In today’s fragmented media landscape, with theaters still suffering post-pandemic and multiplying streaming services each producing their own exclusives, it has become more difficult to weed through the dreck that Hollywood produces to find anything worthwhile.
To be sure, the big studios know how to shotgun awareness campaigns for their largest franchise releases; audiences can hardly avoid ads for the next “Spider-Man” and “Matrix” entries, or the next Disney animated feature. But finding family fare, biopics, and other hidden gems can be challenging.
Come along on a treasure hunt for on-screen stories that aren’t simply remakes or sequels (no, “Home Alone 6” didn’t make the cut). At its best, entertainment serves as a means to laugh, imagine, provide respite, and see the world through different eyes. Perhaps a few of these may fit the bill. Keep in mind the ratings listed (when available), as not all are appropriate for families with young kids, and that most titles have not been pre-screened.
Top Streaming Picks
“Being the Ricardos” (dramatic biopic, Prime Video, Dec. 21)
Groundbreaking sitcom “I Love Lucy” has sparked laughs for generations and inspired creators of iconic hits like “Seinfeld.” Since this flick was announced, fans have debated whether Nicole Kidman can pull off Lucille Ball, to the point that the icon’s daughter weighed in. Current actors portraying Ricky, Fred, and Ethel are also co-stars in this ensemble behind-the-scenes dramedy helmed by writer Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “The West Wing”).
“The Beatles: Get Back” (three-part docuseries, TV-14, Disney Plus, Nov. 25)
In January 1969, the Beatles entered a London recording studio to record their twelfth studio album, “Let It Be.” Sixteen months later, the iconic band announced their break-up. What happened in that span of time has never been fully recounted until now. Director Peter Jackson, acclaimed for his World War I doc “They Shall Not Grow Old,” was given unprecedented access to more than 60 hours of in-studio footage never before seen to create this six-hour docuseries.
“Psych 3: This Is Gus” (comedic mystery, TV-14, Peacock, Nov. 18)
Hilarious psychic-but-not-really detective Shawn Spencer (James Roday) teamed up with Burton “Gus” Guster (Dule Hill) for eight seasons on “Psych”–and they keep coming back for more. All the cast returns for their third reunion film “This Is Gus,” as Gus gets married — but first he and Shawn must investigate the disappearance of someone close to Gus’s fiancee. Count on laughs and intrigue aplenty in a rare show that wears its heart on its sleeve.
“14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible” (documentary, R, Netflix, Nov. 29)
Despite Netflix doling out nine-figure budgets for two films, early takes indicate would-be blockbusters “Red Notice” (starring Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, and Dwayne Johnson) and “Don’t Look Up” (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) are unlikely to have enduring appeal. For those seeking thrills grounded in real-life, check out the top streamer’s climbing doc “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible.” In it, the Oscar-winning team behind “Free Solo” tracks the journey of a Nepali mountaineer to conquer all 14 summits worldwide higher than 8,000 meters – including Everest and K2 – in just seven months.
“Marvel Studios’ Hawkeye” (action/superhero limited series, TV-14, Disney Plus, Nov. 24)
The least-super Avenger hands off his bow and takes a bow in this six-episode event, set in New York City a few days before Christmas. As family man Clint Barton, Jeremy Renner looks like he’s having a blast in this preview–which takes more than a little inspiration from “Die Hard.” Sharpshooter Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) joins the MCU fold as she trades quips and tips with the OG Hawkeye.
Coming to Theaters
“American Underdog” (inspirational biopic, Dec. 25)
In the tradition of “Rudy” and “Invincible,” the true story of Kurt Warner’s remarkable debut NFL season arrives just in time for a family Christmas outing. Zachary Levi (“Shazam”) stars as Warner and Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (“The Piano“) as love interest Brenda, in events that reveal determination and grit both on and off the field.
“King Richard” (dramatic biopic, PG-13, also on HBO Max, Nov. 19)
“We got champions in the other room,” says Richard Williams (Will Smith), trying to convince tennis club owners and sponsors of his daughters’ athletic abilities. The father of Serena and Venus Williams was right, as the world would see years later.
Was “King Richard” overbearing in his rigorous training? Or did he foster his girls’ dreams? Smith portrays a complex real-life figure in a role that’s already getting serious Oscar buzz.
