This Week at the Movies: ‘Joy,’ ‘The Hateful Eight,’ ‘The Revenant’

Christmas Day is always a big target date for movie-going, with multiplexes and arthouses alike offering up copious options for post-Christmas dinner awkward family time and post-Chinese food bonding alike. And this year offers up even more of a bumper crop, since Christmas falls on the traditional new release day of Friday (though a certain space opera will certainly remain atop this week’s box office). Here’s what’s out there for the holidays, and what’s worth your time:

  • Your film editor has hung in there through the divisive likes of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but I’m finally drawing a line at Joy, David O. Russell’s latest and mussiest picture. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific (if a good decade too young for the role, an ongoing and odd blind spot for the filmmaker), but the script is a mess, and Russell only finds an engaging and consistent tone for a brief section in the middle – when, strangely, the focus is off his protagonist. Read our review here. (In wide release.)
  • Concussion is a more effective picture overall, though still a touch too muted and by-the-book (not to mention burdened with a clunker of a romantic subplot). The real story here is Will Smith, who does some of his finest acting to date as the doctor who identified a particular strain of head trauma suffered by professional football players. Smith’s work is fierce yet restrained, and he gets able support from Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. And best of all, the NFL won’t be pleased. Read our review here. (In wide release.)
  • Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is shaping up to be the most controversial movie of the season, with some critics embracing its nihilistic worldview and free-wheeling narrative, while others write it off as indulgent, overlong, empty provocation. This viewer is in the former camp; it’s a brutal, nasty little item, gleefully sticking in the knives of racism, misogyny, and historical whitewashing, and turning them all at once. Read our review here. (In limited release; goes wide next week)

Leonardo Di Caprio in "The Revenant"

  • Another hard-edged, revisionist, prestige Western riff hits theaters the same day, and it’s a far less successful one. Like Russell, Alejandro González Iñárritu is another filmmaker who prompts love-him-or-hate-him reactions from film fans; The Revenant is, for this defender, finally too much. There’s a decent adventure story buried underneath the picture’s self-conscious misery and look-ma-no-hands cinematography, but boy do you have to work to dig it out. Read our review here. (In limited release, goes wide January 8.)
  • Michael Moore is another decidedly acquired taste, and while his latest free-form cinematic op-ed Where to Invade Next offers the usual assortment of laughs and food for thought, its anecdotal approach almost seems to invite the criticisms that’ve dogged his work for years. Here’s our first look from Toronto, followed by a more in-depth review from the New York Film Festival, as well as our coverage of Moore’s talk at that fest. (In limited release, goes wide February 12.)
  • And while Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is the week’s smallest-scale new release – it’s basically the story of two people, their marriage, and the secrets they’ve kept – it dramatizes emotional devastation of the highest order. Charlotte Rampling’s lived-in turn is getting the lion’s share of the praise, and deservedly, but Tom Courtenay is no slouch either; both manage to convey the offhand intimacy of a long marriage, and the shock of remembering your parner had a life before it. Read more in this month’s indie guide. (In limited release.)