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Holiday movie preview 2016: From 'Fantastic Beasts' to 'Rogue One', all the films you need to see

By Bruce Kirkland, Special to Postmedia Network

Clockwise from top: "Assassin’s Creed," "Moana," "Fantastic Beasts" and Where to Find Them" and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story."

Clockwise from top: "Assassin’s Creed," "Moana," "Fantastic Beasts" and Where to Find Them" and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story."

The holiday season is critical in North America, so Hollywood is happy to give audiences what filmmakers think they want. Here are the 10 biggest titles being offered from now through the end of December:

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Nov. 18): Harry Potter is decades from being born when this prequel begins in 1926 in New York City — and he never figures into the franchise to come. But the familiar wizarding world created by Potter author J.K. Rowling returns with fresh magic, a new setting, fantastical animals, engaging characters and gossamer threads connecting this franchise with the Potter era. The protagonist is eccentric English wizard Newt Scamander, who eventually pens the Beasts book Harry studies at Hogwarts. Scamander is played with a ragged edge by an Oscar-winner, Eddie Redmayne, who makes Newt charming without losing his idiosyncratic personality. This is the first of five Beasts titles being conjured by Rowling herself, in her screenwriting debut.

Moana (Nov. 23): As the 56th animated feature from Walt Disney Studios, this new adventure obviously has credentials and promise. Co-directed by Disney vets John Musker and Ron Clements (whose credits include The Little Mermaid), this is a female hero journey set in Polynesia. Hawaiian teen Auli'i Cravalho debuts in the title role while Dwayne Johnson, an American with Samoan and Canadian heritage, voices the demigod Maui.

Rules Don’t Apply (Nov. 23): Actor-filmmaker Warren Beatty, who has not directed a feature since his biting political satire Bulworth (1998), re-emerges at 79 with a Hollywood romance set in 1958. Beatty directs himself as the notorious womanizer and tycoon Howard Hughes. Co-stars include Beatty’s actress-wife, Annette Bening, with Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich as the young lovers in conflict with Hughes.

Bad Santa 2 (Nov. 23): Bah humbug … with profane humour! Billy Bob Thornton reprises his role as the criminally-minded mall Santa with the foul tongue and the little-person sidekick. That means Tony Cox, who once played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi, gets to romp with Thornton again as his Christmas Elf. But original director Terry Zwigoff is replaced with Mark Waters (Vampire Academy).

Office Christmas Party (Dec. 9): With Jennifer Aniston cast as the meanie — a CEO who imposes her iron will — this Yuletide comedy stars Jason Bateman as the ringleader of a group of disenfranchised employees. They throw a raucous party to impress a client, hoping to save their jobs. Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory) co-direct.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dec. 16): Set in time between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, this Star Wars film is the first of the standalone titles that will become the Star Wars Anthology. It is therefore unrelated to The Force Awakens and its characters. In this spinoff, a femme Rebel fighter (Felicity Jones) heads a mission to steal the architectural plans for the infamous Death Star of the original Star Wars. Gareth Edwards (from the latest incarnation of Godzilla) directs this potential blockbuster.

Assassin’s Creed (Dec. 21): The video game franchise gives rise to a movie directed by Justin Kurzel. This is always a risk, but the filmmakers hope a new story and plot will bring success, while maintaining a fantasy world gamers already know. The superb British actor Michael Fassbender stars, so that is hopeful, too.

Passengers (Dec. 21): Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt co-star in a romance set in a futuristic sci-fi universe among the stars. This is Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum’s first project since his fascinating WWII drama, The Imitation Game.

Sing (Dec. 21): An anthropomorphic musical and 3D animation featuring a koala voiced by Matthew McConaughey … plus 85 classic songs we already know and a new tune co-written by Stevie Wonder! I mean, what could go wrong? Director Gareth Jennings (formerly one half of Hammer & Tongs) takes us on a comedy adventure.

