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review roundup

14 Movies to See (or Not See) This Christmas

No matter what holiday you do or don't celebrate, one activity in this season unites us all: going to the movies. If you're not celebrating Christmas, the theater is yours! If you are celebrating Christmas, by the end of the day you want to get out of the house, so go fight the crowds! A rush of Oscar-bait and family fare has inundated cineplexes over the past month, so there are a lot of options, and it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the critic-citing (or, in the case of Grudge Match, Twitter-citing) ads that maintain that everything is the movie of the year. So to help you make good choices, below is an alphabetical rundown of fourteen films currently on screens, with the boiled-down takeaways from our movie critics David Edelstein and Bilge Ebiri. Let's all be safe out there.  

American Hustle
David O. Russell's follow-up to last year Silver Linings Playbook reunites the Oscar-nominated stars of that film (Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) as well as two stars from 2010's The Fighter (Amy Adams, Christian Bale). The story is ostensibly about the Abscam scandal of the late seventies and early eighties, but as Edelstein writes in his enthusiastic review, Russell "must have known on some level that the movie’s central philosophical motif — that most of us con one another, reinventing ourselves to be what we’re not — is glib and only tangentially related to the elaborate late-seventies FBI sting that led to bribery convictions against prominent politicians. So Russell hustles like he’s never hustled in his life. He out-Scorseses Scorsese: whip pans, whooshes, slo-mo, tacky (but great) seventies chart toppers, actors wound up and let loose."

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
"A Christmas miracle? I wouldn’t go that far, but in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay do not sully the great name of Ron Burgundy," writes Edelstein of this sequel to the 2004 Will Ferrell–Adam McKay comedy. "They trot out familiar movie templates...and add gags. Those gags are so extreme that scene after scene rockets past dumb, past camp, past Kabuki, and into the Milky Way of Silly where laws can be made up and discarded as long as what happens gets laughs."

August: Osage County
The adaptation of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer-winning dysfunctionalest-family play stars Meryl Streep as the bilious matriarch, Julia Roberts as the seething daughter, Barbara; Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, and more fill out the ever-sniping Weston clan. Edelstein applauds many of the actors' moments, though he bemoans that there are too many that feel like showcases (Streep often comes off as a "camp harridan"). "What’s missing in all this is that intangible sense that you’re watching a true ensemble instead of a pick-up cast of movie stars who’ve jetted in to act in a play. August: Osage County isn’t a dud, but it’s inauthentic."

Black Nativity
Of this new film based on Langston Hughes’s all-black 1961 musical restaging of the Nativity story, Ebiri wrote: “It's not so much a movie about Jesus as it is a movie about why one might need Jesus, or religion, in the first place; it rightly places the focus on those who seek spiritual salvation. It doesn’t always work as drama, but as a musical, it’s often fantastic.”

Frozen
Of the season’s latest animated film, Ebiri wrote: “Frozen is one of the few recent films to capture  that classic Disney spirit.”

Grudge Match
Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro face off as retired rival boxers lured into a rematch. Stallone is more willing to take jabs at Rocky than De Niro is at Raging Bull, but the bigger problem, says Ebiri, is that it's just not funny enough. "There’s still a real tonal incongruity here, between zany high concept and soft-touch execution. Mixing comedy and drama is one thing, but Grudge Match is not quite serious enough to make us care, and not lively enough to make us laugh." 

Her
Edelstein chose the latest from Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things AreAdaptationBeing John Malkovich) as his No. 1 movie of 2013, writing that "Her is not just the best film in years, it has the best performance of 2013 by a cosmic margin." He's talking there about Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a Los Angeleno in the near future who falls in love with his computer operating system, a new artificial intelligence voiced by Scarlett Johansson. In his full review, Edelstein writes, "Do we even need our bodies? Or is it all in our brains? The relationship is real enough to make us ask what a relationship is and whether the coming so-called singularity — when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence while humans’ minds will be broadened by machines — will change the way we relate (or don’t) to one another."

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Remember how the line on the first Hobbit movie was that it was so damn long? Well, the sequel has the same problem but, as Ebiri writes in his begrudgingly positive review, "Much of the bloat is still there, but The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in the Hobbit trilogy, is a real improvement — filled with inventive action set pieces and dramatic face-offs that we (finally, at long last, hallelujah!) care about ... So, everything is better this time around, but you still can’t help but notice all the filler, the clumsy exposition, and graceless myth-making."

Inside Llewyn Davis
Of the latest from the Coen Brothers — a story of a folksinger in early sixties Greenwich Village who hustles for success and finds nothing but failure — Edelstein writes that it's "a definitively downbeat story of an asshole folksinger who pays the piper for his bad personality. The film might be the ultimate proof that the Coens can find hopelessness in the darnedest places."

A Madea Christmas
"Tyler Perry doesn’t always make movies. Sometimes he just throws a bunch of crap together and calls it a movie. Does that sound harsh? Maybe, but would he even disagree?" Ebiri did not like the latest Madea movie. Not at all. In his review, he writes, "Throughout, the haphazard quality of Perry’s writing and directing smothers anything from feeling organic or motivated. There’s no care given to timing or narrative dexterity. Stuff just happens in this movie."

Saving Mr. Banks
There once was an author named P.L Travers, who invented and wrote several books about an English nanny named Mary Poppins. There once was a Hollywood bigwig named Walt Disney, and he wanted to make a movie about that character, and nothing — nothing — would stand in his way. In the hands of some other studio, Disney would be the heavy. Here, made by the studio that bears his name, Disney's a creative hero. As Edelstein writes in his review, "the portrait of Walt has been vetted to death by every member of the Disney family along with a battery of executives. No way, no how can even a jot of unwholesomeness mar the Great White Father of an international conglomerate." (Also: If seeing the movie inspires you to watch Mary Poppins with your family, be warned that it may not be the delight you remember.)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
In taking on James Thurber's classic story about a daydreamer, director Ben Stiller stars as a Life photo archivist who sets out to find the lost negative for the cover of the magazine's final issue. However, Stiller's decision to shoot his real adventure the same way he does his fantasies is a "huge, almost catastrophic misstep," writes Ebiri. "The adventure should resemble real life, not just another dream. Otherwise, there’s no sense of danger, and hence no reason to care." While the gorgeous film is a "pleasant enough diversion ... it needs the one thing all the money in Hollywood can’t buy — a soul."

Walking With Dinosaurs
This CGI adventure about a young pachyrhinosaurus is full of visual wonderment and painful scriptwriting. Notes Ebiri, "One marvels at the thinking that assumes young kids, the same ones who can spend hours talking about and playing with dinosaurs, would need a bunch of dumb, gross gags and boilerplate dramatics in order to pay attention to freaking dinosaurs."

The Wolf of Wall Street
Speaking of Martin Scorsese, the American legend himself has a new movie out, and he reunites once again with his late career onscreen muse, Leonardo DiCaprio. The result, a sex and drugs and more sex and more drugs story about a New York stockbroker, is a disappointing one. Edelstein writes, "The movie has no scope; there’s barely enough content for a short. The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible."

Photo: Wilson Webb/20th Century Fox, Claire Folger/The Weinstein Company, Gemma LaMana/Paramount Pictures