Netflix may get most of the attention, but it’s hardly a one-stop shop for cinephiles looking to stream essential classic and contemporary films. Each of the prominent streaming platforms caters to its own niche of film obsessives.
From the boundless wonders of the Criterion Channel to the new frontiers of streaming offered by the likes of Disney+ and HBO Max, IndieWire’s monthly guide highlights the best of what’s coming to every major streamer, with an eye toward exclusive titles that may help readers decide which of these services is right for them.
Here is your guide for December 2021.
“Swan Song” (dir. Benjamin Cleary, 2021)
It’s hard to believe that Mahershala Ali has never been the lead in a film before, but Benjamin Cleary’s elegiac “Swan Song” is eager to make up for lost time: Not only does Ali get to play the protagonist in this somberly moving sci-fi drama about a dying man who secretly clones himself in order to spare his family the pain of living without him, he gets to play him twice (and does so with heartbreaking poise). “Swan Song” is sometimes muted by the coldness of its iPod-shiny future aesthetic, but Ali helps crystallize the film into an effective parable about the pain of being left behind — and also the grace required to accept such inevitabilities. Hot on the heels of last month’s “Finch,” “Swan Song” is strong enough to suggest that Apple TV+ could turn into a reliable home for the kind of smart and poignant sci-fi stories capable of bringing the genre back down to Earth.
Available to stream December 17
“Sweetie” (dir. Jane Campion, 1989)
Criterion Channel subscribers are getting a MacGuffin in their stockings this Christmas (a metaphor which, in appropriate fashion, falls apart if you think about it for too long), as the beloved streamer is going full “Hitchcock for the Holidays” with a 21-film series of the auteur’s most re-watchable classics that runs the gamut from “The Lodger” in 1927 to “Family Plot” in 1976. Just as essential — and perhaps more eye-opening — is the Channel’s new “Female Gaze” series, which offers 49 films that celebrate the collaborations between women directors and women cinematographers. The retro is backstopped by a few cornerstones of the 20th-century canon (e.g. “Jeanne Dielman,” “Beau Travail,” and Yvonne Rainer’s “Film About a Woman Who…”), and takes strides towards establishing a 21st-century pantheon with titles like Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow,” Ursula Meier’s “Sister,” and Alice Rohrwacher’s “The Wonders.” Jane Campion’s raw and unbridled “Sweetie,” about a delusional woman and her dysfunctional family, is an absolute must for anyone still reeling from “The Power of the Dog” and eager for a closer look at one of the great modern filmographies.
Italian Neorealism might not scream “holiday cheer,” but anyone feeling the friction of some tense family time might find some comfort in Luchino VIsconti’s operatic “Rocco and His Brothers,” in which a poor Italian family tears itself apart as they desperately punch their way up the social ladder. Other must-sees in the retro are similarly familiar, but there’s never a bad time for a “Journey to Italy,” or to remind yourself that “Bicycle Thieves” actually deserves its vaunted reputation.
December’s more personality-driven series include a six-film tribute to Glenda Jackson (highlighted by “The Music Lovers” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”), and five starring Joseph Cotten (“The Magnificent Andersons,” “Gaslight”). Neither last nor least, the Channel is also offering up the final Criterion edition of the best film ever made about winter sports, Michael Ritchie’s “Downhill Racer.”
Available to stream December 1
– “Rocco and His Brothers” (12/1)
– “Sister” (12/1)
– “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (12/1)
“The Rescue” (dirs. E. Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, 2021)
Don’t forget the Nat Geo part of Disney+!
“The Rescue” is first and foremost a riveting, immersive, stomach-in-your-throat documentary about the youth soccer team that was trapped deep within a flooded cave in Northern Thailand during the summer of 2018. “Free Solo” filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin — further cementing their reputation as rock stars of the extreme non-fiction cinema scene with their most absorbing and ingeniously crafted stress-fest to date — so intimately embed us with the ragtag team of cave divers who attempted the impossible that we feel worthy of a medal just for watching them do it.
And yet, the documentary’s ample suspense is never so overwhelming that it obscures this story’s poignant sentiment, nor is the selfless heroism on display so overwrought that it washes away the bittersweet aftertaste “The Rescue” leaves behind. Yes, Vasarhelyi and Chin have cobbled together a true life men-on-a-mission movie intense enough that even Michael Bay and Peter Berg should be able to recognize that no mega-budget dramatization could match up to it (Ron Howard will give it a whirl next spring, all the same). In light of the pandemic, however, it’s hard to see “The Rescue” as a story of people coming together to save 13 strangers from certain death so much as it is one about why people can’t be moved to save 130 million strangers from a similar fate.
