Holiday movies: Fun to be found amid award-season bait

12/01/2013 12:00 AM

12/01/2013 12:47 PM

The holiday movie season often is dominated by awards talk, since it’s when studios release thoughtful dramas and big-budget fantasy epics meant to capture Oscar voters’ fancies before the nominations deadline.

But a good time should be part of the equation in every movie season. For that reason, we have ranked the seven prominent holiday films below based not on awards potential but on anticipated fun factor, or AFF.

(Release dates are subject to change)

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (Dec. 18)

Anticipated fun factor: 10

It’s such a big deal for the fictional mustachioed 1970s newsman and enemy of political correctedness Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) to return to the big screen that we don’t even mind the crassly commercial aspects of the movie’s promotional campaign. Like Ferrell shilling for Dodge in his Ron Burgundy guise.

In the sequel to 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” Ron and his news team (including Steve Carell as IQ-deficient weatherman Brick) have left San Diego, the city that lay historian Ron once described as having been “discovered by the Germans in 1904.”

The team is off to a 24-hour cable news network in New York City, where they finally can sport their fur collars. To get there, they ride in plush style in that 1970s big-shot chariot, the Winnebago.

“Grudge Match” (Dec. 25)

AFF: 8

Robert De Niro’s artistic comeback with his Academy Award-nominated performance as a sports fanatic in “Silver Linings Playbook” lasted the duration of last year’s Oscar season. In “Grudge Match,” De Niro and Sylvester Stallone play a pair of washed-up boxers out for another shot in the ring.

De Niro won a lead-actor Oscar for his performance as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta in 1980’s “Raging Bull.” Stallone’s “Rocky” was named best picture of 1976. Nobody’s winning anything for “Grudge Match,” which looks like a less-serious rehash of Stallone’s “Rocky Balboa.”

At this point, there are far more “Grudge Matches,” “Last Vegases” and “Meet the Fockerses” on De Niro’s résumé than there are “Raging Bulls” and “Taxi Drivers.” De Niro clearly regards his own legacy with less reverence than cinephiles regard it.

For that, he wins fun points.

“American Hustle” (Dec.18)

AFF: 6

Believe it or not, David O. Russell has lightened up during the past several years. With 2010’s “The Fighter,” Russell offered a main character (Christian Bale) with a crack problem. But the movie’s underdog success story moved Russell closer to the mainstream than the “Spanking the Monkey” director had ventured before.

Mental illness colored last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” but the movie turned into a feel-good romantic comedy by the end.

Russell dips into coke heads, corrupt lawmakers and perms in “Hustle,” inspired by the lawmaker-ensnaring “Abscam” sting of the 1970s. The subject matter suggests Russell might once again be sharpening his edges. But there is joy to be had just in the hairstyles worn by Christian Bale (combed over as a con man) and Bradley Cooper (tightly curled as an FBI man).

“The Wolf of Wall Street” (Dec. 25)

AFF: 5

Martin Scorsese likes a good time, but only as the “before” portion of a cautionary tale. So for all the go-go 1980s excess in which Leonardo DiCaprio revels as an avaricious New York stockbroker in the “Wolf” trailer, expect compensatory wallowing and soul searching in the actual film.

For now, we’ll just celebrate the trailer’s shoulder pads, suspenders and yacht parties and not think about how the real-life crook DiCaprio is playing went to jail for his crimes.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (Dec. 25)

AFF: 5

Author James Thurber’s 1939 story about an ordinary guy who daydreams of derring-do inspired a 1937 Danny Kaye film and the long-ago entry into the cultural lexicon of the term “Walter Mitty” as shorthand for ineffectual dreamers.

The new film’s Mitty (Ben Stiller) daydreams of impressing his Life magazine co-worker (Kristen Wiig) but also dives into action, inspired to travel by a photographer (Sean Penn).

Stiller also directs, bringing in a good track record, with three big-screen wins (“Reality Bites,” “Zoolander,” “Tropic Thunder”) and one loss (“The Cable Guy”).

The sweeping shots shown in the “Mitty” trailer foretell a wondrous visual experience.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Dec. 13)

AFF: 4

Peter Jackson has caught a lot of flak for bloating J.R.R. Tolkien’s book into three mega-length movies. “Smaug” is the trilogy’s second entry after last year’s “An Unexpected Journey.” Like “Journey,” “Smaug” will be available in 2-D, 3-D and a 48-frames-per-second 3-D format that makes everything look HD-newscast crisp and thereby diminishes a sense of fantasy.

“Journey” was good once it moved past its long preamble, and although I cannot say I ever looked forward to a “Lord of the Rings” or “Hobbit” film, all have captivated me once I was in the theater. Jackson is a consistently terrific visual storyteller. “Smaug” is likely to contain at least a few escapist moments.

“Saving Mr. Banks” (Dec. 20)

AFF: 3

The Disney name usually means escapism. But not in this behind-the-scenes account of the making of the 1964 Disney movie musical “Mary Poppins.”

Emma Thompson plays P.L. (Pamela) Travers, real-life author of the Poppins books.

Travers came to Los Angeles from England before the film’s shoot and challenged Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, from “The Office”) about where they were taking her nanny character.

Travers did not want Poppins turned into a gibberish spouter (supercali-what?).

“Mr. Banks” appears as if it will hold more conflict than laughs.

But a withering Thompson is fun to watch.

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