We may well be on what feels like day 5,403 of lockdown, but at least there’s plenty of streaming material to bide the time.
Here are the films, TV shows and special streaming events on our cultural radar right now, plus some of our favourites from recent weeks that you can catch up on…
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It’s hard to look away from this brooding, intense drama with a social conscience. Bryan Cranston stars as a judge whose commitment to doing the right thing is challenged when his teenage son accidentally kills another boy in a car accident. The victim happens to be the son of the city’s most feared crime boss. It’s an ambitious story that cleverly combines light and shade.
Sky Atlantic and NOW TV
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell
Forgoing any in-depth exploration of the East Coast-West Coast feud that ultimately ended up costing him his life, but for a few minutes towards the end, this documentary instead focuses on Biggie Smalls’ life before that all kicked off. It paints a rich portrait of a profoundly gifted rapper, torn between his musical talent and trying to provide for his family by dealing crack on the streets of Brooklyn.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché
This incredibly powerful and moving documentary charts the life and career of Marianne Elliott, AKA Poly Styrene, the trailblazing frontwoman of Seventies punk band X-Ray Spex. Narrated, co-written and co-directed by her daughter, Celeste Bell, it’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that pieces together a proud, pioneering legacy as a female, mixed-race icon, but doesn’t shy away from the darkness that enveloped parts of Poly’s life.
9pm, Saturday, Sky Arts and online at modernfilms.com
In which comedian Amy Poehler tries her hand at directing and (in a roundabout way) introduces teens to the giddy radicalism of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. Shy geek Vivian (Hadley Robinson) lives with her feminist single mom (Poehler) and is about to discover that her school is a dangerous place for girls. In terms of mood, Moxie feels like an episode of The Gilmore Girls crossed with upcoming rape revenge drama, Promising Young Woman. Alycia Pascual-Pena is outstanding as the audacious new kid who triggers Vivian’s awakening and, as ever, Poehler’s bug eyes are a blissfully wonky law unto themselves.
Everyone’s favourite epistolary event will livestream a special International Women’s Day edition set of readings with an all-star cast. Olivia Colman, Gillian Anderson, Adwoa Aboah, Daisy Ridley and Caitlin Moran are just some of those on board to read remarkable letters from history, and the event will be available to watch for free on demand all week. Any donations will go to the WOW Foundation, which aims to help women and girls around the world achieve their potential.
The Big Day
If you liked nosing into the love lives of Indian families in Indian Matchmaking, you’ll love this rather heart-warming dive into the world of often eyewateringly lavish Indian weddings on Netflix. With its focus on millennial couples who assume equality and are refashioning traditions for themselves, it’s groundbreaking in its way.
Rose Matafeo won the top comedy prize at the Edinburgh fringe back in 2018 for her stand-up show Horndog, now available on BBC iPlayer. This version was filmed at the Ambassadors Theatre early last year, and sees the New Zealander tackle everything from Love Island to the truth about why she was kicked off a Franz Ferdinand message board as a teenager.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
This extraordinary Apple TV+ documentary follows Billie Eilish in the months before and after the release of her all-conquering debut album. It delves into the peculiar dichotomy of a teenage sensation who sells out arenas one day, and then tries to pass her driving test the next, and paints an intimate portrait of sibling relationships, mental health, obsession and success.
Zara McDermott: Revenge Porn
Former Love Island star Zara McDermott is an engaging and deeply empathetic presenter in this BBC Three documentary, now streaming on iPlayer. She opens up about her own experiences of revenge porn (including one instance when she was a teenager) and doesn’t shy away from grey areas. The result is a powerful film that should be shown in secondary schools.
Behind Her Eyes
This six-part Netflix series, based on the best-selling novel by Sarah Pinborough, starts out like your average stylish psychological thriller but gets progressively more bats**t as time goes on, leading up to a final act twist that’s already dividing viewers. Simona Brown stars as Louise, whose affair with her psychologist boss (Tom Bateman) gets a lot more confusing when his wife (Eve Hewson) starts making friendly overtures.
