Streaming services are a crucial addition to modern civilization, but only in December do they become a truly indispensible survival tool. Whether curled around your laptop in order to keep warm or retreating to your favorites queue in a desperate attempt to hide from your loved ones, this is the season when having something good to watch can mean the difference between life and death.
Fortunately for us, Netflix, Hulu, and the other major hubs have busted out the big guns just in time. From indisputable classics to contemporary gems, a new 10-epsiode dose of Amazon Prime’s crown-jewel series to a long-sought-after film that’s longer than most TV seasons, we guide you through the best of what’s on tap for the month to come.
Apocalypse Now (Hulu, 12/1)
The idea that Francis Ford Coppola’s totemic masterpiece about the immorality of war and the recesses of the human soul will always be relevant is not a particularly comforting thought. But look on the bright side: You can now stream it on Hulu! Transplanting Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness into the blinding fog of the Vietnam War, Coppola’s 1979 epic follows Captain Benjamin L. Willard (a young Martin Sheen) as he sails up the Nùng River on a mission to find rogue Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (a pants-less Marlon Brando) and “terminate him with extreme prejudice.” Coppola famously said: “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” And in the years since its 1979 premiere, this remorseless portrait of man’s inhumanity to man is also Afghanistan, Iraq, and anywhere else murder is committed in the name of a cause.
Black Mirror: “White Christmas” Special (12/25)
Fans of bold and unapologetic science-fiction were devastated when Netflix lost the streaming rights to the British anthology series that takes a side-eyed look at how technology is poised to shape our lives in the future. So it’s something of a Christmas miracle — or at least a small dose of holiday cheer — that the Black Mirror‘s vaunted “White Christmas” special from last year will be online just in time for the big day. Starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as co-workers inside a remote outpost at the end of the world, the 75-minute program tells three stories about augmented reality, each more unnervingly conceivable than the last.
Blow Out (Hulu, 12/1)
The consensus choice for Brian De Palma’s greatest movie, this deeply neurotic 1981 conspiracy thriller churns the director’s most profound obsessions through the analog mechanics of cinema. Set in Philadelphia (but more accurately located somewhere between Blow-Up and The Conversation), the story concerns sound technician Jack Terry (John Travolta), whose equipment inadvertently records proof that a fatal car accident was the result of an assassination attempt. Sending Jack on a dangerous path that puts him in the crosshairs of a merciless killer (John Lithgow, natch), Blow Out builds to a haunting final scene that illustrates just how literally filmmakers transmute their anguish into the films their audiences come to love.
Cutie and the Boxer (Amazon Prime, 12/15)
One of the most charming and bittersweet documentaries of recent years, Zachary Heinzerling’s New York story follows the fractious 40-year marriage between 81-year-old artist Ushio Shinohara and his younger wife Noriko, who was forced to abandon her own creative dreams. Part Jackson Pollock and part Mike Tyson, Ushio works by dipping a pair of boxing gloves into a can of paint and then punching a giant canvas until he’s satisfied — the film around him doesn’t glorify the process by which hardship is distilled into art, but it poignantly illustrates how love can be an act of creation unto itself.
Dr. No (Hulu, 12/1)
Last month, in anticipation of Spectre, Hulu uploaded more than a dozen classic James Bond adventures. One of 007’s movies, however, was conspicuously absent from the group — his first. Released in 1962 (and shot on a budget of only $1.1 million!), Dr. No was the film with which the suave superspy leapt from the pages of Ian Fleming’s novels and into pop-cultural history. Despite the lack of nude silhouettes gyrating during the credits, the franchise emerged almost fully formed; not only does Sean Connery wear that signature tuxedo like a second skin, the movie introduces many of the series’ defining characteristics, from the gun barrel opening to the only proper way to order a martini.
A Fistful of Dynamite (Hulu, 12/2)
A nitroglycerine-fueled tour of south-of-the-border political radicalism, the last and most rambunctious of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns was doomed to obscurity thanks to a mess of bad decisions made by United Artists in advance of the film’s 1972 release. Released as “Duck, You Sucker!,” shorn of almost 40 minutes, and dumped into theaters on poor quality prints, A Fistful of Dynamite never stood a chance. As a result, audiences missed out on an explosive yarn about an outlaw rapist (Rod Steiger) and a demolitions expert (James Coburn) who team up to fight alongside the rebel forces of the Mexican Revolution. Every bit as brutal, lusty, and ferocious as you’d expect from Leone, this deserves to be considered alongside the “Man with No Name” trilogy and watched on the biggest (laptop) screen you can find.
Making a Murderer: Season 1 (12/18)
Thanks to the likes of Serial and HBO’s The Jinx, true-life stories about miscarriages of justice are the hottest storytelling genre since the YA explosion. It was only a matter of time before Netflix got in on the action, and their addition to the group is a doozy. In 1985, a 23-year-old Wisconsin man named Steven Avery was arrested for raping a local woman he saw jogging on the beach; 18 years later, he was exonerated on the strength of DNA evidence that proved his innocence. But if Making a Murderer first appears to be an investigation into the willful wrongdoing that lead to Avery’s conviction, the plot thickens in the biggest conceivable way when — shortly after his release — Avery is charged with an unrelated murder. Is the man a killer? Or are the local authorities just trying to cover up a catastrophic (and possibly deliberate) perversion of our legal system?
Out 1 (Fandor, now streaming)
One of the only films that you can actually binge watch, Jacques Rivette’s 773-minute conspiracy thriller-cum-endurance test is legendary for being the longest movie in all of narrative cinema (although the word “narrative” is applied generously). The free-flowing plot, which ostensibly involves a troupe of actors and a mysterious group known only as “The Thirteen,” is spread across 13 hours, making this rarely screened epic something of a Holy Grail for hardcore cinephiles in search of testing their stamina — now that it’s streaming on Fandor, you’re free to watch it at your own pace.
Transparent: Season 2 (Amazon Prime, 12/11)
The Pfeffermans are back! It’s been a long 14 months since the first season of Transparent debuted online, but the Golden Globe-winning comedy that legitimized Amazon as a major TV studio is finally back in business. Inspired by series creator Jill Solloway’s transgender father, the half-hour comedy stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura (born Morton), a recently retired college professor who announces to her family that she’s always identified as a woman. Following the clan through the fallout and stubbornly resisting the temptation to sacrifice characters in order to serve their “issue,” this show is humane and hilarious in equal measure — and the perfect reminder during the season of tense holiday-dinner stand-offs that your family isn’t the only one that’s fucked up.
A Very Murray Christmas (Netflix, 12/4)
Being trapped somewhere with Bill Murray on Christmas Eve is the real American Dream, and that dream is about to come true for every single one of us, religious affiliation be damned. Reteaming with Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola for another bittersweet story set inside the bars and ballrooms of a ritzy hotel, Murray’s star-studded variety hour begins with the actor panicking that a blizzard is putting the kibosh on his live TV holiday special. We wouldn’t want to spoil the fun of where the night goes from there, but rest assured that this is ideal spiked-eggnog viewing for anyone who smiles at the thought of Bill Murray glumly singing “Christmas Blues” while wearing a pair of reindeer antlers.