The Movies and TV Shows to See or Skip This Holiday Season, from ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ to ‘Bridgerton’
Our very own Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon discuss what films and TV shows you should spend your precious time on while sequestered at home.
Marlow: Well, the holidays are officially upon us. And while I’m dreading whatever virtual New Year’s celebration I’ll be strong-armed into attending, there will at least be some at-home screening options to tide us over—and with so many options, where do you start?
Kevin: Wow, fine, I'll rescind my invite to watch the ball drop over Zoom.
Marlow: For you KFal, anything. One film I would not recommend seeing is Wonder Woman 1984, an overstuffed disaster of a sequel that also has the downside of being interminably long (151 minutes). While I think people were particularly unkind toward it owing to it being a live streaming event on HBO Max, where people could tweet running commentary (unlike a theatrical release), it’s a total mess—nothing is explained other than things we already know, the depiction of the Middle East is maddeningly retrograde, they spend two seconds on Themyscira (a highlight of the first film), Kristen Wiig is wildly miscast, and her transformation into Thundercat Cheetah had me chuckling in disbelief. What a missed opportunity.
Kevin: I still can’t believe we got Kristen Wiig in a blockbuster as a villain, and it was this off-base. Though I will forever stan the notion of creating a leopard print-wearing antagonist set in the ’80s named Barbara. (If only the execution lived up to the potential.)
Marlow: Perhaps she would’ve been better suited as the villain in a Spy sequel squaring off against Melissa McCarthy (which needs to happen, Hollywood!). And Pedro Pascal, bless his heart, nearly saves the film with his deliciously over-the-top Trumpian-grifter turn, but it’s far from enough. If only more of the cast were on his wavelength. Meanwhile, it diverted attention away from Pixar’s Soul, which—while I understand the criticisms concerning the studios’ treatment of protagonists of color—I found to be both cleverly crafted (especially during the otherworldly sequences, with its Picasso-esque characters) and moving (by Up’s Pete Docter, a man who knows his way around a heartstring-tugging montage). It’s now streaming on Disney+.
Kevin: I’m confused why more people weren’t down to cry to Soul over the holidays. Has there ever been a time more suited for self-indulgent weeping? I love how strange Soul is, while still managing to feel at home in the Pixar universe. Just when a studio earned a reputation that would excuse a cookie-cutter narrative, it really got creative. Speaking of things that are out-of-the-box, I will scream the three words that I’ve shouted to anyone within a social-distanced six feet of me in the last few weeks: Promising Young Woman! I know we don’t necessarily agree on this movie, but, in my view, it is brilliant. It’s an uncomfortable, painful watch, but also so fun and unexpected. And it’s Carey Mulligan’s best performance, which is quite a high bar—but one she clears by going so against type. Not a period costume in sight!
Marlow: I wasn’t nearly as crazy about Promising Young Woman, which I felt pulled a lot of its punches (to delve into this would give it away, but suffice it to say she merely teaches these predatory clowns a lesson that they’ll soon forget) and contained a pretty unsatisfying third-act twist, though did very much enjoy Carey Mulligan as a vengeful, funnier, more charismatic Joker, as well as its celebration of Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” one of the more underrated pop anthems in recent memory. But where the hell do we even watch Promising Young Woman? Why isn’t this on any of the streaming services?!
Kevin: I still can’t believe that we first saw this movie almost a full year ago at Sundance, and it’s just now arrived. I giggle at the thought of people going to their video-on-demand services (where you watch it!) and actively paying money to see this, of all films, over the Christmas holiday. But it’s probably the best money’s worth you’ll get! (I will never stop stanning this movie.)
Marlow: Ah yes, the pre-COVID time… It’s also as good a time as any to catch up on some of the excellent documentaries that were released this year, from Kirsten Johnson’s monument to familial love and the artistry of cinema, Dick Johnson Is Dead (one of the best films of the year, streaming on Netflix) to Gunda, which traces the lives of a number of animals using striking black-and-white visuals and forces us to question our responsibility toward them (in virtual cinemas). There’s also 76 Days (in virtual cinemas) an agonizing account of the battle against COVID where it all began in Wuhan, China, through the eyes of frontline first responders. And Collective (also one of the best films of the year, available to rent on Amazon Prime) reveals how one journalist’s crusade for justice in the wake of the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire (killing 64 people total, and 38 in hospitals) exposed the incredible amount of graft at the heart of Romania’s health-care system—one that prized profits over people’s lives.
Kevin: I feel like this could be easily fact-checked or disputed, but it’s one of the best years for documentaries in recent memory. At least it’s the year I’ve been most impressed by. I co-sign in neon ink the recommendations you’ve made, and would add Time (Amazon), Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix), A Secret Love (Netflix), and Boys State (Apple TV+) to the list of phenomenal docs from the past year that you can catch up on right now. And that’s not to mention the year’s most adorable, strangely poignant movie: The Truffle Hunters, a truly winning film about the men—closer to age 100 than they are 50—who set out on the rare art of searching for the delicacy ingredient, snout-forward hounds in hand. It had its official Oscar-qualifying release this week, if you can channel the subject matter and sniff out a way to watch it.
