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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Make sure you don’t miss these big-screen ventures

One of the biggest questions that comes up this time of year involves holiday movies. And the leading one of the bunch involves the movies you should see and those you shouldn't waste any time on. So here's my attempt to provide an answer.

Movies that you should see:

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." I haven't read the novels, and I didn't like the first entry in what is going to be a four-film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic series. But everything about this sequel is better than the first: the setting, the special effects, the acting, the characterizations, all of it. It ensures that I will be buying tickets to the next one.

"12 Years a Slave." Steve McQueen (who has a great name) does something that I didn't think possible: He brings a new twist to the sordid tale of America's slave trade. Adapting a 160-year-old memoir, McQueen both immerses us in the real world of slavery and does so by portraying some of the most intense sequences ever put on screen. Watching it washed "Django" right out of my mind.

"Philomena." Thanks to the cleverness of British comedy actor Steve Coogan, what could have been just another sappy Hollywood melodrama ends up being a touching, poignant study of a woman's half-century-long search for her long-lost son. Judi Dench and Coogan co-star in Stephen Frears' tender adaptation of Martin Sixsmith's nonfiction book.

"Gravity." If you haven't yet seen this non-stop, heart-stopping trick of a sci-fi flick, you still have time. After 10 minutes of slow foreplay, director Alfonso Cuaron puts us on a cinematic roller-coaster that demands to be seen in 3-D IMAX.

"Captain Phillips." Another film based on a real story, this one stars Tom Hanks as the captain of a merchant ship that gets boarded by Somali pirates. Directed by the immensely talented Paul Greengrass, it puts us directly in the crew's seats — and confronts us with all the attendant conflicting emotions. Hanks, in the final scenes, has never been better.

"Blue Is the Warmest Color." This controversial winner of the Palme d'Or, awarded by the Cannes Film Festival, is best known for having some of the most graphic sex scenes ever filmed for a non-porn movie. That may be so. But the film itself is a genuine look at the pangs of young love, embodied by a pair of brave actresses — Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos.

"Dallas Buyers Club." Overlooked by the Motion Picture Academy for several past performances, Matthew McConaughey may have scored this time as Ron Woodruff, a real-life character who — both because he wanted to get rich and fight injustice — fought the federal government over drugs aimed at treating AIDS. If only the film had an actual ending …

Those are the films already playing in theaters. I won't go into the ones you should skip. They should be obvious.