That feeling you get when you have been scrolling through films and TV for 2 hours without making a decision. Here I’ll try and help with that.
Since 2004, December has become the month where it is acceptable to watch Love Actually, a tradition that for some means they have watched the film for thirteen straight years. Debatably that is an even bigger punishment than watching Bee Movie for the 357th time in a single year, but what is worse a Jerry Seinfeld voiced Bee or Andrew Lincoln giving the creepiest performance this side of the millennium. Whilst most articles you’ll read will be mostly list film after Christmas film before reminding you that, yet again, It’s a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas film of all time (it might be). I want to discuss what other options there are to choose from in the month of December. I’ll discuss what my Christmas film of choice is (it really is unavoidable), but also what new, classic films or television should take up your precious time over the festive period.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles – John Hughes 1987
Available on Amazon Prime now
For me the funniest and most heartwarming Christmas film ever made turns 30 this year, serving us a reminder of the fact that Steve Martin actually still exists and is not just a Twitter bot that sells masterclasses in comedy. It will also go down as John Candy’s best film and even, maybe, the great John Hughes’. The film follows Steve Martins uptight and highly strung marketing executive in his struggle to get back to Chicago for Thanksgiving (It’s basically Christmas), who continually meets the affable and jolly Del played by John Candy much to his annoyance. What John Hughes has always done well is that he ensures we are empathetic towards our protagonists, he draws out their weaknesses, frustrations and negative aspects and gives them a reason to exist. If you hate one of his characters, he will show you their motivations and dissect them to the point where the characters become more complex than ‘The Jock’, ‘The Geek’ etc. Take Neal for example, separating him from Del, he is a man trying to get home for Thanksgiving who at every turn faces an improbable travel obstacle. Anybody would likely react the way he does, and many would want to react the way he does with the car rental woman. Some may have even done so, and if so, I salute you.
The way he acts makes us empathise with him, even when he is at his cruelest when putting Del down, we can see the frustration it is born out of. We are shown his darkest side with his withering put downs, but also during the duration of the film our impression of how harsh he is being is diluted down to the point where we relate with him in his tirades of abuse towards Del. Talking of Del, we all know someone like him, someone who is so nice it’s almost unbelievable. But we emphasise with him in how Neal treats him throughout the film, because all he is trying to do is help and of course just like there is a reason for Bender to be a jerk in The Breakfast Club, there is a reason why Del is how he is. It is here where Planes, Trains and Automobiles finds it’s John Hughes heart, when the reveal is made about Del’s deceased wife, we are shown flashbacks which show that it was hinted at all along. It’s heart-wrenching, and just like Neal we empathise with a grieving Del and after enduring his good natured fuck-uppery, we feel guilt for sympathising with Neal. At the end you’ll be hard pressed to find a better more heart warming freeze frame (And Hughes has many of them) than John Candy’s grin, it could warm even the coldest heart in a bitter December. One of John Hughes’ greatest lines came from The Breakfast Club, ‘When you grow up, your heart dies’, yet with this film he proved the complete opposite.
In Bruges – Martin McDonagh, 2008
Available on Netflix now
By the time you read this, it may well be 10 years since In Bruges was first shown at Sundance. It may also precede a trip to the cinema to see McDonagh’s critically acclaimed 3rd feature Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which is out in cinemas on the 12th January. Hence why In Bruges makes this list, plus there is Snow and Christmas markets, so it feels like it is on the right side of relevant for a rewatch. I also have to admit I am extremely biased; I absolutely love this film. It was a gradual box office success, growing in theatre numbers with each passing positive word of mouth, it also probably could have made even more money had it not been for the tone deaf poster that accompanied it. It’s a pretty simple plot, two Irish assassins are In Bruges following a botched job, whilst Ken is the more cultured of the two, Ray just wants to get hammered every day (For a reason). It’s ironic that the film served as somewhat of a picturesque postcard for the city, when one of it’s characters constantly refers to it as a ‘shithole’. As the plot progresses we’re given the dark reason as to why they’re In Bruges, and are introduced to one of the greatest modern day gangster performance from Grandmaister thesp himself; Ray Fiennes. It’s a performance which might just better that of rival thespians Ben Kingsley and Terrence Stamp for best Brit-abroad gangster performance ever.
McDonagh does extremely well in balancing the tone of the film, much better than the graphic designer, jumping from comedy to action in a flicker and even managing to pack quite a large emotional punch at points. The comedy in the writing is far from politically correct, his characters are far from angels, regardless of the fact that they are hitmen and this is displayed in the writing. But McDonagh has never been one to pull punches, and here he constantly toes the line between comedy and offence. In my opinion he does so like he is already a master of the craft, and rightly so, having learnt his writing craft in a very successful theatre career. So if a dwarf discussing a future war of races offends, this might be a comedic step to far. And he pulls a performance out of Colin Farrell which set him on his way to his career redemption. His performance of Ray shows a beautiful emotional naivety, conveyed through an expletive laden filter, and where much of the credit must go to McDonagh’s writing, it should be emphasised just how superb Farrell is in the role. Brendan Gleeson is also incredibly terrific in the paternal role of Ray’s mentor and friend, and Gleeson doing a cocaine face is well worth a watch by itself. In Bruges is easily one of the best comedies to come out in the last 10 years, and to some extent is an underrated gem.
