Before you get too excited at the mention of winter movies, I begin by regretfully informing you that 2011 is woefully short on terrible holiday fare. No ill-advised, tinsel-sprinkled rom-com in which Reese Witherspoon grins and bears it as her would-be paramour vomits into a stocking, or accidentally sets fire to a nativity scene. No shoot-’em-up starring Vin Diesel as a rogue CIA assassin posing as a shopping-mall Santa. No depressing Yuletide vehicles for aging, pudgy comedians that have them starring as Mrs. Claus’ drunk younger brother. Yes, it is true that A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas opened earlier this month, but if all we have to endure at the box office this holiday season is a stoner romp with a three-dimensional Neil Patrick Harris, we got off easy.
The fact is that except for New Year’s Eve (Dec. 9), Garry Marshall’s follow-up to 2010’s Valentine’s Day that seemingly stars every single actor in Hollywood with a SAG card, November and December are nearly schmaltz-free. Instead, they’re full of Oscar bait and big-budget franchises. Members of the former category include The Iron Lady (Dec. 30 limited, Jan. 13 wide), in which Meryl Streep embodies Margaret Thatcher (she might as well start writing her acceptance speech now); My Week With Marilyn (Nov. 23), starring Michelle Williams as the iconic blonde that gentlemen prefer; The Artist (Nov. 23), a silent film with a largely unknown French cast that was the toast of Cannes in May; We Need to Talk About Kevin (Jan. 27), in which Tilda Swinton plays the mother of an extremely troubled teen; and the Bosnian War drama In the Land of Blood and Honey (Dec. 23), written and directed by Angelina Jolie, which promises to be not at all pretentious.
Meanwhile, the most anticipated of the blockbuster set (if you’re under 18) may be the first half of Twilight’s Breaking Dawn saga (Nov. 18), in which passionate human-vampire love is finally—finally!—consummated (Here’s to seeing pale hunk Robert Pattinson with his shirt off). But David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 21) starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara runs a close second. Then there are the sequels no one asked for: the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Dec. 16), and Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Dec. 21), in which Tom Cruise, reprising his role as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, investigates why they couldn’t just call it Mission: Impossible IV. And once the tryptophan abates, Thanksgiving weekend will be all about The Muppets (Nov. 23), Jason Segel’s long-awaited reboot of Jim Henson’s beloved paean to puppetry. Unfortunately for non-Christians seeking cinematic solitude (or for Christians seeking to flee dysfunctional family gatherings and smuggle a flask of 80-proof eggnog into the nearest multiplex), the movies opening on Christmas day are pretty dark: there’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9/11-themed novel; Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, about (spoiler alert!) a horse during World War I; and The Darkest Hour, which follows a group of friends hiding out in Moscow after an alien attack. Fruitcake and an endless loop of A Charlie Brown Christmas don’t seem so bad now, do they?
It gets worse. The first few months of the year are traditionally some of Hollywood’s bleakest, a barren dumping ground for movies in which studios have no faith. But! Obviously things have changed this year, because Joyful Noise (Jan. 13) stars Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton in a bit of particularly inspired casting as an unlikely duo who band together save a small-town gospel choir, which sounds like basically the best thing ever, right? That, and Liam Neeson leading a ragtag band of oil-rig roughnecks to survival in the Alaskan wilderness (The Grey, Jan. 27). The rest are, well, iffy: January also brings us Contraband (Jan. 13), a drama about drug smuggling headlined by Mark Wahlberg; Haywire (Jan. 20), a Steven Soderbergh-directed tale of international espionage with Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum, Red Tails (Jan. 20), in which Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard play black fighter pilots in World War II, the fairly self-explanatory thriller Man on a Ledge (Jan. 27), and a truly horrific-looking comedy starring Katherine Heigl as a bail bonding agent from New Jersey (One For the Money, Jan. 27).
February isn’t much better, unless you’ve been jonesing to see John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore co-star in a rom-com about saving whales (Big Miracle, Feb. 3) or to experience Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace all over again in 3-D (Feb. 10). Deadly CIA operatives battle for Witherspoon’s heart in the action/comedy This Means War (Feb. 17), and Channing Tatum tries to win back Rachel McAdams after she loses her memory in The Vow (Feb. 10), which sounds a lot like The Notebook but with less Ryan Gosling and more comas.
But I’m being pessimistic. Early 2012 might seem like the winter of our celluloid discontent, but chances are we’ll get some pleasant surprises. The Judd Apatow-produced Wanderlust (Feb. 24) looks promising, reuniting Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston for the first time since The Object of My Affection as a tense Manhattan couple who join a commune full of kooky characters played by the likes of Alan Alda. Disney is releasing Beauty and the Beast in 3-D (Jan. 13), so we’ll get to see a horny candlestick dance like he’s never danced before. And hey, maybe next year someone will make that Vin Diesel movie. Because on second thought, it’s not such a bad idea.