Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winner showcases Hayao Miyazaki’s filmmaking at its very best: magical, thought-provoking and utterly absorbing. When the average Western animated movie is considered sophisticated if it throws in a couple of clever references for any adults that happen to be watching, Spirited Away feels like it’s working on an entirely different plane.
Its story of a young girl unwittingly drawn into a strange land of spirits, witches and demons effortlessly touches on universal themes, making it a compelling, engaging watch for viewers of all ages. The stunning animation and music don’t hurt either.
Another Studio Ghibli classic, this time set in a feudal Japan that is undergoing rapid change. Civilisation is on the march, leading to deforestation and the destruction of the land’s woods, rivers and other wild places.
As humans come into conflict with the god-like nature spirits who maintain the world’s ecological balance, our young hero Ashitaka finds himself caught in the middle, attempting to play peacemaker as things edge ever closer to outright war. Alongside him is San, a mysterious girl (and the former princess of the film’s title) raised by giant wolves – and a true outsider to both sides. Like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke exhibits a level of maturity and nuance that’s extremely rare in Western animation, and makes for a great entryway into the wonderful world of Ghibli’s movies.
Altered Carbon (S2)
The premise behind this visually stunning cyberpunk series – that we can digitise our consciousness and transfer it between different bodies (aka “sleeves”) in order to live forever – means that recasting its main character between seasons feels like no big deal at all. Anthony Mackie replaces Joel Kinnaman as ruthless private dick Takeshi Kovacs, leaving Earth behind to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of long-lost love, revolutionary leader Quellcrist Falconer. If you like violent neo-noirs full of brain-bending ideas and labyrinthine plots, get involved.
I Am Not Okay with This (S1)
An angst-ridden small-town high school misfit who turns out to be extremely special – it’s a well-worn trope in TV and film, but this briskly-paced comedy drama series manages to keep it feeling fresh.
Based on a graphic novel by the same writer as The End of the F***ing World (in fact, the two stories are supposedly set in the same fictional universe), it stars Sophia Lillis at Syd Novak, a 17-year-old dealing with loneliness, confusion over her sexuality, a dysfunctional relationship with her mother and the fallout over the sudden death of her father. Oh, and the fact that she may have telekinetic powers. As superhero origin stories go, it’s atypical.
Better Call Saul (S5)
With this, its fifth season, Better Call Saul will match its parent show Breaking Bad for sheer number of episodes. And it looks like there’s going to be a sixth too, a concept that might have seemed fanciful in the extreme when this show was first announced.
A spin-off centred on one of Breaking Bad’s most irritating characters may not have sounded like a tempting prospect, but from its beginnings Better Call Saul has never felt like anything less than a full-blooded effort from creator Vince Gilligan or lead actor Bob Odenkirk, who have managed to turn Saul Goodman into a beautifully drawn and extremely tragic figure. Its plotlines, meanwhile, have succeeded in not just adding colour to events we saw play out in the earlier show but taken on a real fictional life and pull of their own. In short, this is a show that’s just as good as Breaking Bad – and might end up being even better once it reaches its end.
Quentin Tarantino’s comic book-style take on World War II is typically brash, bold and bloody, packed with the filmmaker’s trademarks of bravura camera work, sizzling dialogue, memorable characters and copious violence.
With Brad Pitt and his band of Jewish-American guerrilla fighters hunting down Nazis in occupied France while a French girl plots her revenge on the sadistic German colonel that slaughtered her family (Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning breakout role), the plot is heavy on twists, even if it has a fairly conventional structure. At over two and a half hours it feels a bit bloated, but hey, you’re streaming it – so taking the occasional bathroom break is no biggie.
The Pharmacist (S1)
A four-part documentary series that effortlessly blends the personal with the national, The Pharmacist examines the USA’s opioid crisis through the story of Dan Schneider, a Louisiana pharmacist whose son is murdered during a drug deal. Dismayed with the police’s efforts, Schneider launches his own campaign for justice – not only to find the killer but to shut down a “pill mill” running out of a New Orleans pharmacy and supplying people with super-addictive prescription painkillers. With hundreds of Americans dying every day to painkiller overdoses, this feels like a timely release – and it’s also a great true crime watch.
The first film written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird was nominated for no fewer than five Oscars. It didn’t win any (bagging a couple of Golden Globes instead), but the fault probably lies with the Academy rather than the movie. Saoirse Ronan in particular shines in the title role as an artsy 17-year old looking to break away from what she sees as her stifling town and stifling mother. If you think you’ve seen this story played out on screen a hundred times before, you wouldn’t be alone – but Lady Bird manages to defy expectations to dig much deeper than your average quirky coming-of-age comedy.
My Neighbor Totoro
Nailing ‘wholesome and emotional’ without also being lightweight or sentimental is a tough trick to pull off – but Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki have done it time and time again. 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro is a perfect example.
This gorgeous film, in which a pair of young sisters move into a new house and befriend a forest spirit in post-war Japan, truly does have something for everyone: an overarching sense of wonder; hand-painted bucolic beauty; a convincing depiction of family life; a soaring, playful score from the masterful Joe Hisaishi; and of course the wonderful Totoro, a now-iconic Ghibli character representing… well, all sorts of things if you care to think about it. Netflix has pulled off a coup by getting the streaming rights for almost all Ghibli’s catalogue. If you’re going to start somewhere, My Neighbor Totoro is the perfect place.
Another classic Ghibli anime, Porco Rosso is set in the 1930s Adriatic – a place where sky pirates harass tourist cruises until they’re hunted down by our titular hero. Porco is a louche, middle-aged pilot who (for reasons never truly explained) has been cursed with the face of a pig. When the pirates hire a brash American fighter ace to remove Porco from the picture once and for all, his easy life takes a drastic turn for the trickier.
With all this set against the backdrop of rising Italian fascism, Porco Rosso is richly served with subtext and themes; as with all Ghibli films, these aren’t battered over your head but reveal themselves expertly through the story and its characters. A wonderful watch.