November 23, 2016 at 1:33 pm EST | by Brian T. Carney
Holiday film preview

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A scene from ‘Transformation,’ an MTV documentary about gender-nonconforming youth. (Photo courtesy MTV)

If the holidays are here, then so are the races for box office grosses and Academy Awards buzz.

Actually, the search for cinematic gold is already well underway with several Oscar contenders opening earlier this month in a crowded holiday season. In “Arrival,” Amy Adams offers a powerful performance as a linguist who tries to save the planet by learning how to communicate with aliens who have landed on earth. Sadly, good performances by Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon can’t save gay director Tom Ford’s leaden second feature, “Nocturnal Animals.”

While Jeff Nichol’s “Loving” lacks momentum and social context, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga offer Oscar-caliber performances as Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriages and helping to pave the way for marriage equality. In “Elle,” the unlikely but perhaps inevitable pairing of renowned French actress Isabelle Huppert and controversial Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (“Showgirls,” “Basic Instinct,” and “Robocop,” as well as the gay-themed “Spetters” and “The Fourth Man”) results in the riveting portrait of a hard-edged Parisian executive who is literally and figuratively under attack.

Director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert on the set of ‘Elle.’ (Photo courtesy SBS Distribution)

Director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert on the set of ‘Elle.’ (Photo courtesy SBS Distribution)

On a lighter note, J.K. Rowling fans are flocking to the theater to see Eddie Redmayne in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a story of magic, Muggles and monsters set in 1920s New York.

Thanksgiving week offers the D.C. release of both family fare and family dramas. For the whole family, there’s Disney’s splendid “Moana” featuring stunning animation, fantastic voice performances by Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho and lively musical numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who may be adding an Oscar to his shelf of Tony Awards. There’s also “Seasons,” a documentary that combines stunning nature footage with an earnest ecological message.

For naughty children and their parents, there’s “Bad Santa 2.” Billy Bob Thornton and Brett Kelly reprise their roles as a larcenous Santa and his chubby sidekick.

The onscreen family dramas include “Manchester By The Sea” and “Rules Don’t Apply.” “Manchester” stars Casey Affleck as a shell-shocked man who is forced to return to his hometown to care for his orphaned nephew (the excellent Lucas Hedges). Affleck and Hedges, along with Michelle Williams, who plays Affleck’s ex-wife, are already generating significant and well-deserved Oscar buzz. In “Rules,” star-crossed lovers Lily Collins (an ingénue) and Aiden Ehrenreich (a driver) are kept apart by their boss, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, played by Warren Beatty, who also wrote and directed.

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Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in ‘Manchester by the Sea.’ (Photo by Claire Folger, courtesy Optimum Releasing)

“Love Is All You Need?,” an inventive fable about bullying set in a world where homosexuality is the norm, will be available on demand on Thanksgiving Day.

Meanwhile, MTV and HBO are offering three exciting documentaries about LGBT lives. Already playing on MTV is “Transformation,” which highlights the real stories of six trans and gender non-conforming youth.

Premiering on HBO on Nov. 28, “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution” follows Castro, daughter of the Cuban president, and her LGBT supporters as they fight for equality. In “The Trans List,” premiering on HBO on Monday, Dec. 5, acclaimed director and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders shines a light on transgender Americans.

From Dec. 1-18, downtown Silver Spring becomes an epicenter of international culture when it hosts the 29th annual AFI European Union Film Showcase. The Showcase includes 47 films representing all 28 European Union member states. The opening night film is Paolo Virzì’s celebration of female friendship, “Like Crazy,” a wacky comedy about two women who escape from a psychiatric hospital. The closing night film is the U.S. Premiere of “Satisfaction 1720,” a cheeky Danish comedy about a young naval hotshot who tears across the continent in search of a bride.

The Showcase includes several works on LGBT themes or by Europe’s leading queer directors. In the deeply thoughtful and moving “Julieta,” iconoclastic Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar weaves three stories by Alice Munro into a Hitchcockian melodrama about mothers and daughters. Based on a true story, the Czech film “I, Olga Hepnarová” shows what happens when a young lesbian is pushed to the edge by a brutal repressive society and decides to “pay back her haters.” “Handsome Devil” is a sweet Irish boarding school coming-of-age story where both teachers and students learn life lessons.

