Saoirse Ronan is marvelous as the fiery-eyed Mary Stuart, the 16th-century Catholic British queen whose Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), cost her the throne (and her head) in this historical epic penned by Oscar and Emmy nominee Beau Willimon (House of Cards). It could score Ronan’s fourth Oscar nomination and Robbie’s second, with its sumptuous period atmosphere and timely feminist theme — when men try to put a husband in charge of her, Mary snaps, "If God wills Mary to marry, Mary will marry only whom Mary wills to marry!" But the story meanders and the frenemy monarchs don’t dramatically connect (in reality, they never physically met). It’s intermittently terrific, but a nastier Brit historical film, The Favourite, will stomp it at the Oscars. —Tim Appelo (T.A.)
Also New in Theaters
Mark Schafer; LD Ent./Roadside Attractions
Ben Is Back, R
No thriller is more tense than this story of a doting but no-nonsense mom (Julia Roberts, 51) struggling to keep her addict son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), home from rehab on Christmas Eve, safe from relapse. Roberts isn't just America's sweetheart anymore, she's a grownup whose career is on a roll. And she hasn't had a role this impressive since Erin Brockovich, which it in some ways resembles. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
If you liked the John Legend-starring Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and The Wiz, check out this black-cast musical of the Gospel of John written by Harry Lennix, 54 (The Blacklist), who also plays Pilate. Michelle Williams is Mary Magdalene, and Chaka Khan, 65, is Herodias. It's a sassy hybrid, with onstage song and dance, location shoots, animation and CG. In one great continuous scene, Lennix's Pilate strides from a modern corporate boardroom to a World War I battlefield to the Bolshevik Revolution to Jesus' day — he changes costumes, but corrupt authority never changes. —T.A.
Still in Theaters
This latest western by the Coen brothers (True Grit) is actually six mini films that add up to 2 hours and 12 minutes. Tim Blake Nelson, 54 (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), aces the title episode as a singing gunslinger, and singer-actor Tom Waits, 68, does the same as a grizzled gold miner. In the slightest (but still watchable) of the tall tales, James Franco plays an outlaw who escapes from one noose to another, and Liam Neeson, 66, is a Wild West impresario. The last two episodes are stronger: Zoe Kazan is emotionally affecting as an imperiled covered-wagon pioneer on the Oregon Trail, and Tyne Daly, 72, and Brendan Gleeson, 63, are among the passengers trapped in an existential stagecoach whose occupants are not what they seem. Any full-length Coen brothers movie beats these six shorts, but they’re all gorgeous, original and often funny. Available in theaters and on Netflix. —T.A.
BUENA VISTA INTERNATIONAL/Pergamon Film/Wiedemann & Berg Film
Germany’s submission for the best foreign film Oscar is the most ambitious movie yet by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose must-see The Lives of Others won that Oscar in 2007. This one is about an artist (based on Germany’s greatest living painter, Gerhard Richter) who survives the firebombing of Dresden and escapes East Germany after World War II for the wild art world of West Germany. It’s a romantic historical epic that justifies its three-hours-plus length. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
Olivia Colman, 44, takes over for Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s hit The Crown in 2019, but as 18th-century Queen Anne in this faster, funnier, infinitely nastier best picture Oscar contender, she’s a far more interesting person. Decadent, depraved, grief-stricken, she binges on cake and the manipulative, two-faced wooing of her lady-in-waiting, Sarah (Rachel Weisz, 48). The real Lady Sarah, ancestor of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, was described by the Telegraph as “the world’s most ambitious woman.” But into the palace of intrigue comes Sarah’s rival, her wide-eyed yet equally ambitious cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, 30), who’s broke thanks to her gambler dad. Sarah thinks she’s got two women under her thumb now, but she’s never seen All About Eve — Abigail can’t wait to replace her as royal favorite. Even the impulsive queen is a schemer. When she says, “I have sent for some lobsters — I thought we could race them and then eat them,” she might as well be talking about Sarah and Abigail. —T.A.
