There are few activities so perfect for family time as the holiday film. Not only do the movies that come out around the end of the year tend to be awards bait—and therefore of higher quality than your average summer blockbuster—but how else can you spend a few hours of “quality time” with your loved ones without having to say a word?
After a few days of holiday togetherness, sometimes there’s nothing better.
Luckily, the movies out now offer so much more than just a respite from parental advice, sibling rivalry and gift-induced disappointment and frustration. In fact, many of them are smart, interesting and completely worth your time. But since the better ones clock in at well over two hours, you probably don’t have the time or patience to see more than one or two. To help you decide what to watch, here’s our rundown:
ZERO DARK THIRTY
Clocking in at 157 minutes, director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker is a tense, enthralling film—especially considering we already know how it ends. A fictionalized version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it follows Jessica Chastain’s brilliant, hardnosed CIA agent as she sifts through layers of not-entirely-ethically gathered intelligence to hunt down the world’s most wanted man. Issues of torture and espionage and almost up-to-the-minute political players make the movie ripe for the kind of post-viewing debate that could keep you feuding with your relatives until next New Year’s.
Anyone familiar with Victor Hugo’s massive 1862 novel about the French Revolution—or the musical, which first opened on Broadway in 1985 and hasn’t lost steam since—won’t be surprised by the long (157 minutes) and gut-wrenching story that director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) tells in his new film. This star-studded musical—featuring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and, in a star-making turn, Eddie Redmayne (you might remember him from My Week with Marilyn)—packs a serious punch, despite the already infamous frequency with which Hooper uses extreme, prolonged, aesthetician-requiring close-ups. Be warned: This movie is not for the family with musical-averse members, of course, but for anyone who does love the form—and can deal with a holiday week of everyone humming “On My Own” incessantly—it’s a must-see.
If you’re looking for a history lesson, Steven Spielberg’s 150-minute Lincoln isn’t the way to go. But if what you want is a collection of noteworthy performances—from Daniel Day Lewis as Abe, Sally Field as his wife and a huge supporting cast, including an especially good Tommy Lee Jones—than this touching, well-crafted look at the 16th President and his quest to pass the 13th Amendment is spot on. Classic Spielbergian moments abound here, but as pat as those can seem, they’re pretty much perfect for a holiday movie and they’re easy to take in one as well done as this.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
The first film in Peter Jackson’s new Middle Earth trilogy is the longest of the season, clocking in at 169 minutes, but it’s also one of the most worthwhile. And not just because two more films (somehow wrung from the one slim Tolkien novel) will be released in the coming years. Despite some overly high-tech 3-D scenes that look like European soap operas, the film builds a beautiful, intricate world full of dwarves, elves, goblins, dragons, wizards and, of course, hobbits (Martin Freeman takes on the role of Bilbo Baggins) that make it easy to remember why we spent literally days of our lives watching Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series. A good choice for the entire family, as long as nobody’s too squeamish about not-graphic-but-still-unsettling beheadings and other medieval type deaths.
A Quentin Tarantino movie certainly isn’t for every family at the holidays. Especially when the last chunk of the 165-minute movie—not to mention bits and pieces throughout—is blood-soaked and gory. But for those among us who enjoy blue language and carnage, Tarantino’s tale of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who takes a gig as a bounty hunter and attempts to free his wife (Kerry Washington) from a dastardly plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an enjoyable, offbeat—and yes, historically insensitive and somewhat gruesome—romp.
Although it’s been out for a while, the most recent (and most successful ever) Bond film—helmed by 007 first timer Sam Mendes—flies by, even at 143 minutes and is worth keeping in mind. Part of that is thanks to the better-than-ever chase and battle sequences, which are brilliant enough to enthrall even the most pacifist dove, and the rest is the electricity that flies between Daniel Craig’s Bond, Judi Dench’s M and Javier Bardem’s villainous Silva. Bonus: Seeing the film could inspire an at-home Bond-A-Thon, which is perhaps the greatest of family-bonding activities.