By contrast, the Greek movie “Suntan” is described as a coming-of-middle-age comedy and “Chevalier” is an outlandish satire on male camaraderie and competition by director Athina Rachel Tsangari. Openly gay French auteur François Ozon is represented by “Frantz,” a World War II mystery, and visionary Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues is represented by “The Ornithologist,” a surrealistic contemporary reflection on the legends of St. Anthony of Padua.

Some of the screenings have already sold out, so be sure to book passports (access to all films) and individual tickets soon.

Another international classic returns to D.C. screens on Dec. 2: a newly restored print of the wonderful Japanese gastronomic comedy “Tampopo” (1985). Described as a “ramen Western,” the delightful movie combines the story of a young widow struggling to improve her ramen noodle shop with delicious vignettes about various culinary delights.

Also Dec. 2, Reel Affirmations will mark World AIDS Day with a screening of “Pushing Dead” starring James Roday and Danny Glover. Roday plays an HIV-positive writer struggling with his insurance. There will be a catered cocktail reception and Q&A with director Tom E. Brown after the 7 p.m. screening.

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A scene from ‘Pushing Dead.’ (Photo courtesy Reel Affirmations)

On Dec. 9, some serious Hollywood star power arrives in D.C. theaters. Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy professor rebuilding her shattered life in “Things to Come.” Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays a young man trying to find his birth family in “Lion.” Jessica Chastain plays a high-powered and unscrupulous Washington lobbyist in “Miss Sloane.” And “Jackie” stars Natalie Portman as the recently widowed First Lady dealing with the personal and political aftermath of her husband’s assassination.

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Natalie Portman in ‘Jackie’ (Photo courtesy Middleburg Film Festival)

On Dec. 10, families can travel to the North Pole at the “Polar Express Pajama Party.” Guests of all ages can head to the Angelika Film Center Mosaic in Fairfax, Va., at 10 a.m. for a special screening of the well-loved holiday movie. Hot cocoa and Christmas cookies will be available at the concession stand.

Friday, Dec. 16 brings a wide variety of openings. On the indie front, “The Brand New Testament” opens at the Landmark E Street Cinema. In this surreal Belgian comedy, God is living in contemporary Brussels. His young daughter runs away from home to write a new testament. Among her disciples are a gender-non-conforming boy.

On the prestige front, there’s “La La Land,” a musical starring Ryan Gosling as an aspiring jazz pianist and club owner and Emma Stone as an aspiring actor. The lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen”). The production numbers are amazing, but the rather clichéd love story never really takes flight. Also opening is “Collateral Beauty” starring Will Smith as a man learning to cope with tragedy.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in ‘La La Land.’ (Photo by Dale  Robinette; courtesy Lionsgate)

On the mainstream front, “Star Wars” fans will be flocking to “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Known to fans as “Episode 3.5,” the newest installment in the space opera saga fills in both the narrative space between the first and second trilogies and the two-year break between the releases of episodes 7-8. “The Space Between Us” stars Asa Butterfield as Gardner Elliot, the first human being born on Mars and tells of his first visit to Earth.

The cosmic theme continues on Dec. 21 with the release of “Passengers.” Directed by Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), the movie stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as two space travelers stranded on a malfunctioning transport ship.

The Oscar race heats up on Christmas Day with two high-profile releases. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson and directed by Denzel Washington, “Fences” stars Washington as Troy Maxson, a former star baseball player who has turbulent relationships with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo).

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three unsung heroes of American history: Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson. Working at NASA as mathematicians, these three African-American women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) helped develop John Glenn’s flight plan and launch America into the Space Age.

Both movies will bring some badly needed diversity to the Academy Awards.

Finally, AFI Silver in downtown Silver Spring is ready for the season with a clever array of holiday classics running Nov. 24-Dec. 22. On the traditional side, there’s the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol,” White Christmas,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Holiday Inn,” and Judy Garland’s indelible performance in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” as well as more contemporary classics like “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Elf” (a free screening).

On the much less traditional side, there’s “Gremlins,” “Trading Places,” “Krampus” and the new Christmas classic “Die Hard.” 

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