So you've got a few days off, and you're probably trapped with family to boot -- this calls for some serious binge-watching. Now is the perfect time to catch up on all of those movies and shows you couldn't make time for during the year. To help guide you through the plethora of options, we've compiled a list of the best stuff with a geeky bent you just have to watch. We've avoided some of the more well-known choices (but seriously, Interstellar is worth a shot while it's in theaters), and have instead focused on bringing to light some more obscure choices. They're not all family-friendly, but they're all worth your time.
And if you want more options after burning through these selections, check out my podcast the /Filmcast, where I review movies and TV every week.
You've probably heard plenty about Black Mirror -- a British show that's like a mix of The Twilight Zone and techno-social commentary -- but until it came to Netflix earlier this month, it was tough to watch in the US. (Lucky DirecTV customers were able to watch it since last year, and they're also getting first dibs on Black Mirror's Christmas special today.) Now that it's easily accessible, I can't recommend Black Mirror enough. Created by Charlie Brooker, a former game reviewer turned media producer and cultural critic, the show tackles deep questions around our increasingly addictive relationship with technology. What would a society look like if it was driven entirely by game mechanics and reality television? What would like be like if we could record and revisit any memory? Black Mirror tackles these sorts of issues to their logical, and often horrifying, ends. And after watching it, you may never look at the black-screened objects in your pocket or living room the same again.
Where to watch: Netflix; DirecTV Watch if you like:The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, The Outer Limits
This is a movie where the guy who plays Captain America (Chris Evans) goes on a bloody rampage across a socially stratified supertrain, which just happens to be traveling on an endless loop across a frozen post-apocalyptic world. If that doesn't scream "must watch!" to you, then I don't know what does. Snowpiercer is a comic-book film (based on the '70s French series Le Transperceneige) directed by Bong Joon-ho, one of the most intriguing South Korean filmmakers around. If your only experience with comic movie adaptations come from the Marvel or DC universe, you're in for a treat. It's filled with huge action set pieces and a tremendous Tilda Swinton performance. And while it doesn't quite stick the landing at the end, the journey is totally worth it.
Where to watch: Netflix Watch if you like:Brazil, 1984
The Legend of Korra
How do you top creating one of the best animated television series ever made? For Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, it was by crafting something even more subversive and mature in The Legend of Korra. Set 70 years after the end of the first series, Korra focuses on a new Avatar who must confront the challenges of being a spiritual leader in an industrial world where technology is evolving rapidly. Oh, and there's a ton of kick-ass action. It's as sharply written as its predecessor, especially when it comes to giving you villains you might actually care for. But since its core characters are young adults, rather than kids, it's also able to explore concepts like depression and the structure of societal power.
Where to watch: Seasons 1-2 included with Amazon Prime Video; iTunes Watch if you like:Avatar, X-Men: The Animated Series, Batman: The Animated Series
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
If you've ever wondered what makes Hayao Miyazaki tick -- the director of anime classics like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away -- this documentary is worth a watch. It offers a fascinating glimpse at the inner workings of Miyazaki's animation company, Studio Ghibli, as he rushed to complete The Wind Rises, his final film before retiring from features. (He says he still intends to "work until the day I die.") It helps if you're a fan of Miyazaki's film, of course, but Mami Sunada's documentary also serves as a fascinating exploration of single-minded creativity. Despite creating some of the most hopeful works of art ever made, you'd be surprised to learn that Miyazaki also has a startlingly pessimistic worldview. But that only makes him more fascinating.
