If you caught yesterday's hilarious video of Samuel L. Jackson and Anne Hathaway doing a "sad off" about their upcoming Christmas Day movies, "Django Unchained" and "Les Misérables," you know that this season's lineup of flicks isn't exactly full of holiday cheer. But that doesn't mean there aren't some damn good movies awaiting you at the multiplex. Here are the 10 movies, in order, you should see over Christmas break.
1. "Django Unchained" (Dec. 25)
With the Newtown shootings fresh on everyone's minds, a Quentin Tarantino-written and -directed, slave-era revenge shoot-em-up might not be the most obvious way to spend two-and-a-half hours this Christmas. In fact, this week's premiere in Los Angeles was canceled out of sensitivity to the shootings. But it's hard to ignore the cast — Jamie Foxx, Christopher Waltz, Samuel L., Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, even Donny Johnson — and even harder to ignore any new movie that Tarantino sends our way. Expect a lot of blood, a lot of N-words, and a hell of a ride.
2. "Zero Dark Thirty" (Limited, Dec. 19)
A few years ago, we championed "The Hurt Locker," the Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal film about an American bomb squad in Iraq, and it went on to beat "Avatar" for Best Picture at the Oscars (we take all the credit). This year, those filmmakers are back with their take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Don't expect an overtly political movie with a lot of moralizing over terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even torture, but do expect a stellar performance from Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent who help lead Seal Team Six to bin Laden's doorstep in Pakistan, and one of the most intense thrillers of the year.
3. "Silver Linings Playbook"
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence turn in Oscar-caliber performances as two Philadelphia-area natives who both have a few screws loose: Cooper is bipolar and just out of a mental hospital; Lawrence is a recent widow and apparently a sex addict. In this very funny, if ultimately a little conventional comedy, the duo manage to find peace of mind, and love, in the Philadelphia Eagles, ballroom dancing, and, natch, each other. Robert de Niro co-stars.
He might only have three directing credits under his belt, but Ben Affleck has definitely proven himself as one of the best helmers working in Hollywood today. In theaters for a while now, "Argo" tells the little-known story of a secret operation — involving the supposed production of a fake Hollywood sci-fi movie in Tehran — to extract a group of Americans from Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. Affleck expertly captures the feel and mood of the era, and turns in a solid performance, alongside the great John Goodman and Alan Arkin, as well. We were a little let down by the payoff — getting out isn't quite as complex as we thought it was going to be — but the tension runs high from wire to wire.
5. "This is 40" (Dec. 21)
Look, if you want to see Judd Apatow's latest film in order to check out Megan Fox swimming underwater, flirting with NHL players (you'll never guess how), and stripping down to her bra and panties, we won't hold that against you. But if you're as big of an Apatow fan as we are, you're going for the comedy-meets–family drama that the writer-director pulled off so well in "Knocked Up" and (depending on who you ask) "Funny People." Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are great as the just-turned-40-year-old parents with two kids (the hilariously natural and real-life sisters Maude and Iris Apatow) and a bunch of problems, marital and otherwise. If you're reading this, you're probably not 40 years old and neither are your parents — those are both good things, as some of the more serious themes won't hit so uncomfortably close to home.
6. "Life of Pi"
See it in 3-D, stoned out of your mind (or not), and we guarantee you'll be talking about this movie — about an Indian boy and a tiger, stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean — for days.
7. "The Hobbit"
Why so far down on the list? Because if you didn't rush to see the latest Peter Jackson-does-J.R.R.-Tolkien flick on opening weekend, you're probably not raring to see it now. Some aspects of this "Hobbit" trilogy seems to be rubbing people the wrong way. This first installment is overstuffed at nearly three hours, as if nothing was cut from the book (in fact it represents only the first six chapters). There are still two more movies to come, even though the source material was shorter than any one of the "Lord of the Rings" books. And some viewers who are watching it in 3D at 48 frames per second are complaining about dizzy spells. (Not all theaters are showing it in 48fps by the way.) But look, it's Tolkien, it's Jackson, it's the fucking Hobbit. If you want to see a blockbuster on a huge screen this Christmas, this is the one to see.
8. "Jack Reacher" (Dec. 21)
We know, we know, it's Tom Cruise. But we've heard reports of this being a really fun, if ridiculous flick, and the books that the inevitable multi-pic franchise is based on have sold tens of millions of copies. Surely there are a bunch of Reacher fans out there among you who are dying to see the former MP-turned-renegade-drifter on the case on the big screen.
It's an incredible performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, no doubt, one that'll surely win him Best Actor. But the movie as a whole feels more like an American History 101 lecture than anyone probably expected. You'll be glad to have seen it and witnessed, it seems, Abe in the flesh, but it can probably wait for DVD or HBO.
10. "Les Miserables" (Dec. 25)
We're guessing you're not a big Broadway buff, and that your girlfriend or mom — who knows every word to "On My Own" and "I Dreamed a Dream" — is dragging you to this. Don't be afraid. The epic musical stars Wolverine and Gladiator — how bad could it be? Actually, the truth is (and this is coming from an actual lifelong "Les Mis" fan) that Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both come up a little short in their performances, which is surprising since their characters — a former convict (Jean Valjean) who breaks his parole and the policeman (Javert) who hunts him for nearly two decades — usually are the dominant characters in the stage version of the show. But Crowe's singing voice is incredibly weak, and we found Jackman overshadowed by the likes of Anne Hathaway (she'll win Best Supporting Actress for her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" alone) and Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit, two of our favorite young actors working today. The latter two play French revolutionaries building barricades and fighting for freedom (and love), and they practically steal the second half of the film from Valjean and Javert, which is saying something. Two warnings: There is almost no spoken dialogue — nearly every word of the film is sung, as it is in the musical. Also, it's long at nearly 2:45, so watch how much soda you drink during the previews. By the way, if you do happen to be a "Les Mis" fan, you'll love pretty much everything but Crowe's singing.
Also For Your Consideration:
It's Oscar season, of course, so the studios are rolling out a ton of "prestige" pictures before the end of the year. Some titles that could garner nominations come the new year:
• "The Impossible" — A true story about a family vacationing in Thailand who survive the devastating 2004 tsunami. Starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.
• "Promised Land" — Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and director Gus Van Sant tackle the thorny issue of fracking.
• "Hitchcock" / "Hyde Park on Hudson" — A guy walked into a restaurant we were eating the other night raving about "Hitchcock," in particular Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of the famed director. We've heard the same about "Hyde Park," a slight movie but with Bill Murray playing FDR, and you know how much we love Bill.
• "Amour" — A French drama that's supposed to be a lock for Best Foreign Language Film, and perhaps even a Best Picture nomination. You'll never see it, but at least you now know it exists.
• If you still haven't seen "Flight" or "Skyfall," those are definite strong candidates if they're still playing in a theater near you.
• It's Christmas time, family's around, and we always like to recommend a movie or two that you won't mind tagging along with your little niece and nephew to. Do us a favor and skip the 3D reboot of "Monster's, Inc.," and stick instead to "Rise of the Guardians" or "Wreck-It Ralph," which have both received high marks from kids, adults, and critics alike.