We may well be on what feels like day 5,403 of the pandemic, 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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The Return: Life After Isis
Spanish director Alba Sotorra Clua’s powerful film about the women who travelled to Syria to join Isis and now find themselves stateless after the collapse of the caliphate, disowned by their home nations, is eye-opening viewing. Filmed at the Kurdish-run Al Roj refugee camp, it features testimony from Shamima Begum, who left her home in Hackney aged 15 after being radicalised, and is available to stream on Now.
Kevin Hart’s new Netflix comedy drama is a surprisingly understated (and curse-free) tale of a comfortable, middle class man who must raise his daughter as a single dad (to the disapproval of both grandmothers) after his wife dies unexpectedly. It’s not gritty and you’re never quite convinced that the conflict could be anything but fleeting in such an evidently loving family but Hart is a winning presence and looks convincingly knackered.
The Reason I Jump
Riveting documentary about a group of non-verbal autistic teens who have found their own ways to communicate with us unimaginative neurotypicals. Anchored by the story of Naoki Higashida, whose book about his life written aged 13 using an alphabet grid became a huge if controversial bestseller, it’s an extraordinary insight into different kinds of minds that will make you want to jump - for joy.
In the Earth
Last August, Ben Wheatley decided to make a low-budget pandemic horror film in just 15 days, exploring the paranoia of a virus-ravaged nation. The result is a hypnotising but not for the faint-hearted combo of the Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man, with a standout performance from Reece Shearsmith as a potty, shaman-like figure who makes anti-vaxxers seem like kittens.
The latest series from the MCU on Disney+ focuses on everyone’s favourite god of mischief, who somehow has created a variant of himself while messing about with time - and the Time Variance Authority is not happy. Tom Hiddleston is back as the deeply annoying deity, who finds himself on the back foot with Owen Wilson’s amiable agent Morbius. New episodes every Wednesday.
Lupin Part 2
Netflix’s modern spin on Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin adventures proved to be an unexpected hit when it landed on the streamer back in the dark days of January. Now, Omar Sy’s gentleman thief Assane Diop is back for more glossy, high-octane adventures, embarking on a rescue mission after his young son was kidnapped in the series finale.
Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt)
This sweet, off-key queer Australian rom-com twists two lovely relationships around each other - that of contemporary lesbian teens Ellie and Abbie, and that between the generations of queer women that includes Ellie’s deceased aunt Tara - just because you’re gay, doesn’t mean you’re down with the kids. Adorable, and in selected cinemas.
This black comedy from 26-year-old debut filmmaker Emma Seligman earned rave reviews (and plenty of Twitter buzz) when it premiered in the US earlier this year. A symphony of excruciating awkwardness, it’s set at a Jewish funeral, charting the fallout as Danielle (Rachel Sennott) realises her sugar daddy, her ex-girlfriend and her wealthy parents are all in the same room.
Robin Wright makes her solid, if somewhat conventional feature-directing debut in this tale of a city-dwelling woman (also played by Wright) whose grief after a major loss ricochets her into the American wilderness (I did say it was conventional). It’s not a patch on, say, Wild or Nomadland, but it’s a decent, admirably pared-down piece of filmmaking.
Jimmy McGovern’s new drama is a gruelling, gripping exploration of life in a British prison. Sean Bean stars as a newly incarcerated teacher consumed by guilt, with Stephen Graham joining him as a principled prison officer forced to make a tough decision when his family is in jeopardy.
BBC One, Sundays at 9pm; all episodes available to stream on iPlayer
Starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis, this surprising true story couldn’t be more feelgood if it tried. 20 years ago, Jan Vokes decided she needed a bit of excitement and joy in her life and, improbably, persuaded a bunch of friends in her Welsh former mining village to buy… a racehorse. With no experience. What happened next will twang your heartstrings.
