Like it or not, we’re careening headlong into the heart of the holiday season, a runaway train bedecked with tinsel, seasonal depression, and fruitcake that nobody is going to eat. We’re betting you’re going to need some down time in between hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” for the thousandth time and navigating apocalyptic political debates with your relatives at the dinner table. Don’t worry; we’ve got your back.
In the tradition of the “12 Days of Christmas,” we’ve dug into our streaming queues and returned with a dozen numerically appropriate selections encompassing, we hope, a little something for everybody. The Dot invites you to grab a quiet moment when you can, settle in under a nice warm blanket, and enjoy a completely platonic, subtext-free version of “Netflix and chill.”
1) The One I Love (Netflix Instant)
We’ll start the celebration off with a trippy mindbender about a troubled married couple who retreat to a secluded woodland estate in the hopes of salvaging their relationship. After Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) has a romantic rendezvous with Ethan (Mark Duplass), things look to be on the mend… but when she mentions the encounter, he insists he doesn’t remember it. After Ethan has a similar strange encounter with Sophie in the guest cottage, the pair begin to suspect there’s more going on than just faulty memories or mind games. This couple’s retreat has been double-booked in a way that would make Rod Serling proud.
2) Two Days, One Night (Netflix Instant)
Young factory worker Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is in a serious bind. After a nervous breakdown forced her to take some time off from the solar panel production facility where she works, management decided it’d be easier to pay the rest of the workers a bonus to pick up the slack so they can just eliminate her. With a family to support, Sandra’s economic fate now rests in the hands of her 16 co-workers, and she’s got the titular two days and one night to convince them to vote to turn down the bonus and let her keep her job. Two Days, One Night has earned critical raves since premiering at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, with particular praise for Cotillard’s performance. It currently boasts a 97 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
3) The Three Stooges (Crackle)
Sometimes you just need to return to the classics. Especially if the classics involve eye-gouging, comedic fisticuffs, and a trio of lovable doofuses bumbling through a series of improbable scenarios. Crackle might not be on your radar if you spend most of your screen time on Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, but Sony’s free streaming service has a few gems worth mining, including over two dozen episodes of classic Stooges. And with episodes stretching across three decades of the Stooges’ long career, there’s something for everybody, regardless of where they fall on the whole Curly vs. Shemp debate. (Just don’t bring Curly Joe into this, or so help me…)
4) Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn (Netflix Instant)
Halo is one of the biggest game franchises of all time, but in spite of several attempts, we still haven’t seen the world of Master Chief brought to life on the big screen. So, until such time as that Steven Spielberg/Showtime Halo TV series materializes, fans will have to make due with things like Forward Unto Dawn, which originated as a five-part webseries designed to hype the release of Halo 4. It follows several cadets at a military training academy, learning how to make war against mankind’s enemy, the Covenant. Unfortunately, their training becomes unexpectedly hands on when the Covenant attacks the academy itself. If you enjoy Forward Unto Dawn and are left craving more live-action Halo, you can check out the follow-up digital feature Halo: Nightfall—executive produced by Sir Ridley Scott, no less—on Amazon Prime if you have the Amazon Showtime subscription.
5) Top Five (Amazon Prime)
Chris Rock stars as Andre Allen, a comedian and recovering alcoholic who’s trying to change his image with a serious dramatic movie role. And nobody could blame him for wanting to prove his chops, since his career at that point is resting on the shoulders of a hit franchise where he plays a wisecracking cop in a bear suit. An interview with a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) to promote his new film soon becomes a crosstown odyssey of personal introspection and brutal honesty, leading Andre to face down his demons and the nagging fears that he might truly be nothing more than the joke people have come to regard him as. Top Five is rocking an 86 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was praised by many as a career highlight for Rock.
6) Six by Sondheim (HBO Go)
Composer Stephen Sondheim has been responsible for some of the most memorable Broadway musicals of all time, having earned a garage-full of awards for shows such as Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This 2013 HBO documentary revisits Sondheim’s long career by focusing on the stories behind six of his most famous songs: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Being Alive” from Company, and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George. I’m detracting points for nothing from Sweeney Todd, but that’s just ’cause I love that damn show.
