It's movie-binge time — that month-long surge of Oscar hopefuls and would-be blockbusters Hollywood always winds up the year with. On All Things Considered, I talked about some of the big tent-pole pictures: Anchorman 2, The Wolf of Wall Street, the second Hobbit installment and so on.
But here, let's winnow the list down a bit to three films you might want to keep an eye out for if you're intrigued by the artistic process — how artists think and work.
Start with a terrific documentary called Six By Sondheim, in which the grand master of the American musical theater talks about the art of making art as it applies to his own work. James Lapine, who directed the Broadway productions of Stephen Sondheim's Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods, has assembled archival footage of the composer-lyricist explaining what he does and why, blending it with six of his songs to create a two-hour tour-de-force that's both a biographical sketch and a kind of master class in musical composition. Opens in New York Dec. 5, then screens on HBO Dec. 9.
For fans of the visual arts, the documentary Tim's Vermeer will prove equally riveting. Teller, of the magic team Penn and Teller, chronicles the efforts of computer-graphics mogul Tim Jenison — who'd never held a brush before — to create a painting with the glow-from-within photorealism of 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, using only techniques and materials that would have been available to the painter 350 years ago.
When the film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the camera pulled back from a close-up of Jamison's daubing paintbrush to reveal the startling on-canvas results, an audience of about 100 film critics gasped in unison. You'll gasp, too. In one-week Oscar-qualifying runs this month in New York and Los Angeles, then opening wide in March.
Then there's the most star-studded of the year's creative sagas: Saving Mr. Banks, which casts Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as children's author P.L. Travers. Back in the 1960s, those two had a celebrated case of "creative differences" over whether her Mary Poppins characters should be permitted, in her words, to "cavort and twinkle" on screen. No mystery about how that worked out, of course, but Saving Mr. Banks does have crowd-pleasing fun as it chronicles the complications. In limited release Dec. 13, opening wider Dec. 20.