As the year-end cutoff for awards consideration approaches, studios trot out their highest-brow releases in hopes of snagging some new golden hardware. The critical darlings – a faithfully adapted landmark of the American theater, a gorgeous look into the interior life of a political/cultural icon, an old-school musical, a new movie from Martin freaking Scorsese — are out in full force. And yes, there’s still room at the mulitplex for a video-game action potboiler, an offbeat horror flick and the latest addition to the Star Wars franchise. Here are the 10 titles that need to be on your filmgoing radar as we bid adieu to this most wretched of years.
Assassin’s Creed (Dec. 21st)
Making a halfway decent movie out a video game has always been an uphill battle; that said, Hollywood couldn’t have assembled a more promising crew for this climb. Director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) goes from Shakespeare to PlayStation for this adaptation of the button-masher about career crook Callum Lynch, transported back to medieval Spain to live as his assassin ancestor. Michael Fassbender dons the trademark brow-shadowing hood to bring a little thespian gravitas to the role; Marion Cotillard co-stars as the scientist leading the project that sends him back in time. Our callused fingers are crossed that the Oscar-nominated Irishman comes within spitting distance of Milla Jovovich’s generation-defining work on the Resident Evil series.
The Eyes of My Mother (Dec. 2nd)
In a remote farmhouse, a girl witnesses a grisly murder. As if baptized in blood, she grows up to follow that example. Surgical torture, bathtub mummification and lots of severed eyeballs are sure to give audiences a jolt, but there’s more to gape at here than the gore. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce went with ambient black-and-white photography for his sparsely-dialogued debut; his extended facial close-ups are nearly as chilling as the violence. Think of it like a gift for horror fans with slightly more refined palettes.
Fences (Dec. 25th)
Critics have already begun dusting off their top-shelf adjectives for this big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning stage play about a black family’s struggles in 1950s Pittsburgh. But where to start? With Wilson’s shattering script, left virtually untampered with here? With Denzel Washington, pulling double duty as director and star in the role of bitter former baseball hero Troy Maxson? How about Viola Davis, clearing space on her mantle for her turn as Troy’s long-suffering wife? Whichever way you want to praise it, the actor-turned-filmmaker’s scrupulous take on a time-honored gem feels like this season’s most old-school and Oscar-friendly drama.
Jackie ( Dec. 2nd)
Natalie Portman swings for the fences in this expressionistic biopic of Jackie Kennedy during her First Lady years, taking on a dozen roles in one: vision of White House glamour, shrewd political advisor, emblem of composed grief, and in private, a woman uneasy about the historical significance thrust upon her after JFK’s assassination. Put plainly, Portman crushes it, but director Pablo Larrain’s elegiac film is more than just an actor’s showcase; the Chilean filmmaker offers some astute observations about America and our national need to make larger-than-life figures out of our state leaders.
La La Land (limited Dec. 9th; wide Dec. 16th)
Whiplash director Damien Chazelle returns a sweetly nostalgic musical about a penniless jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and a struggling actress (Emma Stone) falling in love in a colorful Los Angeles. Splitting the difference between the MGM extravaganzas of old and Jacques Demy’s melancholy poperas, Chazelle makes his players look weightless even as they’re dragged down by showbiz frustrations. And if the thought of two bona fide movie stars waltzing across the cosmos in a dreamy fantasy interlude doesn’t ready your toes for tapping, just hold out until the grand finale.
Office Christmas Party (Dec. 9th)
The holidays get buckwild once again when a mid-level executive (T.J. Miller, like a frat-boy Santa Claus) throws a rager in the hopes of impressing a key client (Courtney B. Vance), saving the company and impressing his CEO sister (Jennifer Aniston). As the party spins out of control, a who’s who of comic actors — Kate McKinnon, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, Vanessa Bayer, Rob Corddry and Jillian Bell — turn this Yuletide raunchfest into an all-star blowout. Not vomiting on yourself or contracting an STD is the reason for the season!
Passengers (Dec. 21st)
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt give the American people the futuristic, glossy sci-fi romance we so desperately crave, with the A-list pair entering into a century-long hypersleep as they wait out the ride to a distant planet. A malfunction wakes them up way ahead of schedule, and a romance blossoms between the two as they kill time, though the truth behind what disrupted their technoslumber could have disastrous consequences. Featuring Michael Sheen as a malfunctioning robot butler, mashing his face into a bar and providing 2016 with its GIF of the Year.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dec. 16th)
All year, it’s been a nagging little paradox in the back of the collective fanboy unconscious: what is a Star Wars movie when it’s not an actual Star Wars movie, but a “Star Wars story”? Director Gareth Edwards’ prequel/spinoff shifts focus from Luke, Leia and the gang to the rebel alliance fighters plotting to destroy the early-stages Death Star before it can live up to its ominous name. The scrappy resistance (staffed up with Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker and Diego Luna, among others) battle against the nefarious Imperial official Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) for their freedom, and the freedom of all the galaxy. It goes without saying, but: May the Force be with them.
Silence (Dec. 23rd)
No big deal: We’re just talking about one of the greatest American directors of all time, finally mounting the dream project he’s spent decades preparing for. In a larger sense, though, Martin Scorsese’s entire filmography of Christian doubt, sin and redemption has been leading to author Shusaku Endo’s epic saga of 17th-century missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) tromping into the Japanese wilds to spread their religion and retrieve their mentor (Liam Neeson), who has strayed from the flock. The dump-trucks full of awards gold have already begun lining up.
20th Century Women (Dec. 25th)
The Seventies are in full swing: Jimmy Carter’s in office, feminism has hit the mainstream, and birth control pills are infiltrating the purses of America. Against this backdrop of cultural upheaval, a mother (Annette Bening) enlists the help of her boarder (Greta Gerwig) and a young woman (Elle Fanning) to help raise her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann). Director Mike Mills explores the eternal question of what separates men from women in this gentle household drama, and shies away from any easy answers. It’s surely the only movie this season to feature an extremely frank dinner-table conversation about the ins and outs of menstruating — although to be fair, we still have not seen Rogue One yet, so don’t quote us on that.