The best movies for streaming in the new year
The year is coming to an end, which, to some is a sad time, to others it’s a huge relief. To most, it’s a time to swap out the calendar and have yourself a symbolic fresh start. If you’re choosing a movie to watch this December 31, you might want to choose one that has something to do with the holiday itself, and here we have provided a list of a few titles to help you out. These range from the melancholy to the cheerful, from funny and escapist to downright sobering.
Rounding out the list, we’ve picked some of the best movies of the past year, including a very strange, imported dry comedy; a very strange animated movie, a couple of documentaries that explore the world, a colorful comic book movie, a colorful children’s book movie, and an excellent thriller that unexpectedly became one of the most foreboding movies of the year. Whichever you choose, we wish you the most peaceful of New Year’s Eves, and a 2017 filled with hope, luck, kindness, and wishes granted.
The Gold Rush (FilmStruck)
Featuring a heartbreaking New Year’s Eve sequence, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) was, in its day, a true event. It’s difficult to explain today just what an enormous presence Chaplin once was; he was a popular entertainer, but also a great artist. He was a famous actor, but also a brilliant director. His last film had been a serious drama in which he did not appear (A Woman of Paris), and the moviegoers hadn’t seen him in four years, since his groundbreaking The Kid (1921). So, released in the summertime, The Gold Rush was a great big hit. It had some impressive special effects, such as a cabin teetering near the side of a snowy cliff, and a man turning into a giant chicken, but its focus was on humor and heartstrings.
Chaplin plays a lone prospector in the Klondike. He falls in love with a dance hall girl (Georgia Hale), and becomes stranded during a snowstorm in a cabin with Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). The film includes the famous “dance of the dinner rolls,” as well as many other iconic comedy moments. This one is more of a fantasy than Chaplin’s other films, with a more escapist ending, but it’s rooted in his own genius, focusing on visual conflicts within a poetic frame. FilmStruck offers two versions of the film, Chaplin’s preferred 1942 version (72 minutes) with his own music score and his spoken narration (great for kids), as well as the original 1925 silent version (88 minutes) with intertitles.
After the Thin Man (Vudu/Amazon Prime)
If you watched The Thin Man (1934) over Christmas and laughed at the present-opening antics of Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy)—she with her fur coat and he with his B.B. gun—then you may want to follow it up with this fun sequel, which starts with a New Year’s Eve celebration. Nick and Nora return to San Francisco (the exterior of their home is Coit Tower!), only to find a “surprise” party going on in their home. So they head to a dull dinner party with Nora’s relatives—most of whom despise Nick—only to discover that Nora’s cousin Selma’s husband is missingThat leads them to a nightclub, where they ring in the New Year, and where the husband is murdered. Who did it? The original story of After the Thin Man (1936) came from Dashiell Hammett, so the mystery is a pretty good one, although director W.S. Van Dyke continues the successful formula of the first movie, complete with the gathering of all the suspects for the big denouncement. It also feels a bit less scrappy and spontaneous, and slightly more polished, but still loads of fun; these movies balanced humor, romance, and mystery like nothing else at the time. And, of course, Asta the dog returns. James Stewart has an early, crucial role here before he achieved leading man status a few years later.
Holiday (1938) (Amazon Prime/Vudu) (Rental)
Another New Year’s Eve story, Holiday (1938) is based on a1928 play and was not a success in its day. But, as directed by George Cukor, the movie remains subtle and sophisticated as well as weirdly timeless. Cary Grant stars as the energetic and jovial Johnny Case, a self-made man who now plans to take off from work and explore, looking for the meaning of life. (It’s an interesting idea to consider at the end of a year.) But first he wants to marry Julia (Doris Nolan), a woman he has just met. It turns out that Julia is rich and her family wants to throw a huge engagement party.
Johnny ends up spending most of the party in the “playroom,” the only fun room in the entire house, along with Julia’s kooky sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn), her brother Ned (Lew Ayres), and an older couple, the Potters (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon). Of course, Johnny discovers that Julia doesn’t really care for his plan, and that Linda is actually the one for him. Unfortunately, at this time, Hepburn had been in a string of flops and was considered “box office poison.” Grant and Hepburn also appeared in another misfire, Bringing Up Baby, the same year, but would go on to break the bad streak with The Philadelphia Story.
An American in Paris (Vudu/Amazon Prime) (Rental)
Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) won six other Oscars, including Best Picture, but today it seems a bit underrated. For one thing, it was not as “serious” as its fellow award contender A Streetcar Named Desire, and for another thing, it’s generally, unfavorably compared to Singin’ in the Rain, which came out the following year and received no Oscar nominations. Then, not long after, the trend for musicals switched from light, airy little fantasies, to big, overblown, expensive behemoths. But I love An American in Paris for all that it is; it’s pleasant and transporting, as any good musical should be.
