It’s the final month of the year (and decade, if the premature listicles from other sites haven’t yet informed you) and there’s no shortage of cinematic gifts. From long-awaited features from some of our favorite directors to genre-tinged delights to massive blockbusters, December is overflowing with films to see. We should note that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an essential watch, but it’s only getting a one-week awards-qualifying run in NY/LA, so we’ll wait to feature it when it opens wide this February. Check out our monthly picks below.
15. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner; Dec. 6)
After landing on our radar with the formally thrilling, adventurous Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner finally returned with Little Joe. Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, and Kerry Fox, the Cannes winner is set in the near-future where a plant is invented that begins to psychologically alter those who come in contact with it. This plays out in the story of a mother who is afraid of losing her son, while she also struggles with her own mind. While it’s not a knock-out, it’s worth seeing for some immaculate production design and Hausner’s idiosyncratic sensibility. Rory O’Connor said in our Cannes review, “Jessica Hausner’s English-language debut Little Joe promises a crossbreed of shrewd science fiction and health care satire, but it scuppers its genre creds in exchange for a sterile arthouse drama that rather muddles its conceit.”
14. The Disappearance of My Mother (Beniamino Barrese; Dec. 6)
Closing out a strong though not particularly stellar year for documentaries, for his directorial debut The Disappearance of My Mother Italian cinematographer Beniamino Barrese captures his mother, Benedetta Barzini, a once-iconic model who left the profession to become an outspoken advocate in the late 1970s. John Fink said in his Sundance review, “Opening with a device that’s compelling even if it feels out of place in a mostly observant portrait, director Barrese aims to recreate the essence of his mother with an international set of young models all with Barzini’s signature beauty mark painted on. What begins as an inquiry in the film’s early passages slowly turns into a catharsis as the models read aloud from Barzini’s own writings; a young woman speaking of fame and her desire to disappear as she attempts to fit into the mold of the thin supermodel. The pressure grows unbearable.”
13. Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder; Dec. 6)
An official selection at Berlinale, Tribeca, Fantastic, Fantasia, and more festivals this year, IFC Midnight will be releasing Jennifer Reeder’s teen neo-noir musical extravaganza Knives and Skin before 2019 ends. Following a mysterious disappearance that shakes a midwestern town to the core, in our glowing review by Jared Mobarak, he says, “It’s thus a magical thing when Reeder lets them open their wings and fly. Sometimes it’s a cutting verbal barb or a devastating blow to the head with a folding chair, but it’s always this profound cathartic release….That she so effortlessly moves from the severity of such sequences to the restrained humor of others can’t be undersold since that dynamic is crucial for the film’s intentional artificiality to resonate as wholly authentic.”
12. Bombshell (Jay Roach; Dec. 13)
Getting a jump on Adam McKay when it comes to a comedy career turned political, Meet the Parents and Austin Powers director Jay Roach is back with another timely feature after Recount and Game Change. Arriving this month is Bombshell, which follows a group of women at Fox News who aim to take down CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. Starring Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, as well as Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, and Allison Janney, early reactions have been fairly strong in advance screenings, so hopefully the buzz proves accurate.
11. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (Rob Garver; Dec. 25)
This new century has seen the field of film criticism wildly shift and one voice that’s been sadly missing is that of Pauline Kael. For her centennial, an informative, engaging new documentary has now arrived to tell more of her story and influence. John Fink said in his review, “The well-crafted What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a fascinating tribute to a maverick film critic who celebrated high and low art indiscriminately, and was also quick to point out in her reviews–even to the point of controversy–what she viewed as extreme pretensions. It’s no doubt that Kael influenced Roger Ebert’s primary rule of film criticism (“It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it”) when she panned Claude Lanzmann’s universally acclaimed nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah, in which she received blowback for her scathing but not unfair words about the picture.”
10. Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen; Dec. 6)
The startling fact that there are only 45 official ambulances amongst Mexico City’s 9 million-plus population sets the intense, harrowing stage for Midnight Family. Following one family that runs their own operation, Luke Lorentzen takes an intimate look at the dedication required for such a task with a keen eye on the economic toll. With patients not requiring to pay, even if they may have died if not for this medical help, it creates a complicated situation when asking for the bill–and that’s only if they can beat out all the other private ambulances racing towards the scene of an accident. While one wishes this portrait was a little more fleshed out, the snapshot we get certainly sends a jolt, particularly in an unforgettable scene involving familial neglect. – Jordan R.
9. Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams; Dec. 20)
After kicking off the recent trilogy with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams is now wrapping up the saga that launched in 1977. We don’t expect Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker to have the same level of narrative boldness as Rian Johnson’s predecessor, but here’s hoping Abrams sticks the landing. Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Richard E. Grant, Keri Russell, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Carrie Fisher, and Ian McDiarmid, you probably already have your tickets if you have any interest in seeing how things come to a close… for now.
8. Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu; Dec. 27)
From Escape from Alcatraz to Cool Hand Luke to The Shawshank Redemption, cinema is rich with not only prison films focused on the plight of the prisoner, but also depicting wardens in an evil light. Clemency, winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, flips the script in both ways, both turning the spotlight on a warden and painting her in an empathetic, complicated light. Led by Alfre Woodard, she gives a riveting, emotional performance as the Bernadine Williams, a woman who is stuck between the demands of her grueling job and a disintegrating marriage, and can’t give her all to both. Continue reading my full review.