Frank Zappa’s wild, wandering career made him the Marmite of the rock music world. This documentary is firmly on the “creative genius” side of the argument, but you don’t have to be a Zappa zealot to enjoy watching it. Across two hours, it dives deep into the musician’s psyche, with a wealth of never-before-seen footage taken from Zappa’s own private vault. Love him or hate him, you can’t say he wasn’t fascinating.
The Twentieth Century
Matthew Rankin’s absolutely barking pastiche of early 20th century German expressionism, which lands on Mubi this week, is a hilarious, horrible, satirical look at the idea of nationhood, based incredibly loosely on the political history of his native Canada and the diaries of its former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
Framing Britney Spears
The documentary everyone’s talking about is finally available to stream in the UK courtesy of Sky Documentaries and NOW TV. Produced in collaboration with the New York Times, Framing Britney Spears examines the sexism that the singer faced at the peak of her career (the archive interviews featured here leave a very unpleasant taste) as well as the #FreeBritney movement, which is calling for an end to the court-approved conservatorship that controls her life and finances. It’s an uncomfortable watch, but a gripping and necessary one all the same.
White Colour Black
Joseph Adesunloye’s feature debut was made in 2016 but premieres on Mubi this week. Though the story, of a young Senegalese photographer reluctantly leaving his hedonistic London life to return home after the death of his father, is a little meandering, the British-Nigerian director’s film is worth watching for the mesmerising performance he gets from boxer-turned-actor Dudley O’Shaughnessy. Really one to watch.
I Care a Lot
Rosamund Pike knows how to make bad behaviour gripping. She tapped into a well of loneliness to make us root for Gone Girl’s brittle schemer, Amy Dunne and does it again in I Care a Lot as Marla, a corporate grifter with a spectacular lack of empathy towards the elderly. Given that she cares so little for others, why should we care about her? The short answer: because, when staring into Pike’s eyes, it’s impossible not to.
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head
It was only a matter of time before the journalist and award-winning filmmaker Adam Curtis took on these weird times we’re in. This new six-film series, which is on BBC iPlayer now,tells the story of how we got here and why those in power - not just in the West - and we are finding it so difficult to move forward, from the roots of conspiracy theories to melancholy over the loss of empire.
Angels in America
It’s A Sin has finally brought an acknowledgement of the devastation wrought by the Aids crisis into the mainstream. But thirty years ago, Tony Kushner’s seminal two-part play about the shadow of the Aids crisis on New York became one of the first major work to explore it. The National’s star-studded, award-winning revival is now available to stream - and will break your heart.
NT at Home
Cathy Yan’s pinky perky comedy debut, released today on Mubi, focuses on a mysterious epidemic that decimates the porcine population of a pig-farming region in China. It’s an exploration of the push-pull between tradition versus modernity that characterises so much of contemporary Chinese cinema - only with dancing girls, musical numbers and a knockout cast. She’s a talent to watch.
Life in a Day
Ten years after Kevin Macdonald’s film made from ordinary people’s footage from one day in 2010, the 2020 version is released on February 6 on YouTube Originals after receiving more than 300,000 submissions from 192 countries, in more than 65 languages. Watching the births, proposals, marriages, dinners, breakfasts, reflections, protests and deaths that make up a day on this planet is a moving and unifying experience.
News of the World
The time is right for this Netflix Western, released on Feb 10 and starring Tom Hanks. It’s 1870, five years after the US civil war, and the film’s baddies are white supremacists, still waving the Confederate flag. Um. Hanks’s grizzled captain must shepherd an orphaned girl to her relatives across dangerous country, but will either of these damaged people find their way home?
