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A Thanksgiving theatrical survival guide: nine movies to see (or avoid) with family

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From the safe seas of Moana to the rocky reefs of Manchester By The Sea

Walt Disney Pictures

At this time of year, people tend to go through a lot of family-related anxiety, as they reconnect with far-flung family members around the Thanksgiving table, and realize they have nothing to say to them — or worse, they have far too much to say, especially about intergenerational gaps and disagreements about religion, politics, lifestyle choices, and pretty much everything else. So a lot of families fall back on entertainment to fill the silences, pass time with a pleasurable distraction, or just give everyone something less fraught and stressful to argue about.

But then there’s the trauma of picking a movie the family can agree on, and the fear that a given movie might ignite even more family controversy. As a public service, here’s a rundown of some of the most prominent movies currently in theaters, along with the advantages and disadvantages of seeing them with family members. While we're at it, we've included a few talking points for post-viewing conversation.

The film: Nocturnal Animals

The gist: Amy Adams plays a dissatisfied artist whose husband (Armie Hammer) is cheating on her. Then her long-ago husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript of a violent, tragic novel he wrote, inspired by their relationship. The film flashes back to the early days of Adams’ relationship with Gyllenhaal, but more of the movie follows the action of his book, as a husband and father (also Gyllenhaal) deals with a devastating experience.

Worth seeing? Nocturnal Animals is a strangely structured film — if you think about it, the most intense and emotional action on-screen isn’t “real,” it’s just what Adams is reading. So it’s a film about watching someone have emotions about a book, and think about the emotions that inspired it. That said, it’s an intense, moving book, with strong performances and moody visuals. Also, the book segments feature a character played by Michael Shannon, who is terrific.

Pros of seeing it with family: No one’s going to come out of this film bored, disengaged, and wanting to talk about current politics instead of what they just saw on-screen.

Cons of seeing it with family: But they might come out traumatized and exhausted. This is the kind of prestige-season movie that’s mostly built around lovingly crafted, emotionally shattering suffering. Also, the sex-and-violence content is high enough to make this an awkward movie to watch with older family members.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: Did real-Gyllenhaal send Adams the book as an accusation, an attack, or something else? Who’s worse, the exaggerated fictional monsters in the novel, or the “real” people in the frame story? Has Michael Shannon ever been in a movie that he didn’t improve?

The film: Doctor Strange

The gist: Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular surgeon, who accidentally destroys his hands and his career, then travels the globe looking for a miracle fix. He finds it in an ancient temple where he learns magic from Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, but he’s immediately drawn into a titanic magical struggle, featuring internal betrayal and other-dimensional evils.

Worth seeing? For anyone who’s a fan of the original Doctor Strange comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, Benedict Cumberbatch, or superhero movies in general, this is a must-see. For family members who don’t know why you’d read that brain-melting comic book trash instead of something uplifting like The Healing Miracle Prayer: The Prayer That Brings Healing Miracles Quickly (actual book title!), this is not going to be a fun outing. In general, Doctor Strange is a little too much like Iron Man with visuals borrowed from Inception, but the trippy visuals are worth the price of admission.

Pros of seeing it with family: Explaining all the Easter eggs and future story seeds and what was actually going on with those psychedelic sequences will keep you too busy to answer intrusive family questions about your personal life and your future plans.

Cons of seeing it with family: Having to explain the plot basics to family members who don’t usually watch psychedelic action movies could take a lot of fun out of the actual movie.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: Who’s the real supervillain in this movie, Mads “Eyeshadow On Fleek” Mikkelson, or Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange himself? How does Doctor Strange operate his time travel loop when he’s dead? Is anything in this film important, or is it all just a throat-clearing setup for the next dozen MCU movies?

The film: Hacksaw Ridge

The gist: The latest prestige drama directed by Mel Gibson fictionalizes the real-life story of Desmond Doss, a “conscientious cooperator” who willingly joined the Army in 1942, requesting to serve as a medic, because his religious beliefs prevented him from using a weapon or harming others. After a great deal of hazing and resistance, he went on to save a large number of soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa, and win the Medal of Honor.

Worth seeing? Hacksaw Ridge is heavily fictionalized (though still less so than most based-on-true-events movies) and its plot contrivances and conveniences get mighty mawkish. Andrew Garfield’s gosh-shucks performance lays on the corn too thickly, especially during the frankly awful scenes where he romances an easily flattered nurse (Rachel Griffiths) by gawping blankly at her. The film also has overtly Christian themes that may not sit well with some viewers, and phenomenally gory battlefield action that may shock people who just showed up for the religious uplift. (Then again, if the same viewers sat through Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, they’ve probably got strong stomachs.) All that said, it’s still a tremendous story that cuts straight to the heart of America’s love for humble underdogs, protagonists with unwavering convictions, and real-life superheroes. Those grotesque battlefield scenes are also mesmerizing and directed with tremendous clarity, confidence, and intensity. And the supporting cast (including Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, and Richard Roxburgh) is aces.

