From The Crown to Misery: the best of film and TV streaming in Australia in December

This month, the Windsors struggle with modernity, a filmmaker seeks out an extinct bird, and Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart host a bizarre dinner party


TV: She’s Gotta Have It season one (US, 2017) by Spike Lee – out now

Spike Lee’s longform, contemporary version of his 1986 indie film She’s Gotta Have It is feisty and alive – and much more so than your average Netflix series. Nola Darling, an artist in gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn, is entangled with three lovers: Greer (arch-narcissist and self-identified “biracial Adonis”), Jamie (a financially stable older man who craves Nola’s commitment) and Mars (a sweet, big-hearted nerd, closer to Nola in age and temperament but without the social status of the other men). Really, it’s about Nola striving to define herself as a black woman against others’ ideas of her.

In dynamic, collage-style filmmaking, Lee gets his characters to speak directly to the camera and casts a feminist gaze on Nola’s lovers. This isn’t how you think TV works: we regularly cut away to the album covers of the music cues (Mary J Blige, Jill Scott), detour through Nola’s public art campaigns against sexual harassment, and end on a #BlackMattersLives tagline. Like Jill Soloway’s feminist epic, I Love Dick, on Amazon earlier this year, it’s wonderful to see truly independent (and independent-thinking) directors delivering such experimental longform storytelling outside cinemas to our home laptop screens.

TV: Lady Dynamite season two (US, 2017) by Maria Bamford, Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz – out now

Several years ago, Netflix gave Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz an office, a budget and a mandate to make odd comedy. Lady Dynamite is the deadly funny, really-far-out-there result. It stars Maria Bamford, a standup comic with mental health issues playing a standup comic with mental health issues. The show’s meta structure is next-levelled as we ricochet from the present day to the future, where she’s making a sitcom-inside-a-sitcom called Maria Bamford is Nuts, to her teenaged past with her loving but churchy and infantilising parents in Minnesota.

In a departure from the “no one hugs, no one learns” anti-trajectory of current comedy trends, Bamford just wants to live a regular, well-adjusted life. Where season one centred on her return to daily normality after a stay in a psychiatric institution, season two is about Maria’s transition to living with her first-ever long-term partner, accelerating towards their wedding and throwing her back into mania. Bamford’s brain, and her comedy, work differently: her pet dogs are fully-fledged characters who speak to her, people such as Judd Apatow have hilarious cameos only to vanish an instant later. Kookily innovative in its storytelling and style, it all makes its own kind of divine sense, while upholding a weird spiritual optimism.

TV: The Crown season two (US, 2017) by Peter Morgan – out now

Last year, I described the first season of The Crown as “an immaculately art-directed propaganda biopic aimed at humanising those in the monarchy and positioning the Queen as a kind of proto-feminist ... politically dubious addictive longform prestige trash.” Nothing has changed in this high-budget monarchist soapie, but would you want it to?

Ranging from the mid 1950s to the 1960s, the second season centres very much on Elizabeth and Philip’s treacherous second decade of marriage (unelected plutocrats – they’re just like us!), opening with Lizzy declaring her impossible wish to divorce, and arcing toward cheating, lying, revolting against Philip’s possible redemption. We also discover some helpful and actually historically accurate information regarding the Royal family’s Nazi connections. All the while, Lizzy’s hubby remains an emasculated sulky baby; her uncle, the abdicated Edward, a self-serving fascist (literally); and her sister Margaret is still lazily characterised as an emotionally insecure goodtime gal.

It’s hard not to see The Crown as a missed opportunity: a tragedy of dramatic irony in which the godly, uber-rich Windsors fail to see that their place in a modern society has become eclipsed by secular republicanism, and in which Lizzy becomes increasingly cold and detached from the world. But the show remains wonderfully digestible garbage, a grand-scaled and cashed-up family melodrama.

Honourable mentions: My Happy Family, Inland Empire, People Places Things (films, out now), Please Like Me season four (TV, 22 December).


Film: Proof (Australia, 1991) by Jocelyn Moorhouse – out now

Australian writer-director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s debut film found a new way to do closely observed filmmaking – by creating a blind character who takes photographs and labels them with Braille as a way of recording his movements, an uncertain creator of his own small world.

As Martin, Hugo Weaving is at the centre of the character study. Geneviève Picot is Celia, his housekeeper and would-be lover, and Russell Crowe is a stranger and new friend Andy, whose presence antagonises Celia and Martin’s close but tenuous bond and edges them towards a love triangle. As we flashback through Martin’s childhood, Andy offers his own interpretations of Martin’s photographs, shedding new light on the blind man’s understanding of his past, and the psychological drama moves at times toward the comedy and melodrama of Moorhouse’s later films such as The Dressmaker.

