We are a divided nation. We’re, of course, not talking about the election; we’re talking about what movies each of like to see. Thankfully, it’s not just comic book movies and cartoons about talking/farting animals. The next few months will have something for everyone.
For the lovers of endless franchises
There’s really only one big franchise this season, and it’s a doozy: “Star Wars.” No, we’re not talking about the breathlessly, manically anticipated “Episode 8,” which won’t arrive till next December. It’s “Rogue One” (Dec. 16), modestly subtitled as merely “A Star Wars Story.” A side-tale prequel to the events of the first “Star Wars,” it follows a rag-tag, Force-free group of rebels, led by Felicity Jones’ orphaned rapscallion, who steal the plans for the still-being-constructed first Death Star. Better yet, from the looks of it, it’s not merely a slavish recreation of the original trilogy. It looks like its own new thing.
Actually, we tell a lie: There’s a new film that wants to at least spurn a franchise. That would be “Assassin’s Creed” (Dec. 21), which attempts to turn a big time video game into the next cinematic cash cow. We can’t make heads or tails of the story: Michael Fassbender plays an armed hunter during the Spanish Inquisition — but he’s really a guy from the future, sent back into the body of an ancestor, for some reason. Whatever: It’s a chance to see Fassbender and Marion Cotillard reunite after last year’s brooding “Macbeth” (also directed by Justin Kurzel, as it happens). And any movie with Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling can’t be a mere stupid video game movie, right?
For those who like actual original ideas
Do you enjoy movies not based on an existing source or attached to an ongoing franchise? Because Hollywood still makes those, sometimes! “La La Land” (Dec. 9, limited; everywhere Dec. 16)may not be entirely original; it’s simply a throwback to the old time musical. But it’s one of the few things this season that will make you happy — before it makes you sad. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play struggling Los Angelinos who find love and fancy footwork.
Of course, in Hollywood, original ideas aren't always so original.Technically “Office Christmas Party” (Dec. 9)counts as something we've never seen before, in that technically no one’s made an entire all-star comedy about a raucous, drug-fueld office Christmas party. So does “Collateral Beauty”(Dec. 16), which sort of sounds like “A Christmas Carol,” just weirder. A depressed Will Smith finds himself visited by the spiritual embodiments of love (Keira Knightley), time (Jacob Latimore) and death (Helen Mirren). "Why Him?" (Dec. 23) is simply a case of a mismatched duo, in this case Bryan Cranston and James Franco in goofy mode.And “Sing” (Dec. 21)— about singing animals — sounds like “Happy Feet” but with more than just penguins.
Sometimes an original film, like "Gravity," will birth a slew of copycats. And so we have“Passengers” (Dec. 21), which ups the stranded space cadets to two: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are accidentally awaken on board a ship some 90 years before they hit their far-flung destination. Even a truly rare film, like the children's fantasy-horror-drama“A Monster Calls” (Dec. 23) — about a young boy with a dying mom (Felicity Jones again) visited by a story-telling colossus — just happens to be based on a book.
For those who like things all-caps serious
Hollywood doesn’t really make big, long, serious adult dramas anymore — unless Martin Scorsese is doing the asking. “Silence” (Dec. 23) finds a group of Jesuit priests (including Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson) undergoing intense torture on their trip to spread the Gospel to anti-Christian 17th century Japan. It will be the second film, after “Hacksaw Ridge,” that combines Garfield and unimaginable suffering. But most of all, it’s a Martin Scorsese picture, based on a great novel that has already made a great 1971 film (now streaming on Filmstruck, as it happens).
Does this sound like Oscar talk? Because ’tis the season for that, too! Another heavy hitter is “Fences” (Dec. 25), in which Denzel Washington directs himself and Viola Davis as the fractured couple of August Wilson’s prized 1983 play. (Both actors won Tonys for their 2010 Broadway production.) We’re assuming “Patriots Day” (Dec. 21, limited release) is an Oscar contender, too, since it’s about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — even though it’s the slightly trashier kind drama that tend to be made by duo Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon”).