Available to stream December 3
– “Edward Scissorhands” (12/3)
– “Tron: Legacy” (12/10)
– “Encanto” (12/24)
“The Real Thing” (dir. Kōji Fukada, 2020)
Soon after completing his sprawling adaptation of an early 2000s manga by Hoshisato Mochiru, writer-director Kōji Fukada openly began to lament that Japanese cinema “is going to go down the drain” if it continues to mine graphic novels and other pre-existing intellectual property instead of pursuing original ideas. Needless to say, the timing of his criticism made Fukada seem like something of a flawed messenger for the cause, even if he was also arguing for a broader national investment in the culture and venues of arthouse cinema at the same time.
After watching all 232 minutes of “The Real Thing,” however, it’s easy to appreciate why the 41-year-old “Harmonium” filmmaker gave himself a get out of jail free card: This befuddled anti-romance, about a cautious salaryman whose life unravels after he saves a reckless woman from getting hit by a train, may have its roots in a popular comic book (and in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” before that), but it’s unmistakably a Fukada movie to its core. There’s no selling out here. On the contrary, “The Real Thing” might be the purest — if not the most concise — work yet from an emerging auteur who’s singularly compelled by the friction between public order and private chaos.
Originally aired as a 10-episode series on Nagoya TV before Fukada cut it down to a mere four hours in order to land a spot in last year’s ceremonial Cannes lineup, “The Real Thing” essentially slows down and stretches out a traditional romantic comedy until the cute tropes and characterizations that define the genre start to distort into low-key psychosis. And it’s able to do that because the narrative tension that pushes this story forward — or repeatedly strains to nudge it uphill in a Sisyphean struggle against the gravity of certain norms — isn’t rooted in whether or not the straight-laced boy and the free-spirited girl will get together in the end, but rather in the slow untangling of the social roles that knot them up and snag them together.
Available to stream December 30
– “Salvador Dali: In Search of Immortality” (12/10)
– “Sanremo” (12/15)
– “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness” (12/17)
“The Matrix Resurrections” (dir. Lana Wachowski, 2021)
After a weird pandemic year of releasing all of its new movies on HBO Max on the same day as they opened in theaters, Warner Bros’ twisted experiment comes to an end — we hope — in fittingly perverse fashion, as the studio prepares to beam one of this young decade’s most anticipated blockbusters directly into subscribers’ homes. Critics are still waiting to see Lana Wachowski’s “The Matrix Resurrections,” but even the most jaded among us are foaming at the mouth with excitement over the prospect of such a bonafide visionary returning to the mind-bending franchise that brought Hollywood into the digital age (for better or worse). “Resurrections” may not be able to deliver the same kind of paradigm shift “The Matrix” did back in 1999, but the trailers still promise a heady trip down the rabbit hole as Wachowski unpacks Neo’s legacy and looks for signs of life amid the unrecognizable world that he and his buddies once fought to create. However the film turns out, it’s hard to argue against any streamer that allows people to watch that and Penny Lane’s exquisite documentary about the enigma of Kenny G on the same platform.
Available to stream December 22
– “Listening to Kenny G” (12/2)
– “No Country for Old Men” (12/1)
– “The Truman Show” (12/1)
“Cryptozoo” (dir. Dash Shaw, 2021)
2021 was another rich year for feature-length animation, with the usual slate of Disney, Illumination, and Pixar fare obscuring a diverse treasure trove of gems that ranged from the anime maximalism of Mamoru Hosoda’s “Belle” to the vertiginous spectacle of Patrick Imbert’s “The Summit of the Gods” and the harrowing biography of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Oscar-tipped “Flee.” But of all those fine films, only one was about a horny couple who stumble upon a cryptozoo full of mythological creatures after having sex in the middle of the woods one night. Lucky for us, that film was made by Dash Shaw, whose trippy follow-up to “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea” is alien enough to single-handedly restore your faith in the weirdness of American animation.