“West Side Story” (musical, PG-13, Dec. 10)
In more than five decades of moviemaking, director Steven Spielberg has never tackled a musical – until now, as he remakes this loose adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.” Sixty years after the silver screen debut of the original Sondheim-Bernstein Broadway hit, “West Side Story” retains its 1950s setting with new dance choreography brought to life by an ethnically diverse cast.
“The Chosen: The Messengers” (biblical drama, Dec. 1)
Recounting the first-century ministry of Jesus Christ, loosely based on the gospels, “The Chosen” has become a worldwide phenomenon. The crowdfunded TV series created by Dallas Jenkins has racked up more than 300 million views for its 16 episodes released so far (free online and via TV apps). Now it’s coming to the big screen via Fathom Events.
All-new episode “The Messengers” — not to be confused with the series’ low-budget 2017 pilot, also Christmas-themed — retells the Nativity story with grit and heart, reminding viewers what these holy days really mean.
“Belfast” (drama, PG-13, Nov. 12)
Audiences will have to wait ’til next year to enjoy “Death On the Nile,” another star-studded ensemble murder mystery from Kenneth Branagh. In the meantime, the celebrated filmmaker presents this partly autobiographical film that celebrates his roots in Ireland – revealing one boy’s formative years against the backdrop of violent social tumult in the 1960s.
“A Journal for Jordan” (war biopic, Dec. 22)
While he’s starred in dozens of hits, Denzel Washington has only directed a handful–including this heartrending story of a young dad who answered the call to serve his country. U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan) pursues his partner Dana (Tamara Tunie) prior to being deployed to Iraq in 2005. To prepare their son for life ahead, King wrote 200 pages of advice from the frontlines, as chronicled in an award-winning article and now this love story.
Holiday TV Movies
“When Hope Calls: A Country Christmas” (period drama, TV-PG, GAC Family, Dec. 18)
Set to premiere its ninth season on Hallmark next spring, family period drama “When Calls the Heart” from producers Michael Landon Jr. and Brian Bird has inspired a spin-off series called “When Hope Calls.” (Oddly, the spin-off airs on another network, GAC Family.) This Christmas, season two of “When Hope Calls” will find Lori Loughlin – who left the original show after being charged in the college admissions scandal – reprising her role as Abigail Stanton.
“Robin Robin” (animated holiday special, G, Netflix, Nov. 24)
In a time when loud, CGI-heavy animated flicks dominate, it’s a wonder that the exacting art of stop-motion animation still has a champion in British studio Aardman. Over this half-hour tale families will meet Robin, whose egg rolled out of her nest and led her to an unexpected family. It looks to be a fun story full of heart and light humor from the team that created “Chicken Run.”
“The Waltons’ Homecoming” (family drama, TV-PG, The CW, Nov. 28)
THE WALTONS’ HOMECOMING premieres on Sunday, Nov. 28 at 8pm on @TheCW
50 years after 1971's THE HOMECOMING introduced this Depression-era family, the remake retells it with a new cast
Richard Thomas ("John-Boy") takes over as narrator from creator Earl Hamner Jr, who died in 2016 pic.twitter.com/rWzppPDcb7
— Josh M Shepherd (@JoshMShep) October 22, 2021
Fifty years after the Depression-era story of a large family’s struggles and triumphs in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains premiered, their debut TV movie is getting the remake treatment. Richard Thomas, “John-Boy” in the original show, takes over narrating duties from late series creator Earl Hamner Jr. (1923-2016), as a new cast dramatizes the story of patriarch John Sr. trying to make it home for Christmas during a storm. While it’s not terrible as a TV flick, the original 1971 version better captures 1930s period details and families would be wise to seek out that one.
“Next Stop, Christmas” (romantic comedy, TV-PG, Hallmark Channel, Nov. 6)
Hallmark Channel, which is built on holiday movies, this year has 41 “new” (if entirely predictable) Christmas flicks coming. In a wall-to-wall holiday marathon, one of the first entries “Next Stop, Christmas” tells a time-travel yarn featuring two stars from “Back to the Future”: Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson.
Those seeking similar holiday fare will find Netflix getting in on the game, as “A Castle for Christmas” brings together 1980’s stars Cary Elwes (“The Princess Bride”) and Brooke Shields (“Sahara”). The rom-com lands Nov. 26 on the streamer.