The third installment of National Geographic’s Genius series focuses on its first woman - Aretha Franklin, and has just landed on Disney+. Starring the British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo, the eight-parter follows Franklin’s trajectory from talented girl to one of the greatest soul singers of all time. Worth watching for Erivo’s knockout vocals alone.
Ahead of the Curve
This accomplished doc, in cinemas and on demand, tells the story of the bestselling lesbian magazine, Curve, and its founder Franco Stevens, who started it with a credit card wedge swelled by a lucky streak at the race track. It’s fascinating, and tackles the question of what the publication can be to a new generation that finds labels restrictive (and doesn’t read magazines).
In cinemas and on demand
Isabelle Huppert is an ailing actress with just a few months to live who decides to spend her last holiday with her large family in Portugal in this French-American film, also starring Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear. Just because you’re ill though, doesn’t mean families aren’t tricky. A slightly sticky script is elevated by the superb cast.
Two of Us
Director/co-writer Filippo Meneghetti’s French-language feature debut is a gorgeous, richly layered story of two older female neighbours who have been secretly a committed couple for decades, unbeknownst to their families. When one of them is taken ill, her daughter begins to become aware of a side to her mother she was unaware existed. A visceral, beautiful portrait of what love means.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In
In May 2018, Sir Alex Ferguson — arguably the best football manager the world’s ever seen — suffered a brain haemorrhage. It almost killed him, and though he fortunately survived, he was left with the knowledge that it could also have robbed him of his memory. This intimate documentary explores how all those life experiences, from a working class upbringing to the pinnacle of sport as Manchester United manager, made him into the man he is today.
Amazon Prime Video
I Used to Be Normal
This documentary is a love letter to boyband fangirls, going beyond the stereotypes of screaming concertgoers to tell the stories of four superfans, from a 60-something Beatles aficionado to a teenage Directioner. Director Jessica Leski takes her subjects’ stories seriously and the result is a film that’s thoughtful, deeply compassionate and unexpectedly moving.
Earwig and the Witch
There have been absolute howls of protest about this new Studio Ghibli production by Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao), which departs from the studio’s celebrated traditional illustration style as its first CG anime. If you can get over that, it’s a sweet story of a brave orphan who shows a mean witch who’s boss with the help of a talking cat. It’s not a classic, but come on.
With a great cast and scenic shots of Monmouthshire, this enjoyably far-fetched BBC thriller feels like Wales’ answer to Big Little Lies. After an attempt to teach their creepy, cokey boss (Aneurin Barnard) a lesson goes horribly wrong, four colleagues (led by Laura Fraser’s Anna) must cover their tracks. His death seems like an accident - but is it? All six episodes are available to race through on iPlayer if you’re desperate to find out.
Army of the Dead
Zack Snyder’s new splatter-fest for Netflix is probably his most fun movie, combining the hackneyed genres of the zombie takeover and the team heist and freshening them up by sticking a wall around them and trapping them in Las Vegas. Dave Bautista is an amiable grizzled lead to an enjoyably rag-tag band of safe-crackers.
Katherine Kelly stars as a teacher rebuilding her life after serving a stint in prison for a crime she didn’t commit - the murder of her 16-year-old pupil. Returning to her photogenic home town in the Lake District, she’s determined to clear her name in this four part drama from Unforgotten writer Chris Lang, now streaming on the ITV Hub.
We Are Lady Parts
Spotlight-phobic PhD student Amina (Anjana Vasan) inadvertently becomes the lead guitarist in an all-female Muslim punk band in this giddy Channel 4 comedy from writer-director Nida Manzoor, available to stream as a boxset on All4. Expect brilliant characters and shouty earworm original songs with titles like ‘Voldemort Under My Headscarf.’
Sound of Metal
Definitely one to see with surround sound, this brilliant drama, starring a mesmerising Riz Ahmed as an ex-junkie drummer who suddenly loses his hearing, is getting its cinema release. Olivia Cooke as his girlfriend and Paul Raci as the cultish leader of a retreat for D/deaf addicts are both excellent too, and the sound design is extraordinary.