Musicals: The Greatest Show
Missing Les Mis? Dreaming of Dreamgirls? This celebration of all that musical theatre has to offer, screening on BBC One at 7.40pm on Sunday, is just what the doctor ordered. Presented by Sheridan Smith and filmed at the Palladium, it features chat and performances from Michael Ball, Idina Menzel, Ramin Karimloo, Layton Williams and Kerry Ellis.
Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili’s unsettling debut, set in a provincial town in the Caucasus mountains, follows Yana, the wife of a Jehovah’s Witness leader whose community is under attack from an extremist group. Available on Mubi, the film is Georgia’s Oscars entry for 2021.
This digital celebration of world class dance is a collaboration between Sadler’s Wells and the BBC, and its three episodes are on iPlayer. It features work from artists and companies including Akram Khan, Jonzi D, Matthew Bourne, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, English National Ballet and Candoco Dance Company. A treat for dance lovers.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
This unusual documentary about a disillusioned comedy writer who stumbles upon the forgotten world of industrial musicals has just arrived on Netflix. It’s a peek behind the curtain at a very different time, when American sales conferences opened with song and dance numbers and had lyrics like “come on and spread the word to every sales creator, get the news on each new refrigerator”. Quirky and charming.
Arlo Parks: A Pop Star in a Pandemic
At the start of 2020, the BBC gave Arlo Parks a video camera to record the making of her debut album. Then Covid hit. The documentary, now on iPlayer, captures an extraordinary year for Parks — one that didn’t play out as planned but still featured some incredible moments, including a breathtaking performance to an empty field from Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
The Capote Tapes
This documentary makes gripping viewing of every second of Truman Capote’s decline and fall. First-time filmmaker Ebs Burnough uses audio tapes made in the late Nineties by the American journalist George Plimpton, featuring everyone from Lauren Bacall to Norman Mailer. She bulks these out with new witness accounts, most memorably from Kate Harrington, the young girl Capote effectively adopted when he became her father’s lover.
It’s a Sin
It’d be a crying shame, if not a sin, to miss this much-anticipated five part TV drama from Russell T. Davies. Starring Olly Alexander, it follows a group of young gay men and their best mate Jill (Lydia West) as they pursue their dreams just as the shadow of Aids begins to darken their existence. It’s funny, riotous, shocking and utterly devastating.
This six-part dramatisation of the investigation into the 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, which starts tonight on BBC Two, turns all the true crime tropes upside down (the murderer is never mentioned by name, for one thing) - and is much the better for it. Directed by Oscar nominee Tobias Lindholm and created in close collaboration with Wall’s family, it’s a compelling, moving watch that never feels exploitative, focusing on the dogged work of the investigators who eventually brought the killer to justice.
Some will accuse this fascinating documentary on Dogwoof on Demand by filmmaker Hao Wu of being Chinese propaganda, but it was an unofficial production. It observes the struggles of Wuhan medical staff, patients and their families as they try to get a handle on Covid. The doctors and nurses are charming and many chose to come from elsewhere, inspired to help out. It’s rather inspiring.
David Mitchell and Robert Webb return in the latest installment of this Channel 4 sitcom — a peculiar but winning mix of punchy jokes and psychological intrigue. The series is full of hairpin turns in the plot, with Mitchell’s Stephen trying to one-up Webb’s Andrew, his mischievous former foster brother. It’s frequently hilarious (with lots of good swearing, if that’s your thing) and with six episodes spanning barely two hours, it’s entirely bingeable.
Anyone suffering from the Sunday sads at the moment (spoiler alert: everyone) may want to tune into ITV’s new flagship drama, Finding Alice. Starring the queen of British telly, Keeley Hawes, it tells the story of a woman coming to terms with the grief of losing her husband, only to find he had left behind a lot of secrets.
ITV Hub and BritBox
This fascinating documentary, available online, seeks to expose and raise awareness of the reasons for the suicide of the American actor Robin Williams in 2014. It was only after his death - which was preceded by a decline into paranoia and confusion - that his wife found he had been unknowingly suffering from an exquisitely cruel - and alarmingly common, though rarely diagnosed - form of dementia. Terrifying, but also a reminder of an extraordinary mind.