Even though it’s in black and white, in Spanish, and it has no stars you ever heard of, this touching story inspired by the childhood of director Alfonso Cuarón, 56, could win more Oscars than his outer-space smash Gravity. Yalitza Aparicio is irresistible as an indigenous Mixtec woman who becomes a domestic worker for a middle-class family in Mexico City and a second mother to the kids. It’s on Netflix starting Dec. 14, but its gorgeous photography and stunning sound design are better savored in a theater. —Thelma Adams (T.M.A.) FULL REVIEW
Twentieth Century Fox
Nimbly written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Widows is like Ocean’s 8 for smart people, a heist movie about a gang of widows whose robber husbands died in a $5 million heist they must now complete (or be killed by the mob that wants that $5 million). It's got the girl-power mojo of Ocean's 8 and a far more pulse-pounding and brilliantly photographed thriller plot, and it's also about Chicago's corrupt political gangs at war, both white and black. Liam Neeson, 66, is great as the robber husband of Viola Davis, 53, who takes over after he's lost in the fatal first-scene shootout, and Robert Duvall, 87, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya are superb as criminals with political gifts. But this movie is all about Davis' crew (Cynthia Erivo, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez), who swiftly master the heist trade. Adapted from a 1991 British series by the maker of Prime Suspect, which made Helen Mirren a midlife star, it will make Davis a bigger star than ever. —T.A.
Patti Perret/Universal Pictures
Green Book, PG-13
Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen, 60, gained 30 pounds to play Tony Lip, the Mafia nightclub bouncer who was a bodyguard, chauffeur and lifelong friend of piano genius Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali, 44) on his perilous concert tour of the South in 1962 — when black visitors were wise to carry The Negro Motorist Green Book to locate places where they’d be safe-ish. It’s a true story and a heartwarming Oscar magnet. No surprise Ali is tops, but who knew Viggo could play Italian American mob comedy? Or that director Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber) could direct a smart, only partly funny, socially conscious drama perfect for our times? —T.A. FULL REVIEW and Q&A WITH VIGGO MORTENSEN
At Eternity's Gate, PG-13
This brooding, beautiful movie about Vincent Van Gogh has the best possible director and star: Julian Schnabel, 67, a famous painter who became an even better, infinitely deeper filmmaker (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and Willem Dafoe, 63 (Spider-Man, The Florida Project), nominated for three Oscars and a 2018 AARP Movies for Grownups award, as everybody's favorite mad, one-eared Impressionist genius. The cinematography by Benoît Delhomme, 57 (The Theory of Everything), is absolutely rapturous. Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Van Gogh's confidant, painter Paul Gauguin, but the film is mostly a death-defying plunge into the heart and soul of Van Gogh — you get to see the world through eyes that saw what nobody else did, in order to paint masterpieces comprehensible only to people not yet born. The script has many soaring moments, but the narrative falls short of the acting and directing. Still, it's the best Van Gogh biopic ever, and among the most artful films about an artist. —T.A. SEE DAFOE TRANSFORM HIS LOOK INTO CHARACTER
Gary Hart would’ve been elected president in 1988, but his dalliance with model Donna Rice nuked his career and changed U.S. history. Hugh Jackman, 50, plays Hart as a guy whose heart is a distant mystery, creating a void at the center of the film (which makes it less popular than it deserves). But his chilliness is brilliant, and around him whirls a dazzling, Altmanesque cast of characters. Vera Farmiga is superb as Hart’s wronged wife, but the best performance belongs to Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, 63 (Whiplash), as Hart’s smart campaign director, incredulous about his boss’s cluelessness. An important movie about issues that resonate in 2018. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox
Bohemian Rhapsody, PG-13
This biopic glorifying and sanitizing Queen is a pleasant enough parade of champion hits and behind-the-music cliches. Rami Malek captures lead singer Freddie Mercury’s polymorphously perverse magnetism, and he didn’t need those prosthetic buck teeth (which people falsely call the secret of Mercury’s distinctive sound — voice scientist Christian Herbst’s 2016 study proved it’s actually his oddly irregular vibrato). Even the true parts of the film seem as fake as those teeth. Mary Austin, whom Mercury called his common-law wife, really did stay in his life (though not bed) after he confessed to being gay, and he willed her about $50 million (versus less than a million for Jim Hutton, whom he called his husband). Mary was likely the “mama mia” who has to let him go in his coded coming-out anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But fine actors Lucy Boynton and Aaron McCusker can’t make Mary and Jim feel real in this infinitely artificial screenplay, and the Queen guys are all ciphers, too. —T.A. FIVE MORE MOVIES NAMED FOR POP SONGS
Shooting his Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning documentary Cartel Land, director Matthew Heineman almost got himself killed in a shootout with meth-crazed Mexican gangsters. So he’s the right director for this gripping film about war reporter Marie Colvin, who lost an eye covering Sri Lankan rebels and died in Syria in 2012 while proving its dictator was mass-murdering civilians. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is explosively good as Colvin, a two-fisted drinker, adrenaline junkie and moral crusader who always wore La Perla lingerie so even her corpse would be glamorous. Frequent Scorsese and Tarantino cinematographer Bob Richardson injects the savage realism he gave Platoon, and the people who play survivors are actual relatives of war-zone victims. Their tears are real, and they want their stories told. —T.A.