Pros of seeing it with family: If you and your family are politically or religiously conservative, this is going to be the most thrilling, immersive, well-made current theatrical release that respects and validates your beliefs. If not, see “cons.”

Cons of seeing it with family: If you and your family don’t align on either religion or politics, this one’s likely to stir up some major holiday arguments, because it’s such a values-driven, message-heavy film that it’s hard to respond to it without risking ticking someone off.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: Are the film’s awkward, exaggerated departures from reality really necessary, when the true story is so stunning? Does the underserved love story add anything? Will, or should, America ever forgive Mel Gibson for being a raving, sexist anti-Semite?

The film: Manchester By The Sea

The gist: A Boston janitor (Casey Affleck) loses his adult brother (Kyle Chandler) to heart disease, and finds out that he’s unexpectedly been granted custody of his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges).

Worth seeing? Absolutely. The Lifetime-movie potential seems high for this kind of family drama, but writer-director Kenneth Lonergan approaches the story in a sedate and serious way. The cast is terrific, the script inserts a wide variety of complexities, and the tone is moody, reserved, and often heartbreaking.

Pros of seeing it with family: Maybe the whole family needs a nice cathartic group cry about now. Besides, it could certainly open up some interesting discussions about estate planning and how carefully or thoughtfully family members have thought through their kids’ futures.

Cons of seeing it with family: Then again, maybe watching a movie about parental death with your parents (or kids) is just awkward.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: “Do I really have to live with Uncle Lonnie if you die?” “If Lucas Hedges gets to have two girlfriends and have sex with them in his own bedroom with his family in the house, why can’t I?” “Hey, can we brick up the fireplace and never use it again?”

The film: The Accountant

The gist: An autistic super-accountant and John Wick-level ninja-infiltrator (Ben Affleck) goes to war to help a corporate accountant (Anna Kendrick) who Knows Too Much. Flashbacks fill in his brutal childhood under a military father (Robert C. Treveiler) who felt autism could be cured via combat training. Meanwhile, a Treasury Department agent (J.K. Simmons) and his unwilling protégé (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) hunt them down, a Bill Gates-esque robotics tycoon (John Lithgow) tries to get to the bottom of his company’s accounting discrepancies, a thug (Jon Bernthal) cleans up after various problems, and basically there’s a whole lot going on here.

Worth seeing? For fans of John Wick, The Pelican Brief, Rain Man, the Jason Bourne movies, RED, and Anna Kendrick who were secretly hoping to get all these elements mashed up into one movie, it’s laughable but surprisingly engaging, and unlike John Wick, this film gets by without any blatant puppy-murder.

Pros of seeing it with family: Older family members will probably be so horrified by your taste in movies that they’ll forget to take you to task about your taste in political candidates, significant others, jobs, friends, clothes, or whatever else you normally get scolded about at family holidays.

Cons of seeing it with family: You may wind up resenting your parents for not signing you up for brutal combat training when you were a kid, turning you into a present-day ninja assassin accountant.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: A series of variations on “Okay, did you see that twist coming? What about this one? Or that other one?”

The film: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

The gist: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise expands, launching a new five-film series that starts in 1926 New York City, where a hapless traveler (Eddie Redmayne) loses some magical beasties out of his magical suitcase, and has to track them down in the middle of a secret war between magical factions.

Worth seeing? Your tolerance for / interest in previous Harry Potter movies is an obvious litmus test here.

Pros of seeing it with family: In theory, this is a perfect family film, one that unites the familiar setting of a beloved children’s franchise with a more adult story and aesthetic.

Cons of seeing it with family: In practice, the film doesn’t fully serve either audience, and it leaves a ton of loose ends that require a deep knowledge of Potterverse lore to understand. But it is pretty harmless as holiday family entertainment goes.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: Do we or do we not want four more of these films? Who are these movies for? Also, Eddie Redmayne’s magical-rhino butt-wiggling mating dance: best thing in the movie, or worst thing?

