Lost City of Z (US, 2017) by James Grey – film, out 29 May
One of the loveliest big-budget films of last year: a grand and tragic tale, shot with romance and longing, of a 20th century British explorer’s many attempts to find an Amazonian megacity, a hidden and complex civilisation, deep in South America. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is scoffed at by his contemporaries: how could an Indigenous society ever produce an advanced society shielded from the West? Undeterred and obsessed, Fawcett risks all – his wife (Sienna Miller), his children, and his reputation.
Director James Grey’s previous films have been emotionally restrained art house dramas, but the dynamism of the action-adventure genre allows him to reach for the sublime. In his hands, you feel you are really swatting away emerald green branches in the jungle, gliding down the river toward someplace ancient and hidden, and maybe out of reach.
Psychokinesis (South Korea, 2018) by Yeon Sang-ho – film, out now
From the director of the unusually profound and radical zombie apocalypse film Train to Busan (reviewed in this column last year), comes another genre experiment uniting supernatural themes with corporate conspiracy, spiritual epiphany, and familial love. Writer-director Yeon Sang-ho riffs on the idea of the everyday superhero: a bad father, Suk-Hun, gets a shot at redemption with his estranged daughter, Roo-Mi, after drinking mystically polluted spring water. Through his new telekinetic powers, the film threads together the idea of an everyday champion battling capitalist malice (a little like last year’s Okja, also from a South Korean director). It’s an imperfect, slowly plotted genre film – but also weird and heartfelt and goofy enough to warrant a look.
Honourable mentions: The Bourne Identity (film, out now), Dear White People Volume 2 (series, 4 May), The Simpsons Movie (film, 5 May), Mulholland Drive (film, 11 May), Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2 (series, 22 May), Jason Bourne (film, 23 May)
Frances Ha (US, 2012) by Noah Baumbach – film, out now
“I’m so embarrassed, I’m not a real person yet!” These words are the anti-manifesto at the centre of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s wonderful distillation of growing up, tripping over, and living imperfectly. Here, actor Gerwig shrugs off the mantle of muse (long before her brilliant directorial debut Lady Bird), fully asserting herself as a collaborator in a comedic drama that, for all its whimsy, never feels slight, as it flutters around the life of its heroine Frances, a dancer trying to make something – anything – of herself in New York City.
The Bling Ring (US, 2013) by Sofia Coppola – film, out now
“The suspects wore Louboutins”: in Sofia Coppola’s hands, a Vanity Fair article on the vanity of a gang of rich kids in Los Angeles – who stole $3m worth of consumer goods from the homes of the ultra-rich stars, such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan – becomes an ironic portrait of teen celeb worship and girlish entrapment.
Coppola’s films have always been tuned to the female psyche within various social prisons, but here the material is explicitly satirical. A teen movie turned true-crime tale, The Bling Ring isn’t just a takedown of privileged girls in the Hollywood Hills, but an acerbic indictment of a society that values youth, beauty, wealth and fame as its highest accomplishments.
Honourable mentions: Tangerine (film, out now), Adventure Time (series, new episodes from 4 May), Blue is the Warmest Colour (film, 9 May).
Barry (US, 2018) by Bill Hader and Alec Berg – series, new episodes on Mondays
If most comedies hinge on what critic Manohla Dargis calls “the clueless, often beleaguered yet fundamentally decent and finally (of course) triumphant character”, Barry uncomfortably, bravely, removes the certainty of triumph. It’s the latest in a spate of anti-aspirational comedies of people who are lost in the system, in the vein of Search Party and Atlanta.
Writer, director and producer Bill Hader plays a low-level, disillusioned hitman, who decides to try his luck at acting, bringing him into the orbit of all manner of LA scammers (such as his acting coach Henry Winkler) and deluded hopefuls. Success in the entertainment biz is a goal he’s never likely to achieve, which makes the possible trajectory of this already dark program even darker. What’s more, Barry’s trauma is founded in his past as a marine in Afghanistan, grounding the show’s gags in a merciless view of the US as a country of wandering souls. Barry might be shadowy but it’s never grim, and it is unexpectedly insightful.