One Night In Miami
No festival film in 2020 attracted as much buzz as Regina King’s directorial debut. Her collaboration with Kemp Powers (they have expanded his 2013 stage play, set on the night that Cassius Clay celebrated his 1964 win over Sonny Liston by going to a motel with Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X ) cost just $16.9 million, yet is being talked up as a ground-breaking awards contender. Should you believe the hype? Yep, King’s the greatest, and Londoner Kingsley Ben-Adir brilliantly conveys X’s careworn intensity.
If you’re not already watching this absolutely terrifying, twisty, turny thriller on BBC One about Charles Sobhraj, a conman and serial killer who terrorised the Hippie Trail in the 1970s, you should be. Tahar Rahim is the titular snake, who was eventually brought to justice by a decidedly square Dutch diplomat (Billy Howle). It’ll make your heart race.
History of Swear Words
If someone suggested that Nicholas Cage front a programme about swearing from a cosy fireside you’d think they were f***ing drunk. And yet here it is, a series on Netflix. Cage, a bunch of comedians and a selection of game but serious academics investigate the use and origins of the “silly putty” of the English language.
Pixar’s latest was released exclusively on Disney+ on Christmas day, and tells the story of a failed jazz pianist who finds himself in a sort of limbo, a soul without a body, after falling down a manhole. The studio’s first film with a Black lead and a Black-led animation team, it’s also a classic Pixar triumph with laughs, tears and surprisingly deep ideas.
In a year that’s thrown the theatre world into crisis, this documentary about high school kids entering the annual August Wilson monologue competition is a testament to its power to change lives. It’s also a timely reminder of the playwright’s incredible legacy, that serves as a great primer for Netflix’s film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
We’ve just started this sweet Japanese series, set in a Tokyo diner open from midnight to 7am and overseen by the benevolent chef, Master. Characters come and go, their stories overlapping with humour and melancholy. It doesn’t benefit from Netflix’s usual production values, but it’s weirdly addictive, like Master’s pork miso soup.
The tale of the Republic of Rose Island has been consigned to the footnotes of Italian history, but that’s about to change thanks to this colourful Netflix movie, which is also the streaming service’s first Italian original film. It tells the true story of maverick engineer Georgio Rosa, who decided to build his own independent island in the Adriatic Sea, just outside Italy’s territorial waters. His small but perfectly formed republic boasted its own post office and currency, but quickly sparked the ire of Italian authorities.
I’m Your Woman
This nuanced, unconventional Amazon thriller takes the traditional crime drama genre and flips it on its side by focusing instead on the viewpoint of the errant fugitive’s wife, left vulnerable by his betrayal of his partners. Mrs Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan is terrific as a woman still floundering for her own identity, opposite the always charismatic British actor Arinzé Kene as the man tasked with keeping her safe.
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
The first interlocutor to appear with MacGowan in this reverential documentary about the musician is Gerry Adams, in a fireside chat. It’s startling and sets the tone for a film that presents him as formed from the earth of Ireland.
David Fincher’s biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, writer of Citizen Kane, is gorgeous, clever and stunningly cast, with Gary Oldman in the title role (even if he is 30 years off).
This Seventies-set drama on Prime Video about a gay man (Paul Bettany) and his niece (a pleasingly understated Sophia Lillis) returning to their homophobic hometown after the death of his father – accompanied by his flamboyant partner of 10 years (a delightful Peter Macdissi, and no, the family are not aware) – is a compassionate look at how fear breeds hate, hate breeds guilt, and love saves lives.
Red, White and Blue
For his first post-Star Wars role, John Boyega has teamed up with Steve McQueen to tell the story of Leroy Logan, one of few black officers serving in the Met in the Eighties. Red, White and Blue is a galvanising watch, rooted in the complex dynamic between Boyega and his on-screen dad Steve Toussaint. It’s part of McQueen’s Small Axe series.