The film: Moana

The gist: In the latest Disney animated movie, a South Pacific chieftain’s daughter (who insists she isn’t a princess, but c’mon, she’s getting added to the insanely lucrative Disney Princess lineup) attempts to save her people by undertaking a dangerous quest. Along for the ride is a boastful demigod (Dwayne Johnson) who started a slow-burn cataclysm by stealing a goddess’ heart. Like so many Disney films, it’s a musical, this time with catchy Polynesian-tinged songs written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Worth seeing? Specifically, worth seeing on the big screen, and in 3D. Moana borrows a lot from Disney’s Tangled in terms of character dynamics and humor, and from Pocahontas in terms of gravity and beauty, but it’s also its own lushly realized experience, and possibly the year’s most gorgeously rendered film. It’s funny, scary, enjoyably weird (especially in an extended song-sequence involving Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement as an immense evil crab), and as heartfelt as Disney movies get.

Pros of seeing it with family: It’s a modern Disney movie. These things are calculated to the nth degree to be safe for little kids and sly enough for older viewers. It’s the ultimate all-sector holiday weekend movie.

Cons of seeing it with family: Families with ultra-conservative members should be prepared for someone to get offended over the film’s open paganism: multiple gods, demigods, people dying and coming back as animal spirits. But if they made it through Disney’s Hercules without apoplexy, they should be fine here. Another con: younger viewers may come away insisting on a) sailing lessons (in November), b) tropical vacations, c) their own pet pig or chicken.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: Why exactly did Disney need to hire Firefly’s Alan Tudyk to make stupid chicken noises? Not that he does a bad job, but stupid chicken noises seem a little below his pay grade.

The film: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

The gist: After a traumatic combat mission in Iraq in 2004, a young American soldier (Joe Alwyn) is hailed as a hero, and his squad is sent on a publicity tour that takes him back to his Texas stomping grounds. Before, during, and after participating in the halftime show at a Dallas football game, he and his squad members and sergeant (Garrett Hedlund) remember the squad member they lost on the mission (Vin Diesel) and process some of their trauma through the events going on around them. Meanwhile, a motormouthed agent (Chris Tucker) tries to negotiate a movie deal for them, and the football team’s owner (Steve Martin) takes advantage of them.

Worth seeing? Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has gotten mixed reviews, and it came to theaters with a troubled reputation because director Ang Lee shot it at an ultra-high 120 frames-per-second rate, which critics decry as looking distractingly, artificially hyper-real. (Most viewers won’t get to see this version, which is only playing in extremely limited release — the theatrical version in most cases is a conventional 24 fps version.) The film’s biggest problem is a tendency to overstate its messages, sometimes with characters looking directly into the screen to explain The Meaning Of It All to viewers. When the film focuses on Billy Lynn’s personal experience — his bonding with his teammates, his horsing around at the game, the surreal experience of going onstage with Destiny’s Child — it’s heartfelt and intimate in spite of its big-screen size. But sentimentality, preachiness, and a wearying obviousness get in the way of what should just be a close emotional portrait of his experience.

Pros of seeing it with family: For military families, or families with members thinking of joining the military, this film could open up some difficult, personal conversations.

Cons of seeing it with family: For military families, or families with members thinking of joining the military, this film could open up some difficult, personal conversations.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: What the hell is up with those crazy roadies who don’t understand they’re picking fights with trained, experienced killers?

The film: Loving

The gist: In 1958 Virginia, a quiet mixed-race couple (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) are arrested for choosing to get married, in defiance of miscegenation laws. While their court case rages over the course of years, they live a relatively peaceable and personal life, only occasionally struggling with how publicity and notoriety has affected their relationship.

Worth seeing? If anything, Loving writer-director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter) is a little too gentle in his approach. The film is sometimes almost affectless in the low-key, drama-light way it tells the story. But the performances are dynamite — Negga’s in particular — and Nichols’ willingness to dodge convention, cliché, and overdone courtroom shenanigans make this an endlessly warm and surprising film that feels like it’s about real people, instead of a manufactured legend about how laws were changed.

Pros of seeing it with family: This could be a gentle, non-controversial lead-in to a conversation about why society didn’t collapse when interracial marriage became legal, and isn’t collapsing now because gay marriage is legal, and why the incoming administration’s threat to gay relationships might hurt people on a personal and relatable level. This is about as approachable and non-controversial as controversial topics get.

Cons of seeing it with family: Of course, it could just as well start fights about how little racism has changed, and how far we have to go.

Post-film discussion points for argumentative families: There’s not much to argue here, unless you have extremely intolerant family members who get angry at the idea of interracial relationships. In which case the answer isn’t really to pick a different movie. Consider seeing movies with different family members instead.