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By Noah Gittell

There once was a time when you could walk into a movie theater at any time of year and see a great, or at least entertaining film. Not anymore. Sure, we still have movie theaters (but maybe not for long), but the best, most complex films of any year get crammed into the final few months as they position themselves for Oscar season. The rest of the year we spend dodging two-dimensional superheroes and animated creatures.

This year, they all seem to be coming out in December. New films from Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Paul Thomas Anderson are on the docket, plus a few from up-and-coming masters. Here are six December releases I have seen and can actually recommend. Get watching.

The Shape of Water (December 1)

A fairy tale for adults, complete with violence and sexuality, “The Shape of Water” is the story of a woman who falls in love with a fish, and decides that fish are better than people. In this magical film by Guillermo del Toro, Sally Hawkins plays a janitor in a secret government lab during the height of the Cold War. When her boss (an extra villainous Michael Shannon) brings in a new creature — half-man, half-marine — that he aims to weaponize, she and her friends (Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins) hatch a plan to steal him from the lab and set him free.

Hawkins conveys a pure, open heart without speaking a word, and del Toro’s intelligent script turns what could have been a silly fable into a political allegory that commemorates compassion as the highest virtue.

Wonder Wheel” (December 1)

The annual release of a new Woody Allen film used to be an occasion for giddy anticipation, but no more. His off-set activities, given more resonance by the recent #MeToo campaign, have tarnished his entire oeuvre for many fans, and the quality of his films has diminished somewhat. In this case, the low expectations are a gift. Like his most recent work, “Wonder Wheel” could have used a second draft, and the dialogue is painfully on-the-nose (“I’ve become consumed with jealousy!”), but it is also his most dramatically taut and visually gorgeous films in years.

Set in Coney Island (where Allen grew up) in the 1950s, “Wonder Wheel” is a tragedy about a poor family (Kate Winslet, James Belushi) that takes in the husband’s estranged, grown daughter (Juno Temple), on the run from gangsters. Sharp acting all around, but it’s the vivid cinematography and lighting — depicting the murderous reds and tranquil blues of Coney Island — that steal the show.

I, Tonya (December 8)

Whatever your opinion is of Tonya Harding, “I, Tonya” is likely to change it. Margot Robbie is brilliant as the disgraced former figure skater who was famously implicated in her husband Jeff Gillooly’s plan to knee-cap her opponent Nancy Kerrigan. It’s a fast and funny story of crime and punishment in rural America that borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, but the performances by Robbie and Allison Janney, as Harding’s cold, abusive mother, are what keep things grounded in reality.

If you never thought you’d shed a tear over Tonya Harding, “I, Tonya” might prove you wrong.

Downsizing (December 22)

Director Alexander Payne specializes in small, human stories of the Midwest (“Election,” “Nebraska”), and his latest film turns those themes literal. Matt Damon plays an average joe who, to save money and lower his carbon footprint, shrinks himself by 90 percent and moves to a micro-community, where he lives among other little people. Payne isn’t above a few broad, size-based visual gags, but the script takes some surprising and thoughtful turns.

A story that starts in Omaha and ends on a fjord in Norway, “Downsizing” is a poignant eco-fable about how to live meaningfully in a crumbling world.

Phantom Thread (December 26)

The last time director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis collaborated, the result was 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” which netted Day-Lewis his second Best Actor Oscar and placed Anderson among the best filmmakers of his generation.

Anticipation is high for their latest film, “Phantom Thread,” especially since it is rumored to be Day-Lewis’ last film before retirement. Critics are not permitted to write about the film yet, but don’t worry, words can’t do it justice. You just need to see it for yourself.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (December 29)

One day, Annette Bening is going to get that Oscar. I just know it. She has been robbed twice —“American Beauty” and “Being Julia” — and both times by Hilary Swank. “Film Stars” may seem like prototypical Oscar bait, with Bening playing classic film star Gloria Grahame, but the film is beautifully shot and exceedingly well-acted.

The story is a little light — Grahame, diagnosed with cancer, returns to the home of a former lover (Jamie Bell), where they replay the past and struggle through the present — but the romantic tension between Bening and Bell is first-rate, and director Paul McGuigan composes some of the most gorgeous shots of any film this year.

Also:

James Franco directs and stars in a behind-the-scenes dramatization of the worst film ever made, “The Disaster Artist” (December 1).

Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup”) returns to filmmaking after a long absence with his old-folks-behaving-badly flick “Just Getting Started” (December 8).

Fans and sci-fi nerds everywhere eagerly await “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, the middle chapter in the new trilogy (December 15).

Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks team up for the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in “The Post” (December 22).


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