The holiday season is in full swing and if you’re like me, you’re trying to find the balance of holiday spirit and newfound, titles for your December watchlist. There’s certainly no shortage of stuff to choose from, but in the sea of streaming libraries finding the next right one can be daunting. Allow me to help.
Each month, I compile a short-list of worthwhile movies waiting to be unearthed from the algorithms of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and the like. Because life’s too short to watch the wrong stuff.
Here are a few entertaining flicks of both the holiday and non-holiday persuasion that will upgrade your “To-Watch” list for the month.
Here’s what Election delivered under the radar:
- A career making performance (Witherspoon).
- A masterful dark comedy.
- Perhaps the best of the 90s teen comedy renaissance.
- A top-tier film from one of cinema’s greatest years.
- An Oscar nomination (should’ve had more).
- And Alexander Payne’s best work.
No one captures the unremarkable numbness of everyday life quite like Payne. Furthermore, few are better at capturing the inherent uniqueness of monotony. Though the bulk of his directing credits are fantastic in their own rights, I’m not sure he’s ever managed to top the utter brilliance of this early career picture.
With a small, Nebraska high school class president election as the backdrop, Payne (adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel) puts the flawed everyman, the minutiae of education, authentic Midwest life, and blind ambition on full display. Teacher and student lines are crossed; people are cheated; and, in the end, no one really wins because … well, because no one deserves to. And yet there’s inherent truth in all of that–alongside some sharp comedy as well. Election gets under your skin in the most unconventional way and serves up a damn-near flawless 90s-indie experience that still holds up in 2020. Who knew fractured humanity could be so humorously uninteresting yet interesting all at the same time?
PLATFORM: Prime Video
FOR FANS OF: 10 Things I Hate About You; Cruel Intentions; The Virgin Suicides
Home Alone (1990)
That iconic shot of Kevin screaming. Catherine O’Hara wigging out on the airplane. Joe Pesci’s gold tooth. The tarantula. Fuller throwing back the Pepsi. All those homemade contraptions. How can you not love Home Alone?
The best Christmas flicks tap into the greater public consciousness weaving their way into our seasonal paradigms … and pop-culture references. That’s what makes Home Alone great. A full-fledged family-friendly comedy checking all the boxes of holiday charm while tapping into zeitgeist. Not to mention, the concept is flat out hilarious.
Seriously, in terms of cross-generational lifespan, Home Alone is on the same trajectory as It’s A Wonderful Life. Everyone has a distinct memory with this movie. John Hughes made a career of romanticizing the everyday little things we overlook and take for granted, but pushed them to the limits of feasibility and hysterics wrapping them in the delicious packaging of sarcasm and youthful observation. In that light, Home Alone stands as peak 90s family entertainment.
Holiday season doesn’t start until my family has re-journeyed through the McCallister craziness. The blend of sweet nostalgia, loud laughs, and just the right amount of thoughtful holiday camp unlocks our Christmas cheer in a way the Grizwalds simply can’t. It may not be Dickens-level, but the forgotten kid urban tale is kind of remarkable in terms of shelf life and re-watchability. If nothing else, it gave us the dynamic duo of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, and for that we’re all grateful.
Keep the change ya filthy animal.
FOR FANS OF: A Christmas Story; Jumanji; The Sandlot
Baffling how a herculean achievement to this degree could go so unnoticed. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard anchoring a bold, visceral feast of The Bard’s landmark tragedy. That ought to be enough, right?
This ranks among the most visually stunning achievements of recent memory. The unsettling colors envelop the players in a way that demands attention but never perverts the focus. Thrusting battle sequences and elaborate scenic design to the narrative’s spotlight while inherently personal is a touch that’s easy to claim bit difficult to capture.
Capitalizing with Fassbender and Cotillard delivering fresh, guttural iterations of the characters and their infamous deceit bring Macbeth to an immersive experience that feels a bit like gentle asphyxiation. The selective humanity they wield at just the right moments leave us inebriated.
