CHICAGO - It’s the most movie-filled time of the year. (Go ahead and sing that, if you want!)
Movie theaters may not have returned to a bustling, pre-pandemic-esque state of affairs, but for those willing to grab their mittens and head for the big screen, a treasure trove of hotly anticipated flicks await.
Steven Spielberg takes a fresh look at a classic musical, Keanu Reeves re-enters "The Matrix," Nicole Kidman plays a comedy giant, Bradley Cooper joins a carnival and Tom Holland’s Spidey swings into the Marvel multiverse, to name just a few of the films with bold-faced names arriving in theaters this month.
But for those who’d prefer to snuggle up at home, there’s still plenty worth seeing. Some of the year’s most exciting movies (the aforementioned continuation of the "Matrix" franchise) will be available to stream even as they hit the multiplex, while still more will arrive on Netflix, Prime Video, and other streamers a week or two later. Others, such as WWE’s first foray into the world of animation (and monster wrestling), are only available for at-home (or at-phone) viewing.
Consider this preview our little holiday gift to you. Here’s what’s headed your way, cinematically speaking, in Dec. 2021.
December 1: Feel "The Power of the Dog"
Forgive the pun, but "The Power of the Dog" is a film with teeth. In 1920s Montana, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) ostensibly shares the running of a cattle ranch with softspoken brother George (Jesse Plemons), but it’s clear to all who really stands atop the summit. Yet George manages to temporarily disrupt the fetid little world ruled by his cruel and charismatic brother when he falls in love with the widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who moves into the Burbanks’ mansion and thus directly into Phil’s splatter zone. This tense, elegant Western from New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion ("The Piano," "Top of the Lake") peels back the skin and sinews of its characters with the director’s typically penetrating insight. Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine and Thomasin McKenzie also star. Rated R. Streaming on Netflix Dec. 1; also screening in select theaters.
See it first: "Third Star"
To deepen your appreciation for Benedict Cumberbatch’s acclaimed performance in "The Power of the Dog," watch this bittersweet British melodrama. Cumberbatch plays James, a young man living with terminal cancer whose friends join him in the British wilderness for a celebration of (and farewell to) life. Now streaming on Tubi.
More new movies opening the weekend of December 3
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid": Fans of Jeff Kinney’s beloved book series will be thrilled to know he wrote the script for this new adaptation that also apes his signature illustration style. Unlike the past four live-action "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies, this one deploys a simple CG-animated look to capture the heart and humor of the absurdities of middle school life. At just about an hour long, it’ll make for a breezy addition to any family movie night. Brady Noon, Ethan William Childress, Chris Diamantopoulos and Erica Cerra lend their voices. PG. Streaming on Disney+ Dec. 3.
WATCH: "It’s a Wonderful Life (Legend Edition)," now streaming free on Tubi
"Silent Night": Get ready to add this one to your unconventional holiday movie watchlist. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode star in Camille Griffin’s black horror-comedy, in which a photogenic British family gather together to celebrate one last apocalyptic Christmas. Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp and Kirby Howell-Baptiste also star. R. In select theaters and streaming on AMC+ Dec. 3.
- "Wolf": "1917" star George MacKay leads this trippy drama about a boy who believes he’s a wolf and is sent to a clinic to treat his "species identity disorder." There he meets Lily-Rose Depp, who believes she’s a wildcat. Let the animalistic sparks fly! Rated R. In select theaters Dec. 3.
- "Benedetta": Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven’s latest is loosely based on historian Judith Brown’s book "Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy." Expect fearless performances, unforgettable visual language and (maybe) some protesters outside your local multiplex. Not rated. Select theaters Dec. 3.
- "Most Wanted Santa": In this comedic holiday heist movie, an FBI Agent (Denyce Lawton, "Act Like You Love Me") and an LAPD detective (Teresa Castillo, "General Hospital") join forces to track down an art thief whose approach is both clever and festive: he shows up dressed like Santa, but instead of departing with milk and cookies, he makes off with multi-million dollar works of art. TV-PG. Streaming on Tubi Dec. 3.
- Tune in to the smooth sounds of a polarizing saxophonist in "Listening to Kenny G" (not rated, streaming Dec. 3 on HBO Max); an Afghan refugee tells his story in the acclaimed animated documentary "Flee" (PG-13, select theaters Dec. 3).
