Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who’s planning to plant themselves on the sofa with a cup of cocoa or a bowl of popcorn (possibly both) for the next 10 days.
For many of us — if not for our favorite pajamas — the home stretch of the year is a blissful period of rest, full of old favorites rescreened for the umpteenth time and new favorites road-tested on picky loved ones. (Don’t even get us started on the DVR decluttering project that needs to happen.) And in that spirit, Screen Gab asked Times entertainment staffers to recommend one TV series or streaming movie to add to your queue this holiday. If you watch them all, and throw in a “Titanic” viewing or two while you’re at it, you might be able to make it all the way to New Year’s Day without having to put on pants.
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2021 | 2 hours, 17 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for disturbing war images, some sexual material and thematic elements.
The English war poets were my first love, literarily, so it is an intense thrill seeing that generation’s catastrophic sensitivities filtered through filmmaker Terence Davies’ melodramatic own. In this extraordinary life of Siegfried Sassoon, who was committed for “shell shock” in 1917 after publicly opposing World War I, the venomous satirist of “They” emerges as an even more ambivalent figure than the self-portrait conjured up in his George Sherston trilogy of autobiographical novels. Indeed, as played in his youth by the sublime Jack Lowden, and framed by the gruff reminiscences of the older, married, Catholic Sassoon (Peter Capaldi), his contradictions add up to a sort of anti-biopic, impressionistic and fragmentary: To impose a throughline on the country dandy turned decorated military officer turned homosexual gadabout turned religious conservative with wife and kid is, Davies intuits, both folly and fallacy. What he delivers instead is one of the cinema’s most richly textured depictions of queer life avant la lettre and, for my money, the finest film of the year. If you want to get me a stocking stuffer, consider a pinup calendar of all the beautiful men in those delicious period clothes. (Hulu) —Matt Brennan
‘A Christmas Tale’
2008 | 2 hours, 32 minutes
Dysfunctional-family movies can be a mixed blessing of the season; at best they can help you feel a little better about your own fractious holiday gatherings, and at worst they might play like the opposite of escapist entertainment. But “A Christmas Tale,” Arnaud Desplechin’s rich and dizzyingly prismatic 2008 masterpiece about a sensationally stormy French family, inspires emotions far more complicated than either recognition or relief. For the Vuillard clan, conflict isn’t just a temporary condition en route to a feel-good carols-and-mistletoe climax; it’s a natural state of being for characters who are thrillingly alive and thrillingly human in ways movies seldom bother to show. This is a feast of a picture, layered with stories within stories and unspooled with startling visual invention (the puppet-show prologue alone is worth a rental), and magnificently acted by an ensemble that includes Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni and Emmanuelle Devos. They’re a gift to us all. (Multiple platforms, including the Criterion Channel) —Justin Chang
1989 | 1 hour, 53 minutes
This is your irregularly scheduled reminder that Joel Schumacher made a really good movie that was not only a remake of an acclaimed French film, but much better than the original. We speak, of course, of “Cousins,” the beautiful 1989 romantic comedy with a crack cast topped by Ted Danson at his charmingest, Isabella Rossellini at her beguilingest and Lloyd Bridges at his go-get-’em-Granddaddest. Both films involve nice people who’ve just become cousins by marriage and are stuck with awful, unfaithful mates. To get back at them, the nice ones pretend to have an affair — you can guess where this leads. But where “Cousin, Cousine” (1975) plays as a bitter tale of revenge, “Cousins” is about the giddy, heady spiral of falling in love. It’s funny, gorgeously shot by Ralf D. Bode and lushly scored by the late, great Angelo Badalamenti. Most of all, the romance between two sympathetic leads feels earned. (Prime Video; Paramount+) —Michael Ordoña
2022 | 2 hours, 39 minutes
Rating PG-13, for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking.
