Friday Flicks: Oscar Contenders, Blockbusters and Comedies Are Released for the Holidays

TIME breaks down which films to see and which to avoid this holiday season.

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Columbia Pictures

Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain (center) plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden

Zero Dark Thirty

Tagline: The Greatest Manhunt in History.

It’s pretty well known that the Oscar winning team behind The Hurt Locker – director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal – changed tack on their latest project, Zero Dark Thirty, once the real life events of Osama bin Laden being killed meant that truth was suddenly stranger than fiction.

And so, the story centers around Maya (Jessica Chastain) the CIA agent heading up the hunt in this fictionalized search for OBL. Even though the movie has been a hit with critics, it’s been hard to hear much about the movie due to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture by the CIA.

We’re not here to get into that, thankfully, so on to the reviews — and they’re stellar. “The most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11, a landmark that would be more impressive if there were more such films to choose from,” notes the New York Times. “As major as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker felt, it’s hard to appreciate the leap she takes here, launching her actors into scorched, obsessed territory last roamed by David Fincher’s Zodiac,” observes Time Out New York. “It combines ruthlessness and humanity in a manner that is paradoxical and disconcerting yet satisfying as art,” writes The New YorkerTIME’s Richard Corliss concurs, noting, “This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.”

Q&A: Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on Strong Women and Strong Helicopters

The Impossible

Tagline: Nothing Is More Powerful than the Human Spirit.

When we reflect on the last decade, two of the most terrifying events are 9/11 and the terrible tsunami of December 26, 2004, which struck the southeast coast of Asia. In The Impossible, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage), Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their sons are looking forward to a magical vacation in Thailand, but we all know what sadly comes next.

The film is based in truth though the decision has been taken, one imagines for commercial considerations, to make the family British rather than Spanish. Still, the film is on the receiving end of some mightily impressive reviews. “The entire cast achieves monumental heights of honesty and integrity in an unforgettable film that combines epic spectacle with the intimacy of loving relationships in a celebration of the invincible human spirit,” concludes the New York Observer. “The most harrowing disaster movie in many a moon, The Impossible marries a tremendous feat of physical filmmaking to an emotional true story of family survival,” says Variety. And the Daily Telegraph goes as far as to compare Bayona, in his English language debut, to Steven Spielberg. “Bayona, like Spielberg before him, has the gumption of a master manipulator, and really doesn’t hold back, holding off catharsis, scene by scene, with all the sheer chaos at his disposal.”

VIDEO: 10 Questions with Ewan McGregor

Jack Reacher

Friday Flicks isn’t usually the place to get into the wider issues affecting society but one is forced to wonder, in light of the tragic events in Newtown, Conn., whether films such as Jack Reacher — which seem to revel in the unbridled brandishing of firearms — won’t be made in quite the same way any more. (Paramount postponed the film’s Saturday evening Pittsburgh premiere).

The action film is adapted from the popular series of thrillers by Lee Child about a strapping, 6′ 5″ former military police officer. But the height issue wasn’t a stretch for the Cruise. “With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher,” Child reportedly said. “With Tom, you’ll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height.” More promising is that the writer/director of Jack Reacher is Christopher McQuarrie, who did a fine job with The Usual Suspects, though the rest of his resume isn’t in the same league (he and Cruise worked together on the middling Valkyrie).

As Reacher teams up with lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) in order to catch a sniper, reviewers seem to be going along for the ride. “It is, in its way, a curious sort of auteurist cinema, in which a lone wolf (Cruise produces as well as stars) has taken an impeccably mainstream product and made it strange around him,” notes The Guardian. And The Hollywood Reporter is not only on board but even offers some unsolicited career advice: “At least in terms of his action-film portfolio, Cruise is in top form here; if he feels like working really hard as a star and producer, he could alternate big-budget Mission: Impossible outings with less expensive Jack Reacher installments for a number of years, with other projects slipped in between them.” Variety, however, isn’t convinced — noting that “Reacher is a brawny action figure whose exploits would have been a good fit for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone back in the day, but feel less fun when delegated to a leading man like Tom Cruise. The star is too charismatic to play someone so cold-blooded, and his fans likely won’t appreciate the stretch.” And EW, in a stinging C+ review, concludes that “Jack Reacher doesn’t play well with others; Jack Reacher is an argument to leave the guy alone.”

TIME REVIEW: Tom Cruise Picks the Wrong Week for a Thriller About a Mass Killing

This Is 40

Tagline: The Sort-Of Sequel To ‘Knocked Up’

If you’re a fan of Apatow’s 2007 comedy Knocked Up and were particularly taken by the supporting characters Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), then you’re in luck with this “sort-of sequel”, as the tagline has it, which focuses on Pete and Debbie and their adorable children (who, in real life, have Mann and Apatow as their parents).

And as the title has it, middle age is on the agenda as, firstly, Debbie and then Pete turn the big 4-0 in the same week. Can they work out their angst over aging and accept to grow old (dis)gracefully? Or will we just be confronted with two hours of their yelling at each other, with the odd break to allow the kids and remarried parents (including the likes of Albert Brooks and John Lithgow) to do their thing?

Perhaps we can deliver a verdict by renaming the film This Is 63 — that’s the percentage, at the time of this writing, it’s getting on Rotten Tomatoes. “As his title implies, he could have taken a deeper plunge into the main task of middle age: revision,”= Time Out New York concludes, although  the New Yorker simply says it’s “very funny,” and The Hollywood Reporter feels “there are more than enough bawdy laughs and truthful emotional moments to put this over as a mainstream audience pleaser during a holiday season short on good comedies.”

TIME MAGAZINE: Read more about This Is 40, in this Subscriber-only article

On the Road

Tagline: Based on the Generation-Defining Novel by Jack Kerouac.

A recent appearance on The Daily Show confirmed how keen Kristen Stewart was to star in Jack Kerouac’s classic American novel, On The Road. Stewart told another Stewart, Daily Show host Jon, that Kerouac’s beat masterpiece “was my first favorite book. It was the first time, for a lot of people … I really came alive. It definitely kick started something in me. I did not think I could play that part at all.”

The part she’s referring to is Marylou, who is married to Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a charming ex-con who himself is rather taken by the aspiring New York writer, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley). The threesome decide to make a break for it and head out, in search of whatever experiences come their way. And the project seems to be in safe hands, helmed by Walter Salles, whose best known film to date, The Motorcycle Diaries, went down pretty well with the target audience this movie is hoping to attract.

But the reaction to Salles’s latest has been rather more muted. The New York Times feels let down, calling the filmmaker “an intelligent director … [who] doesn’t invest On the Road with the wildness it needs for its visual style, narrative approach and leads.” Variety takes a similar view: “A handsome visual companion to Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation touchstone that seems unlikely to occupy a place of similar resonance in the hearts and minds of those who see it.” But the Daily Telegraph doesn’t just label it “an alluring and honest treatment.” In the words of Telegraph reviewer Tim Robey, “some films only coalesce right at the end, and the closing moments here are so spellbindingly sad that I was instantly keen to see it again.”

LIST: Top 10 Movie Performances of 2012
NewsFeed’s Flicks Pick: Zero Dark Thirty is the standout choice, though if you need something a little lighter in its aftermath, This Is 40 should fit the bill.

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