Holiday movies!

SN&R previews this season’s new crop of films. Hint: They’re big on diversion.

<i>Hugo</i>:<i> </i>Just hangin’ around again, eh, Hugo?

Hugo:Just hangin’ around again, eh, Hugo?

Jonathan Kiefer is SN&R’s film critic.

Upon approaching the annual tradition of the holiday movie guide, it is not uncommon for a writer to wonder briefly if maybe there’s some new and exciting and completely revolutionary way to do this that’s never before been tried. This gives way, usually after some consideration of the movie industry’s own evident wisdom about wheel reinvention, to the pragmatic understanding that new and exciting and completely revolutionary is overrated. Maybe, actually, what’s best is just what’s already been tried, and is true: a list.

So here is one, with cursory trend-spotting preamble. While we’re on the subject of the Hollywood habit of reusing and recycling—if not necessarily reducing—it seems sensible to point out that the last batch of movies from the 2011 crop shows a strong nostalgic streak. There is more of everything old being new again than usual. ’Tis the season when the blockbusters are supposed to be less vapid, the art-house oddities more edifying and nearly all of them apparently must harken back to some earlier era or other.

This being the homestretch of the year, some reflection naturally is in order. Hence the implied behest to make room on the calendar, particularly around Thanksgiving and Christmas, for an array of sober and mannerly period pieces. This time it seems like we’ve got more than we can handle. For starters, there’s a veritable bounty of biopics. This year’s “serious” season got under way with Leonardo DiCaprio playing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover for Clint Eastwood. From here we can look forward to looking back on portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Thatcher, King Edward VIII, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, among other important if fictional historical figures, such as Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, the Weinstein Company’s whole December slate is nothing but period pieces (and nearly nothing but biopics): The Artist, My Week With Marilyn, Coriolanus, W.E., and The Iron Lady (each discussed below) all are fastidiously preoccupied with the past. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. Entertainment has the idea, as evinced by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, that we’d all like to spend this Christmas commemorating 9/11. Beyond that, we’re due for much rebooted stuff that was on TV several decades ago, including more than one spy thriller, plus singing chipmunks and Muppets.

Some of this backward glancing is routinely attributable to the reigning generation of studio suits tending to greenlight big-screen glorifications of whatever pop-culture pabulum they grew up on (say, a comic-book franchise). And, of course, the filmmakers bring their lingering generational preoccupations to the table, too. So when Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg make youth-oriented efforts in ostensibly futuristic 3-D, for instance, they come out necessarily looking like relics from deep within an earlier century.

Regardless of who made them, though, the movies due in theaters between now and year’s end all seem huddled into a defensive crouch of diversionism. That’s fair enough, and not unprecedented—nor unreasonable given the circumstances of our particular here and now. Some degree of escapism should be expected from a strung-out, combat-weary, debt-laden, pre-diabetic nation whose latent class war has finally boiled over. The time is right for remembering when the time was allegedly righter. It can’t be for nothing that Woody Allen had the biggest commercial success of his career this year with Midnight In Paris, a movie expressly about the bittersweet allure of nostalgia (not least nostalgia for the bygone glory days of Woody Allen movies).

At least we do seem to have eased up on bleak visions of a dystopian post-apocalyptic near-future that were all the rage a few years ago. Instead, unhelpfully, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 suggest the future as infinitude of multipart series whose individual parts are further subdivided into parts of parts, like some hellish Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox of popular entertainment. In any case, it just might be easier not to look too far forward. Behold, below, our forthcoming blasts from various pasts.

<i>The Muppets</i>: Can you move your hand a little to the right, please? That’s it. I love being a puppet.

1. Hugo

Directing: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz

Involving: Paris in the 1930s, an orphan (Butterfield) living in a train station, early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès (Kingsley), and 3-D adventure derived from writer-illustrator Brian Seltzer’s Caldecott Medal winning young-adult book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The trailer makes it look like some sort of missing link between Sherlock Holmes (see No. 4) and Tintin (see No. 6).

Opening: November 23

2. The Muppets

Directing: James Bobbin

Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, various Muppets

Involving: A film reunion of the anthropomorphic musical animal puppets devised by Jim Henson in the 1950s, starring and co-scripted by someone (Segel), who obviously grew up watching them on TV and in movies during the ’70s and ’80s, and now promisingly taken over by an alumnus of Flight of the Conchords (Bobbin). Relatedly, the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, about the beloved Sesame Street Muppet and his creator, begins a limited release on December 16.

