A film about fairies, fauns and fantastical underground kingdoms might not sound particularly grown-up, but Mexican maestro Guillermo Del Toro’s knack of infusing reality with the otherworldly has never been more creepily captivating than in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Some of the beasts young Ofelia encounters as she attempts to complete the tasks set for her by the guardian of the labyrinth are the stuff of nightmares, but above ground her murderous stepfather is arguably scarier than them all. Pan’s Labyrinth is like Narnia reimagined by Ernest Hemingway.
The Shield (S1-7)
In this cop drama the hero isn’t just a somewhat flawed detective (“Oh, he likes a bit of a drink, y’know…”) but an unabashed murderer, racist, womaniser and thief, The Shield pioneered the kind of grey area telly we take for granted today. Yes, Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey is a truly nasty individual, possessed of all the worst traits we associate with bent coppers, but he’s feared by criminals and respected by his colleagues (most of whom aren’t upstanding examples of humanity themselves). So is his brand of corrupt law enforcement a necessary evil?
Debuting in 2002, the series does look its age – some of the camerawork and editing in particular is a bit jarring – but once you get over its quirks The Shield’s brisk storylines and moral quandaries swiftly draw you in.
There’s nothing like a good disaster movie to help you unwind after a long day, and in Greenland the stakes couldn’t be higher: with an interstellar “planet killer” comet on course to wipe out almost all life on Earth, our hero Gerard Butler must get his estranged wife (Morena Baccarin) and young son to the relative safety of an underground bunker in (yes, you guessed it) Greenland.
There’s nothing particularly original going on here, but it’s a well-made race-against-time thriller that successfully conveys the magnitude of its threat. From violent looters to failing technology to flaming rocks from the sky, Butler and Baccarin find themselves beset with a terrible array of perils – even before the coming collision that may wipe out humanity completely.
American Gods (S1-3)
Based on the beloved Neil Gaiman novel, American Gods (exclusive to Amazon Prime currently, and available in 4K Ultra HD) weaves together cords of ancient mythology, modern mythology, Americana and pop culture to create a modern fantasy tale – a tale about immigration, above other things.
The cast includes the classy likes of Ian McShane, Peter Stormare and Gillian Anderson, but British viewers will be shocked to see former Hollyoaks hunk Ricky Whittle in the leading role – and doing a very decent job along with it. After a long wait amidst behind-the-camera turmoil, the second season has arrived too.
Cameron Crowe’s love letter to the 70s glory days of American rock and roll, based largely on his real-life experiences as a teenage Rolling Stone writer, remains a diverting, funny and affecting watch over two decades after it was released, even if the sexual politics of the time seem even more brutal and bizarre now than they did in 2000.
Focussing on the complex, messy relationship between Patrick Fugit’s naive Crowe-substitute, Billy Crudup’s mercurial lead guitarist and Oscar-nominated Kate Hudson’s free-spirited “band aid”, Almost Famous masterfully conjures up the mystical, intense and rootless life of a touring band better than any other movie.
Do the Right Thing
The best-known film of Spike Lee’s early career, Do the Right Thing is the story of a hot summer’s day in Brooklyn, set on a single block of a single Bed-Stuy street. Despite its seemingly limited scope, Lee’s skill and the large cast of characters turn it into a wide-ranging and impactful metacommentary on racism and violence in America: funny, vivacious, thought-provoking and powerful – and not seeking refuge in simple platitudes or easy answers.
Genres get hacked up as much as the unfortunate characters in S. Craig Zahler’s brutal directorial debut. This film starts out in familiar Western territory, but gradually descends into a nightmarish, schlocky horror flick – albeit one with some tension-shattering comedic dialogue and character moments. There’s an old-school video nasty vibe to Bone Tomahawk that you don’t often see in modern movies, not to mention a refreshing tendency to take its time.
Kurt Russell leads the strong cast (familiar faces Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox and Patrick Wilson also appear) as a stoic small-town sheriff spurred into action when a group of cave-dwelling Native Americans kidnap two of his townspeople. Resolving to rescue the victims and punish the perpetrators, a small posse ventures out into the dry, rocky wilderness, not realising what awaits them.
The horrors of the First World War come to the screen like never before in this visceral, nail-biting action drama, edited to look like a single continuous two-hour shot. Two young soldiers must cross enemy lines to deliver a vital message that will save hundreds of their fellow troops; director Sam Mendes and his crew’s technical brilliance masterfully imparts the tension, peril and heroism of their journey.
Bong Joon-ho’s pitch black comedy won both the Cannes Palm d’Or and Oscar for Best Picture, and while it’s something of an outlier for the latter (the Academy usually prefers feel-good or outwardly worthy films, not to mention those in English), upon watching it it’s easy to see why it’s been so lauded: it’s masterfully crafted, funny, shocking and insightful – not to mention possessed of a genuinely riveting plot.
The film revolves around two Korean families: the poverty-stricken Kims and the wealthy Parks. The Kims concoct a scheme that sees all four of them become well-paid household employees of the trusting Parks, but an unforeseeable revelation makes their triumph short-lived. A scathing examination of wealth, class, inequality and how the modern world makes parasites of us all.
No Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy’s lyrical, noir-like novel about violence, good and evil and whether or not it’s smart to steal a bagful of money from a ruthless drug cartel (hint: it’s not!) gets the Coen brothers treatment. And this is one meeting of the minds that worked: this is truly fantastic stuff, thanks to not only the source material and its sympathetic treatment by two of America’s finest filmmakers, but the strong performances from Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Tommy Lee Jones and, most memorably, Javier Bardem as the otherworldly, unstoppable cartel enforcer Anton Chigurh. If you like your thrillers as contemplative and morally complex as they are nail-biting, look no further.