Gene Kelly plays the title American, Jerry, a struggling painter, who lives in the City of Lights near a struggling piano player (Oscar Levant). Jerry meets a benefactor (Nina Foch), but falls in love with an adorable French girl, Lise (Leslie Caron). Unfortunately, Lise is already involved with a French singer, Henri (Georges Guétary). The cheerful George and Ira Gershwin songs include “I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful.” The movie ends with one of Minnelli’s specialties, a glorious 17-minute ballet with no dialogue, representing a fantasy of Jerry’s feelings about Lise; it was a daring piece of experimental filmmaking inserted into a mainstream Hollywood entertainment. But for the holiday, there’s also the amazing black-and-white New Year’s ball, which must be seen to be enjoyed.
When Harry Met Sally (Hulu)
Arguably the prototype for the modern-day romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally (1989) is perhaps best known for its little moments (the fake orgasm, for instance), and bits of dialogue (“high maintenance”), then for the whole. Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) start as enemies, but despite the fact that Harry says men and women can’t be friends, they strike up a friendship years later. They talk, watch Casablanca on TV, and complain about other relationships, and, eventually things escalate. It ends at a New Year’s Eve party, making it, of course, one of the best of all New Year’s films (with silly dialogue about what the heck “should auld acquaintance be forgot” actually means).
Crystal has, arguably, never been better, while Ryan set herself up for a run as “America’s Sweetheart” in many more comedies. Bruno Kirby and the late, great Carrie Fisher are very funny as the prototypical “best friend” characters, whose total existence revolves around the main characters’ love lives. Nora Ephron received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay, and Rob Reiner directed with colorful crispness; Barry Sonnenfeld provided the cinematography before becoming a director himself. Harry Connick Jr. sang many of the soft jazz tunes on the soundtrack.
Fruitvale Station (Netflix)
A very different kind of New Year’s movie, and it’s certainly no kind of celebration, but Fruitvale Station (2013) is still a great film very much worth seeing. Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Creed, the upcoming Marvel movie Black Panther) made his feature debut with this meticulously researched drama, depicting the final day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). It’s a troubled, but not extraordinary New Year’s Eve, with Oscar trying to win back his grocery store job so he can quit selling drugs, trying to placate his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) after she has caught him cheating, and trying to buy food for his mother’s birthday party. That night, Oscar goes out for the holiday celebrations, returns home on the BART train, and is shot to death by BART police in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.
Though the real-life incident sparked outrage, Coogler’s film is introspective and human, making a case for Oscar Grant as a real person rather than as a symbol. Coogler makes the bold choice to show the two police officers (played by Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray) without explaining or apologizing for their actions, leaving much open for discussion. Yet, despite much acclaim, the film failed to earn a single Academy Award nomination, not even for Octavia Spencer (who previously won for The Help) as Oscar’s mother; she’s extraordinary and her performance here is utterly heartbreaking.
The Treasure (Netflix)
About a decade ago, there was a kind of mini “Romanian New Wave” of movies, really interesting, languidly-paced, somewhat dark, but often dryly funny movies from a group of filmmakers there. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days garnered the most attention, but for my money, director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective) was the one to watch. He finally returns with this incredibly subtle comedy, so dry you’ll probably laugh more on the inside. The Treasure (2016) has been chosen by many critics as one of the best films of the year.
On the surface, The Treasure couldn’t be simpler. Working class man Costi (Toma Cuzin) is approached by out-of-work neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), who asks to borrow money to rent a metal detector. He believes that he may have a fortune buried beneath his property, hidden there during Romania’s turbulent past. Together they go to the property, accompanied by the grumpy metal detector man, Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), and begin searching. The search is unremarkable, with arguments over the detector and how deep to dig, with the men standing in each other’s way. Porumboiu subtly layers history and politics into his movie, but then comes the remarkable ending; even if you’ve read a number of O. Henry-type stories, this one is new.
Into the Inferno (Netflix)
What I love about Werner Herzog’s films is that they have a genuine sense of curiosity. They are open to veer off track, to forget the original plan. They wander wherever the story takes them, following the most interesting thread. Herzog’s newest documentary Into the Inferno (2016)—a Netflix original—began more or less on the heels of his Oscar-nominated doc Encounters at the End of the World (2007), on which he met volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer. Now he meets up with Dr. Oppenheimer again for a film that is, ostensibly, about volcanos. But, of course, it detours into several other fascinating ideas.
Herzog’s film travels all over the world, to Vanuatu, Indonesia, Iceland, and Ethiopia, to gaze at some of the planet’s most awesome active volcanos. Not surprisingly, the film supplies some amazingly beautiful footage of roiling magma and rolling lava. In Ethiopia, Oppenheimer suddenly joins UC Berkeley professor Tim White on an archeological dig to find 10,000-year-old human bones. Then, the crew is invited to film inside North Korea, capturing some truly beautiful, and truly grim, images. In the end, Into the Inferno (not to be confused with Herzog’s 2011 death-row documentary Into the Abyss) is fascinated by the impermanent nature of our world, and is perhaps a strong reminder to appreciate what we have while we have it.
