By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist January 4, 2012 at 12:02PM
Synopsis: Two astronauts from a remote space station are the only survivors from an exploding satellite, sparking an emergency return home.
What You Need to Know: From the start, “Gravity” sounded like one of those doomed projects that would never happen, after original leads Natalie Portman and Robert Downey Jr. bailed, but eventually, director and studio met halfway, choosing Sandra Bullock to be the face of their $80 million 3D space thriller, with George Clooney in support. Director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) has only allowed morsels of details to emerge from the film, which finds Bullock on a mad dash to return to her daughter on Earth, but from our read of the script, it should be an intense, lean thrill-ride, something close to "Touching the Void" in space. Furthermore, the film is going to feature an ambitious twenty minute opening shot, leading into a movie that will be roughly 60% CGI. Whispers about the movie’s tech center around this, technologically, being in the realm of “Avatar,” but while James Cameron uses these advancements to further his passive-aggressive relationship with the military-industrial complex, Cuaron is said to be telling a Kubrick-ian outer space story, with most of the screentime occupied by only one character, and much of the soundtrack occupied by silence. While this obviously won’t be an austere Tarkovskian think piece, we’re thrilled that Cuaron has managed to take this threadbare story as an excuse to create what may be the year’s most visually exciting picture.
Release: November 21
“The Great Gatsby”
Synopsis: A Hollywood take on the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel where new-money millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) pines after his old love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). When she comes back into her life with new husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), Gatsby, with the help of new friend Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), tries to win her back.
What You Need To Know: Baz Luhrmann takes on the classic American tale -- and boldly shot in 3D no less. Luhrmann’s last venture, “Australia,” definitely didn’t impress critics, getting mixed reviews and disappointing at the box office, but he’s never one to shy away from a challenge regardless. Employing a workshop format to cast the film, he ended up with quite the impressive roster; working with DiCaprio again for the first time since his take on “Romeo & Juliet,” he also has a galaxy of stars in support, including Maguire, and, playing against type, Mulligan as the materialistic, sometimes simple-minded Daisy Buchanan; curiously, it’s her first leading role in a big Hollywood production. Up-and-comer Joel Edgerton and Isla Fisher round out the cast. "Australia" might have been uneven and indulgent, but we’re not worried here; Luhrmann’s work is strongest when he’s putting his unique visual take on age-old tales, and early stills suggest he's got the style down.
Release: Christmas Day 2012, which means Warner Bros. are crossing their fingers it'll be a heavy Oscar hitter.
"He Loves Me"
Synopsis: A successful author overcomes writer's block by creating the woman he thinks will love him. Things get complicated when he ends up actually willing her into existence.
What You Need To Know: It's been a long time since "Little Miss Sunshine," the fun and heart-warming first feature by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris that wooed audiences and nabbed an Oscar nod. After many subsequent fits and starts ("The Abstinence Teacher," "Used Guys," "Will," all projects that never came to pass), the duo were finally able to solidify a gig up at Fox Searchlight, directing a script penned by "The Exploding Girl" actress Zoe Kazan. Reteaming with Paul Dano, the whimsical logline and early buzz promises something in vein of Charlie Kaufman -- not a bad comparison point and it should reel in those who thought their debut was too cutesy-quirky. This is Kazan's first screenplay credit, but we have no reservations on the quality of her work: her Off-Broadway play "We Live Here" unfortunately drew comparisons to the often histrionic and extravagant "Rachel Getting Married" for sharing a similar plot, but the former was actually a much stronger and subtler work without all of the miserablist Oscar-beggar mayhem. "He Loves Me" is a bit more playful by design, and it'll be interesting to see what Dayton and Faris do with the "Adaptation"/"Weird Science"-esque tone of the script. Icing on the cake is the supporting cast (Alia Shawkat, Annette Bening, Deborah Ann Woll, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliot Gould, Aasif Mandvi, Chris Messina and Toni Trucks), a collection of talented and non-trendy cameos from actors who generally elevate whatever material they're given. While this kind of premise sometimes comes off as rather weak and empty ("Wristcutters: A Love Story" anyone?), we're hoping the mass of proven talent behind it will come through.
