It would be easy to fill this column with worthwhile movies that recently played theaters or notable TV shows making their return, but there’s too much interesting stuff to waste space on the familiar. So let’s get that out of the way up top.
Netflix viewers will be able to catch up with Bardo, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and White Noise, all of which arrive on the service after brief theatrical runs.
On the TV front, fans of South Side, Slow Horses, Doom Patrol, and Random Acts of Flyness should know that all those shows are returning for new seasons this month. And with that out of the way, let’s look at what else December is bringing.
Branson (HBO Max, December 1)
Virgin founder/philanthropist/billionaire daredevil Richard Branson is the subject of this four-part documentary tracing his journey from his career as a teen entrepreneur to his 2021 spaceflight aboard the VSS Unity. The series draws heavily on interviews conducted just days before that event by director American Movie’s Chris Smith (whose name will turn up again a little later on this list). Watch on HBO Max here.
Violent Night (Theaters, December 2)
What if Santa Claus was a kick-ass action hero? That’s the premise of this new film that pits a grumpy Santa (David Harbour) against a band of mercenaries led by John Leguizamo. It’s a novel premise but director Tommy Wirkola is no stranger to snow-covered mayhem. He broke through with the Nazi zombie movie Dead Snow.
Riches (Prime Video, December 2)
A British series premiering first in the United States (because the streaming era is weird that way), Riches focuses on the family of Stephen Richards (Hugh Quarshie) a cosmetics magnate and vocal supporter of Black-owned businesses. But when Stephen dies the surviving members of the Richards family has to deal with some uncomfortable secrets. Watch with 30-day free trial to Amazon Prime here.
Sr. (Netflix, December 2)
Directed by Chris Smith (there’s that name again), this documentary explores the life of Robert Downey Sr., the pioneering independent filmmaker best known for the 1969 black comedy Putney Swope. Downey’s famous son helps pay tribute, as do friends and collaborators from Norman Lear to Paul Thomas Anderson.
Emancipation (Theaters, December 2 / Apple TV+ December 9)
Inspired by the true story of a slave whose escape and photographic evidence of abuse helped fuel the abolitionist movement in the years before the American Civil War, this Antoine Fuqua-directed drama follows Peter (Will Smith) as he makes a daring escape from Louisiana to the North. Yes, it’s still hard to shake off the memory of the Oscars slap but Fuqua has a strong track record and Smith won Best Actor for a reason so this will probably be worth a look. Watch with a free trial to Apple TV+ here.
The Eternal Daughter (Theaters and VOD, December 2)
Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton star in the latest film from Joana Hogg (The Souvenir). Swinton plays both a filmmaker named Julie and Julie’s mother Rosalind, whose trip to a spooky hotel turns into an exploration of their troubled relationship. (Swinton’s dog serves as a co-star, too, making this the Swintoniest movie of the year by far.)
Spoiler Alert (Theaters, December 2)
Adapted from TV industry journalist Michael Ausiello’s memoir 2017 memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, the latest film from director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) stars Jim Parsons as Ausiello and recounts his relationship with his late husband Kit (Ben Aldridge), whom he lost to cancer in 2015. (The full title of the book is no lie.) Sally Field co-stars as Kit’s mother.
George & Tammy (Showtime, December 4)
A marital drama that played out in public and on the country music charts, the story of George Jones and Tammy Wynette almost seems too big to squeeze into a six-episode limited series. It certainly has a strong cast on its side: Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain play, respectively, Jones and Wynette and they’re joined by Steve Zahn as George Richey, the songwriter who collaborated with both of them and married Wynette after her divorce from Jones. But not immediately after; she married someone else first. (It’s a complicated story!) Watch with a free trial to Showtime here.
Connect (Hulu, December 7)
The prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, 13 Assassins) directs this six-part adaptation of a Korean webtoon about an immortal human named Connect (Jung Hae-in) in search of his missing eye. Further complicating matters: it’s been implanted in a serial killer. Based on that bizarre premise, anyone who’s seen Miike’s past work should be marking the days on the calendar until the premiere. Watch with a free trial to Hulu here.
