By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 09, 2016 at 6:26 PM

It’s that special time of year. Indeed, it’s the holiday season, which means ‘tis the season to gather the family together … and then pile them into movie theater seats and remain in silence while watching a big glowing screen for two hours. And luckily, Hollywood makes this process easy by dropping a whole bag of presents down the local cinema’s chimney for us to unwrap and enjoy.

Well, hopefully enjoy. Not everything studios put under the tree come Christmas time is a treat; sometimes, it’s socks, a pink bunny suit, coal – or worse yet, another "Alvin and the Chipmunks" sequel. So, to help tell which new movies are brand new iPhones and which ones are re-gifted fruitcakes, we’ve put together this Christmas preview of the naughty and the nice heading to theaters this holiday season.

Happy holidays and enjoy the movies – and the end of the year – with those you love … and a big overpriced bucket of popcorn for everyone to share.

"Office Christmas Party" (Dec. 9)

I’ve been pretty lucky to have pretty cool co-workers in my life (and I’m not just saying that … except for you, Darren; for you, I am just saying that), so the idea of an office Christmas party is more nice than naughty. But for others, I know it can be a mixed bag. Yes, sometimes you’re stuck at the holiday punch bowl listening to a colleague very graphically discuss his recent bout of appendicitis, get an audio book of "Fifty Shades Darker" from your 75-year-old Secret Santa and laugh too hard at the boss’ jokes in the hopes of not getting fired for Christmas. On the other hand, though, you get to wear that ugly Christmas sweater, maybe you end up with a vat of Rumchata at the booze exchange, and hey, you’re at work but doing the opposite of working!

The comedy "Office Christmas Party" sweetens the formula by adding in some of our funniest performers of names big (Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, "Ghostbusters" scene-stealer Kate McKinnon) and small (Jillian Bell, Karan Soni, Sam Richardson), plus beyond-crazy and very non-HR-approved antics. Despite all that, though, it’s pretty thin on big laughs, and the party shenanigans are rowdy but fairly rote, making this holiday shindig more appendicitis chats than Rumchata swigs.

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"Manchester By the Sea" (Dec. 9)

Ever since it premiered last January at Sundance, Kenneth Lonergan’s tale of guys in grief has been one of the top titles for Oscar consideration. And even almost a year and several additional hats thrown into the ring later, "Manchester By the Sea" still ranks as a frontrunner in multiple categories, especially Best Actor for star Casey Affleck’s heartbreaking turn.

One fair warning, though: While critics and audiences are in love with the movie so far, they also note that it’s pretty much the most painfully, gut-wrenchingly sad thing since you had to say goodbye to your first pet. So maybe not Christmas Day "let’s take the whole family to a movie!" material.

Verdict: NICE

"Nocturnal Animals" (Dec. 9)

Fashion designer Tom Ford is no stranger to catching people’s eye, but even he outdid himself with his mesmerizing 2009 directorial debut, "A Single Man." We’ve had to wait seven years for a follow-up, but Ford’s finally delivered with "Nocturnal Animals," which looks terrific. But of course it looks terrific; a movie from a fashion icon better look good.

What made "A Single Man" so great was its beautiful, intimate and emotional story mixed with smartly dressed and accented visuals. Hopefully he pulls the same combination of beauty and brains with this one – though this story of love, revenge and reading (it makes more sense in action) leans more lurid than lovely like its predecessor.

Verdict: NICE

"Miss Sloane" (Dec. 9)

A fiery political drama about a lobbyist taking on gun owners, with an all-star cast of new stars (Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and beloved character actors (Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, Mark Strong, Sam Waterston), "Miss Sloane" sounds like – and has the release date of – the kind of movie that should be in awards conversation. And yet there’s mostly silence where there should be buzz.

But while the marketing might be falling short, the film footage itself looks sharp and compelling. And this time of year, there’s plenty of room in my movie-watching schedule for a strong, smart character piece more focused on creating a good movie than creating For Your Consideration ads.  

Verdict: NICE

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (Dec. 16)

It’s hard to diminish people’s excitement for a new "Star Wars" movie. But somehow Disney’s managed to do just that with "Rogue One," its first anthology one-off adventure, telling the backstory of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans before "A New Hope." For those who don’t follow movie news, there’s a bit of confusion over what this movie actually is (a prequel? A sequel? A squeakquel?), and for those who do, news of rewrites and reshoots – a lot of rewrites and reshoots – has dampened things like the first thaw on Hoth.

That being said, I still have faith in "Rogue One." Director Gareth Edwards ("Godzilla") and his signature sense of scale looks terrific in the "Star Wars" universe, the cast is still universally terrific, and even though reshoot rumors have cut down on my enthusiasm for a true "Star Wars" war movie, this new side chapter still looks like something we haven’t seen yet, something a bit more a raw and rough but still the thrilling intergalactic adventure we love.

