The holidays just got real. And no, I'm not talking about Santa Claus.
In a season when cinemas are typically larded with escapist goodies like “Aquaman,” “Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” this year is notable for the way the culture wars have invaded the silver screen.
And yes, I know that lately it seems every movie is political, especially at this time on the calendar, when Hollywood’s weightiest, most issue-oriented dramas vie for Oscar’s attention. It’s just that these days, the topicality feels — for better or for worse — more urgent than ever.
So why celebrate the serious season over the silly? Because these 12 movies grapple with race, war, power, politics, gender and sexuality not with empty rhetoric, but in deeply emotional and even entertaining ways.
(Opening dates and ratings are subject to change.)
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Troye Sivan.
By one estimate, nearly 700,000 Americans have been subjected to what’s known as conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change one’s sexual orientation and — without evidence of efficacy — is still legal in 41 states. Based on the 2016 memoir of Garrard Conley, whose parents sent him to such a program as a teenager, the film “Boy Erased” tells the story of Jared, a stand-in for Conley played by Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea.” Crowe embodies the boy’s Baptist minister father with trademark bluster, but Kidman earns cheers as Jared’s ultimately heroic mother. Actor Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this follow-up to his assured debut, the thriller “The Gift,” while also playing the “ex-gay” director of the Love in Action ministry. (Nov. 9, R)
“A Private War”
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci.
The late war correspondent Marie Colvin was a rare breed: a woman covering war zones for the Sunday Times of London, alongside mostly male colleagues. In this film by Matthew Heineman — a filmmaker making the switch from documentary (“City of Ghosts”) to scripted drama — Pike sports Colvin’s signature eye patch, a badge of courage the reporter earned in 2001 after she was injured covering the Tamil Tiger rebel group in Sri Lanka. As much as the movie focuses on the atrocities of war in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, “A Private War” is also about the psychological and emotional toll of Colvin’s job and, arguably, her addiction to its dangers. (Nov. 9, R)
“The Front Runner”
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Sara Paxton, Alfred Molina.
Set in the spring of 1987, over the course of the three short weeks in which the presidential campaign of Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., imploded over allegations of infidelity, this wonky yet gripping political drama has many parallels to the present day. In some ways, it’s almost quaint to see Jackman as the idealistic politician who still holds an expectation of privacy and to watch reporters hesitate about whether it’s ethical to pry into the personal lives of public figures. Yes, those were simpler times. This story, set at the dawn of a new media age — one in which everything and everyone is fair game — presages the 24-hour news cycle and our voracious, Twitter-fueled appetite for fresh dirt. (Nov. 16, R)
Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson.
Call it a grittier “Oceans Eight.” When three crooks are killed in a robbery, their desperate widows (Davis, Debicki and Rodriguez) are left in debt — and without a social safety net. They decide to carry out a heist. Directed by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), who wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”), “Widows” doesn’t settle for the superficial tropes of most heist flicks, instead grounding what might otherwise have been a lightweight crime caper in themes of class, race, sex and politics. (Nov. 16, R)
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Jude Law, Johnny Depp.
Details about this Harry Potter prequel, which takes place a year after the action of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” have been trickling out slowly, generating much excitement among the franchise’s eager fans. Nagini the snake (Claudia Kim) used to be a woman? Dumbledore (Law) as a young man was — there’s no other word for it — hawt? But in the buildup to this 10th installment of the cinematic saga, there has also been controversy. That has to do with the casting of Johnny Depp, who was accused of abuse by his ex-wife, Amber Heard, as the film’s titular villain. (In the new film, Redmayne’s Newt Scamander switches from the pursuit of critters to doing battle with Depp’s Voldemort-like wizard.) If nothing else, the blurring of real life and fiction may complicate a film that already promises to be darker than the “Fantastic Beasts” of 2016. J.K. Rowling’s Potter universe has always been about power and its abuses, but this new chapter, although set in the 1920s, seems likely to resonate even more strongly in today’s world. (Nov. 16, PG-13)
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini.
