When I wrote our Thanksgiving movie guide last month I pointed out that the competition for moviegoers was more intense than ever over that holiday, with no less than three new releases aimed toward kids and a ton of specialty releases opening for the grown-ups. And while the Christmas release weekend doesn't have quite the same pile-up for children, there's an absurd amount of huge, new, mostly excellent films out there, meaning you could wind up fighting with even your most like-minded relatives when deciding what to see over the holiday.
We won't be there to have your back in person, but we can at least help in advance with our Christmas Movie Guide below, breaking down all the big new releases and which of your extended family and friends you should see it with. You are, of course, welcome to give up entirely and watch the Christmas Story marathon on TV all weekend, but there's so much good stuff out there that we think it's worth duking it out. Find out how to talk your Europe-hating relatives into seeing The Adventures of Tintin, what age kids you can bring to War Horse, and much more below. We've also reviewed many of these movies, so you can visit our review section to learn more about most of them.
When you loved Almost Famous 10 years ago but now have kids to tote along to the movies: We Bought A Zoo.
Cameron Crowe is back! And by all accounts, though his new movie is sappy and nowhere near his creative heights, it's not the disaster that Elizabethtown was in 2005, and for that we can all be thankful. The positive-ish reviews seem to promise Crowe's usual deft touch with emotions and subtle humor, while also offering up cute zoo animals and the sight of Scarlett Johansson in a zookeeper's uniform. If there were in fact some mythical "family checklist" for a movie to satisfy everyone, We Bought A Zoo would certainly check every box. Best for: Families unwilling to kowtow too much to the kids by seeing Alvin and the Chipmunks; bonus points if one of those kids is getting an actual animal for Christmas.
When someone in the family is European and convincing, or you all really love Indiana Jones: The Adventures of Tintin.
The first of Steven Spielberg's two new movies this weekend is a tougher sell for American audiences, we know-- it's based on a Belgian comic strip character who's basically unknown here, and the motion-capture animation can still give some people the willies. Anyone who knows anything about the comic strip will probably help you fight to see this- and the stellar reviews don't hurt either-- but Indiana Jones is your real trump card here. Tintin is the closest Spielberg has come in decades to the cut-loose magic of the Indy series-- yes, thank God, it's better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-- and anybody who needs a good global adventure, or is impatiently waiting for the next Bond movie, ought to enjoy this one in a pinch. Best for: Anybody who's considered buying themselves a fedora and a whip and running away from a boulder; families with kids who can handle adventure or with open-minded relatives who are up for something new.
When you're a fan of the book and ready to be in a really dark place for two hours: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
It's one of the few movie theaters you'll can guarantee won't have any kids in it, so that's something. But unless you and your entire family have read the Stieg Larsson series (or are big fans of Se7en), it might be tough to get a big group of people to sit through a two and a half hour movie that involves plenty of rape, torture, and moderately dull scenes of online research. Then again, once the presents have been unwrapped and you can't look at tinsel for another minute, a trip to the bleak Swedish wilderness might be the exact palate cleanser you need. Best for: Grown-ups with strong stomachs, loners alone over the holidays by choice who can identify with Lisbeth Salander..
When you want a big, rousing action movie that's almost completely perfect: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.
You have to be a bit of a thrill-seeker to see this movie, which includes scenes shot on top of the tallest building in the world that might be as vertigo-inducing as visiting the actual thing, but the latest Mission: Impossible movie is less difficult to follow than the previous installments but equally as fun. Even if you're sick of Tom Cruise you can enjoy seeing Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg get in on the action, and the movie moves so quickly that there's no time to get bored between one dazzling action scene after another.Tintin is the action movie to beat this weekend, but Mission: Impossible is just a hair behind it-- and in easier-to-swallow live action no less. . Best for: Everybody willing to follow a slightly twisty plot and feel their stomachs drop when Tom Cruise scales the outside of an enormous building. But really, everyone.
When you can handle something grim but also old-fashioned and unabashedly emotional: War Horse.
The other big Steven Spielberg release of the holiday (not opening until Christmas Day) is, weirdly, also set in Europe, but it feels perfectly American, a big sweeping epic about the value of family and honor and sticking by your friends, even when your friend is a horse who's sent off into battle in World War I, a conflict in which more than 4 million horses were killed. Spielberg's made the movie intentionally for families, but it's a war movie that doesn't shy away from death, even the deaths of characters you really like or who are far too young to be in the war to begin with; younger kids skittish about the gunfire of Tintin would likely be traumatized by War Horse. But anybody who's ready to be strong in the face of the horrors of war, but also get a good weepy story out of it too, should come out on the other side just fine. Best for: Families with older kids and history buffs; Spielberg fans who have watched all his World War II movies and are ready for his treatment of the next global conflict.
When you feel like taking a risk on the blockbuster nobody is likely to have even heard of: The Darkest Hour.
This sci-film film from Summit Entertaiment is opening on 2,200 screens on Christmas Day, but there's been minimal advertising and zero critic's screenings, all telltale signs of a studio trying to shove off a movie they've decided is a lemon. But hey, who knows-- maybe they're trying to wait out the Christmas rush and will push hard on this after Christmas. But if you see it opening day, be prepared for a spookily empty theater-- though maybe exactly right for an alien invasion movie. Best for: Sci-fi nerds who are completists about alien invasion movie; people looking to make out in an empty theater.
When you're a huge Glenn Close fan and prefer her work at the exclusion of anything interesting: Albert Nobbs.
This period film about a woman passing as a man in 19th-century Ireland is a big Oscar push for both Close and her co-star Janet McTeer, so if you're a stickler about seeing all the nominees by the time Oscar night rolls around, you could definitely catch up with this over the holiday. But there are literally half a dozen better options out there, all of them more entertaining and, in the case of something like The Artist, more likely to matter at the Oscars anyway. You're free to make your choice, but just imagine me shaking my head sadly in the row behind you. Best for: Insomniacs in need of a nap; Oscar fanatics who need to cross this one off their list.
When everyone is in the mood for a good cry and feels like reminiscing about 9/11 afterwards: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
Opening on Christmas, It's the last big Oscar contender to make it to theaters, and featuring huge names like Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, plus the best-selling novel it's based on by Jonathan Franzen, it's got enough name-recognition to maybe cajole relatives who want to see something "serious" but also something they've heard of. But be warned-- the movie can be emotionally wrenching if you let it affect you, and anybody with particularly distinct memories of 9/11 might not want this wrapped up in their holiday experience. It's relatively kid-friendly, especially with its young protagonist, but also really heavy for average family moviegoing Best for: Fans of the book, fans of novel adaptations, anyone ready for tough conversations in the parking lot.
When World War I and 9/11 aren't depressing enough for you, and you have to go straight for the war crimes: In The Land of Blood and Honey.
Angelina Jolie's directorial debut carries with a little celebrity cachet, but pretty much nothing you read about her in the tabloids can you prepare you for the film, which takes an unflinching look as the Bosnian War in the mid-90s from the perspective of a man and a woman who dated each other before the conflict but find themselves on opposite sides of the battle. The movie is effective and often very moving, but an incredibly tough watch, and not enjoyable by any real meaning of the word. Even good reviews should make sure you think long and hard before putting yourself through this-- it will be rewarding, but probably also ruin your day. Best for: Anyone interested in the history of the Bosnian War, or willing to go to a very, very dark place for a few hours.