Empire of Light (Theaters, December 9)
The always-worth-watching Olivia Colman stars in the latest from Sam Mendes (1917) as Hillary, the manager of a small seaside movie theater who finds herself in an unexpected romance with a younger ticket taker named Stephen (Micheal Ward). The new couple then finds themselves confronting the surging racism of Thatcher-era Britain.
The Whale (Theaters, December 9)
The latest from Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) stars Brendan Fraser as a six-hundred pound man desperate to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink). The film has raised the hackles of some who feel it dehumanizes the obese, but also acclaim for its performances, particularly Fraser’s.
Kindred (Hulu, December 13)
Science fiction great Octavia Butler hasn’t been widely adapted into film or television despite her towering reputation and the richness of her works. There are a bunch of projects in the works designed to change that and this miniseries reworking of her most famous novel is the first of several planned projects to arrive. Mallori Johnson (WeCrashed) stars as Dana, an aspiring writer who finds herself unexpectedly pulled into the past and living as a slave on a 19th century plantation. Watch with a free trial to Hulu here.
National Treasure: Edge of History (Disney+, December 14)
There’s no Nicolas Cage in this follow-up to the hit ‘00s films about history obsessives hunting for treasure but several other members of those films’ supporting cast are making returns, including Justin Bartha and Harvey Keitel. Otherwise this series appears to focus on a new generation of adventurers, led by the young heroine Jess (Lisette Olivera). Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala) directs and two episodes premiere today before rolling out weekly. Watch on Disney+ here.
Avatar: The Way of Water (Theaters, December 16)
How do you follow the most successful movie ever made. If you’re James Cameron you wait a long, long time. But, hey: who wants a quickie follow-up to a movie as massive as Avatar? Arriving with the promise of delivering even more groundbreaking special effects, this is the first of several planned sequels. (The original Avatar is also available for just $8 right now on Blu-ray).
Nanny (Prime Video, December 16)
The first horror film ever to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the feature debut of Nikyatu Jusu stars Anna Diop (Titans) as an immigrant navigating a treacherous world of privilege when she takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy New York family. Watch with 30-day free trial to Amazon Prime here.
1923 (Paramount+, December 18)
If you like Yellowstone and its prequel series 1883 we’ve got some good news for you: there’s now another Yellowstone-verse series, this one set in, you guessed it, 1923. If that’s not intriguing enough, consider the cast, which is headed by Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren and includes a bunch of reliable supporting players like James Badge Dale, Timothy Dalton, and Jennifer Ehle.
Babylon (Theaters, December 23)
La La Land director Damien Chazelle returns to Los Angeles with this sprawling film set in the silent era starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva and everyone from Olivia Wilde to Eric Roberts. Chazelle’s not a director to take shortcuts so expect spectacle enough to fill its three-plus hour running time.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Theaters, December 23)
Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Harriet) directs this biopic of Whitney Houston, a singer whose voice helped define the Eighties and Nineties. It’s a tough story to tell, both because Houston’s sound and image have become so iconic and because of the way her story ends, but Lemmons is a director of great skill and her Houston (Naomi Ackie) is a rising star thanks to her work on End of the F***ing World, Small Axe, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Stanley Tucci co-stars as Clive Davis.
Women Talking (Theaters, December 23)
The latest from Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell) adapts a Miriam Toews novel in which the women of an isolated religious colony debate whether to stay or leave after discovering some male members have been sexually assaulting them in their sleep. It’s inspired by a true story, but the film’s central discussions (between characters played by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand and others) speak just as much to the patriarchal world outside the colony.
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A Man Called Otto (Theaters, December 25)
The bestselling Swedish novel A Man Called Ove (which was previously filmed in Sweden under that name) gets an Americanized remake starring Tom Hanks as Otto, a grumpy and suicidal retiree. Seemingly nothing can warm his heart, but a friendship with some new neighbors might change that. (The film enters limited release on Christmas before going wide in January.)