14 movies worth seeing this holiday season - and none about Santa Claus

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There are holiday movies, and then there are holiday movies.

The second category includes exclusively seasonal fare: “A Bad Moms Christmas” (now in theaters); the Nativity-themed animation “The Star” (Nov. 17); and “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (Nov. 22), a story about Charles Dickens and the writing of “A Christmas Carol.” But those films have, by definition, a short shelf life, with sell-by dates of Jan. 2.

“Holiday,” in the first and loosest sense of the word, suggests a break from routine. Although looking forward to a great new movie brings a sense of anticipation akin to an unopened present, it’s a gift that, if chosen carefully, will keep on giving regardless of the season. With that in mind, here are 14 upcoming films to put on your wish list. Some of them we’ve already taken a peek at, and others we can’t wait to unwrap.

Opening dates are subject to change.

- “Justice League”

Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Henry Cavill, Ciarán Hinds

Despite “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” ending in the apparent death of Clark Kent - let’s not forget that dirt levitating off his coffin, suggesting a resurrection of some kind - it’s virtually certain that the Man of Steel (Cavill) will show up in the new sequel, and we don’t just mean in that dream sequence from the trailer. With luck, Gadot’s Wonder Woman will bring a little of the mojo that made her recent movie a megahit. Returning director Zach Snyder and his collaborators have indicated that the new adventure - which features Hinds as the main villain, Steppenwolf - will be a lot more fun than “BvS,” as Batman, played by Affleck, teams up with Wonder Woman to recruit the Flash (Miller), Aquaman (Momoa) and Cyborg (Fisher) as allies. (Nov. 17, PG-13)

- “Mudbound”

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan

Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel - winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction - this 1940s-set drama by filmmaker Dee Rees (“Pariah”) retains the book’s technique of rotating narration between six characters: three members of a poor white farming family in rural Mississippi (Mulligan, Clarke and Hedlund) and three members of a family of black sharecroppers (Mitchell, Blige and Morgan). Set before, during and after one man from each family (Hedlund and Mitchell) is shipped off to fight in World War II, the epic tale - which will also be available on Netflix - explores the theme of racism, with heartbreaking potency. (Nov. 17, R)

- “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

McDormand delivers a tour de force as the mother of a murdered teenage girl who channels her grief and guilt into anger directed at the small-town police chief (Harrelson) who has yet to make an arrest in her daughter’s case. By turns serious and darkly funny, filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s drama - which also features a complex performance by Rockwell in the role of a violent, racist cop - feels significantly more substantial than the English director’s previous work, which includes “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” (Nov. 17, R)

- “Coco”

Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal

The voice-over in the trailer for “Coco,” an animated adventure set in the Land of the Dead of Mexican folklore, intones: “No living person has ever visited their world - until now.” Um. Maybe the folks at Disney/Pixar forgot a little animated feature from 2014 called “The Book of Life,” which features a Mexican hero traveling to - you guessed it - the Land of the Dead. Setting accusations of plagiarism aside for the moment, Pixar’s new film is about a little boy (Gonzalez) who accidentally gets stuck in the underworld. “Coco,” which was visually inspired by the art of Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, won’t be the last word on the Day of the Dead theme. A sequel to “The Book of Life” is already in the planning stages. (Nov. 22, PG)

- “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo

Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s legal drama about the existential crisis that results when a pro-bono crusader for the disenfranchised goes to work for a fancy firm, making a morally compromising decision in the process, may share some themes with Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler.” Like that 2014 examination of journalistic ethics - a bravura performance by an emaciated Jake Gyllenhaal - the new film features Washington transformed for the title role of a disheveled legal savant, with a shaggy Afro, aviator-frame glasses and mismatched suits. (Nov. 22, PG-13)

- “The Disaster Artist”

Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Zoey Deutch, Alison Brie

Is it possible to make a good movie about a bad one? A very, very, bad (yet hysterically funny) one? Based on the 2013 book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell about Sestero’s experience as an actor in “The Room” - a film that has been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies” - “The Disaster Artist” stars James Franco as the cult film’s enigmatically accented writer, director, star and producer, Tommy Wiseau. You’ll probably want to bone up on the source material - meaning Wiseau’s film, if not the book - first. It’s frequent midnight-movie fodder. (Dec. 1, R)

