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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Ten Films and TV Shows You Need to Stream This Month

Get stuck into a haunting new drama about life after a pandemic, Riz Ahmed's latest thriller and an over-the-top action-flick parody.
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 New Zealand'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. 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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NEW STUFF YOU CAN WATCH IN FULL RIGHT NOW

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 Neon.

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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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PROCESSION

For filmmaker Robert Greene, it started with a press conference, where six sexually abused men sought justice — and publicly so — for the horrors they endured at the hands of the Catholic Church. After reaching out to their lawyer Rebecca Randles, and also bringing drama therapist Monica Phinney onboard, Procession started to take shape — a film that tells their stories like no other documentary would've. Anyone who's seen Greene's also exceptional Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee '17 will know that he sifts through trauma via re-enactments, an approach used to interrogate dark incidents and abhorrent moments. Here, it's deployed as a healing technique, too. To watch Tom Viviano, Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, Dan Laurine and Mike Foreman participate in Procession is to watch them not just grapple with what was done to them, but to try to undercut its power.

Talking-head interviews still litter the documentary, but Procession is far more interested in the short films that Viviano, Eldred, Gavagan, Sandridge, Laurine and Foreman conceive and make — starring child actor Terrick Trobough as all of them — based on their own experiences. Greene captures the behind-the-scenes process, and also presents the finished product, both of which trawl through memories that none of his subjects will ever forget. Unsurprisingly, this isn't an easy movie to watch. It's essential and unforgettable viewing, though, examining heartbreakingly awful acts, the men who've spent a lifetime trying to cope, the cathartic nature of art and the resilience needed to soldier on.

Procession is available to stream via Netflix.

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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 TVNZ.

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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 also arrived this year, 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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SPREADSHEET

When Katherine Parkinson starred in The IT Crowd 15 years ago, she played a woman trying to exude a cool, calm and collected air, but constantly finding her life — and her new job in IT — hindering that aim. In Spreadsheet, her new sitcom role, Parkinson's latest character isn't attempting the same feat. Instead, freshly divorced Melbourne-based lawyer and mother-of-two Lauren has has accepted that her existence is now messy; however, having a spreadsheet to keep track of her revamped love life is meant to help. Embracing being single, and all the opportunities for casual hookups that apps now bring, she isn't looking for a relationship. She even has her colleague Alex (Rowan Witt, Adore) helping to maintain her fast-growing database of sexual options. But this clearly wouldn't be a comedy if her new status quo turned out smoothly and stress-free.

As this new Australian sitcom knows and keenly relies upon, there's a breeziness to Parkinson's comic performances that hits both humorous and relatable notes. Indeed, the British actor is the key reason that Spreadsheet's eight-episode first season is so incredibly easy to binge. Whether Lauren is being introduced in the throes of pleasure in the car park outside the Palais Theatre, is getting intimate in a snake dungeon or sports an eye patch after a run-in with a cuckoo clock, Parkinson is a comedic whirlwind. In a series that approaches its 'sex in the suburbs' setup with smarts and insights, too, she's also surrounded by an impressive local cast that includes Witt, Stephen Curry (June Again), Katrina Milosevic (Wentworth) and Zahra Newman (Long Story Short).

The first season of Spreadsheet is available to stream via TVNZ.

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN

If there's a real-life figure that needs to be brought to the screen, call Benedict Cumberbatch. He's done just that in The Imitation Game, The Current War and The Courier, and also in everything from The Other Boleyn Girl and Creation to 12 Years a Slave and The Fifth Estate as well. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain sees the British actor add another such role to his resume; however, while it steps through its eponymous artist's life and career, this biopic instantly stands out from the rest of the pack. The key: a fabulous decision by director Will Sharpe (Flowers) to style this poignant and lively film after its subject and his work. When he came to fame in the late 19th century, Wain was known for his surreal cat paintings, after all — and while this is a movie that also tracks his sorrows, as well as his struggles with his mental health, it does so with a winning mix of energy and sincerity.

Indeed, it'll come as no surprise that The Electrical Life of Louis Wain was shot by Erik Wilson, the same cinematographer who added such a whimsical look to both Paddington and Paddington 2. Animals abound amidst these entrancing visuals, too, but none of the cats that Wain (Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog) becomes obsessed with eat marmalade. That feline fixation stems from a frowned-upon romance with Emily Richardson (Claire Foy, The Girl in the Spider's Web), the governess to his younger sisters — and it, just like Richardson, changes his life. Playing an eccentric artist who firmly took his own route, and was also just as fascinated with electricity as adorable mousers, Cumberbatch finds both the enchanting and the melancholy sides to Wain, while the rest of the stellar cast even includes Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) on narration duties, plus Richard Ayoade, Taika Waititi and Nick Cave in cameos.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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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 Neon, 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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BECOMING COUSTEAU

He's been parodied in a Wes Anderson film and mentioned in a Flight of the Conchords song. His red beanie, and those worn by his fellow crew members on his research ship Calypso, are an enduring fashion symbol. He won the second-ever Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or — becoming not only the first filmmaker to receive the prestigious prize for a documentary, but the only one to do so for almost half a century afterwards. When he started making television in the 60s, he turned his underwater-shot docos about the sea into truly must-see TV. He helped create undersea diving as we know it, and he's the most famous oceanographer that's ever lived. He was also one of the early voices who spoke out about climate change and humanity's impact upon the oceans. He's a rockstar in every field he dived into — and he's Jacques Cousteau, obviously.

Becoming Cousteau touches on all of the above — except The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Flight of the Conchords' 'Fou de Fafa', of course — and makes for a a riveting splash into its namesake's life and career. There's just so much to tell, to the point that it frequently feels as if director Liz Garbus (an Oscar-nominee for What Happened, Miss Simone?) could've filled an entire series instead. This isn't just an affectionate ode, though, even with ample praise floated Cousteau's way. Garbus knows that Cousteau's achievements, and the glorious archival footage that comes with it, elicit an awe-struck reaction, but doesn't shy away from thornier aspects, the tragedies and struggles among them.

Becoming Cousteau is available to stream via Disney+. Read our full review.

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Need a few more streaming recommendations? Check out our picks from October and November this year, too.

Published on December 29, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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