With Christmas at the multiplex more robust than it has been in the past four years, now may be the best time in a long time to make moviegoing a regular habit again for the sake of the social fabric.
Still, the holidays are also the perfect time for an at-home winter respite with the family. Amazon may have that new Eddie Murphy holiday vehicle, and the recent direct-to-streaming Mark Wahlberg family action comedy is setting records for Apple TV+. Regardless, streaming has much more to offer than the latest subpar content meant to drive subscriptions. We’ve scoured multiple menus to bring readers the best overlooked recent releases, old-school blockbusters, indie hits, cult films, and should-be holiday classics to make the lost week between Christmas and New Year's and beyond all the brighter.
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The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Musical legend Vincente Minnelli borrows a page from Citizen Kane for this Hollywood tale about a maverick producer (Kirk Douglas) who tries to lure a director (Barry Sullivan), an actress (Gloria Grahame), and a screenwriter (Barry Sullivan) whose careers he made back into the fold for another project. It’s a poison love letter to Hollywood, a treatise on moral corruption, and one of Martin Scorsese’s favorites.
Naked Lunch (1991) David Cronenberg tries his hand at directing Beat writer William S. Burroughs’s seemingly unfilmable novel about a man (Peter Weller) who flees to the mysterious Interzone in North Africa to become a paper pusher after accidentally killing his wife. We’re stopping here because the less said about this surrealist fever dream, the better.
Barbie (2023) We’ve all written “Kenough” on this year’s pop-culture watershed. Now’s the time to watch it in the comfort of your own home.
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Rear Window (1954) Criterion’s Hitchcock for The Holidays is hands down the best special event in streaming this winter. The ideal place to start is this classic in which a wheel-chair bound Jimmy Stewart suspects his neighbor in the building across the street killed his wife. As the suspense ratchets up, Grace Kelly proves her love to Jimmy. There’s voyeurism! The male gaze! Sultry subtext! All that may not have started here, but no one has done it better.
Blast of Silence (1961) This gritty indie production follows a jaded hitman (Allen Baron) who visits New York City during the holidays to kill a gangster, but ends up getting intercepted by a mob boss instead. The nihilistic outlook may not jibe with the holiday movie genre. Nonetheless, it’s one of the best Christmas movies out there and the unofficial opening salvo of Hollywood’s most fruitful moviemaking period.
Afire (2023) It got the short shift during its weeklong run at the Belcourt last August, but no title deserves to have a second life on streaming more than the latest from Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit) As a forest fire rages near a Baltic Sea resort town, a gregarious woman interrupts a struggling novelist and his friend as they wallow in self-pity.
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BlackBerry (2023) During its brief theatrical run last May, the madcap story of the world’s first smartphone got some major buzz for its self-deprecating Canadian humor. Now, AMC has released an extended cut as a miniseries. Witness the mighty return of Seth Rogen’s bestie Jay Baruchel in all his period-piece glory.
Black Christmas (1974) Bob Clark is much more famous for directing 1983’s A Christmas Story, but he also single-handedly created the modern slasher movie with this Canadian import. On Christmas break, a sorority house led by queen bees Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey endures a series of prank phone calls. As sisters start disappearing, Clark offers a taut thriller that amps up the violence and cuts to the bone of women’s lib.
Christmas Evil (1980) The best of the 80s crazy Santa flicks finds an eager and wholesome toy factory worker becoming unhinged because of the greed he sees around him and embarking on a righteous killing spree on Christmas Eve. Beyond its handsome production design and alarmingly traditional themes, it's also an interrogation of childhood trauma that is better than it ever had to be.
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A Haunting in Venice (2023) Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s legendary sleuth Hercule Poirot has definitely fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns. But he’s back for a third time to call shenanigans on some Italian gothic mystics. It’s not going to be on many year-end best lists, but its stacked cast, including Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, and Jamie Dornan make it a solid viewing option for a cold winter day. Now playing in theaters.