Release Date: 2012 festival appearance is likely, but with no Sundance in the cards, this one will likely hit the fall film festival circuit at the earliest.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”
Synopsis: In the first of a two-part prequel to “The Lord of the Rings,” Bilbo Baggins relates an early journey with Gandalf and a pack of unruly dwarves to steal a horde of treasure from the dragon Smaug.
What You Need To Know: Given that the original trilogy was near-universally beloved, a giant box-office hit (taking close to $3 billion worldwide) and even managed to be win a record haul of Oscars with its last installment, getting "The Hobbit," J.R.R. Tolkien's novel set, and written, before "The Lord of the Rings" proved surprisingly tricky, with rights issues and studio bankruptcy holding the project up for years, even before original director Guillermo del Toro bailed. But Peter Jackson's finally returned to Middle Earth, and if the recent atmospheric teaser is anything to go by, he hasn't forgotten what he's doing. Settling back into the world feels like putting on a comfortable pair of old shoes, and the filmmaker looks to have the perfect Bilbo in "The Office" star Martin Freeman, who leads a group of new arrivals to the franchise including Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Lee Pace and Evangeline Lilly, along with many returning favorites. We have our reservations: is Jackson's heart really in it, after spending so long saying he didn't want to direct the film? Will the two-part structure feel padded and indulgent for a book that only runs to 285 pages? Will having a baker's dozen of dwarves mean that they blend into one? We hope not, and if anyone can pull it off, it's the hirsute New Zealander.
Release Date: December 14
“Hyde Park On Hudson”
Synopsis: The story focuses on a rather curious moment in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life, taking place over a weekend in 1939 when Brit royalty visits his upstate New York home for the weekend, while also taking a look at the President’s affair with his cousin Margaret Stuckley.
What You Need To Know: Bill Murray plays FDR. That’s it. Oh, you need more? Well if Peter Venkman getting all Presidential isn’t enough for you, ‘Hyde Park’ features a "Rushmore" reunion of sorts, with Olivia Williams playing FDR's wife, Eleanor, while Laura Linney plays Margaret in the project, while British actors Samuel West and Olivia Colman (who earned raves for "Tyrannosaur") are stepping into the shoes of King George and Queen Elizabeth. So yeah, pretty great cast. The wild card here is Roger Michell (“Venus,” “Notting Hill,” “Morning Glory”), a solid, if somewhat workmanlike and not particularly remarkable director, which means his cast will likely have to do the heavy lifting to get the material to sing. And as it’s based on a radio play, this thing will have some work to do to catch fire on the big screen. But again, it’s the promise of Murray going period, with a tone that will likely strike a balance between the dramatic and comedic that has us curious, and grateful he’s doing stuff like this and not ghostbusting.
Release: Set for release next year by Focus Features, we’d guess festival appearances will determine if it’s an awards horse or simply a curio.
"Inside Llewyn Davis"
Synopsis: Set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ‘60s that birthed Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and loosely based on a friend of Dylan's, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer who, despite his talent as a singer and guitarist, can't seem to make ends meet.
What You Need To Know: Coming off a streak that has seen them produce a Best Picture Winner ("No Country For Old Men") and the biggest box office hit of their careers ("True Grit"), the Coen Brothers have probably been afforded the opportunity to make whatever they want. In this case that's an original screenplay set in the early ‘60s folk scene starring "Drive" and "Sucker Punch" secret weapon Oscar Isaac as the titular folk singer who isn't able to get his career off the ground. He'll be leading a cast of more familiar faces including the Coen's longtime MVP John Goodman as a jazz musician, F. Murray Abraham as legendary folk manager Bud Grossman, Justin Timberlake (yes, you read that right) as a rival folk singer, and Carey Mulligan as Timberlake's wife. Now entering the fourth decade of their careers, the Coens have consistently marched to the beat of their own drummer, tackling existential thrillers and slapstick comedies and everything in between. And with the exception of a few brief stumbles in the mid aughts, that instinct has rarely led them astray.
Release Date: Unknown -- the film, backed by StudioCanal, doesn't yet have a distributor -- but filming is set to begin shortly and with megaproducer Scott Rudin on board, we're picturing a late fall release aimed at awards season.
