During the Holiday Season, Head to the Movies by Christopher Llewellyn Reed

November and December are usually when movie distributors push their prestige content into cinemas, following the autumn doldrums of September and October when there may be a critical or box-office hit or two, but really everyone is just biding their time. Slowly, at first, and then at an ever-quickening pace as the end of the year draws nigh, studios and indie houses begin to release those films that, they believe, stand the best chance of garnering awards and/or holiday dollars.

As far as the former go, for years now, the list of what gets nominated for the Golden Globes and then, later, the Academy Awards, is dominated by end-of-year releases (witness the 2017 nominations for the Globes). And while the biggest financial grossers of the year are frequently, if not exclusively, from the summer (and sometimes spring), we still see blockbusters come out now that do quite well, overcoming many earlier movies (a look at this year’s numbers, so far, confirms these patterns).

While Finding Dory (released June 17) is, as of this writing, currently the top earner of the year, for example, with Captain America: Civil War (May 6) taking the #2 spot, already Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (December 16) and Doctor Strange (November 4) have crept into the Top 10, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (November 18) is at #11 (just displaced from the Top 10 by Rogue One, in fact). By the time this article is published, Rogue One will probably have risen even higher. What all of this means for the viewer is that we once again have a plethora of real choices of what to see this holiday season, for all tastes, and here is my brief, personalized guide to help you make the choice that is right for you.

Currently in Cinemas:

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Moonlight

The second feature from director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) tells the story of a young African-American man as he navigates the dangers of a broken home, drugs and his own blossoming homosexuality. Released in select markets in October, and throughout the country in November, the film has garnered its share of Oscar buzz, and 6 Golden Globe nominations, and is more than deserving of the praise. A triptych that follows its hero as a young child, then a teenager, and finally an adult, it is beautifully photographed and marvelously acted, creating a nuanced portrait of a vibrant human being who just wants to live an authentic life. Though the film has been out for a while now, it is still playing locally at the Senator Theatre. See it while you can.

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The Eagle Huntress­

Who knows how long this will remain in theaters (it opened in November), but it’s still playing at the Senator as I write this. A documentary – by a first-time feature director, Otto Bell – The Eagle Huntress tells the story of a 13-year-old Kazakh Mongolian girl named Aisholpan, who yearns to follow in the footsteps of the men of the Central-Asian steppe by becoming an eagle hunter. Such folks capture and train baby eagles as hunting companions, and it is strictly men’s work. Until, that is, Aisholpan arrives – with the full support of her doting father – to break down the grass ceiling of the snowy plains. Briskly paced and featuring gorgeous cinematography, the film is marred only by an excessively intrusive score, providing excessive musical accompaniment where none is needed.

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Manchester by the Sea

Perhaps one of the saddest films of the year, Manchester by the Sea, released in November, is only the third feature from director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). Featuring a towering performance from Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) as a man destroyed by a past trauma, Manchester by the Sea is also at the top of the Oscar-buzz list, and was nominated for 5 Golden Globes.

If past allegations of sexual harassment do not derail Affleck’s awards trajectory, he could end up with a Best-Actor statuette. However one feels about separating the artist from the real person, within the film, at least, Affleck – along with everyone else in this strong ensemble, including Michelle Williams (Certain Women) – is mesmerizing. Try not to cry as his character tries to do right by his orphaned nephew when he can barely take care of himself. Another film to see while it is still in theaters (currently at the Charles Theatre), but make sure to bring many handkerchiefs.

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La La Land

Also at the Charles Theatre is a much more gloriously exuberant film, La La Land. From director Damien Chazelle, who wowed us two years ago with Whiplash (only his second feature), it tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone, Magic in the Moonlight) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, The Big Short), two aspiring performers (she an actress, he a jazz musician) who meet not so cute, then cute, then fall in love, all the while struggling to get their careers off the ground.

Filled with delightful musical numbers, the movie is a paean to the magic of cinema and to Hollywood, itself. Another contender for the major awards, it was nominated for 7 Golden Globes. What makes La La Land more than just a charming, if frivolous, celebration of the culture of entertainment is its bittersweet ending and powerful central performances. Released just recently, it should stick around in theaters for a while, but make sure to see it before it leaves, as the experience just won’t be the same on a smaller screen.