Opening: November 23

3. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

Directing: Mike Mitchell

Starring: Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Alyssa Milano, Anna Faris, Christina Applegate, Amy Poehler

Involving: A second sequel to the animated 2007 film revival of the 1950s cartoon trio of anthropomorphic, voice-modulated musical rodents (Long, Gubler, McCartney), whose cast happens to be sprinkled with survivors of previous decades’ sitcoms (Milano, Applegate).

Opening: December 16

<i>Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows</i>: Gypsies, tramps and thieves—along with a supersleuth, his sidekick and some explosions.

4. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Directing: Guy Ritchie

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jarred Harris, Noomi Rapace

Involving: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian-era super sleuth (Downey) and loyal physician helpmate (Law) tangling with criminal-mastermind nemesis (Harris) in action-comedy-thriller sequel, with original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Rapace) in a supporting role as a gypsy.

Opening: December 16

5. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Directing: David Fincher

Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård

Involving: The anticipated English-language adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s sexual-violence-steeped “Millennium Trilogy,” in which a dubiously disgraced muckraker (Craig) and a disturbed goth-chick computer hacker (Mara) form an unlikely crime-solving alliance.

Opening: December 21

6. The Adventures of Tintin

Directing: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

Involving: 1. A Belgian comic-book series dating back to 1929, on which the juvenile Spielberg was weaned, now at last in strange quasi-animated big-screen 3-D, as produced by Peter Jackson. 2. A young journalist (Bell) and a Merchant Marine captain (Serkis) on a thrilling treasure hunt.

Opening: December 21

<i>The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo</i>: A depressing, violent Swedish film version of this story was not enough, so here it is in English.

7. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Directing: Brad Bird

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Lea Seydoux

Involving: A 1970s TV show about high-tech espionage that became a 1990s/2000s film franchise, now promisingly taken over by the Oscar-winning director of Pixar’s The Incredibles.

Opening: December 21

8. We Bought a Zoo

Directing: Cameron Crowe

Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning

Involving: The buying of a zoo, as depicted in the Benjamin Mee memoir on which this film is based: A widower (Damon) recovers his mojo and reconnects with his family by, um, surrounding them with wild animals. It seems throwbackish if only because Crowe has been mostly out of game after slinking away from the flop of 2005’s Elizabethtown; the Zoo trailer reveals at least one reach into the trick-bag of former glories: Damon making a scene of quitting his job, Jerry Maguire-style.

Opening: December 23

9. War Horse

Directing: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis

Involving: Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel about an English boy (Irvine) and his horse, both of whom enlist for the first World War; and Spielberg’s tireless effort to keep exploring even the farthest-flung corners of baby boomer nostalgia.

Opening: December 25

<i>Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol</i>: It’s the standard spy thing. Get dressed up, hang from the ceiling, steal microfilm.

10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Directing: Stephen Daldry

Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, James Gandolfini, Viola Davis, Max Von Sydow, Thomas Horn

Involving: A could-go-either-way adaptation, helmed by the director of Billy Elliott, The Hours and The Reader, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy (Horn) scouring New York City for a message from his father (Hanks), who died in the World Trade Center attacks.

Opening: December 25

Possibly coming to a theater near you, but it depends

Some of these prestige pictures apparently are so prestigious that their distributors snootily withhold them from smaller movie-going markets, like Sacramento, until they’ve proven themselves elsewhere.

Typically, limited releases like these first show up briefly in Los Angeles and New York, just to make the calendar cut for Oscar consideration. Whether they move on, when and where to, all depends a lot on box-office performance.

Below are 10 more select films we expect to trickle down to the Tower or the Crest theaters eventually, even if not until well after the season (or the year) is over. At the very least, they’re well-anticipated enough to wind up on DVD, or on demand, before too long.

1. My Week With Marilyn

Directing: Simon Curtis

Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Eddie Redmayne

Involving: Marilyn Monroe (Williams) on a brief tour of England with a young production assistant (Redmayne) in 1957. Branagh plays Laurence Olivier.

Opening: November 23, Tower Theatre

<i>The Artist</i>: Everything old is new again, even silent movies.

