(Note: This article originally appeared here.)
It’s finally December – the only time of year (aside from summer) when you can safely let your binge-watching desires run amok. Here are our monthly recommendations for what’s worth checking out on Netflix and DVD:
The Young Victoria (2009; out December 1)
Season 2 of The Crown, the award-winning TV show about Queen Elizabeth II, will be out on Netflix on December 8. Before then, impatient Anglophiles can whet their appetites with Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria, a 2009 film that depicts the initial years of the reign of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt). Don’t expect anything that lives up to The Crown: the film’s ending proves inconclusive, its style overly showy, and its portrayal of Victoria’s relationship with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) frustratingly disjointed. But Blunt does an exceptional job playing a woman who’s determined to break free of limiting gender mores. And the overall story still provides an engrossing look at the intrigue that dominated 19th-century royal court life.
Full Metal Jacket (1987; out December 1)
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket ostensibly follows the story of Joker (Matthew Modine), a young man recruited by the Marines to fight in Vietnam. As with many of Kubrick’s films, however, Jacket’s basic plot doesn’t matter nearly as much as the atmosphere it evokes. Its chilling representation of U.S. soldiers as mindless killing machines is only accentuated by the eerily smooth tracking shots it uses to depict combat. And in devoting the first part of the film to a Whiplash-esque portrayal of boot camp, Kubrick skillfully exposes the hypocrisy underlying the U.S.’ obsessively anti-Communist approach to Cold War foreign policy. Many movies about the Vietnam War (Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July) leave you moved or haunted; Kubrick’s is one of the few that leaves you downright frightened.
The Mafia Kills Only in Summer (2013; out December 15)
The recent passing of Totò Riina offers a good occasion to revisit The Mafia Kills Only in Summer, an Italian film that one prominent anti-Mafia prosecutor called “the best Mafia movie ever made.” Its plot follows a man named Arturo (Pierfrancesco Diliberto, also the director) who constantly tries – and fails – to woo a childhood crush (Cristiana Capotondi), all while the Sicilian Mafia engages in a turf war against the Italian government. The movie’s romantic premise isn’t developed very well, and the conclusion will likely leave you unsatisfied. But the film’s big strength lies in its deceptively nonsensical juxtaposition of comedy and crime – a combination that Diliberto exploits to highlight the ways in which people find excuses to remain indifferent to evil. Despite its flaws, this primer on one of modern Italy’s most deep-seated problems will resonate with anyone sick of the countless American films that romanticize lawlessness.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Movies about animals tend to either be big-budget fantasy endeavors or kid-friendly toons. Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, on the other hand, is an unusual exercise in “animal realism”: set in rural France, it follows a donkey who’s passed from owner to owner, all of whom treat him with varying degrees of neglect and cruelty. For budding film nerds, the movie’s minimalist aesthetics – namely, its emphasis on the expressive potential of sound, plus its eschewal of overly dramatic acting – stand as a sterling example of “auteurist” filmmaking. For budding philosophy nerds, the film also supplies a quasi-existentialist critique of traditional religion and urban decadence. And for the average moviegoer, the donkey’s story serves as a moving, disquieting indictment of human cruelty – a perfect encapsulation of what Sirius Black was after when he said that “if you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
See it for: A mistreated nonhuman creature is also at the center of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The film took top honors at the Venice International Film Festival, and it’ll be opening on December 8.
The Circus (1928)
At the start of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, an overeager police officer forces the Tramp to seek refuge in a traveling circus. Over the course of the following hour, the movie world’s most famous vagrant falls in love, barely avoids getting devoured by a lion…and eventually discovers that he’s anything but cut out for the clown life. The film doesn’t represent the best of Chaplin’s work: for that, you’ll have to turn to better-known Tramp films like City Lights and The Gold Rush. But the story’s portrait of a naïve wannabe gentleman still carries poignancy, and the sequence in which the Tramp walks a tightrope infested with monkeys remains an exquisite piece of comedy. Small wonder the Academy had to bar this film from competing at the Oscars – even now, it’s simply too good.
NOTE: The film is available on YouTube for free: http://bit.ly/2jm3sIv
See it for: In The Greatest Showman, Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum: a circus man who, unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, actually had some skill. The movie features original numbers from the songwriters behind La La Land, and it’ll be in theaters on December 20.
Pre-Sideways Alexander Payne: Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and About Schmidt (2002)
Alexander Payne first caught the attention of most moviegoers with 2004’s Sideways. Before winning the admiration of oenophiles the world over, however, he had already gained street cred on the arthouse circuit with Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt. Each of these early works deals with slightly different material: Citizen Ruth caricaturizes the abortion debate, Election satirizes the hermetic angst of high school politics, and About Schmidt provides a morose spin on It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet the portraits they all paint of sincere yet ever-so-slightly egotistical Nebraskans supply a welcome antidote to banal, ubiquitous conservative paeans to “real” (read: rural and white) America. And if you’re turned off by Payne’s rather dark sense of humor, you’ll still enjoy the outstanding performances (Laura Dern/Burt Reynolds in Ruth, Matthew Broderick/Reese Witherspoon in Election, Jack Nicholson in Schmidt) each film has to offer.
See it for: In Payne’s latest film, Downsizing, scientists have devised the perfect solution to overpopulation: a medical procedure that shrinks people to five inches tall. You can follow Matt Damon’s journey through the process starting December 22.
The French Bourgeois Films: The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie represent the finest work of two of Europe’s greatest filmmakers. In the former, a group of rich good-for-nothings goes on a weekend retreat that quickly spirals out of control; in the latter, six people are constantly foiled in their attempts to get together for dinner. One is humanizing in its Marriage of Figaro–esque depiction of people searching for love, while the other plays with audience and characters alike in its absurdist upturning of established customs. But both offer scathing takedowns of the French bourgeoisie – a class governed by a meaningless yet fascinatingly elaborate set of social norms. And when taken together, the two films also capture the apathy and self-absorption that helped fuel two of the 20th century’s defining conflicts (World War II for Renoir, the Cold War for Buñuel).
See it for: A group of French bourgeois elites is also the subject of Happy End, the latest collaboration between Isabelle Huppert and award-winning director Michael Haneke (Amour, The White Ribbon, Caché). The film will be in theaters starting December 22.
In Laura, a tough-talking detective (Dana Andrews) is tasked with discovering whodunit in the murder of the titular marketing executive (Gene Tierney). But as he learns more about her life and the potential suspects – Laura’s decidedly unfaithful fiancé (Vincent Price), a pretentious columnist (Clifton Webb) who saw her as a protégé – he finds himself doing something he never expected: falling in love. For film noir aficionados, Otto Preminger’s most well-known work offers plenty of elegant plot twists and gorgeously shadowy images. But don’t be fooled. Beneath the movie’s sleek exterior lies a far more gruesome subtext: in the presence of a woman who wields power, three men all respond by turning her into an object on which they can project their perversions and insecurities. It’s an aptly disturbing prelude to what Alfred Hitchcock would go on to do 14 years later in Vertigo.
See it for: Daniel Day-Lewis delivers his last on-screen performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a film that also centers on a man’s obsession with a woman. See it in theaters starting Christmas Day.