Santa's bringing a bag full of cinematic gifts for those who dig J.K. Rowling's movie magic, animated musicals and that very familiar galaxy far, far away. The holiday season always brings a sizable load of big-time mainstream fare to cinema screens, and this one features Will Smith starring in a Christmas-y tearjerker, Michael Fassbender facing 15th-century foes, and Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence lost in space. USA TODAY offers 10 must-see films to check out in November and December.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Nov. 11)
Stars: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel
Director: Ang Lee
Plot: A 19-year-old soldier (Alwyn) comes back from Iraq for a victory tour that culminates at a Thanksgiving football game yet also relives his experiences in war.
The skinny: Alwyn’s Billy is “certainly a soulful and heartfelt” kid, Lee says, and through the movie — from the front line in the Middle East to the spotlight of a sporting event — his honesty, humanity, friendship and very existence is tested. However, one ally who helps him through the tough times on the battlefield is Shroom (Diesel), the alpha-male leader of their platoon and a mentor to teenage Billy who’s like Buddha meets Rambo. “He knows how to keep them in line but he has a philosophical, poetic quality.”
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Nov. 18)
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston
Director: David Yates
Plot: Eccentric “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Redmayne) has to gather up a number of various wonderful creatures in New York City while conflict brews between wizards and non-magic folk.
The skinny: The beasts are fantastic in this movie set in Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, but so is the setting: New York City in 1926 was “a period in a champagne bottle being shaken up with all the bubbles about to explode out,” Yates says. The city was “still being built and fashioned (plus) offered so many rich visual opportunities.” It was also a time when different cultures were pouring into town, which lends itself to tensions between the wizard minority and the “no-maj” humans who fear them — a theme, Yates adds, that “in our current political environment feels very relevant and important to address and explore.”
Allied (Nov. 23)
Stars: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: A intelligence officer (Pitt) and resistance fighter (Cotillard) fall in love while on a mission during World War II, but one finds out the other might be a Nazi spy.
The skinny: He has gone Back to the Future and went back a few decades for Forrest Gump, yet Allied gives Zemeckis his first chance to do a WWII picture like the ones he grew up watching. “It was something that, even though I was born after the war, was very much part of my culture,” the director says. Even with a bevy of bombing sequences, plus Pitt and Cotillard shooting up a Nazi shindig, Allied is just as much a romantic thriller as spy adventure. “It’s all about war and life and death and the enemy, but the emotional underpinning is how people who love each other deal with the possibility of betrayal.”
Moana (Nov. 23)
Stars: Auli‘i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement
Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
Plot: An adventurous youngster (Cravalho) teams with a cocky demigod (Johnson) to navigate their way to a fabled island to save her village.
The skinny: Hawaiian newcomer Cravalho didn’t have to study concept art or drawings to help her voice the teenage Moana. “I was able to connect to her in a way that even surprised me,” she says. “She slips in and out between being me, but I also think of her as my best friend. Then I can root for her, I can watch her grow throughout the journey.” While Moana’s father wants her to stay at home, her grandmother pushes the girl to embrace her oceanic destiny. “I wasn’t able to have a really close relationship to my grandparents,” Cravalho says. “So throughout the film when I see Grandma Tala, who is courageous and believes in Moana 120,000%, I think of my mom.”
Collateral Beauty (Dec. 16)
Stars: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren
Director: David Frankel
Plot: Emotionally wrecked by his daughter’s death, an ad executive (Smith) is on a downward spiral until he’s visited by Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Mirren).
The skinny: There’s definitely some DNA of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol baked into the film, Frankel says, adding that the film offers “a peek behind the curtain into people’s lives and deeper emotions than we see every day.” In addition to provoking questions about how we deal with crises in our lives, it’s also unabashedly a Christmas movie. “You see one Santa skating around but there’s no Salvation Army people tinkling bells or anything,” Frankel says. “At the same time, the spirit and what’s important about the holiday resonates.”
