10 of the best films to watch in December

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By Nicholas BarberFeatures correspondent

Warner Bros Timothée Chalamet as Wonka (Credit: Warner Bros)

Warner Bros

Timothée Chalamet as Wonka (Credit: Warner Bros)

Including Wonka, Aquaman and the latest Studio Ghibli animation – Nicholas Barber lists this month’s unmissable movies to watch and stream.

Netflix (Credit: Netflix)


(Credit: Netflix)

1. Leave the World Behind

A family is having a quiet holiday in a rented house when some uninvited visitors announce that the world is coming to an end. That was the high-concept of M Night Shyalaman’s Knock at the Cabin, which came out in February, and it’s also the premise of Leave the World Behind, another apocalyptic thriller adapted from a novel. Coming from Barack and Michelle Obama’s media company, Higher Ground Productions, it features Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as the holidaying couple, and Mahershala Ali as the mystery man who turns up with his daughter, Myha’la Herrold. Can either family trust the other one? The film is “one of the year’s best and no doubt will spark massive amounts of conversation”, says Kristen Lopez in The Wrap. “A two-hour descent into chaos that is compelling and utterly terrifying… Just don’t expect to sleep easy after seeing it.”

Released on 8 December on Netflix internationally

Netflix (Credit: Netflix)


(Credit: Netflix)

2. Rebel Moon

A decade ago, Zack Snyder pitched a concept for a Star Wars film. The director of 300 and Watchmen wanted to make a Seven Samurai-style epic that would be set in the Star Wars universe, but which wouldn’t feature any of the familiar characters. Lucasfilm turned him down, and Snyder went on to make Justice League and Army of the Dead instead. But now at last he has developed that pitch into his own swashbuckling space opera starring Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou and Charlie Hunnam. Rebel Moon still looks a lot like Star Wars, but it has its own separate fictional universe that will be revealed in several films. And not just films. “We’re doing a narrative podcast, and an animated comic book, and an animated series,” Snyder said in Total Film. “They all take place before the events of the movie. So you can start to understand the vastness of the mythology that we’ve been working on.”

Released on 22 December on Netflix internationally

Warner Bros Timothée Chalamet as Wonka (Credit: Warner Bros)

Warner Bros

Timothée Chalamet as Wonka (Credit: Warner Bros)

3. Wonka

Paddington 2 has been hailed as one of the all-time great family films. Now its director, Paul King, and his co-writer, Simon Farnaby, have turned their attention to another much-loved British children’s book character, Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In this musical prequel, the top-hatted Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) opens his first sweet shop, with the help of an Oompa-Loompa played by Hugh Grant. King told Ben Travis at Empire magazine that the idea for this curious casting came from “going back to the book, and reading all those poems, and hearing their voice as a cynical, sarcastic, cruel, funny, but wicked voice, and then I went, ‘Oh… That’s sort of a bit like Hugh! It was a real light bulb moment – you go, ‘Hugh Grant’s an Oompa-Loompa! Yes please! Merry Christmas, with a bow on it.'”

Released from 6 December internationally

Warner Bros (Credit: Warner Bros)

Warner Bros

(Credit: Warner Bros)

4. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

Aquaman was the biggest hit of all of DC’s recent superhero blockbusters, but there has been plenty of water under the bridge since its release in 2018. The DC universe is currently being rebooted, with new actors, new characters, and a new continuity, so this much-delayed Aquaman sequel could already feel like a relic of an earlier era. Momoa is back as Arthur Curry, the king of Atlantis, alongside Patrick Wilson as his half-brother, Amber Heard as his girlfriend, Nicole Kidman as his mother, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as his arch-enemy, Manta. But will viewers be interested, now that DC has left Arthur behind? The film’s director, James Wan, believes they will. “The beauty of this movie, this Aquaman world, is that, very early on, we always said that we are our own separate universe,” he told Clark Collis at Entertainment Weekly. “So, what we do, ultimately, doesn’t get affected by all that stuff, all that noise.”

Released from 20 December internationally

A24 (Credit: A24)


(Credit: A24)

5. The Iron Claw

The Iron Claw stars Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White (The Bear) and Harris Dickinson (Triangle of Sadness) – not that you’d necessarily recognise any of them. The normally skinny actors have piled on absurd amounts of muscle to play three members of the Von Erich wrestling family. The Texan brothers were stars in the 1980s, but this biopic, written and directed by Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), explores why the Von Erichs were never far from tragedy, even when they were pummelling opponents in the ring. “The Iron Claw is an absolute knockout,” says Scott Menzel. “A heartbreaking tale of toxic masculinity and mental health. Zac Efron delivers a transformative performance that is easily his best work as an actor. It’s gripping, deeply emotional, and powerful.” Lily James co-stars as the wife of Efron’s character, Kevin Von Erich.