December 10: Tonight, tonight, "West Side Story" opens tonight
There are few circumstances in which remaking a classic could possibly seem like a good idea, but Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner lending their towering talents to a re-examination of one of the great American musicals is one such circumstance. Loosely based on the story of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," "West Side Story" has stood the test of time thanks to its groundbreaking Jerome Robbins choreography, a breathtaking score from composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and a classic film adaptation; Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for that film, appears in a new role (and serves as an executive producer). Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez and Brian d’Arcy James star. PG-13. In theaters everywhere Dec. 10.
See it first: "Romeo & Juliet"
Since "West Side Story" is a retelling of "Romeo & Juliet," why not brush up on the original first? Filmed live on Broadway in 2013, this production stars Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad as the eponymous star-crossed lovers. And while the production uses the original Shakespearean text, its modern day costuming and staging (Romeo drives in on a motorcycle!) helps make it more accessible for romance lovers everywhere. Now streaming on Tubi.
More new movies opening the weekend of December 10
"Being the Ricardos": Break out the congas and crack open some Vitameatavegamin because Ricky and Lucy are back, baby! This starry awards season contender from writer/director Aaron Sorkin casts Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as the famed couple behind "I Love Lucy." And while opinions may vary on how well the stars embody Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, "Being The Ricardos" gives Sorkin a chance to do what he does best: Explore some tense backstage drama in an environment where your coworkers are also your family. J. K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy and Clark Gregg also star. R. In select theaters Dec. 10; arrives on Prime Video Dec. 21.
"Don’t Look Up": It’s probably easier just to list the movie stars who aren’t in this star-studded dark comedy from "The Big Short" director Adam McKay. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play two low-level astronomers trying to warn the world that a comet is about to destroy the Earth. Among those dealing with the impending catastrophe (or not) are Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Ariana Grande, Timothée Chalamet, Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance, Himesh Patel, Ron Perlman and more actors than can possibly fit in one blurb. R. In select theaters Dec. 10; arrives on Netflix Dec. 24.
- "National Champions": If you’re looking for a feel-good sports movie, this isn’t likely to satisfy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look. Stephan James and J.K. Simmons star in this drama in which collegiate football players fight for compensation. Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant and Uzo Aduba also star. R. In theaters everywhere Dec. 10.
- "Red Rocket": The latest from acclaimed filmmaker Sean Baker ("The Florida Project," Tangerine") follows a dirtbag (Simon Rex) who returns to a hometown in Texas that doesn’t want him after he washes out of the adult film business. R. Select theaters Dec. 10.
- Sandra Bullock leads the Netflix prison drama "The Unforgivable" (R, streaming Dec. 10); some adorably deadly animated animals try to get "Back to The Outback" (PG, streaming on Netflix Dec. 10); Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer share a sci-fi "Encounter" (R, streaming on Prime Video Dec. 10); Colson Baker (a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly) plays an outlaw in the brutal Western "The Last Son" (R, select theaters and On Demand Dec. 10); "No Time To Die" star Léa Seydoux leads a dramedy about contemporary "France" (not rated, select theaters Dec. 10).
December 17: "Spider-Man: No Way Home" leaps into another "Spider-Verse"
After "Loki" gently eased the MCU into the multiverse over on Disney+ this summer, "Spider-Man: No Way Home" is here to kick the door wide open. When Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use magic to help restore his secret identity, the duo accidentally unleash a multiversal catastrophe. We know for sure that Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard are among the villains hopping over from the past two "Spider-Man" movie universes. (Not to mention J. K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson.) But will there be more surprises too? Like perhaps even a few other web-slingers? It’s anyone’s spider-guess! Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau and Benedict Wong also star. PG-13. In theaters everywhere Dec. 17.
See it first: "With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story"
What better way to prep for Spider-Man (and just maybe Spider-Men?) than with a look at the life and times of Peter Parker’s co-creator? This 80-minute documentary explores the incalculable reach of Stan Lee, the most famous name in comics and the undisputed king of high-profile movie cameos. Now streaming on Tubi.
More new movies opening the weekend of December 17
"Nightmare Alley": Guillermo del Toro conjures up another gorgeous, grotesque world for this tragic neo-noir story. The second film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name, del Toro’s take stars Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook") as a handsome wanderer whose ambition and skills of observation guarantee his ascent through the ranks of a traveling carnival and beyond — until those same qualities get him into unlimited trouble. Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette and a sizable percentage of the world’s great character actors also star. R. In theaters everywhere Dec. 17
"Swan Song": Two-time Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali leads this sci-fi drama about a man facing terminal illness. Unable to treat him, his doctor (Glenn Close) offers an unusual solution: Shield his family from grief by swapping out with a clone who can go on living his life. Naomie Harris, Awkwafina and Adam Beach also star in a movie that seeks to blend think-y sci-fi ideas with emotional human drama. R. In select theaters and on Apple TV+ Dec. 17.
