Bad Words (R) Jason Bateman stars in his own directorial debut as a 40-year-old man who takes advantage of a loophole in the rules to compete in a national spelling bee for middle-school kids. Also with Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting, Beth Grant, and Philip Baker Hall. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Big Men (NR) This documentary by Rachel Boynton (Our Brand Is Crisis) spends four years inside Dallas’ Kosmos Energy as the company discovers and tries to develop the first-ever oilfield in Ghana. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
A Birder’s Guide to Everything (PG-13) Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) stars in this comedy as a 15-year-old boy who skips out on his dad’s remarriage to find a rare bird. Also with Ben Kingsley, James Le Gros, Alex Wolff, Michael Chen, Daniela Lavender, and Katie Chang. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Cheap Thrills (NR) Pat Healy and Ethan Embry star in this black comedy as two financially struggling guys who are dared to do increasingly dangerous things for money by an eccentric rich guy (David Koechner). Also with Sara Paxton. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Divergent (PG-13) The big-screen version of Veronica Roth’s vastly popular science fiction series stars Shailene Woodley as a girl in a dystopian future society who discovers evidence of an impending civil war. Also with Theo James, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Christian Madsen, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, and Kate Winslet. (Opens Friday)
Enemy (R) Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal reunite for this adaptation of José Saramago’s novel about a man who’s pulled into a violent spiral after spotting an actor who looks exactly like him in a movie. Also with Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, and Isabella Rossellini. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
God’s Not Dead (PG) Shane Harper stars in this Christian drama as a college student who’s challenged to prove God’s existence by an atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo). Also with David A.R. White, Marco Khan, Lisa Arnold, Jim Gleason, Willie Robertson, and Dean Cain. (Opens Friday)
The Lunchbox (PG) A runaway critical and commercial hit in India, Ritesh Batra’s drama stars Irrfan Khan as a Mumbai widower who starts to correspond with a young housewife (Nimrat Kaur) after someone else’s lunchbox is accidentally delivered to him. Also with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Lillete Dubey, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar, Yashvi Puneet Nagar, and Denzil Smith. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Stranger by the Lake (NR) Alain Guiraudie’s French thriller stars Pierre Deladonchamps as a gay cruiser who’s drawn into a torrid affair with a man (Christophe Paou) who might be a killer. Also with Patrick d’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, and Emmanuel Daumas. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
About Last Night (R) This remake of the similarly titled 1986 comedy rings surprisingly little improvement on the mediocre original. While one couple (Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant) recovering from painful previous relationships try to work out their newfound attraction to each other, their respective best friends (Kevin Hart and Regina Hall) engage in a weird, dysfunctional romance of their own. The lead couple is blandly written and played, and the entire movie would be downright dreary if it weren’t for Hart, who strikes all manner of comic sparks off both Ealy and Hall and once again squeezes laughs out of unpromising material. Somebody get Hart a vehicle worthy of his talents. Also with Christopher McDonald, Adam Rodriguez, Joe Lo Truglio, Bryan Callen, and Paula Patton.
American Hustle (R) David O. Russell’s chaotic, marvelously entertaining caper film lurches and veers out of control and features some of the best acting you’ll see all year. Christian Bale and Amy Adams portray 1970s con artists who are busted by a smarmy, fast-talking FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and forced to help him catch other crooks. Cooper slips easily into his character’s growing megalomania, and Jennifer Lawrence is a comic whirlwind as Bale’s volatile, angry wife, but Adams comes off the best here, lighting up the movie with her sexuality. Russell captures the desperation of these people struggling to get ahead or get out of trouble, and underneath the luscious surfaces and ridiculously awesome costumes, he gives the movie an edge of fear and paranoia. Also with Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm, Paul Herman, Saïd Taghmaoui, and an uncredited Robert De Niro.