Boy Erased, R
Director Joel Edgerton (Star Wars' Owen Lars) directs himself as the ruthless director of a boot camp that tries to terrorize gay youths straight in an adaptation of Garrard Conley's memoir about "ex-gay conversion therapy." As the therapist's victim, skyrocketing young star Lucas Hedges is solid, as is Russell Crowe, 54, playing his kind yet uncomprehending Baptist minister dad, but they're outdone by Nicole Kidman, 51, as the patient's mom. A flamboyant, flashily dressed and coiffed Arkansan, she's rooted in religious traditionalism, yet torn by loyalty to her son and a dawning realization that the therapy is quackery. Really, the film is about her coming of age as a grownup. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox
Recent AARP cover subject Melissa McCarthy, 48, is Oscar-buzzed for her performance as the actual celebrity biographer Lee Israel, whose books stopped selling, so she started forging and selling letters from Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward (400 of them, so cleverly conceived she got away with it for a while). Her character is outrageous, sometimes nasty, way too preoccupied with cats and alcohol, yet still somehow charming. But even better is Richard E. Grant, 61, as her shady bar buddy. A brilliant, bitter comedy and a classic New York story. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW
Francois Duhamel/Amazon Studios
Based on memoirs by David Sheff and his recovering addict son, writer Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is an acting duel between Steve Carell, 56, and Timothée Chalamet as the troubled son — and the audience wins. The film takes us from Nic’s dazzlingly promising youth to the ghastly day when David must coldly refuse Nic’s desperately sweaty request for money. You wince at the flashback of late-teenage Nic talking David into sharing a joint — hey, he’s a Rolling Stone writer — unaware that it’s a spark for tragic dynamite. Maura Tierney, 53, is winning as Nic’s stepmom (and Amy Ryan, 50, is an Oscar maybe as his mom), but Carell’s performance, tightly wound but powerfully emotive at moments of crisis, is the news here, a banked fire of helpless rage facing a child blazing out of control. The soundtrack (Nirvana, John Lennon, Bowie) is the year’s best, a greatest-hits collection of genius addicts’ tunes. —T.A.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Lady Gaga and star-director-writer Bradley Cooper will clean up at the Oscars for their electrifying update of the famous story of an unknown talent who becomes a singing star, while her alcoholic mentor (Cooper) flames out. The first hour is a sensational skyrocket ascent — who knew Gaga could act and Cooper could sing? Or what she looks like with her real hair and face? The final hour and 15 minutes are slightly less superb, but still better than the 1976 hit Barbra Streisand version. Sam Elliott, 74, as Cooper’s brother-manager-rival, and Andrew Dice Clay, 61, as Gaga’s papa deserve best supporting actor nominations. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
GRAEME HUNTER PICTURES
The Wife, R
Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close, both 71, brilliantly depict the four-decade marriage of a womanizing novelist and his more talented, totally overlooked wife. Close gives a career-capping performance as a great writer sidelined by wifely duties, poised to explode as her husband prepares to accept the Nobel Prize in literature. No living actor has been nominated for an Oscar more often than Close without winning. The studio released The Wife this year instead of last, avoiding competition with Frances McDormand, who won for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This could be Close's year. —T.A. FULL REVIEW