This film is courageous in scope and delivers to a rare, heightened degree. Shakespeare would be proud, and we should be too. This is a slowly sip your favorite drink in the evening while relishing in the delectable darkness of flawed, finer things sort of title. And if that’s your bag, you’re in for a treat.
PLATFORM: Prime Video
FOR FANS OF: Amadeus; Elizabeth; Hamlet
Earlier this month I appeared on the Movies Matrix Christmas Movies Live Draft. Of course my lineup lost in the first round, but that’s besides the point. We were given a pretty lengthy list of Christmas titles from which to choose … but much to my dismay, one iconic classic was left off the list. Naturally, I selected it anyway only to find out that no one else on the panel of movie fans and critics had seen it. Now, that’s not a slight against them in the least; especially since taking to Twitter it seems this wild gem remains largely unseen by a bevy of movie fans alike.
Allow me to, then, make it my personal mission to evangelize the good word of Scrooge, the 1970 musical take on A Christmas Carol. This is the twisted, exceptional holiday rumpus that makes the season magical.
Starring Albert Finney and Alec Guinness and earning three Oscar nominations, Scrooge is an impeccable testament to both Christmas spirit and the bold undertakings of 1970’s cinema — a golden era.
Everyone grows up with a definitive take on the Dickens tale as their own. The one their family re-watched every year and treasured more than the others. George C. Scott along with the Muppets installment seem to be among the popular selections. But Scrooge was my childhood; the one my family embraced in tender adoration each year. Perhaps that speaks more to my upbringing in a house full of musicians and artists than anything else.
Either way, I can’t think of ‘ol Ebenezer without seeing Albert Finny scared shitless by Guiness’ brilliant Jacob Marley. I reminisce on the joyful closing song that serves as a hooray as much as an earworm. I recall the nightmare fodder of the “Scrooge goes to hell” sequence curated by Marley himself. And I fondly relish in the timeless story that came to live on screen in a fashion that was as polished as it was uniquely historical.
So here’s my plea this Christmas season:
Take a left turn this year and welcome an under appreciated classic into your home. Take a walk on the musical side the street with Scrooge and company. Go on a fun, turbulent ride and marvel that a film this unique, this bold, and this heartfelt exists.
Here’s to the singing Scrooge sans the Muppets!
PLATFORM: Prime Video (rent)
FOR FANS OF: It’s A Wonderful Life; Les Miserables; & Topsy-Turvy
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
And the winner for most random cast of 2006 goes to … Stranger Than Fiction!
Think about it for a second. On the surface, in the the thick of Will Ferrell’s zany movie momentum, how weird was it to see names like Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Dustin Hoffman next to his? Also, shout-out to Oscar Nominee Tom Hulce for gifting us this one scene and reminding us he’s still around.
Anyway, Stranger Than Fiction is a delightful remembrance of what we used to love about mid-level movies at the cinema. Equal parts earnest Rom-Com and imaginative existential exploration this Ferrel anchored flick gives us as \earned humor through the prism of slightly distorted realism. Every performance from the aforementioned collection of talent is quirky and odd for all the right reasons. Ferrel’s restraint but unmissable energy is masterclass as he holds his own alongside titans like Gyllenhaal and Hoffman.
What’s remarkable, however, is the concept of this movie doesn’t exactly work on paper. A frustrated writer narratives the life of a real life, bored I.R.S. agent as he falls in love right before an untimely death. Sounds like something from the mind of Terry Gilliam. But instead we’re gifted a fun, human, and grounded exploration more akin to Nancy Myers and Spike Jonze.
Either way, Stranger Than Fiction is a remarkable film packed with indelible charm, genuine comedy, and authentic heart. It’s worth celebrating that in the not too distant past movie like this were a thing and they were polished and they were really good.
FOR FANS OF: Everything Must Go; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Truman Show
Hopefully this will breathe new life into your movie selections, or—if nothing else—add a few more solid titles to that overstuffed queue. Either way, you don’t have to settle for something mediocre when Home Alone is right there. Now, go watch something!
What’s the best hidden gem you’ve streamed recently? Share in the comments and help me expand the list!