In his review of the film out of Sundance, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote that “‘Cryptozoo’ takes place in the past and feels like it hails from another dimension,” even if its skepticism towards utopias has a certain timelessness to do it. “That sentiment looms large in Shaw’s cluttered symphony of erratic line drawings and psychedelic colors, all of which are bound together in a delightful consolidation of storytelling conventions that suggests ‘Yellow Submarine’ by way of ‘Jurassic Park,’ with a dose of ‘Tomb Raider’ for good measure.” “Encanto” and “Luca” both have their charms, but “Cryptozoo” is waiting for you once the kids go to bed.”
Available to stream December 16
– “Her Smell” (12/1)
– “Hustlers” (12/1)
– “The World of Kanako” (12/3)
“We Are the Best!” (dir. Lukas Moodysson, 2014)
A much-needed bolt of pure, unadulterated cinematic bliss, Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are the Best!” is the kind of movie that people will be craving this month. Here’s what IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote about it back in 2014, when the movie charmed critics the world over and began awaiting its canonization as a heartwarming mainstay:
“If Yasujiro Ozu — the Japanese filmmaker who excelled at telling stories about the lives of young children — lived long enough to turn his camera on punk rock, the result might look something like Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s warm portrait of middle school angst ‘We are the Best!’ Despite the unruly music at its center, the filmmaker has crafted a uniformly gentle ode to growing up.
“Adapting the graphic novel by his wife Coco, Moodysson presents an energetic look at three young women in early eighties Stockholm finding catharsis from their mundane lives through the riotous energy of the music, even as many around them roll their eyes. Unlike many dramatizations of the punk scene and its reverberations, ‘We are the Best!’ roots its subject in its adorable young protagonists, who start the movie with the ultra-trim hairdos to suit the subculture but no knowledge of how to play their instruments. So Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) eventually recruit pampered Christian classmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) to bring her classically trained musical ability to their burgeoning rock group. Their ensuing adventures are never high risk, but Moodyson explores their world so well that it’s easy to feel swept up in their experiences.”
Available to stream December 28
– “The Host” (12/21)
– “Mother” (12/21)
– “The Sacrament” (12/21)
“Days” (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 2020)
2021 saw MUBI become a major player in the domestic film distribution game, as the company went to Cannes with a new swagger in its step and left the fest with some of the year’s most vital movies (including “Great Freedom,” “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” and “Unclenching the Fists”). At this rate, it won’t be long before the brand means as much to American cinephiles as it does to those in the U.K., especially when each of MUBI’s acquisitions strengthens its remarkable library of streaming fare — a repository of classic and contemporary jewels rivaled only by the Criterion Channel. Case in point: This December sees the online debut of Andreas Fontana’s enigmatic banking thriller “Azor,” which is fresh off a specialty theatrical run in September and sure to appear on a slew of top 10 lists throughout the rest of the month.
For all of these recent flexes, however, the greatest strength of MUBI’s streaming platform continues to be its curatorial precision, as subscribers know that each film added to the service has been hand-picked for a reason. MUBI may not have distributed Tsai Ming-liang’s masterful “Days” here in the United States (Grasshopper Films did the honors on that one), but the streamer has jumped on the chance to host this enormously affecting reunion between a slow-cinema god and his lifelong muse. And if 130 minutes of wordless longing aren’t enough for you, there’s always C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s eight-hour “The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin),” which offers an immersive portrait of a year in the life of a rural Japanese farmer.
Those two movies alone are probably enough to hold you over until the new year, but anyone with some extra time on their hands will also have a Godard retrospective at their disposal (focused on the “cinema of Marx and Coca-Cola” days of the 1960), not to mention Abbas Kiarostami’s shattering “Like Someone in Love” at the end of the month, and Agnès Varda’s heart-filling “Faces, Places” waiting for them under the tree on Christmas Day.
Available to stream December 11
– “Azor” (12/3)
– “Faces, Places” (12/25)
– “Like Someone in Love” (12/30)
“The Power of the Dog” (dir. Jane Campion, 2021)
There may be nothing more Netflix in the history of Netflix than dropping “Red Notice” and a trillion Z-grade Christmas movies just a few weeks apart from a new Jane Campion masterpiece, a staggeringly great debut from Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the best thing that Paolo Sorrentino has ever made, but film lovers the world over wouldn’t be trapped in a tortured love-hate relationship with Netflix if the monolithic content emporium didn’t ruin and revitalize cinema in the very same breath. While it may be impossible to separate the stream from the streamer at a time when Netflix is resewing the very fabric of film culture, it would be equally futile to deny that the company’s “throw every dart on Earth at the wall and see how many view hours it gets” release strategy has resulted in some rather spectacular dividends this fall.