2. The Artist

Directing: Michel Hazanavicius

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell

Involving: Romance between a has-been silent-movie star (Dujardin) and an upstart extra (Bejo); also, importantly, a black-and-white movie with no spoken dialogue set in 1927.

Opening: November 26, limited; December 16, Tower Theatre

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, John Hurt

Involving: Old-school Cold War English espionage, adapted from John le Carre’s seminal 1974 novel, with Oldman as a spy coming out of retirement to uncover a double agent. Or, from another perspective, a 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness, promisingly rebooted by the director of Let the Right One In.

Opening: December 9, limited; January 6, Tower Theatre

4. The Iron Lady

Directing: Phyllida Lloyd

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Ronald Reagan (as self)

Involving: Not a Marvel Comics property, mercifully, but a portrait of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who took that office, as the first woman ever to do so, in 1979; also, the latest Streep showpiece of biographical impersonation. You know you need to see it, whatever your thoughts about Thatcher or about the director of Mamma Mia!

Opening: December 30, limited; January 13, wide

5. A Dangerous Method

Directing: David Cronenberg

Starring: Viggo Mortenson, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley

Involving: An impulsive yet cerebral love triangle with Sigmund Freud (Mortenson), Carl Jung (Fassbender), and the woman (Knightley) who influenced both men’s lives and work. That’s already an appealing package, but throw in the oddball auteur of The Dead Zone, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and it’s hard not to get, uh, psyched.

Opening: November 23, limited; January 27, Tower Theatre

6. Albert Nobbs

Directing: Rodrigo Garcia

Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Involving: A woman (Close, also a co-writer) who poses as a man to find livery work in 19th-century Ireland, and keeps on posing, problematically, for 30 years. With music by enduring 1990s pop sensation Sinead O’Connor.

Opening: December 21, limited; January 27 less limited

7. W.E.

Directing: Madonna

Starring: Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Andrea Risenborough

Involving: The politically scandalous affair between the American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Risenborough) and Britain’s King Edward VIII (D’Arcy), who in 1936 abdicated his throne to marry her, as retrospectively obsessed over by a lonely contemporary woman (Cornish). Her revisiting an important historical moment, or at least an important plot thread from The King’s Speech, poignantly puts into perspective just how long it’s been since we’ve imagined Madonna as a forward-thinker.

Opening: December 9, limited; February 3, for the rest of us

8. Carnage

Directing: Roman Polanski

Starring: Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly

Involving: The Brooklyn-set (but Paris-shot) adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage, a dark comedy about victims and bullies and doing battle, in which two pairs of parents meet to talk about a schoolyard fight between their boys. The source material here is relatively young, but the director, at 78, is not—and, of course, there is also the matter of Polanski’s reputation being, shall we say, forever haunted by the past.

Opening: December 16, limited; January 20, Tower Theatre

<i>Coriolanus</i>: Voldemort is back, and this time, he’s brought friends. With guns.

9. Coriolanus

Directing: Ralph Fiennes

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave

Involving: Vengeful, riotously tragic pre-imperial Roman politics, transposed into a context of modern European warfare. You know something has been around for a while when even the conceit of the “modern update” seems old-fashioned. In this case it’s a 26-century-old story, a four-century-old Shakespeare text, and a pet project for Fiennes, making his well-regarded directorial debut.

Opening: November 30, limited; someday, elsewhere

10. In the Land of Blood and Honey

Directing: Angelina Jolie (who also wrote the script)

Starring: Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic

Involving: Not a reminiscence of Jolie’s tempestuous pre-Pitt relationship with Billy Bob Thornton, mercifully, but rather a drama about the Bosnian War of the 1990s, in which a Serbian soldier (Kostic) discovers the Bosnian Muslim woman he once loved (Marjanovic) is now his prison-camp captive. Shot in English and in Serbo-Croatian simultaneously, with a locally sourced cast.

Opening: December 23, limited; someday, elsewhere

(BONUS!): Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Directing: Nicholas Webster

Starring: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Black, Pia Zadora

Involving: What the title says. Father Christmas himself is abducted by aliens because no one is available on their planet to give their children presents. “In Space-Blazing color,” digitally restored from 1964.

Opening: December 17, exclusively at the Crest, as part of the two-day Santa’s Cool Holiday Film Festival, which also features lots of vintage mid-century yuletide-themed entertainment, and a bouncing-ball “Jingle Bells” singalong.