Released on 22 December in the US and Canada

courtesy of TIFF (Credit: courtesy of TIFF)

courtesy of TIFF

(Credit: courtesy of TIFF)

6. American Fiction

One of the year’s most acclaimed films, American Fiction stars Jeffrey Wright as an author who is tired of being sidelined just because he is black. To make matters more frustrating, other black authors are getting the sales and the awards he covets, but only if they write violent, barely literate accounts of ghetto life. As a bitter joke, he bashes out that kind of novel himself under a pseudonym – and suddenly he has a bestseller on his hands. The writer-director of American Fiction, Cord Jefferson, “has made an excellent debut feature film”, says BBC Culture’s Kaleem Aftab. “It has the feel and tone of Alexander Payne at his best, while it’s all driven by Wright’s performance… a film full of tremendous laughs and salient observations on racial stereotyping.”

Released on 22 December in the US

Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF The Boy and the Heron (Credit: Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF)

Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF

The Boy and the Heron (Credit: Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF)

7. The Boy and the Heron

Hayao Miyazaki is the revered founder of Japan’s most famous animation company, Studio Ghibli, and the director of such landmark works as My Neighbour Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. Now aged 82, he has said that his latest film, The Boy and the Heron, will be his last. And, as Caryn James points out in her BBC Culture review, it feels as if he has put all of the key motifs from his previous work into one overarching masterpiece. Beginning with the bombing of Tokyo during World War Two, the story moves first to the countryside and then to a magical realm reminiscent of Spirited Away. “This may be Miyazaki’s most expansive and magisterial film,” says James. “If it is not the most instantly stunning, that might be because he takes the time to deliver worlds within worlds, layers under layers, to create an overwhelming experience by the end.”

Released on 8 December in the US and Canada, and 26 December in the UK and Ireland

Neon Pictures (Credit: Neon Pictures)

Neon Pictures

(Credit: Neon Pictures)

8. Eileen

Eileen is adapted from the award-winning novel by Ottessa Moshfegh (who co-wrote the screenplay), although you could mistake it for an Alfred Hitchcock film based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. It’s set in Massachusetts in 1964. Thomasin McKenzie has the title role of a woman who lives with her spiteful, alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), and works in a young offenders’ prison. She keeps her dreams and desires locked away until a glamorous blonde psychologist (Anne Hathaway) joins the prison staff. A liberating lesbian romance seems to be on the cards – but bear in mind that Eileen is directed by William Oldroyd, whose first film, Lady Macbeth, was a dark fable of lust and murder. “What a strange and spellbinding psychological thriller he has woven,” says David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. “Rippling with sly humour and a bold command of the tropes of classic Hitchcockian suspense, this is a twisty and beguiling original.”

Released on 1 December in the UK and Ireland, and 8 December in the US and Canada

Atsushi Nishijima (Credit: Atsushi Nishijima)

Atsushi Nishijima

(Credit: Atsushi Nishijima)

9. Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos’s last collaboration with Emma Stone was The Favourite, a very weird, very rude and very funny variant on the British royal drama. But even that film was nowhere near as outlandish or as filthy as their latest team-up, Poor Things, which is adapted from Alasdair Gray’s satirical fantasy novel. Stone is on hilarious form as Bella, a woman who is brought back to life in Victorian London by a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe). With no memories of her previous existence, she sets off on a riotous tour of Europe, breaking hearts and conventions wherever she goes. “No other mainstream director today is making movies this visually bold and brilliantly realised,” says Raphael Abraham in the Financial Times. “Here he manages to pull off a riotously funny work that offers social commentary without hectoring and makes the impossible oddly believable.”

Released on 8 December in the US and Canada

Road Movies (Credit: Road Movies)

Road Movies

(Credit: Road Movies)

10. Anselm

The days are long gone when Hollywood expected us to put on 3D glasses every time we watched a new blockbuster. but not everyone has given up on the technology. One keen exponent is Wim Wenders, the director of Wings of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club. He used 3D for Pina, his profile of Pina Bausch, the choreographer, and now he uses it again to survey the life and work of Anselm Kiefer, the German artist. The 3D allows viewers to look around Kiefer’s studios and installations. “We are immersed in the way visitors would be,” says Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, “maybe even more so, as the camera is mounted on drones and platforms, and the film always encourages you to go into cathedral-rubbernecker mode.” Wenders also uses 3D to recreate Kiefer’s childhood and probe his philosophy. The result, says Bradshaw, is “a superbly controlled and expressed film and its high seriousness about the nature and purpose of art really is invigorating”.

Released on 8 December in the UK and the US

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