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The Best Movies Coming to Big and Small Screens This Week

Holiday movies rule, starting with a heartwarming ‘Operation Santa’ documentary

En español | Is it us, or is it time to stock up on cocoa? Our TV sets are turning into veritable holiday cheer devices, with fun movies and specials filling up the calendar. Our critics are here to find the best of the best, along with a remarkable new documentary about the U.S. Postal Service’s century-old Operation Santa program. What’s more, jazz fans will thrill to the return of Lady Day in a brand new film about the legendary Billie Holiday, and Frances McDormand fans will thrill to her latest project about a woman searching for meaning on the back roads of America. There’s so much to watch and love this week, so stir up the cocoa and pass the remote! 

This week’s must-watch is pure heartwarming magic

 Dear Santa, Unrated

Desperately need some Christmas cheer? You’ll find a brimful in this documentary about the U.S. Postal Service’s century-old Operation Santa program, in which “adopter elves” — real volunteers — traverse America to answer letters kids mailed to St. Nick. Director Dana Nachman is famous for irresistible heartstring-fiddling flicks (Pick of the Litter and Batkid Begins), and this one’s got everything: puppies, bunnies and kids cuter than either, shrieking with glee to receive them and blissed out that Santa delivers. Some of them are poignant: a girl whose home burned down in California’s Paradise fire, a boy who wants to give his single mother and siblings a ride through Manhattan in a limo. Emmy and Edward R. Murrow Prize winner Nachman warms your heart with the skill of an auteur. Have Kleenexes on hand. —Tim Appelo (T.A.)

Watch it here: In theaters and streaming Dec. 4

Break out the cocoa! It’s holiday movie time!

Whether it’s a Christmas special to watch with the grandkids, a heartwarming classic or the best Lifetime holiday movies, our critics are filling your stockings with the best watch lists for December. Check out our roundups right here!

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If you’re craving a road trip about now, you’ll love ...

 Nomadland, R (Dec. 4)

In this beautifully shot, Toronto People’s Choice Award-winning road movie from Chloe Zhao (The Rider), Frances McDormand inhabits Fern, a modern dust bowl widow who heads West in an RV, seeking work and a sense of purpose in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless — not the same thing, right?” says the indefatigable Fern. She encounters a shaggy love interest played by David Straithairn (Oscar nominee for Good Night, and Good Luck) and assorted road refugees, many played by nonactor nomads who lend the movie its documentary feel. Fern admires sunsets and scrubs public toilets, a pioneering Saint Joan of the RV park. It’s an earnest, grounded, immersive performance in a quiet movie that portrays “flyover country” as a landscape where independent spirits can still strike out on their own, shaped as much by hardship as unexpected friendships, calling on that core American value: self-reliance. After a one-week limited release on Dec. 4 to qualify McDormand for her inevitable Oscar nomination, it will return Feb. 19. —Thelma M. Adams (T.M.A.)

Watch it here: In theaters only Dec. 4

Jazz fans, your must-see movie is here this week

 Billie, Unrated

James Erskine made the killer documentary The Battle of the Sexes, which inspired Steve Carell’s movie by that name, and he’s got a bigger subject now: Billie Holiday, the prostitute turned jazz genius whose stellar gift, tragic addict’s life and persecution by authorities inspired Lee Daniels’ 2021 biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday. This doc draws on 200 hours of interviews with everyone from her boss, Count Basie, to the evil pimp who beat and trafficked young Holiday, plus tapes of the singer talking and lots of riveting performance footage. The interviewer, Linda Kuehl, spent eight years investigating Holiday’s life, then fell off a building in 1978. (It was officially ruled a suicide, but her family thinks the people who left Kuehl threatening messages killed her.) It’s kind of a mess as a movie, but a must-see for jazz fans. —T.A.

