Six solid, respectable and kinda stiff offerings from the Hollywood machine for the holidays

The end of the world as you never knew it: This holiday’s Hollywood fare, complete with cyclops Tom Cruise, growing-young Brad Pitt and your run-of-the-mill coterie of Oscar bait.

The end of the world as you never knew it: This holiday’s Hollywood fare, complete with cyclops Tom Cruise, growing-young Brad Pitt and your run-of-the-mill coterie of Oscar bait.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

Year’s end always seems like a great time for moviegoing. It must be something about reflection and renewal—and kick-ass explosions, fancy-pants acting, celebrity-grade affluence, thawed hearts and Tom Cruise as an eye-patched noble Nazi. Accordingly, six respectable suggestions.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (December 12) is about an alien, Klaatu, and his huge cycloptic robot, Gort, who touch down on Earth with a message for humanity from afar. As I dimly recall from the 1951 version, the message amounts to something like, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” Keanu Reeves stars. A good thought, there, but no, he doesn’t play the robot. He plays the alien. And he does appear to grasp his motivation. For instance, when someone asks him, “Why have you come to our planet?” Keanu-Klaatu replies, in his ominously neutral way, “Your planet?” Not respectable, you say? Well, think of how smart you’ll seem when weighing in on the various ways this version of the tale reflects cultural and technological advances, and regressions, in human civilization since the ’50s original—all while cleverly avoiding any use whatsoever of the term “remake.” Plus, the often respectable Jennifer Connelly is in it, too. And apparently there’s some sort of an environmental message.

Doubt (December 12): John Patrick Shanley directs an adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play about … let’s just say a controversy in a ’60s Catholic school and subsequent inquest into moral authority. This involves, among other things, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman shouting at each other quite dramatically—but always respectably, always so very respectably. You saw B Street Theatre’s production of the play last February, now see the film. What’s that? You didn’t see B Street’s production? Well, then you’re a tool. No “doubt” about that.

Slumdog Millionaire (December 15) is a tale of an Indian orphan from, well, the slums (Dev Patel), who rockets toward victory in his nation’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But before he can achieve that final payoff, he must prove he hasn’t cheated his way into the opportunity. Ah, doesn’t the quest for wealth just bring out the best in all of us? Apparently, in a roundabout way, it does: The buzz about this almost hysterically hyped crowd pleaser is that it’s just ever so affirming. It was directed by Danny Boyle, and there’s no reason to figure he hasn’t aced it. After all, the Slumdog story is said to involve two of Boyle’s favorite things: young people wading through raw sewage (see also Trainspotting) and coming into cash by the millions (see also Millions).

Seven Pounds (December 19): Reteaming with Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino in what someone—oh, what the hell, let it be me—surely will describe as The Pursuit of Heavy-handedness, Will Smith plays a very somber fellow who, as he puts it in the trailer, “did something really bad once.” No, you don’t understand: something really bad. You don’t understand because you’re not quite supposed to until it opens on December 19. Just know that for reasons which must remain mysterious until such time as you see the movie, Smith’s character has the power to change the lives of seven strangers. And he is not afraid to use that power. Or maybe he is, and that’s where the drama comes from. Be sure, though, that there will be redemption. There had damn well better be some redemption. Smith’s co-stars include, appealingly, Rosario Dawson as the heart-thawing young woman and Woody Harrelson as a blind but possibly “seeing” man.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (December 25) adapts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story about a man who is born old and ages backward. Weeeird. But classy weeeird. Having bounced around between screenwriters and directors, the project finally took hold with writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich) and director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), thus ensuring much moviegoer anticipation. And in the title role, Brad Pitt brings something like the same golden-boy quality Robert Redford brought to the movie of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby 34 years ago. That is, when he’s not being freakishly aged and reproportioned by the latest computer wizardry. Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton also star. Are we talking respectability, or what?

So let’s talk instead about Valkyrie (December 26), in which director Bryan Singer reunites with Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie for a thriller about the real-life Nazi colonel who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Now, if the sight of Tom Cruise in that uniform and eye patch suggests a strenuously dignified comic book (yes, Singer also made a couple of X-Men movies and Superman Returns), just try to concentrate on the supporting cast—Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard—and be glad that if there’s one thing this isn’t, it’s a “holiday” movie.