7) Seven Psychopaths (Amazon Prime)
Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is still one of my favorite films of all time, so I was understandably excited when his next flick, Seven Psychopaths, came down the pike in 2012. Like In Bruges, it’s a mix of action and dark comedy, featuring a stellar cast that includes Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits. Farrell is Marty Faranan, an L.A. screenwriter struggling to finish his latest script, titled Seven Psychopaths. In between running a con where he kidnaps dogs and returns them to their owners for a reward, Marty’s buddy Billy (Rockwell) tries to help crack Marty’s writer’s block, eventually entangling them with both a real-life killer known as the “Jack of Diamonds” and violent gangster/dog lover Charlie Costello (Harrellson). Things only get more complicated from there. (And while you’re at it, In Bruges is still on Netflix, so we recommend a double feature.)
8) Sense8 (Netflix Instant)
Partnering the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), Sense8 is one of Netflix’s most ambitious original productions yet, a globe-hopping science-fiction adventure that explores notions of identity, gender, politics, and religion—you know, the little stuff. The series follows eight strangers, scattered around the world, who suddenly become psychically linked, able to access each other’s memories, skills, and experiences. The Wachowskis’ projects are often something of a mess, but they’re never short on ambition, and Straczynski’s experience with serialized science-fiction storytelling definitely seems to have been a good pairing with their sensibilities. It will be fascinating to see how the storylines of Sense8 play out in future seasons. (And there will be at least one more: Netflix renewed the show for a second season this past summer.)
9) Session 9 (HBO Go)
If you’re a fan of slow-burn psychological horror, Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is probably already part of your movie collection. But if you’ve never seen it, settle in, flip off the lights, and let this tale of terror, paranoia, and subtly encroaching evil seep in and mess with your head. Filmed on location inside the abandoned Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, Session 9 follows a crew (including David Caruso and Josh Lucas) given a week to strip asbestos out of the facility. The longer they’re inside the place, however, the more they’re overwhelmed by both their personal demons and the specters of the building’s dark history. Many of the film’s unsettling locales were shot as they were found, and the weight of the trauma infused into the bones of Danvers can be felt in every frame of the film. All of it leads up to what is hands-down my favorite horror movie ending of all time, a disturbing commentary on the banality of evil and the ways it can creep into “the weak and the wounded.”
10) 10 Things I Hate About You (HBO Go)
The late, fiercely talented Heath Ledger first became a blip on the radar for many courtesy of 10 Things I Hate About You, a teen rom-com update of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It all starts when new-kid-at-school Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls for the lovely Bianca, only to learn that her father has forbidden her from dating—unless her sister Kat (Julia Stiles) has a date as well. (Admittedly, some Shakespearean concepts work better than others when dropped into modern times.) So Cameron sets in motion an elaborate scheme to get Kat to fall for Patrick Verona (Ledger), the handsome bad boy who is rumored to have once set a state trooper on fire. At first blush, it should never, ever work, but therein lies the fun. Let the games begin.
The British cult hit Doctor Who has been running, off and on, for over 50 years now, so it’s understandably intimidating to find an appropriate diving-in point for newbies. There’s plenty of fun to be had exploring the show’s earlier years, but it’s probably a lot easier for the uninitiated to simply choose one of the modern Doctors and run with it, so in the spirit of this list, allow us to suggest Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor…whose tenure, appropriately enough, begins in an episode entitled “The Eleventh Hour.” It’s not an episode that’s likely to make any top 10 lists, but it’s Matt Smith being charming and silly, in introduces two of my favorite companions (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as Amy Pond and Rory, respectively), it gives you the bare bones of what you need to know about the Who-niverse, and it includes a lovely callback to the show’s long history in a killer climax. Geronimo!
12) Short Term 12 (Netflix Instant)
Destin Daniel Cretton adapted and directed this 2013 drama based on his own 2009 short film, both inspired by his own experiences working at a group facility for teens. The title refers to one such institution, a group home for troubled youths. Grace (Brie Larson) spends her days trying to counsel kids who’ve faced some of the worst life has to offer even before they can legally vote, and who are now on the cusp of leaving the system and having to fend for themselves. Short Term 12 follows Grace’s relationships with her charges, her soon-to-be husband, and her own inner demons. The film premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival and has received near-unanimous critical praise, currently sitting at 99 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Screengrab via Movieclips Trailers/YouTube