The Times’ film critics, Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang, sat down to talk about the new holiday movies they’re looking forward to and the older ones they still cherish.
JUSTIN CHANG: I could be wrong, but Hollywood seems to have long since given up any strict obligation to holiday cheer where year-end releases are concerned. Which is fine of course — no one can subsist on a diet of festive, upbeat family fare alone, at this or any other time of year. And the pleasure of seeing the studios finally get serious and put their best films forward is usually enough to fill even the most jaded of critics with a thrill of anticipation, even if the films themselves turn out to be dark, unsparing and fairly child-inappropriate.
KENNETH TURAN: I have to confess that when I think of holiday movies I think exclusively of movies with Oscar potential, not movies filled with sugar plums and sweetmeats (whatever those are). Because the studios believe that Oscar voters have the smallest of attention spans, they wait to the end of the year to reveal the films they think have the best chance of taking home awards. It makes for an embarrassment of riches for critics; instead of complaining how bad movies are, we switch to complaining about how we have no time to see, think and write about all the worthy items on offer.
And, as you say, because we live in a time when many filmmakers are in thrall to the dark side, holiday releases tend not to be filled with cheer. It’s almost as if that concept has gone out of style, the relic of an era when Americans aspired to the kind of lives James Stewart and Donna Reed lived in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
CHANG: I remain optimistic that this generation of directors may yet produce its Frank Capra. In the meantime, Damien Chazelle makes a fairly persuasive case for himself as the reincarnation of Vincente Minnelli with the upcoming “La La Land,” which is both a sly, contemporary reimagining of the Hollywood musical and in some ways a legitimately feel-good throwback to that more innocent time you describe, or at least an adjacent era. It’s the rarest of things in these cynical times, a genuine cheer-bomb.
With any luck, there will be more. It’s not that I mind dark, violent holiday counterprogramming — I mean, it did give me pause when the two big Christmas Day releases last year were “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight,” but it was nothing a well-spiked glass of eggnog couldn’t solve. A few Christmases before that we got “August: Osage County,” which was as nasty a lump of cinematic coal as you could ever expect to find in your stocking — though it probably did help audiences feel a bit better about attending their own dysfunctional family gatherings.
TURAN: Speaking of families, there are a few films this season that look to have classic cross-generational appeal, the kind of thing everyone can agree to attend at the end of a long day of eating and opening presents and eating some more. The most obvious one of these is Disney’s “Moana,” the story of an intrepid young person who goes on one of those legendary quests the movies so love.
CHANG: Along similar lines, I imagine that quite a few families will be purchasing advance tickets to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which I’m looking forward to with both optimism and some mild trepidation. J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is by now a permanent fixture of our cultural landscape (to say nothing of our geographical one, what with all those theme parks). But the fact that we’re not just buying an evening’s entertainment but investing in yet another effects-heavy franchise seems, already, to be sapping away some of the magic of the experience.
TURAN: Speaking of franchises, the all-powerful “Star Wars” machine cranks up with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” I have to confess my main interest in this is star Felicity Jones, an actress whose work I’ve admired since she co-starred with the late Anton Yelchin in Drake Doremus’ Sundance winner “Like Crazy.” I’m hoping she and top co-stars Ben Mendelsohn and Riz Ahmed can make this stand-alone item feel less pro forma.
CHANG: While I remain something of a “Star Wars” agnostic, I’m looking forward to this one as well. As for Jones, I can say that she gives a tremendously moving performance in J.A. Bayona’s highly effective tearjerker “A Monster Calls,” which is sort of like “Pan’s Labyrinth” by way of “Terms of Endearment” — in a good way! The movie screened at the Toronto Film Festival and was originally scheduled for an Oct. 21 release until Focus Features decided to hold it back until Dec. 23, perhaps wisely realizing they might have a reasonably family-friendly arthouse hit — and a stealth awards contender — on their hands. Are there any festival favorites that you’d especially recommend?
TURAN: I’ve been waiting for Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” to open since I saw it at Sundance back in January. Lonergan has been one of our top playwrights and movie writer-directors as far back as 2000’s Mark Ruffalo/Laura Linney-starring “You Can Count on Me,” someone able to navigate confidently through the most painful of emotions. Casey Affleck is sure to get a lead actor Oscar nomination, and Michelle Williams might get a supporting nod, but I am curious as to how the film will play as a whole once it is out in the world. And I was really impressed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” which played at Venice and Toronto. It’s Larraín’s first English-language film and he’s gotten Natalie Portman to portray an American icon, Jackie Kennedy, in the days right after her husband’s assassination.
And before I forget, I want to put in a good word for Cannes favorite “The Red Turtle,” a dazzling piece of feature animation by Oscar winner Michael Dudok de Wit, and Raoul Peck’s exceptional James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.” But the holiday season is about more than festival hits. The fun is also in the big pictures that open that no one has seen so much as a frame of. Are there any you are particularly looking forward to?
CHANG: I’ve been waiting years for “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating drama about Portuguese missionaries trying to spread their gospel message amid the persecutions of 17th century Japan. If Scorsese has done right by Shusako Endo’s brilliant novel, the result won’t be heartwarming, but it will certainly be shattering. And while I suppose this qualifies as the sort of grim, dark fare we were talking about earlier, it’s also a story of grace and compassion under the bleakest possible circumstances — not the least appropriate message for the Christmas holidays, I imagine.
I can think of no intelligent segue from “Silence” to “Bad Santa 2,” but that is one double bill I’m looking forward to. The much-missed Terry Zwigoff may not be in the director’s chair for this one, but with any luck it’ll be a profane kick to see Billy Bob Thornton once more at his boozy, misanthropic best (or worst).
TURAN: I don’t think I can top “Bad Santa 2,” but the film I am most curious about is “Passengers,” a science-fiction thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. And of course there is “Fences,” with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in an adaptation of the great August Wilson play.
But enough about new films. To end on an appropriate seasonal note, are there holiday classics of years past that you want to recommend?
CHANG: I invoked Minnelli earlier, and I find it pretty impossible to make it through the holiday season without a viewing of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which has been a personal favorite since I first saw it in a gorgeous 35-mm print 16 years ago. It’s one of the most moving, delicate yet resilient movies ever made about an American family.
Another great, more recent family movie: Over the years, my wife and I have fallen more and more in love with “A Christmas Tale,” an absolute feast of a movie from the great French director Arnaud Desplechin, starring Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric and Anne Consigny, among many others. In general I don’t think American audiences are used to this kind of movie, the kind that reaffirms the bonds of family without even a trace of sentimentality or sanctimony, or that suggests the love we feel for our nearest and dearest is often indistinguishable from hate.
TURAN: So glad you mentioned “A Christmas Tale.” It really is a pure pleasure to experience, the kind of film Hollywood would produce if it had the strength, or the nerve. And I also want to put in a good word for the 1951 British version of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s well done from top to bottom, but the reason to see it is the terrific performance of Alastair Sim as the irascible Ebenezer Scrooge, the man who really puts the “bah” in “bah, humbug.” And now, as the poem says, “to all a good night!”