Verdict: NICE

"Collateral Beauty" (Dec. 16)

I’m sure "Collateral Beauty" was pitched as something like "A Christmas Carol" meets "It’s a Wonderful Life," with a jaded, heartbroken man being visited by Love, Time and Death to show him, hey, maybe life’s not so bad (why you'd send Death on that mission, I do not know). It must’ve been a very effective pitch too, because it wrangled together a truly great cast, with Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Edward Norton and many more.

Unfortunately, the movie itself looks more like if "Seven Pounds" – that Will Smith movie where he kills himself with a jellyfish – met "Winter’s Tale," that other Will Smith movie where he plays the devil and also there’s an angel horse. Translation: "Collateral Beauty" looks like a flaming pile of ridiculous, emotionally manipulative Hallmark scraps featuring Smith so emotionally desolate, he can only make walls and mazes with dominoes in his office because METAPHOR! And where Death casually chats with people and it appears Norton’s character falls in love with Love. I take everything back: This movie will be a triumph.

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"Assassin’s Creed" (Dec. 21)

It’s the great philosophical question of our time: Can a video game movie be good – or at least better than a flaming bucket of rotten prunes? "Assassin’s Creed," an adaptation of Ubisoft’s popular historical throat-stabbing simulator, would seem to have the ingredients to finally answer that question with a solid "yes." Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are two of our finest actors, and they’re reteaming with their "Macbeth" director, Justin Kurzel, whose Shakespeare adaptation was, at its worst, a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

This source material, however, is pretty far from the bard, and while the early footage has some pretty nifty moments, the cast comes off more sleepily overqualified than overly excited to be there in their scenes. Plus, it feels like every statement from the studio – whether it's saying more than half of the film will take place during the modern day (because that’s the part everyone loves in the games) or noting that brand expansion is its primary motivation here – is trying desperately to lower expectations. Guys, it’s a video game adaptation; my expectations are already roommates with the Earth’s mantle.

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"Jackie" (Dec. 21)

"Jackie" wasn’t on my radar until about about two months ago – but boy, did it arrive. With its critical buzz – especially for Natalie Portman’s lead performance – and astounding first trailer, "Jackie" rocketed up to one of my most anticipated movies of the season. And not much has changed since then.

The story sounds terrific, taking a look at Jackie O during the aftermath of JFK’s assassination and the planning of his funeral – which means less historical bulletpoint-hitting like in most biopics and more real character work. The score comes from Mica Levi, who provided the essential, haunting sounds to the brilliant "Under the Skin." Pablo Larrain’s direction has a beautiful authenticity to it, and the whole thing looks and feels like few other biopics that have come before. And if it does well at the box office and at the awards shows, hopefully it’ll set a new pace for the biopics that come after.

Verdict: NICE

"Passengers" (Dec. 21)

"Passengers" has supposedly one of the best sci-fi scripts in years – about two folks who wake up 90 years too early on a trip to a new civilization – and two of Hollywood’s biggest and most charismatic stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, playing the two unfortunate under-sleepers. So why am I not excited about this?

Is it because the footage itself looks kind of cleanly bland (the director is the Morten Tyldum, who also blandly brought "The Imitation Game" to life), a generic Space Adventure Movie with shots paying homage to other, more memorable sci-fi movies, like "Sunshine" and "Gravity"? Is it because, while Lawrence and Pratt are entertaining performers, they haven’t been in much good in a while – and they don’t seem all that fun here? Or is it because the studio clearly has no idea how to sell this movie, trying everything from selling it as a romance to a space adventure to an Imagine Dragons delivery device? Yeah, mostly that last one. At least the trailers have given me the perfect GIF to convey my feelings toward this once-promising release.

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"Sing" (Dec. 21)

Between "Moana," "Kubo" and "Zootopia," it’s been a grand year for animated movies – but I don’t plan on "Sing" furthering that point. Sure, the cast list is incredible (Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, John C. Reilly, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Nick Offerman, the list honestly goes on) and it looks cute and fine. But the whole thing seems more like the product of a savvy corporate hivemind rather than some creative spark, throwing some cute talking animals together with a bunch of pop songs and a generic One Big Show concert competition plot that seems like it was summoned from five years ago when people cared more about TV singing competitions.

I’m sure "Sing" will be cute and fine and inoffensive, but in a year where animated movies had such a creative spark, this just looks like a studio paying the bills (and boy will they; all bets are on this making gallons of cash this Christmas). 