Marlow: You’ve just reminded me that I still need to see The Truffle Hunters! More doggy content in my life is always a good thing. And I agree that it’s been an absolutely phenomenal year for documentary, although I’m guessing some of that could be attributed to the amount of attention docs are getting given how much of the studio bloat has been pushed to 2021.
Kevin: I’m surprised we’ve made it this long without mentioning Tom Hanks. It’s a true testament to how strange movie releases are this year that there’s a sweeping Western pegged for Oscar nominations starring Tom Hanks—his first time in a cowboy hat!—and it’s flown under the radar. News of the World is excellent, in the way we’ve come to take for granted when it comes to recent Tom Hanks star vehicles; Greyhound on Apple TV+ earlier this year was more thrilling than it got credit for. I think there’s something about “sweeping Western gunning for awards” that sounds exhausting, especially in this odd year. But I highly recommend it.
Marlow: I’m gonna try to not go on a rant about how bad movie titles have gotten, and I know it’s based on a book of the same name, but I can’t get over how bad of a title News of the World is. How does this spell “Western?” Why have your film share a name with a notorious tabloid that was found guilty of hacking celebrities’ phones? Anyway, I do love me some Tom Hanks, who deserves even more credit than he’s gotten for sounding the alarm on COVID with his early diagnosis. (And no, QAnon morons, he’s by all accounts a swell guy.)
Kevin: My least favorite running storyline on all of the TV series that came back this fall is that the shows’ characters didn’t take COVID seriously until Tom Hanks got it. Each show thought it was being cute, funny, and original when they did it. (They weren’t.)
Marlow: Big yikes! Speaking of Sundance, we should also discuss Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s masterful biographical drama about a Korean-American family trying their hands at the American Dream in rural Arkansas. I’m a bit closer to this material being half-Korean, but found it to be incredibly moving—particularly the scenes between young Alan Kim and his grandmother, played by Youn Yuh-jung. It reminded me of my relationship with my own Korean grandmother, who was also a bit of an eccentric and loved playing hwatu. If there’s any justice in the world, both Steven Yeun (justice for Burning!) and Youn Yuh-jung will receive Oscar nominations for their work here.
Kevin: It’s been a long, wild year, but Minari, which we both saw back in January at Sundance, remains the best movie of the year to me. Nothing has topped it.
Marlow: Halmeoni! Sadly, it’s not available to watch online yet.
Kevin: But as to that long, wild year... I feel like TV has been our savior while Hollywood has worked out what the hell to do about cinemas being closed and with typical theatrical releases not an option. I spent the Christmas weekend watching hot British people fuck on Netflix’s Bridgerton, an experience I’d definitely recommend to others. Did you binge anything good this past week?
Marlow: I still need to get on Bridgerton, which is extremely my shit. Gossip Girl in corsets with hot sex? Yes, please. On the topic of sex, one show that didn’t receive nearly enough positive chatter was HBO’s Industry (perhaps because the promo trailers were a finance-heavy snooze). While the show is set in the cutthroat world of London forex trading, involving a bunch of aspiring bankers, it provides a fascinating little peek inside the halls of power—and how women and people of color are typically barricaded out—while also dabbling in plenty of back-stabbing intrigue, well-rounded characters, and yes, naughty fun. I enjoyed the beginning of HBO’s The Undoing, but felt that it totally fell apart in the final two episodes—devolving into a lame courtroom drama with an equally unimaginative denouement.
Kevin: The last episode of The Undoing was such a made-for-TV movie from the early ’90s, which I say as the highest compliment. I think the cast/network/first episode tricked people into thinking it was going to be elevated, prestige television, when really it was just soapy trash to indulge in. Plus, Nicole Kidman’s wigs and coats in it deserve a dissertation.
Marlow: I love soapy trash as much as the next but the “twist” ending was so uninspired! And by that point I’d already seen this poor woman’s head get bashed in 5,000 times, including having fashion adverts transmogrify into it, that it couldn’t have been more anticlimactic. One true crime docuseries I’d highly recommend is HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach, following a young man’s fight to solve his mother’s mysterious murder. It’s a wild tale, as we slowly learn that this suburban Connecticut mom had tons of enemies, and her husband was involved in some very shady overseas dealings.
Kevin: I’ve found that as the year has worn on I’ve become increasingly less tolerant of or interested in true crime series. It’s all too chilly and disturbing, when I’ve been craving things that are escapist instead. And on that note, I’ll lend my final recommendation: The holiday special of The Great British Baking Show featuring the cast of Derry Girls. It is utter lunacy, and a total delight. The perfect hour-long diversion away from the real world.