''The Hobbit,'' ''This Is 40,'' and December's other featured films

By EW Staff
August 10, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Everything about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy is huge — with the obvious exception of the hobbit himself and the 13 dwarves who accompany him on a quest to reclaim a dragon’s treasure. The months of shooting in New Zealand, the expectations of millions of moviegoers, the technology required to bring the story to life — all of it is on a scale that’s hard to comprehend. ”There are days when you go, ‘Is this really going to be a film?’ ” says Martin Freeman, who plays reluctant hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins. ”Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a film set. It feels like you’re in NASA.” Even Jackson can feel daunted. ”On the first day, it’s like you’re standing looking up at the summit of a mountain, thinking, ‘How the hell are we ever going to get up there?’ ” he says. And that was before he decided to add a third film to his intended two-part saga.

While fans have deep faith in Jackson given his success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there’s uncertainty about how he’ll translate Tolkien’s fable — which the director is beefing up with material from later appendices by Tolkien — into a reported $500 million-plus trilogy. ”We know we’re making a series of films that people really want to see,” says Ian McKellen, who returns as the wizard Gandalf. ”But it’s a big responsibility because you don’t want to let them down.”

Co-producer and co-writer Philippa Boyens says they need not fret. ”There is no one way to tell these stories — there are multiple ways,” she says. ”People have said, ‘Are you worried about what the fans are going to think?’ And I go, ‘Well, we are fans!”’ Huge ones, in fact. —Josh Rottenberg Dec. 14

Jack Reacher
There’s been no shortage of Tom Cruise news leading up to Jack Reacher‘s release. In addition to the tabloid frenzy over the actor’s split with Katie Holmes, fans of Lee Child’s best-selling Reacher novels have been noisy about the less-than-imposing Cruise playing the series’ brawny 6′ 5” hero. ”I have an abiding respect for the fans,” says director Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects), who also adapted the script. ”But until they see the movie, there’s not really a discussion to be had…. I only answer to Lee Child, who said, ‘Why wouldn’t I want the biggest star in the world to play this character I created?’ ”

Based on Child’s 2005 thriller One Shot, Reacher introduces the titular loner — an ex-military cop who drifts around the U.S. with only a toothbrush and a thirst for bare-knuckle justice — as he investigates a sniper-killings case. Regardless of his stature, you can expect the usual Cruise commitment to onscreen daredevilry. ”A lot of actors say they do their own stunts, but Tom really does,” says Rosamund Pike, who plays an attorney who teams up with Reacher. ”I would go on set at 3 a.m. just to watch him crash his car and do things that would surely kill someone.” The guy does have a way of emerging unscathed. —Chris Nashawaty Dec. 21

The Guilt Trip
It took director Anne Fletcher a full year to coax Barbra Streisand — who hasn’t headlined a movie since 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces — out of semiretirement for this bittersweet comedy about an inventor (Seth Rogen) on a cross-country road trip with his mom (Streisand). ”I kept saying to her, ‘This movie is a dash of What’s Up, Doc? with a dash of The Way We Were,’ ” says Fletcher (The Proposal), who set up a script reading last fall to persuade both stars to sign on. ”After they were done with one scene, the room was silent. These two had the craziest amount of chemistry. They were even taken aback.” Funny — we’re not surprised at all. —Adam Markovitz Dec. 25

The Impossible

A survival drama that’s bound to remind some viewers of 127 Hours, The Impossible tells the true story of a family (led by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) who nearly perished in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami. Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage), who shot much of the film in the actual hard-hit Thai region of Khao Lak, says he achieved 90 percent of his tidal-wave re-creation using water rather than digital effects. ”It’s a real story, so we never accepted the idea of making the tsunami a CGI show,” Bayona says. ”It was kind of crazy, but it was the only way to make it real.” Scarily so. —Dave Karger Dec. 21

Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s chronicle of the decadelong hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden may be the year’s most controversial film, already generating partisan critiques. In their first interviews about the secrecy-shrouded project, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal — who each claimed Oscars for 2009’s Iraq-war drama The Hurt Locker — insist their film is a study of the unsung heroes who worked behind the scenes to take down bin Laden, not a celebration of Pres. Barack Obama’s decision to authorize the strike that killed him, in May 2011. ”There’s no political agenda in the film. Full stop. Period,” says Boal, a veteran war correspondent. ”A lot of people are going to be surprised when they see the film. For example, the president is not depicted in the movie.”