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"Why Him?" (Dec. 23)

After building his Serious Actor cred with "Trumbo," "Argo" and "The Infiltrator" (plus, obviously "Breaking Bad"), Bryan Cranston heads back to more "Malcolm in the Middle" territory with "Why Him?", a goofy R-rated comedy about a dad trying to stop his daughter from marrying a tech doofus. But while Cranston’s a delight and willful idiot James Franco is probably my favorite from the cornucopia of James Francos, there’s something a little limp about this premise.

Maybe it’s the "Meet the Parents"-esque set-up. Maybe it’s the first trailer that had some of the most embarrassing needledrop punchlines of the year (worried your twerking joke is a little old? Set it to an Eminem song! Going "Bow-chica-wow-wow!" So timely!). Admittedly, the red band trailer plays better, so maybe with all the f*cks and sh*ts in their proper place, "Why Him?" won’t have me crying "Why Me?" to the heavens in the middle of the theater.

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"Elle" (Dec. 23)

"Elle" looks all innocent, with its poster featuring star Isabelle Huppert holding a sweet cat, but don’t be fooled; for its innocuous appearance, it’s actually one of the more controversial and edgy movies of the year, telling the story of a businesswoman hunting down the man who raped her. So no, maybe not the nice, happy cat movie to take grandma to this holiday season!

However, if you’re interested in fascinating stories and terrific performances, you’re in the right place. Director Paul Verhoeven ("Basic Instinct," "Starship Troopers") has always been one to push buttons, and "Elle" is apparently no different, going out of its way to do so like a small kid bored at the Apple Store. He wants to see how the audience reacts to his main character – which is perfect when she’s brought to life by what many critics are calling Huppert’s finest performance in a career already full of high notes. 

Verdict: NICE

"Fences" (Dec. 25)

In a season of stacked casts and star directors, "Fences" might quietly have the most exceptional resume of the bunch. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, two of our finest actors, bring Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson’s adaptation of his own Tony-winning play, about a father struggling with his changing family and the changing nation around him, to cinemas. No wonder the movie’s been pegged as a frontrunner for multiple Academy Awards.

There’s some kerfuffle about how much the play’s been brought to the big screen, feeling more like a filmed theatrical performance than a real movie to some. But even those low on its cinematic power can’t deny the wattage its stars pack and the script that fuels them. It might be the among the smallest in scale of the big Christmas releases, but it should play huge – for audiences, critics and awards-voters alike. 

Verdict: NICE

"La La Land" (Dec. 25)

When you write and direct one of the best movies of the decade – that film being "Whiplash," which WATCH "WHIPLASH" PLEASE – it’s safe to say I’ll be keeping an eye on your next project. And when that project happens to a modern tribute to Technicolor old-fashioned movie musicals, starring the proven chemistry-compatible duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, it’s also safe to say I’ll be staring at your next project unblinkingly with tear-filled eyes of anticipation.

This is the scenario for Damien Chazelle, whose "La La Land" has been one of my most anticipated movies of the year since before the calendar actually flipped. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear to just sound incredible on paper. The critical buzz for the musical – about a jazz performer and aspiring actress falling in life – has been deafeningly delightful, the trailer looks even more so, with a mix of magic and melancholy that hits the heart just right, and it’s already staring down multiple Oscar nominations. It’s fun when a dream project becomes an even more dreamy reality.

Verdict: NICE

"Lion" (Dec. 25)

The buzz for "Lion" – a drama about an Indian man, adopted after getting lost as a child, trying to find the family that slipped out of his grasp as a boy – has stayed mostly on the light side, but I imagine that’ll change soon for what I expect to be this year’s "Philomena."

Like that surprise Oscar hit, the cast is strong – Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara – and it’s a heart-tugging emotional journey of family that comes based on amazing true events. And like "Philomena," it’s a Weinstein Company movie, masters of the awards power move. So yeah, it’s probably getting nominated for Best Picture – and, like "Philomena," despite its relative safeness, I probably won’t be against it.

Verdict: NICE

"A Monster Calls" (Jan. 6)

In case you manage to walk out of your "Manchester By the Sea" screening feeling like there might be a stray tear or two un-cried, "A Monster Calls" will arrive less than a month later to wring those final drops out of your sockets.

This fantasy drama follows a chipper young boy who deals with his mother ("Rogue One" star Felicity Jones) slowly passing away by teaming up with a big spindly monster voiced by a rumblier-than-usual Liam Neeson. The movie comes from J.A. Bayona, whose past works ("The Orphanage," "The Impossible") have proven him to be a master of atmosphere, visuals and Spielberg-ian emotional manipulation. Translation: You’re going to cry – and you probably won’t regret it. 