Two 2017 Oscar nominees — Mortensen for “Captain Fantastic” and Ali, who won for “Moonlight” — team up in this two-hander, which tells the true story of the unlikely friendship between the black classical pianist — and Catholic University graduate — Don Shirley (Ali) and his Italian-American chauffeur, Tony Lip (Mortensen). Taking place on Shirley’s concert tour during the racially charged 1960s, the film, which won the People’s Choice Award at the recent Toronto Film Festival, takes its name from a guidebook published to aid African-American travelers navigating the Jim Crow South. As racial tensions rise in the Trump era, a period film like this - one that’s about finding common ground — feels, ironically, like a form of escapism. (Nov. 21, PG-13)
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Starring: Stephan James, KiKi Layne, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock.
Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of "Moonlight," turns his hand to an adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel about a young man in New York City who is falsely accused of rape. James, last seen as Olympic runner Jesse Owens in "Race," plays the imprisoned Fonny, with newcomer Layne as his pregnant fiancee, Tish, who struggles to prove him innocent. Although also a love story, the film's echoes of today's systemic racism are all too unmistakable. (Dec. TBD, R)
“Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes”
Starring: Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, Alisyn Camerota.
The rise and fall of Roger Ailes, the late CEO of Fox News who was brought down by a sex scandal, is the stuff of high drama. In fact, a film based on that true story is now in the works, starring John Lithgow as Ailes and Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman as on-air personalities Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, who brought allegations of harassment against him. While we wait for that one to get made, here's a new documentary to tide us over: Produced by Alex Gibney and directed by Alexis Bloom, "Divide and Conquer" follows the career of the Machiavellian media consultant and political kingmaker with unsettling urgency, making for a great #MeToo primer. (Dec. 7, not yet rated)
“Mary Queen of Scots”
Starring: Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, David Tennant.
Rivals in the race for the best-actress Oscar only a few short months ago, Robbie (“I, Tonya”) and Ronan (“Lady Bird”) take on the roles of rival monarchs — and first cousins once removed — Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England, who saw Mary as a threat, putting her under house arrest (and ultimately beheading her). These are storied roles, which have been filled by the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Can it be anything but fun to watch two members of Hollywood royalty tear into this meaty drama of political maneuvering? (Dec. 14, not yet rated)
“Welcome to Marwen”
Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever, Diane Kruger.
Based on the acclaimed documentary "Marwencol," director Robert Zemeckis' film stars Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp, an artist who created a miniature world filled with dolls as World War II characters in an effort to recover psychologically from the trauma of having been beaten by a group of men outside a bar in 2000. (Carell and other members of the cast do double duty as both human characters and their animated alter egos). This is a film that could turn traditional notions of gender and gender expression on their heads: It not only features several strong female characters, but there is also a hidden subtext, glossed over in the film's trailers but prominent in the 2010 documentary, of a gender-based hate crime. (Dec. 21, PG-13)
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell.
Christian Bale shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows and put on 40 pounds to play Dick Cheney in the film by Adam McKay (“The Big Short”), which purports to tell the “true” story — with McKay’s patented blend of deadpan humor and dead-serious drama — of the former vice president’s role as the power behind the throne of the George W. Bush administration. Rockwell plays a good ol' boyish Bush, with Carell impersonating Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield and Adams playing the former veep’s wife, Lynne. (Dec. 25, R)
“On the Basis of Sex”
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux.
On the heels of this year’s acclaimed “RBG” — a surprise, if modest, hit by documentary standards — “On the Basis of Sex” dramatizes the inspirational true story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jones), who, as an ACLU lawyer, argued more than 300 cases on gender discrimination, including six before the Supreme Court. The film marks the return of director Mimi Leder to the big screen after the filmmaker’s 2000 flop “Pay It Forward” derailed what seemed to be a promising career as that rarest of creatures: the female director of blockbusters (“The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact”). Let’s hope this film, like some of Ginsburg’s best work, corrects that wrong. (Dec. 25, PG-13)