Almost Christmas (PG-13) A cast full of capable comic actors makes this warmed-over holiday dish palatable. Danny Glover stars as the recently widowed patriarch of an Alabama family who invites his five kids, their significant others and kids, and his sister-in-law (Mo’Nique) for a Christmas weekend and tries to keep them from killing each other. The script by writer-director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim) may be full of predictable situations and gags, but solid ad-lib contributions from Mo’Nique, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Jessie T. Usher, and John Michael Higgins keep you off-balance, and keep the comedy from drowning in homilies about family and helping the less fortunate. It’s an inoffensive time. Also with Kimberly Elise, Romany Malco, Omar Epps, Nicole Ari Parker, D.C. Young Fly, Keri Hilson, and Gladys Knight.
Arrival (PG-13) Amy Adams saves the world and this science-fiction epic. She plays a linguistics professor who’s brought in by the government when the aliens land to try to communicate with them. Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) adapts this from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and does well by the nonlinear source material, as the heroine starts having flash-forwards of her life to come. Unfortunately, the script’s attempts to inject some conventional dramatic tension through human-alien hostilities fall flat, and Villeneuve offers chilly virtuosity where a more emotional approach might have suited the material. He’s bailed out by the great Adams, displaying loneliness, vulnerability, decency, courage, and much-needed warmth at the center of this. Also with Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma, and Forest Whitaker.
Assassin’s Creed (PG-13) Complete gobbledygook. Michael Fassbender stars in this adaptation of the popular video game series as a Texas Death Row prisoner whose ancestry dates back to a killer from a brotherhood of assassins during the Spanish Inquisition, so an evil corporation kidnaps him to recover his memories so they can retrieve a doohickey that will let them take over the world. The action sequences are filmed in Seville and feature some of the same high-flying, wall-crawling action that has earned the games their following. However, basic storytelling goes out the window and too much of the film is a bunch of people in suits standing around in a lab droning about free will. Save your cash for the next game in the series. Also with Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Dénis Menochet, Callum Turner, Essie Davis, and Charlotte Rampling.
Collateral Beauty (PG-13) Instead of a Magical Negro stereotype, this movie gives us Magical White People, without any visible benefits. An ad agency head (Will Smith) loses his daughter to disease and starts writing angry letters to Time, Love, and Death, so his friends (Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Michael Peña) hire three actors (Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, and Helen Mirren) — or are they? — to impersonate those spirits and bring him back. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) ladles some extra syrup on this thing, but it’s the supernatural angle that sends this magical-realist drama to another level of badness. Also Ann Dowd and Naomie Harris.
Dangal (NR) Aamir Khan stars in this biography of Indian wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trained his two daughters (Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra) to compete in the sport despite heavy opposition. Also with Sakshi Tanwar, Zaira Wassim, Suhani Bhatnagar, Rohit Shankarwar, and Rajkummar Rao.
Doctor Strange (PG-13) Benedict Cumberbatch is more or less perfectly cast as the latest Marvel superhero, a brilliant bastard of a neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands, travels to Nepal to heal, and winds up discovering his role as a protector of the Earth from extraterrestrial threats. The English leading man is whip-smart, arrogant, and funny, and he centers the movie even when director/co-writer Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) gets lost in the weeds while delving into the spiritual aspect of the story. You sense that Derrickson always wanted to stage extended fight sequences in a world whose landscape is shifting like a kaleidoscope and rotating à la Inception. It’s enjoyable even when it doesn’t make sense. Also with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Benjamin Bratt, and an uncredited Chris Hemsworth.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (PG-13) The Harry Potter saga goes to America for this prequel, and it’s an inauspicious beginning. Eddie Redmayne stars as a wizarding-world animal conservationist who travels to the States after being kicked out of Hogwarts. Writing directly for the screen for the first time, J.K. Rowling tries to squeeze an entire novel into the film. As a result, her themes about racism and terrorism come out muddled. We don’t spend enough time with the scary anti-magic religious zealots, and neither Redmayne’s absent-minded professor vibe nor Katherine Waterston as the U.S. magic official who keeps tabs on him are enough to center the movie. You realize how much the original series depended on its lead actors’ skill and charisma. Also with Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, and Johnny Depp.