The second part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series is a love letter to the blues party scene of the Eighties, playing out over the course of one big night (and the subsequent Sunday morning headache...) 17-year-old Martha (inspired by McQueen’s aunt, played by Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) sneaks out of her window to head off to a flat in Ladbroke Grove where the bass makes the walls shake. This gorgeous film will have you pining for packed dancefloors.
Finding Jack Charlton
English football legend Jack Charlton, who died this summer, never did get a knighthood. And after watching this breezily profound documentary, you’ll understand why. Charlton backed the miners in the 80s, and managed Ireland at a time when they were seen as a joke. He sided with the underdog, with the full support of his wife, Pat, and their three children, and the Charltons’ commitment to doing the brave thing, as opposed to the easy thing, is laid bare in the film.
From the team behind the award-winning For Sama and filmed over five years, this is another gripping, emotional real life story. Iranian couple Leila and Sahand are seeking asylum with their son Mani, who was conceived while both were married to other people. Fearing discovery - which would result in execution for them both; stoning to death for Leila – they seek a new life in Turkey. Their difficult journey is captured unflinchingly in this must-watch documentary.
Digital download and at modernfilms.com/lovechild
The Queen’s Gambit
If you’re not already hooked on this Netflix miniseries, get a move on. The story of an orphan chess-whiz (a mesmerising Anya Taylor-Joy) battling encroaching drink and drug addiction while taking the male-dominated game by storm is grippingly told and never falls into depressing ‘woman in a man’s world’ cliché. A great supporting cast and ravishing design round out a satisfying watch.
How To Be: Anne-Marie
Essex sensation Anne-Marie was all set for a huge arena tour in 2020. “And then,” she says in this new YouTube documentary, “corona happened”. How she dealt with that loss, and how the enforced break encouraged her to confront her own personal demons, is explored in this candid, straight-talking film. It’s an intriguing look behind the curtain at an artist on the rise, and not without its light-hearted moments.
This tantalising documentary approaches the life of trail-blazing jazz singer Billie Holiday from the most oblique of angles. It is filtered through the eyes and preoccupations of part-time journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who spent years interviewing Holiday’s lovers, colleagues and family. The Holiday who emerges from this portrait is creative, bisexual and brave.
Amazon Prime Video and iTunes
The Life Ahead
Sophia Loren is truly moving as Italian-Jewish Madame Rosa, a former prostitute, whose tiny flat in the port of Bari is full of children, including cynical Senegalese orphan, Momo, played by gifted newcomer Ibrahima Gueye. Blazingly alive, even when catatonic, Rosa might be dismissed as a mother courage. In Loren’s wiry hands, she is something much more disturbing: a lank-haired lady Lazarus, with venom to spare.
I can’t remember the last time I saw such a beautiful hand-made animation as this sweet fantasy on Apple TV+, about a hunter’s daughter in 17th century Ireland who meets a strange girl living with wolves in the woods. Religious intolerance, the oppression of women and the relationship between fathers and daughters are all touched on but ultimately it’s just a lovely story of bravery and open-heartedness.
Luxor is reminiscent of other deliberately excruciating movies in which uptight, middle-class singletons lose the plot (see Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann). The end result though, is closer in spirit to Eric Rohmer’s gentle classic The Green Ray. The new thing that London-born Arab director Zeina Durra brings to the table is a fresh perspective on how sexual and racial politics can rebalance a relationship.
Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player
Is This Coercive Control?
This documentary, on iPlayer, is BBC Three at its best: a group of 18 to 25-year-olds watch a specially created film about a fictional couple’s relationship and discuss whether what they see constitutes coercive control, which became illegal in 2015. Presented by journalist Ellie Flynn, surely the big-hooped successor to Stacey Dooley, it quickly becomes depressingly clear how little understood the issue remains.
