What to watch: The best movies new to streaming from Pinocchio to Decision to Leave

What to watch: Decision to Leave, Pinocchio and Emancipation are all new to streaming. (MUBI/Netflix/Apple)
What to watch: Decision to Leave, Pinocchio and Emancipation are all new to streaming. (MUBI/Netflix/Apple)

A trio of original releases make up the highlights of films coming to streaming this week, as the Holiday season carries on. Perhaps the most Christmas appropriate of the three is Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s long-gestating adaptation of Pinocchio (the better one of the two to be released this year), told with lovely stop-motion animation.

As a little bit of counter-programming, there’s also the Park Chan-wook film Decision to Leave, an awards hopeful that absolutely deserves its flowers for its expert filmmaking and powerful lead performances. To go with its release this weekend on MUBI, the streamer and distributor is also running a season of Park’s other films, including rarities like his short film Judgement to all-time hits like Oldboy and The Handmaiden.

Read more: Everything new on Sky/NOW in December

Meanwhile on Apple TV+, the Will Smith-led film Emancipation is released, a slavery film that also doubles as something of a war movie as it depicts the escape of “Whipped Peter”, the subject of a famous photograph distributed by slavery abolitionists in America during the 1800s, who eventually joined up with the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.

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Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) | Netflix (pick of the week)

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (Center) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). (Netflix)

Compared to Disney's live action remake of Pinocchio, Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s stop-motion animated spin on the character is a breath of fresh air. Told with a playful sense of the macabre, their take on the story, co-written by Over The Garden Wall’s Patrick McHale, veers incredibly far off the established path for adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s famous adventure story.

Read more: Everything new on Netflix in December

Many things feel familiar, but the context is completely new, as this Pinocchio takes place in 1930s fascist Italy, and tells the story of the little wooden boy learning how to live in parallel to a story of anti-authoritarianism. There are many unexpected turns that we won’t spoil here, as McHale and del Toro also take the tale to some fascinating locales that somewhat recall the director’s famous fantasy fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth.

Watch a trailer for Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio

It’s also utterly gorgeous, with lush, traditionally-painted backdrops and stop motion puppets that all feel incredibly tactile as well as fantastical. Pinocchio himself is a joy to behold, the film capitalising on the common ground he holds with Frankenstein’s monster, finding some comedy in his unnatural contortions as well as his surprising durability.

As with the rest of del Toro’s body of work (and Gustafson’s, who was an animation director on Fantastic Mr Fox), there’s a darkness that rests just beneath its whimsical surface but Pinocchio never lets that darkness take over completely. Ultimately it’s a hopeful story, even if it has some tragic notes. Either way, a moving visual marvel.

Also on Netflix: God's Crooked Lines (2022)

Decision to Leave (2022) | MUBI

Decision To Leave (MUBI)
Decision To Leave (MUBI)

Korean director Park Chan-wook is perhaps best known for his sadder, more nihilistic tragedies and dark comedies like Joint Security Area, Oldboy and the rest of the Vengeance Trilogy. But he also has a romantic streak to him, as proven by his sultry 2016 film The Handmaiden (all of the above also streaming on MUBI as of this week).

His latest, Decision to Leave, has more in common with that romance. It’s a bittersweet and neo-noir, and Park’s lurid love of Hitchcock is clear in this story of mutual obsession. Its love story is a forbidden one, as Hae-Joon (Park Hae-il), a veteran detective with insomnia slowly falls for Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a woman suspected of pushing her husband to his death. His investigative study of her slowly turns overtly voyeuristic as he observes her daily habits and becomes increasingly curious. So far, so Vertigo, so Rear Window.

Decision to Leave (MUBI)
Decision to Leave (MUBI)

But Park adds another couple of layers to that perverse intrigue, turning that watchful eye back on the initial observer, as its central pair are clearly both infatuated, each following the other around as there’s no room for a real consumption of the relationship.

Read more: Everything new on Disney+ in December

They communicate their desire through voice messages and texts, and recordings of the other. There’s a palpable tension that remains in their maintained distance that Park emphasises through delightfully overcranked sound mixing and the kind of wild visual flair that is expected of him. There are incredibly stylised scene transitions, fascinating camera placements (like from the point of view from a dead man’s eye), an impossible shot that mixes up its focus between both sides of an interrogation table and its reflected image in a two-way mirror... the list goes on.

It’s all in favour of a passionately felt tragi-romance, quite a difference from the mean twists of fate that characterised much of the beloved director’s filmography. The result: one of the best films of the year.

Also on MUBI: The Handmaiden (2016), Judgement (1999)

Emancipation (2022) | Apple TV+

Emancipation (Apple TV+)
Emancipation (Apple TV+)

The 'scourged back' photograph of the enslaved man referred to as 'Whipped Peter' – his only given name being Gordon – is one of the most famous photographs taken in relation to the American abolitionist movement.

First published in Harper’s Weekly in July 1863, the images have now become the narrative and aesthetic basis of Antoine Fuqua’s new film Emancipation, a historical drama starring Will Smith as Gordon (named Peter in the film). Until now Smith has stayed away from films regarding slavery, and has spoken of his desire to uplift rather than wallow in historical cruelty. Emancipation doesn’t exactly stray from the latter, with a gruelling opening stretch that frequently and plainly shows the bodily harm of that evil American practice as Peter is separated from his family.

Read more: Everything new on Prime Video in December

Whips and branding irons and filthy cages are a common site in Louisiana, one of the last holdouts after the Union Army and Lincoln declared slavery abolished, and Fuqua films the misery in an austere and frankly, ugly colour palette so washed out it nearly looks black and white, settling on a light sepia tone that could be said to resemble that old photograph. The intent is clear, but the resultant imagery itself feels wanting.

Watch a trailer for Emancipation

The film’s eventual focus on self-determination and finding freedom for one’s self is encouraging, but it overall feels like it’s missing the kind of visual lyricism, sensitivity and thoughtful character work of something like The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkin’s 2021 limited series that follows a fictional runaway slave in the south.

While it would be dishonest to shy away from the genocidal racist violence involved in this point in American history, Emancipation can feel unnecessarily punishing to the point where it feels a little indulgent in how it portrays violence against black people – I have seen enough images of men being savaged by dogs, quite frankly.

Emancipation (Apple TV+)
Emancipation (Apple TV+)

I cite The Underground Railroad because it managed to stir the same anger and disgust without feeling dehumanising itself. Fuqua perhaps overcorrects as the script gets to the emancipation part of Emancipation as it tilts towards becoming an all-out war movie, which feels a little bit at odds with that prior, dour presentation (though as with all films about slavers getting killed, there remains an element of satisfaction in said revenge).

The result is neither the worst film made about this time nor the best, but Will Smith’s performance holds things together well enough.

Also on Apple TV+: Spirited (2022)