After a lackluster November that left Netflix scrambling to rescue its award season ambitions after “Hillbilly Elegy” didn’t quite hit the mark, the streaming giant is showing its full strength with a December lineup that pairs unmissable Originals like “Mank” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with quintessential library titles like “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park.” Add a bearded George Clooney and a rapping Meryl Streep into the mix, and you’ve got the kind of holiday viewing slate that only Netflix has the chutzpah to put out into the world.
Here are the seven most exciting movies coming to the platform this month.
7. “The Prom” (2020)
Future historians will note that 2020 ended the only way this cursed year possibly could: With Meryl Streep rapping on camera in a Netflix musical directed by Ryan Murphy. And yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, it seems “The Prom” might be just the party we’ve all been waiting for over these last nine months.
In their approving review of this glitzy and Golden Globes-ready Broadway adaptation, IndieWire’s Jude Dry writes that “‘The Prom’ has all the makings of a classic Hollywood musical,” and that the story — about a quartet of washed-up theater legends who hoof it to a conservative Indiana town in order to support a lesbian teen who was banned from bringing her girlfriend to the big dance — unfolds as if “the strivers from ‘The Philadelphia Story’ went to Allentown to help Peggy Swayer find her way to ‘42nd Street.’”
Calling the movie “exactly the kind of feel-good entertainment we needed,” Dry observes that while Murphy may not be the second coming of Busby Berkeley, he gets all the help he needs from costume designer Lou Eyrich, virtuosic cinematographer Matthew Libatique, choreographer Casey Nicholaw, and an all-singing, all-dancing, all-smiling-until-their-faces-crease-that-way-forever cast of mega-stars likes Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerry Washington, and more. If you’re looking for love, acceptance, a renewed sense of purpose, and enough sequins to single-handedly revive disco, “The Prom” is sure to be the safest party in town, and everyone’s invited.
Available to stream December 11.
6. “The Midnight Sky” (2020)
George Clooney’s directorial career went a little sideways after the success of “Good Night, and Good Luck” (though “Leatherheads” remains a minor screwball delight), but even in the aftermath of misfires like “The Monuments Men” and “Suburbicon,” it’s still easy to root for him and chalk up the existence of “The Midnight Sky” to perseverance instead of privilege, or at least perseverance and privilege instead of just privilege alone. This is a guy who could live 100 comfortable lifetimes on his tequila money alone, and yet he still seems fully invested in everything he does, whether it’s a happy-go-lucky Nespresso commercial or a Netflix epic about a lonely Arctic scientist who’s desperately trying to stop a team of astronauts from returning to a ruined Earth.
Adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s “Good Morning, Midnight” and supposedly more of a heartfelt sci-fi epic than the Oscar contender its release date and Alexandre Desplat score might suggest, “The Midnight Sky” finds an immaculately bearded Clooney pulling double duty as both director and leading man, while Felicity Jones plays the space-bound aeronaut who he’s so urgently trying to reach.
The film hasn’t screened for critics at the time this article is being published, but word around the campfire is that “The Midnight Sky” is an earnest and satisfying return to form for its biggest star, and might be the closest thing that any of us get to an adult-oriented blockbuster this holiday season.
Available to stream December 23.
5. “Rango” (2005)
Pixar’s imminent “Soul” may not re-write the rule book of what’s possible or commercially palatable in terms of mainstream CGI animation, but its different and ambitious enough to make you wish that other Hollywood studios would spend more time thinking outside the box when it comes to dreaming up kid-friendly movies. Mass appeal doesn’t always have to mean simplicity and superheroes and babies who are bosses; there’s plenty of room for big ideas, and for auteurism, and for the kind of weirdness that’s usually consigned to the wee hours of Adult Swim.
There is definitely room for Gore Verbinski’s delirious “Rango,” an acid-washed pseudo-Western about a chameleon who becomes the sheriff of a town called Dirt after his terrarium falls out of his owner’s car somewhere in the desert. Scored by Hans Zimmer, featuring cinematography by Roger Deakins, and altogether so inspired that it’s possible to skirt over the Johnny Depp of it all (even if Rango himself is a blinkered caricature of the actor’s Hunter S. Thompson screen image), “Rango” raked in $245 million on its way to winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Not only does it hold up, it leaves the last 15 years of Hollywood animation in the dust.