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Jackie

From Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No) comes this fascinating misfire, a biopic, of sorts, of the late wife of our 35th President in the days after her husband’s assassination. Starring Natalie Portman (A Tale of Love and Darkness) as the titular Jackie in a performance so mannered as to be almost unwatchable (one instance where I most definitely disagree with the Golden Globes), the film is awash in a gorgeous artifice that may make for intellectually interesting spectacle but results in dramatically inert storytelling.

It’s the one film in this list that I cannot recommend, even to my enemies. OK, maybe to them …

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Lion

We seem to have a number of very fine offerings this season from directors without a lot of feature credits to their name. From Australian filmmaker Garth Davis – heretofore a director of commercials – comes Lion, his debut. Based on the memoir A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley, the movie tells the tale of Brierley’s attempts to reconnect with the Indian family he left behind when, as a child, he stepped on a train bound for Bengal, traveling over 1600 miles from his home, after which, when found, he was presumed an orphan and adopted out to a family in Australia.

Fortunately, that family loved him, and when, over 20 years later, he goes in search of his roots, he has the means and wherewithal to search for his lost mother and siblings. Featuring a deeply moving performance from Dev Patel (Chappie), this may also end up among the Oscar contenders – and was just nominated for 4 Golden Globes – in spite of some occasional narrative clumsiness. Whatever those flaws, it’s an inspiring story, filled with sadness but also joy. Now playing at the Charles.

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Elle

From veteran (for a change) Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Black Book) comes this disturbing French-language drama about sex, violence, and sexual violence that offers up a riveting performance from Isabelle Huppert (Amour), who at 63 (as hard as that is to believe, looking at her eternally youthful countenance) has a lifetime’s worth of equally mesmerizing roles behind her, and here holds our attention even as she behaves strangely in the face of serious trauma.

One of the finest actresses of her generation, in any language, she plays Michèle, a woman who is raped in the first minutes of the film, but proves to not be your usual victim, responding to the assault in very unexpected ways. It’s a troubling story, told in a manner not free from exploitation, yet a film worth watching, both for Huppert and the conversations it is sure to provoke, afterwards, with the people with whom you have just watched it. It just opened at the Charles on December 23.

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Fences

Actor Denzel Washington’s third feature as a director just opened on Christmas Day, and it is a fine adaptation of the late, great playwright August Wilson’s 1987 drama, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer-winning Fences. Showcasing strong performances from its brilliant ensemble cast – featuring Washington (The Magnificent Seven) as the lead, Troy, and Viola Davis (The Help) as Rose, among others – Fences may not always be cinematic, tied as it is to its origins on the stage, but it is very affecting in its presentation of a story about family, race and America in the 1950s. Both Washington and Davis each received a Golden-Globe nomination, and may also make it to the Oscars (as they should).

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Hidden Figures

Another Christmas opening (though only in a few theaters across the country, one of them being the Cinemark Egyptian in Arundel Mills), this is one that I haven’t yet seen. From director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), it tells the story of how a group of African-American women helped make NASA’s space program possible.

The reviews are almost all good, and it was also nominated for 2 Golden Globes. It will open more widely on January 6.

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Among other films in theaters right now, there is the aforementioned Rogue One, which I did not enjoy; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (which I liked more); Sing, an animated musical I have not seen, but which has garnered decent critical response; and Moana, which may be about to leave theaters, even though it has done well with both critics and viewers, and which I found delightful.

Coming Soon:

Traditionally, some films deemed Oscar-worthy by their distributors are released in very limited runs in the final few weeks of the year, just to qualify for the Academy Awards of that year, and then later given wider releases once the theatrical landscape is less crowded. What follows is a brief list of some of what you can expect to see soon, some of which may end up in this year’s Oscars race.

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A Monster Calls (January 6)

Based on Patrick Ness’ emotionally devastating 2011 young-adult book, of the same title, about a boy whose mother is dying with cancer and the monster who comes to help him cope with that tragedy, this is a relatively faithful adaptation by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible). If it doesn’t quite capture all the magic of the novel, it comes very close in its lovely rendering of the fairy tales told to the boy by the monster, which appear as vibrant watercolors, shifting in tone and color as each tale progresses.

