We’re somehow nearly halfway through the year, if that’s not too hard to imagine and there’s a plentiful bounty of exciting new releases and additions to streaming to tide you over until summer.
This month sees the long-awaited premiere of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action thriller Tenet on HBO Max, a streaming platform for which Nolan himself has voiced particularly strong opinions of in the past, along with bona fide classics like James Cameron’s Aliens and The French Connection on Amazon Prime, the South Korean horror thriller The Wailing and the Chinese Wuxia epic The Assassin on Hulu, and the 1973 British folk horror musical The Wicker Man on Shudder. There’s all that and much more to enjoy!
Read on for 11 of the best movies new to streaming services in January. There’s something for everyone.
500 Days of Summer
Zooey Deschanel has a reputation for playing Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and while (500) Days of Summer seems to paint her as a quirky, love interest there to fill the main character’s heart with love, it actually does the opposite. Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (The Spectacular Now), the film completely dismantles the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, repeatedly reminding Tom, the male lead (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), that just because a pretty girl likes the same stuff he does and does some quirky things doesn’t mean that she’s his soulmate. The film explores the 500 days Tom knows Summer, jumping back and forth between various points of time, as his feelings for her change from complete adoration to contempt to finally accepting that she isn’t his dream girl but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a person of her own.
Like the narrator promises, it’s not a love story, but a story about love. — Petrana Radulovic
500 Days of Summer is streaming on Hulu.
When you decide to stream Aliens — and you should, this evening, even if you’ve seen it multiple times — do it on the biggest screen available to you. That way, you can marvel all over again at how James Cameron’s blockbuster sequel still looks so good, nearly 30 years later. Better, even, than a lot of modern sci-fi cinema. But looks aren’t everything, and Aliens is such a top-to-bottom rock solid film, the definitive sequel that takes the first movie and runs in an entirely different direction without disrespecting what came before. What’s more, Aliens still has the best setup/title one-two punch in cinema: Remember how the first movie was named after one scary creature? Well, what if there were more? And while Cameron’s film trades the horror of the first film for white knuckle action, the movie stays squarely focused on hero Ellen Ripley, who, by the time the finale comes around, will once again face off against a single Xenomorph. Plus, it’s done so much for the culture. Game over man, game over. —Joshua Rivera
Aliens is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Cameron Crowe’s 2000 semi-autobiographical comedy-drama Almost Famous stars Patrick Fugit as William Miller, a 15-year-old rock fan-turned-music journalist for Rolling Stones. William’s first big task is to write a story on Stillwater, an up-and-coming band led by charismatic guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and lead singer Jeff “Bebe” William (Jason Lee), as they tour across the country. Crowe’s film is a funny and achingly poignant coming of age story as William is given a crash course in matters of love, life, and breaking through to the big time. —Toussaint Egan
Almost Famous is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Millennium Mambo director Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s 2015 Wuxia drama The Assassin stars Qi Shu (Journey to the West) as Nie Yinniang, a female assassin tasked with killing corrupt local governors. Following a conspicuous failure, Nie is sent on a mission to assassinate a political leader who turns out to be the man to whom she was once betrothed. As she wrestles with her past a free woman and her present as a trained murderer, Nie must choose for herself what her future holds. —TE
The Assassin is streaming on Hulu.
