This is it, the money month. The time in the Fall film season where the box office big guns are revealed and the patina of prestige covers each and every release.

Must See:
This is it, the money month. The time in the Fall film season where the box office big guns are revealed and the patina of prestige covers each and every release. Sure, there will be some films offered up during the weeks before the New Year that want to do nothing more than entertain and amuse. But most of these projects have been purposefully saved for this time of the year, hoping to remain fresh in awards voters memories come balloting. Thanks to his recent run-in with his own anti-Semitism -- and the law -- Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (8 Dec) threatens to be an anticlimactic non-event once it hits theaters. Still, it's impossible to write off this unhinged Hollywood heavyweight just yet. He has a knack for saving himself, as well as his artistic efforts, and we could be looking at a Mayan variation of his overly praised Braveheart (1995). Then again, it could be another whack job from a certifiable psychotic. Yet another filmmaker in need of a career makeover, though for less controversial, more conventional reasons, is William Friedkin. When you consider he made two of the '70s most amazing artistic statements -- 1971's The French Connection and 1973's The Exorcist -- his three decade fall from grace is not only depressing, but dumbfounding. Thankfully he appears to be back with his strongest effort to date. Bug (1 Dec) began as a Tracy Letts play, and Friedkin apparently follows its insular, austere foundations. Utilizing a single set, and only five characters, this story of a disturbed war veteran may just be another G.I. jag. But according to the recently released trailer, there appears to be much more to it than that.

Bug � Trailer

Similarly, Children of Men (25 Dec) looks, at first glance, like The Handmaid's Tale (1990) taken to 28 Days Later's (2002) cinema vérité extremes. The always inviting Clive Owen in on hand as a former rebel in a childless future world, given the daunting task of delivering a pregnant woman to safety near the sea. With Y Tu Mama Tambien's (2001) Alfonso Cuarón behind the lens, and a supporting cast consisting of Juliann Moore, Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejofor, this is a project with potential and promise written all over it. As he did with his installment of the Harry Potter series, Cuarón has shown a knack for retrieving the humanity inside even the most overwhelming, larger than life scenario. If he's successful here, his future filmmaking outlook will be secure. With an Oscar in hand (for his 1998 Gods and Monsters script) and the experience of successfully shuttling Chicago (2002) -- via its screenplay -- to box office gold, Bill Condon is ready to take the reigns of a classic Broadway musical and make it his own. Dreamgirls (25 Dec) may seem like a perfect vehicle for the talents involved (Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, American Idol participant Jennifer Hudson) but the stamp left on this show by the original Effie -- the flawless Jennifer Holiday -- will be a hard soul spirit to exorcise. Though early buzz has it poised to be the Academy contender to beat, this is not such a sure thing. The show does have its flaws, and the decision to push Effie into the background to play up Beyoncé's Deena Jones (she even gets a newly written finale in the film) may be the straw that breaks the backs of the show's fawning faithful.

Children of Men � Trailer

The last present under the Must See tree is a doozy, a look at war and repression through the eyes of an overly imaginative child. Such subject matter is not new for its creator -- the Mexican maestro Guillermo Del Toro. He explored something similar once before with his baffling, brilliant The Devil's Backbone (2001). After a 22 minute ovation at Cannes (where it played to fawning accolades), the viability of Pan's Labyrinth (29 Dec) can be measured in what has happened to Del Toro since its release. Previously unable to find interest in a Hellboy sequel (he was responsible for the criminally underrated 2004 superhero epic), suddenly Universal has stepped up to give him the greenlight. Even more amazingly, he has begun pre-production on another Labyrinth like project -- the Spanish Civil War ghost story 3993. When a dormant filmmaker suddenly finds himself swimming in offers, it must mean he is doing -- or in the case of Pan's Labyrinth, has done -- something right. If Guillermo is the Gilliam of Latin cinema, this could be his Brazil -- or better yet, his tantalizing 12 Monkeys.

