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THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY. It's not absolutely necessary to see The Best Man (1999) to get something out of this; I managed to enjoy it without even knowing it was a sequel. However, since it eschews helpful exposition on the way to a ponderous two-hour-plus running time, the uninitiated (me included) may spend some time attempting to catch up.

After 15 years of building lives mostly apart from one another, a group of varyingly successful young professionals gather for Christmas at the mansion of one of their number, Lance (Morris Chestnut). Lance is a legendary NFL running back on the verge of the all-time rushing record and retirement. He also has a beautiful young family with Mia (Monica Calhoun), a legacy of faith and service, and an estranged former best friend. Harper (Taye Diggs), the friend in question, is a once bestselling novelist with an unsellable new manuscript, a very pregnant wife (Sanaa Lathan) and a mountain of unpaid bills from fertility clinics. At the prodding of his literary agent, Harper begrudgingly joins the holiday weekend with an ulterior motive: to coax Lance into a celebrity biography, complete with a sizable advance for Harper.

Also in the mix: married couple Julian (Harold Perrineau) and Candace (Regina Hall), whose school/nonprofit is in jeopardy after a wealthy, holier-than-thou patron discovers a dubious incident from Candace's past; Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), a reality-TV villain and Julian's catty, over-sexed former fiancée; Quentin (Terrence Howard), a dope-smoking oddball with a flourishing consulting career; and Jordan (Nia Long), a powerful TV executive and former would-be flame of Harper's.

It's an awful lot to keep track of, particularly since the characters' dramatic arcs intersect at too many points to count. In addition, writer-director Malcolm D. Lee refuses to shy from throwing in everything he can think of to pluck at our heartstrings. In spite — or maybe because — of the shagginess of the narrative and pointed sentimentality, The Best Man Holiday actually succeeds in an over-the-top, "God bless us, every one!" sort of a vein. It has moments of genuine tragedy, a heavy emphasis on faith as complicated but crucial and, at bottom, themes of love, friendship and inter-dependence without shame.

I'm by no stretch a sucker for Christian melodrama, but even I found myself caught up in the highs and lows of this one. It's strategically designed as a tear-jerker, and it works, despite feeling overstuffed, overlong and more than a little heavy-handed. (As a cherry on top, The Best Man Holiday made almost as much at the weekend box office as Thor: The Dark World. But this one made back twice its budget, which amounts to 10 percent of Thor's. Which seems like the better investment to you?) R. 124m.

12 YEARS A SLAVE exists as a thing apart from most every other film we've seen this year. A model of restraint, psychological realism and the horrors of our history, it resonates not only as art, but as a necessary cultural document.

Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) directs John Ridley's adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir. The story describes the period during which Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well-educated, free black man living in New York, is betrayed, stripped of his identity and sold into slavery in the plantation system of the American South.

For more than a decade, he has no real contact with the world beyond the hell of his immediate surroundings, leaving behind a family with no knowledge of his fate. To think about this briefly is enough to make me feel like I am drowning. McQueen points his camera at it and holds it there, unflinchingly, for every minute of two hours. It's not easy going, but the director accomplishes his goal without shock tricks. The movie is undeniably hard to deal with, even without pushing the bloody violence. There are within it moments of putrid physical abuse, but they are almost easier to take than the sustained psychological horror of the story.

Initially, Northup has the "good fortune" to be sold to a plantation owner with at least a modicum of sympathy. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) treats Northup with decency, but is unprepared to transgress on the master/slave dynamic. When Northup runs afoul of an ignorant young sadist on the payroll (Paul Dano, great as always), Ford defends him, but sells him — ostensibly for his own protection — to a fascist inebriate named Epps (Michael Fassbender), much readier with the whip than a kind word, and with a wife perhaps crueler than he.

McQueen favors simplicity, using long, carefully assembled takes, natural light and slow, subtle tracking shots to build a sustained atmosphere of dread and inevitability. He seems to inspire great confidence among his cast, as they all give open, vulnerable performances, whether they are showing us a character's humanity or apparent lack thereof. Ejiofor and long-time McQueen collaborator Fassbender are especially riveting in their scenes together. When, in the dark of night, Northup must scramble to manipulate Epps in a moment of bloodlust, it's almost as if the frame disappears and we're front row at an awful trial, watching a man defend his life with words. A truly remarkable scene, with McQueen and the actors at the top of their game: sheer simplicity, made literally breathtaking. R. 134m.

— John J. Bennett

Previews

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Matthew McConaughey sacrifices his abs to play an ailing, HIV-positive bull rider who smuggles treatment drugs. With Jared Leto. R. 117m.

THE DELIVERY MAN. Vince Vaughn sires 533 children and it's not a horror movie. With Chris Pratt as his doughy foil. PG13. 103m.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Katniss and Peeta are back for a victory lap and more battle in this dystopian sequel. PG13. 146m.

Continuing

ABOUT TIME. Boy uses time travel powers to — wait for it — get a girl. Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams give it their adorable best in this conventional rom-com. R. 123m.

BAD GRANDPA. Jackass ringleader Johnny Knoxville entertains as an old guy hitting the road (and everything else) with his grandkid. R. 92m.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Tom Hanks is beset by Somali pirates in a charged and riveting drama. PG13. 134m.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. The 3-D sequel goes a little Dr. Moreau when food creatures populate an island and hero Flint (Bill Hader) has to stop them. PG. 95m.

ENDER'S GAME. Young genius Ender (Asa Butterfield) is tapped by the military elite to save the planet from alien bugs in this entertaining adaptation of the cult novel. PG13. 114m.

FREE BIRDS. Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson voice animated time-traveling turkeys off to change Thanksgiving's main course. Yes, you just read that. PG. 91m.

GRAVITY. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are adrift in space. It's the best of sci-fi with a real human story. PG13. 90m.

LAST VEGAS. The Bucket List meets The Hangover with Hollywood's senior chairmen, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro and Kevin Kline, in a film that doesn't deserve them. PG 105m.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD. Son of Odin! Hot Norse gods and CG effects everywhere, but not a viable story in sight. PG13. 112m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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