Daylight is in short supply, the weather’s grim and the lockdown blues are kicking in - 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…
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.
Channel 4, Friday at 9pm; All4
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.
BBC Two, Friday at 9pm; BBC iPlayer
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.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
This unusual documentary about a disillusioned comedy writer who stumbles on the forgotten world of industrial musicals has just arrived on Netflix, and it’s a real balm. It’s a peek behind the curtain at a very different time, when American sales conferences opened with song and dance numbers with lyrics like 'come on and spread the word to every sales creator, get the news on each new refrigerator.' Quirky and charming.
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, Sunday at 9pm
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.
Amazon Prime Video
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.
BBC One and BBC iPlayer
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.
Closed after one preview of its first ever panto, the National Theatre has hitched up its bloomers and put it online (oh yes it has, etc). Updated for 2021 by director Jude Christian and improv queen Cariad Lloyd, the classic London tale is available to stream worldwide on ntathome.com from Monday January 11 for six weeks.
The Masked Singer
The most unhinged light entertainment format to grace ITV’s Saturday night schedule is back for round two and better than ever, with a new cohort of singing celebrities disguised in bonkers costumes. It’s up to the panel of famous faces, including new judge Mo Gilligan, and viewers at home, to piece together the clues to work out who is lurking behind the disguise (singing sausage, anyone?). The first two episodes have unmasked Sophie Ellis Bextor and actual Spice Girl Mel B, so all bets are off as to who else signed up in a fit of lockdown madness.
ITV, Saturdays at 7pm
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.
Amazon Prime Video
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.
Amazon Prime Video
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 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 Erd-mann). 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, 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.
Amazon Prime Video
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.
Amazon Prime Video
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.