Santa's workshop isn't the only production facility where the output is binary: What you get - a lump of coal or a shiny new toy - depends on whether you've been naughty or nice. Hollywood also operates in polarities, a division made more acute this time of year, when movies as entertainment are counterbalanced by Films of Substance - as often as not, ones that are based on true stories.
That doesn't mean that fiction is all fun and games, nor that fact-based films also can't be richly enjoyable. It depends on what you like.
For that reason, this holiday movie guide offers not one but two shopping lists: the first for the moviegoer with a taste for verisimilitude, and the second for anyone looking to get away from all that.
Opening dates and ratings are subject to change.
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Eight movies ripped from the headlines (or the history books):
- "Ford v Ferrari"
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale.
As the title suggests, this underdog sports drama is about a car race: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an annual French endurance competition that, in 1966, pitted the Ford GT40 Mark II against Ferrari's 330 P3 after Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his lieutenant Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) got it into their heads to take on the Italians. But the central tension is between more than two car companies - one seen as a stodgy, and unlikely, upstart, the other the flashy favorite. It's also about the conflict, and ultimate partnership, between two very different men, both racing legends and both, despite butting heads, on the same team. Damon plays the implacable American Carroll Shelby, a previous Le Mans winner brought on by Ford to design its new muscle car, and Bale is British driver Ken Miles, a hothead who Shelby hopes will be Ford's ticket to victory. (Nov. 15, PG-13)
- "Honey Boy"
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe.
With a screenplay by LaBeouf that began as a therapeutic exercise during a court-ordered rehab stay, the sometimes-controversial actor's semi-autobiographical telling of his troubled childhood and youth in Hollywood is sure to have confessional elements. Jupe and Hedges play the young performer Otis - a character loosely based on LaBeouf, who began acting as a teenager - at various ages. As for LaBeouf, he plays a version of his own father: a volatile, sometimes-abusive addict who nevertheless loves his son. Because that description sounds, in some ways, like LaBeouf himself, "Honey Boy" - which plays fast and loose with time and reality - feels like the actor's way of exorcising demons that are personal and parental. (Nov. 15, R)
- "The Report"
Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm.
It's interesting to compare this film, inspired by the Senate staffer who wrote what's come to be known as the "Torture Report" - an exposé of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the wake of 9/11 - with "The Laundromat," the recent movie about the Panama Papers. Both films are about whistleblowing. Both were written by Scott Z. Burns (who also directs here), and both have Steven Soderbergh's fingerprints all over them. (The auteur directed "Laundromat." Here, he's just a producer.) But the approaches could not be more different. Where "Laundromat" was a darkly funny comedy with lots of fourth-wall-breaking, "The Report" - in which Driver plays an aide to Bening's Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. - plays it completely straight. It might just be the most wonky-Washington movie ever made, one in which a whiteboard features so prominently, it deserves a screen credit. (Nov. 15, R)
- "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys.
While last year's acclaimed Mr. Rogers documentary is still fresh in all our minds, a drama based on the late children's TV host hits theaters. Inspired by Tom Junod's 1998 profile of Fred Rogers in Esquire magazine, "Beautiful Day" tells the story of the friendship that develops between Rogers (Hanks) and a cynical and slightly damaged reporter (Rhys), who has only reluctantly accepted this new assignment. Director Marielle Heller ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?") has an obvious affinity for such flawed characters, and frames the story (by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) as an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," zooming out from the miniature village featured in the opening credits of the TV show to include a tiny copy of New York City - a metaphor for the big, scary world encompassed in Rogers's cheerful philosophy. (Nov. 22, not yet rated)
- "Dark Waters"
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp.
Ruffalo, who also produced this true-life drama, transforms himself into the slightly nebbishy attorney Robert Bilott, who bucked his employer - a Cincinnati law firm known for defending corporate clients - to take on the DuPont chemical company when the drinking water in a West Virginia community appeared to have been contaminated by an ingredient used to make Teflon. Based on a 2016 New York Times article, and coming out on the heels of a new book by Bilott, the film is an effective outrage machine in the mold of "Erin Brockovich" - a real departure for director Todd Haynes, who has never previously dipped into fact-based filmmaking. (Nov. 27, PG-13)
- "Richard Jewell"
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm.
Hauser, so memorable as Jeff Gillooly's co-conspirator Shawn Eckhardt in the movie "I, Tonya," takes center stage as the title character in this tale of the security guard who found a bomb during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Based on a 1997 article in Vanity Fair about how Jewell - a chubby nobody who dreamed of becoming a cop - went from hero to prime suspect, director Clint Eastwood's latest film promises to showcase Hauser's ability to find the humanity in characters who might otherwise be easy to caricature. (Dec. 13, not yet rated)
- "A Hidden Life"
Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner.
The story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II who refused to fight for the Nazis, has been dramatized before, in a 1971 movie made for Austrian TV. But this is only the second time that writer-director Terrence Malick ("The Tree of Life") has looked to real life for inspiration. Could there be a reason that this film - a Palme d'Or nominee at Cannes, and winner of the François Chalet Prize, awarded to films that embody journalistic values - is out now, when speaking truth to power is so under attack in America? As Jagerstatter (Diehl) asks in the film, "If our leaders - if they're evil, what does one do?" (Dec. 20, PG-13)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon.
