The first movie weekend of 2013 brings some of the potential heavy hitters in this year's Oscar race. (By the way, The Cricket examines that race with his fearless predictions of next week's nominations.)
The best movie of the week is also the toughest to watch: “The Impossible,” a beautifully realized depiction of a harrowing real-life survival story. Spanish director J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) follows the plight of a family – led by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor – whose Christmas vacation in Thailand is cut short when they are caught up in the carnage of the 2004 tsunami. The stunning effects re-create the gruesome toll of the tsunami, while the performances (particularly by Watts and young Tom Holland as the oldest son) are moving.
Another great movie is “The House I Live In,” a hard-hitting and personal documentary about “The War on Drugs,” and what 40 years of a get-tough policy has done to America. Director Eugene Jarecki examines the toll on families, while diligently chronicling the dark motives behind the policies and the voices of experts in the field who say those policies aren't working.
Gus Van Sant's drama “Promised Land” takes on another hot-button issue – the environmental dangers of “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking” to produce natural gas – but in a tepid presentation. The focus is on Steve (Matt Damon), a nice-guy salesman for a giant gas company, working to get locals in a rural New York town to sign drilling leases while an environmentalist (John Krasinski) campaigns against him. The script, by Damon and Krasinski, presents the issues directly, but the focus is on Steve's moral dilemma as a good guy in a bad job.
“Not Fade Away” is the directing debut of David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” and it's a fond valentine to his teen rock 'n' roll dreams in '60s New Jersey. It centers on Douglas (John Magaro), who rebels against his working-class dad (James Gandolfini) to pursue his wish to be in a rock band. The plot is one cliché after another, but the atmosphere is perfectly realized – thanks largely to a soundtrack curated by Chase's consigliere, Steven Van Zandt.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” is a misfire of historic farce, with Bill Murray playing Franklin Roosevelt as a happy host to the British royals – King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) – while also starting an affair with a distant cousin (Laura Linney). The forced comedy and drippy romance are a poor mix, and the usually lively cast is left high and dry.
Lastly, there's “Texas Chainsaw 3D,” the latest installment of the horror franchise. It was not screened for critics.