Fences (PG-13) Director Denzel Washington does only a workmanlike job adapting August Wilson’s play to the big screen, but fortunately, he gets career-best performances from star Denzel Washington and others. He portrays a Pittsburgh garbageman in the 1950s whose determination to hold on to what he’s made for himself blows apart his family. The qualities that have made Washington such a great movie star here make his character tragic: the handsome face, the athlete’s body, the verbal dexterity that lets him turn Wilson’s urban slang into fiery poetry all clue us into a man who would have had a bigger life if not for his skin color and the time of his birth. He’s complemented by a terrific supporting cast, especially Viola Davis, whose frustrations explode in a scene that’ll have you ducking down in your seat. Also with Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Saniyya Sidney, and Mykelti Williamson.
Hacksaw Ridge (R) This movie could have been great at 100 minutes. Too bad it runs 131. Mel Gibson’s biopic stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a World War II soldier whose Christian beliefs made him a devoted pacifist but also spurred him to rescue 75 wounded American soldiers in one night on Okinawa. The depiction of Desmond’s early life in Virginia is as unsubtle as you’d expect from this director, and the subplot with Desmond meeting his future wife (Teresa Palmer) is so cutesy that it’s cringe-inducing. Gibson’s touch is so heavy-handed that war might be the only subject suited to him, and his rendition of the battle scenes and Desmond’s heroism is worthy of its subject. The film was shot in Australia, Gibson’s career troubles closing off Hollywood to him. Also with Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Luke Bracey, Luke Pegler, Ben Mingay, Richard Roxburgh, Sam Worthington, and Vince Vaughn.
Jackie (R) Good, but also overrated. Natalie Portman stars in this biography of Jacqueline Kennedy that pushes her husband (Casper Phillipson) to the periphery as it concentrates on her before, during, and after the president’s assassination. Director Pablo Larraín structures this unusually, giving it a free-associative, fantastical feel that distinguishes it from more conventional Hollywood biopics. Like the director’s Chilean films, this one focuses on how we project the image to the world that we need to, as Jackie keeps an eye on the public’s expectations of her even while dealing with her grief as she plans her husband’s funeral. However, Portman can’t help but show off how hard she’s working, and her distant presence makes this movie’s impact intellectual rather than emotional. Also with Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, and John Hurt.
La La Land (PG-13) Who needs antidepressants when there’s this movie? In the hands of writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), this love story about an aspiring Hollywood actress (Emma Stone) and a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) becomes a musical throwback to the likes of Singin’ in the Rain. Chazelle, choreographer Mandy Moore, and songwriters Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul make unabashedly romantic and technically astonishing set pieces out of numbers like “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” but Chazelle knows when to get out of his stars’ way, too. Gosling’s trademark cool is essential, but Stone makes the film deeply moving in her first great role in a great movie. This is enough to blow the doors off the multiplex. Also with John Legend, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Jessica Rothe, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott, Rosemarie DeWitt, and J.K. Simmons.
Lion (PG-13) An amazing real-life story gets a by-the-numbers treatment in this biopic. Dev Patel portrays Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his family as a small boy in India and adopted by an Australian family, but then started an obsessive search for his birth relatives when he grew up. Sunny Pawar is a tremendous kid actor as the young Saroo, and cinematographer Greig Fraser creates some stunningly beautiful visuals like an early shot of young Saroo surrounded by butterflies in a valley. Patel is good, too, but director Garth Davis hammers home the emotional beats so relentlessly that the film wears out its welcome well before the end. Also with Rooney Mara, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham, and Nicole Kidman.