A recommendation: Watch the 2018 documentary "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" before you settle into this story of the sexual harassment allegation that brought down the late, former CEO and chairman of Fox News (played here by Lithgow). Of course, the two movies are not the same thing at all. "Divide" explores Ailes's psyche, while "Bombshell" focuses on some of the women who brought accusations against him: notably Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, played by Theron and Kidman. (Robbie portrays a fictional character: a Fox News associate producer named Kayla Pospisil.) But the Ailes doc is a useful primer, reminding viewers of just how powerfully - and with how much impunity - this man wielded his authority. (Dec. 20, not yet rated)
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And eight movies for escapists:
- "Frozen II"
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Jason Ritter.
The character of Elsa (voice of Menzel) was, in the 2013 animated hit musical "Frozen," a rarity among Disney heroines in that she did not have a romantic relationship. Whether that will change in the eagerly anticipated new sequel is still a mystery, as is almost everything else about it. What we do know: Elsa - along with her little sister Anna (Bell), outdoorsman Kristoff (Groff), Olaf the snowman (Gad) and Sven the reindeer - embark on a journey to an enchanted forest to save their kingdom from a new threat. There are so many unanswered questions surrounding the film, a continuation of a saga inspired by a Hans Christian Anderson fable. Will its new songs, once again co-written by the husband-and-wife duo of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, repeat the magic of the first film? Do fans even want a sequel? If you have to ask, as Olaf might say, you really don't know anything about love, do you? (Nov. 22, PG)
- "21 Bridges"
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, J.K. Simmons, Sienna Miller.
Boseman, the charismatic star of Marvel's "Black Panther," heads the cast of this crime thriller, playing a New York police detective in charge of a manhunt for a pair of cop-killers - one so massive it involves locking down the whole island of Manhattan, and every way in or out. Sound far-fetched? Just a little. Produced by brothers Anthony and Joseph Russo, whose last project was directing the Marvel movie "Avengers: Endgame," the action film comes with little other pedigree. Its Irish director, Brian Kirk, is best known for his work on "Game of Thrones" and other TV shows. But it's Boseman who will fill the seats, while we wait for his next prestige film: an adaptation of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," co-starring Viola Davis and produced by Denzel Washington. (Nov. 22, R)
- "Knives Out"
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer.
The new film by writer-director Rian Johnson ("Brick," "Looper," "Star Wars: The Last Jedi") is a darkly comic, deliciously nasty murder mystery - the love child of Agatha Christie and David Mamet - about the greedy heirs of a recently deceased mystery writer (Plummer). His death is being investigated as a possible murder by a private detective, played by Craig, who adopts a Southern accent halfway between Foghorn Leghorn and Colonel Sanders. For fans of old-school murder mystery, a genre that has fallen into disfavor, this contemporary take - part parody, part loving homage - is a treat. (Nov. 27, PG-13)
- "Little Joe"
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw.
Beecham ("Hail, Caesar!") won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her performance as a plant breeder who develops a species of antidepressant flower - one whose scent, or pollen, seems to make people happy. But does it really? The first English-language feature from Austrian director Jessica Hausner ("Lovely Rita") is said to be a kind of understated horror flick, a subtle but sustained creep-out that evokes "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" more than the work of her contemporary arthouse-horror peer Ari Aster. (Dec. 6, not yet rated)
- "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega.
It only feels like it has been a thousand generations (to put it in Jedi terms), but after 42 long years, the three interconnected "Star Wars" trilogies - the original films, the prequels and the sequels - have finally come to an end. The sci-fi epic known as the Skywalker Saga, which began in 1977 with the film that has come to be known as "A New Hope," wraps up with this ninth installment. Directed by J.J. Abrams, "The Rise of Skywalker" hints, tantalizingly, that Ridley's heroic Rey, seen wearing a black hood and carrying a double red lightsaber in footage released at this summer's D23 Expo, may have crossed over to the dark side. (Dec. 20, not yet rated)
Starring: James Corden, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellan, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson.
When the frankly bizarre trailer dropped for the new film adaptation of the famed stage musical, with songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber inspired by the cat poetry of T.S. Eliot, the world divided itself into two camps: those who thought the movie looked like the most ridiculous thing they had ever seen, and those who couldn't wait for it to come out. (There may actually be a lot of overlap between those two groups.) Dame Judi and Tay Tay in digital fur? Either you're there for it or you're not. (Dec. 20, PG)
- "Uncut Gems"
Starring: Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, LaKeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, the Weeknd.
It looks like the people who have long hoped that Adam Sandler would stop making dumb comedies and return to the promise he exhibited in such films as "Punch Drunk Love" and "Spanglish" may be starting to get more of their wish. After his sensitive, subtle turn in Noah Baumbach's 2017 "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)," the clownish actor returns to serious form in this latest offering from sibling filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie ("Good Time"). The dramedy tells the story of Howard Ratner (Sandler), a brash New York jeweler and compulsive gambler who is pulled along by a string of debts, lies and wild misfortunes. One thing you can be sure of with any Safdie Brothers film: You can never be sure where it's going to take you from one minute to the next. (Dec. 25, R)
- "Little Women"
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig's follow-up to her filmmaking debut, the multi-Oscar-nominated "Lady Bird," is an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel about four Massachusetts sisters during the Civil War (loosely based on Alcott's own family). Ronan, returning from her title role in "Lady Bird," plays headstrong Jo, an aspiring writer. Gerwig, who as an 11-year-old played that character in a community theater production, has said, "As a girl, my heroine was Jo. As a woman, it's Louisa May Alcott." Parts of all three - the writer Alcott, the character Jo and Gerwig herself - seem to have found their way into this new telling of the story. (Dec. 25, PG)