This weekend — on into the New Year — is one of the biggest and best times for American families to gather. Presents will be opened. Food will be eaten. Hugs will be exchanged.
But sometime after the initial high of togetherness has worn off, everybody will have to figure out something to do with each other. In the past, that often meant going out to the movies. But in 2014, it doesn't have to. With an internet connection and any one of a number of devices, you can connect to one of the three most popular streaming services — Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime — and start playing one of any number of movies.
But here, the question of what to do becomes even more mind-boggling. All of these services offer thousands of movies to subscribers. (Amazon also offers millions of movies for rent.) And navigating family politics can be tricky.
So we're here to help. Here are nine movies that we heartily recommend, that can be played in all manner of different situations. Not a one of these is esoteric or artsy. You might like that, but your grandma might not. No, these are crowd-pleasers — just ones you might not have heard of.
To watch with your surprisingly cool younger cousins
When faced with the prospect of sitting at the kids' table with a bunch of 14-year-olds, pull out your phone and stream We Are the Best! Set in 1982 Stockholm, Sweden, Best follows three young teenage girls who want to start a punk band. Director Lukas Moodyson makes this act of young rebellion into something intoxicating and even fun, and the film's conclusion is suitably rousing. (Available on Netflix)
To watch with your sister who has a doctoral degree in theoretical physics
When faced with the prospect of that relative who's so much smarter than you that it hurts (you know the one), consider Coherence, from earlier in the year. Written and directed by James Ward Byrkit on a tiny budget, the film's sci-fi conceit (eight dinner party guests discover a nearby house appears to have exact replicas of all of them) is audacious, and the story is a fun mind-bender you will spend at least a half-hour arguing over. (Available on Amazon Prime)
To watch with any grandparent who just wants to watch "a Christmas movie"
Let's face it — even if you like the traditional holiday movie standards, you can probably recite all of them word for word by heart. You could watch a movie that's Christmas adjacent. Or you could watch the charming 1945 dramedy The Bells of St. Mary's. Technically a sequel to 1944's Going My Way, this film is better than its predecessor, featuring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman as a priest and nun trying to stop a school from being shut down. Yeah, there's a scene at a Christmas pageant, but what really makes this a "Christmas movie" is the feeling of warmth it inspires. (Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime)
To watch with your young — but brave — niece and nephew
Kids' films often teach children about the realities of life and death, but few do that better than Martin Rosen's 1978 adaptation of the classic novel Watership Down. The story of a bunch of rabbits who leave their old warren to find a better one, this has some dark and scary moments, but also a hopeful, moving ending. If you have a small, serious child in your life, then you might just introduce them to their new favorite movie. (Available on Hulu)
To watch with a younger sibling who's been dulled to all sensation
Sometimes, the best way to break through the clutter is a good, juicy horror film. Fitting that bill is You're Next, an enjoyably gruesome tale of a family gathering that ends in destruction, misery, and splattery death. This is basically a slasher movie, but it's been wedded to a twisty, turny thriller, filled with surprises, then filmed by a bunch of indie film veterans, who are having a great time playing in this particular sandbox. Plus, it boasts an absolutely awesome lead performance from little-known actress Sharni Vinson. (Available on Amazon Prime)
To watch with anyone who loves history and being seasonally appropriate
The famous Christmas truce of 1914 is 100 years old this year. So what better time to watch Joyeux Noël, a French film from 2005 that depicts its events? Blending the war movie and Christmas movie genres together might seem a strange idea, but director Christian Carion has a wonderful eye for how to bring this actual historical event to life, and he received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for his skills. Plus, it features some terrific actors, like Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, and Ian Richardson. (Available on Amazon Prime)
To watch as an appetizer for dinner
Yeah, most Americans don't have sushi for their holiday meal. But maybe we should have sushi, if the wondrous, tantalizing documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is any indication. The film details Jiro Ono's quest to perfect the art of sushi. Who's Jiro Ono? The 85-year-old (at time of filming) just might be the greatest sushi chef in the world, even if he's still trying to perfect the form. There's so much in this movie about the nature of art and striving for greatness. And it will make you really hungry, too. (Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime)
To watch with the whole family, part one
The winner of Best Documentary Feature at this year's Oscars, 20 Feet from Stardom, is a rousing look at the world of background singers, who are some of the best parts of some of the best songs in history. You might think that particular topic would make for a rather thin basis for a movie, but director Morgan Neville has more on his mind than just making a movie about background singers. No, this is a movie about what it means to labor in obscurity — even if everybody on Earth could sing something you sang — and how to live with the disparity between those two things. And needless to say, the music is amazing. (Available on Netflix)
To watch with the whole family, part two
The New Zealand family drama Whale Rider briefly became a critically celebrated arthouse hit when it was released in 2003. But it seems to have largely been forgotten since, perhaps because its star, Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes, hasn't been in too many other movies. (Maybe that will change now that she's been cast in the next season of Game of Thrones.) And, yes, "New Zealand family drama" might be a tough sell for your family. But tell them that the film is a moving, entertaining look at family dynamics in Maori culture and a little girl who wants to be chief, when that's typically not allowed. Plus, the title is literal! Who can beat that? (Available on Hulu)