Staff Picks

What We’re Watching

If you have extra time over the holidays but are overwhelmed by the options, here’s where we’re starting.

Kissing Jessica Stein

Woman fed up with seeking men... seeks woman instead. It’s romantic. It’s neurotic. It gets you thinking about lipstick in a whole new way. Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) is a journalist navigating New York City’s dating world and having a rough go of it when she’s struck by a quote in a personal ad (this is 2001, afterall). Quick to second-guess herself, and nervous about how her family will react, Jessica is overwhelmed when her meeting with the ad's author (Heather Juergensen) becomes romantic, requiring her to open up in ways she never could before.

Written by co-leads Westfeldt and Juergensen, the film is a fun spin on the typical rom-com; offering charming insight on finding a partner when dating apps were a distant future and newspaper gigs were still a thing. The dialogue is delightful, the performances are lovely, and any glimpse of Jon Hamm prior to Mad Men is always worth it. — Ashley Morton

Kissing Jessica Stein

Barbershop

LeBron James’ The Shop turns the spotlight on the cultural importance of barbershops in African-American communities that just happened to become a reliable source of Drake gossip. But back when the NBA star was "just a kid from Akron,” Ice Cube captured the spirit of the black barbershop in a 2002 film.

Set in Chicago’s South Side, the film follows Ice Cube’s Calvin, a reluctant owner of a barbershop inherited from his late father. The colorful ensemble cast of cutters, clients, and loiterers include a young, delightfully crooked Anthony Anderson as J.D., a pitch-perfect Cedric the Entertainer as elder barber Eddie, and many enduring performances from Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve, Troy Garity (Ballers), Keith David and more, all relentlessly roasting each other in between low caesars and fades.

The stakes mount when a poorly conceived business deal puts the shop’s future at risk, threatening to further erode the neighborhood of one of its remaining institutions. But Barbershop’s most charming moments come from Eddie’s banter. His crotchety, stream-of-conscious eviscerations cycle between brazen put-downs of his customers and poignant (but still hilarious) rants about the most revered figures in American history. In the barbershop, nothing is off limits. — Bradford William Davis

Barbershop

March of the Penguins

An Academy Award-winning documentary feature that could be titled “Love at 58 Below,” March of the Penguins is a visually stunning portrait of family, survival and, yes, love. Morgan Freeman serves as narrator of this 2005 documentary which takes viewers to Antarctica to witness majestic emperor penguins as they journey across the ice. The penguins waddle, belly-slide, swim everything but fly to their breeding ground, navigating shifting ice patterns, predators and harsh conditions.

“We don’t really know what they’re looking for, we only know that they are, in fact, looking,” Freeman narrates, upon the penguins’ arrival to their destination. As the monogamous creatures search for mates, their behaviors mimic what one might see at a college bar on a Thursday night: strutting, chest-puffing, even some minor squabbling. Freeman’s gravitas, combined with National Geographic’s stunning footage, opens viewers’ eyes to the habits of these highly social, sensitive, familial beings. — Allie Waxman

March of the Penguins

Inception

In film, dreams are often utilized as a storytelling function to give life to an abstraction (see: American Beauty, Across the Universe). This is not the case in Inception, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending action-thriller. The conditions and rules of Nolan’s dream landscape are matter-of-fact and not fantastical; it’s almost a relief to have its complexities defined. “Building from your memory is the fastest way to lose your grasp of reality,” warns Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Released in 2010 between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Inception is Nolan’s writing and directing at its finest: enticing narrative amplified by stunning visual effects.

