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What to Watch at the Movies

A documentary about a 98-year-old Nuremberg trials hero, the 'Godfather'-like narco thriller 'Birds of Passage,' and more

 Prosecuting Evil, NR

Ben Ferencz escaped Hitler as a baby, went to Harvard Law, fought at D-Day, and at 27 tried his first case, against top Nazis at the Nuremberg trials. About 5 feet tall counting his untamable cowlick, he had to stand on a stack of books to reach the lectern, but he won in history's biggest murder case. Sharp at 98, he tells amazing tales in this absorbing, low-budget documentary (an SS man told Ferencz he ordered soldiers to shoot babies and mothers with one bullet — to be humane — and he would personally kill 90,000 people again). Still working 12-hour days, Ferencz says, “I don’t know what retirement means. I have no desire to play golf.” — Tim Appelo (T.A.)

Courtesy The Orchard

 Birds of Passage, NR

Based on real events but imbued with magical realism, this thriller by Colombia's first Oscar nominee is a most original narco drama, not just the same old Pablo-and-the-gangsters story. It's about what happened when mostly well-meaning people in an isolated, ultratraditional native Wayuu community got mixed up in the marijuana trade in the 1960s and 1970s. It takes you inside another world and a family tragedy that's familiar yet new. It would make an excellent double bill with The Godfather. — T.A. FULL REVIEW

Still in Theaters

 Never Look Away, R

Germany’s nominee 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

Penélope Crux and Javier Bardem walking

Focus Features

Penélope Cruz plays a woman who returns to her hometown in Spain — and Javier Bardem — in Everybody Knows.

 Everybody Knows, R

Husband and wife actors Penélope Cruz, 44, and Javier Bardem, 49, juice up this entertaining, well-crafted if slightly confusing Spanish-language saga from Iran’s Oscar nominee Asghar Farhadi (The PastA Separation). Nominated for seven Goya Awards (the Spanish Oscar), this family-secrets drama unfolds during a rural wedding in Spanish wine country. While the guests — including steamy exes Cruz and Jardem — drink and dance, a kidnapping derails the reception. The crime exposes the fissures in the relationships among old and young, rich and poor, and husbands and wives. The movie's chief delights are the Cruz-Bardem pairing and Farhadi's generosity toward all the characters as he veers from joy to terror, playing with emotional extremes, delivering a portrait of a rural community in celebration and crisis. —Thelma M. Adams (T.M.A.)

Taraji P. Henson and Aldis Hodge with their arms around each other

Jess Miglio/Paramount Players

Things heat up between Taraji P. Henson and Aldis Hodge in “What Men Want.”

 What Men Want, R

Taraji P. Henson stars in an amusing, touching, Jerry Maguire-like remake of Mel Gibson's 2000 comedy (What Women Want) about being granted sudden power to read the minds of the opposite sex. She's got verve, and so do Erykah Badu as the psychic who makes her a mindreader and grownup supporting players Richard 'Shaft' Roundtree, 76, and Tracy Morgan, 50. —Lisa Kennedy FULL REVIEW

 The Invisibles, NR

When Nazis began sending 6 million Jews to death camps, 7,000 Jewish Berliners managed to hide in plain sight, forging documents, inventing identities, impersonating about-to-be-drafted Wehrmacht soldiers and war widows, donning Hitler Youth uniforms, and finding places to stay — sometimes a different place each night — with astounding ingenuity. This superb documentary interviews four survivors, including Hanni Levy, 94, who was 17 when the Gestapo pounded on her door in 1943. She didn't answer, and managed to slip out, dye her hair blond and act as if she were feeling perfectly normal, not perpetually scared out of her wits. She thought she was the only one, but perhaps 1,700 people managed to live through the war as she did. This thrilling film alternates survivor testimony with young actors recreating their experiences. It's an unfamiliar part of a story you thought you knew all about, and a must-see. —T.A.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Filmmakers recreated WWI scenes in color (left) to bring the conflict to life in a new way.