In cinemas and Amazon Prime Video
The Underground Railroad
With this staggering, sprawling adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel, Barry Jenkins proves he’s one of the most gifted filmmakers working right now. Available from May 14 on Amazon, the 10-part series follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) as they escape from slavery on a fantastical secret railway network. Unmissable viewing.
Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power
This powerful documentary from Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock, available to stream on BBC iPlayer, sees the singer speak frankly about being the only black member of one of the world’s biggest girl groups. In the hour-long film, she shares her experiences with fellow black British pop stars including Keisha Buchanan and Alexandra Burke, and asks herself (and fiancé Andre Gray) difficult questions about colourism.
This BBC factual drama tells the story of the events that led to the Al-Sweady inquiry — a public investigation into alleged war crimes in Iraq — and the two men at the heart of it all: British soldier Brian Wood, who was awarded the Military Cross for his role in the Battle of Danny Boy, and lawyer Phil Shiner, the lawyer who wrongly accused Wood and his men of murder and torture. It’s a bleak retelling, covering mental health, morality and more, and raises some difficult questions.
A hot-button issue is given thoughtful treatment in this tale of a loving but feckless dad and his transgender son who take an ill-advised road trip, to the fury of the child’s exasperated mother, who can’t quite grasp what is happening to her little girl. Lovely performances highlight not just how hard this can be, but also the frustration of always having to be the responsible parent.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s melancholic film, much-lauded in festivals and now on Netflix, follows the journey of Sharad, an Indian classical musician in single-minded pursuit of perfection in his art - except that the modern world keeps encroaching on his ascetic endeavours. Is excellence enough in itself, it asks - or is life about more than that?
Our favourite gang of chaotic mums (plus token dad Kevin and their terrifyingly alpha frenemy Amanda) are back at the school gates for round three, which kicks off on BBC Two on Monday at 9pm. This time, they’ll be grappling with a nit epidemic and trying to suss out secondary catchment areas, with Joanna Lumley set to cameo as Amanda’s mum (it makes perfect sense).
The Pursuit of Love
The all-star cast of this gorgeous Nancy Mitford adaptation have never been better: Lily James, Andrew Scott, Emily Beecham and Dominic West are all utterly brilliant in it. The three-parter is full of swooning, sobbing, big houses and envy-inducing dresses: the perfect escapism.
Truman and Tennessee
Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s latest portrait of 20th century creative icons, now on demand, focuses on friends and rivals Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, telling their stories in their own words through archive footage (including both their interviews with David Frost).
In virtual cinemas and on demand
The Mitchells vs the Machines
This highly enjoyable new Netflix animation follows the self-confessedly “weird” Mitchell family on a bad-tempered road trip that gets even more tense when they find that the machines have taken over. Can they stop bickering for long enough to save the world? Genuinely, a hoot.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race Down Under
We’ve been in a state of mourning ever since the superlative second series of Drag Race UK came to a sparkling conclusion last month, so the news that the brand new Aussie version of this reality behemoth is landing on BBC iPlayer from May 1 couldn’t be more welcome. Prepare to become obsessed with a brand new cohort of queens hailing from Australia and New Zealand - plus, Kylie’s booked a guest judge slot.
Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Rose Matafeo’s first show, which arrives in full on BBC iPlayer on Sunday night, is an early contender for the comedy of the year. She plays Jessie, a twenty-something Londoner working two jobs who sleeps with a film star (played by Nikesh Patel) without realising that he’s famous. It’s fresh, smart and funny, and will delight rom-com fans everywhere.
Mare of Easttown
It’s been 10 years since Kate Winslet graced the small screen in HBO’s Mildred Pierce miniseries - thank god she’s back with another brilliant performance. The actress is mesmerising in Mare of Easttown, playing a world weary detective tasked with solving a murder case that has shocked her tight knit community. New episodes arrive on Sky Atlantic on Monday nights at 9pm; you can catch up with Now or Sky Go.
