Movie News & Reviews

12 movies worth seeing this holiday season, from Oscar bait to popcorn pleasers

Rogue One: A Star Wars story (new international trailer)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in theaters December 16.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in theaters December 16.

For every piece of high-fiber movie-awards fodder soon to hit theaters - “Jackie,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Fences,” et al. - there is its opposite, if not its aesthetic equal. (”Bad Santa 2,” anyone?)

Yes, we are now entering that time of year when the contrast will never be starker between the movies that you have to see (at least if you want to enter the office Oscar pool) and the movies that you want to see (that is, if you want to know what everyone is taking about at the water cooler on Monday).

How about a few that are actually worth seeing?

We scanned this holiday season’s movie offerings for recommendations. Some we’ve seen already, some we’ve read about and some we’ve simply made our best educated guess on, based on provenance (that’s a fancy word for backstory). In each of six genres - drama, romance, comedy, sci-fi, thriller and family - we’ve come up with two smart choices that represent the twin poles of holiday moviegoing: cinephilia and popcorn populism.

(Release dates and ratings are subject to change.)

DRAMA

“Manchester by the Sea”

Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams

Elite pedigree: Simultaneously wrenching and nuanced, the latest drama from famously perfectionist writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (”Margaret”) explores the relationship between a man who is haunted by his past (Affleck, never better) and his newly fatherless teenage nephew (Hedges). (Nov. 25, R)

“Bleed for This”

Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Miles Teller

Everyman appeal: Featuring a strong central performance by Teller, this gritty “Rocky”-esque biopic is based on the true story of Rhode Island boxer Vinny Paz (formerly Pazienza), who came back from a devastating spinal cord injury to defeat Roberto Duran for the International Boxing Council’s super middleweight title. (Nov. 18, R)

ROMANCE

“La La Land”

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Elite pedigree: A love story about a struggling actress (Stone) and a musician (Gosling) in Tinseltown, filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s daring, dazzling musical follow-up to his Academy Award-winning “Whiplash” has been described as a “love letter to old-school Hollywood.” (Dec. 16, PG-13)

“Passengers”

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt

Everyman appeal: It may be set in deep space, where a writer (Lawrence) and an engineer (Pratt) wake up early from hibernation - alone out of more than 5,000 slumbering passengers - and find themselves falling in love. But who better to play out this far-fetched fantasy than our two most grounded movie stars? (Dec. 21, PG-13)

COMEDY

“The Edge of Seventeen”

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson

Elite pedigree: Unfolding, as Indiewire put it, “like a symphony of small humiliations,” the darkly funny directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig pairs Steinfeld, as a relatable, angsty, mildly despairing high schooler, with Harrelson, as her acerbic teacher and reluctant mentor. (Nov. 18, R)

“Office Christmas Party”

Cast: Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller

Everyman appeal: The familiar party-out-of-bounds premise not only boasts the reunion of Aniston and Bateman (”Horrible Bosses”) but also is brought to you courtesy of “Blades of Glory” directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck. Let the debauchery - and dumb jokes - begin. (Dec. 9, not yet rated)

SCI-FI

“Arrival”

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Elite pedigree: The hero (Adams) is a linguist, for crying out loud, tasked with trying to communicate with octopus-like E.T. in this brainy thriller from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (”Sicario”) and writer Eric Heisserer of the scary-smart “Lights Out.” A key plot twist hinges on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of theoretical linguistics - look it up - making this possibly the wonkiest piece of escapism this year. (Nov. 11, PG-13)

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen

Everyman appeal: While fans of the “Star Wars” franchise will just have to wait to learn who Rey’s parents are, this palate-cleansing prequel dips even farther into the past, exploring the rise of the Galactic Empire and the roots of the people’s uprising against it. (Dec. 16, not yet rated)

THRILLER

“Elle”

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte

Elite pedigree: Variety says that director Paul Verhoeven - yes, that Paul Verhoeven, of “Showgirls” infamy - may have hit a career high with this “knowingly incendiary but remarkably coolheaded” French-language thriller about a rape victim (Huppert) who bypasses the criminal justice system to seek revenge on her attacker. (Nov. 18, R)

“Assassin’s Creed”

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Everyman appeal: What do you get when you combine the director of last year’s ferocious, unhinged “Macbeth” (Justin Kurzel) with that movie’s star (Oscar nominee Fassbender) and source material drawn not from literature but from a blockbuster series of video games about a time-traveling hit man? We’ll see soon enough.(Dec. 21, PG-13)

FAMILY

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller

Elite pedigree: Academy Award winner Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, the author of the titular field guide to monsters, used as a textbook in the “Harry Potter” books. J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay to this 1920s-set prequel, which follows Redmayne’s cryptozoologist from England to New York City. David Yates, who put his stamp, impeccably, on the last four “Potter” films, returns to the director’s chair. (Nov. 18, PG-13)

“Sing”

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton, Scarlett Johansson

Everyman appeal: McConaughey voices a koala impresario in this animated tale of fantastic beasts of another sort: i.e., the kind that aspire to warble, croon and belt out pop ditties in an “American Idol”-style competition. (Dec. 21, PG)

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