Hollywood Left Something Under the Tree

A list of films that may be worth checking out during the holidays.


Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in "La La Land."

How can you tell an optimist? Anyone who looks forward to the deluge of heavily hyped holiday films. Alas, finding gems in the dross of formulaic feel-good flicks and smug Oscar wannabes gets tougher ever year.

Test the waters and your goodwill toward men and women, with Damien Chazelle’s ambitious musical romance La La Land, starring the gorgeous Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. A more cynical view of America propels The Founder, which depicts the dubious strategies supersalesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) employed to build the McDonald’s monster. Got kids? If they aren’t fed up with animated movies populated entirely by talking animals, take ’em to Sing. (And expect the soundtrack to wind up in heavy rotation in your car.)

Various movies aspire to engage audiences on the spiritual plane, notably Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel,  Silence, about Jesuit priests  (Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson) brutally confronted with religious persecution in 17th-century Japan. Manhattan ad exec Will Smith faces his own dark night of the soul in Collateral Beauty, a less-gritty and more conventionally uplifting saga of grief, friendship, and resurrection. A fairy tale for children and adults, the PG-13 A Monster Calls presents a troubled, tormented adolescent with a fantastical world that offers both escape and a personal challenge.

Santa Barbara in the late 1970s serves the same function for the teenage protagonist of Mike Mills’ heartfelt, semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women, a lucky lad who benefits from the love and guidance of Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. Rounding out the holiday slate of period pieces, Denzel Washington transposes playwright August Wilson’s 1950s-set Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama, Fences, and stars opposite Viola Davis. Optimism and reality also collide in Hidden Figures, featuring the great black actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as the unsung mathematicians who played crucial roles in the U.S. space program in the 1960s. They say slide rules make great stocking stuffers.


This report was published in the December edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Dec. 15, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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