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.
Eight movies ripped from the headlines (or the history books):
• “Ford v Ferrari”
Starring: Matt Damon, Christian Bale.
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. 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. (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 expose 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. 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. (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.” (Nov. 27, PG-13)
• “Richard Jewell”
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm.
Hauser 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. 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. 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)
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. (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. (Nov. 22, R)
• “Knives Out”
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, 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. For fans of old-school murder mystery, 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? (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 have finally come to an end. 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. (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. This 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, Timothee 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. Ronan plays headstrong Jo, an aspiring writer. (Dec. 25, PG)