Lincoln or FDR? PEOPLE's critic breaks down films with Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill Murray and Jennifer Lawrence

By PEOPLE Movie Critic Alynda Wheat
December 08, 2012 02:15 PM
Laurie Sparham

The hectic holidays are almost upon us, which means it’s the perfect time of year to head to the movies – provided you don’t get stuck with the cinematic equivalent of a fruitcake.

So arm yourself with this handy watch this/skip that weekend movie guide before your Aunt Mildred suggests a Red Dawn/Killing Them Softly double feature. (Seriously, don’t even entertain that idea.)

Watch This: Les Misérables
Something about a grand, old-fashioned musical turns me into a swooning, giddy thing. Weeks later, I’m still humming “Master of the House,” even though I don’t know all the words. But the emotions are what really linger – Hugh Jackman‘s stirring performance as Jean Valjean, the ex-con who becomes a hero, is only outdone by Anne Hathaway‘s brief but soulful turn as Fantine, the young mother who sells her body to feed her child. Sure, it’s maudlin and manipulative, but let’s be honest, musical theater nerds, isn’t that what we’re paying for?

Skip This: This is 40
The lesson from This Is 40: You can hire your wife and children to scream at some guy who’s not you and get paid for it! You can if you’re Judd Apatow, that is. If you’re not named Apatow, however, the movie can offer you a few solid laughs, lots of shrieking, several shots of Paul Rudd on the toilet and not much else. The action centers on the sidekick family from Knocked Up, played by Rudd, Apatow s wife, Leslie Mann, and their daughters, Maude and Iris, none of whom can communicate, manage money or be nice to each other. If you want to listen to that for two hours and 14 minutes, be my guest. But couldn’t you get that at home for free?

And This: Jack Reacher
One could skip Jack Reacher because the timing is just too raw to see a movie about a sniper who shoots innocent strangers. Or one could bypass the movie because it’s entirely forgettable, with only a passing resemblance to One Shot, the Lee Child book on which it’s based. Now, now – I’m not saying that movies need to be slaves to their source material. But when the character is supposed to be a 6-feet-5-inch-tall, 250-lb., golden-haired god of a man, I think Chris Hemsworth, not Tom Cruise. Reacher feels like Ethan Hunt, Cruise’s Mission: Impossible character, got bored and decided to play detective for awhile. “Fine, Ethan,” I muttered to myself, “but you’re not the only one who’s bored.”

Watch This, Pee First: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
You can start watching The Hobbit now, but you’re running out of time if you want to finish it before 2013. Lordy, is this first leg of Peter Jackson’s latest Middle-earth trilogy long – nearly three hours – but given that it made almost $85 million in its opening weekend, folks seem okay with that. I, for one, was glad to see the return of beloved characters from the Lord of the Rings, with Martin Freeman adding wonderful fussiness as Bilbo Baggins, helping the Dwarves reclaim their mountain home. But the tone of the film is strange: puerile and silly one moment, then deadly serious the next, as heads literally roll. (Spin-cycle alert: If you, like me, are prone to vertigo, try to see it in the 24 frames-per-second format.)

More from Alynda Wheat’s See It and Skip It List

Watch This: Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis could win another Oscar playing Lincoln, so you might as well get in on the conversation – especially since his Great Emancipator is so shrewd and funny. (Even so, James Spader is even more hilarious as a presidential influence peddler.) For those looking to actually learn a little something, no worries, the whole movie is one awesome episode of The West Wing: Top Hats and Bonnets. Bonus: Your family will think you’re all kinds of classy for suggesting it.

Skip That: Hyde Park on Hudson
You know it’s rough when the main character is the dullest person in the movie. Laura Linney plays Daisy Suckley, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (Bill Murray) cousin/girlfriend, but she’s so boring it’s impossible to tell why he’s into her. Sure, there’s a fun subplot about British royals coming to town, but it’s not enough to overcome Daisy Downer and President HeyMyEyesAreUpHere.

Be Sure to Catch This Other Thing: Silver Linings Playbook
As funny as it is unhinged, Playbook is an easy winner for (adult) family viewing. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence could grab Oscar nods for playing unbalanced neighbors with kooky chemistry. Plus, it’s great fun watching hilariously inappropriate people when you’re not actually related to them.

And What Do You Mean You Still Haven’t Seen: Skyfall
Let’s make a rule right now that all movie villains have to be played by Oscar winners, preferably Javier Bardem. You think I jest, but you’ll be with me once you see Bardem as the silky, sick Silva in one of the greatest spy thrillers ever made. He’s got an eye for the ladies – and one on a certain secret agent man. No wonder, even as a creaky Bond, Daniel Craig fills out the suit beautifully and does a hell of an acting job to boot. (When Bardem is your nemesis and Judi Dench is your boss, you step it up.)