Every year, Hollywood tries to go out with a bang — the question this year is, which bang will be biggest? For sheer moviemaking grandeur, you'd think it would be hard to top the subduing of the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies. But Peter Jackson's only got Gandalf and armies. In Exodus: Gods And Kings, Ridley Scott's got Moses, 400,000 slaves, and an effects budget Pharaoh would envy, not to mention the parting of the Red Sea.

Shall we call that a draw?

Actually, the action this holiday season, as in most holiday seasons, is in based-on-a-true-story stories, because Oscar voters are as fond of biopics as they are short of memory. Among the notable ones this season:

Unbroken was directed by Angelina Jolie, and unlike previous years when it was startling to see even one woman director leading a prestige project during awards season, this year there are two. The other is Ava DuVernay's measured, majestic Selma, which chronicles Martin Luther King's 1965 campaign for voting rights, and the opposition of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

And while women directed those stories of struggle and resistance, they're also out in front of the camera in other potential award contenders: Julianne Moore suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's in Still Alice; Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, trekking more than a thousand miles to put her life in order in Wild; and Amy Adams, playing 1950s artist Margaret Keane as she struggles against a husband who claims credit for her hugely popular paintings in Big Eyes.

Art-house audiences will have a wealth of foreign films to choose from, including Two Days One Night, the Dardenne brothers' wrenching (and timely) story of workplace downsizing, and Leviathan, which looks at a vodka-soaked landscape of Russian corruption.

Chris Rock wrote, directed and stars in Top Five, about a comedian who's frustrated that he can't get the entertainment industry to take him seriously, while Seth Rogen co-wrote, co-directed and co-stars in The Interview, a less-serious look at someone anxious to be taken seriously. Rogen plays James Franco's producer on a tabloid-TV show that scores a face-to-face sitdown with Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a fact that attracts attention from the CIA.

And all of that's before you even get to the musicals Annie and Into The Woods, the latter a comparatively dark look at what happens after "happily ever after," the former a show for those convinced the sun'll come out, um, you know when (if I type it, I won't be able to get it out of my head).

Good luck resisting if you're a parent ... or even if you're not.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



The holiday movie season gets into full-swing this weekend. The next month or so will feature a mad dash of more than 50 would-be blockbusters and Oscar-hopefuls. We asked our critic Bob Mondello for a selective preview.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Every year, Hollywood tries to go out with a bang. The question this year is which bang will be biggest? In most years, it would be hard to top the subduing of the dragon Smaug in "The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies."


IAN MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) This was the last move in a master plan - a plan long in the making.

MONDELLO: But Peter Jackson's only got Gandalf. Ridley Scott's got Moses battling Pharaoh and the parting of the Red Sea in "Exodus: Gods And Kings."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) If we're going to recapture 400,000 slaves...

JOEL EDGERTON: (As Rhamses) We're not recapturing anyone.

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Moses) There is a sea ahead and an army behind. Ready yourselves.

MONDELLO: Indeed, ready yourselves. "Exodus" has a special-effects budget Pharaoh would have envied. Pharaoh also shows up in another effects epic this Christmas, say, lighter one, though.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Pharaoh) You are speaking with the Pharaoh. Kiss my staff.

BEN STILLER: (As Larry Daley) Oh, is it OK if I don't?

MONDELLO: "Night At The Museum" heads to London for "Secret Of The Tomb."


OWEN WILSON: (As Tilly) Hello. Welcome to the British Museum.

STILLER: (As Larry Daley) Hi.

WILSON: (As Tilly) Must be wicked being a security guard in America with your gun, with a silencer, with your ninja swords.

STILLER: (As Larry Daley) That's not even a little bit true.

MONDELLO: True matters elsewhere this holiday season, though, because Oscar voters are as fond of bio picks as they are short of memory. So every December, there are lots of based-on-a-true-story stories. Among the ones this season, Mr. Turner about British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, in which Tim Spall courts an Oscar nomination by grunting and snorting as he paints his master pieces.


TIMOTHY SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Ah. Sir John, sire.

NIALL BUGGY: (As John Carew) J.M.W. Turner, a squire.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) As I live and breathe.

BUGGY: (As John Carew) My dear friend. Only now I was admiring your seascape.

MONDELLO: Audiences will admire, too, as Turner lashes himself to a ship's mast to experience a storm he's painting from the inside. Also, taken from real life are three wartime sagas, Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper."


BRADLEY COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Hold on. I got a woman and a kid 200 yards out moving towards the convoy.

MONDELLO: Bradley Cooper is the title character.


COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Her arms aren't swinging. She's carrying something.

MONDELLO: During the Iraq War, he became the deadliest sharpshooter in U.S. history.


COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Yeah. She's got a grenade. She's got a RKG Russian grenade. She just handed it to the kid.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You say a woman and a kid?

COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) You got eyes on this? Can you confirm?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Negative.

MONDELLO: And earlier war, World War II, is the backdrop for "The Imitation Game" with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the math genius who cracked the German Enigma code.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) I like solving problems, commander, and enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.

CHARLES DANCE: (As Commander Denniston) Enigma isn't difficult. It's impossible. Everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Good. Let me try, and we'll know for sure. Won't we?

MONDELLO: Another World War II story centers on an American who's a former Olympic track star when he gets shot down over the Pacific then plucked from a raft by the Japanese who want to use him as a propaganda prop.


