When I wrote up this piece last year, Hollywood was giving the popcorn crowd precious little to look forward to. There’s a much more varied crop of films coming to us this Christmas. Do your fellow moviegoers a favor and get vaccinated. You don’t want to be a vector of disease.
If you like musicals, you’ll be in heavy clover this holiday season. Disney’s Encanto already came out last week, and Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated version of West Side Story has Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort leading a cast of mostly unknowns and song lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim. The animated sequel Sing 2 promises a passel of cameos by singers and singing actors as well as a U2-heavy soundtrack, if that is to your taste. If it isn’t, you may be more interested in Cyrano, a musical adaptation of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, with Peter Dinklage as the French poet and swordsman as well as songs by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner.
You’ll also find something to please you if you’re into coming-of-age stories about young men. We already had Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical drama in Belfast, and Paul Thomas Anderson joins him with Licorice Pizza, about a teenage boy (Cooper Hoffman) growing up in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 who falls helplessly in love with a 25-year-old woman (Alana Haim). Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino also takes from his own life story in The Hand of God, about a teenage boy growing up in Naples in 1986, when the world’s best soccer player, Diego Maradona, comes to play for the hometown team of SSC Napoli. George Clooney’s The Tender Bar is not based on the director’s life story but rather on writer J.R. Moehringer’s, detailing his childhood on Long Island in the ’80s and featuring a terrific performance by Ben Affleck as the bartender uncle who takes charge of the boy. Those films all have something to recommend them, though none of them is quite as good as The Souvenir Part II, which continues the story of Honor Swinton Byrne’s student filmmaker as she directs her graduation film based on her previous relationship with a heroin addict. It’s opening at Grand Berry Theatre this week.
Sports dramas are also the rage this season, with American Underdog telling the story of Kurt Warner’s unlikely rise to Super Bowl champion. Also on the football front, National Champions is a drama about a collegiate quarterback who leads a players’ strike just hours before the national championship game is about to start. If you prefer sports movies about women, The Novice stars Isabelle Fuhrman as a collegiate rower whose desire to be the best leads her down an obsessive path.
Meanwhile, the Modern plays Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s predictably sensationalistic French-language take on the life of Benedetta Carlini, the 17th-century Italian lesbian nun and Catholic mystic. Other films aiming for prestige cred during awards season include Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s predictably dialogue-heavy dramatization of a week during the shooting of I Love Lucy, with Nicole Kidman doing an eerie impression of Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem impressing as Desi Arnaz. Netflix’s star-laden entry is Don’t Look Up, a comedy with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as astronomers attempting to warn the people of Earth about a planet-destroying comet heading our way. Guillermo del Toro, in a rare non-supernatural outing, remakes a 1947 thriller in Nightmare Alley, with Bradley Cooper as a con man posing as a psychic. Denzel Washington stars in The Tragedy of Macbeth, a brutalist black-and-white take on Shakespeare’s play. He also directs A Journal for Jordan, which stars Michael B. Jordan as an American soldier who safeguards against his own death by writing a guide to growing up for his unborn son.
If you don’t care about Oscar bait, Spider-Man: No Way Home sees the web-slinger forced to fight a bunch of villains from previous Spider-Man movies, thanks to his attempts to turn back time. Eighteen years after the last of the Matrix trilogy, Lana Wachowski goes back to the series without her sister in The Matrix Resurrections. Matthew Vaughn also returns to his franchise with The King’s Man, a prequel set during the 1910s. After the new year, Scream (the fifth movie in the series) features Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox counseling a new generation of teens on how to avoid becoming slasher-movie victims. Even January promises more stars than usual as we emerge from the pandemic.