Starting with the Thanksgiving frame and extending throughout the winter holiday festivities of December, the end of every year brings with it a parade of exciting movie options for cinema buffs to choose from; including, awards season hopefuls, big-budget franchise movies, and films for the whole family to enjoy together while celebrating the holidays. It can start to become a bit overwhelming even, as studios often reserve their better offerings until the last couple months of the year - leaving you feeling like you have to hurry out and see every promising-looking movie ASAP, lest you fall behind on your film watching and get stuck having to play "catch-up".
Although many buzzed-about (and potential Oscar contenders) are going to be opening in a limited theatrical release starting at the end of November and extending on through December, the vast majority of people won't even be able to go and check them out until after the start of the New Year - due to a lack of time and/or because of where they live. So, for the purposes of this preview, we're going to focus on movies arriving over the last 5-6 weeks of this year that will be playing in theaters nationwide - and that are either must-see "events" for movie lovers, films with lots of good buzz surrounding them, or just flicks that sound like they could be useful for anyone who needs to let some steam off.
Here are our 10 Films to Check Out Over the Fall and Winter Holidays in 2016.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (November 18th)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them started off sounding like a straight-forward prequel/spinoff to the Harry Potter franchise, written by Harry Potter's creator J.K. Rowling herself. It has since become increasingly apparent that Rowling's ambitions go far beyond delivering a whimsical adventure about Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the traveling "magizoologist' who causes trouble on his visit to New York (circa 1926); when a bunch of magical creatures escape from the enchanted suitcase that he keeps them stored in.
It's now been confirmed that Fantastic Beasts is the first chapter in what Rowling is envisioning as a five-movie saga; one that will also feature a younger Albus Dumbledore and address his battle with the dark wizard, Gillert Grindelwald. Some film buffs are already (understandably) weary about the prospect of committing to watching five Fantastic Beasts movies - a task that could take upwards of ten years to finish - before they even know how they feel about their first adventure with Mr. Scamander and his friends.
That being said, the first Fantastic Beasts seems to have everything one could ask for from a good Wizarding World movie (imaginative creatures, likable heroes, exciting magic-driven action sequences); and like the earlier Harry Potter installments, it seems as though Newt's first adventure will be more standalone in nature. Either way, Wizarding World mania has already started to spread again this year, thanks to the success of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Fingers crossed, Fantastic Beasts will only further lift the spirits of magic-loving Muggles and No-Majs around the world.
Moana (November 23rd)
November has a pretty great track record, when it comes to Walt Disney Animation Studios movies that were released during that month over the past five or so years (see Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6). Moana doesn't look to break that winning streak either, having already earned strong word of mouth ahead of its theatrical release. Plus, who can say no to a family-friendly, high-seas, animated fantasy adventure - where Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson voices a jolly, shape-shifting demigod who loves to sing about just how awesome he is?
Moana tells the story of Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), a young South Pacific Islander who sets sail across the ocean in search of a fabled island, with help from her sidekicks; including, the demigod Maui (Johnson) and the well-meaning, if dim-witted rooster Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk). The film was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, whose animated filmography (see The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and so on) speaks for itself, and features songs co-written by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda: creator of the multiple award-winning stage musical sensation, Hamilton.
The one caveat to all this is that early reviews peg Moana as being a somewhat narratively-formulaic Disney animated movie, its exploration of Southern Pacific mythology and culture aside. It sounds as though Disney Animation's other 2016 offering, the smash-hit Zootopia, might prove to be more thematically ambitious and unconventional compared to Moana, in that respect. If a perfectly enjoyable Disney animated musical romp is what you're seeking though, the signs point to Moana delivering exactly what you would ask for - and may even have some surprises up its sleeves.
Office Christmas Party (December 9th)
The fall/winter holidays are a time when awards season hopefuls and crowd-pleasing tentpoles flood theaters, meaning that any movie that falls outside of those two categories qualifies as "counter-programming" by default. Enter Office Christmas Party, a decidedly adults-only raunchy comedy that puts a Hangover-style twist on the idea of a bunch of office workers letting off some steam with a winter holiday bash. It probably doesn't come as a surprise to learn that Office Christmas Party was also co-written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore: a duo who have clearly found their niche writing this type of raunch-com, after having now worked on the first Hangover, 21 & Over and Bad Moms.
Officer Christmas Party has a basic setup: the members of a company's struggling branch stage the office Christmas party to end all office Christmas parties, in the hopes of landing a major client and saving their jobs. Add a cast that includes such funny folk as Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller and Jillian Bell (along with other big names like Jennifer Aniston and Olivia Munn) and you have the formula for a "party movie' with many of the same ingredients as last year's Sisters.
