Freaks and Geeks (S1)
Before directors Judd Apatow and Paul Feig hit the big screen with the likes of Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Bridesmaids, they created a little TV series based on Feig’s own adolescence in early 1980s Michigan. Dubbed Freaks and Geeks (most of its main characters fall into one or both of these categories), it lasted only one 18-episode season, a fact that’s still hard to fathom given how fantastic it is.
Perhaps viewers just weren’t ready for a well-written, intelligent and entirely honest portrayal of the highs and lows of high school. Even so, it kickstarted a bunch of major Hollywood careers (James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen being the obvious examples) and is regarded as a cult classic almost 20 years later. All the episodes are now streaming on Amazon Prime, so why not go back to school?
True Grit (2010)
The Coen brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ classic Western novel has the dubious honour of being the film nominated for the most Oscars without walking off with a single one – and watching it a few years on from its release, it’s clear that the Academy made a mistake (not with the nominations, but with the… not winning thing). This is a truly outstanding modern day Western, an exploration of how courage and heroism (aka “true grit”) comes in many forms, as well as being thrilling and funny in equal measure.
Jeff Bridges impresses as gruff alcoholic marshal Rooster Cogburn, tasked with hunting down an on-the-run murderer, but it’s young Hailee Steinfeld as his spirited 14-year-old employer whose performance arguably steals the show.
Hustle & Flow
From its title and marketing, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hustle & Flow might be a low-budget extended rap promo – but in truth it’s a brilliantly compelling dive into the world of Southern hip hop, a gritty and moving Oscar-nominated inner city drama about music, crime and the American Dream starring Terrence Howard as a low level Memphis pimp and drug dealer struggling to change his life. A warts and all look at early noughties black America that rightfully won an Oscar for Best Song.
The second of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright “Cornetto Trilogy”, Hot Fuzz takes on the action blockbuster genre in the same way as Shaun of the Dead took on zombie movies – by making them into a comedy movie packed to the gills with the genre’s tropes and traits. Not only is Hot Fuzz – in which Pegg’s superhero police officer is shipped off to a sleepy rural village for making the rest of the Met look bad in comparison – hilarious, it’s also a brilliantly edited and warm homage to the likes of Point Break, Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, albeit a very English one.
Zero Dark Thirty
Sometimes the truth really does live up to the fiction; the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was the stuff of Tom Clancy thrillers, with its stealth helicopters, SEAL team raids and tense situation rooms. For the majority of Zero Dark Thirty, though, director Kathryn Bigelow shifts the focus on to the CIA officers chasing down leads, conducting “enhanced interrogations” and working contacts in the world’s most protracted game of cat and mouse. Wisely, Bin Laden himself is kept off-screen throughout, as elusive a presence to us as he is to the analysts.
Instead, the heart of the film is Jessica Chastain’s steely CIA officer Maya, a composite of the real-life agents who worked to track down Al-Qaeda’s figurehead; her Terminator-like intensity would seem almost implausible were it not for the fact that she’s based on real people. Sadly, the film’s forced to unceremoniously sideline her for its denouement, a blow-by-blow account of Seal Team Six’s attack on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan that’s fraught with tension – despite the fact that the outcome isn’t in doubt.
The film also strays into controversial territory in its assertion that actionable intelligence was gained through the euphemistically-described “enhanced interrogations” – though it depicts them with unflinching, documentary-style realism, and doesn’t shy away from their lasting effects on both interrogators and captives.
Good Omens (S1)
Fans of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s beloved comic fantasy novel have for years been crossing fingers, toes and other body parts in the hopes that one day, somebody would take a chance on a screen adaptation of Good Omens – and that somebody turned out to be Amazon, which produced this star-studded six-part miniseries.
Set in modern day England, it stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen as a demon and an angel whose eons-old friendship faces obliteration (along with the rest of the world) as the Antichrist comes of age and Armageddon looms. With the massive supporting cast including Jon Hamm, Jack Whitehall, Miranda Richardson and Michael McKean and a budget capable of bringing the novel to life, the fanboys and girls’ waiting has not been in vain.
Into the Forest
There is no shortage of post-collapse movies and TV shows out there, for those who want to experience every different flavour of the apocalypse. From zombie outbreak to nuclear holocaust to alien invasion to meteor landfall, your streaming services have you well and truly covered – but Into the Forest pretty much stands on its own.
A quiet, thoughtful and slow-paced indie film about two sisters forced to deal with the aftermath of a countrywide power outage, it’s far more interested in its characters than in showing off exploding volcanoes, collapsing cities or rampaging cannibals. Its understated, realistic approach and the performances of Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood wield more weight than a hundred San Andreases (sorry, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
Shaun of the Dead
The first and arguably best film in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy (comprising this, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) sees London electrical shop worker Shaun (Pegg) attempting to rescue his girlfriend and flatmate and survive a sudden zombie outbreak.
This zom-rom-com's scares might be somewhat thin on the ground, but the laughs more than make up for it. There’s bags of heart to it too, mostly erupting from the relationship between Shaun and his slacker best mate Ed, played memorably by Nick Frost. Wright also demonstrates time and time again the tricks and quirks that have made him a Hollywood darling – with this movie’s inspired quick-fire editing proving a star in its own right.
Time travel, parallel universes, child abuse, scary rabbits, school bullies and general coming-of-age tropes all come together in Richard Kelly’s astonishing movie, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular 1980s high school kid going through Some Very Heavy Stuff. A mind-bending trip through four weeks in small town America, it manages to pull off the tricky feat of creeping out viewers one minute, and having them chuckling at a throwaway line the next.
Kelly may have never repeated the success of Donnie Darko (in fact his director’s cut of the movie is markedly inferior to the regular release), but the film made Gyllenhaal a star, bagged the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and remains a cult classic of early noughties cinema.
Sneaky Pete (S3)
Amazon Prime’s original series output doesn’t match Netflix’s in terms of size or quality, but there are some gems there, both widely celebrated (Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel) and hidden. Sneaky Pete falls into the latter category but, despite the odd episode where nothing much happens, it’s well worth checking out for its masterful mix of family drama and tense crime thriller.
Giovanni Ribisi stars as a likeable conman who finds himself entangled (and increasingly emotionally attached to) a working class family he sets out to rip off. The third season of this series is now streaming on Prime alongside the first two – and it’s in Ultra HD for those of you who have 4K tellies.