What to Watch on the Small Screen: December 2018

December is here, and with it the inevitable onslaught of can’t-feel-your-face-anymore winter weather. If you don’t have the stamina to go outside and brave the trip to your nearest movie theater, here are some films you can stream from the comfort of your home:

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Shop Around the Corner
Image courtesy of MGM.

In Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, James Stewart brings his everyman persona to the character of Alfred, a bashful salesman who works at a small shop in downtown Budapest. During the workday, Alfred finds himself constantly tussling with Klara (Margaret Sullavan), a junior colleague who never misses an opportunity to mock his ungainliness. Little does Alfred know, however, that Klara is also the woman with whom he’s carrying on a passionate—but anonymous—correspondence by mail.

From a 21st-century perspective, Shop’s gender dynamics might strike you as dated: after Alfred discovers that Klara is his correspondent, he eventually uses that knowledge to manipulate her. That said, however, the film’s witty dialogue—and, for that matter, the elegant poise of Lubitsch’s direction—hasn’t lost even a bit of its charm. Moreover, Stewart and Sullavan demonstrate remarkable chemistry, exchanging barbs with a spontaneity that’ll remind you of better-known screen couples like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Ultimately, what makes Shop’s comedy particularly meaningful is the backdrop against which it takes place. Lurking underneath all the laughs is the specter of an era where rampant unemployment eviscerated people’s sense of dignity. And even though they spend much of the movie just horsing around, Alfred, Klara, and most of the secondary characters are defined by their fragility, as though their every action stemmed from a desperate desire to avoid loneliness at all costs. With such context and characterizations, Lubitsch successfully imbues Shop with nuance, lending the film a psychological and emotional poignancy that few of its genre peers can equal.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes 

See it for: If you like It’s a Wonderful Life but want spice up your Christmas movie-watching routine, you’re in luck: Shop just happens to be another James Stewart film that’s set during the Christmas season.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Set during the Meiji Restoration, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum follows the fall and rise of Kiku (Shōtarō Hanayagi), a Kabuki performer who works in Tokyo. Kiku is a truly terrible actor, but since his father (Gonjurō Kawarazaki) is a famous performer, he’s still able to live in relative comfort. Eventually, however, Kiku finds himself racked by a desire to get ahead on his own merits. So he abandons his father, leaves Tokyo, and marries Otoku (Kakuko Mori), a wet nurse who also happens to be the only person willing to honestly critique his work.

If you thought La La Land’s depiction of showbiz was depressing, you’ll find Chrysanthemum to be absolutely heartbreaking. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi isn’t afraid to call out the darker aspects of Japanese culture, particularly its tendency to denigrate the contributions of women. The portrait he paints, moreover, is of a Japan that remains tethered to meaningless traditions and stifling hierarchies, even after it’s ostensibly begun to adopt the meritocratic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps principles of modernization.

Ultimately, the most striking thing about Chrysanthemum is Mizoguchi’s masterful cinematography. His long takes not only speak to the helplessness and estrangement that Otoku and Kiku often feel; more significantly, these techniques always call attention to the environment around the two protagonists, reminding us that they live in a world where individual wills are inescapably subservient to greater society’s dictates. It’s the kind of thoughtful camerawork, in short, that can depict tragedy without crossing into the realm of the soppy.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

See it for: Like Chrysanthemum, Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux offers a behind-the-scenes look at a performer’s life. This time, the performer in question is a singer who rises to fame after making a song about a mass shooting. The film arrives in theaters on December 7.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

chimes at midnight
Image courtesy of Janus Films.

A combined film adaptation of five of William Shakespeare’s plays, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight recounts the story of John Falstaff (Welles), the old, fat English knight who serves as an unlikely companion to Prince Hal (Keith Baxter). An unapologetic hedonist, Falstaff spends his days whoring, eating, and pulling pranks in tandem with Hal. But after Hotspur (Norman Rodway) launches a rebellion against Hal’s father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud), Hal decides that he ought to take his royal duties more seriously, provoking a riff that eventually brings an end to his friendship with Falstaff.