Where to watch: iTunes, Amazon Watch if you like:Jiro Dreams of Sushi, anything by Miyazaki
Under the Skin
Normally, I'd feel weird recommending a slow-moving, art-house oriented alien invasion film for the holidays. But Under the Skin is so startlingly unique that I can't help but mention it. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious alien who roams the Scottish countryside in a van seeking out unsuspecting men (I won't spoil what happens to them). The twist? Many of those guys are random non-actors Johansson actually picked up while filming, all captured surreptitiously by tiny cameras embedded in her van. That authenticity, together with one of the strangest film scores in recent memory and what may be Johansson's strongest performance ever, makes for an unforgettable experience.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video; iTunes Watch if you like:2001, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Good Wife
Yes, The Good Wife! Sure it's a CBS drama, but it's also one of the best shows on television, and it's one of the few shows to truly understand technology. While it started out as a story about a woman trying to rebuild her life and legal career after being publicly humiliated by her cheating husband, it's evolved into something more. Who ever thought a courtroom drama could be as exciting as a story about a teacher-turned-drug kingpin? Creators Michelle and Robert King have a knack for working real-world stories into the show, and they're also clearly fascinated by tech. That's led to (surprisingly accurate) plots around Bitcoin, crowdsourced investigations on sites like Reddit and NSA surveillance.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video; Hulu Plus Watch if you like:The Wire, Law & Order
Think all anime is the same? Ping Pong, an adaptation of a popular manga, dares to prove you wrong. It's the story of two childhood friends who, in their own ways, journey to become the best ping pong players in the world. It's as much a story about friendship and personal fulfillment as it is about competition. Its hand-drawn animation style, surrealist tableaus and kinetic editing are downright exhilarating. As someone who's grown tired of digitally produced anime that inevitably looks the same, Ping Pong is a breath of fresh air. (Also, check out the 2002 live action adaptation of the same story.)
Where to watch: Youtube, Hulu Plus Watch if you like:Friday Night Lights, Hajime no Ippo, Ping Pong Playa
After all the drama around the release of Seth Rogen and James Franco's latest comedy, The Interview is finally available for you to watch online. I haven't seen the film yet (check back for a review tomorrow), but it's something I'd recommend watching if only to be well-informed about its landmark (and singularly strange) release story. It's the first big studio film to hit VOD before theaters, and even then it's only going to be screening at a few brave indie theaters. If it works out, this could be a release strategy that other studios adopt for mid-sized films. And really, you need to watch it for freedom. For America.
Where to watch: Youtube, Google Play, Xbox Video Watch if you like: Anything by the Rogen/Judd Apatow crowd
Okay, I know the title is awful, but Selfie is actually a genuinely funny and sweet show that also does a great job of exploring our unhealthy obsession with social media. It's Pygmalion with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in supporting roles. And really, how can you not love the dynamic duo of Karen Gillan and John Cho? The show was cancelled by ABC, but the unaired episodes are now available on Hulu Plus. It's worth a shot even if romantic comedies aren't really your thing.
Where to watch: Hulu Plus Watch if you like:New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, To laugh
I haven't seen this show yet, but the internet (and Engadget's feature editor Joseph Volpe) just can't get enough of it. After airing and getting cancelled a decade ago, HBO just brought back the series for another season where Lisa Kudrow's sitcom persona stand-in, Valerie Cherish, is once again struggling for relevancy. As our features guru puts it:
To say that the show, which intelligently mocked the burgeoning reality TV phenomenon of the early aughts, was ahead of its time is somewhat of an understatement. The concept of "must-see schadenfreude TV" hadn't really taken hold of America until after HBO gave the show the axe in late 2005. In the ensuing years, we not only embraced unscripted programming (as reality TV is officially called), but we also accepted it as legitimate entertainment and minted a new breed of celebrity.
Here are a few other things the Engadget staff would like to recommend:
Fireplace for Your Home (Netflix): Naturally.
The Knick (Cinemax): Soderbergh's period hospital show is all about technological progress.
Please Like Me (Amazon Prime Video)
Portlandia (Netflix): Catch up for the new season starting next month!
Jane the Virgin (Hulu Plus, CW): This Americanized telenovela is surprisingly sweet, funny and sharply written.
[Photo credits: Top: Black Mirror, Channel 4; The Good Wife, CBS; Selfie, ABC]