Holiday movie preview: December’s 9 most promising titles

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It was the great screenwriter William Goldman who said, “Nobody knows anything. … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time it’s a guess, and if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

In Hollywood, nobody knows anything, but everybody knows everything, or at least they think they do, and that’s why the industry keeps doing stupid things, like announcing the Oscar nominations in a rushed, pre-dawn glorified press conference — and jamming at least two-thirds of the best movies of the year into the last two months on the calendar.

Here we go again. There are some weekends in late winter and late summer when there’s literally not one new movie worth getting excited about — but this time of year, we’ll get a half-dozen or more buzz-emanating films on a single Friday. In chronological order by national release date (with later Chicago release dates noted for some), these are the ones I’m most keen to see.

‘Wild’ (Dec. 5)

Over the last couple of years, Reese Witherspoon showed her range in two supporting roles in films that were criminally overlooked: “The Good Lie” and “Mud.” She’s front and center in “Wild,” with “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallee and one of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby (his novels include “Fever Pitch,” “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”). This is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail after a divorce, a family tragedy and self-destructive behavior.

‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ (Dec. 12)

Veteran director Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” “Gladiator”) does spectacle as well as anyone, and based on the 45 minutes or so of rough-cut footage I’ve seen of “Exodus,” this is going to be one giant, bloody, controversial Biblical epic. Christian Bale plays an intense, fierce Moses; Joel Edgerton is Rhamses. The big-ticket but sometimes eyebrow-raising supporting cast includes Ben Kingsley as Nun from the Tribe of Ephraim; Aaron Paul as Joshua, son of Nun; John Turturro as Seti, Moses’ adoptive father, and Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya.

The always warm and fuzzy Bale made headlines with his analysis of Moses as “likely schizophrenic and one of the most barbaric individuals that I have ever read about in my life.” It’ll be interesting to see how the religious leaders and Fox News Channels of the world react to the final product.

‘Inherent Vice’ (Dec. 12)

The setting: Los Angeles in 1970.

The story: A drug-addicted detective tries to find his missing ex-girlfriend.

The director: Paul Thomas Anderson (“Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia.”)

The original source material: a novel by Thomas Pynchon.

The cast: Benicio del Toro, Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts, Josh Brolin, Martin Short.

The deal: In total, those are the most intriguing elements of any film this holiday season. (Chicago release date: Jan. 9)

‘The Gambler’ (Dec. 19)

My favorite James Caan role of all time isn’t Sonny Corleone. Obviously that’s one of the iconic characters in all of cinema — but it’s a supporting role. Caan’s best performance was in the 1974 classic “The Gambler,” as a self-destructive professor with a serious wagering problem. Now Mark Wahlberg stars in the remake. Fingers crossed. (Chicago release date: Jan. 1)

‘American Sniper’ (Dec. 25)

Clint Eastwood directs Bradley Cooper in the adaptation of Chris Kyle’s autobiography, in which Kyle claimed to be the most prolific sniper in the history of the U.S. military. I’ve read the book, which gave me chills — and I met Kyle, who seemed at peace with his place in the world in the brief time we spent together. The supporting cast includes Sienna Miller and Luke Grimes. Kyle survived the Iraq war, only to be killed at a shooting range in Texas by a 25-year-old veteran said to be suffering from PTSD. (Chicago release date: Jan. 16)

‘Big Eyes’ (Dec. 25)

Tim Burton directs Amy Adams as the painter Margaret Keane, who stayed in the background while her husband Walter, played by the great Christoph Waltz, took credit for her paintings. It’s amazing anyone wanted to buy those kitschy paintings, but those portraits of big-eyed children hung in galleries throughout the world and reaped millions for the Keanes. Even more astonishing: It was years before Margaret finally had enough of her husband’s charade, and she took him to court to prove she was the true artist in the family.

Given Burton’s inspired directorial madness, and those hideously compelling, big-eyed paintings of Keane’s, this could well be … super creepy.

‘The Interview’ (Dec. 25)

Perhaps you’ve heard a little about this one. Merry pranksters James Franco and Seth Rogen play the star and producer, respectively, of a celebrity tabloid show. When they learn Kim Jong-un is a big fan of their show, they score an interview with the North Korean dictator — and then they’re recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. Shockingly, in real life, the humorless North Korean government is not amused by this premise.

‘Into the Woods’ (Dec. 25)

The Grimm fairy tales provide endless fodder for stage, television and film. This time Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) interprets Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical, which weaves the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and other familiar characters. It’s too bad Marshall couldn’t get any name actors to commit, so he had to settle for Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Tracey Ullman, Chris Pine, Lucy Punch and Christine Baranski.

‘Selma’ (Dec. 25)

The early reviews are strong for Ava DuVernay’s take on the Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. David Oyelowo stars as King, and the intriguing supporting cast includes Tim Roth as George Wallace, Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Common as James Bevel and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. (Chicago release date: Jan. 9)

Also coming this Christmas: another version of “Annie.” As always, I’m going to try to keep an open mind, but every time I’m at the screening room and I walk past the poster, I have to admit I would have been perfectly fine going the rest of my life without hearing another promise about how the sun is gonna come up tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow … argh! It’s in my head! Make it stop!!!

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