Even high-profile misfires like Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” and stalled-out star vehicles like “The Unforgivable” can’t torpedo the batting average of a December lineup that features some of the best movies of the year — least of all when some of those movies will eventually be made available to The Criterion Collection for safekeeping. “The Power of the Dog” may not win Netflix that elusive first Best Picture Oscar, but Campion’s cyanide-tipped Western psychodrama has already secured its place in the pantheon alongside related classics like “Brokeback Mountain” and “There Will Be Blood.” Elsewhere, “The Lost Daughter” is one of the most assured feature debuts you’ll ever see, as Maggie Gyllenhaal flays Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name into a raw, tetchy, take-no-prisoners character study about a woman (Olivia Colman) coming to terms with herself during a Greek holiday. And with all due respects to Shang-Chi, Sorrentino’s autobiographical “The Hand of God” is the finest origin story of 2021, full of enough Fellini, death, and heaving breasts to explain how the kid in this coming-of-age epic became the man behind “The Young Pope.”
Available to stream December 1
– “The Hand of God” (12/15)
– “The Lost Daughter” (12/30)
“Crimson Gold” (dir. Jafar Panahi, 2003)
OVID, a vital streaming service for those adventurous arthouse and documentary mavens interested in what lies beyond the canon, is currently offering 50 percent off the first year of a subscription (this promotion is unaffiliated with IndieWire, but use the code “JOYFUL” at checkout to reap the benefits all the same), and the platform’s December lineup makes a good argument for signing up. The month kicks off with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Bright Future,” a millennial portrait of alienation and jellyfish that feeds into all of the increasingly unpredictable work the director has made since. Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams” offers a very different but no less compelling look at contemporary Japan through the lens of a high school baseball tournament, its dedicated young athletes split between national tradition and global opportunity. Also on the documentary front, Qiong Wang’s “All About My Sisters” offers an expansive yet harrowingly intimate portrait of one family’s experience with China’s one-child policy, while Mark Kitchell’s “A Fierce Green Fire” is the rare environmental doc that might leave you more hopeful than hollowed out.
Just before Christmas, OVID subscribers will be gifted with an opportunity to catch up with or revisit 2003’s “Crimson Gold,” one of modern cinema’s most successful collaborations between two major auteurs. Written by Abbas Kiarostami and directed by Jafar Panahi, this damning social drama — more implosive and viscerally upsetting than the work either of those filmmakers have made on their own — stars paranoid schizophrenic pizza delivery man Hossain Emadeddin as a version of himself, and helplessly follows along as his socioeconomic frustrations boil over into violence.
Available to stream December 23
– “Bright Future” (12/3)
– “All About My Sisters” (12/7)
– “A Fierce Green Fire” (12/14)
“The Prestige” (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Prime may have whiffed the ball this awards season, with “Encounter,” “Being the Ricardos,” and “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” all falling well short of expectations (while Asghar Farhadi’s excellent “A Hero” is being held until January in order to make the biggest possible splash in the Best International Feature race), but subscribers will still be getting their money’s worth thanks to a healthy serving of holiday comfort food. Could this be the year that you finally learn to appreciate Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” as the Gatsby-inspired masterpiece that it is and always has been? Possibly! Is there a better movie to test out (or even obliterate) the new sound system you got for Hanukkah than Terrence “Play it Loud” Malick’s “The Thin Red Line?” Probably not. If nothing else, there’s truly never a bad time to re-watch “The Prestige” and marvel at what Christopher Nolan is capable of when his tricks don’t get in the way of his magic.
Available to stream December 1
– “Funny People” (12/1)
– “The Thin Red Line” (12/1)
– “Who You Think I Am” (12/20)
“Black Christmas” (dir. Bob Clark, 1974)
Dreaming of a Black Christmas, just like the ones you used to know? Not only is Shudder continuing to offer Bob Clark’s indelibly bleak 1974 classic (a cinematic lump of coal for the ages, if not for all ages), the service’s “Unhappy Holidays Collection” also includes the entire “Silent Night, Deadly Night” series, recent yuletide treats like “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” “A Creepshow Holiday Special,” and even a Christmas “Ghoul Log.”
Available to stream December 1
– “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (12/1)
– “House of Wax” (12/1)
– “All the Creatures Were Stirring” (12/13)
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