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14 Movies to See Over the Holidays

Photo: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures/Warner Bros/Lukasz Bak/Amazon Studios

If your family’s anything like mine, the Annual Yuletide Movie Argument is a holiday tradition no less sacred than the trimming of the tree or the frying of the latkes. It’s December 25, you’re all itching for a reason to get out of the house. Dad wants a romance and Mom wants an action flick, your sister home from college just has to see the difficult new art film everyone’s been talking about, and there’s no way in hell your little brother’s doing subtitles. (Grandma and Grandpa, meanwhile, will settle for “something nice.”) Is it possible to placate everyone with a single choice?

If so, you’ll find it below, in Vulture’s comprehensive roundup of your brick-and-mortar viewing options this Christmas. Whether you’re in the mood for refreshingly competent franchise gargantua, something smaller from the indie leagues, or an import from abroad, you’ll be able to stomach at least a couple movies on the docket for the end of this year. Feel free to use the listings below as a guide in any upcoming familial disputes — just remember to keep it civil.

It might sound a bit like qualified praise, writing that “it is genuinely surprising how different this new installment is from previous Transformers flicks.” But Bilge Ebiri found plenty to like about this prequel/spinoff building on the lore of Michael Bay’s giant-fighting-alien-robots franchise, from “enormously talented” lead actress Hailee Steinfeld to a vibe best described with the phrase “it’s all very E.T.” Credit the upturn in quality to new helmer Travis Knight, a stop-motion veteran (remember how good Kubo and the Two Strings was?) bringing his jerry-rigged know-how to live-action direction.

Vox Lux
Brady Corbet’s treatise on pop, terror, and modernity in America has inspired rapture and loathing in equal measure; Emily Yoshida’s review contains a little of both, with a measure more of the latter. She acknowledges the film as having been built on “a fantastic, wildly ambitious idea,” and ultimately concludes that “Vox Lux is a failure, but one that I can’t stop thinking about.” Critics remain split in their assessments of fictitious pop star Celeste’s two-part life story, and it’ll be curious to see if audiences fall along those same divided lines.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Just when it looked like the premier web-slinger of comic-book renown had gotten lost in his own mythology, along came this marvelously clever deconstruction of superhero saturation. (A dimensional rift throws six different Spiders-Man into one wild adventure.) Emily Yoshida fell hard for the “kinetic, often abstract, and relentlessly inventive” animation style, and appreciated the audacity of a premise that “feels like a bit of a conceptual dare, but it wins with its nanosecond sharp timing, and percussive rat-a-tat-tatting of panels and split screens that make the action and visual gags feel jumpy and alive.”

Ben Is Back
Not to be confused with Beautiful Boy, this one’s the harrowing addiction drama built around the fraught relationship to a young user’s parent that doesn’t feature Timothée Chalamet. Lucas Hedges plays opposite Julia Roberts in the lead roles, and while David Edelstein wrote that he’s “still trying to get a fix” on Hedges, he also claimed that “I can’t remember ever seeing [Roberts] work this hard.” In summation, he deemed the film’s technique “superbly effective” in its first half, before “taking a hard turn halfway through in a different direction” toward “cheesy melodrama.” Meanwhile, the legion Hedges fandom has raised no such concerns.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
What says “Yuletide fun” quite like the methodical campaign of harassment, deception, and underhanded gimcrackery on which Roger Ailes built the Fox News empire? The whole family can enjoy this righteously infuriating broadside connecting Ailes and his take-no-prisoners media ethic to the current crisis of honor and dignity in right-wing TV. In his review, David Edelstein laid it out in no uncertain terms, writing, “This is the acid test for a good journalistic documentary: No matter how far back it reaches, Divide and Conquer always feels as if it’s in the present tense.”

The only thing more awkward than accompanying a friend on a group outing where you don’t know anybody is doing that same thing, but with exacerbated racial tensions. Sebastián Silva’s tense comedy of (bad) manners stars Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell as Tyler, the lone black face on an otherwise all-Caucasian lads’ trip leaning into its whiteness in some rather unsettling ways. Emily Yoshida admired the film’s commitment to discomfiting its audience and upending their assumptions: “Silva makes a chamber orchestra of unconscious prejudice and passive-aggression out of his all-bro ensemble, with Mitchell’s performance as the violin solo at the center of it that grows from a tentative tremolo to lonesome wail.”

