As we wait for 2023’s bounty of riches at the multiplex and those Avatar 3-D Dolby theaters to clear out a bit, we offer the following list of holiday offerings, underseen classics, and recent releases that deserve more attention to help you pass some quiet time during the long winter.
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Amsterdam (2022) David O. Russell’s (The Fighter, American Hustle) reteaming with Christian Bale for a pre-WWII political comedy thriller that also features John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Robert DeNiro, Taylor Swift, Mike Myers, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Rami Malek was the fall’s awards front runner. But after a critical drubbing more about the aftertaste of #MeToo than the film itself and subsequent unspectacular grosses, it fell out of theaters in less than two weeks. That’s a pity, because Amsterdam features its stellar cast in roles unlike any they’ve had. A group of American elites who admire Hitler attempt to stage a coup in America, leaving Bale’s one-eyed doctor and his war buddies (Washington and Robbie) to take them down at a veterans event where a retired general (DeNiro) is speaking. This was probably supposed to be about January 6th when it was in production, but feels more relevant to our current ascendant populism today (which may also explain a lot of the critical hate).
The Shop around the Corner (1940) Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star as two quarreling employees at a Budapest leather shop who don’t realize they are falling in love with each other as anonymous pen pals in their off hours. Stewart’s far more well known for that other Christmas flick that’s become an annual ritual, but German expat director Ernst Lubitsch’s optimistic portrayal of Europe’s best tendencies uses the actor’s sincerity and charm to full capacity. The film that inspired Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail.
The Automat (2021) Tracing the rise and fall of Horn & Hardart automats throughout the 20th Century, this documentary details their importance to the development of the century’s distinctly American culture thanks to their democratizing appeal and ability to foster communities. The film brings a long lost piece of Americana to life with its breezy tone and warm humor while never understating the urban decline of which the automat’s demise served as a harbinger. With Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliott Gould, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner, and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.
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The Rules of the Game (1939) Jean Renoir’s brutal takedown of the French petite bourgeoisie months before they kowtowed to Hitler was so controversial the director didn’t make another film in his native country for almost two decades. Nearly destroyed and long thought lost, Rules is an upstairs/downstairs story of a Lindbergh-like aeronautical hero spending the weekend at the country estate of his ex’s Marquis husband. It revels in its characters’ lack of moral code while perfectly capturing class dynamics. Clocking in at #13 on last month’s latest iteration of Sight and Sound’s top 100 films of all time list, Renoir’s masterwork is a can’t-miss hand grenade aimed at vacuous elites that’s astute enough to acknowledge their humanity.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) Despite said Sight & Sound list’s proclamation that this film has now beaten both Citizen Kane and Vertigo as the greatest of all time, it doesn’t deserve reactionary neglect over yet another obvious incursion from an identity politics-infested cultural institution. Akerman’s film is a three-hour study of a widowed housewife who turns to prostitution to maintain her family’s standard of living. Not only does it play with how the movies represent time, it also paints a frank yet generous portrait of a woman pulled between two societal polls. Devote less time to it than it took to watch the Snyder cut of Justice League during a snowy evening.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) Criterion has curated an impressive series of snow westerns for the lean days of January, but Robert Altman’s tale of an inept entrepreneur (Warren Beatty) opening a brothel with the help of a more capable madam (Julie Christie) is the crown jewel of the list. Touted by its director as an anti-western, the film’s gleeful violation of genre conventions, inventive cinematography, and prominent Leonard Cohen score make it one of the best films from the best era in American movies.
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Christmas Bloody Christmas (2022) This no-holds-barred holiday slasher finds a stoner record shop owner (Riley Dandy) facing off against a malfunctioning robot mall Santa that the Department of Defense designed to make kids safer during the holidays. Though the film never takes itself too seriously, it offers up some cutting Deep State allegory amid the carnage.
