“’Twas the weeks before Christmas, and up on the screen,

there were movies aplenty; but which ones should be seen?” 

Liturgically speaking, Christmas doesn’t arrive until Dec. 24, but for Hollywood, the holiday movie season is already in full swing as studios deck the multiplexes with a Yule logjam of high-profile releases. 

The lead-up to Christmas is traditionally a time reserved for studios to showcase what they call their “prestige” pictures. Generally speaking, movies released during November and December are more “serious and sophisticated” than the special effects-laden, escapist fare that dominates the summer months. If the dog days are all about popcorn fun, the holidays are when Hollywood breaks out the caviar. 

But one man’s caviar is another man’s fish eggs. For Catholic moviegoers, particularly parents, not every film out there this Christmas is worth seeing — some are definitely not recommended. As a Catholic film critic and someone who writes a great deal about pop culture in the light of faith, however, I believe it is important for Catholics to be aware of current movies precisely because they will be talked about at Christmas parties, shopping malls and around holiday dinner tables — those everyday opportunities for evangelization. 

So, like the second ghost in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” I invite readers to figuratively take hold of my sleeve as we survey the cinematic landscape of Christmas Present. 

Not all the movies mentioned were screened in time for this writing, but, again, they are films that are being heavily promoted, so they should at least be on your radar.

Family fare

Last year was not a banner year for family viewing, with studios stuffing stockings with films ranging from the underwhelming (“Happy Feet 2”) to the unwatchable (“Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”). There were also well-intentioned misses like “Arthur Christmas” and a few bright spots like “The Muppet Movie” and the under-appreciated boy’s action yarn “The Adventures of Tintin,” as well as some worthwhile movies for older children, such as “We Bought a Zoo” and Martin Scorsese’s visually virtuoso love letter to silent cinema, “Hugo.” 

Rise of the Guardians
Hugh Jackman is the voice of the Easter Bunny in “Rise of the Guardians.” Newscom photo

This holiday season, we have already been treated to the re-release of Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” in 3D — the best ever animated father-son movie hands (or fins) down. On Dec. 19, Pixar will also be re-releasing its 2001 hit “Monsters, Inc.” in 3D, introducing Mike and Sulley to a new generation of children, leading up to next summer’s return trip to Monstropolis in “Monsters, Inc. 2: Monster University” (June 21). 

Atoning for 2011’s disappointing “Cars 2,” Pixar set the family entertainment bar extremely high this past summer with “Brave” — one of the strongest affirmations of family and filial love in recent memory — recently released on Blu-ray and DVD. 

Keeping pace with Pixar, Disney Animation Studios entered the holiday sweepstakes with “Wreck-It Ralph” (Nov. 2), about a video game “bad guy” (John C. Reilly) who wants to be a hero. Clearly going for a Pixar vibe, with slick, zippy digital animation rather than the traditional hand-drawn look usually associated with the Mouse House, the film teaches important lessons about loyalty, self-sacrifice and aspiring to higher virtue, while supporting the idea of free-will in making moral choices over Calvinistic determinism. Unfortunately, as is increasingly the trend, the humor is edgy and contains some scary and violent images that may frighten young children. It also includes a brief but unwelcome cameo by “Satan” as a fellow virtual villain. 

November also saw “Rise of the Guardians” from DreamWorks Animation, a fantasy adventured based on the children’s book series “The Guardians of Childhood” by William Joyce, in which North aka Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) join forces to battle a bogeyman named Pitch (Jude Law), who wants to unleash nightmares into the dreams of children. Gift-wrapping worthy themes of hope and heroism, sacrifice and redemption and suggesting a religious sense of wonder and mission, the movie, however, disappointingly avoids any Christian context, reimagining Santa and the Easter Bunny — and therefore the Christian feasts they symbolize in pop culture — as purely secular.