The Americans season six (US, 2018) by Joe Weisberg – series, new episodes on Wednesdays
The dramatic vortex of former CIA officer Joe Weisberg’s spy drama has never really been Cold War politics. No, The Americans’ wonderfully gloomy Reaganite setting, and the premise of deep-cover KGB agents in arranged marriages in suburban Washington, has always functioned as a grand metaphor for the mysteries of long-term relationships. This final season’s plotlines cleave closer than ever to the most jagged, obsessive edges of the relationship between Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings.
Having resigned from most of his duties at the KGB, Philip is re-recruited to spy on ever-loyal Elizabeth, who is training their daughter as an agent and working on undermining Gorbachev’s Perestroika process. It’s 1987, and they have no inkling of the political chaos that awaits: the dramatic and psychological stakes are higher than ever before. The series has always invested itself in the bonds of family and partnership, yet season six feels gloomier and more doom-laden than its precedents.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australia, 2018) by – series, all episodes 6 May
Pegged by Foxtel as a darker, sexier look at the Australian classic, it remains debatable whether a remake of Picnic At Hanging Rock needs to exist. But the new series is a departure from the norms of Australian television, bringing campy fun to the hypnotic tone of Peter Weir’s original, in which three girls and their teacher are swallowed by the Australian bush on Valentine’s Day in 1900.
Based on a viewing of the first episode, the remake is a fresh reimagining in the vein of 21st century, #MeToo feminism. Natalie Dormer (best known for Game of Thrones) plays a governess who brings her own hauntings to the narrative. The show is energetic and aesthetically bold, going way beyond the boilerplate quality of much “prestige” TV. Worth exploring.
Honourable mentions: The Talented Mr Ripley, The Breakfast Club, Wolf Children (films, out now), Westworld season two (new episodes on Mondays), The Perfect Storm (film, 8 May).
Art Bites: Lessons from a Middle-Class Artist (Australia, 2018) – series, out now
Anthony from Adelaide, disenchanted by his musical failures, travels to Danvers, Massachusetts, to meet Matt Farley, to learn how to become a middle-class artist. Farley is a spam songwriter – his strategy is to go for bulk, writing and uploading 18,000 comedy songs to streaming services to earn half a penny for each listen. The songs are slight and silly, but it is genuinely heartening to see a little guy make music streaming systems work for him. Farley’s blueprint for doing just that is fascinating.
Honourable mentions: The Checkout (new episodes on Tuesdays), Rage (new episodes on Sundays).
SBS On Demand
The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2018) by Bruce Miller – series, new episodes on Thursdays
The Handmaid’s Tale has never been an easy watch, but the second season of the dystopian drama – set in a future where a religious order of male power has enslaved fertile women – is somehow grislier than the first. By the end of episode one, June (Elisabeth Moss), five weeks pregnant, has reconnected with the Resistance and stolen away to freedom, but not without the show moving toward full horror in its aesthetic conventions.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not subtle storytelling: the violence is always at fever-pitch, the dramatic stakes are unmodulated. And that can mean that its other themes – solidarity, resistance against tyranny, the concept of “gender treason” – slide by unnoticed. For many, the anguish of watching won’t be worth it. But the vision of a totalitarian society is realised so fully that the story remains gripping and its message vital.
Frog Dreaming (Australia, 1986) by Brian Trenchard-Smith – film, until 20 May
This gorgeous film from a lost chapter of local cinema history is back in the SBS catalogue for a brief spell. Last year for this publication, I wrote about Frog Dreaming: “a strange and rather wonderful should-be Australian classic: a children’s adventure film from 1986, which plays like a lost tradition of politically incorrect kids’ cinema. Its boy hero is a 15-year-old American called Cody (played by Henry Thomas, the star of ET) who lives in an idyllic Australian valley town. In Devil’s Knob national park full of ‘frog dreamings, like sacred sites,’ he stumbles on a pond haunted by a monster alluded to in local Indigenous stories. Every frame of this film is suffused with madness and love. A very fine, overlooked piece of fantasy film-making”.
Honourable mentions: Lost Highway, The Player, Dead Ringers, Margin Call (films, out now), Eurovision Song Contest 2018: Semi Final 2 (NITV, 13 May), If You Are The One (new episodes on Sundays), Sons of Namatjira (NITV, 14 May), Redfern Now (NITV, 17 May), Guy Fieri (collection, 24 May).
• This article was edited on Tuesday 8 May to correct the location of the Art Bites documentary subject