Winter Movie Preview 2011: Drama

You would think most dramas would try and squeeze in before Jan. 1 to be included in the Oscar race, but most people forget that some smaller gems simply don’t have the finances to compete and don’t want to be lost in the shuffle of the serious contenders, so the early portion of the year can deliver some interesting dramas, even with Sundance and the Oscars getting all the attention.

So the question remains: which of these films are small gems that didn’t want to be lost in the shuffle and which were dumped into 2011 because they weren’t good enough? You’ll have to have an independent/arthouse theater near you to see most of these, however.

6. The Other Woman (Feb. 4 – Limited)

Directed by Don Roos
Written by Don Roos, Ayelet Waldman (novel)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Lisa Kudrow

The Word: Don Roos has a bit of a reputation for romance (“Marley & Me,” “The Opposite of Sex”) and he gets Natalie Portman in his film after all the buzz for “Black Swan.” Based on the novel “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” by Israeli-born author Ayelet Waldman, the story follows a woman who has an affair with a married man whom she eventually marries and has a baby with. When the baby dies in infancy, however, she must work to become part of his family rather than starting her own.

My Thoughts: If it’s not clear to you by now, I’m drawn to anything Portman does. I don’t think I’ll seek out this film intentionally, but if it receives strong reviews it’s something I’ll watch eventually.

5. Country Strong (Jan. 7)

Written and Directed by Shana Feste
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester

The Word: When “subbing” on “Glee,” Gwyneth Paltrow showed off her vocal skills and it served as the perfect marketing for her vocal-driven role in this familiar rehabbing country star drama. Filmmaker Shana Feste, who from her imdb page looks exactly like a cross between Paltrow and Leslie Mann, made last year’s winter indie drama “The Greatest.” She’s on the rise, but early buzz for “Country Strong” has not been.

My Thoughts: The distributing process for this film was simple: release the film very limited in 2010 for Oscar consideration in terms of Best Song, then release wide in January because it’s not that good. If you’re a fan of country music, however, I could see why you’d be interested. The soundtrack could well be better than the film.

4. Frankie and Alice (Feb. 4 – Limited)

Directed by Geoffrey Sax
Written by  Cheryl Edwards, Marko King, Mary King, Jonathan Waters and 4 others
Starring: Halle Berry, Stellan Skarsgård, Phylicia Rashad

The Word: All it took was playing at Cannes, the AFI Film Festival and a premiere in L.A. for Halle Berry to earn a Golden Globe nomination for playing a woman with multiple personality disorder. As if that wasn’t baiting for awards attention enough, her “alter ego” happens to be racist. Geoffrey Sax (“White Noise,” “Alex Ryder: Stormbreaker”) directs.

My Thoughts: A role with that description played by an Oscar winner gets the attention it probably deserves. Yet a January release suggests Berry’s performance might be the best thing about “Frankie and Alice.” It’s hard to imagine that a drama crediting eight different writers (that’s unheard of) could be above average.

3. Biutiful (Jan. 28 – Limited)

Directed by Alejandro Gonázlez Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro Gonázlez Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib

The Word: Alejandro Gonázlez Iñárritu has made the biggest splash in America of any Mexican filmmaker not named Guillermo Del Toro. The creator of “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel” takes a different approach this time. Nabbing the always-excellent Bardem, he tells the story of one man as opposed to several criss-crossing story lines or vignettes.

My Thoughts: Bardem won Best Actor at Cannes and has been talked up as giving an Oscar-worthy performance, but he looks to have more an outside chance. “Biuitful” received mostly positive reviews, but not enough to warrant a U.S. release in 2010. Apparently it’s a bit depressing, but AGI shoots some of the most beautiful films out there and from the trailer this looks no different.

2. Barney’s Version (Jan. 14 – Limited)

Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Written by Michael Konyves, Mordecai Richler (novel)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver

The Word: Paul Giamatti received a Golden Globe nomination for his role as impulsive risk-taker Barney Panofsky, a man who meets the woman of his dreams (Pike), which would be great, except it was at his wedding — to another woman (Driver). The film spans much of Barney’s lifetime and his struggles with love. Adapted from the award-winning novel by Mordecai Richler.

My Thoughts: Giamatti and Pike (“An Education”) are both severely underrated actors though of course the former has a more widely recognized name. I’m actually a bit floored that it is indeed Pike as her looks are downplayed for the film. The big question I have about this film is whether a guy who mostly directs episodes of “CSI” and a writer of several sci-fi made-for-TV movies really do pull it off. Otherwise, there seems to be a nice balance of humor and humanity.

1. The Way Back (Jan. 21)

Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Keith R. Clarke and Peter Weir, Slavomir Rawicz (novel)
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong

The Word: Acclaimed director Peter Weir (“Master and Commander,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” “The Truman Show”) tells this true but exaggerated story of several Siberian work camp escapees and their 4,000-mile trip to freedom in India. An excellent group of vets and up-and-comers comprise the cast: Sturgess (“Across the Universe”), Saoirse Ronan (“The Lovely Bones”), Mark Strong (“Kick-Ass”), Colin Farrell and Ed Harris.

My Thoughts: How a film of this magnitude was independently financed blows my mind. I’m a little surprised a bigger distributor did not pick it up as of all the films on this list, “The Way Back” strikes me as otherwise having the best chance at Oscar attention. Weir also has a reputation for directing actors to Oscar wins, but no such buzz here. Whether or not some might have been deserved we’ll find out when “Way Back” gets a somewhat wide release this month.


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