Captain America: Civil War (Netflix)
Maybe there’s something to this one. Most critics complain about too many franchises and special effects and explosions in American movies, but somehow Captain America: Civil War (2016) seems to have risen above it all; it’s more like one of those ultra-entertaining, all-star extravaganzas from the old studio days. Unlike many of other recent blockbusters, brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo let the colors pop—the movie looks great—and the story (and the political debate therein) is more important than the big fight.
No less than 12 heroes show up, and each one has at least a moment or two to shine. Among them are Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and of course, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), whose rivalry grows personal. Even the bad guy (Daniel Bruhl) has more on his mind that taking over the world. This is one superhero movie worth subsequent viewings.
The Jungle Book (Netflix)
Rising from the cult film Swingers, director Jon Favreau has become one of the most reliable of all Hollywood directors, finding balance in a warm personality, bright colors, swift, clear movement, and plucky rhythms; the Disney studio did right by hiring him to make the “live action” remake of their 1967 hand-drawn, animated version. I put “live action” in quotes because very little of this is actually live action. Most of it is computer-generated imagery and effects, but it still somehow springs to life in a winning way.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub” raised by wolves, has learned to do “human tricks,” which his mentor, the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) believes are unsafe and unwise. After he is threatened by the evil tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), it is decided that Mowgli will be delivered to the human village to live. But on the way, Mowgli meets the lazy bear Balloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and bonds with him. He also meets King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), who wishes to have the power of “man’s red flower” (i.e. fire). The movie utilizes many fast-moving chase scenes, but it also reprises a few of the classic songs and takes time to revel in the majesty of the jungle setting.
Before the Flood (Hulu)
Nobody wants to watch a depressing documentary on climate change. On one hand, the problem is so big it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around it, and on the other hand, it’s a huge political firebomb, with a large portion of our country denying that the problem even exists. But here is director Fisher Stevens (Oscar-winning producer of The Cove) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Oscar-winner for The Revenant) appearing onscreen and echoing that same sentiment. DiCaprio begins with Bosch’s painting Garden of Earthly Delights, a print of which adorned his room as a child. From there, he does his very best to guide us on an informative and not entirely hopeless journey of our planet and possible future.
He travels the world, finding devastation, such as flooding in Florida (staved off by multi-million dollar pumps—for now) and Indonesian forests leveled to make palm oil for processed foods. But he also finds hope, speaking with scientists and specialists—and even Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama—who believe that it’s not too late to help. Simply cutting down on beef consumption, for one, is a step. And writing to demand that companies pay a voluntary carbon tax is another. The recent election—and the appointing of climate change denier Scott Pruitt to the head of the EPA—has made this issue even more pressing, and this film even more essential. The film’s official website has more info.
Charlie Kaufman may be among the two or three most insanely talented screenwriters alive today, with wonderful, bizarre, imaginative ideas ranging from Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, to the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His own directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008) was met largely with confusion from both audiences and critics, though a handful of critics passionately came to its defense. His newest movie, Anomalisa (2015), released a year ago, didn’t fare much better in the box-office arena, but was much more quickly appreciated by those who saw it.
It even received an Oscar nomination, for Best Animated Feature. Co-directed by animator Duke Johnson, the bittersweet, stop-motion comedy tells the story of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), the author of a book on customer service. Newly arrived in a Cincinnati hotel for a convention, he meets the strange, sad, but lovely Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is somehow drawn to her. One reason is perhaps because every other voice Michael hears is provided by Tom Noonan. The seams show on the stop-motion puppets, and the grim, dreamy atmosphere sometimes grows hopeless as it revels in the imperfections of human lives and human needs, but it’s also deeply thoughtful, and certainly unforgettable.
Green Room (Amazon Prime)
When Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2016) was released in the spring, it was merely an incredible thriller, something worth seeing and telling friends about. But then its star, Anton Yelchin, suddenly died at age 27 in a freak accident (joining an unsettlingly long list of 2016 celebrity deaths). And the movie’s villains, evil white supremacists, suddenly started appearing in real life, in the news, around the time of the November election. So it’s impossible to see the movie again in an innocent light, but at least it’s still tense, punchy, and entertaining.
Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner are a punk rock band called The Ain’t Rights. Cheated out of a gig and out of money, they agree to play a white supremacist club in the Pacific Northwest woods. They nearly make it out alive, but they accidentally witness a brutal murder in the green room and find themselves trapped. The sinister, soft-spoken leader (a terrifying Patrick Stewart) arrives, swiftly making plans to cover up the crime. Director Saulnier had made the excellent low-budget crime film Blue Ruin (2013) and he ups the ante here, with incredible compositions (check the great, off-kilter opening shot, set in a corn field), use of tainted colors, gut-wrenching editing, and even a truly great final line of dialog.