Loving (PG-13) A well-intentioned film muffled in cotton wool. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star in Jeff Nichols’ account of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case, which legalized interracial marriage across America. Edgerton remains an inert presence on screen, but the problems here run far deeper. Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud) wants to do justice to the quiet, nonconfrontational sort of people that the Lovings appear to have been, but in doing so, he’s made his movie so polite that it never takes off. Nor does it connect the Lovings’ fight for recognition to the freedom that has recently been expanded to LGBT people. Negga is particularly fine, and Nichols does well to show us how oppressive the Lovings find city life, but this movie needed more than that. Also with Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Jon Bass, Will Dalton, Alano Miller, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Bill Camp, Matt Malloy, and Michael Shannon.
Manchester by the Sea (R) Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) is fully back in form with this crusher of a drama about a miserable Massachusetts janitor (Casey Affleck) who unexpectedly finds himself appointed legal guardian to his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). This movie doesn’t reveal until halfway through what made the protagonist so morose, but Lonergan is savvy enough to counter the heavy stuff with comedy and lively small talk. Affleck and Michelle Williams as his ex-wife give tremendous performances, while the supporting cast is consistently good. Lonergan’s emphasis on the bonds of family helps end this movie on a much-needed hopeful note. Also with C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Ben O’Brien, Tate Donovan, Heather Burns, Gretchen Mol, and Matthew Broderick.
Moana (PG) Not the most innovative Disney musical we’ve seen, but more than likable enough. Set on a Pacific island in the past, this is about a teenage girl (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) who defies her tribe’s orders and sails out into the wider ocean to find the trickster demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and restore the balance to the waters. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid) stick so closely to the Disney template that you can predict where the song about the heroine’s deepest desires will land. Still, the 16-year-old Cravalho is funny and a fine singer, Johnson may just have the role of his career as the full-of-himself deity, and the songs are by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. This one’s for all the Polynesians. Additional voices by Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk, and Jemaine Clement.
Moonlight (R) The great gay romance of African-American cinema. Barry Jenkins’ film tracks the life of its hero as a young boy growing up rough in Miami (Alex HIbbert), a high-school student (Ashton Sanders) falling in love for the first time, and a drug dealer (Trevante Rhodes) trying to heal all the scars from his past. The movie is stuffed with great performances from Rhodes, Sanders, Mahershala Ali as a kind drug dealer who acts as a father figure, Naomie Harris as a crack-addicted mother, and André Holland as an ex-lover who’s full of remorse. Jenkins’ control over this is absolute, as he knows when to be unfussy and when to be flamboyant, and makes the sun and waves of south Florida seem an integral part of these characters. The scene with the hero and his ex staring at each other while “Hello Stranger” plays in the background is as breathtaking as the rest of the movie. Also with Jharrel Jerome, Patrick Decile, and Janelle Monáe.
Nocturnal Animals (R) A poison pill of a movie, slow-acting and effective. Amy Adams stars in this adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan as an L.A. art gallery owner who receives the manuscript of a long-delayed novel by her estranged ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). Writer-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) starts this off with a shocking montage of naked, morbidly obese women dancing and uses the embedded plot of the novel to capture the fallout of a bombed-out marriage. The novel’s violent thriller plot becomes a way of demonstrating what an empty sham the antiheroine’s life has become, and Adams plays her with deadly chill. This movie is a ferocious enigma, untameable and hard not to approach even if you know you’ll get mauled. Also with Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Ellie Bamber, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, and Laura Linney.
Office Christmas Party (R) A lot of funny actors get packed into this office, and yet this party is much less fun than you’d think. T.J. Miller plays a branch manager of a data storage company who’s threatened with a shutdown by his CEO sister (Jennifer Aniston), so he has to team up with his best employees (Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn) to land a big-fish client (Courtney B. Vance) by throwing a lavish Christmas party. When the client accidentally gets a massive dose of cocaine, it lets the buttoned-up Vance play against type, but it’s still a stale piece of tomfoolery just like too much of the rest of this comedy. Everybody else is stuck in familiar grooves and seems to have been funnier in other movies. Also with Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Randall Park, Karan Soni, Jamie Chung, Matt Walsh, Ben Falcone, Sam Richardson, Adrian Martinez, and Abbey Lee.
