As holiday season rolls around, so does award season, and while in past year’s the top awards contenders have been released on a wide variety of dates, some of the real winners look to be hiding among this very promising slate of films. In fact, the slate is so promising I opted for 12 anticipated holiday films this year compared to the usual 10.
There are also some promising blockbusters — and original ones at that. There’s only one sequel in this entire crop and it’s “Bad Santa 2,” so that’s pretty awesome.
12 Most Anticipated Holiday Movies
At long last, we return to the cinematic world of “Harry Potter,” and with the pen of J.K. Rowling herself, who adapted her fictional textbook of the same name into the would-be spin-off franchise that is “Fantastic Beasts.” Leading your cast with a young Oscar winner in Eddie Redmayne helps, but more importantly, David Yates of the final four “Potter” films directs, helping create aesthetic continuity as the Potter-verse travels to 1920s New York City. Initially ambivalent to this film, I am a lot more curious following the glowing early reviews.
Manchester by the Sea (Nov. 18 – limited)
Two-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” drew extremely high praise from some people, and it seems that praise is more universal (98% Rotten Tomatoes after a lot of film festival appearances) for this story of an uncle forced to return to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew in Massachusetts. Casey Affleck looks poised for awards attention (and when isn’t Michelle Williams?) but it’s definitely the kind of film that will fight to find a mainstream audience.
Robert Zemeckis’ best-known works are likely behind him, though he’s certainly tried in recent years with “Flight” and last year’s “The Walk.” This one might be his best shot yet at re-emerging as a force in filmmaking rather than just a good excuse to put “from the director of ‘Forrest Gump'” in a movie trailer. This World War II thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard has a script from Steven Knight, creator of BBC’s “Peaky Blinders,” and an increasingly hot commodity in Hollywood. The trailer sets up a classic “is she or isn’t she?” spy story with a ton at stake.
Thanks to “Hamilton,” the narrative surrounding “Moana” has been more about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement and chance to EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) than Disney’s first animated musical follow-up to “Frozen.” The soundtrack, in fact, has been kept pretty under wraps compared to the norm for musicals. And considering how different a Hawaiian mythology adventure story is compared to a classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, it can be easy to forget about the talent behind this film, including a number of longtime Disney animation writer-directors.
Esteemed Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain tackles one of the most magnetic public figures of all time in Jackie Kennedy, and of course who better to play her than Oscar winner Natalie Portman. The trailer for this film is hauntingly glamorous, suggesting less of a typical biopic and something much more poetic and contemplative. So while Portman’s casting will draw interest from more mainstream audiences, this strikes me as something much more arthouse. Either way, the reviews have been sterling all along the fall festival circuit.
La La Land (Dec. 9 – limited)
Damien Chazelle burst onto the scene two years ago with “Whiplash,” a true auteur statement that might someday be looked back upon as the first great film of one of the first great filmmakers of his generation. “La La Land” constitutes a huge leap for a sophomore effort, a classic yet contemporary movie musical with two stars who’ve proven irresistible together in the last decade, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. “La La Land” has also torn up the fall festival circuit, and with its mainstream appeal and PG-13 rating, should be one of the films most talked about this Christmas.
Nothing will quite compare to the feeling of excitement when “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” came out last December, but “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is almost a more daring and exciting feat. For the first time ever, we have a live-action “Star Wars” movie taking place within the canon but not part of the main storyline. With all new characters, this will be the biggest test the “Star Wars” brand has ever faced. Plus, Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) brings a whole new and grittier style (and awesome sense of scale, his calling card) — a big success could unlock endless potential for the “Star Wars” universe.
December is a big month for mainstream science fiction, though as an outer space survival story, the appeal of “Passengers” is more mainstream. While two of the most exciting movie stars working today in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are the stars, Oscar nominee Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”) and sci-fi screenwriter Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus,” “Doctor Strange” and Universal’s upcoming monster movie franchise) make “Passengers” a more promising option. Given this is the kind of film you would usually expect to see in the summer and it has a lot of sci-fi competition, there’s got to be some major confidence here. Then again, you’d be confident too with these two stars on your marquee.
Anyone who has ever hoped for video game adaptations to succeed is rooting hard for “Assassin’s Creed,” the sub-genre’s best chance at a hit in ages. Game-maker Ubisoft created its own motion picture division for this movie, star Michael Fassbender joined as a producer — so a lot is riding on it. Between Fassbender and director Justin Kurzel (2015’s “Macbeth”), this story of a man who through a machine relives the memories of his assassin ancestor already has a leg up on most video game adaptations, which have usually employed stock Hollywood talent behind the camera (and in front). But it’s going to have to fight hard to earn audiences in December, especially a week after “Rogue One” hits theaters.
We’ve yet to see more than a couple still images from Martin Scorsese’s latest, a project a long time in the making and what will be one of his longest films in terms of runtime. Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield star as Jesuits in the 17th century who travel to Japan and discover incredible violence and persecution against Japanese Christians at the hands of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Jay Cocks (“Gangs of New York”) adapted the book by Shusaku Endo. Liam Neeson and Ciaran Hinds also star.
