Films that make for great holiday movie binge

Many take advantage of the days off around the holidays to go to the movies.

Since I don’t make it to as many press screenings as I used to, I tried to catch up with a few of the awards front-runners during my time off before and after Christmas.

Like a gambler on a good run, I’m on a hot streak. I saw four movies and if I still did a top 10 list, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have any of them on it.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which opened last week at Cinema South in Boardman, has a plot that could be a Lifetime movie in lesser hands — a mother goes to extreme measures to get justice for her slain daughter.

But Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes isn’t a teary-eyed heroine pleading for help. She’s blunt and confrontational, more inclined to embarrass the local police to help rather than beg them for help. And her efforts ultimately go well beyond embarrassing billboards.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) has a gift for hilariously profane dialogue, but “Billboards” has a complexity and unpredictability that makes it stand out from his other films. McDonagh and McDormand almost dare the audience to stay in Mildred’s corner as her actions become less defensible.

Woody Harrelson’s sheriff isn’t corrupt, incompetent or uncaring (like Mildred, he has a wicked sense of humor and his own moral compass). Even the racist, drunken, hotheaded officer (Sam Rockwell) isn’t reduced to a stereotype.

Talented actors (Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges) fill some important smaller roles, and the strength of the performances makes some of the leaps the story takes easier to accept.

Anyone with a Netflix subscription can watch “Mudbound,” which has a shot a collecting some Oscar nominations this month.

Set in Mississippi in the 1930s and ’40s, it tells the story of two families, one white and one black, who are bound to the same muddy farm in different ways.

Director Dee Rees, who co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, explores issues of race and gender, showing the everyday slights that can wear a person down as well as the harshest cruelties.

It’s best exploring the friendship between Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), the ne’er-do-well brother of the farm’s owner, and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the oldest son of the black family that works the land. Both are World War II veterans having difficulties adjusting to life back home. Jamie is haunted by his WWII experiences while Ronsel bristles at being a second-class citizen in Mississippi after being treated as a conquering hero in Europe.

“Lady Bird” still is playing in Boardman and had a short run in Niles in December. It likely will return this month if it collects as many Academy Award nominations as expected.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig shows incredible attention to detail in telling this mother-daughter story about a high school senior who feels out of place in her central California town and struggling middle-class family. Every song, every piece of clothing, every poster on a bedroom wall helps define the characters.

Saoirse Ronan as the daughter and Laurie Metcalf as the mother are certain Oscar nominees for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. The bond between them always is evident, even as that love fuels some of their most heated clashes. Ronan’s awkward interactions with prospective boyfriends, played by Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet, also feel achingly real.

The one I enjoyed the most I’ll say the least about, which is “I, Tonya,” the story of figure skater Tonya Harding. It goes into wide release on Jan. 12, so I’m hoping it opens locally so I can do a review next week. But let me say while Metcalf may be the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress for “Lady Bird,” there is no more memorable mother and supporting performance than Allison Janney as Harding’s mom.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com

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