Watch it here: In theaters and on demand Dec. 4

You done binge-watching The Crown? Here’s your next Netflix obsession

 The Prom, PG-13 (Dec. 4 in theaters, Dec. 11 on Netflix)

Ryan Murphy’s besotted, star-studded, toe-tapping Netflix adaptation of the 2019 Drama Desk best musical award-winning gay romance The Prom stars dynamite singers Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose as teens who make news when the PTA (led by Kerry Washington) cancels same-sex couples at the big dance. So narcissistic Broadway stars (James Corden and Meryl Streep) take up their cause and wreak havoc on small-town Indiana. Corden (whose career-launching musical debut in One Man, Two Guvnors is a must-see-right-now glides into the Glee-ful gay-ringmaster role while belter Streep is a dancing Devil Wears Prada. As a perpetual chorus girl, Nicole Kidman delivers a showstopper with the Bob Fosse-inspired number “The Lady’s Improving.”  While uneven and baggy, it’s fun. —T.M.A.

Watch it here: In theaters and on Netflix

RELATED: The Prom is just one of the fantastic new offerings from Netflix this month. Don’t miss out on the other best new arrivals — use our custom watch list: The 12 Best Things Coming to Netflix in December

Feeling overwhelmed with all the streaming services on your TV?

A person holding a remote control in front of a wall displaying of dozen of screens showing content

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Disney, HBO, Peacock … it seems like every time you turn around (or turn on the TV), another streaming service is vying for your attention (and subscription dollars). Which streaming services out there are really worth the money? How do you decide what to pick? Here’s what you need to know about your options on Apple, BET, CBS, Disney, HBO and NBC: Too Many TV Streaming Service Choices? Here’s What You Need to Know

Your holiday season movie preview is here!

Viola Davis stars in the film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Dolly Parton stars in Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square

Netflix (2)

December is peak movie month, and while this year’s crop is poised to land more on our small screens than big ones, it’s still a great holiday season haul of quality films and big stars. Our critics have picked out the best of the best, so check out our list, mark your calendars and put the hot chocolate on to simmer: 2020 Holiday Season Movie Preview: 16 Films to Look Forward To

Geena Davis has something to say, and we all need to listen up

Actress Geena Davis

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You may know the actress best for her star-making turn in 1991’s Thelma and Louise, but you may not know that her experience on that film inspired her to found an institute focused on gender bias in the media. AARP caught up with Davis this week to discuss her latest research — a sobering look at how women over 50 are portrayed in film. Read more (and get riled up), here: Geena Davis Calls Hollywood’s Age Bias ‘Dismal’

RELATED: 13 Female Directors You Should Discover Right Now

Hike! These movies put you right on the gridiron

Football fans, rejoice. The NFL is back (sort of), and we’re back with a critic-picked list of the best football movies to stream right now. This means you can have game night, well, every night. Get the whole list here (foot-long franks and beers optional): 15 Great Football Movies to Stream Between NFL Games

If you loved Da 5 Bloods, or BlacKkKlansman, or Do the Right Thing, or…

Director Spike Lee poses for photo in Sydney Australia

Jaimi Chisholm/Getty Images

Then you know that Spike Lee is one of America’s most influential filmmakers working today. But what you might not know is the full scope of his work, including these five critic-picked Spike Lee Joints that you should put to the top of your streaming list pronto. Get the list and catch up, right here: The 5 Best Spike Lee Films You Haven't (Yet) Seen

Backward AND in High Heels Department

Directors Lulu Wang Greta Gerwig and Ava DuVernay

Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images; Lia Toby/PA Images via Getty Images; Amy Sussman/Getty Images

(Left to right) Lulu Wang, Greta Gerwig and Ava DuVernay.

Women directors — long sidelined — are tearing it up in movies right now. And to celebrate their achievements, we’ve rounded up the 13 essential female filmmakers you need to be following — from Ava DuVernay to Kathryn Bigelow (plus links to their films available online).

Get the list: 13 Female Directors You Should Discover Right Now

You won’t believe which movies turned 50 this year

Does it feel like you saw M*A*S*H only yesterday? How about Love Story? These are just two of a big batch of memorable films that were all released in 1970 — yep, 50 years ago. Our critics have chosen 11 that are really worth a rewatch — so join the fun and see which ones you think have stood the test of time. Get the list and where to stream them here: You Won’t Believe The Movies That Are Turning 50 in 2020

More of the very best movies online

It’s truly amazing how many incredible movies there are available on mainstream platforms like Amazon, Netflix and others. Our critics round up the very best for you, no matter what your interest. Check out the latest “Best of” lists from AARP critics. There’s never been a better time to catch up on movies you always intended to watch.