TV: Rake (Australia, 2010-2016) seasons one to four, by Richard Roxburgh and Peter Duncan – out now

Now is the time to catch up on perhaps the standout series on Australian television, ahead of next year’s new season. The last season projected that Rake’s satire of NSW politics would go national, as Cleaver Greene catapulted himself towards an independent seat in the Senate. But there’s so much more to Rake than dank #auspol critiques.

Every little bit of the show is excellent: the acute writing; the barbed dialogue; the bleak comic beats; the vision of Sydney as a gentrified swamp that has utter contempt for anyone who isn’t filthy rich and negatively geared; the cameos from A-listers as cynical Labor politicians; the characterisation of self-sabotaging Cleaver Greene by Richard Roxburgh; the dynamics of his much-abused loved ones who both empathise with and enable him. At the end of the last season, Cleaver skirted close to a reunification with the love of his life; the reverberations should be the perfect place for season five to start next year.

Foxtel Now

Film: Misery (US, 1990) by Rob Reiner – out now

Kathy Bates as Annie in the film, Misery.
Kathy Bates as Annie in the film, Misery. Photograph: Allstar/COLUMBIA

Is there ever a bad time to return to this classic and screechingly stressful psychological thriller? When Paul, a famous novelist (James Caan), crashes his car in the deep snow of the Colorado winter, Annie, a super-fan (Kathy Bates) who happens to be a nurse, comes to his rescue. But her heroism is motivated by fanaticism, and as the story unspools, her motives become clearer and her mind more deranged.

The drama is amazingly pared down by today’s standards: confined almost entirely to a different kind of haunted house, and wired to the dynamics of just two characters, as if we’re trapped there with them. Everything else is cut away to expertly bring Paul and Annie’s emotions to a most enjoyable boil. Directed by Rob Reiner, from a Stephen King novel, with Lauren Bacall and her wonderfully ambivalent, sardonic smile popping up as Paul’s literary agent.

Honourable mentions: Wall Street, Speed (films, out now), Con Air (film, 25 December), Raiders of the Lost Ark (film, 26 December), The Social Network (film, 31 December).

Dendy Direct

Film: The Trip to Spain (UK, 2017) by Michael Winterbottom – out 6 December

A melancholic comedy about two affable British actors in the throes of midlife crisis, eating their way across Europe and talking shit shouldn’t be this compelling. But after The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), watching Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge) and Rob Brydon talk in silly voices about career insecurities, body malfunctions and existential dilemmas, sitting in restaurants and hotel balconies and vineyards on the pretext of being restaurant reviewers, is oddly glorious, and, may I say, life-affirming in a no-nonsense way. However you categorise it – mockumentary-meets-drama-meets-scripted comedy – The Trip to Spain is really a film about ageing, disappointment and death, by two smart, brutally funny people approaching their senior years. Sign me up for a Trip to France.

Honourable mentions: Dunkirk (film, 18 December).

SBS On Demand

Film: Night Parrot Stories (Australia, 2016) by Robert Nugent – out 24 December

One of the most interesting and experimental Australian films of the past couple of years, Night Parrot Stories is a documentary that goes beyond its remit – to find a glimpse of the long-lost night parrot of central Australia, heard but not seen in 80 years – to deliver something more personal, elusive and poetic than you might expect.

Armed with his own camera, filmmaker Robert Nugent steps out to the places the parrot has been seen and heard, speaking with Indigenous elders, European museum professionals and outback residents to collect a constellation of viewpoints on the maybe-extinct bird, and the extinctions that are yet to come if capitalism and global warming continue unabated. This is a film that looks towards to future, yet has its roots firmly in pre-colonial ecology, framed by memory and recall of creatures and cultures that may be lost forever.

Film: A Separation (Iran, 2011) by Asghar Fahadi – out now

Asghar Fahadi’s films are minutely conceived dramas that zoom in on the crossroads of their characters’ lives to spell out grander moral and political visions. In this one, an Iranian couple must decide whether to leave the country for a better life or stay to care for a sick parent – with the drama increasingly enveloped by the court system as their marriage ruptures.

Fahadi is an analytical, cerebral filmmaker. He knows how to move the dramatic stakes from low-key to knife-edge. This is not a melodramatic or emotionally open film but one in which the pace is slowed down and anchored excruciatingly to the everyday. Like The Salesman from earlier this year, A Separation is attuned to how people stoically adjust to their obligations, and to the grand moments of breakdown in which exquisitely rendered interpersonal dynamics blow open each character’s blindspots of self-awareness. The overall feeling of this Oscar-winning film is of being trapped in a life that isn’t yours; the paths the plot takes are labyrinthine and mundanely claustrophobic, underscored by a sense of terrible futility and fate that is difficult to see as anything but a political commentary on Iran today.

TV: Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party season one (US, 2017) – out now

Thank you Viceland for this glorious piece of ironic programming. Think of the conventions you know of a cooking show: a live audience, a shiny aspirational kitchen set. Now divide that set down the middle, give one half to cashmere-cloaked, recovered white-collar criminal Martha Stewart, and the other to hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg, and put a fake DJ on the side. Our odd couple cook up themed tasty treats – pizza, pasta, pork, nose-to-tail – and mix cocktails, with famous special guests (including 50 Cent and trained chef Kelis).