7. Invisible Life (Karim Aïnouz; Dec. 20)
A fertile time for Brazilian cinema, the country’s Oscar entry this year is Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life, which premiered under the title of The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão at Cannes this year, where it won the top prize in its Un Certain Regard section. Starring Carol Duarte, Julia Stockler, and Fernanda Montenegro, the melodrama tells the story of two sisters in Rio de Janeiro in 1950. Leonardo Goi said in his review, “Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is a tale of resistance. It hones in on two inseparable sisters stranded in–and ultimately pulled apart by–an ossified patriarchal world. It is an engrossing melodrama where melancholia teems with rage, with a tear-jerking finale that feels so devastating because of the staggering mix of love and fury that precedes it. It is, far and above, an achingly beautiful story of sisterly love.”
6. In Fabric (Peter Strickland; Dec. 6)
After the one-two punch of lavish genre thrills with Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, director Peter Strickland is back with In Fabric, which finds him leaning even further into horror giallo territory. Premiering back at TIFF last year and now arriving the month, the film follows a cursed dress as it passes through various hands. Ethan Vestby said in his review, “In Fabric is a film that’s wholly retro, and not just in how writer/director (and emerging remix artist) Peter Strickland embraces ’70s Euro-horror tropes (and even judging by one commercial glimpsed on a television; a little bit of vaporwave). Rather, the director longs for a time before Amazon decimated the retail industry, one when a person’s hopes and desires hinged on a trip to that one certain shop.”
5. Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood; Dec. 13)
After others tried to get the film made for over five years, Clint Eastwood went ahead and shot his Richard Jewell film–simply titled Richard Jewell–in June and July (ahead of schedule and under budget, of course) and now it’s coming out to theaters this month. Led by I, Tonya break-out star Paul Walter Hauser, the cast also includes Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and Olivia Wilde. Based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner (author of the source material for Michael Mann’s The Insider) and scripted by Billy Ray, it follows the public torment of Richard Jewell, a security guard working at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He was initially lauded as a hero for discovering three pipe bombs on the premises, but then vilified by the media for being a potential suspect, despite a lack of evidence. Eastwood’s been on quite a streak the last few years, and we look forward to seeing him continue it here. – Jordan R.
4. 1917 (Sam Mendes; Dec. 25)
After spending nearly all of the decade dedicated to the world of Bond, Sam Mendes will close things out with a war film, his first since Jarhead. As the title suggests, 1917 will take on a different era, exploring the journey of soldiers in World War I. Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, and Andrew Scott, the Roger Deakins-shot film is an epic achievement. Brian Roan notes in his review, “War is a cataclysm that scars everything in its proximity. From the bodies and psyches of the people who must fight in it, to the towns and cities that happen to be in its wake, down to the very land itself, the churn of battle destroys everything without remorse, consideration, or mercy. No movie interested in exploring the realities of war avoids these facts, but it is possible that no film in recent memory evidences this truth better than 1917.”
3. Little Women (Greta Gerwig; Dec. 25)
Though living nearly a century-and-a-half apart, there’s a shared fierce independence between the protagonists of Greta Gerwig’s two solo directorial features, Lady Bird and Little Women. Lady Bird McPherson and Jo March, both played perfectly by Saoirse Ronan, have their sights set on a higher calling, a burning desire to make an impact far beyond their small community and rebel against the social pressures set upon them. While Gerwig shows a sincere attentiveness to the emotional rhythms of a coming-of-age story in both, these are also tales about family, specifically how those bonds stay unbroken in life’s most devastating and joyous moments. Through a revisionist lens and rather radical structural approach, Gerwig updates Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s novel with a loving embrace, expanding its ideas of authorship and womanhood for a 21st-century audience without modernizing these themes to the point of strained didacticism. Considering how it recalibrates and dissects its source text, Little Women may be better-suited for those equipped with familiarity of the story–at least on first viewing–but the culminating effect is a whole-hearted love letter to memory, family, and finding one’s own version of independence within the constraints of 19th-century society. Continue reading my full review.
2. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie; Dec. 13)
After naming Good Time the best film of 2017, expectations were sky-high for the Safdies’ follow-up Uncut Gems and it certainly has delivered the goods. Josh Lewis said in his review from TIFF, “Adam Sandler delivers one of his very best physical performances as Howard, making us genuinely feel every heated exasperation and crushing failure of his as he schemes and sweats his way all across New York City streets, cabs, and venues in garish Gucci shirts and loafers. At one point he physically flees his daughter’s school play, greeting her backstage as he literally runs away from bruisers sent by the debt collectors planning on stripping him naked and beating him—a great gag complicated by the threat violence. And beyond just the beating he’s about to receive that opening scene of violence still lingers too, leaving us with palpable tension as we’re left to watch Howard’s volatility, irresponsibility and neglect stack and all his plates begin to crash one-by-one.”
1. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick; Dec. 13)
Terrence Malick caps off an incredible decade with one of his most moving films, A Hidden Life, which follows Austria’s Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who was put to death at the age of 36 for undermining military actions. A fascinating mix of his more experimental recent work and the narratively linear films that earned him worldwide acclaim, Leonardo Goi said in his review, “Shot in gorgeous wide-angles by Jörg Widmer (previously credited as camera crew for The Tree of Life, the first rupture in the Malick-Lubezki duo in a while), Hidden Life feels like a return to more linear, traditional narratives for a director whose last four 2010s narrative works (from The Tree of Life to Song to Song) had toyed with more labyrinthine, multi-layered scaffoldings. Clocking at a whopping 173 minutes, it is Malick’s longest work to date (director’s cuts excluded), but also his structurally most accessible.”
What are you watching this month?