You can, of course, watch Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” in its entirety, reveling in Austin Butler’s hunka-hunka title turn and the bombastic Baz-ness of it all. Or, if you simply want to enjoy a cup of Yuletide cheer, you can zero in on the making of Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special, which begins at the 77-minute mark with Tom Hanks’ Col. Tom Parker seeing what might be the ugliest Christmas sweater ever and proclaiming, “We are going to sing three spectacular Christmas songs in … that … very … sweater.” The King wasn’t having it. He dons black leather, grabs a guitar and growls the opening lines of “Heartbreak Hotel,” the beginning of a glorious rebirth that gets great comic mileage out of the colonel’s dismay. “Santa Claus is bringing you a lawsuit!” a square sponsor bellows to Parker. You’d have to be a Scrooge to suggest that none of this happened quite the way it’s depicted. Just pour a little bourbon in your eggnog, sit back and enjoy. (HBO Max) —Glenn Whipp
‘The Fabulous Baron Munchausen’
1962 | 1 hour, 25 minutes
One benefit of being addicted to TV in a world before cable and streaming was receiving an education in film from the random movies stations used to fill their odd hours; I’d watch whatever was on. And so the Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman’s 1962 “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” tumbled into my life, like a dream, and like a dream was gone. In its mix of live action and animation, with sets inspired by Gustave Doré engravings, it follows the legendary fabulist from the surface of the moon to the bottom of the ocean and was like nothing I had ever seen — and remains so. Beautiful in a way computerized special effects can never match, the film — shot in black-and-white, then tinted — has been beautifully restored, and you can find it streaming on the Criterion Channel along with other Zeman films, including the early short “A Christmas Dream.” (Criterion Channel) —Robert Lloyd
TV series holiday special
2022 | 44 minutes
In the CBS comedy “Ghosts,” Samantha (Rose McIver) and husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) are running a startup bed and breakfast in a mansion she inherited that just happens to be haunted by the spirits of some of the people who have died on the grounds over the centuries. No one can see or hear the ghosts but Samantha, who gained that ability thanks to a head injury suffered in a freak accident. Samantha, it turns out, is a sucker for everything about Christmas, especially the annual flood of heartwarming holiday movies. Jay, and the spirits of the dead? Not so much. But they are all in on an intra-spectral-plane holiday romance in an hourlong Christmas episode. (Paramount+; CBS.com) —Ed Stockly
‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’
2022 | 44 minutes
Still trying to figure out a last-minute gift for the ’80s-obsessed superhero in your life? Make some cocoa and watch “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special,” in which Mantis and Drax are in the same boat/spaceship. Peter Quill is bummed, so they bring Earth Christmas to town — not with Santa, but rather Kevin Bacon. (Just embrace the campy action fun with a fab soundtrack.) Fountains of Wayne’s “I Want an Alien for Christmas” scores the hilarious chase scene through Bacon’s Christmas-filled house, but the standout is the alien version of the Old 97’s. The band performs a catchy new tune, “I Don’t Know What Christmas Is (But Christmastime Is Here),” co-written with director James Gunn, as well as the previously released “Here It Is Christmastime,” now with more Bacon. More impressive? Singer Rhett Miller, as Bzermikitokolok, still doing windmills on his guitar in full alien makeup. (Disney+) —Vanessa Franko
‘I Hate Suzie Too’
2022 | 2 seasons
In “I Hate Suzie,” Billie Piper stars as Suzie Pickles, a teen pop singer turned actress whose life unravels spectacularly when compromising photos from a hacked cellphone are published online. Season 1 follows Suzie through the chaotic personal and professional fallout of the scandal. In the annoyingly short but still brilliant Season 2, which arrived on HBO Max this month, Suzie has been exiled to celebrity purgatory, competing on a reality show called “Dance Crazee” while negotiating an acrimonious divorce with her vindictive ex-husband. The anxiety-provoking dramedy was created by British playwright Lucy Prebble, who’s also a writer-producer on “Succession,” and Piper, whose personal experiences as a teen idol (in the late ’90s she was the U.K.’s answer to Britney Spears) turned TV star (she later played the companion in “Doctor Who”) lend the series unique insight into the perils of being a famous woman. But what really elevates the series from broader showbiz spoofs is the brittle, frenetic performance by Piper, who manages to make Suzie’s very particular set of concerns — why doesn’t the British public appreciate my avant-garde clown dance? — seem, somehow, relatable. (HBO Max) —Meredith Blake
‘A Hollywood Christmas’ / ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas’
“A Hollywood Christmas”
2022 | 1 hour, 30 minutes
Rating: PG, for mild language and a suggestive reference.
“Christmas Bloody Christmas”
2022 | 1 hour, 27 minutes
Hark, fellow holiday lovers! We are living in a boom time of Christmas content. And if you, like me, hold equal space in your hearts for Hallmark cheese and horror sleaze, this season comes bearing a particularly perfect double feature. Actor Riley Dandy (Netflix’s “That’s Amor”) ties this Yuletide treat together, first with a deliciously satirical turn as the fame-hungry star of the movie-within-a-movie in HBO Max’s meta rom-com “A Hollywood Christmas,” in which sparks fly between a director of Christmas films (Jessika Van) and the network executive (Josh Swickard) sent to shut down her production. Written by John Ducey, directed by Alex Ranarivelo (“A Christmas Mystery”) and set on the Warner Bros. backlot, it’s a surprisingly savvy PG-rated confection that knows (and appreciates!) that its audience knows their holiday rom-coms inside and out.
Now, for the chaser: Send the kids to bed and crank up the sex, drugs and gore with the unrated Shudder slasher “Christmas Bloody Christmas.” Dandy takes center stage in writer-director Joe Begos’ metal Xmasploitation indie as Tori Tooms, a hard-partying record store owner who comes face to face with a killer robotic Santa (Abraham Benrubi) on Christmas Eve. Drenched in neon and shot in Placerville, Calif., using practical effects and animatronics, its fast-talking “Before Sunrise”-for-metalheads charm gives way to an ever-escalating night of terror as the haywire St. Nick puts everyone in sight on his naughty list. For horror nerds, the crackling chemistry between Tori and her charismatic employee Robbie (Sam Delich) should prompt many a debate: Is 2000’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” actually great? (The correct answer is, of course, yes.)
