Film

What to Watch on Netflix and DVD: January 2018

To celebrate the new year—and, perhaps, to compensate for the lack of good upcoming theatrical releases—Netflix has put together an exceptionally rich lineup for January. Many of the options (The Godfather, Midnight in Paris, The Shawshank Redemption, The Truman Show) need no introduction. But when you’ve plowed through those, here are some other films (on Netflix and/or on DVD) you also ought to take a look at:

NETFLIX

Marie Antoinette (2006; out January 1)

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

When it first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 11 years ago, Sofia Coppola’s biopic about the titular French monarch received boos; today, according to Rotten Tomatoes, it remains her least successful film. Yet despite its bad rap, Marie Antoinette turns out to be a poignant, humanizing, and largely moving look at a tragically misunderstood figure. Even though history books tend to treat the monarch as the poster child for haughty elitism, Coppola suggests that she was actually a woman whose personal needs always took a back seat to the political ambitions of the men in her life. And while the film’s usage of decidedly non-classical background music might seem out-of-place, it tellingly connects Marie Antoinette with the insular, materialistic world of celebrity that Coppola has often depicted in other movies. Kirsten Dunst’s lead performance rounds out what proves to be a surprisingly thought-provoking work.

DVD

American Graffiti (1973)

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Before George Lucas wrote himself into the history books with Star Wars, he was best known for American Graffiti, a breakout hit about a group of California teenagers (played by, among others, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford) who find themselves fighting, hooking up, and pondering life on the last night of summer vacation. (Fun fact: from a box-office perspective, it’s still the most successful teenage comedy of all time.)

The movie’s gentle comedy is complemented by a first-rate rock-and-roll soundtrack. And its representation of the 60s—a decade in which the suburban ideals of the 50s gradually gave way to the turbulence of the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution—definitely continues to resonate. Still, when you consider the fact that this film was made by the same guy behind this, what’s most striking about Graffiti is the unexpected subtlety it brings to its portrayal of adolescence.

See it for: If you haven’t heard, there’s this new movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

If you’re a political geek who recoils at the rampant cynicism of shows like House of Cards and Scandal, you’ll be sure to appreciate Charlie Wilson’s War. Mike Nichols’ final directorial effort tells the true story of Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a promiscuous Democratic congressman who joined forces with a rich Republican donor (Julia Roberts) and a gruff CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to funnel money and arms to the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War. In its best moments, the movie provides a humorous, weirdly inspiring depiction of a time when people in government could actually put their differences aside and get stuff done. And even if the movie conveniently glosses over some nuances—the fact, for example, that many of the mujahideen Wilson supported eventually came together to form al-Qaeda—Hanks, Roberts, and Hoffman have enough acting talent among them to keep the story rolling smoothly throughout. 

See it for: Molly’s Game marks the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, the scriptwriter behind Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Steve Jobs. See it in theaters now; our review is here.

Miss Sloane (2016)

Image courtesy of EuropaCorp.

British director John Madden (no, not the football guy) is probably best known for romantic, gently uplifting works like 1998’s Shakespeare in Love and 2011’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In last year’s Miss Sloane, however, he ventured into new territory with an edgy, fast-paced story about a ruthless lobbyist (Jessica Chastain) who tries to push a gun control bill through the Senate. As with Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain’s character here proves frustratingly robotic – and despite the story’s admirable insistence on calling out the sexism pervading Washington, it generally plays like little more than an extra-intense, extra-cynical version of House of Cards. Still, what the film lacks in substance, it makes up for in riveting, twist-heavy style. And despite her character’s one-dimensionality, Chastain demonstrates a remarkable screen presence.

See it for: In Molly’s Game, Chastain plays another ambitious woman who has to fight her way through a man’s world.

Sleazy Journalism: His Girl Friday (1940), Ace in the Hole (1951), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Thanks to movies like Spotlight and the election of media-hating Trump, we tend to think of journalists as honorable, besieged crusaders dedicated to the “pursuit of the truth.” It wasn’t too long ago, however, that they were often viewed as just the opposite. Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, and Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success all shed light on an era in which journalists were power brokers—shamelessly corrupt people of influence who made and destroyed careers with a mere flick of the pen. Come for the sharp dialogue and career-best performances from giants of Old Hollywood. Stay for the timeless analysis each film gives of the power of self-interest—plus their perceptive commentary on the obstacles women face in male-dominated workplaces.

See it for: In The Post, Steven Spielberg puts us in the shoes of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post publisher and editor who decided to publish the Pentagon Papers. See it in theaters starting January 5.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

In Alan Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice, an aspiring writer (Peter MacNicol) moves to New York and immediately befriends his two neighbors: Nathan (Kevin Kline), a temperamental “biologist” who suffers from schizophrenia, and his girlfriend Sophie (Meryl Streep), a Polish woman who survived Auschwitz. The film is hardly a masterpiece; it replicates the original novel’s structure to a fault, it relies too heavily on voice-over narration, and anyone who remembers the thrills of Pakula’s All the President’s Men will find this work of his rather plodding.

But there’s a reason Streep won her first Best Actress Oscar for this movie: aside from speaking flawless Polish, she proves astonishingly adept at capturing the many ways people try to suppress and camouflage grief. And even though the plot moves rather slowly, its climax (the titular “choice”) remains one of the most iconic, gut-wrenching scenes in all of film history.

See it for: Spielberg’s The Post features Streep in what could very well be her 21st Oscar-nominated role.

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