Ah, December: when the year’s final crop of “prestige” movies with awards season dreams makes its theatrical debut alongside movies vying for top position at the holiday box office. Year-end lists start appearing. Critics’ groups reveal their award winners. And the Golden Globe nominees are announced as well.
So it’s a busy movie month, and luckily, most audiences can find a film worth seeing at the theater, since the year’s best films are usually still playing, hoping to attract attention from as many awards voters as possible. (For a movie to qualify for the Oscars, as well as for many critics and guild awards, it must premiere in New York and Los Angeles at least one week before the end of the calendar year.)
December 2018 is no exception. Historical biopics, animated films, and family-focused blockbusters are all on the docket, all of which are competing for eyeballs at the end of the year. And many of them make for fine holiday viewing, too.
Here are nine films premiering this month that you can expect to hear more about as 2018 draws to a close.
Mary Queen of Scots (December 7)
Written by House of Cards’s Beau Willimon, Mary Queen of Scots is both a sumptuous costume drama and a tale of political intrigue with two women at its center: Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), the young queen of Scotland, and her cousin Elizabeth Tudor (Margot Robbie), the queen of England.
The film paints Mary as a sparkling — if a tad naive — young woman who must find her way in a world of men (relatives, lovers, angry and misogynist church reformers) determined to steal and manipulate her power. The slightly older Elizabeth is a more tragic figure, but one who has resigned herself to giving up some of her femininity in order to retain her power.
The film’s account of history is begging to be picked apart by those who study the era. Its goal isn’t to inform so much as use a historical lens to suggest that centuries may have passed since Mary and Elizabeth were in power, but the threats that powerful women have to fight off haven’t changed all that much. Mary Queen of Scots will certainly be in awards season contention for categories like makeup and costuming, but it will likely also be looking to nab nominations for its lead performances and its screenplay.
Ben Is Back (December 7)
Lucas Hedges has had a busy year, with roles in buzzy movies like Boy Erased and mid90s. But he’s also the lead in Ben Is Back, directed by his father Peter Hedges. He plays Ben, a young man struggling to recover from a fierce drug addiction, who quietly slips out of his rehab facility to visit his family, and especially his mother Holly (Julia Roberts), on the day before Christmas.
Ben Is Back mostly follows the mother and son pair through that day as they find themselves drawn unwillingly into a series of events that give Holly a glimpse into the life her son was leading while stuck in the throes of his addiction. Ben Is Back feels more Hollywood than this year’s other parent-child film about a young addict, Beautiful Boy, but because of that it’s more emotionally satisfying — and Roberts and Hedges will almost certainly be campaigning for awards berths.
If Beale Street Could Talk (December 14)
For his follow-up to Moonlight, which won Best Picture in 2017, director Barry Jenkins chose to adapt James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Set in Harlem, the story centers on a young black couple (played by Stephan James and newcomer Kiki Layne) who grew up together and fell in love. But then conflict takes over — not originating from inside their relationship, but pressing in from the outside world.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful, expressive film, at times feeling like a tone poem or lyrical plaint, with a stacked cast that also features Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, and Brian Tyree Henry. It’s set in the 1970s, but thanks to the way it confronts how sexual assault allegations, policing, and racism can interlock for communities of color, it feels incredibly contemporary, too. It’s hard not to fall under its beautiful, somber, lustrous spell, and as a story about black American life framed as a love story, its images are indelible.
Given its strong showing at fall film festivals and its combination of visual beauty and contemporary importance, If Beale Street Could Talk is being positioned as an awards contender in categories ranging from acting and cinematography to adapted screenplay, director, and Best Picture.
Roma (December 14 on Netflix)
Roma was one of this year’s most anticipated films, and it’s been the subject of rapturous reviews since its fall festival debut. The lushly shot, monochromatic domestic drama from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men) — who also served as his own cinematographer on the film — tells the story of a family in Mexico City and a girl who works for them.
Focusing on the struggles and strength of the family’s women, Roma is funny, sad, and carefully told — a challenge to the viewer to simply sit and pay attention to people who find themselves overlooked in their own homes. And newcomer Yalitza Aparicio turns in a quiet and moving performance as Cleo, the domestic worker at the film’s center.