2006 | 1 hour, 51 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for some sexual reference.
Leave it to Queen Latifah to remind you of the important indulgences of life: great food, thrilling experiences and simply being your whole self, without worrying about what other people might think. In this 2006 movie, she plays a timid department store worker who, when told she only has weeks to live, drains her bank account and treats herself to a luxurious European getaway. Also starring Gérard Depardieu as a world-class chef and Timothy Hutton and Giancarlo Esposito as fellow hotel guests, this underrated gem of a comedy has long been part of my end-of-year reset routine, and given that it’s so widely available across the various streaming services (I mean, you can even watch it for free via Pluto TV!), it really is an accessible and rejuvenating way to close out your 2022. (Prime Video, Paramount+, BET+, Showtime) —Ashley Lee
2002 | 1 hour, 37 minutes
Rating: R, for sexuality, nudity, language and some disturbing images.
Now that Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” has been fully reclaimed as a holiday movie, film-heads can take up the case for Lynne Ramsay’s 2002 “Morvern Callar.” The film opens with a young Scottish woman discovering her boyfriend has killed himself, his body splayed out by their Christmas tree. She takes the manuscript he left behind, puts her name on it and sells it to a publisher, heading off for a debauched holiday in Spain. In the title role, Samantha Morton — now enjoying a career renaissance with recent parts in “She Said,” “The Whale” and “The Serpent Queen” — conveys a whirlwind of emotions, as Morvern may not know exactly what she is doing, but there will be no stopping her. Capturing the unmoored, out-of-sorts feelings that can also be a part of holiday times with an assured sense of style, Ramsay’s film stares into the abyss and decides to go dancing. (Roku Channel; Prime Video; also available on Blu-ray from Fun City Editions) —Mark Olsen
2000 | 1 hour, 44 minutes
Rating: R, for strong violence, language and sexuality.
I often wonder why “Reindeer Games” is overlooked among the most treasured Christmas movies. This 2000 guilty pleasure starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron before they became Oscar winners is a rollicking thriller short on logic but crammed with violence, sex and head-spinning twists just perfect for an evening of Christmas cookies and spiked eggnog. The story has something to do with an ex-convict (Affleck) who is reluctantly pulled into a plot by a ruthless criminal leader (Gary Sinise) to rob a casino with a crew of fake Santa Clauses. The movie is the last to be directed by Hollywood veteran John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”). Despite the mayhem, no actual reindeer were harmed in the making of this film. Seek out the director’s cut for extra violence and nudity. (HBO Max) —Greg Braxton
1970 | 1 hour, 54 minutes
Not another screen version of the Charles Dickens classic! Watching the musty miser repent for the 100th time may be the last thing you want to experience this deep into the holiday season, but before you bah humbug my suggestion, take a look at the cast of this 1970 British musical: Albert Finney as Ebenezer Scrooge. Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley. Elaborate song and dance numbers a la “Oliver!,” comedic license and Finney’s understanding of the angry outsider make this Oscar-nominated production one of the more entertaining and unique adaptations of the spirited Christmas tale. The film’s re-creation of Victorian England comes alive via sumptuous set design and sweeping set pieces that appear to include half the population of London, and the cantankerous Finney is a perfect antidote to “Tis the Season!” sappiness. (Paramount+) —Lorraine Ali
1964 | 2 hours, 13 minutes
One of my favorite holiday traditions is making a list of every movie I want to see in the new year. The film at the top of my 2023 list? “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.” The trailer, which teases a massive train set piece, only hints at the action spectacle to come. So I was very interested when director Christopher McQuarrie put John Frankenheimer’s 1964 World War II movie “The Train” on his list of the best movies of all time for Sight and Sound. I had to get on board to see what it was all about. To my surprise, “The Train” is one of the most coherent action movies I’ve ever seen, with incredibly clear action and strongly written characters. The film and the “Mission” movies also share one key ingredient: They exemplify the best of what the heist genre offers. If “Dead Reckoning” is anything like this, we’ll be in for another unforgettable Cruise-McQuarrie cinematic experience. (Pluto TV; Kanopy) —David Viramontes
2022 | 3 seasons
For this holigay season, I want to toast queer chosen families. I know I’m one of the lucky ones because I get along with my biological/legal family — even if they drive me crazy sometimes — but there is something uniquely affirming and vital in the connections we forge with other LGBTQ people. One of the shows that really highlight the importance of these chosen families is “We’re Here.” Currently in its third season, the docuseries follows “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alums Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela as they travel to different towns to put on one-night-only drag shows with local residents from different walks of life, whom they mentor and get to know over the course of an episode. While the series has always visited smaller towns where the LGBTQ community tends to be nonexistent or overlooked, the newest episodes capture the open hostility toward queer and trans people that our current political climate continues to encourage. Be prepared to shed some tears at the resilience of the drag mentees. (HBO Max) —Tracy Brown