Frozen (PG) The best Disney musical in quite some time. Kristen Bell provides the voice of Anna, the orphaned younger daughter of the rulers of a fictitious Nordic kingdom who goes into the wilderness to persuade her older sister (voiced by Idina Menzel) to save their land from a curse of eternal winter. The songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez bring freshness and wit to the songs, and Bell not only finds the comedy in the socially awkward heroine but also unleashes her glorious soprano on “The First Time in Forever.” The animators put the Ice Age movies to shame by doing endlessly inventive things with the ice and snow in the setting, and the script manages to create a heroine who’s interested in more than just finding a handsome prince. Additional voices by Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Livvy Stubenrauch, Alan Tudyk, and Ciarán Hinds.
Gravity (PG-13) The greatest 3D movie ever made. Alfonso Cuarón’s unremittingly intense space thriller stars Sandra Bullock as a novice astronaut who is caught outside the shuttle in a high-velocity storm of space debris and stranded in the blackness of space. The film is essentially a series of long takes, and Cuarón’s shooting of them in a simulated zero-gravity environment is an astounding technical feat. Yet the long takes also give us no chance to catch our breath; they turn this brief 90-minute film into a singularly harrowing experience, with our heroine narrowly escaping death from completely unforeseen yet logical dangers. Bullock rides over the script’s infelicities and gives this film a human center, helping to turn this movie into an exhilarating and emotionally draining ride. Also with George Clooney.
Her (R) Spike Jonze’s greatest film yet stars Joaquin Phoenix as a near-future divorced guy who falls in love with his smartphone’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who’s equipped with an artificial intelligence personality that evolves from her experiences. What could have been a glib satire on our dependence on technology instead becomes a surpassingly beautiful and serious-minded (though still quite funny) disquisition on the transformative powers of love and how people change during the course of a relationship. It’s anchored by tremendous performances by Phoenix, bringing sweetness and humor that we haven’t seen from him, and Johansson, who makes the OS’s insecurities palpable despite not appearing on the screen. The movie’s DIY feel gives this vision of the near future great texture, and its loneliness make it haunting. Also with Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Portia Doubleday, and Matt Letscher. Additional voices by Spike Jonze, Brian Cox, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig.
The Lego Movie (PG) The funniest movie so far this year is this animated spectacular about a Lego construction worker (voiced by Chris Pratt) who becomes the only figure capable of stopping a tyrant (voiced by Will Ferrell) from supergluing the universe into place. The movie isn’t short of action sequences, but filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street) prefer to generate their frenetic pace with the sheer number of exquisitely timed gags that they throw at us. With its subversive wit taking shots at consumer culture, this movie is almost avant-garde. The climactic live-action sequence goes on too long, but the enviable voice cast more than makes up for it. Listen for Tegan & Sara’s earworm of a techno jam “Everything Is Awesome.” Additional voices by Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Nick Offerman, Jake Johnson, Will Forte, Dave Franco, Billy Dee Williams, Cobie Smulders, Shaquille O’Neal, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.
Lone Survivor (R) This movie tries to celebrate the heroism of Navy SEALs but winds up as a glorified recruitment commercial instead. This film is based on the real-life story of Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), who was on a reconaissance mission in Afghanistan in 2005 with a small team of other SEALs when it went bad. Writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, but then again, Battleship) does well by the sweaty dread as the SEALs wait to engage the Taliban and by the bone-crunching impact when the soldiers hurl themselves down the mountainside to escape death. Yet Berg doesn’t apply much critical thinking to the material, and we get little sense of the soldiers as people. The patriotic sentiments in his movies have gotten so woolly that Berg has turned into a more respectable version of Michael Bay. Also with Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Ali Suliman, Rohan Chand, Yousuf Azmi, Alexander Ludwig, Jerry Ferrara, and Eric Bana.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (PG) In adapting Jay Ward’s series of cartoon shorts, the filmmakers turn the erudite, hyperintelligent, time-traveling dog (voiced by Ty Burrell) into a befuddled, emotionally distant, somewhat overwhelmed adoptive dad to Sherman (voiced by Max Charles). It works surprisingly well until the last 20 minutes or so. The script features surprisingly literate references amid the ear-meltingly bad puns that Peabody is given to. Additional points for a nifty 300 parody and some child-rearing advice from Leonardo da Vinci (voiced by Stanley Tucci): “But Peabody, a child is not a machine! I should know. I tried to build one once. Oh boy, it was-a creepy.” Additional voices by Ariel Winter, Allison Janney, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Tobolowsky, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton, and Mel Brooks.