- “Darkest Hour”

Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas

Call it the flip side of “Dunkirk.” Opening in early May 1940 - just before Winston Churchill was named prime minister of Britain - this period drama tracks, in minute detail, the backroom strategizing that took place as Parliament and Churchill’s war cabinet struggled to find a way to rescue British soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk. In its essence, “Darkest Hour” - which boasts an award-worthy performance by Oldman as Churchill - is about the buildup to a single speech: Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” address to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, which galvanized the nation for the coming Battle of Britain. (Dec. 8, PG-13)

- “The Shape of Water”

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg

The latest adult fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) centers on the unlikely bond that develops between a mute cleaning woman (Hawkins) and an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who is being kept in a secret government lab. Set in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, and referencing midcentury monster movies and musicals, del Toro’s swooningly romantic film is less thriller than love letter to old Hollywood. (Dec. 8, R)

- “Call Me By Your Name”

Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet

Based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman, “Call Me by Your Name” centers on a summer romance in scenic Italy between a 20-something academic (Hammer) and the 17-year-old son of his mentor. (Chalamet, who has drawn praise for his performance as the precocious boy, also makes an impression in the new film “Lady Bird”). The buzzy film, which has proved to be a popular favorite at recent festivals, has won praise for its sensitive portrayal of forbidden love, while also reportedly drawing comparisons to a “Moonlight” for rich, white people. (Dec. 15, R)

- “Ferdinand”

Cast: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale, Gina Rodriguez

Wrestler-turned-actor Cena voices the title character: a pacifist bull who refuses to face the toreador in this animated adaptation of Munro Leaf’s classic children’s book. The style of animation - from Blue Sky Studios - deviates, as it must, from Robert Lawson’s charming black-and-white illustrations in the original 1936 book, but the story comes courtesy of a reliable, if not familiar, name: Carlos Saldanha, who directed or co-directed five films in the studio’s popular “Ice Age” and Rio” franchises. (Dec. 15, PG)

- “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher

The demand for early tickets to Disney’s latest installment in the “Star Wars” franchise - which centers on Rey (Ridley) as she learns to control the Force under the tutelage of Luke Skywalker (Hamill) - was so great that Fandango and other sites experienced digital traffic jams last month. Now comes news, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, that the studio is so confident in its new product that it plans to take an unprecedented 65 percent cut of revenue from theaters (compared with the more typical 55 to 60 percent). Theater owners will also be contractually obligated to screen the film for four weeks on the largest screen. Sounds like the Empire is feeling pretty good about its new Death Star. (Dec. 15, not yet rated)

- “Downsizing”

Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis

Social satirist Alexander Payne has turned his magnifying glass on the Midwest (“Nebraska”), Hawaii (“The Descendants”) and California wine country (“Sideways”). In “Downsizing,” he tackles the whole planet. Written with longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, this futuristic fantasy imagines a world in which people can opt to miniaturize themselves to the size of dolls as a solution to the Earth’s overpopulation crisis. As Damon’s character finds out when he agrees to undergo the procedure, when one man shrinks, his problems grow, along with the size - metaphorically - of his heart . (Dec. 22, not yet rated)

- “The Post”

Cast: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Alison Brie

Call it “Star Wars” for wonks. In Steven Spielberg’s latest slab of Oscar bait, Hanks plays the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, with Streep as the paper’s late owner, Katharine Graham. The fact-based drama is about the newspaper’s 1971 decision to publish classified documents - known as the Pentagon Papers - that showed that the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson had lied to Congress and the American people. Calling all Washington policy and media types: Your popcorn-movie awaits. (Dec. 22, not yet rated)

- “Molly’s Game”

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner

Writer Aaron Sorkin (“Steve Jobs,” “The West Wing”) makes his directorial debut in a film based on Molly Bloom’s 2014 memoir of her time running an underground poker club catering to such Hollywood elites as Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. Chastain, in a title role that continues the multiple-Oscar nominee’s habit of playing steely, successful women who have virtually no personal lives, “roars through the performance,” as the Hollywood Reporter put it, “with a force and take-no-prisoners attitude that keeps one rapt.” (Dec. 25, not yet rated)

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