Other movies to watch

 Lovers Rock, Unrated

This Oscar-bound stunner is a buoyant, brash, shaggy, artfully spontaneous film by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) about one day in the life of West Indians in London who are preparing for a reggae house party. Singing, stew-stirring, dressing up and partying down, drinking and kissing and fighting until the wee hours, they shift and come into focus as a vibrant ensemble. The freest McQueen movie, it’s also among his best, an authentic, joyous, heart-expanding party in a picture, and one of five feature-length films in Amazon’s Small Axe series. —T.M.A.

Watch it here: Amazon Prime

RELATED: Which streaming services are really worth your money? Apple, BET, CBS, Disney, HBO, NBC? Here’s what you need to know.

 Zappa, Unrated

Genius, smart-ass, rebel and leader of the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa was felled by cancer in 1993 at age 52. This compelling, entertaining and no-B.S. documentary, directed by Alex Winter (Bill & Ted Face the Music) and produced by Frank’s son Ahmet, gives a full picture of the Italian American musical iconoclast who wanted to be a composer like his highbrow idol Edgard Varese, and did so by founding the most subversive rock band. —T.M.A.

Watch it here: In theaters and on demand

 The Life Ahead, PG-13

At 86, Sophia Loren is back! In her terrific new tearjerker, directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, she heartwarmingly plays a former prostitute, Holocaust survivor and caretaker for streetwalkers’ children. She looks after an orphaned African street kid (Ibrahima Gueye), grudgingly at first, and develops a deep bond with him.

Watch it here: Netflix

RELATED: Sophia Loren tells AARP about her comeback and her six life lessons

 The Last Vermeer, R

Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) goes full long-haired artiste as art forger Han Van Meegeren, a real-life postwar folk hero in Holland. The charismatic artist could create a brilliant faux Vermeer painting, but critics shred his own original artwork. Hey, it stings. So, during World War II, Van Meegeren exploits his genius for forgery, subsequently putting him in the crosshairs of Capt. Joseph Piller (The Square’s Claes Bang), who’s investigating wartime Nazi collaboration in Amsterdam. Did Van Meegeren sell a stolen Jewish-owned masterpiece to the war criminal Hermann Goering for big bucks, a crime meriting a firing squad? Or did he craft the Vermeer himself to scam the art-collecting Nazi? The handsome period thriller would have benefitted from a zippier pace, and Bang is stiff and square. But Pearce’s complicated, flamboyant historical figure is total best actor Oscar bait. —T.M.A.

Where to watch: In theaters

 Collective, Unrated

In this devastating Romanian documentary that unfolds with the force of a political thriller, reporters investigate a deadly 2015 Bucharest disco fire and discover ghastly medical and governmental corruption, and an aggressive cover-up. Burn victims who could have survived their wounds died from invasive bacteria in the hospital, thanks to a murderous, for-profit scam by a consortium of medical supply companies — aided by government bribes — that cut the potency of the biocidal solution surgeons used to sterilize their tools, unleashing rampant deadly bacteria. A rare foreign documentary put up for the best international picture Oscar, Alexander Nanou’s gut-wrenching film underscores the power of a relentless press to right wrongs, save lives and cauterize corruption. —T.M.A.

Where to watch: In theaters and on demand

 Sound of Metal, R

Amazon’s first film about hearing loss boasts an innovative sound design that recreates the losing-hearing experience of a fictional punk-rock drummer (Riz Ahmed) who spirals into dope and despair. His bandmate and girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) saves his life and career by sending him to a sober house for the hearing impaired. Ahmed learned both American Sign Language and drumming to play the part, and he’s convincing. It’s an eye-opening film. —Tim Appelo (T.A.)