The Monuments Men (PG-13) A well-intentioned exercise in overreach. George Clooney stars in his own war film as the leader of a real-life group of artists, historians, and curators who went into a combat zone to preserve masterpieces of Western art during World War II. At 118 minutes, the movie feels inexpertly hacked down from something longer — we’re not properly introduced to the characters before they’re split up and flung to corners of the western front. Clooney’s trying to make a larky war movie with undercurrents of seriousness and danger, but the comic moments aren’t funny despite the ample talent in the cast, and the reverent speeches about the importance of art come off as sanctimonious. It’s frustrating, because you can easily imagine the better film Clooney was trying to make. Also with Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, and Bill Murray.
Need for Speed (PG-13) Based on the best-selling series of video games, this car chase movie just barely manages to be a viable piece of entertainment. Aaron Paul portrays a guy who’s out to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of a rival racer (Dominic Cooper) by beating him in an illegal road race in California. The script is terrible (Michael Keaton has a part that I still can’t figure out), but then, who’s going to this movie for the script? Paul has decent chemistry with Imogen Poots as a British car expert, and the racing sequences includes one with a silver Mustang tearing through gas stations and strip-mall parking lots at top speed. It’ll tide you over adequately until the next Fast & Furious installment. Also with Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson, and Dakota Johnson.
Non-Stop (PG-13) Slightly less implausible than Snakes on a Plane, though better made. Liam Neeson plays an alcoholic air marshal who tries to thwart a plot to kill the passengers on his transatlantic flight one by one. This thriller is smoothly directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, and it plays like one of those 1970s Airport movies without the big stars, which is both a good and a bad thing. It might have gone over better if Neeson hadn’t turned into Mr. Crappy Action Thriller during the last few years, but he’s gone to this well once too often. It’s good enough to kill 100 minutes on a long flight. Also with Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy, Omar Metwally, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount, and Lupita Nyong’o.
Philomena (PG-13) Based on a real-life story, this dramedy stars Judi Dench with an unsteady Irish accent as a woman who teams up with a down-on-his-luck English journalist (Steve Coogan) to travel to America to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades ago. Coogan’s a well-known comedian in the U.K. who does well acting in a more serious piece. He also wrote the script, and while he and director Stephen Frears make an effort to balance the humor with the more serious parts, it doesn’t always come off. Still, the thing opens a window onto an ugly part of Irish history, and does it with skill and a minimum amount of weepiness. Also with Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Michelle Fairley.
Pompeii (PG-13) The love story is so boring that you can’t wait for the volcano to erupt, and when the thing does erupt, it’s so badly done that you wind up feeling cheated by the whole thing. Paul W.S. Anderson directs this terrible-looking historical epic about a gladiator (Kit Harington) who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter (Emily Browning) just before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The acting is wretched, especially from Kiefer Sutherland as a lecherous Roman senator, and the CGI-generated eruption doesn’t even look as real as your kid’s science project. This is disaster porn, and it’s not even any fun. Also with Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Lucas, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Jared Harris.
Ride Along (PG-13) Kevin Hart is the only sign of life in this listless comic thriller as an Atlanta police academy trainee who tries to impress his fiancée’s cop brother (Ice Cube) by spending a day on the job with him. The comic chemistry between the two leads is nonexistent, and the detective story that they get plunged into is uninteresting in the extreme. Hart always works hard to squeeze laughs out of his material no matter how bad it is, but here he’s fighting a losing battle. Also with Tika Sumpter, John Leguizamo, Bryan Callen, Bruce McGill, Dragos Bucur, Jay Pharoah, and Laurence Fishburne.