Cobweb (2023) Lions Gate made the fumble of the year when they released this impressive horror film the same weekend as Barbienheimer instead of during the bereft period before Halloween. Lizzy Caplan (True Blood; Masters of Sex) and Anthony Starr (Homelander from The Boys) star as the parents of an eight-year-old who encounters unrepentant evil while investigating strange knockings in the walls of his family’s new home. Debut director Samuel Bodin takes this boilerplate premise and turns in a startlingly unique vision and one of the most effective horror films in quite some time.
Fred Claus (2007) It’s not Miracle on 34th Street or even Elf, but that doesn’t change the fact that Vince Vaughn is the best everyman actor since Jack Lemmon. As an average Chicago repo man, Fred has lived in the shadow of his younger brother, St. Nick (Paul Giamatti), for centuries. Taking a stint in the workshop to pay off a loan, Fred finds that his talents are just what the North Pole needs when an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) comes to town to commandeer Santa’s operation and sell it for spare parts. The perfect background movie for making Christmas cookies.
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M3gan (2023) It’s been nearly a year since this bizarre Blumhouse horror movie became a viral sensation thanks to its titular A.I. 's dance moves, but it remains one of the best films of 2023. After her niece's parents die in a car accident, a brilliant inventor (Allison Williams) creates a robot companion so that she won't have to actually parent and can focus on her career. She gets what she deserves in what may be the ultimate rebuttal to contemporary child-rearing.
Last Christmas (2019) Speaking of bizarre, Emilia Clarke plays a down-on-her-luck lounge singer who fled to Britain from Yugoslavia in the early 90s with her mother (Emma Thompson, who also co-wrote the screenplay). After surviving a heart transplant, she meets a dashing bachelor (Henry Golding) who helps her realize her potential in classic romcom fashion until…Never has a movie gone so gloriously off the rails that it’s become a Christmas tradition in my house.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977) This Muppet spin-off features an impoverished otter and his mom who hope to be able to afford gifts by winning a Christmas Eve music competition. There’s never been a better adaptation of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s a crime that this one has been relegated to cult classic when it could hold its own against The Grinch, Frosty, and Rudolph. It’s also the subject of one of the best online oral histories ever written.
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Margot at the Wedding (2007) Before he co-wrote Barbie, Noah Baumbach had a bit of a box-office misfire with this French New Wave-inspired dark comedy of family dysfunction. Nicole Kidman stars as a minor New York writer who returns to the family home for the wedding of her less-successful sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a layabout with a predilection for Garfield mugs (Jack Black). No one gets to the heart of intrafamilial conflict like Baumbach or shoots it with such minimalist beauty.
Cop Land (1997) James Mangold really dropped the boulder on the latest Indiana Jones, which is all the more frustrating considering his breakout film features a career-best from Sylvester Stallone and some of the better work Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel have ever done. As the half-deaf sheriff of a New Jersey town populated by NYC cops, Stallone is the object of pity no one takes seriously. But he has a classic western moral code and the drive to do what’s right in the face of the corruption that has sustained him for years. One of the 90s best films.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) Amy Heckerling’s classic that reinvigorated the teen drama is best known for Sean Penn’s surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli, sticking it to his hard-nosed history teacher (Ray Walston). But the movie has a dark undercurrent that treats teen promiscuity, menial labor, and the waning days of Empire with some heft. Based on the nonfiction book by teen journalist turned filmmaker Cameron Crowe, it’s also the only teen movie in history from an adolescent perspective.
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Personal Shopper (2017) French arthouse titan Olivier Assayas reteams with Kristin Stewart after directing her to the first French Academy Award given to an American in 2015’s Clouds of Sils Maria for a ghost story. As a personal style assistant for celebrities in Paris, Stewart spends her off hours fantasizing about the good life and trying to contact her deceased twin brother. The movie is esoteric and difficult, but ends up a deeply profound dissection of grief.