 They Shall Not Grow Old, R

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson took 100-year-old footage of World War I soldiers, restored it with technical wizardry, added interviews with veterans and a you-are-there soundtrack — plus a coda about his own family's casualties and his ingenious restoration methods — and wound up with the most surprisingly wonderful Great War documentary ever made. —T.A. FULL REVIEW

Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Bruce Willis in

Jessica Kourkounis/Universal Pictures

Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy and Bruce Willis in Glass.

 Glass, PG-13

The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan mashed together his characters from two prior films, the hit Split and the comic-book movie Unbreakable, with muddled effects, but despite the messy story, it's fun to see Samuel L. Jackson, 70, America's top-grossing movie star, steal scenes from an uncharacteristically un-quippy Bruce Willis, 63. Willis plays a security guard with supernatural powers — he's unbreakable — who hunts a killer with multiple personalities (James McAvoy). They both get thrown into a mental institution alongside crafty criminal Glass (Jackson), and then things get weird. The best part is watching McAvoy become many characters, the scariest of which is called the Beast. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW

 Cold War, R

This likely foreign Oscar nominee by the director of the Oscar winner Ida is about a musician (Tomasz Kot) who collects folk tunes in Poland in 1949, fearing they’ll be lost under Soviet rule. He meets a singer (Joanna Kulig) who’s sexier and more dangerous than Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim, and their whirlwind romance whisks them from decade to decade as they break up and passionately reconnect, with stops in Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris. The film is on a par with that other black-and-white foreign Oscar contender Roma, only more exciting. —T.A.

Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart in

David Lee/STX Films

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart star as a quadriplegic and his caretaker in The Upside.

 The Upside, PG-13

Bryan Cranston, 62, stars as Phillip, a billionaire quadriplegic with a death wish who hires smart-mouthed unemployed ex-con Dell (Kevin Hart, 39) as his live-in caretaker. Remade by Neil Burger from the 2011 French feel-good hit Les Intouchables, this odd-couple dramedy struggles with an uneven screenplay replete with sex-organ jokes. Cranston compels even when only acting from the neck up, but Hart seems to be desperately underwater for most of the movie. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features

Felicity Jones (center) stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex."

 On the Basis of Sex, PG-13

The holidays are a great time for good movies, and if you want one that makes you feel good, too, this workmanlike, old-fashioned biopic about the future Ruth “Kiki” Bader Ginsburg should hit the spot. Like a superhero origin story, it shows how RBG became a legal star. One of nine women in her Harvard Law class, she couldn’t get a job at a law firm, so she taught instead. Then her extraordinarily supportive tax lawyer husband (Armie Hammer) — who beat a 95 percent fatal cancer in a brief, real-life subplot — helped her make history with the 1972 case Moritz v. Commissioner of the IRS, about a man denied a deduction for his mother’s caregiving. Lawmakers couldn’t imagine a male could be a caregiver, and the Ginsburgs fought that idea to the Supreme Court. RBG’s win did for sexual equality what Brown v. Board of Education did for racial equality, and eventually led to her becoming a justice. Sam Waterston, 78, is tops as Harvard’s sexist dean and Kathy Bates, 70, as the ACLU’s sole female board member, but the film’s heart is the Ginsburgs’ highly romantic love story. The documentary RBG is better, but this one’s good enough.  —T.A. READ DIRECTOR MIMI LEDER INTERVIEW

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly dancing in Stan and Ollie

Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics

Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy in "Stan & Ollie."

 Stan & Ollie, PG

Nostalgic and bittersweet, this biopic about the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy is distinguished by the superb skills of Steve Coogan, 53, as the skinny one, Laurel, and John C. Reilly, 53 (who’s on a huge 2018 career roll), in excellent plump prosthetics as the rotund Hardy. The thrill of their 1937 heyday is conveyed in a great early tracking shot of them striding through the Hal Roach Studios back lot while they discuss dumping their oppressive boss Roach (Danny Huston, 56, as fine an actor as his dad, John Huston). Cut to Laurel and Hardy’s attempted U.K. comeback tour in the 1950s. As they perform classic routines like the bowler-hat-switching bit that Samuel Beckett stole for Waiting for Godot, there’s an existential sadness, and old feuds are revived. “We’re getting older, but we’re not done yet,” Hardy says — and the film has a noble autumnal glow. —T.A.

