Ben Affleck plays a savant accountant who cooks the books for the world’s most notorious criminals in this action-thriller, which ends up being a lot more exciting and involving than it sounds on paper.
This accountant, you see, is also a highly-trained former special forces operative, every bit as skilled with a .50 calibre sniper rifle as he is with a biro and a pocket calculator. And when he’s marked for assassination by a particularly devious client looking to cover his nefarious tracks, it’s his the former set of skills that come to the fore.
Man on Wire
This full-length documentary is an Oscar winner, the second highest-rated movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes – and deservedly regarded as one of the most interesting, unusual films of the 21st century.
Telling the story of French wire-walker Philippe Petit and the best-known feat of his long career – the illegal crossing, without safety gear, of a cable strung between the twin towers of New York’s 450m high World Trade Center – Man on Wire is part biopic, part heist film and part life-affirming sports movie; it all adds up to a gripping, illuminating watch guaranteed to leave you with sweaty palms, as well as an unlikely love letter to the doomed skyscrapers.
The Devil’s Backbone
Set in the final few days of the Spanish Civil War, this 2001 gothic horror yarn concerns a creepy orphanage, an unexploded bomb and a missing boy. Revealing any more runs the risk of spoiling the impact of this immaculately made film, where the historical time and place is integral to its message.
Even if you struggle with subtitled films, it’s well worth putting on your reading glasses for this one, in which writer and director Guillermo de Toro’s talents are fully on show.
The Grand Tour (S3)
Let’s face facts: you either adore the petrol-headed horseplay and edgy banter of Messrs Clarkson, May and Hammond, or you’d rather stab your eyes with knitting needles than witness the antics of these ageing, bootcut buddies.
The third season of Amazon’s Top Gear-killer has just arrived on the streaming service and, while it won’t convert the haters, neither will it disappoint the lovers: it looks amazing (in super-sharp 4K, if you have a UHD telly) and it ticks the necessary boxes. If you like your motoring action served alongside a mountain of gags, this third helping is likely to be among your TV highlights of 2019.
Made with a budget that would barely get you a Ford Mondeo and fully embracing the “found footage” angle that was already well worn by its release, Paranormal Activity nonetheless has the potential to creep out all but the hardiest viewer. Small wonder it ended up being a worldwide smash hit, championed by none other than Steven Spielberg and spawning a series of (mostly underwhelming) sequels.
The story centres around a young couple, one of whom claims to have been haunted by a supernatural presence since childhood. A psychic warns the pair not to try communicating with said presence, advice which is promptly ignored. Cue: minor creepy occurrences captured on grainy night vision, that gradually ramp up to the point that you’ll be sleeping with the lights on.
By 1999, the ambitious Boogie Nights had already identified young writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson as a filmmaker to watch – and Magnolia, his second major picture, is a similarly sprawling Los Angeles-set epic with a star-studded ensemble cast (Tom Cruise is excellent playing against type as a skeevy pick-up artist), eye-catching camerawork, flamboyant editing and a script rich in pathos, comedy and raw emotion.
Magnolia doesn’t always work: despite a bum-numbing runtime of over three hours, some plot lines aren’t fully tied up; some of the stories engender a “so what?” response; there’s a sequence where various characters break into song that’ll divide viewers, and a memorable ending sequence that’s perhaps even more bizarre.
But there are signs too of the Anderson that has since become one of the world’s most celebrated directors. In terms of scope, ambition and bravura direction, Magnolia can’t be found wanting – and fans of great filmmaking who missed it first time around should catch it now on Amazon Prime.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (S2)
Amazon doesn’t always do a great job of promoting its original series, so you may not yet have heard of this comic drama about the nascent stand-up comedy scene of late 1950s New York. An upper middle-class housewife named Midge Maisel unwittingly becomes a stand-up sensation when she impulsively takes the stage at a Greenwich Village open mic night, but must juggle her desire for professional success with the pressure to conform to her family’s ideals.
As rich in period detail as Mad Men and with similar things to say about the sexual politics of the era, it’s snappily written and beautifully acted. Little wonder its first season bagged two Golden Globe and five Emmy awards.
You Were Never Really Here
A genuine contender for movie of the year, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Joaquin Phoenix plays a bedraggled hitman with a murky past, but his world and methods are a long way from the sterile, hyper-efficient contract killing you usually see on cinema screens (hint: his weapon of choice is a hammer).
With an unnerving Jonny Greenwood soundtrack that echoes Joe’s troubled mindset, it’s an edge-of-your-seat film that won’t hold your hand through its tight 90 minutes, but its vaguely dreamlike quality will stay with you for a long time afterwards.
Not to be confused with Nick Broomfield’s also recently-released documentary about the late Whitney Houston (the also recommended Whitney: Can I Be Me), Kevin Macdonald’s film provides an intimate portrayal of the troubled singer’s rise and fall, including heretofore unreported-on childhood events that may have left her emotionally scarred for life.
Unsurprisingly, Macdonald also examines Houston’s well-publicised struggle with drug abuse and her fractious marriage to Bobby Brown, but still manages to bring a fresh perspective on both, thanks to interviews with friends, family members and Brown himself.
The BBC and Netflix may have reworked Watership Down into a (disappointingly cheap-looking) CGI series with a host of modern-day stars providing vocal talents, but we reckon the original 1978 animated film looks like a much better bet to watch this Christmas.
You likely already know the drill: based on Richard Adams’ novel, the film follows a small group of rabbits who, forced from their home, attempt a perilous journey to find safety on the eponymous Hampshire hill. Facing a veritable cavalcade of terrors – cats, dogs, owls, cars, and a rival group of militaristic rabbits led by the brutal, unforgettable General Woundwort – not all our furry little heroes will make it to the promised land. Cue “Bright Eyes” playing as thousands of traumatised kids wail in shock.