Ida (2014) One of the first films to dust off the now too-trendy square Academy ratio, Polish auteur Pawel Pawlikowski’s tale of a novitiate on the verge of her vows who goes on a road trip with her communist judge aunt after she discovers her parents may have been killed in the Holocaust treats its sparse style as a character in its own right. Part national allegory, part deep dive into the dark side of faith, it’s one of the best films of the last decade.
Pacification (2023) Albert Serra helms a meditative tale of a high-ranking French official in Tahiti keeping up appearances and fending off talk of renewed nuclear testing. Few films have investigated the remnants of colonialism with such nuance. None have created such an immersive world.
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Death Proof (2007) Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to the box-office disaster Grindhouse remains one of his career highlights. A quartet of girls fend off the murderous advances of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who gets off on eviscerating young women in car crashes. There’s a reason Time magazine originally omitted this film from its scintillating hit piece on women speaking in Tarantino’s movies. That’s because it’s one of the most complex portraits of women by a man since Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Roman Holiday (1953) Gregory Peck is the grizzled middle-aged journalist. Audrey Hepburn is the vaguely European princess who goes on the lam during a diplomatic visit to Rome. In the ultimate romantic comedy, two legends of the screen fall in love with unparalleled chemistry on the way to one of the greatest endings in all of Hollywood movies.
Pearl (2022) As we said in our best films of 2022 list, Ti West’s prequel to his equally outstanding slasher movie X traces that film’s titular villain through the Spanish Flu pandemic as dueling allegiances to her German immigrant parents and silver screen dreams drive her to insanity. Through it all, Goth gives the performances of a lifetime that should have made her a shoo-in for every acting award on the circuit last year.
The struggle is real.
The Exorcist: Believer (2023) David Gordon Green does for The Exorcist what he did for Halloween in the definitive movie about faith in the American South. Don’t believe the bad buzz. This sequel that brings back Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn to combat a demon with a hold on two preteen friends is the real deal.
The Grinch (2018) What looks like a cash grab ala Ron Howard’s abysmal live-action Jim Carrey adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s classic ends up as a quite riveting version of the green man’s rise to infamy and ultimate redemption. Benedict Cumberbatch relishes such a smarmy role, and the animation is as good as Pixar’s. It makes a stellar (and short) double feature with the original TV special.
Out of Sight (1998) Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brokovich, Ocean’s Eleven) roared back to Hollywood moviemaking after years in directors’ jail with the film that turned George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez into bona fide movie stars. As a fresh-from-jail conman, Clooney falls for Lopez’s FBI agent when they find themselves caught up in a Florida gangster network. Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel and featuring Michael Keaton’s character from Tarantino’s Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown.
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Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. (2023) Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel about a preteen coping with puberty just as her parents move her to the suburbs finally got the bigscreen treatment this year. Unfortunately, even though the movie is stellar, it died at the box office thanks to an April release between Super Mario Bros. and the latest Guardians of the Galaxy. With career-best turns from Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, and Benny Safdie.
Joy Ride (2023) This raunchy comedy produced by Seth Rogen finds button-up Asian lawyer Audrey (Ashley Park) traveling to China on a business trip with her best friend (Sherry Cola) who suffers from arrested development. When a deal hinges on Audrey finding her birth mother, the girls’ trip descends to the depths of hell. The only movie that could land a vagina tattoo joke and make you cry on repeat viewings.
Iron Man 3 (2013) Shane Black’s take on Tony Stark is my nominee for the best Marvel movie ever made. The film has the foresight to feature the hero coping with PTSD after his actions in The Avengers. Left to his own ingenuity when The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) destroys his home and all his suits, Stark fights a bioterror syndicate with the help of a precocious Tennessee kid (Ty Simpkins). It’s ballsy and has some things to say about terrorism and the military-industrial complex. Plus, it’s set at Christmas because it’s a Shane Black movie like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang before it.