Greetings, pandemic survivors! For those of you sheltering in place, self-quarantining, or otherwise distancing yourself from physical human contact, now is the time to embrace your inner couch potato, whether you’ve been laid off or are fortunate enough to work from home. Cinephilia is a useful
hobby passion during times like these, so for those of you with a still working Internet connection and $10-15 to spend on a month’s subscription to a given streaming platform, what follows is an extensive watch-list to kill time while we wait out the novel coronavirus. This list contains everything from feature films to documentary series to still unfolding (re: unfinished) long-format television series. I otherwise refrain from commentary, let alone formal reviews of individual seasons or episodes of television, preferring instead to evaluate projects as completed, standalone bodies of work. Desperate times call for desperate measures, however, and this watch-list is not so much a collection of mini-reviews or a preview of reviews to come, but rather a casual update on stuff I’ve watched (or rewatched) recently as I’ve spent more and more time indoors.
So, stay calm and enjoy cinema — among other things — as best you can. It’s not like the world is ending, or anything.
Long-Format Television & Limited Series
- Kingdom (2019- ; two seasons @ 6 episodes each, and counting) = This Korean period drama and zombie thriller is listed first because, thus far, it is the highest quality project of the group. Despite my love for Game of Thrones (2011-2019), its infamous final season and coincidental news coverage left me disillusioned regarding both “gritty dramas” and undead fiction in general (remember The Walking Dead [2010-2022]?). Kingdom, adapted from the web comic series, Kingdom of the Gods (2014), by the original comic’s author, Kim Eun-hee, is a work of historical fiction set during the early modern period of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, whereby various noble houses scheme to gain or maintain power through their use of a plague that reanimates the dead into — what else? — flesh-eating zombies. Featuring wonderful characterizations, beautiful yet restrained cinematography, immaculate natural lighting, and impressive set-pieces, Kingdom is my first must-watch program of the 2020s.
- The Haunting of Hill House (2018; one season @ 10 episodes) = This acclaimed coming-of-age story about a family’s experience in a haunted house is complete, though due to name recognition, Netflix has greenlit additional standalone seasons with different casts a la American Horror Story (2011-present). One of veteran writer-director Mike Flanagan’s (e.g. Ouija: Origin of Evil , Gerald’s Game , Doctor Sleep ) best projects, Hill House is ideal for those interested in dramatic cinema with a heavy dash of horror, rather than the other way around. The series is a family drama in a horror movie’s clothing.
- Maniac (2018; one season @ 10 episodes; review forthcoming) = Though it suffers a bit from issues that have plagued the True Detective (2014, 2015, 2019) series, namely having a great director (Cary Joji Fukunaga) wrestle under control the questionable works of an inconsistent screenwriter (Nic Pizzolatto for True Detective, Patrick Somerville here in Maniac), Maniac is a memorable absurdist dystopia about mental illness, psychiatry, and the limits of black comedy.
- The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019; one season @ 10 episodes; additional seasons possible) = Fans of the work of Jim Hensen (e.g. The Muppets [1955-present]) should enjoy this as much as fans of the original 1982 cult film, The Dark Crystal. Constructed with puppets and various other practical FX with occasional digital flourishes, Age of Resistance is an emotionally mature yet playful dark fantasy series comparable to the works of Donald Bluth and the Beast Wars/Machines series (1996-2000). It’s a great work of fiction for all ages, and familiarity with the 1982 feature is not required.
- The Witcher (2019- ; one season @ 8 episodes, and counting) = I don’t know whether this series is based on the original novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski or its popular videogame adaptations, or both, and I don’t care. Much like Age of Resistance, The Witcher is a refreshing detoxification from the controversial and exhausting drama of Game of Thrones, embracing traditionalist fantasy-adventure tropes in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) without skimping on likable characters or a great cast. The series does borrow the hyper-violent blood and gore from Thrones, though, which is nice.
- The Mandalorian (2019- ; two seasons @ 8 episodes, and counting) = One of the few noteworthy shows on this list not exclusive to Netflix, Jon Favreau’s new web series is the flagship property of the burgeoning Disney+ streaming service, and is the lone reason I tried a week’s long free trial of the platform. The Mandalorian is a throwback, pulpy genre-blender with more in common with the original Star Wars (1977), Solo (2018), or the filmography of Sergio Leone than any of the Star Wars franchise’s episodic features released after Empire Strikes Back (1980). Put another way, this is the best Star Wars property of the Walt Disney era.
- Frontera Verde (2019; one season @ 8 episodes) = Netflix’s first Colombian title of any format packs a punch for those interested in the paranormal activities of The X-Files (1993-2002) and LOST (2004-2010), or the exploration of indigenous cultures a la Apocalypto (2006). It’s perhaps the closest spiritual successor to True Detective’s critically acclaimed debut season.
- Delhi Crime (2019; one season @ 7 episodes; additional seasons possible) = Richie Mehta’s neo-noir Delhi Crime dramatizes the 2012 Delhi gang rape incident, and handles that volcanic material about as well as any scripted television show ever could. The series’ tone, cinematography, and acting feel like a David Fincher project or a season of The Wire (2002-2008) rather than a Bollywood melodrama, which is for the best.
- There’s no feelgood ending here, as one might expect, but the series isn’t all doom and gloom and boasts fascinating social commentary with minimal preaching. It achieves a caliber of cinematic sociopolitical analysis most Oscar-bait wish they could.
Documentary Series: Last Chance U (2017-2020; four seasons at 6-8 episodes, and counting) and Basketball or Nothing (2019; one season @ 6 episodes) = I have already written an essay describing these two series in detail, but in short, if you’re interested in the power of cinema to portray athletics and elaborate upon the biographies of athletes therein, Last Chance U and Basketball or Nothing are both great art and entertainment.
Feature Films & Shorts
- La Sombra de La Ley (also known as Gun City, 2018) = A cool yet bloated crime drama set in Barcelona during the roaring 1920s, Dani de La Torre’s epic of crooked cops, revolutionary labor movements, and an impending civil war paint a vivid cinematic backdrop of memorable characters that needs a much better editor.
- Spectral (2016) = This features feels like the sort of movie I would’ve made in high-school if I had $70 million to burn, a military science-fiction movie mixed with a weird, paranormal ghost story. You’ll note traces of everything from Aliens (1986) to Black Hawk Dawn (2001) to Edge of Tomorrow (2014), here.
- May the Devil Take You (2018) = Another super violent, super gory horror feature from Timo Tjahjanto of the Mo Brothers, May the Devil Take You stumbles in its second act, but is otherwise an impressive Indonesian homage to the works of Sam Raimi.
- Candyman (1992) = Fans of Jordan Peele’s racially conscious horror (e.g. Get Out , Us ) should enjoy this 1990s classic before Peele himself and writer-director Nia DaCosta release a direct sequel later this year.
- The Irishman (2019) = What better way to spend your social distancing than with a 3.5 hour crime drama from Martin Scorsese? This film is so good that even viewers with little to no interest in mob flicks should get much entertainment and educational value from it.
- WHAT DID JACK DO? (2017) = The less viewers know about David Lynch’s latest short film, the better.
Videogames = DOOM: Eternal (2020). Released last week amidst the earlier waves of the COVID-19 crisis, this latest installment in the venerable DOOM (1994-2020) series is, of course, no movie, but is perhaps as effective a remedy for cabin fever as any cinematic project listed above. Fast, violent, and bloodthirsty, Eternal is the most fun I’ve had with a first-person shooter in years.