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The best thrillers to watch on Netflix this December

It’s the most nerve-wracking time of the year

Julia Roberts covers her ears and screams in pain in the woods in the Netflix film Leave the World Behind Image: Netflix
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

You’re probably covered when it comes to holiday cheer. Everyone’s trying to do that. How about some holiday chills? Something to make you wrap that blanket around you tighter, or maybe spill a bit of eggnog?

Our picks this month are a slow-burn apocalypse from the creator of Mr. Robot and two modern classics that are both worth visiting or revisiting for zeitgeisty reasons.

Editor’s pick: Leave the World Behind

Myha’la, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, and Julia Roberts stand next to each other and stare at a TV worried in the Netflix film Leave the World Behind Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Director: Sam Esmail
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Julia Roberts

Netflix’s latest big release is the isolated nail-biter Leave the World Behind, a story about what happens when a vacationing family finds themselves with unexpected visitors at the moment a cyberattack cuts them off from all communication.

Based on the novel by Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind is part eat-the-rich drama, part social critique, part apocalyptic sci-fi, all with a dash of writer-director Sam Esmail’s signature techno-paranoia. Its slow-burn script doles out unsettling moments that’ll hook you for the entirety of its 141-minute run time, and its small cast — which includes an exceptional performance from Mahershala Ali — is given plenty of room to process events and react with petty grievances and privileged ineptitude.

It’s less about how the world ends (those looking solely for answers will likely leave dissatisfied) than how we will know the world is ending — the steep, terrifying drop between having anything you could possibly want to know at your fingertips, and then nothing at all.

Black Swan

Natalie Portman as The Swan Queen Nina Sayers in Black Swan. Image: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Netflix’s other big release this month is May December, Todd Haynes’ buzzy new melodrama loosely based on the real-life story of convicted sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau starring Natalie Portman, Charles Melton, and Julianne Moore in awards-worthy turns. It’s a good excuse as any to revisit Black Swan, the film that won Portman her first Oscar after several nominations.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a New York City ballerina who gives in to obsession when her company’s prima ballerina retires, leaving the coveted dual role of White and Black Swan in their production of Swan Lake up for grabs. Nina’s ability to perform only one of the roles to her director’s satisfaction sends her spiraling into paranoia, as she begins to think a new ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), is there to replace her, and perhaps seduce her.

Arguably Darren Aronofsky’s best film, Black Swan is the perfect marriage of the director’s penchant for toeing the line between thrilling an audience and making them tremendously uncomfortable. Black Swan blurs the line between what’s real and imagined, sinking further into Nina’s fraying perspective the more the audience wishes to pull away from it. The result is unforgettable and deeply troubling.


Michael Fassbender as android David holding a holographic globe of Earth in Prometheus. Image: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba

Before Ridley Scott delivered a bit of a fuck-you to historians with his grand epic Napoleon, he made this divisive Alien prequel that was a bit of a fuck-you to fans of the renowned science fiction franchise. Ever wonder about the Space Jockey, or where the Xenomorphs come from? Spent years reading ancillary comics and watching sequels, wondering if we would ever find out what’s at the heart of the many mysteries suggested by the 1979 classic? Well, here’s your answer: God is real, and he hates you.

Misanthropic as it may be, Prometheus is still Ridley Scott operating at the peak of his powers as a thrilling director of sci-fi horror, depicting the slow disaster of a Weyland Corporation expedition to LV-223 in search of a precursor race that kickstarted life on Earth.

Strikingly barren, wonderfully paced, and displaying the most arresting body horror in the long-running franchise since the original film, Prometheus is an all-timer in the sci-fi thriller canon. And perhaps, with a bit of an open mind, in the Alien franchise, too.

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