The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin’s 1973 film The French Connection is a milestone for crime thrillers, a film whose gritty “bad cop” protagonist and elaborate car chases have become a blueprint for its successors. Gene Hackman stars in a career-defining role as “Popeye” Doyle, a mean short-tempered bigot of a “hero” with an alcohol problem whose vices are matched only by those of his nemesis, the charismatic drug dealer Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Together with his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), Popeye must dismantle Alain’s smuggling operation and bring him to justice … by any means necessary. —TE
The French Connection is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
The Iron Giant
The Iron Giant was a box office failure, thanks in no small part to the complete lack of marketing by Warner Bros. But thankfully it found a second life on broadcast and home video. In the film, a young boy named Hogarth finds a strange iron robot in the forest behind his home in Maine. He befriends the giant creature and teaches it more about what it means to be human — all while federal agents try to capture the robot, believing it to be a foreign weapon. The relationship between Hogarth and the giant is touching, as are the giant’s revelations about the nature of humanity. Try not to cry in the movie’s final moments, I dare you. —PR
The Iron Giant is streaming on Hulu.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), The Mitchells vs. the Machines finds Katy (Abbi Jacobson) and her quirky, dysfunctional family on a cross-country roundtrip that lands them smack dab in the middle of a robot apocalypse. Lord and Miller have an amazing track record and the animation in the trailer looks impressive with some genuinely funny moments to boot. From our full review:
From the zany visuals to the wild plot and its genuinely sweet observations on family, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, originally set for a theatrical release by Sony before settling on Netflix, is a joy in every way. It’s a movie that commands attention, with everything going on across the screen and in the script. The action plot augments the family conflict and vice versa, with every moment of the story pushing those plots forward. It’s an utter delight from start to finish that brings the best of animation and the internet to life.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is streaming on Netflix
Put in 2021 terms, Spartacus is the late 1950s equivalent of Stanley Kubrick directing a Marvel movie. Sword-and-sandal epics were the biggest thing in Hollywood after Ben-Hur’s sweep of the Oscars (at 11 wins, it’s still tied for the top spot with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) and the furthest thing from Kubrick’s promising early body of work. It’s also wildly different from everything that would come after: A grand tale of the enslaved man Spartacus whose stubborn pride earns him a place in the gladiatorial arena, where he eventually leads a rebellion and becomes a hero. Spartacus is both incredibly influential — numerous gladiator-themed films premiered in its wake, and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is a close cousin, 40 years removed — and also the film that gave Kubrick license to effectively do the kind of movies he would later be known for. But the film’s director is far from the only reason Spartacus is a historic movie moment: For one, it’s stacked to the brim with performances from greats like Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, and Laurence Olivier. But it’s also written by Dalton Trumbo, who at the time was one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted from the industry in the fallout from Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s communist witch hunt — and Spartacus’ success helped end one of the darkest periods in the film industry. —JR
Spartacus is streaming on Criterion Channel.
State of Play (2009)
State of Play stars Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams as Cal McAffrey and Della Fyre, two investigative journalists working to uncover the mystery behind the murder of Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), a close aide and chief researcher for U.S. Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). As the two reporters’ butt heads with regard to their respective approaches to pursuing the case, their investigation points to a shadowy corporation whose machinations threaten the lives of all those involved— McAffrey and Fyre included. —TE
State of Play is streaming on Netflix.
Christopher Nolan’s latest film is more than a typical mind-bender; a spy premise given the sci-fi twist of “inverted time” gives way to a purposefully confounding experience where plot falls away and the director’s explosive imagery envelops the viewer. It’s a wild and polarizing experience. Luckily, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are charismatic enough to bring it all together. Read our full review from last summer for the full download on this one-of-a-kid blockbuster. —Matt Patches
Tenet is streaming on HBO Max.
M. Night Shyamalan followed modern trends by turning Unbreakable into the basis for a cinematic superhero universe with the addition of Split and Glass, but also like modern trends, the first one is the best. Unbreakable is a slow drip of a thriller, and a what-if-superheroes-were-real thought experiment built on the backs of 30 years of post-modern comic history. The action is minimal — Bruce Willis’ final fight is basically a wrestling match in a bedroom — but the mood is palpable. Portuguese cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s stark imagery combined with a haunting score by James Newton Howard make David Dunn’s intimate discoveries and Elijah Price’s diabolical plot as epic as any Marvel plot. —MP
Unbreakable is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
The Wailing (2016)
In Hong-jin Na’s horror mystery The Wailing, a small village in South Korea is plagued with unsettling rumors of demonic possession and paranormal activity. When police officer Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) and his partner are called in to investigate a rash of murders linked to a mysterious disease, all clues and intuitions point to a young Japanese priest. What Jong-Goo and co. uncover is a horror that defies description and indelibly marks the lives, and deaths, of all who encounter it. —TE
The Wailing is streaming on Hulu.
The Wicker Man
One of the eeriest of the British folk horrors, The Wicker Man follows mainland police officer and staunch Christian Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) as he arrives on the island of Summerisle. His investigation into the disappearance of a local girl is stymied by the pagan beliefs of the townspeople – that is, if she exists at all.
Unlike its imitators (and Nic Cage remake), The Wicker Man lets its weirdness drip at a satisfyingly slow pace, while never forgetting the mystery at the heart of the plot. Summerisle is a regular, lived in village — a little secluded, but not fundamentally different from any small town. For Howie and for the audience, it’s not immediately obvious how unusual their beliefs are, until it’s much too late. The whole affair is given special dignity by Christopher Lee – who still insisted, even post Lord of the Rings, that this was the best movie he was ever in. As Lord Summerisle, Lee brings the perfect amount of levity and good humor (and bold fashion sense) to contrast Howie’s dour self-righteousness. —Jenna Stoeber
The Wicker Man is streaming on Shudder.