Juan Antonio Bayona caught a lot of cinefiles’ attention with “The Orphanage.” He followed that up with the 2004 Tsunami drama “The Impossible” in 2012, which was largely overshadowed by other awards contenders. With “A Monster Calls,” he goes for a magical realism reminiscent of “Pan’s Labyrinth” in this story of a boy whose imaginary tree monster helps him cope with his real-world struggles. In other words, here’s a monster movie you can actually take your kids to — a real good family option that isn’t mainstream for Christmas.
Fences (Dec. 23, limited)
August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play gets the big screen treatment from the playwright himself, and Denzel Washington, who directs (for the first time in nearly 10 years) and stars. Perhaps of all the Holiday releases (aside from “Loving,” a fall release that will gain steam during the holidays), this family drama looks to be the most relevant, even as a play written in the ’80s about the ’50s. Viola Davis co-stars, and the prospect of watching her and Washington together should give anyone goosebumps.
5 Holiday Films to be Skeptical Of
Holiday comedies are usually of the “play it safe” variety. They’re filled with stars and box office draws. “Office Christmas Party” comes from the directors of “The Switch,” a movie that has sat in my Netflix cue for years because never once was I interested enough to hit play despite the lack of good comedy options. Anyway, the stars of that film return (Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman) along with rising star T.J. Miller, Olivia Munn, “SNL” regulars Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer and more.
This film is making me think about 2008’s “Seven Pounds,” one of those supposed-to-be-uplifting holiday releases but kind of depressing movies. More likely it’s that Will Smith also stars, but either way, “Collateral Beauty” strikes me as a waste of time considering the choices available this time of year. Smith plays a deeply depressed man who writes letters to concepts (Love, Death and Time) personified by actors such as Helen Mirren. David Frankel, who made crowd-pleasers “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Marley & Me” directs with a script from rom-com writer Allan Loeb.
Not to knock on Allan Loeb again (he has a credit on this film), but I have a very specific reason why this film about a human boy who has lived on Mars all his life coming to Earth is not among the films that interests me this year, and that’s that I don’t believe the audience will identify with this kid at all. Asa Butterfield is a great young actor who I think will transition easily to a successful adult acting career, but this doesn’t come close to earning my interest let alone a trip to the theaters amidst so many other great sci-fi offerings and award-worthy dramas.
Illumination Entertainment has been extremely bankable with the “Despicable Me” films and spin-offs and this summer’s “The Secret Life of Pets,” but I fail to see what “Sing” offers other than a chance to see cute talking/singing animals on the big screen. They’re not chipmunks, thank God, but this story of a singing competition in a world of talking animals doesn’t even hint at some kind of clever premise/social message, only a “we know how to market films to families” message. The animation bar is so high, however, that maybe I’m just being cold and not giving this film a shot to be charming.
Again, I’m so cruel toward holiday comedies. I actually am open to seeing Bryan Cranston doing comedy for the first time in awhile, but James Franco acting like a total douche is not remotely appealing or original. The two star in a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” type film (minus the social relevance) about parents (Cranston and Megan Mullaly) meeting his daughter’s serious boyfriend (Franco) for the first time, a self-obsessed Zuckerberg-type media tycoon. John Hamburg (“I Love You, Man”) directs with a story he concocted with Jonah Hill and Ian Helfer.
The Edge of Seventeen (Nov. 18 – ltd) – Coming-of-age films are usually summer fare, but the reception has been strong for this story of a girl (Hailee Steinfeld) whose best friend starts dating her older brother (Dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
Nocturnal Animals (Nov. 18 – ltd) – Finally, after seven years Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) returns to filmmaking with this star-studded thriller that depicts two stories: A woman (Amy Adams) who receives a fiction manuscript from her ex and the frightening story inside the book that puts her on edge. Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney and more star. (Dir. Tom Ford)
Bad Santa 2 (Nov. 23) – Crass humor is sure to abound in this darkly humorous sequel that welcomes Kathy Bates to the group of degenerate duo of Billy Bob Thorton and Tony Cox. The film is absent the original writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, but it does have the director of “Mean Girls.” (Dir. Mark Waters)
Rules Don’t Apply (Nov. 23 – ltd) – Warren Beatty gets behind the camera for the first time in 18 years to tell a story about Howard Hughes, the actress he’s grooming for success and the young woman’s driver. Beatty also plays Hughes. (Dir. Warren Beatty)
Miss Sloane (Nov. 25 – ltd) – Jessica Chastain isn’t in any of the obvious awards contenders this year, but “Miss Sloane” is a star vehicle in which she plays a ruthless lobbyist who decides to taken on the impossible — gun control. (Dir. John Madden)
Lion (Nov. 25 – ltd) – An Indian man (Dev Patel) living in Australia searches for the family he was accidentally separated from in Calcutta. Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman co-star, based on the novel by Saroo Brierly and Larry Buttrose. (Dir. Garth Davis)
Gold (Dec. 25 – ltd) – Oscar winner Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”) returns with the story of Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), a wealth-obsessed man who in the late ’80s discovers a gold mine in Indonesia that changes everything. (Dir. Stephen Gaghan)