Paris, 13th District (2021) A collaboration between French cinema titans Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Dheepan) and Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), this tale of millennial ennui left little impact during its brief run last spring. Call center operator Émilie (Lucy Zhang) lives rent free in her grandmother’s old apartment, but takes in Camille (Makita Samba) as a roommate after he returns to university to escape a thankless teaching career. As the two debate whether to remain friends or pursue a relationship, they cross paths with a law student (Noémie Merlant) forced to leave her program after her classmates mistake her for a cam girl (Jehnny Beth). Septuagenarian Arduard has the foresight to generate both sympathy and contempt for his characters as they develop in the less romanticized corners of Paris, lending credence to critical distance’s role in achieving maximum profundity.
The Nest (2020) Thanks to the pandemic, Sean Durkin’s (2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene) latest received an unceremonious release in a dozen theatres before landing on streaming. The best film of 2020 deserves a wider audience. Jude Law plays a charismatic husband who moves his doting wife (Carrie Coon) from their perfectly fine life in NYC back to his hometown of Surrey, England, so he can take full advantage of 80s trader excess. A study of a deteriorating marriage and sociopathic class pretensions, the film is both a gut punch to empty entrepreneurialism and a stark morality tale about an economy removed from physical labor and the rural landscape.
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Tootsie (1982) Travel to a time when a mainstream comedy could provide biting social commentary without lecturing at its audience with Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing classic, featuring supporting turns from Jessica Lange and Bill Murray. Notoriously difficult thespian Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) has pained in the ass himself out of every gig on and off Broadway, so he poses as Dorothy Michaels to get a part on a soap opera. When Dorothy becomes a national phenomenon, art, commerce, and gender politics collide in one of Hollywood’s greatest contemporary screwball tales.
The Forgiven (2022) Ralph Fiennes stars as a callous doctor living beyond his means who is on a Moroccan vacation with his put-upon wife (Jessica Chastain). When he accidentally kills a fundamentalist teen from a neighboring village in a hit-and-run on the way to a weekend house party at a garish mansion in the desert, the elite whites’ privilege gives way to personal responsibility. A masterfully executed neocolonial morality tale that sadly went unacknowledged during its brief theatrical run last July.
Drive Angry (2011) Nicholas Cage plays John Milton, a petty criminal who rises from Hell (get the allusion?), steals Satan’s gun, and teams up with Amber Heard to go after a cult leader who plans to sacrifice Milton’s granddaughter in a midnight ritual to usher in the apocalypse. This exploitation road flick throwback was a casualty of early 2010s Cage fatigue when its 3-D version hit theatres, but it remains a blast that is perfect for a snowday midnight movie.
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Thief (1981) Before Miami Vice, Michael Mann established himself with this highly stylized existential crime film featuring James Caan as a jewel thief whose successful melding of the American Dream and underground economy comes unglued when the mob encroaches on his business. Featuring Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, and a score by Tangerine Dream, Mann’s film is a singular work that’s often imitated but never rivaled.
D.O.A. (1950) In this hard-to-find classic film noir, a mild-mannered accountant (Edmund O’Brien) realizes he only has a few days to live when someone poisons him at a hotel bar, leaving him to spend his last moments searching for the killer. Play “spot the influences” in a seminal film that is as tense now as it was upon its initial release.
Wild Things (1998) The ultimate 90s thriller finds a couple of sexpot teens (Neve Campbell and Denise Richards) from both sides of the tracks accusing their guidance counselor (Matt Dillon) of sexual impropriety to seize a windfall in their ritzy South Florida town. With an artfully twisty script and turns from Kevin Bacon as a seedy cop and Bill Murray as a seedier P.I., it’s the type of gleefully anti-PC movie we can no longer have but desperately need.
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21 Jump Street (2012) The last great Hollywood comedy franchise turned ten this year, and it only gets better with age. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum go undercover to bust a drug ring by posing as high school students in an action-comedy adaptation of the late 80s drama series. But changing social mores reverse their roles with the in-crowd as the new generation embraces a SJW vibe. Worth a revisit or a first watch, if only to see how recently it was that Hollywood stopped making them like they used to.
Berlin Syndrome (2017) Before Marvel came calling with 2021’s Black Widow, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland made this tense flick about a photographer (Teresa Palmer) held captive by a one-night stand (Max Riemelt) who wants to claim her as her own. Thrillers haven’t been this gripping or well-written since the early 90s.