Much like Sisters managed to attract a sizable crowd at the box office last December, Office Christmas Party could follow suit - at the same time, offer a couple of mindless, but fun hours of entertainment for those moviegoers needing to let off some steam in the lead-up to the winter holidays. Sometimes, when things get stressful in December, that's all the latest studio comedy really needs to do anyway.
La La Land (December 9th; Wide on the 16th)
The pre-release critical buzz around La La Land suggests the film may go down being remembered as one of the best movies of the entire year; not just the end-of-year awards season rush. Early reviews from its tour on the film festival circuit suggest La La Land is to musicals released during the 1950s and '60s what Stranger Things is to 1980s cinema; that is, a heartwarming love letter to the past, as well as a clever update and pastiche that does more than just tap into film lovers' collective sense of nostalgia.
La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and aspiring actress, respectively, who meet and fall in love while struggling to make ends meet in a somewhat-fantastical (but also somewhat grounded) version of modern Los Angeles. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land also features a supporting cast that includes such names as John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sonoya Mizuno and the Oscar-winning star of Chazelle's own 2014 movie Whiplash, J.K. Simmons.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences traditionally loves a good-natured salute to the film industry's past - and as La La Land apparently succeeds in reviving the art of old-school musicals in the way that The Artist revitalizes the art of silent film, Chazelle could end up taking home some big awards for his latest movie. That suggests everyone who's been enchanted by the poignant music, romantic atmosphere, and gorgeous visuals of La La Land's trailers shouldn't be let down by the actual movie, either.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (December 16th)
May was the month when Star Wars movies were released for nearly thirty years or so, but that changed when Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters last year - obliterating several box office records and re-invigorating the public's collective passion for the Star Wars franchise in the process. The direct followup to The Force Awakens, Star Wars: Episode VIII, will arrive in December of 2017. Between now and then however, December 2016 will see the release of the first Star Wars "anthology" or spinoff film, titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Rogue One, as most people probably know by now, takes place just before Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope and reveals how the Rebel Alliance managed to steal the plans to the first Death Star. Iconic Star Wars baddie Darth Vader appears in Rogue One, but by and large the movie revolves around brand-new heroes and villains alike. That adds a layer of excitement to what might've otherwise been a not-so-interesting prequel - as even though filmgoers know the story's ending ahead of time, they won't know which characters are still going to be standing (and which, if any, have connections to other famous Star Wars characters), until the dust settles.
Director Garth Edwards also filmed Rogue One in the style of a gritty war movie set in the Star Wars universe; a different approach for the now nearly-forty year old franchise, at that. While Rogue One isn't expected to scale the same box office heights as The Force Awakens, it should do more than fine in terms of ticket sales - and more importantly, it's looking more and more like another great adventure based in a galaxy far, far away, with each passing day.
Assassin's Creed (December 21st)
Every time a new video game movie adaptation comes along, the same question seems to be on most everyone's minds: will this be the one that finally breaks the video game film "curse"? This December's Assassin's Creed, more so than recent video game-based titles like Warcraft, has many people feeling cautiously optimistic that the answer to that question could be "yes" this time. That would be all the more welcome news in this case since Assassin's Creed was developed by the film studio division of the original video games' developer Ubisoft, known as Ubisoft Motion Pictures.
Assassin's Creed carries over the sci-fi/historical genre premise of the original video games - as the film's protagonist, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) discovers that he is descended from a secret society of Assassins and even gets to relive his ancestor's memories, by way of a device known as the Animus. Further bolstering the credibility of this particular video game movie adaptation are cast members such as Oscar-winners Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons, in addition to director Justin Kurzel: the helmsman on the acclaimed 2015 Macbeth adaptation that Fassbender and Cotillard also starred in.
Concerns about whether or not Assassin's Creed will break the video game movie "curse" aside, the film also faces a challenge at the box office - given the other big tentpoles that it will be facing directly off against. The trailers have painted the movie as being an exciting and stylish couple hours of entertainment (whether you're familiar with the original games or not), so hopefully Assassin's Creed will deliver on both fronts and properly illustrate that yes: good video games can be turned into equally good movies, when done the right way.
Passengers (December 21st)
There's already been one smart, mainstream sci-fi movie intended for adults released this year in the form of Arrival. Where that film falls more on the cerebral side of the sci-fi spectrum though, this December's Passengers is aiming for something with more pure heart: a complicated love story, set on a spaceship that is heading to a distant planet. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are headlining the film as two, well, passengers on said spaceship, whose hyper-sleep chambers malfunction and cause them to wake up... some 90 years before they are scheduled to reach their destination.
Passengers, generally speaking, isn't generating the sort of pre-release buzz that one might expect from a big-budget feature headlined by what are currently two of Hollywood's most popular A-list actors. That might be a testament to the fact that Lawrence and Pratt's biggest hits over the past few years have mostly been franchise movies (The Hunger Games, Jurassic World, and so on). On their own, Lawrence and Pratt's combined star power might not be a match for the big franchise films that are gong to be opening in theaters right before (or even on the same day) that Passengers arrives.