Available to stream December 28.
4. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
A star-studded adaptation of an August Wilson play is always a special event, and George C. Wolfe’s riff on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — the first of the 10 plays that shaped Wilson’s landmark Pittsburgh Cycle — was a tantalizing prospect from the moment it went into production. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that Chadwick Boseman’s tragic death earlier this year consecrated his final performance in a very different context, as what should have been a promising showcase for one of the best actors of his generation became the ultimate monument to the talent he took with him.
And that talent was even greater than most people already know, which is saying a lot considering how beautifully Boseman embodied a series of Black icons like James Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall before becoming one unto himself in “Black Panther.” His sly turn as the scheming trumpeter Levee in Wolfe’s brassy ode to the Mother of Blues is so vital and incendiary that it would have felt like the performance of a lifetime even in the best of circumstances. Boseman — along with a show-stopping Viola Davis in the title role – bursts off the screen with the kind of fire that makes it easy to overlook the staginess of the film around him, or even celebrate Wolfe’s direction for having the good sense to get out of his way.
As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn put it in his appreciative review: “‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ embodies the frustrations of Black artists in a society rigged against them, with the boisterous singer and her combustible band wandering a recording studio on a sweltering Chicago afternoon, squabbling and grandstanding until the final minutes. The result is a chamber piece with occasional flashes of musical intensity and thematic depth to spare.” It’s also an unforgettable swan-song in a year that deserves to be remembered for more than its grief.
Available to stream December 18.
3. “Mank” (1980)
There will be a lot to say about David Fincher’s first movie since “Gone Girl,” which is both one of Netflix’s awards season juggernauts and also a cruise missile aimed right at the heart of the cinephile discourse. But to understand why “Mank” will be worth fighting over, here’s what IndieWire’s Eric Kohn had to say about Fincher’s return upon naming it one of the best films of 2020:
There have been countless movies about the Golden Age of Hollywood that celebrate its grandeur or bemoan the harsh business tactics of cigar-chomping leaders. But David Fincher doesn’t have to worry about precedents. With “Mank,” the filmmaker transform his late father Jack’s screenplay into a rich, haunting meditation on the restless career of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (a frantic Gary Oldman at his best), working around the mystique of the proverbial “greatest movie of all time” to create a more alluring window into the world that inspired that work — namely, powerful men whose influence extended far beyond the arena of entertainment and changed the fabric of society as a whole. Zipping between the 1934 gubernatorial race and bedridden Mank’s attempts to piece together his magnum opus, “Mank” uses its meticulous black-and-white scenery and complex soundscape to resurrect its era while commenting on how it reverberates to this day. Countless movies about Hollywood go behind the scenes; “Mank” is one of the few tells us what they really mean.
Available to stream December 4.
2. “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial”
This sweet coming-of-age story about a desiccated little alien who just wants to go home and see his family might hit a bit different this holiday season.
Available to stream December 1.
1. “Jurassic Park” (1993)
Sixty-five million years in the making and somehow still worth the wait, “Jurassic Park” proved that the guy who invented the modern blockbuster could still make them better than anyone else, and almost three decades later it hasn’t aged a day. And that’s good, because a culture-breaking popcorn epic like this should always be more about transcendence than nostalgia, and that’s where “Jurassic Park” delivers most.
From the childhood-scarring opening sequence to the bittersweet final notes of John Williams’ anthemic score and all of the earth-shaking moments of cinematic spectacle in between, Spielberg’s second-best film of 1993 is the kind of experience that gives the summer movie season a good name, or at least redeems it from the movies that don’t. The special effects not only “hold up,” but some of the animatronics seem as if from a more advanced era of movie magic than the computer-generated follies that followed.
It’s been almost 30 years and the multiplexes still haven’t offered another shot of wonder and adrenaline quite like it. Watching it at home might not capture all the same magic, but if you squint real hard you might be able to see a faint shadow of what we missed at the movies this summer.
Available to stream December 1.