Ding dong! The BBC’s beautification competition is back for a third series, now streaming on iPlayer. This time, Maya Jama replaces Stacey Dooley on presenting duties, with a new squad of 10 aspiring make-up maestros hoping to impress judges Val Garland and Dominic Skinner - and win a prestigious assistant’s contract at the end.
Sisters With Transistors
Shining a long overdue spotlight on some of electronic music’s overlooked women pioneers, this film is a must-watch for anyone who thinks the genre and its history is purely a blokey domain. Paying tribute to the likes of Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and Pauline Oliveros, it tells an entrancing story of liberation, courage and artistic genius.
In virtual cinemas now
My Love: Six Stories of True Love
Prepare to sob at this Netflix documentary, in which six elderly couples from all around the world open up about how their romances have stood the test of time (each pair has been together for at least 40 years). Every episode follows a different partnership over the course of one year, as they open up about ageing and keeping the flame alive.
This Is My House
Stacey Dooley leads this deranged property guessing game, available on iPlayer and a mishmash of Would I Lie To You and Through The Keyhole. Four contestants take us round a fancy property, but only one of them is the real homeowner. After watching them complete a series of bizarre tasks, the celebrity judges must guess which one is actually paying the mortgage. It shouldn’t work, but it’s hilarious.
Why Are You Like This
This acerbic new comedy about three Australian Gen Z-ers is all about identity politics, allyship and hook-ups and is full of meme-ready lines. Plus, the short 20-minute episodes are great for pandemic-fried attention spans. Watch it before someone younger than you tells you to.
Why Did You Kill Me
The MySpace comeback nobody was expecting: this new true crime documentary on Netflix explores how one mum tracked down on her daughter’s killer on the retro social media platform.
Amazon Prime’s new horror series, launching on April 9, is brilliantly chilling in more ways than one, following the travails of a black family moving into an exclusively white neighbourhood in 1950s California. It’s hard to choose which of their antagonists is scarier - the supernatural or their horrible racist neighbours.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me
Hot off the heels of several major award wins and a ton of nominations (including six for the Oscars) for her drama Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s debut feature is now available to stream on Mubi. Truthfully depicting the lives of young Native Americans living on a reservation, it’s a graceful introduction to her empathetic filmmaking.
We Children From Bahnhof Zoo
Amazon Prime has snapped up this modern update of the memoirs of cult German figure Christiane F., which shocked the country upon their 1978 release because of descriptions of her teenage heroin abuse. Set in the underground clubs of Berlin, it’s a coming-of-age story with darkness at its heart.
This Is A Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
In March 1990, two men dressed as police officers ransacked the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston and made off with $500 million worth of art, including works by Vermeer and Rembrandt. To this day, the case has never been solved. Netflix’s gripping four-part docuseries delves into this cold case, which remains the biggest art heist in US history.
Godzilla v Kong
Either this is your bag or it’s not, but as recent ‘Zilla/Kong features go this one is actually pretty good - unpretentious nonsense with a plot that cheerfully provides a reason for two exquisitely lavish CGI monsters to bash seven shades of s*** out of each other. Great fun.
Amazon Prime Video, Sky Store, iTunes
The World to Come
You won’t be able to take your eyes off Vanessa Kirby in this yearning tale of two 19th century frontier women (she plays opposite a wonderful Katherine Waterston) who find comfort from their difficult marriages in each other’s arms. An exquisite expression of inner lives being gratefully, if furtively, spilled into the open.
Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play
The Irish actress (and Beckett supremo) Lisa Dwan’s new one-woman play, written for her by the writer Colm Toibin, is now on iPlayer. Based on the myth of tragic (obviously) heroine Antigone and taken from the point of view of Antigone’s surviving, sensible sister Ismene, it asks, what in the end does it cost us when we don’t stand up and say, “enough”?