White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby enlists Rosemary Clooney plus a host of other acts crooning Irving Berlin tunes to save his former commanding officer’s failing resort in this musical from Michael Curtiz (helmer of Casablanca and Mildred Pierce). Not only is this film a Christmas classic, but it’s also the first shot in VistaVision widescreen, a process that tripled the size of the screen into the rectangular format we know today. And, as far as we know, it’s the oldest movie that ever aired on Netflix by about half a century.
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Daddy’s Home 2 (2017) What better film to watch this week than a sequel to a bona fide holiday hit that builds on the conflict between dueling stepdads Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell by casting Mel Gibson and John Lithgow as their fathers? The blended families travel to a remote cabin for an old-fashioned Christmas, but amid all the physical comedy and nitpicking is a solid meditation on masculinity and family responsibility.
Witness (1985) Harrison Ford is an undercover Philadelphia detective embedded in an Amish community to protect a young boy (Lukas Haas) who witnessed a mafia hit. The plot may seem ridiculous, but filmmaker Peter Weir (Master & Commander, Dead Poets Society) fully embraces cultural differences, directing Ford to his best performance and creating a beautiful unrequited romance between his star and Kelly McGillis as the boy’s Amish mother. One of the greatest Hollywood films ever made that never fully got its due.
Bad Santa (2003) Billy Bob Thornton’s turn as an alcoholic safecracker posing as a mall Santa to rob the stores on Christmas Eve is bawdy, family-unfriendly viewing. But it’s also an endearing Christmas movie about characters who commit to real change that earns its heartwarming moments without ever sacrificing its edge. Perfectly accompanied by a glass of Evan Williams and eggnog.
The struggle is real.
Fatman (2020) Mel Gibson plays a Santa forced into a US government weapons contract to provide for the elves as he grows ever more jaded with children’s toxic entitlement. When a resentful little shit (Chance Hurstfield) hires a hitman (Walton Goggins) to take out St. Nick, Chris Kringle discovers he’s needed now more than ever. The film’s gritty realism and internal logic lead to a wilder ride than the recent “Santa in Die Hard” action comedy Violent Night. But what makes it worth a watch is its pathos-filled ode to figures like Santa and fading action stars like Gibson—a theme we discussed upon the film’s release.
True Lies (1994) Before he went on a VFX bender that keeps him out of the limelight for decades at a time, James Cameron was the top action director in the business AND one of its best screenwriters. Arguably, The King of the World’s last great film, this spies and terrorists blow-em-up featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple losing their magic is also one of the great American movies about marriage. A perfect pallet cleanser after the latest entry in the blue Pocahontas franchise.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) In this Finnish cult classic horror-action comedy, a drill team accidentally unleashes an evil Santa and his elves from the ice near the village largely responsible for St. Nick’s mythos. The less said the better about this singular Christmas gem.
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Death Wish (1974) With American cities crime-riddled and the War on Christmas brewing, why not decompress by watching Charles Bronson’s vigilante classic? Liberal architect Paul Kersey (Bronson) believes in the system. But when bureaucrats blow him off after thugs rape and murder his wife and daughter, he takes matters into his own hands, becoming a folk hero in the process. In fact, don’t bother streaming a film this essential–give a DVD out to everyone on your list instead.
Foxcatcher (2014) The film of 2014 lost its Best Picture nomination when Ava DuVernay’s Selma received a post-Ferguson nod, but it remains one of the best movies about sports ever made, not to mention a standout of contemporary filmmaking. Heir to a family fortune, John DuPont (Steve Carell) decides to found a wrestling school to further his own enthusiasm for the sport, but ends up committing murder after offering Gold Medalists Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) his patronage. A bizarre true story that director Bennett Miller turns into a cogent class commentary about the underbelly of the American Dream.
Josie and the Pussycats (2001) A box-office bomb upon its release, this live-action adaptation of the Archie comics’ B-listers is a brilliant satire of consumer culture and the music world’s artistic compromise that shows Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson should have remained leading ladies in the intervening decades.