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dec. 16)
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Gareth Edwards
Plot: A young woman (Jones) is recruited by the Rebel Alliance to help steal the plans for the Empire’s under-construction superweapon the Death Star in a tale set before 1977's original Star Wars.
The skinny: Everybody in the motley crew has reasons to take on the Empire, but Jones’ Jyn Erso for sure is a reluctant hero, Edwards says. “Events take place that just shatter her life and send her off to basically be raised as a soldier in the midst of a war. She ends up not the person she was supposed to be.” Her journey is also a very Star Wars-y one: to redeem the sins of the father. “Even though we’re not telling the story of Luke Skywalker, it was important to me that we capture the same themes and emotion,” Edwards says. “But the film doesn’t unfold how you think. It’s not the same path as Star Wars.”
Assassin’s Creed (Dec. 21)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons
Director: Justin Kurzel
Plot: Using technology that awakens genetic memories, Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is able to experience the life of his ancestor Aguilar, a member of a society of Assassins during the Spanish Inquisition.
The skinny: Fassbender thought of both roles in the video-game adaptation as distinct characters. Aguilar, who jumps off buildings and does parkour while fighting Templars, is like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western. “He doesn’t say a lot and is defined by his actions,” the actor says. “He has a cause that he belongs to and he’s willing to sacrifice himself.” And Cal is very much a selfish lone wolf who’s had to fend for himself from a very young age. “His journey is going to be about really finding out that he does belong to something greater.” Kurzel says Fassbender’s versatility is amazing: “There aren’t that many actors who have that emotional range dramatically and at the same time are able to pull off some of these complicated moves.”
Passengers (Dec. 21)
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Director: Morten Tyldum
Plot: Two people (Lawrence and Pratt) on a 120-year voyage to a new human space colony wake up 90 years before they’re supposed to and face a number of problems aboard their starship.
The skinny: Jon Spaihts says he wrote the screenplay for Passengers out of a desire to get sci-fi out of “its bleak dystopian ghetto" and recapture a feeling of “beauty, wonder and aspiration.” Part of that comes from the starship itself, “the space-sailing equivalent of an extravagant cruise ship” designed to entice folks to go off-world. But beauty also lies in the dream of these passengers “to start new lives ... (in) a new world — kind of like the discovery of the Americas on an interplanetary scale,” Spaihts says. “The whole movie stands as a meditation on fate and the extent to which we choose our courses.”
Sing (Dec. 21)
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Reese Witherspoon
Director: Garth Jennings
Plot: Eternally optimistic koala Buster Moon (voiced by McConaughey) hatches a plan for a singing competition to raise money to keep his theater from shutting down.
The skinny: Buster has to juggle a contingent of contestants ranging from a bunch of pandas he can’t understand to a cockney British gorilla who keeps running off, but through it all, “he is really a swirling vortex of positivity trying to spin all these plates and keep this thing together,” Jennings says. One of his favorite relationships in the movie is between Buster and Ash (Johansson), a talented punk-rock porcupine: He feels she just needs to brighten up her gothic style and put on a girly princess dress to be a hit, but the look doesn’t fit. “He’s a little bit like an embarrassing uncle at the beginning,” Jennings says. “It takes him a while to understand what Ash is all about, and it takes Ash a while herself to be that person.”
Hidden Figures (Dec. 25)
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer
Director: Theodore Melfi
Plot: A group of African-American women at NASA in the 1960s battling racial and gender inequality prove key to America staying competitive in the space race.
The skinny: Henson’s Katherine Johnson is a genius mathematician and Monáe’s Mary Jackson is a talented engineer, but Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan could do it all. That’s why she knew she had the right stuff for a supervisor title even though she wasn’t getting paid for leading a well-regarded computing unit. “She’s so unlike me,” Spencer says, laughing. A mechanically inclined and strong woman, Dorothy was taught how to do everything by her father, including fixing a car and building a motor. And that’s what she actually did with a massive NASA IBM computer. “They were having problems with it, and she went and figured out how to program it. She’s magnificent in that regard.”