As the weather turns butt-ass cold at the Jersey shore, I find myself spending more "quality time" with my dear friend, Netflix. (Hey, it's only $10 a month - cheaper than many of my flesh and bone counterparts.)
Below is my list of streaming Netflix programs that range from sharp and witty, to carefree indulgence, to damn, that's some heavy shit.
Shameless is a diabolically clever show with a lot of heart, even amidst the characters' glaring imperfections and never-ending hardships.
The father is a drunken bastard with a 6 kids, who are essentially raising themselves (Mom left years ago). But don't let the heavy premise dissuade you; the show highlights the triumph of the human spirit and variations on what we define as "family...and the need for a really good party.
Challenge: Find another actor who plays a drunk as well as David Threlfall (above). I don't know if its his impeccable acting ability (stage actor), or the make-up (which is done just right) but he has embodied this part, that's for sure.
Bravo to this fantastic UK-based crime drama. It's gritty, human and Idris Elba is infinitely captivating. It's a an intense, psychologically-brooding series (think Wire in the Blood--one of my faves ever) but still maintains a sense of humor. A must see, this one.
What a smart and contemporary interpretation of Sherlock Holmes! The relationship between Holmes and Watson is complex and sweet, even though Holmes is well aware of his sociopathy and inability to truly love.
The series almost lost me with Martin Freeman's performance as Holmes, which veered toward the silly and overly deadpan at times, but I came back for more and the relationship improved.
Besides, any actor named Benedict Cumberbatch (above) just has to be good. Stunning looking man. He can solve my crime any day...and I have a lot of them.
Anderson has never been one of my favorite actors. She's often struck me as chilly and a bit vacuous. But I'm a converted fan now. She nails it (with a questionable accent unfortunately) in this well-directed and nuanced show with serious feminist underpinnings (a rarity in this genre).
But the real shocker is the killer, played by a former Calvin Klein model Jamie Dornan. Now before you scoff, let me tell you this: he gives one of the scariest portrayals of any serial killer I've seen. Perhaps it because of his good looks that you're that much more surprised of his dark side. More likely, its because the director makes sure you really get to know the killer--intimately. Dare I say, you almost feel for him and his awful sickness.
Its a strange, scary journey but well worth it.
The Bletchley Circle
Set in in England during the 50's, this mini-series follows four women who once worked at a wartime code-breaking center and reunite to track down a serial killer. Anna Maxwell Martin (same fantastic actor in Bleak House) leads the pack. In addition to working on a crime, each must overcome the limitations of a sexist society that doesn't take their skills seriously.
What a clever show gone wrong, then boom, cancelled.
The premise of the show consists of a group of individuals with "enhanced abilities" like super-strength senses (Rachel can hear hearts beating), the ability to "push" (hypnotize), and rapid-fire reflexes.
My particular favorite is Gary (played to sweet perfection by Ryan Cartwright below) who is autistic and possesses the ability to read electromagnetic waves, intercepting cell phone calls, broadcasts and the like.
So what went wrong? The show turned too aggro with an annoying story line where they take on an "alpha" villain who threatens to end the world. Prior to this misstep, Alphas was clever and distinctly human, with flawed and unusual "super heroes."
North and South
Richard Armitage, why can't I be in a romantic scene with you? Why?
This British serial drama produced by the BBC movie is the most romantic program on the list so far, for those who are amorously inclined (aren't we all?).
The leads share a taut and tangible chemistry between one another and the scene where they (finally!) kiss for the first time is positively knee melting. Based on a Victorian novel by Elizabeth Gaskell.
Pretty Little Liars
Pretty Little Liars is total candy, I admit...but who doesn't like candy? This show chronicles the privileged lives of 4 teens (who looked like this during their teen years?) as they uncover the mystery surrounding their haughty friend's death. They're not particularly honest and at times ruthless, which makes the show that much more fun to watch.
It's Charmed but with meaner, snobbier witches.
Okay, you've probably seen Portlandia before...but have you really seen Portlandia, like all of it? When I saw it years ago, I found it a little smug and uptight. But I gave it a second chance and watched every episode (yes I do too have a social life...sometimes) and I'm glad I did.
Some of Portlandia skits definitely fall flat (like the animated segments where they play mice...bleh), but overall, what a razor-sharp team, creating pieces that take a well-needed potshot at the "hippie elite" culture.
Watch the wonder that is Kyle MacLachlan (who also is my boyfriend...shhh). He is so adorable and wacky as the mayor of Portlandia.
This nuanced BBC series based on Charles Dickens most-esteemed novel reminds the viewer of the wonder of Dickens, who so deftly created such complex, interesting (and funny) characters.
Bleak House chronicles the life of Esther Summerson (played by the infinitely watchable Anna Maxwell Martin, above), an orphan who moves into Bleak House with her two cousins who quickly become wrapped up in a intractable legal battle.
(Hats off to Gillian Anderson steely performance as Lady Dedlock, below. Again, I didn't think she had it in her.)
This documentary will have you saying, "No! Impossible!" But it is. And he did. And they did. Wow.
A 2012 documentary based on the 1997 case of the French deception artist Frédéric Bourdin who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a Texas boy who disappeared at the age of 13 in 1994.
I am Dina
Don't make her angry...just, don't.
Okay you may sue me for this suggestion. Or we'll be best friends for life. This movie is a little weird. Maybe a lot weird. But certainly original and very pretty (shot in Norway).
And the lead? Man oh man, she is one wild and crazy bitch.
Dina (played by the insanely beautiful Maria Bonnevie) was responsible for the accidental death of her mother and her father is so bereft, he leaves the young Dina to fend for herself. She grows up in this feral-like manner, with only one true friend (a household servant).
