A trip to Middle-earth has become something of a holiday tradition for many, but that’s all coming to an end with the release of the epic conclusion to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy this December. Anyone not into orcs and elves can cheer the release of two dark titles from Davids Fincher and Cronenburg, while Disney’s latest arrives in time to keep the kids happy. There’s something for everyone this holiday season, so escape the fried chicken and shopping nightmares with a trip to the cinema.

By Christopher O’Keeffe

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies—December 12

Director Peter Jackson redefined epic fantasy in cinema when he filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films back-to-back and released them over subsequent Christmases starting in 2001. The legion of fans the series generated clamored for more and Jackson duly obliged, making the controversial decision to beef up the much slimmer novel, The Hobbit, into a similarly mammoth three-part quest. Two installments in and we’ve seen reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins whisked away from his home in the quaint little Shire by a band of dwarves to traverse mountains, battle goblins and come face to face with the fearsome dragon Smaug. In this final installment, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, it all comes to a head as Dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield has some terrible decisions to make as the Necromancer’s hideous army of Orcs fast approaches. With war on the horizon, the good races of Dwarves, Elves and Men must find a way to triumph against the odds. Martin Freeman is back as Bilbo alongside Ian McKellen in the now legendary role of Gandalf the Grey and Richard Armitage as Thorin. Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee, and a host of familiar faces will also be returning to battle the army of darkness. While this isn’t the last of Tolkien’s writings on the history and legends of Middle-earth, we’re not likely to see any of the less famous works hitting the screen any time soon. Catch the final installment to what might be the most influential fantasy series of all time while you can.

Baymax (Big Hero 6)—December 20

Disney’s Frozen is a tough act for an animated feature to follow. A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale “The Snow Queen,” it conquered global box offices while picking up a couple of Oscars for its troubles. Confidently hailed as the best Disney film in years, it didn’t do too badly here in Japan either, becoming the third highest grossing film of all time thanks in no small part to ear-worm lead single “Let It Go.” While Disney Animation Studio’s latest, Big Hero 6 (its Japanese title is Baymax ), may not have the universal appeal of its predecessor, gamer kids are going to love this tale of cuddly robots, colorful superheroes and killer tech. Set in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, young Hiro Hamada is a robotics whiz who comes up with an incredible new invention before suffering the crushing loss of his beloved older brother, Tadashi. At his lowest point, Hiro accidently stumbles across Baymax, a bumbling, inflatable robot his brother invented before passing away. While Baymax isn’t exactly what the young genius’s idea of an awesome fighting machine should be, Hiro must learn to appreciate his brother’s gift for what it is. The film wears its heartfelt themes on its sleeve, but there’s still time for plenty of action as Hiro puts together a team of super-powered science kids to tackle a masked villain who has stolen his invention and is using it to terrorize the city.


Big Hero 6

Gone Girl—December 12

David Fincher has racked up an impressive back catalogue of thought-provoking hits in his career, including Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to name a few. Fincher has also whipped up storms of debate wherever his films have been released, and the director’s latest, Gone Girl, is proving to be no exception. Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a bar owner who returns home one day to find his front door open and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. With the police prying into the couple’s less-than-perfect marriage and the media whipping up a storm, Nick’s own suspicious behavior comes into question. Before long, people start to ask: Did Nick kill his wife? Affleck turns in a solid performance here in a dark and stylish thriller.


Ben Affleck in Gone Girl

Maps to the Stars—December 20

Having made his name in the eighties with intensely graphic science fiction flicks the likes of Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, director David Cronenburg needs little introduction. The filmmaker may have moved away from his horror roots in recent years, but he continues to put out some of the most interesting and edgy fare Hollywood has to offer. Maps to the Stars brings together an impressive cast that includes Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska and current muse Robert Pattinson to tell the story of an imploding Hollywood family. This sharp-toothed social satire skewers the lifestyles of the rich and famous while putting a sword to our celebrity-obsessed culture. The story focuses on one toxic Tinseltown family and the people around them as they fight to stay in the limelight. The film was chosen as the closer for last month’s Tokyo FILMeX festival just ahead of its general release this month.

Hundred Yen Love—December 20

Winner of the Japan Splash section at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, Hundred Yen Love represents the best Japanese independent cinema has to offer. Director Masaharu Take helms this tale of a young woman who works the late shift at a 100 yen shop after being forced into leaving home following a fight with her sister. The aimless young lady wanders lethargically through life before slowly getting drawn into training at a boxing gym she passes on her way home from work. The film is driven by an incredibly physical performance from lead Sakura Ando who pulls off an impressive physical change over the course of the film, developing from drifting loser to driven amateur boxer.


Sakura Ando stars in Hundred Yen Love

Best of the Rest

And the Mudship Sails Away—December 12
One of the best films in TIFF’s Japanese Splash section last year, this first feature from Hirobumi Watanabe follows selfish loser Takashi around his home town in a comedy that takes a rather surreal turn.

The Last: Naruto the Movie—December 6
Naruto is now in its 15th year. This latest cinematic adventure for the young ninja is his tenth movie and the first to officially be part of the long-running manga storyline.

Billy Elliot the Musical Live—December 5
Not a film as such. Instead, it’s the chance to catch the popular London West End stage show, about a young English boy who harbors dreams of dancing, on a Tokyo cinema screen.

Love, Rosie—December 12
Romantic comedy starring Hunger Games heartthrob Sam Claflin and Mortal Instruments star Lily Collins as two best friends who are forced apart by life but may yet find their way back together.