Dark – Created by Baran bo Odar & Jantje Friese, 2017
Available on Netflix now
To be labelled as the German version of Stranger Things sprinkled with some David Lynch can work one of two ways. It can, rather positively, boost your viewing figures attracting an audience that might have otherwise ignored. Or it can set a bar extremely high which can never be reached, forcing constant comparisons to the detriment of the show. So it is refreshing that in many ways Dark has managed to sidestep the negatives, taking a Stranger Things audience on a completely different ride, which will reward you at its end. It’s a much more sophisticated plot to its counterpart, gluttonous on a foreboding and sinister tone which lingers after every episode. It is a multi plot strand structure in three different time zones; from the modern day, 1986 and 1953. Set in the small rural town of Winden, the plot revolves around a teenager in the present; Jonas, who’s father Michael recently committed suicide. Cue multiple disappearances, sheep mysteriously dying, time travel and you can see that Winden ain’t no Hawkins.
There is a certain sense of irony that Netflix actually green-lit the show prior to Stranger Things first season even hitting screens, but it is a testament to the show that it undoubtedly stands on its own feet, something that the execs at Netflix were confident it could do prior to Stranger Things mania that all year had been approaching like an ominous tide of pop culture. It’s easy to compare the two, but the enjoyment is found in their tonal differences. But if it’s streaming companion is the stepping stone needed to get people to watch Dark, than perhaps the comparisons are a positive, if inaccurate, footnote to a brilliantly crafted mystery.
Bright – David Ayer, 2017
Available on Netflix from December 22nd
Do you want to know just how much Netflix wants you to see Bright? Go and click on the IMDB page for the film. See the huge custom banner? Perhaps the countdown to the film? Or maybe the different office files you can click on? It’s no surprise considering this is Netflix’s most expensive original movie so far paying $90m for the privilege of housing it on their site. It was quite the statement purchase, beating out both MGM and Sony for the film and as of the 21st December a sequel has already been green lit. It stars Will Smith (an actor who is in dire need of a comeback role) as an LA cop forcibly given an Orc as a partner in a move to promote diversity, and Joel Edgerton as said Orc who find a magic wand that every bad guy wants to get their hands on. The trailers so far have been full of fantasy, violence and all the buddy cop cliches. Directed by David Ayer, you would be right to be concerned following the shit show that was Suicide Squad, but as the advertising boardings are keen to state he did also direct the intense End of Watch. Considering Bright looks like an amalgamation of the two with (hopefully) more focus and less characters, maybe, just maybe this will be a lot better.
Netflix have been subtly marketing the film since March this year, and in the last few weeks the marketing has ramped up. Most of you would have seen a the video banner at the top of Netflix whilst searching for what to watch, basically it’s becoming hard to ignore. The Verge recently wrote an incredible expose into just how far Netflix are going from a technological point of view to lure their viewers in. Going to such lengths as collecting information on what films you watch before deciding what specific type of banner/thumbnail from the film they should show you. They don’t care if you watch the film right now, or in 3 years time, but what is important to them is working out how to get you to watch it. Every other film you click on to watch, will be used as a tool of manipulation to entice you to watch Bright. It is the kind of technological algorithm that makes you place that bit of paper over your laptops camera, its frightening but extremely impressive at the same time. Whether or not it works we will have to wait and see, but unlike the majority of theatrical releases Netflix won’t be too worried about the launch date. Regardless of the films quality, Bright will be an interesting case study to show just how far Netflix has come from the days of DVD’s in the post, an era that actually still exists.
Wormwood – Errol Morris, 2017
Available on Netflix now
Netflix has done a lot of work this year in expanding their already impressive documentary genre, presenting films such as Jim & Andy, Kingdom of Us, Nobody Speak and One of Us. With Wormwood they went one step further and managed to snag the renowned and superb documentarian; Errol Morris. Netflix it seems is more than willing to take a swing at most documentary topics, and getting talent like Morris shows how serious they are about what is quite often a neglected theatrical genre. Much like Morris’ other brilliant documentaries, this is another where he lifts up the proverbial rock to examine the dirt hidden underneath. Its focus is on a man named Frank Olson, a decorated biochemist working for the CIA, who in December 1953 supposedly committed suicide by throwing himself out of a New York hotel window. However, that version of events has been debated up to this very day by his family, with Morris interviewing his son, Eric Olson throughout to piece together a story which involves LSD and a government conspiracy surrounding his fathers supposed suicide.
It is a brilliant exploration into the Cold War era of America and how shady government experimentations were led by fear of the enemy and the unknown. So whilst the exploration into one man’s death may seem narrow, it is what lies outside the margins of his story that is actually truly frightening. Its exploration into how the CIA explored mind control techniques via MKUltra is fascinating if only in how scary it is that the government actually got away with these studies for almost 20 years. It is an interesting watch, and whilst the mixture of dramatic reenactments woven into his interviews sometimes works to confuse the audience, it is a strong and welcome addition to Netflix’s wealth of documentaries.