The film is being positioned by Netflix for a run at awards in a number of categories, including cinematography, directing, and writing — and given its sensitive, gorgeous rendering that’s earned comparisons to the work of world cinema masters like Fellini and Bresson, it’s likely to be a strong contender. Roma opened in limited theaters in mid-November, but it will get its widest theatrical release in December, alongside its Netflix debut.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (December 14)
The animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has brought in early plaudits for how it both embodies the spirit of Spider-Man while putting a fresh spin on the character. It centers on Miles Morales, the biracial Spider-Man who exists in a parallel universe to our own, and who is the subject of a rich storyline in the comics but hasn’t shown up in the live-action Marvel movie universe.
So Into the Spider-Verse is Morales’s big-screen debut, and it’s a welcome one. Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos writes in his review of the film that it “unearths exhilarating new ground — by way of spectacular deviations from the norm that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and live-action filmmaking don’t always allow for” and that it feels “tremendously innovative, while still traditionally Spidey.” With a screenplay by The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and his 22 Jump Street co-writer Rodney Rothman, Into the Spider-Verse is funny, fresh, and clever, and will be a strong contender in the Oscars’ animation categories.
Mary Poppins Returns (December 19)
Mary Poppins is one of cinema’s most timeless heroines — a no-nonsense nanny who brings her young charges on whimsical adventures while subtly helping them learn to navigate life’s difficulties.
In Mary Poppins Returns, she’s back, played by Emily Blunt and returning to London to once again look after Jane and Michael Banks, who are now all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three young children of his own, and he’s in danger of losing his house; Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a labor organizer. And then there is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the lamplighter whom Jane and Michael remember from when they were all children.
Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel to the 1964 Disney musical film starring Julie Andrews, and it’s mostly devoted to pleasing fans of that film, following its contours almost beat for beat. Its songs (co-written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) aren’t as memorable as those of the original — there’s no “Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” among their number.
But Disney will likely be seeking a few awards nominations for them regardless, alongside some easy nods at the Golden Globes (which, unlike the Oscars, split their categories between comedy/musical and drama) for both Blunt and the film as a whole.
Cold War (December 21)
Cold War — a decade- and continent-spanning, pristinely shot romantic tragedy from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski — was my favorite film at Cannes (where it premiered earlier this year), and it easily won hearts during the fall festival season as well.
Set in Europe in the early decades of the actual Cold War, the film balances its captivating main characters and their fiery love with the grand sweep of the places and times they find themselves in. It shows how those two things intertwine, with country and ideology pushing and prodding the characters into shapes that ultimately determine their fate.
You couldn’t call Cold War a political film, exactly, but if the central couple’s stars are crossed, then politics had a hand in crossing them, and in the end, the tragedy of realizing that is almost too much to bear. The film will be in contention for many awards, ranging from Best Foreign Feature for Poland to nods for director Pawlikowski and star Joanna Kulig.
Vice (December 25)
For a long time, Vice was known as “Adam McKay’s untitled movie about Dick Cheney,” but it’s really more devoted to reminding Trump-era audiences that the George W. Bush years were pretty bad, too. Christian Bale plays Cheney, often utterly disappearing into the role, leading a cast that boasts a bevy of other big actors, most notably Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney.
The film was divisive among critics following its early screenings, but there’s no denying that it elicits strong sentiments, both about the events it depicts (wars and political scheming among them) and the filmmaking itself. Vice recalls Oliver Stone’s Nixon in some ways, since it’s sort of a biopic about the former vice president. But it’s ultimately best taken as a vehicle for Bale and for Adams, both of whose performances will be looking for recognition.
On the Basis of Sex (December 25)
Over the summer, the documentary RBG was a hit at the box office, explaining the life and enduring pop culture appeal of Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who turned 85 this year. On the Basis of Sex is a biopic focusing on Ginsburg’s early years as a law student, then law professor and activist on behalf of gender equality. The film centers on Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) and her relationship with her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), who’s also a lawyer; it’s unusually supportive, loving, and egalitarian, both for its time and for a movie.
Directed by Mimi Leder (The Leftovers), the film feels as if it could have been made in an earlier Hollywood era, with its straightforward storytelling and its traditional courtroom movie framing. But it does a workmanlike job of explaining the challenges Ginsburg faced on her way to becoming a well-known litigator and eventually a judge. And it will likely show up in some awards conversations this month for its screenplay and Jones and Hammer’s performances.