The holidays are here, which means plenty of time spent inside with your family looking for something to watch. In other words: Exactly the same thing you’ve been doing for the last nine months. Watching movies around the holidays is still a tradition, but if you’re looking to slightly alter your ritual, I’d suggest ditching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and using these short days and long nights to catch up on the good, family-friendly films you missed in 2020. Here are the best available-to-stream releases of the year, none more adult than a PG-13.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (Amazon Prime)
It’s one of the lesser tragedies of 2020 that this gleeful adaptation of the Dickens classic came and went without anyone noticing. Adapted by Armando Iannucci (“Veep,” “In the Loop”), it features none of the satirist’s trademark bite, instead stuffing as much joy, laughter, and whimsy as possible into its two-hour runtime. Dev Patel is a perfect Dickensian hero, and Iannucci employs colorblind casting throughout, sending an inclusive message in a post-Brexit world without hitting viewers over the head with it.
Bill and Ted Face the Music (Amazon Prime)
Completing the most unlikely trilogy ever, “Bill and Ted Face the Music” is not going to be anyone’s favorite film of the year. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, it doesn’t tell a particularly interesting story, and there is little suspense or drama. But it’s a more substantial dose of nostalgia that most cash-grab sequels. The spirit of harmony that has defined the franchise – and its lovable airhead protagoinsts – since the original 1988 film is fully on display, and it’s a welcome respite from the traumatic events of 2020. Plus, it ends with a rock concert that saves the world. For those of us who have missed live music this year, you couldn’t ask for anything more.
Boys State (AppleTV+)
Simultaneously hopeful and grim, “Boys State” follows four teenagers at a week-long political fantasy camp held in Texas. At first, the kids all seem like normal young men: awkward, ebullient, and a little naive. By week’s end, they will be molded into the same political types that pepper the Sunday morning talk shows. The documentary is hugely entertaining, but for those who hope that the next generation of leaders will be better than this one, “Boys State” is a stark rejoinder: The kids aren’t all right.
David Byrne’s American Utopia (HBO Max)
Following a successful Broadway run, “American Utopia” is now streaming in your living room. Filmed by Spike Lee, the musical/concert/performance art piece cannot replicate the communal joy that only happens when you’re sitting in the dark with strangers, but the music is still good, the staging is pleasing to the eye, and Lee brings a sensitivity to the film’s racial and political themes that create a more provocative experience.
The Midnight Sky (Dec. 23, Netflix)
George Clooney directs and stars in this epic of universal loneliness. Set in a near-future in which the surface of the planet has been vacated due to an undefined environmental crisis, Clooney stars as a cancer patient who must care for a child left behind. Together, they traverse the unforgiving landscape to reach a communication system that can put them in touch with a roving spaceship, on the off chance that a rescue might be possible. Too much time is spent with the space crew, making for a muddled film that would have benefited from focusing on a single, compact story. Still, the space sequences are breathtaking, and Clooney manifests the feeling of abandonment with power and precision.
Soul (Dec. 25, Disney+)
Pixar’s latest follows the template of its own “Inside Out,” using huge leaps of imagination to represent the most intimate of human experience. It follows a jazz musician/public school teacher (Jamie Foxx) who gets his big break, only to fall down a manhole and die. On the other side, he partners with an unformed soul (Tina Fey) to circumnavigate the system and try to get back to his body. It’s a little clunkier than Pixar’s best efforts, but it eventually finds its groove as a meditation on self-discovery. Combining meaningful insight with visual ecstasy, “Soul” has moments of pure transcendence. You could do worse on a dark Christmas night.