On a narrative level, Chimes continues to be a moving meditation on mortality, friendship, and the shape-shifting quality of those who hold power. Invariably masterful, the actors will leave you with a heightened appreciation for the beauty and profundity of Shakespeare’s verse. Particular stand-outs include Gielgud, whose solemn declamations convey the simultaneously alluring and vexing nature of power; and Welles, who buoyantly illustrates how Falstaff turns to self-indulgence to avoid thinking about death.

The best thing about Chimes, however, is that you don’t even need to understand the dialogue—Welles’ visuals communicate Shakespeare’s ideas all on their own. Whether it involves imposing castles or cramped taverns, the set design physically embodies the characters’ various personalities. By turns zippy and sedate, the camera is always attuned to the varying moods of the action. And Welles’ depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury remains a striking condemnation of war, an impeccably-shot and flawlessly-edited testament to the futility of violence. No matter how you look at it, in short, Chimes is brilliant, a distinctly cinematic work that easily justifies Welles’ reputation as one of history’s greatest filmmakers.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, Amazon, Vudu, iTunes

See it for: Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots tells the story of the woman who fought with Queen Elizabeth I for control of the English throne. The film stars Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, and it arrives in theaters on December 14.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

Marriage of Maria Braun
Image courtesy of Janus Films.

The titular protagonist of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (played by Hanna Schygulla) has a love life that’s nothing if not unlucky. In 1943, she marries a German soldier named Hermann (Klaus Löwitsch); after an extremely brief honeymoon, he leaves for the front and apparently dies in battle. Two years later, Maria starts up a relationship with an American named Bill (George Byrd); unfortunately, Hermann returns while the two of them are making love in her apartment. A few unexpected plot turns later, Bill is dead, and Hermann is in prison – leaving Maria with a burning desire to get ahead, make money, and ensure that Hermann can live comfortably post-release.

At its core, Marriage is about a woman who won’t let other men tell her what she can and can’t do, a narrative that still proves timely and compelling. More interestingly, the film can also be read as an allegory about 20th-century Germany. Fassbinder suggests that Germany’s loss in World War II engendered feelings (both spiritual and sexual) of emasculation and impotence in German men. In his telling, moreover, West Germany’s subsequent economic miracle eventually led to a “recuperation” of this masculinity—and with it a convenient desire to forget the role that aggressive masculinity played during the Nazi era.

Stylistically, Marriage also provides ample testament to Fassbinder’s intelligence as a director. Throughout the film, he frequently makes use of multiplanar mise-en-scene, a technique that allows him to illustrate the emotional distance between various characters. And the juxtapositions between what we hear and what we see – in one telling scene, a speech about disarmament plays as Maria moves out of her family’s home to join a business – help convey Fassbinder’s ideas regarding masculinity and German history. The overall film might occasionally feel a bit staged. But as with just about everything that Fassbinder made, it remains a provocative work with a message that resonates.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, Amazon, iTunes

See it for: For his follow-up to Moonlight, Barry Jenkins decided to adapt James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, a novel about a woman whose husband is imprisoned on false charges of rape. The film is in theaters on December 14.

Amarcord (1973)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Thirteen years after portraying modern-day spiritual decadence in La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini took a more autobiographical turn in 1973’s Amarcord. Set in a village that resembles the place where Fellini grew up, the film depicts a year in the life of the village’s inhabitants, concentrating in particular on the exploits of a mischievous teenager named Titta (Bruno Zanin).

Seen from today, Amarcord still stands out for its vividness, warmth, and generosity of spirit. With a characteristic mix of carnivalesque fantasy and documentary realism, Fellini creates a hilariously caricatural panoply of characters – pedantic teachers, prudish priests, hot-headed fathers, and more – who imbue the narrative with an aching sense of nostalgia. In keeping with this reflective atmosphere, moreover, the movie’s vignette structure leaves you feeling as though you were leafing through a scrapbook of old memories.