Although Sony decided last fall to move the film’s debut from October to December, well after the election, the project continues to draw fire. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and the right-wing watchdog group Judicial Watch have questioned whether the filmmakers received access to classified documents while researching their story. Asked about investigations into their work, Bigelow writes via email, ”Respectfully, no comment.” Similarly, Boal refuses to disclose any of the sources for his screenplay (or whether he used any fictionalized composites). ”I wanted to know what it was like to be the person responsible for hunting bin Laden, what that life was like,” he says. ”The only way to really answer that is to talk to people who do it.” (Asked if he interviewed Obama, Boal laughs and says, ”Next.”)

Still, Boal clearly did his research. ”There are over 100 speaking roles,” notes Bigelow; the cast includes Joel Edgerton as a SEAL and Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, and Brotherhood‘s Jason Clarke as CIA operatives. ”It’s an ensemble of covert-ops teams — ground branch [field agents], case officers, spies, analysts, and operators,” says Boal. ”I’m fascinated by people who dedicate themselves to really difficult and dangerous things for the greater good.” —Anthony Breznican Dec. 19

Django Unchained

You might not think it to look at him, but Quentin Tarantino is a hip-hop artist. That’s what Jamie Foxx believes at least, and he should know, having worked with some of the best rappers in the biz. ”Quentin’s totally hip-hop,” says Foxx, who plays a vengeful slave in the antebellum South in Tarantino’s gonzo spaghetti Western. ”He’s able to, on a dime and off the top of his head, create. He’s freestyling.” Tarantino’s original script for Django had everyone in Hollywood talking, but the director only used it as a blueprint for the final film. ”At one point he reworked the entire ending,” says Foxx. ”He went back to his house and came back hours later, and it was better than it was in the first place.”

Like Inglourious Basterds, Django doesn’t strive for historical accuracy — the James Brown track in the trailer makes that funkily clear — but the film doesn’t take the topic of slavery lightly, either. ”It’s not truth per se, but there is truth in it,” says Kerry Washington, who plays Foxx’s wife, Broomhilda, the captive of an evil plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Tarantino, she says, is ”making an homage to important moments in history and historical cinema, while also reinventing the wheel.” Or maybe even remixing it. —Keith Staskiewicz Dec. 25

This Is 40

Writer-director Judd Apatow was kicking around ideas for characters for his next comedy when he had a sudden aha moment. ”It hit me one day,” he remembers. ”Oh, I already have those characters!” — namely, Pete and Debbie, the stressed-out parents played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in his 2007 hit Knocked Up. ”People really responded to Pete and Debbie, and I thought it would be fun to see where they are now,” he says. ”I come from television, so I want there to be 80 episodes of everything.”

This episode catches up with the couple the week they both turn 40, a milestone that leads to a string of crises and breakdowns. ”Pete and Debbie are taking stock of their lives, and in attempting to figure out what they can do better, things slowly fall apart,” says Apatow, who cast Albert Brooks, Melissa McCarthy, and Megan Fox in supporting roles. As always, Apatow drew partly from his own life. ”It’s a little bit us, it’s a little bit Rudd, it’s a little bit all of our friends,” says Mann, Apatow’s wife (who recently turned 40 herself). ”It’s observing everyone’s relationships and putting it into a big soup.”

Already thinking ahead to his next movie, Apatow says, ”I’ve covered college, marriage, having a baby, turning 40, and fatal diseases — there’s almost nothing left at this point. I’m going to have to switch to science fiction.” This Is 2040, perhaps? —Josh Rottenberg Dec. 21

On The Road
After decades of stops and starts, Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical, generation-defining 1957 novel — originally typewritten on a single 120-foot-long ”scroll” — is finally hitting the big screen. Kerouac’s alter ego Sal (Control‘s Sam Riley) tags along with the magnetic but narcissistic Dean (Garrett Hedlund) as he crisscrosses the country on a constant quest for drugs, sex, and kicks. A slew of big names round out the cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, and Viggo Mortensen, plus Steve Buscemi in a brief but memorable cameo.