We loved this ultra-low budget New Zealand production (available on Amazon, GooglePlay and AppleTV) that pairs a hapless stoner who can see ghosts with a recently deceased cop to solve an increasingly ridiculous murder mystery. Adorable nonsense.
Amazon Prime Video, GooglePlay and Apple TV+
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb
Join the all-Egyptian team of specialists excavating one of the country’s most important burial sites as they close in on the mysterious incumbent of a stunningly ornate tomb in this Netflix doc. Will the bodies still be there? How did the family die? And who was the man whose name is all over the walls? Fascinating, funny, beautifully made and rather moving.
The Forty Year-old Version
The debut film from multi-hyphenate Radha Blank should be getting way more love. Shot on 35mm black and white film, Blank stars as a talented playwright who finds that she is only accepted by the white theatre establishment if she lets them co-opt her creations. In a burst of frustration, she becomes a rapper instead. Written, directed and produced by Blank, it heralds the arrival of an unmissable new voice.
This fresh twist on the classic haunted house tale from first-time director Natalie Erika James is a masterclass in building tension. Emily Mortimer stars as a woman dragged back to her family home when her elderly mother goes missing. Are the notes she has left around the house further proof of her decline into dementia or evidence of something more sinister? There’s jump scares aplenty, but it’s James’ exploration of ageing and loss that will really stick with you.
What the Constitution Means to Me
You’ll soon get over any reservations about watching theatre on a screen (why is everyone shouting so loudly?) when you watch this superbly captured recording of Heidi Schreck’s recent Broadway hit. In 100 minutes, she explores how she fell out of love with the American constitution, in a way that is gripping, personal and audacious. You’ll wish you were in the room.
The Painter and the Thief
When Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova had two of her most important paintings stolen from an Oslo Gallery, she had a surprising reaction: she tracked one of the thieves down and made friends with him. This often jaw-dropping documentary from director Benjamin Lee is full of fascinating tensions borne from her decision to choose empathy over anger.
Mogul Mowgli is one of the funniest, darkest and smartest movies of the year, which is great news for anyone who loves Riz Ahmed. Whether you’re into his music (he’s a fab rapper in real life), or his acting, this film feels like a summation, as well as a canny dismantling, of everything that’s gone before.
Elisabeth Moss is scary, absurd and utterly magnificent in this alt-biopic about the American horror writer Shirley Jackson, which also boasts brilliant supporting performances from Michael Stuhlbarg (as her philandering husband Stanley) and Odessa Young (as Rose, a pregnant newly-wed who moves into the couple’s home and starts to fascinate Jackson).
Curzon Home Cinema
Summer of 85
Francois Ozon’s sun-drenched adaptation of Aidan Chambers’ 1982 novel Dance on My Grave is, the director says, the film he wished he could have seen when he was 17. The story of two teenage boys and their intense summer fling wobbles occasionally as it treads the line between tragedy and hope but Ozon captures the fierceness and cruel imbalance of young love perfectly, and the two central performances are flawless.
Curzon Home Cinema
Over the Moon
The script of this co-production between Sony Pictures and China’s Pear Studio starts out a little flat (it’s no Pixar) but things pick up when our grieving heroine, young Feifei, builds and launches a rocket to visit the moon goddess, who is basically an intergalactic pop lunatic. The songs get better too. It’s also a bit of a love letter to Chinese food, which is right up our street.
The Grand Party Hotel
This endearing documentary transports you to a simpler time, when your biggest woe was sacrificing endless weekends to bumper-sized hen and stag dos. Available to stream on iPlayer, it takes you inside the Shankly Hotel in Liverpool, a brilliant Scouse institution boasting 24-person rooms decked out in jaw-dropping fashion - one looks like the set of Jungle Run, another has a plunge pool running down the middle. It’s absolute carnage, but the lovely staff and heartwarming guest stories make it perfect comfort viewing.