There’s precious little Oscar talk about “Live by Night” (Dec. 25), which is odd since it’s Ben Affleck’s first directorial bid since Best Picture-winner “Argo.” Based on a Dennis Lehaine novel, it’s a neo-noir that watches as Affleck’s anti-hero goes from police captain’s son to bootlegger to gangster.
Meanwhile, we’re not sure if “Hidden Figures” (Dec. 28) classifies as “all-caps serious.” The tale of three African-American women (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) who became instrumental in the 1960s space race, it’s more a classic inspirational weepie — even moreso now that half the country voted for You Know Who. Speaking of civil rights in the '60s, one of the only Oscar races we care about is whether "I Am Not Your Negro" (Dec. 9) gets a nom for Best Documentary, being that it's a look at the always relevant (especially now) writer James Baldwin, who was speaking then, with great eloquence, honesty and wit, about some of the same things Black Lives Matter members talk about now.
For those who prefer the art house
Erudite viewers don’t often go to the art house to laugh. But laugh they will at “Toni Erdmann” (Dec. 28), even though it’s a three-hour comedy from Germany, not exactly the birthplace of comedy. The plot is readymade for an Adam Sandler remake: a workaholic is none too happy when her eccentric father crashes her life, pretending to be a wealthy ambassador (or life coach, or businessman, depending who’s asking), complete with a hilarious combo of bad wig and worse fake teeth. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (a bit) and you might just leave thinking this silly film is a serious masterpiece.
There are plenty of name directors, too. Jim Jarmusch is back with “Paterson” (Dec. 28), a slow, leisurely and rich look at a week in the life of a poet/bus driver (Adam Driver, almost scarily chill). Mike Mills (“Beginners”) hangs with Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig in 1970s California in “20th Century Women” (Dec. 28). “I, Daniel Blake” (Dec. 23) finds English social realist Ken Loach (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) back to observing the plights of the working class. Pedro Almodovar has another red-hot melodrama-mystery with “Julieta” (Dec. 21).
You might not know the name of Chilean director Pablo Larrain, but maybe you will now. Already a great, thanks to the likes of like his Pinochet-era dramedy "No," the filmmaker has two renegade biopics. First, there's“Jackie” (Dec. 2), which features Natalie Portman's Oscar-talk of a turn as Mrs. Kennedy, seen in the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination. And on Dec. 16 we get "Neruda,"which isn't a look at the life of poet Pablo Neruda but about the time he went underground and was hunted down by a dogged government agent (Gael Garcia Bernal).
For those not dreading the January/February dumping grounds
The early months of a year are for botched New Year’s resolutions — and, of course, for terrible, terrible cinema that studios try to get out of the way so they never have to think about them again. So get ready for a new “Underworld” (Jan. 6), a new “Resident Evil” (Jan. 27), a revival of the “Amityville Horror” (Jan. 6) and “Monster Trucks” (Jan. 13), which is now a movie (with Amy Ryan). There’s something called “A Dog’s Purpose” (Jan. 27), about a dog that keeps getting reincarnated — as more dogs.
In brighter news, a second “Fifty Shades” (Feb. 10) movie means more of Dakota Johnson’s quietly funny work, and hopefully she won't constantly say "Crap!" in this one either. After deferring to Ice Cube for the 2005 sequel, Vin Diesel returns for “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” (Jan. 20), though we can't tell if his presence means the movie will be good or if his career is slipping again. We kind of liked M. Night Shyamalan’s last movie — the found footage romp “The Visit” — so maybe “Split” (Jan. 20) will be fine, especially since it stars 23 different iterations of James McAvoy.
Honestly, though, the movie we're most excited for — maybe, if you twist our arm, more than any other film mentioned in this guide — is“John Wick: Chapter 2” (Feb. 10). Keanu Reeves' super-assassin is back, this time with another dog, and it would just be cruel if it was as much of a disappointment as the recent second "Jack Reacher." Still, even if it is, we’ll always have “Rock Dog” (Feb. 24).