The film caused a stir at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in part for its frequent nude scenes, many featuring Twilight star Kristen Stewart as Dean’s insatiable wife, Marylou. But Stewart, who counts On the Road as one of her favorite books, shrugs off the attention. ”People are fairly predictable and conservative,” she says. ”People love and hate this [film], and that’s the best reaction.” It’s a reaction the Twilight star is probably used to by now. —Stephan Lee Dec. 21

Parental Guidance
Billy Crystal (in his first live-action film since 2002’s Analyze That) and Bette Midler star as a couple asked to watch their daughter’s three children for a week — but the worrywart mom (Marisa Tomei) just won’t take off. ”She has a lot of trouble leaving because she doesn’t trust us,” says Crystal, who conceived the story (Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse wrote the script) after a hectic five days babysitting his grandkids. It seems his old-school child-rearing drew constant critiques. ” ‘Don’t look at them this way. Feed them this. Don’t feed them that,’ ” the actor recalls being told. ”It’s just different than it was 30 years ago.” Family dynamics, though, never change. —Grady Smith Dec. 25

Michael Haneke (Funny Games) is known for difficult, cerebral films. But the Austrian director’s latest — which earned him the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May — is a tender look at an octogenarian couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose cozy life changes when the wife’s health deteriorates. Rarely has aging been treated with such straightforwardness on screen. ”I don’t know why that is,” says Trintignant, 81, the star of classic films like The Conformist. ”You watch Westerns or gangster movies and you probably won’t end up as a cowboy or a gangster. But most people are going to get old.” —Keith Staskiewicz Dec. 19

On The Road
After seven years of supporting roles — most recently in Moonrise Kingdom — Bill Murray is carrying a film for the first time since Broken Flowers. In an unlikely turn, he plays Franklin D. Roosevelt during a historic 1939 weekend meeting with England’s King George VI (Samuel West), who’s trying to secure American support on the brink of World War II. Adapted by Richard Nelson from his 2009 BBC radio play, the film is told in part from the perspective of Margaret ”Daisy” Stuckley (Laura Linney), FDR’s distant cousin and confidante.

Director Roger Michell could identify with the king’s delicate diplomatic mission; after all, he spent a year pursuing Murray for the film. ”It is like getting ahold of the Wizard of Oz,” says Michell, who knew the actor would be perfect for the role. ”I needed his sense of mischief and charm to forgive some of the things that FDR does.” That mischief continued off camera, Linney recalls. ”He’d take me on joyrides in the antique car between setups,” she says, ”which I think made everyone a little nervous.” —Jeff Labrecque Dec. 7

Also Playing
A thief (Eric Bana) and his sister (Olivia Wilde) run from the cops — and a blizzard — after pulling off a lucrative casino job in Deadfall (12/7)…. Rebecca Hall becomes Bruce Willis’ gambling assistant, and they try to strike it rich betting on sports in Lay the Favorite (12/7)…. When a former soccer star (Gerard Butler) rekindles a relationship with his son and ex-wife (Jessica Biel), he quits playing the field and starts Playing for Keeps (12/7)…. Prepare yourself for 2013’s prequel Monsters University by revisiting Mike, Sully, and Boo in Disney/Pixar’s latest rerelease, Monsters, Inc. 3D (12/19)…. Blockbuster filmmakers Andrew Adamson (Shrek) and James Cameron (Avatar) team up for a 3-D showcase of aerial acrobatics and gymnastic thrills in Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (12/21)…. The Hobbit director Peter Jackson produced the searing doc West of Memphis, which chronicles the legal woes of three innocent Arkansas teens convicted in 1994 of a brutal triple murder (and then freed). Four years in the making, it now lands in theaters (12/25). —Grady Smith