Netflix enters 2021 with a January slate that’s shaped by the lingering weirdness of 2020, as a month that’s typically full of (recently re-licensed) franchise movies and new seasons of “Sex Education” has mutated into a deep grab bag of second-tier Oscar contenders, festival pick-ups, and a handful of comfort food classics that could double as ideal New Year’s Day fare.
On the awards tip, Vanessa Kirby vehicle “Pieces of a Woman” is probably the most anticipated new arrival, and the actress makes the most of this unfathomably tough melodrama about a woman coping in the months after a stillbirth (she’s even better in next month’s “The World to Come”). Rahmin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger” is still under embargo, but his adaptation Aravind Adiga’s whirlwind novel about an Indian driver scraping his way up the social ladder will almost certainly be worth a look when it drops on January 13.
“Penguin Bloom” might not be as much of an Oscar player, but it is a tender family saga in which Naomi Watts is saved by an emotional support bird, and that’s also important. Anthony Mackie sci-fi thriller “Outside the Wire” and Carey Mulligan/Ralph Fiennes archaeology drama “The Dig” won’t drop until the end of the month, but “Enter the Dragon” and a pair of Martin Scorsese masterpieces should help pass the time until then.
Here are the seven best movies coming to Netflix this January.
7. “Pieces of a Woman” (2021)
If any Shia LaBeouf movie is difficult to recommend — or even to stomach — in light of recent allegations, that’s especially true of Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s “Pieces of a Woman,” which was a tough watch from the moment it premiered on the festival circuit in September. Mundruczó’s virtuosic movies tend to open like a house on fire only to spend the last two acts finger-painting with the ashes (see: “White God,” “Jupiter’s Moon”), and his latest is no exception. A strained and splintered melodrama that’s broken in a way that a series of clunky metaphors can’t hope to repair, “Pieces” starts with a 30-minute long-take that follows an ill-fated home birth in real time as Mundruczó’s camera wends through a Boston townhouse on a gimbal, supplanting the chaos of a handheld camera with a sense of awe and holy terror.
It’s a traumatizing sequence (borderline unwatchable for expecting parents) that might seem emotionally pornographic if not for how thick a pall it casts on the rest of the film, which pits the devastated would-be mom (Vanessa Kirby) against the midwife who oversaw her botched delivery (Molly Parker). The sum may not have the same breathless power as its most indelible parts, but Kirby’s shattering performance stays with you, and the movie around her — for all of its clumsiness — shines a rare light into places that are usually considered too dark for mainstream entertainment.
Available to stream January 7.
6. “Penguin Bloom” (2021)
Netflix has such a monopoly on awards season this year that — to go by Kate Erbland’s TIFF review of “Penguin Bloom” — the streamer is now angling for Oscars that don’t even exist. Yet.
In 2011, former Movieline editor S.T. VanAirsdale suggested — not entirely facetiously — that the dog who played Uggie in the then-Oscar contender “The Artist” be considered for his own Academy Award. It wasn’t an ask without precedent (Rin Tin Tin was in the race for the very first Best Actor award, and arguably won the accolade), but it was certainly the most public awards campaign for a non-human actor.
Nearly a decade later, it’s time for another: Give an Oscar for the bird(s) that star in Glendyn Ivin’s dramatic real-life story, “Penguin Bloom.” That’s not to diminish the work of the human actors — including a stirring Naomi Watts and a breakout performance by young actor Griffin Murray-Johnston — but there’s a reason why this gentle Aussie drama about a family wracked by tragedy is named after its sole winged character. Based on the book of the same name by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, Ivin’s latest feature tracks a familiar enough story about injury, grief, and resilience, though one wonderfully fluffed up by the unlikely heroine at its heart.
Available to stream January 27.
5. “Superbad” (2007)
“Superbad,” which MTV and Comedy Central have basically aired on a constant loop for the last decade, is coming back to Netflix, which means that you can finally watch this formative high-school comedy without having to sit through 45 minutes of commercials for “Ridiculousness” (or walk across the room to grab your Blu-ray off the shelf, which is a lot harder than it sounds).
An enduringly funny modern classic that arrived at the peak of Judd Apatow’s power, brought us Emma Stone’s breakout role, and cemented Jonah Hill and Michael Cera as bonafide stars, “Superbad” holds up so well that it’s hard to believe it came out almost 13 years ago; even the cop subplot still works if you squint and see it as a parody of white privilege. This is the rare coming-of-age movie that grows along with you.
