La La Land
With the most electric opening sequence of the year — topping even the slow-motion car-crash credit sequence of Deadpool — La La Land informs you immediately that it's here to party, and ought to be taken seriously. Currently one of three buzzy favorites for the top Oscars (along with Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea), it will no doubt appeal to Hollywood for its homage to musicals of old. It is, after all, a love story. Our star-crossed duet is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an old-school jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress. On the boulevards and landmarks and backlots of L.A., Sebastian and Mia grapple with familiar artistic questions — Is change a betrayal of tradition? Can one justify selling out for material benefits? — while singing and tap-dancing their way to romance. Romance, just like musicals, we learn, can be both timeless and very, very modern. Directed by Damien Chazelle, the musically oriented wizard who made Whiplash in 2014, La La Land emits an equal affection for music and the artist's wayward path. It does so with a splashy panache that announces itself as a Beta Model, a millennial edition. Gosling and Stone leave quite a bit to be desired on the musical side, but Chazelle — thank heaven — is a cinematic artist with a vision and an angle. And this one's a gem. — Sam Allard
With his latest film, Sing, writer-director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) imagines what an American Idol/America's Got Talent competition would be like if the contestants were animated animals. That's roughly the premise of this kids' flick that centers on Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a bumbling koala bear who runs a musical theater on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to save his floundering business, he decides to stage a talent competition. During auditions, he picks a motley crew of singers to perform while his BFF, a spoiled Suffolk sheep (John C. Reilly), tries to help as best he can (turns out, the kid's a pretty good sound man). The contestants include true underdogs such as the following: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a pig who struggles to raise 25 unruly children without much help from her ornery husband Norman (Nick Offerman); Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant who can really wail but suffers from debilitating stage fright; Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a street musician mouse with an ego the size of a suitcase; the son of a gorilla mobster (Taron Egerton) who doesn't want to follow in his father's criminal-minded footsteps; and a punk rock porcupine (Scarlett Johansson). The actors give terrific performances, and the songs hit the mark too. Too bad the film takes too long to arrive at its feel-good conclusion. — Jeff Niesel
Essentially stealing its premise from the far funnier Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers/Little Fockers, Why Him, a raunchy comedy starring Bryan Cranston and James Franco, focuses on a first encounter between Ned Fleming (Cranston), an overprotective father, and Laird Mayhew (Franco), the lewd fellow who happens to be boning his college-aged daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch). Since Stephanie hasn't told her parents anything about Laird, they're in for a shock when they first meet the guy on a Christmas break visit to see Stephanie. The tech mogul puts them up at his mansion where he and his assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) stage Pink Panther-like sneak attacks on one another on a regular basis. For Ned, who runs a printing press that's on the verge of going out of business because it's so outdated, much of Laird's world seems completely foreign. This contrast makes for the movie's best jokes; in one funny scene, Ned can't figure out how to work Laird's high-tech toilet. Too often, the movie settles for the predictable as Ned and Laird, a tattooed guy who regularly drops the f-bomb and makes all sorts of inappropriate remarks about Stephanie, struggle to bond. While Ben Stiller portrays the hapless Gaylord "Greg" Focker as a loveable loser, the smirking Franco never makes Laird the least bit likeable. — Niesel
Natalie Portman took home Best Actress honors for her performance in Black Swan in 2010. She's a good bet to be nominated once again this year for her striking portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie, a funereal dirge that chronicles the harried aftermath of JFK's assassination in 1963. Exiled to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, Jackie tells the story of her husband's presidency and its bloody finale in Dallas to a nameless reporter (Billy Crudup), editing the narrative that would become the world's glimpse into the Kennedy's lives. Portman is a revelation as the first lady, nailing her mannerisms and her breathy speaking voice. The rest of the movie is a somber rehash. It's important, of course, to have fresh perspectives on infamous events, and even more important when those perspectives are through the eyes of people who've been relegated to history's sidelines. But even for history buffs, beyond the recurring pleasure of Portman's mimicry, the voyeur's thrill at the gore of the assassination, and the physical resemblance of Danish actor Caspar Phillipson to JFK, this is not a film to be enjoyed. It's one to be withstood.