December and Netflix just go together.
With the additional time off and Netflix rolling out some of his most prestigious awards-contenders and biggest audience pleasers, it couldn’t be a more perfect time to catch up on brand new movies and beloved favorites.
From sci-fi stunners to horror comedies to one of the most bizarre mainstream studio movies ever made, plus two (!) appearances by Leonardo DiCaprio, we’ve rounded up a curated list of the best new movies on Netflix in December.
Body of Lies
“Body of Lies” imagines the unthinkable: what if Ridley Scott made a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, with a screenplay by “The Departed” writer William Moynahan and … nobody showed up. This is actually what happened in 2008, which is a shame because “Body of Lies” is a low-key gem and one of Sir Ridley’s most underrated movies. DiCaprio plays a CIA operative in Iraq who is tracking a suspected terrorist with help from Crowe’s CIA boss back in the United States. And things get … sticky. With a supporting cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Mark Strong and Golshifteh Farahani and a terrifically twisty screenplay, it’s the kind of movie you’ll watch and say, “Why does nobody talk about this?”
Before Rian Johnson journeyed to a galaxy far, far away and made an unlikely franchise out of a cartoonishly southern-fried detective, he made “Looper,” a small-scale, time-travel thriller. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a man in not-too-distant future Kansas City who works as a “looper” – a man who murders people who have been sent back in time. (In the even-more-distant future murder is very difficult but time travel is apparently a breeze.) Things become complicated when a man comes through who is actually Joe from the future (this is known as “closing your loop”) escapes and goes on a rampage. Older Joe is played by a ferocious Bruce Willis, making the only time we can think of where two actors play the same role in different time periods, one as a hero and one as a villain. Anyway, throw in some psychic powers, Emily Blunt on a farm, and weird futuristic drugs, and you’re cooking. “Looper” felt like something of an instant classic; it still does.
The Power of the Dog
The considerable might of Netflix’s awards campaign is largely being put behind “The Power of the Dog,” a sobering, nerve-rattling Western from acclaimed director Jane Campion. Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, the new film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a brilliant ranch owner with a cruel streak a mile wide. Jesse Plemons plays his more good-natured brother George, who falls in love with a local restaurant owner named Rose (Plemons’ real life love Kirsten Dunst). Soon Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are living at the ranch, underneath Phil’s considerable shadow. To say any more would be criminal; this is the kind of slow burn drama (heightened by Jonny Greenwood’s jittery score) that is best to get lost in. Watch it now so when it gets nominated for every Oscar you can say, “Oh yeah I saw that weeks ago.”
Is there ever a bad time to watch “Tremors?” We didn’t think so. What’s so remarkable about the giant-worm-monsters-under-the-dirt classic is that, more than three decades after it was originally released, everything still works so well – the practical effects (by Stan Winston acolytes Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr.) are just as convincing; the uncanny mixture of horror and comedy (based on a script by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson and refined by director Ron Underwood) still hits both marks beautifully; and the cast, led by the terrific buddy duo of Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, but including supporting performances from Michael Gross and Reba McEntire, are all still so spot-on. (The fact that we were robbed of a Blumhouse-produced “Tremors” TV series starring Bacon and Ward a few years ago when the pilot wasn’t picked up to series is really tragic.) If you haven’t watched “Tremors” in a while, well, now here’s your excuse. Buckle up. It’s still quite the ride.
The Lost Daughter
Look for “The Lost Daughter” to be a major awards contender in the coming weeks and for good reason. The directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Lost Daughter” is an adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, following Leda (Olivia Colman), a divorced professor, on a scenic Greek getaway. What starts out innocently enough soon becomes a fraught tangle – of memories (as we flash back to Leda as a young mother, played now by Jessie Buckley), of interactions (with a group of tourists on the beach, including Dakota Johnson as a young mother), and of emotions (as Leda wrestles with what type of woman she was and who she has become). Gyllenhaal stages even the most mundane interaction with an overwhelming, palpable sense of dread, which becomes almost unbearable (all of this is a very good thing). Time to get lost in “The Lost Daughter.”
Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat
After the infamous implosion of the “Sprockets” movie (based on the “Saturday Night Live” sketch), Mike Myers and director Bo Welch (known this for his eye-popping production design for Tim Burton and Barry Sonnenfeld) reteamed, while ducking litigation, for Universal’s “The Cat in the Hat.” An attempt to cash in on the goodwill/box office of Ron Howard’s similarly misguided “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (released a few years earlier), it remains one of the most fascinating and baffling big-budget adaptations ever. Turning Dr. Seuss’ slender children’s book into a movie was always going to be a gamble, but turning it, like Howard’s “Grinch,” into a star vehicle for a comedian known for his physical comedy … and then encasing said star in cumbersome makeup. For some reason, “The Cat in the Hat” feels more bizarre and genuinely unhinged. The production design is eerie and disquieting, everything shot in glossy frames by Emmanuel Lubezki. And it cannot be overstated just how insane Myers is in the title role. Truly crazy. An infamous box office disappointment, it nonetheless is perched on the abyss, waiting for reassessment.
Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay is a filmmaker who has always injected his brand of social commentary into anything he’s doing, even if it’s something as silly as “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights” or “Step Brothers.” But starting with “The Big Short,” his political interests became more overt. “Don’t Look Up” is an attempt to reconcile the two halves of his career; it’s a broad comedy full of giant movie stars offering up cartoony performances but it’s also a searing indictment of the current political system and humanity’s ambivalence toward the ever-worsening destruction caused by global warming. “Don’t Look Up” follows a pair of schlubby scientists (played by the decidedly non-schlubby Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) as they try to warn everyone, including a ditzy president (Meryl Streep) and her creepy chief of staff son (Jonah Hill), a pair of vacuous news anchors (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), and a spacey tech genius billionaire (Mark Rylance), about the incoming apocalypse. It’s a delicate high-wire act, combining almost “Mars Attacks!”-levels of farcical big-scale disaster movie spectacle with deeply unsettling observations about the state of the world. It’s either the funniest depressing movie of the year or the most depressing funny movie of the year. Either way, it’s a must-watch.