Passengers (PG-13) All the star charisma here can’t save a film that’s confused about what it’s supposed to be. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play two passengers who are awakened too soon on a spaceship carrying them to a distant planet, doomed to grow old and die before they reach their destination. These two actors make as personable a pair as you’d want to spend two hours or a lifetime on spaceship with, but the romance between them is soft-boiled stuff filled with boring platitudes about how no one wants to be alone. The movie works rather better as a space thriller, but this 120-minute movie could have easily lost 30 minutes, as well as its terminally silly final shot. Also with Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Julee Cerda, and Andy Garcia.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13) Conceptually flawed from the start. Set before the events of the 1977 Star Wars, this prequel stars Felicity Jones as a small-time criminal who joins the Rebels to rescue her father (Mads Mikkelsen) from the Empire’s clutches and find the fatal flaw in the Death Star. The movie lacks the visual and verbal wit of previous entries (save for the deadpan droid voiced by Alan Tudyk), the extended climax has too many moving parts for director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), and we can guess these characters’ ultimate fate without even seeing the thing. Even the reappearance of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) doesn’t accomplish much. Some nice efforts by the cast get wasted. Also with Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Jimmy Smits, and Forest Whitaker.
Sing (PG) An uninspired mashup of Zootopia and Pitch Perfect. This animated film is about a koala (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) who decides to save the theater that he owns by staging a singing contest for the animals who live in his city. Writer-director Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow) spreads his script too thin by flitting among so many different characters, storylines, and songs that we can’t get a purchase on what’s going on. The koala isn’t interesting enough to hold the center, and the montage of failed auditioners is a golden comic opportunity that the movie speeds over. The final round features some nice musical performances by voice actors like Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, and Seth MacFarlane, but they come too late to save this. Additional voices by Taron Egerton, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Peter Serafinowicz, Nick Kroll, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, Nick Offerman, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman, Jennifer Saunders, and Jennifer Hudson.
Trolls (PG) This animated musical has wall-to-wall music and a voice cast filled with exceptional singers. How could it go wrong? Oh, just you watch, or better yet, don’t. Justin Timberlake is the voice of a perennially grumpy troll who’s at odds with his tribe of happy trolls. He has to work with the tribe’s princess (voiced by Anna Kendrick) to rescue their fellow trolls from a race of much larger beings who eat trolls because it’s the only way they can feel happiness. This garish mess wanders round and round without ever coming to a point because it’s so busy waiting for the next musical number. The songs are painfully obvious and overproduced and nobody in the cast distinguishes themselves, a fairly amazing accomplishment. Additional voices by Zooey Deschanel, Russell Brand, James Corden, Christine Baranski, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gwen Stefani, Rhys Darby, Quvenzhané Wallis, John Cleese, and Jeffrey Tambor.
Why Him? (R) James Franco slightly raises his natural James Francosity to portray an eccentric tech mogul with lots of tattoos and no boundaries, whose potential father-in-law (Bryan Cranston) is horrified when his daughter (Zoey Deutch) wants to marry this guy. This setup is too good not to raise a few hearty laughs, but the base material is weak, and these talented comic actors don’t rescue it often enough. Director/co-writer John Hamburg (I Love You, Man) is yet another comic filmmaker from the School of Apatow, and he’s one of the low achievers in that school. Save this for a weekday evening at home when you’re in dire need of a laugh. Also with Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam Devine, Casey Wilson, Andrew Rannells, and Kaley Cuoco.
Hidden Figures (PG) Theodore Melfi’s historical drama tells the true story of three African-American women (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) who helped NASA launch the first Americans into outer space. Also with Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, and Kirsten Dunst.