After the presents have been unwrapped and the pie eaten (and eaten ... and eaten ...) everyone knows it's time to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas — working off your wine-drunk while checking out the latest and greatest in contemporary cinema. Lucky for us, we'll have plenty to choose from — a bunch of new movies arrive in theaters on the 25th of December. The Verge staff has seen (most of) them, and we are quite prepared to advise you in your yuletide entertainment choices that don't involve The Interview.
SELMA (NY AND LA ONLY)
Who to see it with: Every single person at your Christmas dinner you can manage to drag away from Night At The Museum
Holiday spirit threat level: Twenty-eight "amen"s
Emily Yoshida: There's no way director Ava DuVernay could not have known how incredibly timely her depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Selma to Montgomery marches would be by the time it hit theaters. But even without the visceral parallels between Selma in 1965 and Ferguson in 2014, the film would still be a sharp, emotionally rendered historical drama. Selma is the best possible kind of Oscar bait, an important film whose actual importance is hard to overstate.
Selma is smart enough not to be a biopic; we begin with King (Daniel Oyewelo) winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and DuVernay doesn't ever condescend to go back to his childhood or his rise through the Civil Rights movement. The film uses one struggle within the movement to tell multiple stories: of the hundreds of families who lost loved ones to racially motivated police violence, of Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) grappling with his legacy as a president, of Martin and Coretta's (Carmen Ejogo) marriage.
But it's its currency, not its breadth, that makes Selma more than just a big-budget school report. Oyewelo's deeply lived-in performance and Cinematographer Bradford Young's warm, expressive palette breaks down the distance of history; parts of the film feel like they could have happened last week. Selma is both upsetting and cathartic, and puts our current events in powerful context.
Who to see it with: Your aunt and uncle that liked The Passion of the Christ a little too much
Holiday spirit threat level: I'm sorry, I can't think about the holidays when I'm watching the screen through my fingers.
Bryan Bishop: When Angelina Jolie decided to film the story of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic athlete who endured almost three years in a World War II prison camp, the project had all the makings of an inspirational holiday tearjerker. Laura Hillenbrand's acclaimed book Unbroken served as source material, everyone from Richard LaGravenese to the Coen Brothers worked on the script, and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins signed up — guaranteeing some of the most breathtaking visuals of the year.
What gets lost in the translation, unfortunately, is humanity. After a brief introduction introduces the mantra "If you can take it, you can make it" — the movie's only stab at any deeper insight — Unbroken shifts into pure torture porn mode as Jack O'Connell's Zamperini is beaten, broken, baked, and bullied scene after scene after scene.
If you're already familiar with Zamperini's story, the movie will serve as a well-made reminder of all he overcame. For everyone else, however, it will likely come off as a grueling passion play intent on punishing its characters without mercy, intent, or reason. It may be an accurate depiction of the horrors Zamperini endured, but it takes more than that to become the cohesive, inspirational film Unbroken wants to be.
Into The Woods
Who to see it with: Anyone in your family with two ears and a deep-seated need to have their childhood viciously and unexpectedly ruined
Holiday spirit threat level: Twelve burned storybooks
David Pierce: Once upon a time, many people were afraid Disney would ruin Into The Woods, the much-loved mashup of a thousand fairy tales into a single Stephen Sondheim musical. I can say, with absolute certainty, nothing here is ruined. It's not as good as the play, and a few key moments and characters have been omitted in service of a simpler and more family-friendly story. The play is deeply sexual, deeply subversive, and in many ways deeply strange — that's why it's so great. The movie Into The Woods is something different, something tamer, but still something worth seeing. And it'll permanently ruin Little Red Riding Hood as a children's story. Like, permanently.
But the soundtrack is gorgeous, the sets are beautiful, the casting is fantastic, and the Chris Pine is handsome as hell. The movie cuts and moves quickly, then lets the songs unfold over long takes, so every song feels huge and important. The play's defining change of tone at the halfway point feels a little jarring without the presence of the Narrator. Still, with huge set-piece songs that made the audience in my screening spontaneously cheer, and one of the most remarkably bizarre Meryl Streep performances I can think of, it's plenty of fun as a movie. And dear LORD, Chris Pine is handsome.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Who to see it with: The hyperactive tween in your family who literally will not shut up for like two seconds so you can think
Holiday spirit threat level: Two fornicating cavemen
David Pierce: I liked the first Night at the Museum. It's a cute, fun, weird idea that was cleverly executed, and there's solid comedic material to be mined from the idea that a thousand years' worth of history's most important people are hanging out in a museum and Owen Wilson is very small.
Even in the second movie — when Ben Stiller and his Merry Gang pretty much made all the same jokes in all the same places — I was still on board. But by the end of the third installment, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, I realized that maybe it's best if Teddy Roosevelt and his cohorts stay asleep for a while. The movie's fun, in the exact same way the previous two movies are fun. But in an effort to wrap the series up, Secret of the Tomb spends too much time explaining the magic of the tablet and the museum. It tries to become a story about aging, growing up, and moving on, but it comes across heavy-handed and unimaginative. The magic of Toy Story is that it never explains the magic; it's just magic. Knowing how Night at the Museum works kills whatever fun was left to be had.
Who to see it with: Your uncle who never grew up, or your pretentious college buddies home for the holidays
Holiday spirit threat level: Very low — unless quotes from The Stranger bring you Christmas cheer
Ben Popper: With a screenplay from the writer behind The Departed and a trailer that reads like a mashup of that film and Rounders, I was prepared for a fun, fast-paced action flick centering around a gambler who can't pay his debts.
But The Gambler is actually a remake of the 1974 James Caan film of the same name, and it spends more time on the existential crisis of Wahlberg's character, an English literature professor with a death wish. There are extended monologues about Shakespeare and Albert Camus, none of which sound very believable coming from Wahlberg. There is also precious little gambling intrigue or nuance, since his brutalist style of play involves betting everything, every turn, until his luck runs out.
The supporting cast is excellent — Michael K. Williams and John Goodman are great as loan sharks who for some reason decide to stake a clearly suicidal addict. So is Brie Larson, the love interest, a talented student who falls for Walhberg's passionate but tortured persona. But Wahlberg is not quite up to the task of holding it all together, and the whole film falls short as a result.