Mary Poppins Returns

Jay Maidment/Disney

Emily Blunt stars as Mary Poppins

 Mary Poppins Returns, PG

You can take grandchildren to the blockbuster Mary Poppins sequel and please them, but it’s really made for us grownups still humming those 1964 tunes. Nearly every song (by Hairspray’s composers) updates one in the original. Though most are merely catchy, not immortal earworms, there’s a rousing dance-hall number and the still-dancing Dick Van Dyke, 93, sings a supercalifragilistic one: “When they tell you [that] your chance to dance is done, that’s the time to stand, to strike up the band and tell them that you’ve just begun!” The plot — Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is almost bankrupt thanks to his late wife’s medical bills, so a wily banker (Colin Firth) means to evict his family — is only a mild distraction from the high-stepping musical fun afoot. Emily Blunt makes a magical airborne nanny, more wry and acerbic than Julie Andrews, and takes a larky plunge with her charges into a bathtub’s undersea world and the cartoon universe inside the family china. Meryl Streep (as cousin Topsy) romps with the kids in her upside-down house, and Angela Lansbury does the climactic “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” equivalent. As Mary’s fond lamplighter pal, Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda is no Dick Van Dyke, but he’s tuneful, and the reboot adds Broadway brio to the original’s blend of actors and animation. And Van Dyke’s British accent has improved since 1964.  —T.A.

Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Angela Wright

Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

From left: Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Andrea Wright as Laura Busch.

 Vice, R

The best thing about this biopic about Dick Cheney is Christian Bale’s startlingly perfect metamorphosis into the most powerful veep in history — with 40 extra pounds and eerily accurate mannerisms, you can’t believe it’s Bale. This is the sort of performance Oscars were created to recognize. But this bitterly political satirical film won’t even please many Cheney enemies. Though Bale gives a sense of Cheney’s turbulent inner depths, the movie as a whole is silly, jokey and chaotic, reducing complicated situations and historical events to scattershot skits. Steve Carell plays Cheney’s mentor-turned-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a giggling power freak with no real ideological convictions — a stretch no matter how you feel about him. Still, with performances like Bale’s and Amy Adams’ as a Lynne Cheney who may be more like Lady Macbeth than the real Mrs. Cheney, it’s worth seeing for connoisseurs of acting.  —T.A.

 The Mule, R

Clint Eastwood, 88, is wonderful as a 90-year-old horticulturalist who goes broke and becomes the Mexican Sinaloa cartel’s most successful drug runner. An unlikely tale based on a true story, it’s the most ambling DEA versus druggies movie ever, less focused on the thrill of the chase than on the life of the hero, whose obsession with daylilies (and the many young women he charms into bed on the road) alienates his neglected family. The script’s sentimental lesson about valuing family over work is way too on-the-nose, but Eastwood directs the heck out of it, and it’s gratifying to see him outwit the young by exploiting their condescending prejudices about oldsters. It would make a fine double bill with Robert Redford’s fact-based senior criminal film The Old Man and the Gun —T.A.

Stephan James, KiKi Layne in

Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

 If Beale Street Could Talk, R

Harlem in the '70s has never looked so gorgeous as it does in this dreamy, poetic, heartbreaking adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel about a false rape charge and the families it traumatizes. Director Barry Jenkins made 2017's best picture Oscar winner Moonlight and hasn't lost his artful touch. In a strong ensemble cast, Regina King, 47, stands out as the fiercely protective mother of the accused man's fiancée (KiKi Layne). The cinematography is swoonily beautiful, with a strong spine of storytelling. —T.A. FULL REVIEW 

 The Favourite, R

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.

Roma

Netflix

 Roma, R

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. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW

Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali in Green Book

Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book.

 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

Gwilym Lee, Rami Malek in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

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

Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox

Melissa McCarthy plays writer-turned-forgery-artist Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant is her accomplice in the true story of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

 Can You Ever Forgive Me?, R

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

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sitting on the ground with palm trees in the distance.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga play Jackson and Ally in 'A Star Is Born.'

 A Star Is Born, R

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

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