JACK O'CONNELL: (As Louis Zamperini) I can't say this. What it says about America, it's not true.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) This man must be taught respect.

MONDELLO: "Unbroken" was directed by Angelina Jolie. And unlike previous years, when it was startling to see even one woman director given a prestige project during award season, this year, there are two. Ava DuVernay's "Selma" chronicles Martin Luther King's campaign for voting rights and the opposition of Alabama Governor George Wallace.


TIM ROTH: (As George Wallace) We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state.

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless. Those that have gone before us say no more.

MONDELLO: Women directed those stories of struggle and resistance. and women are also out in front of the camera and other potential award contenders. Julianne Moore suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's in "Still Alice."


JULIANNE MOORE: (As Dr. Alice Howland) I've always been so defined by my intellect, my language. And now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me, and I can't reach them, and I don't know what I'm going to lose next.

MONDELLO: Also, Reese Witherspoon trekking more than 1,000 miles to put her life in order in "Wild."


REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Cheryl Strayed) I'm desperate for it to be over. But I'm terrified, too. When I'm done, I'll only have two dimes to my name. But I'll have to start living. And I'm nowhere near ready.

MONDELLO: And Amy Adams struggling against a husband who claims credit for her hugely-popular paintings in "Big Eyes."


AMY ADAMS: (As Margaret Keane) Why are you lying?

CHRISTOPH WALTZ: (As Walter Keane) 'Cause sadly, people don't buy lady art. The painting says Keane. I'm Keane. You're Keane. Smile.

MONDELLO: "Big Eyes" is directed by Tim Burton, one of several above-the-title filmmakers this season. Others include "There Will Be Blood's" Paul Thomas Anderson with a drug-fueled crime dramedy called "Inherent Vice," the Belgian Dardenne brothers with a wrenching story of workplace downsizing called "Two Days, One Night." And Chris Rock writing, directing and starring in "Top Five" about a comedian who is frustrated that he can't seem to get the entertain industry to take him seriously.


CHRIS ROCK: (As Andre Allen) What's up? This is Andre Allen. When I listen to satellite radio, I listen to Sirius Hits One.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As radio producer) That's good. Just make it a little funnier.

ROCK: (As Andre Allen) Funnier?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As radio producer) Put a little stank on.

ROCK: (As Andre Allen) Stank?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As radio producer) Nice and funny. Go.

ROCK: (As Andre Allen) What's up [bleep]? This is [bleep] Andre Allen [bleep] for scratching my nuts, that is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As radio producer) First take was good.

MONDELLO: Also co-writing, co-directing and co-starring as someone anxious to be taken seriously is Seth Rogen in "The Interview." He's playing James Franco's producer on a tabloid TV show that scores a face-to-face sit-down with Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, a fact that attracts attention from the U.S. government.


LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Agent Lacey) I am Agent Lacey with Central Intelligence. You two are going to be in a room alone with Kim.

JAMES FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) We got the interview.

CAPLAN: (As Agent Lacey) The CIA would love it if you could take him out.

FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) Hmm?

CAPLAN: (As Agent Lacey) Take him out.

SETH ROGEN: (As Aaron Rapaport) Like for drinks?

FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) Like to dinner?

ROGEN: (As Aaron Rapaport) Take him out on the town?

CAPLAN: (As Agent Lacey) No. Take him out.

ROGEN: (As Aaron Rapaport) You want us to kill the leader of North Korea?

CAPLAN: (As Agent Lacey) Yes.

FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) What?

MONDELLO: Is it starting to sound as if there's nothing suitable for kids out there? Well, there are two big musicals on the way. Oddly, the Disney one based on fairytales is arguably the less-suitable for kids. Stephen Sondheim's "Into The Woods" starts out with fables played straight and bright.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Into the woods without delay but careful not to lose the way. Into the woods who knows what may be lurking on the journey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) All will come to a happy end.

UNIDENTIFIED CAST: (Singing) And all before dark.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Not always.

MONDELLO: The second half is what happens after happily ever after.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: Princes and castles. Why would you run away?

MONDELLO: To Cinderella.


ANNA KENDRICK: (As Cinderella) It's not quite what I expected.

MONDELLO: To Little Red Riding Hood.


LILLA CRAWFORD: (As Little Red Riding Hood) Maybe I shouldn't have strayed from the path.

MONDELLO: To Jack of beanstalk fame and lots of other.


MERYL STREEP: (As The Witch) Don't you know what's out there in the world? Someone has to shield you from the world.

MONDELLO: But leave the woods for Manhattan, and "Beast Of The Southern Wild's" Quvenzhane Wallis will deliver nothing but sunshine in an updated, multicultural "Annie."


QUVENZHANE WALLIS: (Singing) The sun will come out tomorrow.

CAMERON DIAZ: (As Miss Hannigan) The city called. They're coming to expect. You got to clean this whole place up.

WALLIS: Aren't they supposed to give notice?

DIAZ: (As Miss Hannigan) Aren't I supposed be married to George Clooney?

WALLIS: Who's George Clooney?

DIAZ: (As Miss Hannigan) Exactly, girlfriend.

WALLIS: (Singing) The sun will come out tomorrow.

DIAZ: (As Miss Hannigan) No breakfast until this place is spotless


MONDELLO: Good luck resisting if you're a parent or even if you're not. I'm Bob Mondello.


WALLIS: (Singing) Tomorrow, tomorrow, I'll love ya tomorrow. You're always a day away. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I'll love you tomorrow. You're always a day away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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