This engaging, often moving three-part documentary series charts the ups, downs and emotional complexities of the surrogacy process, from connecting with an ‘intended parent’ (often at a speed dating-style event or on an app) to giving birth - and letting go of a newborn. It follows five women who’ve decided to help couples - and in one case, a single father - become parents.
Kate Garraway: Finding Derek
Good Morning Britain presenter Kate Garraway’s husband Derek Draper was hospitalised with Covid-19 last March, where he still remains bed-bound. In this documentary, on ITV Hub, she offers a candid and courageous insight into a hellish twelve months for her family, and the difficult, uncertain future for those afflicted with long Covid.
Directed, produced, shot and edited by Elizabeth Lo, this curious but beautiful debut feature documentary, available on demand, takes the dog’s eye view of the life of Istanbul’s stray canines. As its non-speaking stars navigate the city - playing, scavenging, sleeping - it reveals much about human inequalities and fragilities. Don’t miss the eerie and oddly moving final scene, in which stray fighting dog Zeytin is moved to join in with the call to prayer.
This tremendous documentary covers both the dark and the dazzling light of Tina Turner’s life, from the abuse she suffered at the hands of Ike Turner and how she managed to break free of it, to her world-conquering success in the Eighties. It’s a harrowing watch, but we’re also given plenty of time to admire Turner as both a social trailblazer and a mesmerising performer.
The Flight Attendant
This glossy, surprisingly funny thriller aired to critical acclaim in the US last winter and is finally winging its way to this side of the Atlantic. Kaley Cuoco plays Cassie, a flight attendant who hits it off with a charming passenger on a flight to Thailand - then wakes up next to his dead body the following morning, with precisely zero recollection of what happened that night. You can decide whether to tune in weekly or blaze through all eight episodes in one sitting.
Line of Duty
Jesus, Mary and Joseph - AC-12 are finally back after a pandemic-induced delay. This time around, Steve, Kate and Ted are focusing their investigative efforts on DCI Joanne Davidson, played by guest star Kelly Macdonald, the senior officer on an unsolved murder case. Will she turn out to be another bent copper? And who the heck is H, the high-ranking officer at the heart of a spider web of organised crime and police corruption?
Operation Varsity Blues
Netflix’s latest foray into the murky world of true crime uses a mix of straightforward interviews and dramatic reconstructions - based on actual conversations obtained from FBI wiretaps - to explore the US college admissions scandal. The focus is on Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the operation, which saw wealthy parents (including some celebrities) hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their kids into an elite school through what Singer called ‘the side door.’ It’s an enlightening insight into privilege and power.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
After WandaVision became one of this year’s most talked-about TV series so far, the latest Marvel show has now landed on Disney+. This time, it’s Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)’s turn in the spotlight. The series picks up after the finale of Avengers: Endgame, which saw Captain America pass on his shield and title to Wilson; it seems to promise a more straight-forward adventure than the sit-com-parodying WandaVision, with our heroes facing off against a shadowy group called the Flag Smashers.
Your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman Tom Holland finally gets to reveal his actually rather excellent acting chops in this Russo brothers-directed tale, now on demand, of an aimless lad whose hellish experiences in Iraq as a military medic send him into a spiral of addiction and crime, based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel.
Ivo van Aart and Daan Windorst’s Dutch-language comedy-horror, now available on demand, is both hilarious and painfully relatable (up to a point) for anyone who has ever been trolled online. Femke Boot is a writer who finds herself the target of torrents of abuse after one of her columns is published. The mixture of shock and secret wistfulness that any victim of even mild trolling will feel at the brutal way she handles it is a guilty joy.
Google Play, Amazon Prime Video
Waffles + Mochi
In Michelle Obama’s cookie-cute new Netflix series for kids the former First Lady stars alongside a couple of cheery, globe-trotting puppets to discover the joys of fresh (not frozen, oh no) food. If you’re hoping to get your little ones to eat something other than, well, waffles and cheesy pasta, this might be the answer. And if the show has you hungry for more delicious food-based content, check out or guide to best of it on Netflix.
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.
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.
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 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.