One of the best scenes? Dina's miserably father slaps her in the face when she's fully grown (which he had done once before when Dina was a child) and she goes bah-listic on him. By the end of the scene, the viewer and the fictional father know, he will never, ever raise a hand to this woman again. All women take note!
This movie takes you on an unusual journey that is surreal, touching and and at times, overreaching.
Chock full of ghosts
Okay I may have suggested this show before but it's so scary and good, it bears repeating. It's still one of my favorites for an cold night at home where I can hide safely under covers. Well-crafted, real ghost stories told by the people who experienced them. Produced and re-enacted well.
My latest favorite? The "Ghostly Affair" episode, shot in the Arkansas home shown above. (But all of them will raise your hair a little, trust me.)
Queen Victoria (played by Dame Judi Dench) is deeply depressed after the death of her husband. Her rebellious and spirited servant John Brown slowly brings her back to life with genuine acts of kindness and affection.
It's a real treat to watch Billy Connolly act, since I wasn't familiar to much of his work prior to Mrs. Brown.
The Secret Circle
Another "Pringles" show like Pretty Little Liars (meaning it's no good for you but you'll eat it all anyway), The Secret Circle is a team of young adults with magical abilities, strengthened when they are together.
This show was eventually cancelled but I found the cast watchable and the plot line captivating enough. The real downfall of the show, unfortunately, is the lead, who doesn't quite have the kick-ass gravitas as Buffy or Xena.
Does this look like Jonathan Pryce to you?
This movie can border on the sleepy at times but its such a unique plot line that I stuck with it. Movies that show different types of relationships are too few and far between, and this is one of them.
Based on famous Victorian painter (and member of the famous Bloomsbury group) Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) forms a non-traditional relationship with gay writer Lytton Strachey (played by the amazing Jonathan Pryce, who I could barely recognize in this role).
I know, I know. You've all seen it. But I avoided it. It seemed like it had to suck kinda, simply based on its over-the-top popularity. But then I broke down and gave it a shot...and I really liked it.
Non-traditional female lead, engaging sci-fi premise, cool, gritty look and feel and not bogged down with special effects or so glossy you need to wear glasses. It reminded me of sci-fi I've liked in the past, like Alien, Running Man, Terminator, etc--just fun, interesting, watchable science fiction.
Diana Vreeland - The Eye Has to Travel
Charming documentary about famed Vogue fashion editor and iconocast Diana Vreeland reminds us what it means to be a true artist. It's more than just style but lifestyle.
"She made it okay for women to be outlandish and extraordinary," says Angelica Huston. And so she did.
“The future holds a golden world. It will be for beauty; it will be for intelligent productiveness.” - Diana Vreeland
Good to watch with a group.
I thought this indie flick would be another depressing "girl goes to Hollywood to become a star and becomes a porn star instead" movie. But that premise is merely a backdrop for a very particular friendship that forms between the "starlet" and a cranky elderly woman. It's a surprisingly hopeful piece of work, reminding us all that friendships come in all forms.
Interesting surprise ending as well.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
What Netflix list is complete without a classic or two? The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a captivating romantic fantasy film starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.
Gene Tierney has to be one of the most beautiful women of all time. But more importantly, this film simply transports you into a world where your real love might be astrally challenged and in the form of a cranky sea captain.
But its more than your average vintage romance movie; there are resonant messages about independence, destiny and self-discovery.
Set in England, the movie is actually shot entirely in California.
Cold Comfort Farm
Yes, a movie that many of you have seen, but I hadn't. Cute, quirky and imaginative with the most particular characters. If you're looking for an enchanting film to lighten your spirit, this is it. Another good group watch.
Okay, what streaming Netflix suggestions do you have? (As you see, I've watched almost everything.)
1) Death and the Civil War. One of the best Civil War documentaries I've ever seen. It discusses how the extraordinary number of casualties collided with the 18th and 19th century American view of the "good death."
2) The Rape of Europa. A documentary on the nazi looting of European art during WWII, and Allied attempts to return stolen art and to protect art from destruction during combat.
3) Departures. A wonderful Japanese movie about a man who thinks he is applying for a job as a travel agent, and then discovers that the job involves a very different kind of departure. Don't miss this one.
4) Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. An action movie on the surface, it's about political and police corruption in Brazil.
5) The Whistleblower. An American policewoman working for the U.N. in Bosnia uncovers a criminal conspiracy involving some of her coworkers.
6) Five Minutes of Heaven. A movie about murder and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, with James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson.
7) In The Loop. Hilarious British political comedy about the preparations for war against an unnamed Middle Eastern country. If possible, turn on subtitles or closed captioning; some of the British accents are a bit hard to understand. Also stars the late James Gandolfini, may he rest in peace.
8) Blackfish. Documentary about the use of killer whales as sea park entertainment, and the harm done both to the animals and to their trainers.
The original "House of cards" trilogy with Ian Richardson is not to be missed! Also, in honor of Peter O'Toole's death, "Becket". Rated them both 5 stars.
Anyone who liked The Queen should also see The Deal and The Special Relationship. Both star Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. The Deal covers Blair's entry into politics and how he and Gordon Brown led the rise of Labour in the 90s. The Special Relationship covers the Blair-Clinton years with Dennis Quaid playing the President.
Finally, while I'm on a Brit kick, Hidden Agenda (the 1990 Ken Loach film) is an excellent film. It's about an assassination and subsequent investigation. The cast is headed by Frances McDormand and Brian Cox.
The History of Future Folk. Space aliens sent to take over Earth are sidetracked from their mission when they fall in love with an art form unique to Earth: music.
Somm: a documentary on what it takes to be a master sommelier.
Upside Down. A nice romantic comedy. Other than that I don't know how to describe this movie without sounding crazy.
Shut Up Little Man! A documentary in which two roommates record the insults and squabbles of their next door neighbors.