to the director’s chair after 10 years. Bewitching title, isn’t it? Yes, in the grand tradition of things without other things—“Games Without Frontiers,” say, or “Doctors Without Borders”—this film, adapted by Coppola from the novella by Romanian religious historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade, goes you one further, by being about a thing without itself. Whoa. It rummages among the filmmaker’s self-proclaimed pet subjects: “time, consciousness and the dream-like basis of reality.” On the eve of World War II, an elderly linguistics professor (Roth) gets struck by lightning and then finds himself becoming younger, smarter, and more interesting to cruel Nazis. Let’s just say things get weirder from there.

Worth bearing in mind: Somebody seems to have left the gun and taken the cannoli.

You might prefer to call it: Mindfuck Without Remorse.

6. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Directed by: Jake Kasdan

Starring: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer

Opening: December 21

Involving: the fictional life and times of one dynamic song-slinger, and the long-overdue spoofery of such formulaic pop-music biopics as, most recently, Ray and Walk the Line. Just because Rob Reiner has strayed so mercilessly far from This is Spinal Tap (see No. 8) doesn’t mean the excessive, easily parodied lives of modern musicians no longer deserve excessive, easy parodies. And no, silly, not Charles Nelson Reilly, though that might be fun, too; it’s John C. Reilly, the stalwart supporting player of such varied fare as Talladega Nights, A Prairie Home Companion and Year of the Dog, in his first lead starring role in a major studio release.

Worth bearing in mind: The appearance of cameo-meister Paul Rudd—and, hopefully, the quality of the writing—lets you know at least some of the script is courtesy of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up). Also: “It’s a full frontally nude movie type of yuletide experience,” director and co-writer Jake Kasdan told USA Today, without giving away any more details. “It’s the Where’s Waldo of penises.” Oh, and the songs are real, too.

7. National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub, if that is his real name

Starring: Nicolas Cage and that beautiful blonde German woman who played Helen in Troy

Opening: December 21

Involving: a treasure hunter, a missing page from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, an international conspiracy, a dumbass concept, a depressing confirmation that the first National Treasure movie actually made money.

You might prefer to call it: The Duh Vinci Code

Should be spoofed pointlessly on YouTube as: National Treasure: Box of Sucrets. Seriously. We’d watch that.

8. The Bucket List
Directed by: Rob Reiner

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Rob Morrow (yeah, even he wonders where he’s been)

Opening: December 25

Involving: two sick and tired old men who make a list of things to do before they die—which, by the way, will be soon. Road trip, poignant high jinx, fulfillment ensues. Or does it? Hmm. Maybe all that saccharine is what gave them the cancer in the first place. Reiner, he who was Meathead to Carol O’Connor’s immortally cranky Archie Bunker, might actually manage the necessary chemistry between his stars. But how much ballsier would it be if he just staged an homage to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and had some big dude come in and euthanize Nicholson with a pillow to the face?

You might prefer to call it: Fetch Me a Bucket, Big Misters Sunshine

9. Charlie Wilson’s War
Directed by: Mike Nichols

Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Opening: December 25

Involving: a true-story drama of an ’80s Texas congressman who—oh, who cares? The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Aaron Sorkin wrote the script, and Julia Roberts stars, so the thing’ll be all fogged in with talky smugness anyway. Give us the Mike Nichols of The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge, we’re there. Give us the Nichols of Regarding Henry and Primary Colors, not so much.

You might prefer to see: Brian Wilson’s War? The tender, brilliant Beach Boy (Philip Seymour Hoffman, naturally) does battle with his own inner demons? Hey, that idea’s on the house, Hollywood.

10. The Savages
Directed by: Tamara Jenkins

Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco

Opening: December 25

Involving: estranged siblings reluctantly reunited to deal with their Alzheimer’s-afflicted father; characters with an allegorically portent last name; poignant but tastefully subdued high jinx.

You might prefer to call it: Medium-Sized Sunshine Siblings

Can’t you and mom try to get along? Just for Christmas?

11. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Directed by: Colin Strause and Greg Strause, who did the effects on 300

Starring: Oh, nobody you’ve heard of

Opening: December 25

Involving: aliens, predators, conflict, and music for a Roman Catholic funeral mass, apparently. Also, some sort of hybrid between the two titular second-rate sci-fi franchise villains, imaginatively described as the “predalien.” “Ale-y editor,” of course, would sooner befit the beer-blunted author of this article, itself another wasteful example of a stupid sequel.

Also answers to: AVP-R, WTF?

12. There Will Be Blood
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis

Opening: December 26 in limited release

Involving: the self-serious hipster-darling director behind that three-hour dick joke known as Boogie Nights (1997) trying to apologize for 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love with his own adaptation of self-serious lefty-darling writer Upton Sinclair’s subversive take on the origin myth of Texas oil men.

Worth bearing in mind: intensity-monger Daniel Day-Lewis, smeared with crude oil and shouting himself hoarse, not to mention the quotably ominous title. Uh, is this thing actually gonna be, like, The Unbearable Darkness of Being, or what?

13. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by: Tim Burton

Starring: Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter

Opening: December 28

Involving: a barber and a baker, in 19th-century London, who go into a gruesome sort of business together. And sing about it.

Worth bearing in mind: Sondheim deservedly is the name to drop among musical-theater geeks (in case you ever need to impress any), and Sweeney Todd is the name to drop among Sondheim freaks. Who better to appease the freaks and geeks than Burton (and Depp, his muse for five previous pictures)? Then again, Woody Allen spends a lot of time in London these days …

You might prefer to call it: There’s People in Dem Dar Pies!

14. Cassandra’s Dream
Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor, Tom Wilkinson, Sally Hawkins

Opening: December 28

Involving: two brothers whose lives intertwine, which makes sense because they are brothers. Also: Woody finally getting unglued from New York, only to mire himself in London. This will be his third feature in a row set there—but at least he’s got some great U.K.-native talent in Wilkinson and McGregor. Oh, yes, and then there’s Farrell, who’s, uh, also a U.K.-native. So we know the casting, at least, has the potential for great tragedy. Or will it be hilarity? That wild and crazy Woody still knows how to keep us guessing, all right!

Worth bearing in mind: OK, if not Sweeney Todd, how about Woody Allen doing Dickens? He could cast himself as a kvetching Scrooge, and, say, Jude Law or somebody as Tiny Tim. No, here it is: Branagh as Tiny Tim. Just try and say humbug to that!

I once made a movie called <i>Cobra</i>, you know.

15. Rambo
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, weapons of various caliber

Opening: sometime in January; Happy New Year!

Involving: mercenaries in a remote Burmese village, coming to the presumably gratuitously violent rescue of some missing aid workers there; a challenge to get over yourself and remember that First Blood was actually a compelling little libertarian thriller—and to get over that and remember that its sequels, uh, weren’t.

Worth bearing in mind: Until Zemeckis’ Beowulf, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa was the frustratingly-better-than-you-want-to-admit movie to beat. Can more grave robbery of his own career put Sly back on top? Are we talking Tango & Cash: The Twilight Years or Stop! Or My Mom Will Roll Over in Her Grave? Allow us humbly to suggest Rambo vs. Alien. Just imagine the Rambalien!

You might prefer to call it: This Is What Happens When You Get Nostalgic for the ’80s, People