The best films in cinemas this Christmas

From Little Women to Star Wars.

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Do you believe in Cats? A rumour began circulating online recently that there is in fact no film-of-the-musical-of-the-poems, and the movie’s two disturbing trailers were a hoax. Pick your conspiracy: it’s a situationist prank, an excuse to put the names “Judi Dench” and “Jason Derulo” side by side in the same cast list, or the perfect Brexit metaphor – a terrifying, much-threatened proposition that contaminates public discourse, possibly without ever coming to pass.

People have been conned by Cats before. In Six Degrees of Separation, a man tricks a wealthy couple with promises of roles in a movie based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber show. Their daughter is aghast. “I thought you hated Cats! You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theatre-going! You said, ‘Aeschylus did not invent the theatre to have it end up as a bunch of chorus kids in catsuits prancing around wondering which one of them will go to kitty-cat heaven.’”

Reviewers of the film may be less kind. The reluctance of studios to show their prize releases until the last possible moment means that I am writing this before either of the season’s big movies have been screened for critics. When Cats is let out of the bag on 20 December it may receive a mauling from critics, but Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (19 December) isn’t home free either. If the franchise finds itself looking careworn and shop-soiled, blame Disney, which stands accused of flogging a dead Wookiee. How low could the studio go? Solo: A Star Wars Story. That’s how low.

JJ Abrams kicked off the franchise’s newest cycle in 2015 with The Force Awakens, a kind of karaoke version of the original Star Wars, and is back as director on the new one. And though The Last Jedi proved in 2017 that Star Wars films could be funny, it is starting to seem as though Rogue One was the rogue one: the only modern instalment to bring any cinematic vitality to the series. But let’s hope the Force is with The Rise of Skywalker. My barber, who knows someone who knows the film’s star John Boyega, reckons that Jar Jar Binks, the despised comic relief from The Phantom Menace, will return this time around as the ultimate evil mastermind. You read it here first.

Cinemas will be dominated by cats and spaceships but there are other choices too, the most appetising being Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (Boxing Day), which I reviewed here last week.

I also admired Long Day’s Journey Into Night (27 December) – nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play – which follows Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) as he returns to his home town to search for his lost love (Tang Wei). The mood is noir-ish, the visuals neon-singed, the script playfully blurring art and life. “Movies are always false,” says one character, “whereas memory mixes truth with lies”. That line sets us up for a spectacular final section, when Luo falls asleep in a cinema and wakes to find himself in a subtly altered world. It’s all change for us, too, since from this point the movie slips into 3D and takes the form of a single unbroken take that lasts almost an hour and incorporates games of pool and ping-pong, a moped ride, and a vertiginous journey on a zip-wire. What it all means is open to conjecture but this is undoubtedly the most enigmatic film ever to feature the Vengaboys on the soundtrack.

It has a good deal more in its favour than Jojo Rabbit (3 January), a mind-bogglingly witless comedy that is almost compelling in its awfulness. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young boy in early-1940s Germany who discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish refugee (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. Torn between his duty as a Hitler Youth member and his friendship with the girl, Jojo seeks advice from his imaginary friend, the Führer himself, played by the writer-director Taika Waititi, whose only setting as an actor and film-maker is “zany”. There’s a jarring conflict in the movie: though we see the corpses of traitors, we meet no characters cruel enough to have killed them. The Nazis (including Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell) are so buffoonish and sweetly misguided that it’s a wonder the war ever got going. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning