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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Ten Films and TV Shows You Need to Stream This Month

Get stuck into an outback-set Aussie vampire series, a haunting new drama about life after a pandemic and an Olivia Colman-led true-crime gem.
By Sarah Ward
December 29, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 29, 2021
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Not all that long ago, the idea of getting cosy on your couch, clicking a few buttons, and having thousands of films and television shows at your fingertips seemed like something out of science fiction. Now, it's just an ordinary night — whether you're virtually gathering the gang to text along, cuddling up to your significant other or shutting the world out for some much needed me-time.

Of course, given the wealth of options to choose from, there's nothing ordinary about making a date with your chosen streaming platform. The question isn't "should I watch something?" — it's "what on earth should I choose?".

Hundreds of titles are added to Australia's online viewing services each and every month, all vying for a spot on your must-see list. And, so you don't spend 45 minutes scrolling and then being too tired to actually commit to watching anything, we're here to help. We've spent plenty of couch time watching our way through this months latest batch — and, from the latest and greatest to old favourites, here are our picks for your streaming queue from December's haul of newbies.

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BRAND NEW STUFF YOU CAN WATCH IN FULL RIGHT NOW

LANDSCAPERS

In 2013, in an ordinary backyard in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, UK police excavated the bodies of Patricia and William Wycherley. The elderly couple was last seen 15 years prior, with their librarian daughter Susan Edwards and her accountant husband Chris telling neighbours that the Wycherleys had moved — before Susan and Chris fled their own bills and chased their own love of Gallic cinema to France, that is. In 2014, the younger duo were convicted of the Wycherleys murders, despite willingly returning to England to face questioning and offering their own version of events in the process. To the police, the crime was a premeditated act motivated by money. In their tale, Susan and Chris spoke of multiple layers of abuse, of a heated night that ended badly, and of poor decisions inspired by a lifetime of fear.

With Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) playing Susan and David Thewlis (I'm Thinking of Ending Things) as Chris, Landscapers unfurls the Edwards-Wycherley saga, digging into the story's details across a four-part true-crime miniseries. But as its irreverent name makes plain, this isn't the usual dive into real-life crime — and not just because its two leads turn in phenomenal performances that rank among their very best. As he's done in both TV series Flowers and recent feature The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, filmmaker Will Sharpe brings his whimsical style to this experimental retelling. On paper, such a tone and the visual flourishes that come with it might seem ill-suited to the material, but it's all a part of the show's interrogation of how its central pair — and everyone in general — navigate life by spinning their own version of reality. It's an inspired touch, and makes Landscapers one of the most distinctive and engrossing additions yet to a ridiculously busy, ever-popular genre.

Landscapers is available to stream via Stan.

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ENCOUNTER

Excellent casting can't save all films. Ambitious directors can't, either. But with Encounter, it's easy to see how the sci-fi thriller would've turned out if anyone other than Riz Ahmed was leading the show — and if a filmmaker other than Michael Pearce was at the helm. Across the last three years and his past three movies, Ahmed has turned in a trio of stunning performances that lay bare struggling men battling to reclaim a sense of normality. Indeed, arriving after Mogul Mowgli and Sound of Metal, Encounter couldn't be better placed on his resume. As for Pearce, he jumps into this slippery story of a father, a road trip and a possible alien parasite invasion after making a tremendous feature debut with 2017's Beast, and serves up the same commitment to telling thorny tales without needing to explain away everything.

When Ahmed's ex-soldier Malik Khan kills a wasp in his motel room with intense determination, it's clear that he's unusually passionate about eradicating insects — and, believing that a meteorite crashed into earth not so long ago, brought extraterrestrial invaders with it, but hardly anyone else noticed, he has good reason for his entomophobia. His mission: to rescue his two young sons (Heartland's Lucian-River Chauhan and first-timer Aditya Geddada) from the bug-sized aliens, even if it means whisking them away from his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar, The Morning Show) in the middle of the night. Co-written with Joe Barton (Girl/Haji), Pearce's film isn't quite the mystery he thinks it is, but it doesn't need to be to relay its weighty character study. Whenever Ahmed is on-screen, which is often, this is a tense and moving examination of trauma, stress and endeavouring to cope with chaos both everyday and extraordinary.

Encounter is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS

Here's a great way to know whether a new TV comedy is worth watching: check whether Mindy Kaling is involved. After stealing every scene she could in The Office, then turning The Mindy Project into a smart, funny and adorable rom-com sitcom made with oh-so-much love for the genre, she just keeps adding new shows to her resume as a co-creator, writer and producer. The Sex Lives of College Girls is the latest, and quickly thrives thanks to the kind of savvy, authentic, honest and highly amusing writing that's always been a hallmark of Kaling's work. If you didn't know she was behind it going in, you'd easily guess. It also sports an immensely descriptive title, following four college freshmen — strangers to each other, but now roommates — as they navigate the move from high school to the fictional Essex College in Vermont.

Because three movies currently in cinemas starring a member of Chalamet family just isn't enough (aka Dune, The French Dispatch and Don't Look Up), The Sex Lives of College Girls features his Timothée's sister Pauline (The King of Staten Island). She plays Kimberly Finkle, who heads to Essex as valedictorian of her small-town school, is more excited about the classes than the parties, but still wants to have the full college experience. And, she's thrilled to find herself rooming with aspiring comedy writer Bela Malhotra (Amrit Kaur, The D Cut), star soccer player Whitney Chase (first-timer Alyah Chanelle Scott) and the wealthy Leighton Murray (theatre star Reneé Rapp) — even if the latter in particular doesn't initially return the enthusiasm. The quartet's exploits from there navigate all the usual kinds of relatable college antics, but do so with a warm-hearted vibe, a great cast, insightful humour, and a shrewd focus on friendships and figuring out who you want to be.

The first season of The Sex Lives of College Girls is available to stream via Binge.

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SWAN SONG

It took Mahershala Ali a mere two years to back up his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar with a second one, initially winning for the sublime Moonlight before again earning the nod for being the best thing about Green Book. He won't add a third Academy Award to his mantle for Swan Song, but he gives it two tries — playing a terminally ill illustrator who doesn't want to put his family through the pain of losing him, and also playing the clone his character has secretly had made to replace him without his loved ones ever knowing he was even sick. That's the futuristic sci-fi premise behind this poignant drama, which tussles with life, love, loss and two inescapable realisations. This isn't just a movie about facing your own mortality, but about confronting the fact that everything that's important to you — everyone that's important, to be specific — will still continue on after you say goodbye.

Not to be confused with the Udo Kier-starring film of the exact same name that's just reached cinemas, Swan Song ruminates on Cameron Turner's (Ali, Alita: Battle Angel) moral quandary after enlisting Dr Scott (Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy) to replicate him before he succumbs to his illness. Even after seeing how fellow patient Kate (Awkwafina, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and her clone fare, it's a decision that weighs heavily on his mind — especially given his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) is expecting their second child. So much of Swan Song's power stems from Ali's ability to wade through such a difficult choice, and to convey its emotional ramifications often without saying a word. In this thoughtful directorial debut by writer/director Benjamin Cleary, Ali also unpacks the flipside as Jack, who'll replace Cameron, and sees the possibilities his existence brings with literally fresh eyes.

Swan Song is available to stream via Apple TV+.

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THE NORTH WATER

When ex-army surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O'Connell, Seberg) secures a gig on a whaling expedition to the Arctic working as the ship's doctor, he's clearly running from something. His new colleagues are instantly suspicious of his story, bloodthirsty harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell, Voyagers) among them — although Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) and whaling company owner Baxter (Tom Courtenay, Summerland) are mostly just happy for his cheap services. That's the setup for The North Water, the 19th-century-set, five-part miniseries that takes to the seas, to the cold and to a brutal world, and proves grimly mesmerising with its Moby Dick-meets-Heart of Darkness vibes. Charting a survivalist tale not just of the physical kind amid all that unforgiving ice (and on those treacherous waters), but also of the emotional and mental variety as well, this is one of the most relentlessly intense shows to hit screens in 2021 — and it's also gripping from start to finish.

The first episode sets the scene in a slow-burn fashion, culminating in sights so searing they're impossible to forget — and the story, as well as the vast chasm between Sumner and Drax, only grows from there. Writer/director Andrew Haigh adapts Ian McGuire's novel of the same name, but this series has the Weekend, 45 Years and Lean on Pete filmmaker's stamp all over it. He finds as much empathy here as he has throughout his stellar big-screen projects, and once again demonstrates his extraordinary eye for detail, exceptional sense of place and winning way with actors. With the latter, having O'Connell and Farrell lead the charge obviously helps. They're not only reliably phenomenal; they each put in some of their best-ever work, and their performances seethe with complexity. So does the entire miniseries, which is never willing to pose easy answers or provide straightforward interpretations when ruminating over the minutiae is much more riveting, fascinating and realistic.

The North Water is available to stream via Binge.

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MACGRUBER

They can't all be The Blues Brothers or Wayne's World — films based on Saturday Night Live sketches, that is. Eagerly silly, as you'd expect of any MacGyver send-up, 2010's MacGruber definitely doesn't belong in the same category as the two best SNL-to-cinema flicks. That hasn't stopped an action-parody TV series hitting streaming 11 years later, however. And, with Will Forte once again donning a Richard Dean Anderson-style mullet and wearing plenty of flannelette, this MacGruber revival is the satire's finest moment yet. You could easily think that it only exists because Forte had a gap in his schedule, or because even television skits-turned-movies never die, and both are likely true. Still, when it comes to making fun of all the action cliches that'll never leave screens either big or small, this series knows its unashamedly ridiculous niche.

The setup: after spending a decade in prison, the eponymous hero is given a reprieve by his pal General Barrett Fasoose (Laurence Fishburne, The Ice Road) when the president's daughter is kidnapped. He's part of the ransom demand, but his long-term foe Brigadier Commander Enos Queeth (Billy Zane, The Boys) also has other plans. Cue a cavalcade of amusingly over-the-top gags about action-flick machismo and every other trope the genre keeps throwing at viewers, all with Forte and his co-stars as committed as ever to the concept, tone and non-stop jokes. If it wasn't so self-aware — and if both Forte and Kristen Wiig (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) weren't so pitch-perfect in their parts — it might just be stupid rather than stupidly funny. Thankfully, MacGruber knows what it is, knows how to do it well, and knows the difference between being dumb and serving up gleefully dumb fun.

The first season of MacGruber is available to stream via Stan.

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NEW SHOWS TO CHECK OUT WEEK BY WEEK

STATION ELEVEN

Add Station Eleven to the pile of post-pandemic movies and shows that ponder that very subject — a topic that'll continue to grace our screens for years and decades to come. It's unfair to clump this haunting end-of-the-world miniseries into the same group as opportunistic flicks such as Locked Down, though. Instead, like Y: The Last Man, it predates COVID-19, arrives after garnering a devoted following on the page, and taps into something far deeper than obvious observations about being stuck at home with your significant other and having to scramble to buy toilet paper. The focus of this excellent show, and of Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 book before it, is how art and community all play immeasurable parts in helping humanity process and navigate existence-shattering traumas — and to find a path out the other side. That's a sentiment that might sound mawkish and self-evident when described in a mere sentence, but nothing about Station Eleven ever earns such terms.

It all starts with a flu that swiftly proves more than just the usual sniffles, coughs, aches and pains. For eight-year-old Shakespearean actor Kirsten (Matilda Lawler, Evil), the chaos descends during a tumultuous opening-night performance of King Lear led by Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal, Old), the aftermath of which sees her traipsing around snowy Chicago with Jeevan (Himesh Patel, Don't Look Up), who she has just met. That's really just the beginning of this multi-layered narrative, which also jumps forward 20 years to experience Kirsten's (Mackenzie Davis, Happiest Season) life with a travelling theatre troupe as the planet adjusts to its new normality — and keeps fluttering backwards into her younger exploits, and into the experiences of others connected to her story in various ways. This is a dystopian disaster tale not just about merely surviving, but about truly enduring, and it's a lyrical, heartfelt and character-driven apocalyptic musing with an immediate difference.

The first five episodes of Station Eleven are available to stream via Stan, with new episodes dropping weekly.

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FIREBITE

Trust Warwick Thornton to rove his eyes across Australia's sunburnt landscape, imagine vampires prowling the outback and cast those predators within a narrative that hails back to the First Fleet's arrival. The Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country filmmaker co-created new Aussie fantasy-horror series Firebite with Mad Bastards' director Brendan Fletcher, so the credit isn't his alone; however, given that he's spent his career exploring the nation's treatment of Indigenous Australians, it slips easily into his filmography. His third TV project in short succession following the second season of Mystery Road and stunning docoseries The Beach, Firebite also carves out a place for Indigenous tales within the undead genre. Indeed, seeing the colonisation of Australia as the act of ruthless bloodsuckers is an idea so smart and shrewd that this new streaming delight deserves to span on for several seasons.

Making glorious use of Coober Pedy's dusty expanse — and its underground dugouts, which help locals escape the heat — Firebite follows two black vampire hunters, aka bloodhunters. Tyson (Rob Collins, The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson) doesn't really like the label, but he's determined to keep his hometown of Opal City free of vampires, and he's teaching his teenage daughter Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Total Control) the trade. But then The King (Callan Mulvey, High Ground) arrives, and more bloodsuckers follow. As a century of vampire fare dictates, this doesn't bode well for humans. Thornton and Fletcher — and fellow director Tony Krawitz (Secret City) — never merely follow in anyone else's footsteps, though. In fact, they don't just sink their teeth into a familiar concept, but tear into it to tell their own standout tale, and do so with a devil-may-care attitude that drips through Firebite's style, story and performances.

The first two episodes of Firebite are available to stream via AMC+, with new episodes dropping weekly.

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EXCELLENT RECENT BIG-SCREEN RELEASES TO CATCH UP WITH IMMEDIATELY

THE POWER OF THE DOG

Don't call it a comeback: Jane Campion's films have been absent from cinemas for 12 years but, due to miniseries Top of the Lake, she hasn't been biding her time in that gap. And don't call it simply returning to familiar territory, even if the New Zealand director's new movie features an ivory-tinkling woman caught between cruel and sensitive men, as her Cannes Palme d'Or-winner The Piano did three decades ago. Campion isn't rallying after a dip, just as she isn't repeating herself. She's never helmed anything less than stellar, and she's immensely capable of unearthing rich new pastures in well-ploughed terrain. With The Power of the Dog, Campion is at the height of her skills trotting into her latest mesmerising musing on strength, desire and isolation — this time via a venomous western that's as perilously bewitching as its mountainous backdrop.

That setting is Montana, circa 1925. Campion's homeland stands in for America nearly a century ago, making a magnificent sight — with cinematographer Ari Wegner (Zola, True History of the Kelly Gang) perceptively spying danger in its craggy peaks and dusty plains even before the film introduces Rose and Peter Gordon (On Becoming a God in Central Florida's Kirsten Dunst and 2067's Kodi Smit-McPhee). When the widowed innkeeper and her teenage son serve rancher brothers Phil and George Burbank (Spider-Man: No Way Home's Benedict Cumberbatch a career-best, awards-worthy, downright phenomenal turn, plus Antlers' Jesse Plemons) during a cattle-run stop, the encounter seesaws from callousness to kindness, a dynamic that continues after Rose marries George and decamps to the Burbank mansion against that stunning backdrop. Brutal to the lanky, lisping Peter from the outset, Phil responds to the nuptials with malice. He isn't fond of change, and won't accommodate anything that fails his bristling definition of masculinity and power, either.

The Power of the Dog is available to stream via Netflix. Read our full review

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THERE IS NO EVIL

The death penalty casts a dark and inescapable shadow over There Is No Evil, which is just as writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof intends. The Iranian filmmaker has spent his career examining the reality of his homeland, as previously seen in 2013's Manuscripts Don't Burn and 2017's A Man of Integrity — so much so that he's actually been banned from his craft, not that that's stopping him. With There Is No Evil, Rasoulof doesn't simply continue the trend that's guided his cinematic resume thus far. Rather, he interrogates the most severe form of punishment that any society can enact, and doesn't shy away from horrors both obvious and unplanned. To call the result powerful is an understatement, and it's won him Berlinale's prestigious Golden Bear in 2020, and now the 2021 Sydney Film Festival Prize as well.

An anthology film that unfurls across four segments, There Is No Evil explores capital punishment, its impact and the ripples that executions have upon Iranian society. Even the mere concept of state-sanctioned killing rolls through the feature like waves, changing and reshaping much in its wake. It touches a stressed husband and father (feature first-timer Ehsan Mirhosseini), a conscript (Kaveh Ahangar, Don't Be Embarrassed) who can't fathom ending someone's life, a soldier (Mohammad Valizadegan, Lady of the City) whose compliance causes personal issues and a physician (Mohammad Seddighimehr, The Sad Widows of the Warlord) unable to practise his trade. While some sections hit their mark more firmly and decisively than others — There Is No Evil's introduction sets a high bar — this meticulously crafted movie, both visually and thematically, has a lingering cumulative effect as it ruminates on the threats and freedoms that come with life under an oppressive regime. 

There Is No Evil is available to stream via SBS On Demand.

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Need a few more streaming recommendations? Check out our picks from January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October and November this year — and our top new TV shows of 2021, best new television series from this year that you might've missed and top straight-to-streaming films and specials as well.

Top image: Ian Routledge/AMC+.

Published on December 29, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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