Emily Yoshida got out in front of her biases in her review of the season’s wettest spectacle, copping up-front to being “predisposed to be into anything under the sea.” Even so, she could not resist the “really, really silly” side of the latest DC vehicle, and applauded director James Wan on keeping the studio big leagues weird; “I think it’s sneakily hard to pull off this kind of camp when working in such a bloated, global-concern milieu as a tentpole superhero movie,” she wrote. Let the record show this as “the first time [she] can ever remember looking forward to a giant CGI battle.”

Mortal Engines
Pretty good month for studio projects so massive and ambitious they verge on unwieldiness. Emily Yoshida also took a shine to this Peter Jackson–produced adaptation of a 2001 steampunk novel about mobile “traction cities” devouring punier villages for fuel, appreciating the change of pace from the stifling sameness of most YA treatments. “It’s the increasingly rare multimillion-dollar hero’s-journey spectacle that does feel, improbably, cozy,” she wrote, celebrating the idiosyncrasies of the enterprise as “a breath of fresh air.” Keep your Maze Runners and your latter-phase Divergents, here’s the good stuff.

Out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Emily Yoshida looked kindly on the entry from Lebanon in which a young boy takes his parents to court for bringing him into this hellacious world. She singled out Nadine Labaki — “a filmmaker of extreme empathy” — for her expert stewardship, describing the film as “a deeply assured piece of direction” that “only [articulates] the impossibility of the lives” bestowed upon the film’s characters instead of angling for easy hope. In the final line of her review, Yoshida got real: “It’s not as if we’re not crying our eyes out already.” Bring your hankie.

The Mule
Clint Eastwood’s back, and he’s going all-in on the angry-old-man bit. In his first work as actor and director since 2008’s Gran Torino, the badass formerly known as Dirty Harry goes rogue as a geriatric horticulturalist who used his unassuming appearance to smuggle narcotics for a menacing Mexican cartel. David Edelstein clocked the film as “a modest but reasonably suspenseful and abidingly eerie portrait of the aged white American male trying vainly to forestall rejection and irrelevance.” With “lean, brisk, and pointedly unfussy” direction, Eastwood conveys the sense that he’s losing his social space in the modern world.

If Beale Street Could Talk
“Lush and romantic.” “Always beautiful.” “Hyperrealistic and grim.” David Edelstein had no shortage of powerful words for Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight follow-up. And as the account of one pair of lovers’ undying quest to reunite in the face of racism and the prison-industrial complex, it’s nothing if not a powerful film. He raved over Jenkins’s sensitive handling of James Baldwin’s original text, Nicholas Britell’s mournful score, and an “exquisitely empathetic” supporting turn from Regina King. In his estimation, leads KiKi Layne and Stephan James are “gorgeous,” and the cast “magnetic.”

Cold War
Another Cannes standout makes it to our fair shores this month, and as Emily Yoshida would have it, this one’s “visually stunning, passionate, wistful, and thoughtful in equal measure.” A singer (played by the “astounding” Joanna Kulig) falls for the musical director of the Polish troupe taking her on a tour through postwar Europe, and bittersweet tragedy conspires to dash their love. It’s an old-fashioned sort of romance with a distinctly modern political awareness — fascism, that great mood-killer! — that Yoshida heralded as “a love story told through love songs.”

The Quake
All disaster porn is not created equal. Bilge Ebiri had a lot more respect for this sequel to Norwegian tsunami-sploitation flick The Wave than the average cataclysm picture, holding it up as an exemplar that shows prospective directors “how to make one of these things without sacrificing your characters’ souls (or your own, for that matter).” In fact, he found the mass wreckage almost too plausible, writing that “the destruction in The Quake is more total, more hopeless, and more convincing” than that of its predecessor. Anyone in search of a “more honest, detailed, and, yes, exciting” alternative to the explosion parade du jour, look no further.

Clara’s Ghost
It’s a family affair, with comedian Bridey Elliott directing her sister Abby (formerly of SNL), her father Chris (formerly of many things, most notable among them Get a Life), and her mother Paula (formerly of real life, making her silver-screen debut here) in an ensemble piece that “strikes veins both horrific and comedic.” In his review, Bilge Ebiri was intrigued by “a couple of truly bizarre montages that seem to veer between comedy, lyricism, and creepiness” despite the film’s true nature as “simple” and “unassuming.” He characterizes the film as confounding in the good way, “leaving us in a state of edgy, itchy discomfort. For such a tiny, modest film, that’s quite an accomplishment.”

14 Movies to See Over the Holidays