Even as he indulges in fuzzy recollections of his childhood, however, Fellini also offers darker insights into Italian history and society. The narrative unfolds against a backdrop of bare, colorless landscapes that speak to the characters’ miserable economic prospects. And the film is rife with oblique references to Italian fascism, illustrating the way in which Mussolini alternately deluded and exploited ordinary citizens. All told, then, this isn’t just the most personal work of a cinematic luminary. It’s also a chilling look at how ignorance and poverty-induced desperation can push people towards the empty – but irresistible – promises of authoritarianism.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

See it for: In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men) provides a semi-autobiographical depiction of his childhood in Mexico City. The film has been receiving rave reviews since its premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and Netflix releases it on December 14.

Blow-Up (1966)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up takes us back to the countercultural milieu of 1960s London. There, Thomas (David Hemmings) is a fashion photographer who’s the epitome of arrogance, treating his models with a haughty, “I’ve got better things to do” indifference that occasionally borders on sadism. One day, out of pure boredom, Thomas goes to a nearby park and snaps some photos of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her male lover. Upon developing the negatives, however, he discovers that he may have unintentionally photographed the male lover’s murder.

Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Blow-Up offers a series of “meta” reflections on the nature of cinema. In our conventional understanding of the film medium, the camera is an impartial observer that objectively captures an objective reality. But in Antonioni’s telling, the camera loses its authoritative status, becoming a vehicle for the subjective desires, fascinations, and fetishes of the director and audience. At some points, Antonioni even seems to suggest that this “subjective camera” can make reality subjective as well.

Beyond these philosophical reflections, moreover, Blow-Up also works as a period piece. Through its muted color palette, long takes, and vibrant jazz score, the film ably captures the zeitgeist of the 60s, a decade that was defined by a pervasive feeling of “What am I doing in life?” languor. And with their indifferent body language and blank expressions, Redgrave and Hemmings perfectly exemplify the moral relativism of the era. It’s altogether a fittingly anti-establishment backdrop for a narrative that itself dismantles established ideas at every turn.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

See it for: In Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly put a comedic spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-known works. The film will be in theaters on Christmas Day.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

The titular protagonist (Delphine Seyrig) of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a middle-aged widow who lives in Brussels. Over the course of 200 minutes, we become intimately familiar with her daily routine, watching her as she prepares food, goes on various errands, looks after her teenage son (Jan Decorte), and earns money through prostitution. In this depiction of Jeanne’s life, moreover, director Chantal Akerman completely eschews background music, camera movements, and anything that even vaguely resembles a traditionally structured narrative.

All of this might sound like a recipe for total boredom. In fact, however, Jeanne proves to be a mesmerizing, fascinating work that invites several different interpretations. To start, the film can be read as a sociopolitical critique. Its representation of modern society indicts the way in which capitalism has made human relationships empty, emotionally flat, and merely transactional. Through its portrayal of repressed frustration, moreover, the film’s depiction of Jeanne directly illustrates what Betty Friedan famously termed the “problem with no name.”

Ultimately, like Blow-Up, Jeanne also finds itself meditating on the very nature of the cinematic medium. In Akerman’s telling, the camera is hardly unbiased. Rather, it’s a subjective tool that creates and imposes ideologies on typically oblivious viewers. And as Akerman shows us, classical Hollywood filmmakers often used said tool to the detriment of female characters, projecting ideas and images that simply don’t reflect what it’s like to be a women in real life. Seen in this light, then, Jeanne serves as a denunciation of male-gaze-based systems of filmmaking—and a stab at creating a new form of cinema that accords women respect and dignity.

Where to Watch: Amazon, Vudu, iTunes

See it for: In Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, Felicity Jones plays a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lawyer-turned-judge who’s made a lasting mark on American feminism. The movie will be in theaters on Christmas Day.

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Andrew Emerson

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