Available to stream January 1.
4. “Enter the Dragon” (1973)
In addition to being the quintessential Bruce Lee film, one of the most formative (and successful) martial arts movies ever made, and an increasingly canonized flashpoint in the modern history of Asian-American representation, “Enter the Dragon” is also the perfect New Year’s Day viewing for anyone who wants to start 2021 with an Important Masterpiece that features Bolo “The Chinese Hercules” Yeung getting kicked in the balls so hard that his soul leaves his body. And if the name Bolo Yeung doesn’t mean anything to you, that only makes “Enter the Dragon” a more urgent watch.
As much as the film is obviously a showcase for Lee’s unique screen persona, it also teems with one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled for its genre, and following any one of them down the rabbit hole of their IMDb page will lead to ample rewards. Jackie Chan’s cameo is just the tip of the iceberg: “Black Christmas” standout John Saxon rules as a Brooklynese Sean Connery, Blaxploitation legend Jim Kelly bites the dust with unforgettable style, Robert Wall is a big slab of bearded ’70s manhood, Ahna Capri brings Barbarella down to Earth as the femme fatale, and Shih Kien — even dubbed — manages to cut an iconic villain. None of them can hold a candle to Lee, of course, but it’s a blast to watch them all try and kick at his level.
Available to stream January 1.
3. “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988)
Frank Drebin: “It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girls dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.”
Jane Spencer: “Goodyear?”
Frank Drebin: “No, the worst.”
The last time “The Naked Gun” found its way onto Netflix was in January 2020, and it proved all too prescient. Now, Netflix is playing with fire and bringing it back at the top of 2021. Good year? Time will tell, but the fact is there won’t be many funnier ways to kick things off.
How brilliant is David Zucker’s brain-meltingly ridiculous police spoof? It will make you laugh with O.J. Simpson. A lot. Arguably the funniest movie ever made, this hyper-zany parody did for procedurals what “Airplane!” did for, uh… airplanes, I guess. Leslie Nielsen is comedy perfection as the unflappably deadpan Detective Frank Drebin, as he leans into the non-stop parade of silliness with such a stiff upper lip that every pun, sight gag, and wanton bit of stupidity (the bribery scene on the docks!) bounces off of him and deflects back at us. Simpson is perfect as Drebin’s resilient fall guy, Ricardo Montalbán plays the villain with Khan-level bite, and Priscilla Presley splits the difference between Michelle Pfeiffer and Marilyn Monroe as a romantic lead with a comic pulse all her own.
Available to stream January 1.
2. “The Departed” (2006)
It’s not “Goodfellas,” but don’t let the rat, the Oscar, and the Wahlberg of it all fool you into thinking that Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime epic is unworthy of being mentioned in the same breath. A virtuosic tale of cops and robbers that gives remakes a good name, “The Departed” takes the skeleton of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s “Infernal Affairs” and pumps it so full of Dropkick Murphys Dunkin’ Donuts-addled testosterone that it becomes impossible to extricate this ultra-violent 151-month behemoth from its ultra-Boston setting.
Golden boy Matt Damon isn’t given enough credit for subverting his all-American charm into a career-long side hustle of playing sociopaths and/or shitheels (see: “School Ties,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the last season of “Project Greenlight,” etc.), but he’s spectacularly hate-able as a crooked cop in a country full of them, and a perfect foil to the predatory hedonism of what appears to be Jack Nicholson’s last great performance.
Playing the undercover officer from the wrong side of the tracks, Leonardo DiCaprio is as palpably stressed out as anyone would be when trying to fill in for Tony Leung, and he bristles with the same basic anxiety he’s brought to the rest of his Scorsese collaborations even when the film buries him under a litany of killer supporting turns stacked higher than the Bunker Hill Monument (Alec Baldwin could probably use a nice Google Alert these days, but it’s the Ray Winstones and James Badge Dales that really give the movie its special flavor). Also, the rat is good. If you could stomach four hours of uncanny De Niro in “The Irishman,” you can deal with four seconds of the rat. And that’s that on that.
Available to stream January 1.
1. “Goodfellas” (1990)
Available to stream on January 1.