One of the greatest gifts the holidays bring is a brief window of uninterrupted time — just enough to lose oneself in a book or a TV series, guilt free. Today we offer up our recommendations for things to watch this year.
A documentary crew installs itself in a one-room schoolhouse in France for a full school year, just before the (masterful) teacher retires. Beautiful, sweet film with good thoughts about teaching.
This British TV series explores our obsessions with the screens we spend so much time these days looking into, and what these fixations reveal about us. Each episode represents a standalone story, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to binge watch. The first season kicks off with a story about how social media and instant updates shape news and political events. Also, whether a British Prime minister should engage in a sex act with a pig to save a princess. (I’m not giving anything away, really.)
Ostensibly based on (or inspired by, or cross-marketed with) the rather thick, yet popular 2009 Robert Ferguson book, The Vikings. Now, viking fans online are fond of trashing the series because it takes some liberties. Having slogged through (much of) Ferguson’s book, which is well-informed but dense, I think the series does a great job of making arcane archeology come alive. For instance, the first season shows a viking burial, complete with human sacrifice. While many details are different from the book, it gets the context right and really shows you what such an event would feel like.
This Danish TV series, a political drama that aired between 2010 and 2013, is hard to find in the U.S. (try your library’s interlibrary loan service), but it’s worth the search. Grownup characters, great acting, and a script that quietly messes with expectations make for a completely absorbing show—even when its plot turns on subsidies for Danish pig farmers. Shares creative DNA with Forbrydelsen, the original version of The Killing.
This BBC miniseries aired on the Sundance Channel this summer and is available on Netflix and iTunes. Dark, complicated, ultimately satisfying story about the daughter of an Israeli arms dealer who tries to transform her family business into a force for peace. Wonderful performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the lead, and Stephen Rea, who plays a deceptively dotty and down-at-heels spy.
John Huston directed, the writers who adapted Flannery O’Connor’s stunning book were the Fitzgeralds, O’Connor’s literary executors and friends. The movie is as no-holds-barred, hard-to-breathe as the book. I’m not dead sure what either one is about, except that Hazel Motes gets out of the service saying “I’m gonna do me some things,” and ends up winding barbed wire around his chest and looking for all the world like he’s wearing Christ’s crown of thorns. His landlady is appalled: “People don’t do that any more,” she says. In between, Hazel has become a preacher whose message is one of the best sentences in the English language: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” His next sentence: “Where is there a place for you to be? No place.”
I don’t know how I missed this show when it started in 2013. It’s a spinoff from the string of Marvel comic book movies of recent years–Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, the Captain America movie, the other Captain America movie, Iron Man 3–which are, it turns out, pretty good. In the TV show, a feisty little band of agents from the mythical U.S. government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. fly around the world in their super-high-tech plane, chasing bad guys and whatnot. It’s pretty fun, and the first season is streaming on Netflix, and what else are you doing with your time off?
Not the American adaptation, but the Swedish/Danish TV original. It’s a ten-part police procedural, and that’s all I’m going to say. The premise is exquisitely horrific, and that’s all I’m going to say. The female lead character is unlike any fictional detective I’ve ever seen, and that’s all I’m going to say. If you like moody Euro-mysteries, the kind where at the end of an episode you need to watch the next one right now, the kind you can’t stop thinking about even when you’re not in front of a screen—need I say more?
I’ve been a fan of Sarah Polley ever since she starred in the Canadian TV series Road to Avonlea, based on the Story Girl books by L.M. Montgomery. Polley was only a kid at that time, and she’s now an accomplished director who makes beautiful, thoughtful movies. In this documentary (available for streaming on Netflix), she tries to piece together her late mother’s past and find out who her biological father is. It’s a lovely story-about-stories that will keep surprising you.
Tomorrow, we’ll bust out the ideal holiday bookshelf.
Image: Øresund Bridge, the bridge to which The Bridge refers. From Shutterstock