Pan's Labyrinth � Trailer

Must Wait:

It was only a matter of time. Mel Gibson killed Christ in his last film, so naturally someone had to come along and resurrect him -- at least figuratively. With the unusual element of director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) behind its creation, The Nativity Story (1 Dec) looks like every Yuletide pageant come to life. In fact, the iconography is so clear in the mind's eye of every man, woman and child on the planet that Hardwicke risks ruining her reputation if she dares mess it up. Audiences should expect lots of angels being heard on high, and animals lowing at the sight of the Christian's Lord and Savior. There has already been similar grousing over Leonard DiCaprio's second seasonal offering, Blood Diamond (15 Dec). It too has an equally problematic concept at the center of its story. Using the Civil War in Sierre Leone as a backdrop for a narrative incorporating smuggling, slavery and second chances, the jewelry industry has already hinted at a boycott. They are angry that director Edward Zwick's focus on the violence and greed inherent in the diamond trade will hurt business. Seems like such an approach is inherent in the subject matter. It's the same with adultery. Anthony Minghella's follow up to his coldly received Mountain movie, Breaking and Entering (8 Dec), has Jude Law cheating on his disconnected wife (Robin Wright Penn) with an immigrant seamstress (Juliette Binoche). Supposedly, from such a simple setup, many universal truths are discovered. This could be either great, or grating.

The Nativity Story � Trailer

Similarly, Stephen Soderbergh's latest finds newly anointed Hollywood hero George Clooney playing an American journalist returning to a post-War Berlin in search of his mistress. The Good German (25 Dec) boasts an impressive monochrome look and a buzzworthy turn by that stellar Spidey man, Tobey Maguire. But even more important, it signals Soderbergh's return to the kind of funky, off the beaten path fare that forged his reputation in the first place, long before the Danny Ocean films found their mainstream mark. It's a place he's committed to stay in once the final film in the highly lucrative heist series wraps. Yet perhaps the film that has the most potential to connect with audiences, or get lost in the cinematic shuffle, is Nancy Meyers Yuletide Rom-Com The Holiday (8 Dec). Featuring the superstar synchronicity of pairing Jude Law with Cameron Diaz, and the far more interesting match-up of Kate Winslet with Jack Black, this look at love and finding the right life partner may seem corny, but just the notion of these two couples trading quips and confessions has many in the PopMatters staff already getting in line. If the trailer is any indication, this one is a keeper.

The Holiday � Trailer

Must Rent:

It's got Matt Damon, a script by Eric Roth, and the determined directorial spin of co-star Robert De Niro. So why does The Good Shepherd (22 Dec) feel so slight? Perhaps because the subject matter -- the early days of the CIA as channeled through Damon's character -- is so completely Cold War. If De Niro and Roth can find the relevance to today's intelligence debacles, they may have something more than a retro recreation on their hands. Also trying to be taken seriously once again (see The Legend of Bagger Vance or Ali) Will Smith arrives in a drama about a single father striving to better himself. While The Pursuit of Happyness (15 Dec) has all the standard schmaltzy strategies -- cute kid, determined parent, massive odds to overcome -- one can't deny Smith as a secret weapon. He can elevate almost any material (Wild Wild West excluded) and, as proven by Hitch, can work well without the world blowing up around him. Sadly, the same can't be said for Ben Stiller. He is still stuck in his typical urban oddball routine, and A Night in the Museum (22 Dec) looks like a clear case of spectacle over storyline. Besides, there is something about the notion of Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt that makes even the most patriotic film fan's skin crawl. That just leaves the original Babe, Wilbur the pig, and his friendship with Charlotte the spider to consider. While a live action version of Charlotte's Web (20 Dec) sounds intriguing, one can see this project going haywire rather quickly. After all, outside of 13 Going on 30, director Gary Winick doesn't have much of a track record when it comes to motion picture artistry, or box office success.

A Night in the Museum � Trailer

Must Avoid:

Someone needs to float Sylvester Stallone a loan or two. Perhaps it will keep him from cheapening his already rotten reputation for milking his cinematic endeavors to within an inch of their entertainment viability. His sixth foray into Rocky territory -- entitled Rocky Balboa (22 Dec) -- finds the 60-year-old stepping back into the ring for one more shot at boxing glory. Let's hope it's the last. From unhappy endings to less than honorable beginnings, the bafflingly popular pulp fantasy of teenage author Christopher Paolini gets the big screen treatment in this attempt to mimic Peter Jackson's flawless Lord of the Rings trilogy triumph. With such a sour source, however, a repeat of such hobbit-like success for Eragon (15 Dec) seems impossible.

Rocky Balboa � Trailer





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