Adult options

For adults, some high-profile movies are already out of the gate (“Argo,” “Flight” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), headlined by Steven Spielberg’s masterful “Lincoln,” inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography “Team of Rivals.” Wisely telescoping its focus to a few pivotal weeks during the closing days of the Civil War, the film chronicles Lincoln’s uphill political battle to push through the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. 

the Hobbit
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (far right), opens Dec. 14. Newscom photo

Last year, Spielberg’s “War Horse,” another big canvas costume-drama, was nominated for “Best Picture,” but failed to take home the Oscar. “Lincoln” may change that and nab Spielberg his third “Best Director” award. It is the kind of handsomely-crafted, old-fashioned filmmaking that Academy voters love. Daniel Day-Lewis, who looks like he stepped out of an Alexander Gardner photograph, is also a shoe-in for “Best Actor.” I would have liked to see more insight into the role Lincoln’s faith played, but it is still a powerful and timely picture. 

Also in theaters, “Skyfall,” the 23rd film in the 007 franchise, with Daniel Craig returning as James Bond on the trail of a cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) bent on revenge. Directed by Sam Mendes, the film is not only one of the better action films of the year, but one of the most satisfying and smartest Bond films ever. Yes, unfortunately, there are still the morally problematic sexual trysts with Bond girls (though they are more restrained than usual), but there is also narrative depth, not to mention Catholic undercurrents. Who knew that cinema’s most famous spy’s ancestors were Reformation-era Catholic recusants? In fact, an interesting article from 2009 suggests Bond’s creator Ian Fleming may have based his character on a Scottish family of “Bonds” whose motto was Orbis non sufficit, Latin for “The World Is Not Enough,” the title of another Bond movie. 

In “Life of Pi” (Nov. 21) director Ang Lee brings to life Yann Martel’s 2001 novel about a young man (newcomer Suraj Sharma) adrift at sea, on a life raft he must share with a Bengal tiger. 

After four years, Stephenie Meyer’s vampire soap opera comes to a close in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” (Nov. 16), starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. Rumors are that Summit Entertainment is considering keeping the undead franchise alive through additional films or a television series, minus the main trio.

Literary adaptations

Speaking of screen versions of popular fantasy books, December will see the long awaited release of Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (Dec. 14) from director Peter Jackson, who also directed “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, replacing Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to direct but left after multiple production delays. Arguably the most anticipated holiday release, it is also the movie I am personally most excited about. 

Fellow Tolkien fans eager for a return trip to Middle Earth will be happy to know that in addition to Jackson, many of the original creative team, including screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens are back, as are key cast members including Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey and Andy Serkis, the actor behind Gollum. 

In a controversial move, Jackson made the decision to split the book into two films, then later stretched it out to three movies: “An Unexpected Journey” (2012); “The Desolation of Smaug” (2013); and “There and Back Again” (2014). 

Another literary adaptation with high expectations is “Les Misérables” (Dec. 25) based on the Tony-winning musical. Beginning with a silent version by the Lumière Brothers in 1897, there have been no less than 50 versions of Victor Hugo’s timeless tale of love, revenge, justice and redemption. Directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), the film stars Hugh Jackman as the redeemed fugitive Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as his implacable pursuer Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Wolverine, Maximus and Catwoman, all singing — what could top that?

To enlighten, entertain

If it’s action you are after, “Jack Reacher” (Dec. 21), based on Lee Child’s best-seller, stars Tom Cruise as the titular ex-military drifter, who must track down a serial sniper. 

Related Reading

Christmas brings out the naughty and nice aspects of filmmaking

Director Kathryn Bigelow, who won multiple Academy Awards for her war drama “The Hurt Locker,” returns with “Zero Dark 30” detailing the covert operation to hunt down Osama bin Laden. 

Other films generating Oscar buzz include “Hyde Park on the Hudson” (Dec. 7), starring Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Laura Linney as Margaret Suckley, his distant cousin with whom he had an affair, and “The Impossible” (Dec. 21), a true-life survival tale about a Spanish family’s harrowing experiences during the 2004 tsunami, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. 

I realize many Catholics, understandably, take a “bah humbug” attitude toward Hollywood. 

But as we enter more fully into this Year of Faith and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, perhaps this Christmas movie season can serve as a reminder of the Council’s affirmation — particularly in Inter Mirifica (“Decree on the Media of Social Communications”) — of the positive role motion pictures can play in our culture, to enlighten, inspire or just plain provide wholesome entertainment to audiences. 

So choose carefully, but go to a movie. After all, ’tis the season! 

David DiCerto is a film critic and co-host of “Reel Faith” on NET TV.