Where to watch: In theaters and on Amazon Prime Dec. 4

 Mank, R

Gary Oldman may win another Oscar for playing Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, the alcoholic founding drama critic of the New Yorker who wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane in 90 days flat, mostly sozzled. But Amanda Seyfried is even better as his dear friend and victim, William Randolph Hearst’s talented, delightful mistress Marion Davies. They meet in the 1930s, when Davies is about to film a scene where she’s burnt at the stake, and Mank pretty much torched her reputation in the film by making the mistress of Kane (based on Hearst) a no-talent, washed-up drunk. He only meant to get even with Hearst, whose lavish parties he once attended as an intellectual court jester. Film buffs will flip for Mank’s retro look and the backstage melodrama about the best film ever made (though grumble that it minimizes Welles’ contribution). But even if you don’t give a fig about film history, it’s a showbiz time trip as meticulous and marvelously immersive as Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood. —T.A.

Watch it here: In theaters and coming to Netflix Dec. 4

 The Climb, R

Catch the opening bicycle sequence of this fresh bromance, and you’ll be hooked. Directed by Michael Angelo Covino and co-written by his co-star and real-life bestie Kyle Marvin, the film charts the fall and rise of the friendship between two man-boys over a number of years — betrayals, sudden deaths, broken marriages, children, and substance abuse. Frequently employing long, bold takes, the hilarious first feature nabbed a prize at Cannes in 2019 and is a real contender for bigger awards to come. The Climb entertains while capturing the cycle of two schlemiels whose bond exceeds the sum of their parts. —T.M.A.

Watch it here: In theaters

The Queen’s Gambit

Who knew the latest smash critical hit on Netflix would be a miniseries about a pill-popping orphan chess prodigy (Anya Taylor-Joy)? She’s a skyrocketing talent cast in the next Mad Max spinoff, and her chess champ is a superhero with spectacular problems. But the show’s emotional anchor is its love story between the eccentric kid and the orphanage janitor (Bill Camp), her chess teacher and surrogate dad and the show’s secret weapon. No intergenerational relationship onscreen this year can match the warm tears they’ll make you shed. And while you’re at it, catch up on Camp’s amazing string of prestige hits: 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, The Looming Tower, Molly’s Game, The Night Of, Birdman, and Love & Mercy.

Watch it here: Netflix

 Kajillionaire, R

Grifters Debra Winger, 65, and Richard Jenkins, 73, raised their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) right, teaching her the con artist game. But when they recruit new protégée Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), things go awry. Not your run-of-the-mill grifter picture, it’s by indie cinema’s Queen of Quirk, Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know). It’s one eccentric comedy but cult heroine July’s best movie yet, and there’s real moral tension in Melanie’s campaign to save Old Dolio from her self-serving parents. —T.A.

Watch it here: In theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Google Play, Vudu, Fandango Now, Alamo on Demand

 The Trial of the Chicago 7, R

An utterly wonderful, vivid dramatization of the trial of Chicago’s 1968 demonstrators, with bravura performances by Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale. —T.A.

Watch it here: Netflix

RELATED: Frank Langella tells AARP about The Trial of the Chicago 7, his string of history-based hits and the best time of his life — his 80s, here: All Rise for Frank Langella

 The War With Grandpa, PG

Robert De Niro is both a towering icon of Scorsese gangster flicks and high-art tragedy and the king of blockbusters about the Focker family. In his latest silly featherweight comedy, he’s an irascible guy who moves into his grandson’s bedroom, so they conduct a prank-war over its possession. Grandpa’s shaving cream gets switched with foam sealant. The conflict is somewhat Home Alone-like, but more illogical, as when De Niro, Christopher Walken, Jane Seymour and Cheech Marin challenge the kids to a trampoline volleyball match and the ref rules on the first round: “Age-appropriate team 1; AARP team none.” —T.A.

Watch it here: In theaters

RELATED: Find out what Jane Seymour thought about playing for laughs with Robert De Niro, in her new interview with AARP: Jane Seymour Shares Her Special View of England’s Royal Family

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