“Lay the Favorite”
Synopsis: A ditzy thirtysomething stripper-turned-cocktail-waitress (Rebecca Hall) becomes involved with a group of geeky fiftyish men who have found a way to work the sportsbook system in Las Vegas to their advantage
What You Need To Know: Directed by Stephen Frears ("The Grifters," "The Queen" "Tamara Drewe"), a filmmaker who has admittedly had a hit-and-miss career, but featuring a pretty much all-star cast of Bruce Willis (always good in the hands of a real filmmaker), Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Laura Prepon and Joshua Jackson, it’s hard not to be intrigued by a mid-sized dramedy that’s not being made by either a major studio or a mid-sized indie. Frears has navigated comedy and drama before quite well (see “High Fidelity”) so expectations, while tempered, are still relatively high.
Release Date: TBD, but with a Sundance premiere and that kind of star wattage, it would have to be a major turd to not find itself some kind of 2012 release. Look for buyers like The Weinsteins, Focus and Paramount Vantage (which still seems to exist despite being “shuttered”) to be interested.
Synopsis: The big screen version of the hit stage musical, following an escaped convict unable to escape his past as France simmers on the edge of revolution.
What You Need To Know: After taking home the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture for “The King’s Speech,” helmer Tom Hooper is raising the stakes for his followup that is aiming to get him back in the Kodak Theater in 2013. The big splashy musical -- which will not be in 3D (thank god) -- teams up Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne with, only last night, Amanda Seyfried and Taylor Swift reportedly offered roles, in a movie that is yet to go in front of cameras, but is racing to meet a release date in less than a year. But with a tightly run production schedule, a movie that will likely mostly be shot on a soundstage should be just about able to get in on time, so the real question is, will this be another “Nine”? That movie too gathered up a bunch of stars and had them sing and dance, only to fail with both critics and audiences. But then again, it didn’t have twenty five years of record-breaking, award-winning history behind it. Was “The King’s Speech” a feel-good fluke or the arrival of a director who will be a contender in years to come? Guess we’ll find out around the end of 2012.
Release Date: December 7
“Life of Pi”
Synopsis: After a harrowing shipwreck, young Pi Patel finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean, trapped on a 26-foot lifeboat in shark-infested waters with a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
What You Need To Know: In the works for years, with a variety of different directors all kicking it around at various points -- Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Alfonso Cuarón and M. Night Shyamalan among them -- the best-selling “Life of Pi” is finally on its way to the big screen, in 3D. The big hurdle Fox will have to vault on this one (at least domestically) is the international, mostly star-free cast, that features newcomer Suraj Sharma, Gerard Depardieu, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Tabu and in a small role, Tobey Maguire. But then, if you think name recognition is an instant stamp to box office success, just ask Sony execs who are wondering why “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” wasn’t a smash hit out of the gate, while the unknown-filled "Slumdog Millionaire" was a giant hit only a few years ago. Fox seem to be making this their annual December animal movie, a la "Marley & Me" and "We Bought a Zoo," but the material is much tougher, so it'll be interesting to see how it does. Hopefully, it'll at least see Lee back on form after the misfire of "Taking Woodstock."
Release Date: December 21... the same day as Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “World War Z,” “This Is Forty” and one week after “The Hobbit.” Good luck.
Synopsis: Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," the Steven Spielberg film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the martyred president and follows the last several months of Lincoln's life as he faced violent opposition, on the battlefield and in the White House, as the Civil War gasped to a close, concluding with that fateful visit to Ford's Theatre.
What You Need to Know: This has been a passion project of Spielberg's for almost a decade (he acquired the rights to the book in 2001), initially tapping Liam Neeson for the role until, in Neeson's words, he got "too old." John Logan and Tony Kushner (among others) have worked on the script and the cast is bursting with talented performers playing historical figures, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward (who was also targeted the night Lincoln visited Ford's Theatre), Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, and (most recently) Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. (There are a bunch of awesome people like Walton Goggins and John Hawkes in smaller roles.) While we wonder what shape the film will take, given the expansive nature of the source material, we are itching for a decent Lincoln movie, especially after the lacklustre “The Conspirator."
Release Date: We're guessing Christmastime 2012, but with the season already so crowded, it could go a little earlier.