- "The Lost Daughter": Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut in this psychological drama that stars Olivia Colman ("The Crown") as a vacationing woman who becomes obsessed with a fellow vacationer (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter. R. In select theaters Dec. 17; arrives on Netflix December 31.
- "The Tender Bar": George Clooney directs "The Card Counter" star Tye Sheridan in this coming-of-age drama about a kid who soaks up the wit and wisdom of the regulars in his Uncle Charlie’s bar. Ben Affleck also stars. R. In select theaters Dec. 17; expands on Dec. 22 and arrives on Prime Video in January 2022.
- "The Young Pope" creator Paolo Sorrentino unspools a sunlit coming-of-age drama with "The Hand of God" (R, streaming on Netflix Dec. 15.); WWE Studios breaks into the world of monster-wrestling with the animated "Rumble" (PG, streaming on Paramount+ Dec. 15); Chloe Grace Moretz faces down a robot uprising in "Mother/Android" (R, streaming on Hulu Dec. 17).
December 24: Follow the white rabbit to "The Matrix Resurrections"
Neo’s back, folks. The fourth film in "The Matrix" franchise is also the first in nearly 20 years; this time around, Lana Wachowski helms the ship without sister Lilly. Still, she’s far from the only person returning to the story; expect to see Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Jada Pinkett-Smith reprising their roles, alongside new cast members Christina Ricci, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Neil Patrick Harris and Jonathan Groff, among others. As for the story? You’ll have to follow the white rabbit into theaters (or into your HBO Max watchlist) to find out, just like the rest of us. R. In theaters and on HBO Max Dec. 22.
See it first: "Jupiter Ascending"
"The Matrix" is such a singular experience that even directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski could never quite match it again. But what they have done is spend the past two decades delivering all sorts of wonderfully gonzo, ahead-of-its-time sci-fi and fantasy stuff, from their Netflix series "Sense8" to their cult classic "Speed Racer" adaptation to those controversial "Matrix" sequels. Thus was born the gloriously goofy "Jupiter Ascending," a space opera take on "The Wizard of Oz" that casts Mila Kunis as a housekeeper/secret galactic princess and Channing Tatum as the half-dog/half-human she loves. It’s the sort of wacky, over-the-top space adventure you either vibe with or you don’t, but it’s worth trying to find out. Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean and Doona Bae also star. Now streaming on Tubi.
More new movies opening the weekend of December 24 (and beyond)
"Sing 2": The first "Sing" movie seemed like a cheap cash grab: Cast a bunch of big name movie stars to play adorable singing animals in a jukebox musical full of pop hits. Yet it had an unexpected sense of genuine heart and humor that will hopefully carry over into this sequel, which features Bono as an aging lion who used to be a rock star legend. Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly and Pharrell Williams also lend their voices to this animated feature. PG. In theaters everywhere Dec. 22.
"The King’s Man": This long-delayed prequel is the latest in the "Kingsman" franchise, which means audiences are pretty much guaranteed to see some very nice suits, lots of familiar British faces and a wide array of shiny weaponry. Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Daniel Brühl and Djimon Hounsou star. R. In theaters everywhere Dec. 22.
- "Licorice Pizza": This charming slice of 1970s nostalgia might be the sweetest, breeziest film acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made. And singer Alana Haim steals the show in her first major film role. R. Expands from select theaters to theaters everywhere Dec. 25.
- "The Tragedy of Macbeth": Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy gets a stark film adaptation from Joel Coen ("Fargo"), directing Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the titular bloody Scot and his Lady. R. Select theaters Dec. 25, streaming on Apple TV+ in 2022.
- "The Secrets of Christmas: Revealed": Shocking truths about one Kris Kringle come to light after a "massive data breach results in the release of millions of secret documents revealing the confidential inner-workings and mysteries of Santa’s entire Christmas operation — from his hidden network of spying elves, to Mrs. Claus’ covert role in the organization, and evidence pointing to Santa’s own magical abilities." Streaming on Tubi and airing on FOX Dec. 20.
- It’s a big weekend for Denzel, who also directs Michael B. Jordan in the confusingly titled drama "A Journal for Jordan" (theaters everywhere Dec. 25); Zachary Levi straps on some shoulder pads to play NFL star Kurt Warner in "American Underdog" (theaters everywhere Dec. 25); an aging jockey (Clifton Collins Jr.) saddles up for one last ride in "Jockey" (select theaters Dec. 29).
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About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).