Relative newcomer Lewis MacDougall (Pan), as the boy, is very good, as is Liam Neeson (Run All Night), as the voice of monster. One might wish that Sigourney Weaver (Cedar Rapids), as the grandmother, would avoid any attempt at a British accent, but otherwise she is fine, as well. And then there is Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), who is always watchable. A lot to recommend.

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Silence (January 6 in places, January 13 in Baltimore)

The new film by Martin Scorsese is an adaptation of Japanese author Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same title that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a trio of Portuguese priests in 17th-century Japan, who find themselves on the losing side of that country’s decision to close itself off to Western influence.

Starring Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and Liam Neeson (again) as the doomed “padres,” as they are called in Japan, the film, at 161 minutes, could stand some significant trimming, but is the director’s best work in years, serious of purpose and made with a restraint not usually part of Scorsese’s toolkit.

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Patriots Day (January 13)

From director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) comes this solid procedural about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Competently acted and put together, it avoids excessive jingoism and provides good investigative thrills. Starring, among others, Mark Wahlberg (2 Guns), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Kevin Bacon (Black Mass), the film should win audiences over with its focus on the human element of the tragedy, including the very real humanity of the attackers (who are nevertheless still presented as villains, as they should be).

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Julieta (January 27)

From director Pedro Almodóvar (Volver) comes this tale of loss and reconciliation that, to me, never quite lives up to its potential. Filled with Almodóvar’s usually evocative production design, it tells a very maudlin story – about a mother’s search for a missing daughter, told through flashbacks of the events that led to the family rupture – that never rises above the level of one-note melodrama. If you liked the director’s The Flower of My Secret, from 1995, however, then there’s a good chance you will enjoy this more than did I.

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Paterson (January 27)

The latest from indie titan Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), Paterson is, though quirky in its storytelling, unlike any other Jarmusch film I have seen. Sure, it has a minimalist aesthetic, but there’s not a trace of the usual knowing smirk that usually lies behind the director’s approach. I like that smirk, but its absence makes for a very different vibe. Adam Driver (again, though in a very different performance than in Silence), plays the title role of a man named Paterson who drives a bus in Paterson, NJ. His name is the most Jarmuschian aspect to the movie, which otherwise follows him in his daily routine as he struggles to write poetry – the words of which appear on screen –all the while enjoying the domestic pleasures of life with his loving, if restless, wife (Golshifteh Farahani, Rosewater).

Is it all enough, or does something need to change? On of the great joys of the movie is how little we care about the answer, since watching Driver think on screen is reward enough.

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Toni Erdmann (February 3)

Set to open February 3 at the Charles, this recipient of 1 Golden-Globe nomination, from German director Maren Ade (Everyone Else) has been very well-received, though I haven’t seen it, myself. It tells a story of reconciliation between a father and daughter. Could be good, especially since it has made the pre-Oscar foreign-film shortlist of 9 films.

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20th Century Women

Listed as “coming soon” on the Charles Theatre website (but with no specific date yet), here is director Mike Mills’ first film since his lovely Beginners. I loved that film and can’t wait to see this one. Starring Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), the movie follows the intersecting lives of three women – one of whom is loosely based on Mills’ mother, just as Christopher Plummer, in Beginners, was based on his father – in Southern California in the 1970s.

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There are more films out right now on the national scene (read Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC), including the French film Things to Come (featuring another stellar performance from Isabelle Huppert) and a much finer effort from Pablo Larraín, Neruda, which, like Jackie, takes the biopic form and turns it on its head, though this time with better results. It is unclear if either will make it to Baltimore.

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Of greater concern is the lack of current major theatrical releases directed by women, though one can go on Netflix to watch 13th, a hard-hitting documentary at racism at work in America’s prison system, from Ava DuVernay (Selma), who was denied an Oscar nomination last year, or wait for Certain Women, by Kelly Reichardt, to come out on disc or other home formats (whenever that will be). That film left theaters far too quickly after its October release, as did the delightful coming-of-age tale The Edge of Seventeen, the debut feature from Kelly Fremon Craig that was a hit with critics (including this one), but not audiences (for whatever reason). At least we have a release date on Craig’s film (set for February 14). Be sure to watch it when it comes out. In the meantime, as the above list indicates, there are plenty of other options to choose from.

Happy Cinematic Holidays, and enjoy the new year!

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Author Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a filmmaker, film critic and Chair of the Department of Film & Moving Image at Stevenson University.