That's not to say Passengers seems like a box office bomb in the making; with an intriguing (not to mention, original) premise, an accomplished director in Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) working behind the scenes and two charismatic leads, there's plenty to recommend the movie. Whereas other December tentpoles are gong to be heavy on the spectacle, Passengers might be a good option for those moviegoers in the mood for something more character-based - though given that the film does take place on a giant spaceship, it should offer some cool eye candy to go with the relationship drama too.
Sing (December 21st)
This past summer's animated The Secret Life of Pets kicked off another hit franchise for Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind the Despicable Me and Minions movies. Illumination returns with its second 2016 film this December in Sing, a movie set in a universe entirely populated by animals - where Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala bear and the owner of a struggling theater, attempts to save his business by staging the world's greatest singing competition. Suffice it to say, there are more than a few animals out there who answer Buster's call, seeking to fulfill their dreams of musical stardom.
Sing, judging by the trailers and marketing for the film, is shaping up to be yet another colorfully animated and playfully idiosyncratic 'toon in the vein of Illumination's best work past. Add to that, the film boasts a voice cast full to the brim with big talent - in Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane, Tori Kelly, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones and John C. Reilly - and at least some of those actors will (naturally) be lending their singing abilities in their animated counterparts in the movie, on top of that.
The odds seem good that Sing will be a crowd-pleasing hit at the box office; not only because a gleefully silly movie about singing animals is something a lot of moviegoers should be in the mood to check out, but also because Sing doesn't have much direct competition in December, as far as more purely kid-friendly entertainment options go. Add to that the fact that Sing was written/directed by Garth Jennings - helmsman on the offbeat cult comedy Son of Rambow - and it seems Illumination is on-course to go two-for-two with its theatrical releases this year.
Fences (December 25th)
Denzel Washington the two time Oscar-winning actor is well-renowned, but less known is Washington the director - whose credits include the biographical drama Antwone Fisher, the true story-based "sports" tale The Great Debaters and even an episode of medical soap opera Grey's Anatomy. That could change this year with the release of Fences, a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play (of the same name) by the late August Wilson that Washington directed in addition to starring in.
Fences stars Washington as Troy, a former professional baseball player-turned working class man doing his best to make ends meet and care for his family in 1950s Pennsylvania. Washington won a Tony award for his performance as Troy in a 2010 revival of Wilson's original play - as did Viola Davis, who is reprising her role as Troy's wife, Rose, in the film version. For those reasons, it's easy to see why awards season prognosticators are speculating that Fences could snag Davis her first Oscar (yes, she hasn't won one yet) and maybe then some for Washington, too.
Plays-turned movies admittedly have a mixed track record; for every acclaimed play that has gone on to become an equally beloved film (think Amadeus), there seem to be a handful that come off stilted when translated from the stage for the big screen - and are mostly forgotten thereafter (think Proof, August: Osage County, and so forth). That being said, it's difficult to imagine that a movie like Fences - which touches on timely subject matter (racial tensions, in particular) and has two acting powerhouses in Washington and Davis leading the charge - won't be at least somewhat decent.
Why Him? (December 25th)
Those who know Bryan Cranston best for playing Walter White on Breaking Bad might have been shocked, the first time that they found out that "Heisenberg" himself used to be best-known for playing Malcolm's nerdball of a dad, Hal, on Malcom in the Middle for much of the 2000s. Cranston has shown off his funnier side here and then these past few years, but most of his post-Breaking Bad film roles have been of the serious drama and/or awards-baiting variety (see Argo, Trumbo, The Infiltrator and so forth).
Enter Why Him?, another one of this December's rare mature comedy offerings and a movie that lets Cranston get his goofy side on; here, playing a father who's horrified to discover that his daughter (Zooey Deutch) is dating a well-meaning, but utterly uncouth Silicon Valley billionaire (James Franco). Helping Cranston and Franco to bring on the funny in the movie are such names as Megan Mullally of Children's Hospital (also known for playing Tammy Two from Parks and Recreation) and one-half of Key & Peele, in Keegan-Michael Key.
Similar to Office Christmas Party, the premise for Why Him? is one that many a parent can probably relate to - and the "Cranston vs. Franco" pairing could make for some welcome easy laughs, at the very least. Why Him? co-writer/director John Hamburg himself has a somewhat uneven track record; he co-wrote Zoolander and directed I Love You, Man, but also co-wrote all three Meet the Parents movies. Still, if a breezy, mainstream, adult-driven comedy is what you're in the mood for, Why Him? may well deliver the goods.