Verdict: NICE

"Hidden Figures" (Dec. 25; MKE release date: Jan. 6)

I can already feel myself regretting putting "Hidden Figures" on my naughty list, as I’m sure it’s likely good, and the early buzz is quite solid. It’s got a great story – three black women who helped crack the U.S.’s first space flights – that tickles my childhood love of NASA and the space race, and it features three of the past year’s best scene-stealers (not named Kate McKinnon) in Glen Powell, Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali.

But while there’s a very good chance "Hidden Figures" will be fine, the trailer … is not. The preview can’t settle on a tone, flipping between comic-relief sassy-flirting and Very Important Statements that I’m sure have Oscar voters drooling (especially after last year’s #OscarsSoWhite redux). It’s awesome to have a movie with three strong black female leads, but the script is so clangingly obvious and panderingly blunt with its commentary that I’m afraid the movie will feel less like a well-told story and more like someone going "YAS QWEEN!" for two hours.

Here’s to this great, important story hopefully getting the telling it deserves rather than some bland, self-satisfied, Oscar-approved wokeness. I look forward to being wrong. 

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"Silence" (Dec. 23; MKE release date: Jan. 6)

Oh, by the way, Martin Scorsese has a new movie coming out this year. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that since apparently Paramount has taken the film’s title for its marketing inspiration, not getting any trailers out until just a few weeks ago and screening for critics and awards voters as late as seemingly possible. I know a religious epic about 17th century Jesuits in Japan doesn’t scream "easy sell," but barely letting people know it exists before then screening it for groups with barely enough time to process it, much less give it crucial nominations for marketing purposes, seems like a strong strategy for failure.

It’s a shame because, now that we can finally see what it looks like, it seems terrific. Apparently "Silence" has been a pet passion project for Scorsese for decades (an early draft was assembled back in the ’90s) and it looks like that shows up on screen, telling the Jesuits’ story with grimly elegant shots of brutality and moments of sheer brilliant beauty, like Jesus’ face appearing in a reflection. My god, if the rest of the movie can live up to that shot, Scorsese should have another masterpiece on his hands.

Verdict: NICE

"Live By Night" (Dec. 25; MKE release date: Jan. 13)

Remember those quaint days when Ben Affleck being attached to a film was something to fear – or at least chortle and scoff at? Remember "Gigli"? That was a thing, all right. And now look at him. Now, the Best Picture winner puts out a movie and makes it instantly become an awards contender – like, say, "Live By Night," his first directorial outing since winning gold with "Argo."

Affleck’s not straying too far from the familiar with this one, telling another Boston-based crime saga about goodhearted bad men with heavy weaponry and thick accents. From the previews, he’s going big with this one too, a lifetime-sized epic about regret, crime and morality – with a grand cast (Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper, Zoe Saldana) to go with its seemingly grand ambitions. Will this add another glimmering repaving to Affleck’s road to respectability? Don't bet against him these days (unless he’s in a DC movie).

Verdict: NICE

 "Patriots Day" (Dec. 21; MKE release date: Jan. 13)

What is it with Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg and terrible moments in American history? First, they try to turn four soldiers dying at war into some ode to manly military might in "Lone Survivor," then they turned the BP oil spill into a chance for more good ol’ boy heroics in "Deepwater Horizon." And now it’s off to wallpaper over the Boston Marathon bombing with bombastic patriotism in "Patriots Day."

Now, the cast is strong – John Goodman and J.K. Simmons, namely – and, even though it was having its cake and eating it too, "Deepwater Horizon" was actually really good. But "Patriots Day" looks like it’s in full hoo-rah mode, and I have a hard time buying its "the response … is love" emotional beat when the movie seems way too jazzed at telling a woman in a hijab that she has no rights. By the end of the trailer, I felt not excited or intrigued but concerned that maybe we’re this much closer to a new Berg/Wahlberg collaboration where they tell the story of how Marky Mark could’ve stopped 9/11.

Verdict: NAUGHTY

"The Founder" (Jan. 20)

"The Social Network" preached – to rave reviews and several Oscar nominations – that you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies. "The Founder" would like to see if that formula works just as well with 500 million Big Macs, telling the story of how Ray Croc (Michael Keaton) went from milkshake machine salesman to head of the country’s first fast food giant.

The story is definitely (... smirks ...) meaty enough, and this second wind in Keaton’s career has been consistently interesting to watch. But pardon me if I’m concerned this tale of corporate heartlessness will get defanged by director John Lee Hancock, who defanged the story of "Mary Poppins" for Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks." Plus, the Weinstein Company’s sluggish Oscar campaign for this is making "Silence" look overeager by comparison. Still, the story’s too intriguing to pass on taking a bite.

Verdict: NICE

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.