RoboCop (PG-13) It doesn’t suck. This remake of the 1987 thriller stars Joel Kinnaman as the future Detroit cop who’s turned into a crime-fighting cyborg after an attempt on his life leaves him crippled. The parts involving the cop’s home life and his attempts to unravel a criminal conspiracy are riddled with cliches, but director José Padilha (Elite Squad: The Enemy Within) does well with the future tech and the action sequences, and Kinnaman does terrific work as a man struggling to piece himself back together. Watch the satirical original, and it seems to foretell this remake coming to pass. Also with Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jay Baruchel, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan,a nd Samuel L. Jackson. — Cole Williams
The Single Moms Club (PG-13) Tyler Perry’s latest film cuts out the cheap jokes and the judgmental attitude from many of his other movies. That’s great! Sadly, what’s left is a lot of boring speeches and weepy melodrama. That sucks! Nia Long, Amy Smart, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Zulay Henao, and Cocoa Brown play the women who form a support group/coffee klatsch for single mothers. The dilemmas they face play out exactly as you’d expect, and the men in their lives are either infinitely patient saints or evil abusers. Skip this meeting. Also with Tyler Perry, Eddie Cibrian, Terry Crews, Ryan Eggold, and William Levy.
Son of God (PG-13) This two-hour biography of Jesus was cut down from a 10-hour TV miniseries, which is probably why it plays like Jesus Christ’s Greatest Hits. Diogo Morgado stars here, and he has the prophet’s gentleness and magnanimity without his ferocity or his gravitas. Director Christopher Spencer looks hamstrung by his budget when it comes to evoking the wondrousness of Jesus’ miracles. This is strictly for those who already believe. Also with Sebastian Knapp, David Rintoul, Gary Oliver, William Houston, Nonso Anozie, Langley Kirkwood, Darwin Shaw, and Amber Rose Revah.
That Awkward Moment (R) That awful movie. Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, and Miles Teller star in this fatally sensitive and unfunny romantic comedy as three pals who find themselves at a crossroads with their relationships with women. The cast is stellar. I thought Efron would be outclassed by the other two actors, but he’s actually rather good. Their efforts, though, are all for naught. The filmmaker throws in a few sequences built around nudity and penises to convince us that this is a raunchy comedy. That doesn’t work either. Also with Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin, and Josh Pais.
3 Days to Kill (PG-13) This misconceived thriller stars Kevin Costner as a dying CIA agent who’s offered a life-saving drug in exchange for performing a hit in Paris on a shadowy international terrorist. Working with a relatively subdued color palette, director McG loses control of the tone of this piece as he tries to balance the thrills with soapy comedy about the agent trying to reconnect with his estranged, troubled daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, giving the movie’s only semi-palatable performance). The result is disjointed in the extreme and more than a bit of a snooze. Also with Amber Heard, Tómas Lemarquis, Marc Andréoni, Richard Sammel, Jonas Bloquet, Bruno Ricci, and Connie Nielsen.
300: Rise of an Empire (R) This sequel never escapes the haunting shadow of Zack Snyder’s 2007 original. Taking in events both before and after the Battle of Thermopylae, this one stars Sullivan Stapleton as the Athenian general Themistocles, who tries to rally his fellow Greeks against an impending invasion by the Persians. Director Noam Murro follows too closely in Snyder’s footsteps, imitating the original’s look and feel without the flair for action, and the script is once again filled with bloviating about the warrior ideal. In a cast made up mostly of anonymous Australian guys, Eva Green easily steals this movie, bringing tons of badassery and her usual fierce sexuality to the role of the Persian naval commander Artemisia. The filmmakers should have had the sense to keep this character around for the sequel. Also with Rodrigo Santoro, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Ashraf Barhom, and Lena Headey.