Now imagine Snoop – who clearly doesn’t cook ever and cannot follow basic (life) instructions – delivering cooking-show segues to the camera, deadpan: “And when we come back, my finger-licking ribs will be ready.” The real joy is how both he and newly “hood certified” Martha are gamely aware of the show’s absurdity – it’s a big joke, but they’re committed to it. There’s nothing quite as slickly produced or high-budget on Australian television.

TV: Search Party season two (US, 2017) by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter – out now

Despite being a distinctly New York creation – and a noir sitcom – Search Party manages to conjure the modern universal impossible moment: a vision of big-city loneliness, of un-partnered, underemployed millennial youth floating about like leaves. The second season sees us realise something its protagonist, Dory (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), remains unable to – that her fixation, in season one, with distant college friend Chantal’s disappearance, was led by the delusional desire to have a cause and be a hero. Chantal’s presumed murder led in turn to a catastrophe of Dory and her friends’ own making, and now they are desperately covering their tracks.

The brilliance of this show is that it has no “moral compass” character. The humour is bitterly dark and the laughs come every minute, much of them milked from how individually and intimately each character is responding to the trauma they created in season one, particularly Elliot (John Early) who now departs reality altogether. A brilliant and oddly empathetic skewering of the blind spots of late-capitalist narcissism.

Honourable mentions: Carol, Purple Rain, Happy-Go-Lucky, Apocalypto (films, out now).

ABC iView

TV: You See Monsters (Australia, 2017) by Tony Jackson – out now

Post-9/11, Muslim artists have become more noticeable. “People see us as one hegemonic group that are all the same,” says Abdul Abdullah Rahman, a young artist whose work critiques the idea of the Muslim monster. While Muslims have come to consume a larger part of the national imagination – fears of white Australia being swamped, invaded, terrorised, bombed – this documentary hands the microphone to artists of all kinds of ethnicities who identify as Muslim.

I haven’t seen anything like this on Australian television – a show that combines political critique with arts journalism. Getting smart, interesting young artists to tell personal stories about being Australian and Muslim – talking about the difference between how others see them and how they see themselves, the way their transition into adulthood has been overshadowed by the war on terrorism – proves a powerful device for cutting through the fearful rhetoric of the Muslim as an imagined bad guy. Interlaced with images of the artworks themselves, this is great TV documentary-making.

TV: Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare (Australia, 2017) by Craig Anderson – out now

Struck with FOMO, jobbing actor and comedian Craig Anderson sets out to “not be that person who didn’t do what they were meant to with their life” – which is evidently to make a horror film about a foetus that survives an abortion and wreaks vengeance on its wouldn’t-be family, featuring a protagonist with Down’s syndrome, called Red Christmas.

Hiding behind this behind-the-scenes filmmaking documentary is a beautifully self-deprecating memoir of failure. Anderson is the kind of middle-aged bloke who’s still on his mum’s Medicare card, so there’s a lot tied up in his valiant mission to make a terrible low-budget horror movie. Beyond the placentas in freezers, covert location scouting and buckets of fake blood, what Horror Movie really gets to, quite endearingly, is the deficiencies and adjusted aspirations of adulthood.

Google Play

Film: First Girl I Loved (US, 2016) by Kerem Sanga – out now

The title is a nice inversion of the usual boy-meets-girl teen drama. Dylan Gelula plays Anne, an angsty outsider who falls in love with the most popular girl at school, Sasha, a carefree softballer with a conservative family. All the while, Anne’s best friend and rejected paramour Clifton looks on jealously. The initial wave of tentative attraction builds, but the burst and its aftermath are more bitter and tender than the escalation initially suggests.

Like all the best teen films, First Girl I Loved invests real empathy and understanding in the inner worlds of its young protagonists. Unlike most, it queers the teen drama, taking the genre out of heterosexual specifics and into more universal territory, as well as turning a first-love tale into a coming-out story. Though it doesn’t scale the comedic heights of Mean Girls or Easy A, or have the satirical bite of Heathers, this is a fine addition to the coming-of-age canon.


Film: I Am Not Your Negro (US, 2017) by Raoul Peck – out 14 December

The Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro connects present #BlackRightsMatters struggles with a longer arc of American injustice, montaging photos of people such as Trayvon Martin with those who died in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. By setting these images to the words of canonical writer James Baldwin and his unfinished manuscript Remember This House, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck draws towards his film a reservoir of great rhetoric, political power and emotional force.

The point of its punch is clear: slavery is the foundation of contemporary American racism, and of American capitalism itself. But by animating Baldwin’s words with Samuel L Jackson’s voice, the way Peck brings the story together is as poetic as it is polemic.


Lauren Carroll Harris

The GuardianTramp

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