Had your fill of “holiday” movies? Apart from the few perennial classics on TV, there’s so much dross. Current cases in point: the vulgar comedy The Night Before, slightly less awful Christmas Eve, Christmas monster invasion Krampus. Ugh.
There are much better choices, fortunately, including the most hyped movie of the century, Star Wars Episode VI: The Force Awakens, shattering records and showing everywhere. Needing no further attention from me, enjoy for what it is — fantasy and spectacle on an epic scale.
Let me highlight instead a much more intimate human drama — a very different Christmas story — already showered with awards and nominations since its Cannes festival debut, including leading the Golden Globes parade with five.
Todd Haynes’ Carol is based on Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan since it speaks of the forbidden. From a prologue glimpse into the penultimate final scene we move back to a grey wintry New York circa 1950 and the moment when wealthy socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) eyes a young impressionable department store clerk in a Santa hat, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). The impeccable alluring Carol, mother to four-year-old daughter Rindy, wants a divorce from stolid husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) who wants to keep the family together while stewing over her relationship with friend and former lover Abby (Sarah Paulson). Therese, an aspiring photographer, has a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), who wants to marry her. But she is beguiled by Carol, drawn into feelings she struggles to understand.
The chance first encounter leads to Therese visiting Carol in her country mansion when Harge barges in to remove Rindy for Christmas. Innocence is shed in stages as Carol invites Therese on a road trip west to Chicago, then to Waterloo, Iowa (my father was born near there), where passion takes over on New Year’s Eve. Discovering that Harge is having them followed and demanding sole child custody on grounds of “morality” forces a separation. Carol and Therese will have to choose.
Focused on the female gaze in a repressed society, the rendering of what grows between Carol and Therese is exquisitely realized due to outstanding performances by Blanchett and Mara (named best actress at Cannes). Ed Lachman’s superlative cinematography, shooting in Super 16mm celluloid, perfectly evokes the period in which the non-conforming must bear a price for the possibility of love.
Here are 14 other releases of note:
Legend (http://www.legendthemovie.com/): Tom Hardy caps a banner year in the dual role of the gangster Kray twins Reggie and Ronnie — the former, who makes an ill-fated marriage, unable to control the latter, a homosexual psychopath. Be warned about brutal violence as Brian Helgeland helms this real-life story of 1960s London vice and corruption leading to the brothers’ inevitable downfall.
The Big Short (http://www.thebigshortmovie.com/): Adam McKay directs an A-list ensemble cast including Canadian Ryan Gosling in a raucous adaptation of Michael Lewis’s eponymous book about the 2008 financial crash triggered in the United States by the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. This oddball tale of malfeasance and speculative frenzy manages to be both hilarious and a biting commentary on hyper-capitalism gone off the rails.
In the Heart of the Sea (http://www.intheheartoftheseamovie.com/): Ron Howard helms a watery yarn about the ill-fated Nantucket schooner Essex sunk in the early 1820s by a monster white whale, said to be the inspiration for Moby Dick. We get Herman Melville too, dragging out terrible secrets from the last of starving survivors pursued by the enraged giant while adrift in the Pacific vastness.
Every Thing Will be Fine: German master Wim Wenders’ latest, set in Quebec, follows the brooding arc of a writer (James Franco) responsible for a child’s death in a Christmastime road accident. Charlotte Gainsbourg is affecting as the bereaved mother, as is Robert Naylor as the troubled surviving brother.
The Danish Girl: Tom Hooper directs this story of the Danish transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, who in the 1930s was among the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery. As Lili, Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne effects another remarkable physical transformation, and Alicia Vikander, the year’s busiest actress, plays the supportive spouse.
Joy (http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/joy): Director/co-writer David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) reunites Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in a dysfunctional family saga revolving around the ups and downs of Joy Mangano (Lawrence) whose “Miracle Mop” became a home-shopping success in the 1990s. There’s plenty of melodrama to be mopped up.
Sisters: The irrepressible comedic duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are the sparks for much sibling silliness when, to prevent the sale of the parental home, they throw a wild and crazy house party that goes outrageously wrong.
Concussion (http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/concussion/): Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh neuropathologist and Nigerian immigrant whose diagnosis of football-related brain trauma brings him in conflict with the big-business powers of pro sports.
Macbeth: Justin Kurzel’s stunning screen version of the Shakespearean classic stars Michael Fassbender as the murderous Thane of Scotland and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth.
The Hateful Eight (http://thehatefuleight.com/): Writer-director Quentin Tarantino serves up some of his trademark bloody ultra-violence in a wintry saga of deception and betrayal set in 19th century Wyoming.
The Revenant (http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-revenant): Leonardo DiCaprio is a fur trapper mauled by a grizzly and Tom Hardy plays a malevolent figure in Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s raw visceral 1820s frontier tale of vengeance and extreme survival.
Life: Dane DeHaan plays 1950s screen idol James Dean and Robert Pattinson is the Life magazine reporter assigned to do a photo shoot of Dean in this Canadian coproduction (with the U.K., U.S. and Australia) directed by Anton Corbijn.
The Lady in the Van: The great Maggie Smith hams it up as Miss Shepherd, a cranky elderly squatter allowed to park her live-in van on the north London property of Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) who gradually discovers her extraordinary life.
Youth: From writer-director Paolo Sorrentino comes this story of two old friends, Fred and Mick, a composer and a filmmaker played by veterans Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, who while on vacation in a Swiss Alps spa reflect on their careers, their children, and what lies unfinished.