12 Years a Slave (R) Even more significant than Schindler’s List. Steve McQueen’s epic tells the story of Solomon Northup, a real-life free black New Yorker who was abducted in 1841 and forced to work as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. McQueen directs this with his typical austerity and rigor and pulls off an extraordinarily powerful long take in which Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is strung up from a tree branch and suspended on his tiptoes while the other slaves go about their work, afraid to offer help. Screenwriter John Ridley draws a vivid, panoramic view of all the twisted human specimens that the slave economy produces, and McQueen and his actors flesh them out beautifully, with a terrifying Michael Fassbender as a sadistic slavemaster and Ejiofor giving the performance of his career. This wrenching film is crucial to understanding America’s heritage. Also with Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Adepero Oduye, Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, and Quvenzhané Wallis.
Veronica Mars (PG-13) Delirious joy for the show’s fans, a terrific little thriller for newcomers. This Kickstarter-funded big-screen version of the cult TV drama stars Kristen Bell as the former teenage private eye who returns to her California hometown to clear her ex-boyfriend (Jason Dohring) of a murder charge. Director and show creator Rob Thomas brings back the show’s best things: Veronica’s relationship with her beloved dad (Enrico Colantoni), her eviscerating one-liners, her chipper determination in the face of evil, and her navigation of a community polarized between rich and poor. Oh, what we’d give to see Veronica’s further adventures! Actually, we may get the chance. Also with Krysten Ritter, Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Ryan Hansen, Francis Capra III, Chris Lowell, Ken Marino, Amanda Noret, Daran Norris, Martin Starr, Gaby Hoffmann, Max Greenfield, Jerry O’Connell, Dax Shepard, Jamie Lee Curtis, and uncredited cameos by Justin Long and James Franco.
The Wind Rises (PG-13) This wondrous Oscar-nominated animated film will make you glad that Hayao Miyazaki hasn’t really retired. Based on the early life of Japanese aviation pioneer Jiro Horikoshi, it features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Jiro, who designs airplanes for a Japanese government that’s gearing up to conquer the Pacific in the 1930s. Miyazaki has never been afraid of ethically complicated places, and he heads straight for the thicket that greets Jiro, who’s well insulated from the death and destruction that his planes will cause. Miyazaki puts warning signs all around his hero, but nevertheless glories in his craftsmanship and depicts his dreams of flight as beautiful, soaring things. This is a work of transcendent grace wedded to an appreciation of a man with infinite ability to take pains. Additional voices by Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Herzog, Jennifer Grey, Darren Criss, and William H. Macy.
The Wolf of Wall Street (R) Not Martin Scorsese’s best film, but definitely his funniest. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, the real-life fraudster whose firm made more than $1 billion in the 1990s manipulating penny stocks. The movie is structured too much like Goodfellas, with its high-living band of outlaws wielding phones instead of guns. Still, after playing a string of intense, tormented heroes, DiCaprio is revelatory in his first out-and-out comic performance, blending well with a cast full of experienced comedians (including Jonah Hill as his nebbishy right-hand man) and executing a great piece of slapstick involving Quaaludes and a car. Scorsese may be repeating himself, but his story hasn’t lost much in the re-telling. Also with Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, and an uncredited Spike Jonze.
Bethlehem (NR) Yuval Adler’s thriller stars Tsahi Halevi as an Israeli Secret Service officer who forms a conflicted relationship with a teenage Palestinian informant (Shadi Mar’i). Also with Hitham Omari, Michal Shtamler, Tarik Kopty, George Iskandar, and Hisham Sulimani.
Omar (NR) Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Hany Abu-Assad’s thriller stars Adam Bakri as a Palestinian freedom fighter/terrorist who agrees to work as an informant for the Israelis. Also with Waleed Zuaiter, Eyad Hourani, Samer Bisharat, Essam Abu Abed, and Leem Lubany.