For profit-driven Hollywood studios, the old notion of warehousing their best products until the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is now as nutty as a fruitcake. With Halloween in the ledger, the holiday movie season has already begun.
Audiences are now getting to experience “12 Years a Slave,” our pick for the best film of the year. But dozens of other goodies await under the tree, and some of them are sure to surprise us.
This year’s catalog is so crowded with potentially good movies that at least two presumed award contenders – George Clooney’s “Monuments Men” and Nicole Kidman as “Grace of Monaco” – are taking a powder until spring.
In the end, the movies can’t all be worth five golden rings. But with a little help from your cinematic secret Santa, you might avoid the few rotten eggs that the studio geese are a-laying.
We’ve circled 12 key dates on the holiday movie calendar. Following are the options – and our picks for those days. (As usual, release dates are subject to change.)
In the catalog: Chris Hemsworth wields a mighty hammer in the sequel “Thor: The Dark World.” The explicit lesbian love story “Blue is the Warmest Color” was the sensation of the Cannes Film Festival. The director of “Love Actually” enlists Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson for the time-travel romance “About Time.” Naomi Watts embodies the doomed Princess of Wales in “Diana.” Solo seaman Robert Redford tries to salvage a sinking ship in the nearly wordless “All Is Lost.”
Our wish list: That Thor doesn’t pound us senseless with superhero overkill.
In the catalog: Taye Diggs and his college friends reunite after 15 years for “The Best Man Holiday.” Matthew McConaughey is an AIDS patient seeking unconventional remedies in the true story “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Our wish list: That skeptical audiences take a chance on the downer-sounding “Dallas Buyers Club.” We’ve seen it, and it is outrageously entertaining. The rejuvenated McConaughey will get some deserved awards for his role, which required him to lose considerable weight, but the real eye opener is Jared Leto as a drag queen who teaches the macho man about being a stand-up guy.
In the catalog: Jennifer Lawrence fights for food and freedom in the sequel “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” A girl in Nazi-era Germany violates library etiquette in “The Book Thief.” Sperm donor Vince Vaughan reaps what he sows in “Delivery Man.”
Our wish list: That some socially conscious teens who might have queued up for “Catching Fire” will choose instead to see “Dallas Buyers Club.”
In the catalog: On a day for heavy-duty cinema, Judi Dench caps her career with an Oscar-ready role as a devout Catholic searching for the son who was wrested from her arms in “Philomena.” Alexander Payne (“The Descendents”) directs Bruce Dern as a codger who thinks he’s won a sweepstakes in “Nebraska.” Daniel Radcliffe plays poet Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings,” a true murder story. Director Spike Lee and star Josh Brolin remake the Korean revenge thriller “Oldboy.” Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney focuses on a bicycle cheat in “The Armstrong Lie.” Meth dealer James Franco gets cranky with DEA agent Jason Statham in “Homefront.” A streetwise teen learns the meaning of Christmas in “Black Nativity.” And for a family-friendly alternative, a snowman has an adventure in the animated “Frozen.”
Our wish list: That Lee and Brolin do justice to “Oldboy,” an action-packed cult classic that wasn’t exactly begging for an American remake.
In the catalog: Scott Cooper, the director of “Crazy Heart,” tosses Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson into the overheated revenge flick “Out of the Furnace.”
Our wish list: This might be a good day for your turtle dove to go shopping for DVDs. We suggest “The James Dean Ultimate Collectors Edition,” with Blu-rays of the late actor’s three films (“East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Giant”), three full-length documentaries, a 40-page book and much more.
In the catalog: Reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions confront a fire-breathing nemesis in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Cross-dressing filmmaker Tyler Perry and his oversize ego confront diminishing expectations in “A Madea Christmas.”
Our wish list: That the second “Hobbit” movie justifies dividing such a slim book into three pieces.
In the catalog: On a Wednesday when cinephiles might be hungry for substance, David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter”) gambles on “American Hustle,” with his repertory company of Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Robert De Niro in a true story about the Jersey mob in the 1970s.
Our wish list: That the career-revived Russell doesn’t turn into a mook.
In the catalog: The last Friday before Christmas bestows upon us “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” with Will Ferrell as a clueless newsman. Emma Thompson is the author of “Mary Poppins,” and Tom Hanks is Walt Disney in the true story “Saving Mr. Banks.” Prehistoric creatures come to life in the 3-D “Walking With Dinosaurs.” Oscar Isaac is a Greenwich Village folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Our wish list: By its very existence, the long-delayed “Anchorman 2” is a de facto success. But like Ron Burgundy’s oh-so-wise sidekick Baxter the dog, we’re drooling over “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Could the Coens find a place in their film for a jazz-flute solo?
In the catalog: This year, Christmas Day belongs to the boys. Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro are punch-drunk palookas duking it out in “Grudge Match.” Idris Elba is the father of modern South Africa in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Leonardo DiCaprio is a penny-ante pillager in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Keanu Reeves is a samurai in “47 Ronin.” Daydreaming photographer Ben Stiller imagines he’s a hero in a remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” And Justin Bieber imagines he’s still relevant in the concert documentary “Believe.”
Our wish list: “The Wolf of Wall Street” is lurking in the darkness, as director Martin Scorsese is rushing to groom it for release. We hope this beast has fangs.
In the catalog: Films that opened earlier on the coasts arrive in theaters in other parts of the country. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are feisty kin in “August: Osage County” Kate Winslet is a divorcee who swoons for escaped convict Josh Brolin in Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day.” Ralph Fiennes is an amorous Dickens in “The Invisible Woman.” Mark Wahlberg tangles with the Taliban in the true war story “Lone Survivor.” And Joaquin Phoenix is a lonely guy in love with his computer’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”
Our wish list: That Jonze (“Adaptation”) fries our circuits.
In the catalog: With visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, filmmakers and fans will get up early this morning to unwrap the Oscar nominations. We expect to hear hosannas for holiday-season releases such as “12 Years a Slave,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “American Hustle,” “August: Osage County,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Nebraska.”
Our wish list: That there’s some love left over for earlier releases such as “Fruitvale Station,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Before Midnight,” “Mud” and “Gravity.”