Why Him? (Dec. 23): Grumpy-bear Bryan Cranston has to decide if overbearing James Franco is the suitable suitor for his daughter, played by Zoey Deutch. That means John Hamburg’s Hollywood movie is a romantic comedy played for the big laughs and hugs, just when we need it the most during the holidays.

DISSECTING THE OSCAR BAIT

For prestige and the possibility of Oscar nominations, Hollywood still cares about quality (as long as there is still a profit to be made). Here are the 10 titles being offered from now through the end of December that suggest that Oscar-bait is being chummed into the waters of the 2016 holiday season:

Nocturnal Animals (Nov. 18 in select cities; Nov. 25 wide): Fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford made waves at the Toronto International Film Festival with his ultra-stylish psychological thriller. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal co-star as exes caught in a struggle between the violent written word and real life.

Allied (Nov. 23): In the midst of his breakup with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt co-stars with sensual French superstar Marion Cotillard in spy thriller/romance set during WWII. Pitt stars as a Canadian spy operating in North Africa in the 1940s, with Cotillard playing a French spy who may, or may not, be a double agent for the Nazis.

Manchester by the Sea (Nov. 25 in select cities; Dec. 9 wide): It is fascinating to contemplate that Casey Affleck may be competing with his older brother, Ben Affleck, for a best actor nom. Critics and festival audiences have acclaimed Casey’s work in Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama as a career-making performance worthy of awards. So Ben could be in tough. Casey’s film is an intimate look at humanity in emotional crisis, with Michelle Williams co-starring.

Jackie (Dec 2 in select cities): Director Pablo Larrain collaborated with Natalie Portman on a career-changing role as U.S. first lady Jackie Kennedy. Set at the time of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the film chronicles this tragedy from the perspective of JFK’s wife. On the film fest circuit, including in Toronto, Portman generated rapturous reviews for her performances, pushing her into the Oscar conversation as best actress for 2016.

Lion (Dec. 9; Dec. 21 wide): Australian Garth Davis makes his directorial debut with an emotional, true-life drama about a young man (Dev Patel) looking for his roots after being lost, and adopted by Aussies, at the age of five. Based on the non-fiction book, A Long Way Home, the film also stars Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara and David Wenham.

Collateral Beauty (Dec. 16): Will Smith, fresh from Suicide Squad, gets dramatic with an all-star ensembles in a new film from director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada). Smith’s disillusioned advertising exec struggles with life as he writes letters to the metaphysical entities Death, Time and Love, eliciting unexpected responses in the real world.

Patriot’s Day (Dec. 21 in select cities; Jan. 13 wide): Mark Wahlberg re-teams with director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon) for a film set against the real-life tragedy of the terrorist attack of 2013 at the Boston Marathon. Wahlberg plays a Boston cop who is part of the manhunt and investigation in the aftermath of the bombing.

Live by Night (Dec. 25 in select cities; Jan. 13 wide): As producer, screenwriter and star, Ben Affleck returns to his own brand of filmmaking with a serious drama about a gangster of the 1920s and ‘30s. Leaving Batman behind, for the moment, Affleck plays the wayward son of a Boston police captain. After moving to Florida, the character becomes a notorious rum-runner and hoodlum. Elle Fanning is part of Affleck’s strong supporting cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is among the producers.

La La Land (Dec. 25): Director and drummer Damien Chazelle may have a tough sell because this is a jazzy Hollywood musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone But the early word on the film after it played the Toronto filmfest is wildly enthusiastic. So wider audiences should give it a look before it gets its Oscar accolades.

Fences (Dec. 25): Written by acclaimed playwright August Wilson, and co-produced by serious-minded film executives in Canada and the U.S., this drama is set in Pittsburgh. Denzel Washington directs and also stars in the film version of Wilson’s play about a retired Negro Leagues ballplayer who is forced to work as a garbage collector to support his family in the 1950s. Wilson held out for years before selling the film rights, because he wanted a director of African heritage to take on the assignment. Wilson found his man in Washington, both behind the camera and on-screen.

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

BKirkland@postmedia.com