Nolan flexes his directing muscles in grand CGI executions, fight sequences and captivating close-ups. As Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio — a beautiful sight in his own right — guides Ariadne (Ellen Page) through her first shared dream experience, her architectural mind stretches the limits of physics. The sight of her bending Parisian buildings on top of each other feels as epic as ever; Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting “projections” in zero-gravity still gets my heart racing. And, of course, there’s the film’s infamous last frame of a top about to tip over — or not? Revisit the film to see if the character’s initial question about inception is answered: Is true inspiration impossible to fake? — Marissa Blanchard

Inception

Get Him to the Greek

Before Jonah Hill was paparazzi catnip with his lovably weird outfits, before he was a budding auteur, before GQ made him a Man of the Year, he was — and still is — a bona fide big-budget comedy star. Although Superbad and 21 Jump Street might be your reflexive rewatches, 2010’s raunchy and ridiculous Get Him to the Greek should hold a place on that list. In it, Hill shines as the overwhelmed babysitter to Russell Brand’s out-of-control Aldous Snow, the kind of celebrity that the term “problematic” was invented for (and who first appeared in the movie’s also-great companion piece, Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Come for the unlikely duo’s hijinks; stay for P. Diddy stroking a furry wall as a too-high record exec. — Ariana Bacle

Get Him to the Greek

Inherent Vice

There’s a reason Thomas Pynchon novels aren’t adapted: It’s too hard. Pynchon — full-time postmodern satirist, part-time mad scientist — likes to dabble in the absurd. Gravity’s Rainbow (so bizarre), V. (so dense) and The Crying of Lot 49 (so... manageable in comparison) center around familiar but peculiar characters in peculiar but familiar scenarios that feel as grounded as they do otherworldly and conspiratorial. Inherent Vice is no different — it’s like reading a police report while having one foot in another dimension. But this didn’t deter director Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), who, in 2014, was brave enough to be the first to adapt the author’s enigmatic style.

Inherent Vice follows Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a California-dreamin’, pot-smoking PI whose ex (Katherine Waterston) enlists his help when her new man vanishes. Doc, meanwhile, has issues of his own: A relentless lieutenant (Josh Brolin) is breathing down his neck at the same time the Deputy DA (Reese Witherspoon) wants to connect with Doc on a more... personal level. As one case evolves into three different investigations, there’s a clear sense L.A.’s coastline has plenty hiding beneath its picturesque beachfront facades. The result is equal parts baffling, amusing, disturbing and all-encompassing. In other words: It feels just like a Pynchon novel. — Olivia Armstrong

Inherent Vice

Fantastic Mr. Fox

If you think about it, there’s a very small list of people who can adapt Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books into stop-motion adventures. Appropriately, Wes Anderson rose to the challenge in 2009 with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the delightfully eccentric tale of the titular Mr. Fox (George Clooney) as he gives into his animal instincts and starts a feud with three human farmers, breaking a long-standing promise to his wife (Meryl Streep) to stay out of trouble, and jeopardizing his neighborhood in the process. In this world, blueberries are deadly weapons and dance breaks to Beach Boys songs are required. It’s a feast for the eyes with tons of heart and a voice cast that’ll have you saying, “Wait, they’re in this, too?” Even if the director’s highly stylized technique isn’t your usual thing, this one-of-a-kind gem is worth the watch. — Allison Picurro

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Paddington 2

“If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” quoteth the bear at the heart of Paddington 2, a moral lesson sweetened with marmalade. The line, attributed to Paddington’s Aunt Lucy, is a lovely thought for the holiday season, and frankly, any time the world has you in the dumps. In this 2017 film for children and former children alike, Paddington wants to buy Lucy a special pop-up book for her birthday, but when the expensive gift is stolen from the bookshop, Paddington and the Brown family play detective across London to solve the crime.

There is much to like about this sequel (which doesn’t require you to have watched the first), including an explosion of visual effects — London’s landmarks come to life in pop-up form; a prison where the inmates are uniformed in pink stripes and adore sweets feels straight out of The Grand Budapest Hotel. As vain vaudevillian Phoenix Buchanan, who swipes the book having recognized it as a treasure map, Hugh Grant steals the film, sliding in and out of accents and personas to misdirect the sleuths. And if orange marmalade isn't your thing, how about tomatoes? Paddington 2 is the rare movie with a 100 percent freshness rating. — Lily Oei

Paddington 2