A recent holiday classic you likely haven't seen, Arthur Christmas uses its premise of the North Pole as a massive spy organization to touch on how commercialization tears people apart. It's a surprisingly smart film with a fascinating dynamic among its family of Santas, with an incredibly funny script full of dry, British wit. And while the animation may already look dated at first glance, Arthur Christmas more than makes up for its looks with truly imaginative art direction and director Sarah Smith's fast-paced set pieces. This is that rare Chirstmas movie that doesn't just surrender to schmaltz; the lessons learned by the characters here are unique, complex, and timeless.
When therapist Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) is kidnapped and imprisoned by Sam (Domhnall Gleeson), a patient with homicidal urges, Alan begins a painful journey that directs his attention to his dangerous surroundings as well as his repressed thoughts.
Both Carell and Gleeson are creepily good in this, with Rotten Tomatoes even dubbing their work here as a “career best.” Carell is almost unrecognizable as the troubled but subdued prisoner, while Gleeson is unnerving as the reform-seeking serial killer. The backstories and the ongoing mystery propel the story with great force, but the show is at its best when it takes time to sit with its two leads and let them go at each other. All this makes for a rewarding mystery and a compelling two-hander.
The Very Best
Absolute must-watch movies and shows.
Fire of Love is a documentary that follows Maurice and Katia Krafft, a scientist couple who’ve dedicated their entire professional lives to studying (and marveling at) volcanoes. The two met at university and have been inseparable ever since, chasing explosions around the world until their death at the Mount Unzen eruption in 1991.
The fiery passion the title refers to is as much about Maurice and Katia as it is about their dedication to volcanoes. Like any love story, it tracks how they were first wonderstruck by the formation and how that awe shaped their lives and led them to each other, as well as how they came to discover hard truths about it and dealt with the heartbreak that soon followed.
Combining the breathtaking footage the couple left behind with lovely writing and artful animation, director Sara Dosa creates a moving documentary about passion, adventure, and the world itself.
“It is better to live miserable than to die happy,” or so says one of the characters in Jia Zhangke’s anthology film A Touch of Sin. On its surface, the “sin” referenced in the title might pertain to the acts of murder that the four protagonists commit, but in the context of China’s rapidly changing capitalist landscape (a theme explored in the director’s other pictures), it reveals itself as a malady shared by Chinese laborers treated as dispensable resources by the powers-that-be. Murder, then, is explored as an extremity, the effectual breaking point of people no longer able to contain the injustice within themselves. Beneath the splatters of blood is a plea for empathy and understanding, at once remorseful and full of conviction.
Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war's futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told.
One of the most overlooked films in recent years, Boiling Point is an intense British drama about the life of a head chef. We get to view his world for exactly 90 minutes and, yes, it is all shot in one go. No camera tricks or quirks, just pure filmmaking. Many other movies have tried to capture the chaotic life inside the restaurant business, but none have worked quite well as Boiling Point.
Working alongside the phenomenal actor Stephen Graham, director Philip Barantini hits it out of the park in his second feature-length film. Together, they bring to life some of the most unnerving 90 minutes ever put to film. Think Uncut Gems but with Gordon Ramsay as the lead.
As is only appropriate for a limited series about such a horrific period in human history, The Underground Railroad isn't meant to be easy viewing. Thanks to uncompromising direction from Barry Jenkins (the director of the Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight) and unforgettable images from cinematographer James Laxton, this approaches a level of confrontational storytelling that almost seems inappropriate for the comforts of television. But it's essential viewing nonetheless, and Jenkins makes sure to transform this into a much stranger, more thought-provoking tale beyond the brutality of its first episode.
The Underground Railroad is speculative fiction: instead of being a historical account of the real-life network of routes to help free African-American slaves, it imagines a literal train that swiftly transports Cora (a powerful Thuso Mbedu) from one dystopian vision of white America to another. With every new setting, Jenkins doesn't just talk about slavery; he talks about how America talks about slavery, and how the stories of these Black slaves are constantly reappropriated by white supremacists.
Part police-procedural and part supernatural thriller, The Devil’s Hour is the perfect show to binge if you love solving complicated puzzles and don’t mind being spooked by the occasional jump scare. It's also co-produced by Steven Moffat, who was the brain behind equally mind-bending thrillers Sherlock (BBC) and Doctor Who.
The six-parter follows social worker Lucy Chambers as she looks after potential victims, a behaviorally challenged son, and a schizophrenic mother—and this is on top of her personal problems, which include bloody hallucinations and waking up every day at exactly 3:33 am, or what she dubs the devil’s hour. There are a lot of moving parts in The Devil’s Hour, but aside from the intricate world-building, it’s the powerful performances from Jessica Raine and Peter Capaldi that truly anchor this ambitious show.
Vigil is a murder mystery/political thriller set in the depths of British waters, particularly in the nuclear-powered missile submarine HMS Vigil. When a navy officer dies and a fishing trawler disappears at the same time and place, Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) is sent in to investigate the case.
While Vigil mostly dove under the radar when it first came out last year, the BBC production is drawing in new audiences as it streams on Peacock. Watching it, it’s easy to forget that this isn’t a box-office production, because it looks and sounds every bit like one. It’s got a massive budget, an epic scale, a thrilling political premise, and talented actors across the board—what’s not to love?
“My father took me to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and from that day forward, the movies have been the church of my choice.” So begins The Last Movie Stars, a documentary following the lives of Hollywood legends and inseparable sweethearts Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward—written, narrated, and directed by Ethan Hawke.
The six-part docuseries is as much a story of Hawke and his love for cinema as it is of Newman and Woodward. It may sound indulgent to some viewers, but the series is all the richer for it. Hearing Hawke talk about his love for this couple is like hearing your good friend fanboy over his ultimate idols—the sheer giddiness is simply irresistible.
Hawke brings together a star-studded cast to read long-forgotten interviews (George Clooney plays Newman and Laura Linney plays Woodward), and the result is a delightful, nostalgic ode to Hollywood’s most unforgettable couple.