Even before the quarantine due to COVID-19, I’ve been watching a lot of films and television shows across the various streaming platforms I’m a sucker for: HBO, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime. For those who also subscribe to any one or all of them, I think it’s time to give some recommendations. Now, I could do a blog post for each one individually and rattle off a bunch of recommendations, but I wanted to be as economical as possible here.
More or less, my system was to try to recommend one film and TV show from each streaming service that’s fairly recent, along with an older selection. I also tried, where I could, to pick less well-known recommendations. To satiate my need to recommend more, I added a “runner-up” category for film and TV.
There are so many great films and TV shows not included on this list. Just assume I also love those, too! I will try to keep this from becoming a 10,000-word blog post by only blurbing these. Suffice it to say, I have … a lot more to say about all of these. (Don’t hold me to it, circling back after finishing the HBO section, I might go a while.)
HBO: TV Shows
One of the greatest TV shows I’ve ever seen. Welp, too late on letting that hype train go. This three-season show that ran from 2014 to 2017 comes from the mind of Damon Lindelof. The basic premise is that there was a “sudden departure” of 140 million people across the globe, and everyone is left to deal with what that means and what happened. It sounds like a gimmick, and it is, but it’s a way to examine grief and loss in a way I’ve never seen a show tackle. But then the show goes unexpected and new places in the second and third seasons. You have to watch to see. It’s truly an impressive feat of imaginative television-making.
Well, would you look at that? Another Lindelof show, this one only one season from 2019. As nine episodes of a standalone TV show goes, it’s also one of the best I’ve ever seen. Even if you’ve never read the 1986 graphic novel (and you should!) that inspired it, and even if you don’t care anything for superheroes or comic books (what’s wrong with you?), this show explores the depths and depravities of racism and the quest for power, and has performances from Regina King (as Angela Abar/Sister Night) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (as her husband, Cal) that are among the best you’ll see on the small screen. There are few shows that have so satisfactorily blown my brain, and unlike The Leftovers or some other Lindelof properties, while you’ll certainly have moments of, “What’s going on here?” he pays them off almost immediately. Watch it.
Ford v Ferrari
This 2019 Best Picture-nominated film, despite that acclaim, I feel got looked over for, admittedly, superior films in that category, but not by much. Christian Bale speaks for himself, as far as I’m concerned, but Matt Damon also gives one of his best performances in years here. Also, sound UP for this one, as the sound editing and mixing on this film is incredible. Even if you’re not a rah-rah America guy (and I’m not), this film will make you appreciate American ingenuity and grit.
Runner-up: Die Hard
Yes, Die Hard. After my surgery in late 2019, one of the first things I did was binge watch all five films in the Die Hard franchise, so thank you Bruce Willis. But none of the films are as great as the original in 1988. Willis, Alan Rickman and my man, Reginald VelJohnson as Al Powell, an LAPD sergeant. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Die Hard, THE greatest action film of all time, what are you doing with your life? And if you’ve already seen this film before, watch it again, it can’t hurt.
Hulu: TV Shows
I mentioned having my mind blown by Watchmen. If Watchmen blew my mind, this from the brilliant mind of Alex Garland in 2020, took my mind, sifted it through a black hole and projected it back to me. As a philosophy guy, a TV show like this that deals heavily in those themes about life and the meaning of life, and through the vessel of an unexpected source (Nick Offerman, who is most known for his role on the comedy show Parks and Recreation), was bound to hook me. Also, since Garland comes from the silver screen, this is a beautiful show to look at, much less to contemplate the weightier elements. The less said about what the premise is, the better.
One of my favorite shows as a teenager was FX’s Justified. FX was doing a lot of great work in the mid-to-late 2000s, and Justified ranks up there as one of the best. Running from 2010 to 2015, what makes this show so good is that it’s set in a place you don’t normally see television shows (especially at that time): the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. We also have rock star performances from Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal in the protagonist role, and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, who is one of the best villains in TV history. This is a fun, gritty show.
Directed by Olivia Wilde in her feature directorial debut, this 2019 coming-of-age comedy film is one of, if not arguably, the best film I saw in 2019. Yes, I said that. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in the two main roles deserved more love for their authentic performances. If you thought there wasn’t much more material to extrapolate from the well-mined material of the “teens who party and learn life lessons” film genre, then you’re in for a treat with this one.
Runner-up: Up in the Air
This 2009 film is another one that was well-received by critics and got a Best Picture nomination, but I feel has since fallen through the cracks: This is a great film starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick (what a cast that is). It’s another in the romance/comedy genre that hits the right mark and tone. Also, another one of those films heavy on dialogue, but doesn’t feel slow. Brisk dialogue is hard to pull off, as I’ve written about before, but it works here.
Netflix: TV Shows
Better Call Saul
There are a lot of shows to choose from, both new and old, when it comes to Netflix, but there may be none better than Better Call Saul. If you had told me that a spin-off show of one of my favorite television shows ever (Breaking Bad) would somehow make an argument for being even better than that which it spun off of, I would have laughed at you. But Better Call Saul does the trick, perhaps, with Vince Gilligan again at the helm, and Bob Odenkirk stealing the show as Jimmy McGill. The show tracks McGill’s devolution in morality as he becomes the Saul Goodman we know from the original show. It’s perfection, folks. That’s all.
Runner-up: The Crown
A co-worker, who is into the royals, recommended this 2016-to-present television show about Queen Elizabeth II from her wedding in 1947 to the early 21st century. The premise didn’t sound like something I would devour, but let me you tell you: Give me phenomenal acting, phenomenal dialogue, phenomenal drama within that dialogue, and intermix in historical items about Britain and Winston Churchill? Sign me up. When you can make me devour a show that is almost 100 percent dialogue, you know that dialogue is top shelf. I can’t recommend this enough if you’re looking to feel high brow.
The Squid and the Whale
Here’s one of my more under-the-radar recommendations, this 2005 film that tells the story of two brothers in New York dealing with their parents’ divorce in the 1980s. For one, I’m a bit of a Jesse Eisenberg super fan. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film of his that I don’t love, and he’s predictably great in this. But also, Jeff Daniels, man. Again, if you’re wanting to feel high brow, then go with this arthouse film. It won’t disappoint.
I’m an Eisenberg super fan, but whatever the word is for being more than super, that applies to Jake Gyllenhaal. He can do anything on film and again, I’m not sure I’ve seen a film of his that disappointed me. This 2014 thriller is one of the most unsettling films and six years later, still has left an unmistakable indelible mark on me. Particularly as someone in the journalism business, the themes about unethical journalism resonate well. If this is one of those Gyllenhaal vehicles you missed, it’s well-worth going out of your way to watch.
Amazon: TV Shows
Another FX show was bound to make the list because, well, FX has made some great television shows. One of the absolute best is The Americans about two Russian spies pretending to be an all-American family at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s (or perhaps the decline?). As a pair, Matthew Rhys (Phillip Jennings) and Keri Russell (Elizabeth Jennings) might be my favorite performances in television history. The acting and chemistry between them is worth a watch alone, but add in spy intrigue, historical markers, the intensity of having an FBI agent living across the street, family and personal drama (that’s really what the show is about), and you have the makings of a show rightly considered to be one of the best ever.
Runner-up: The Boys
Here’s another one, like Watchmen, where even if you haven’t read the comic book of the same name (I haven’t) and/or aren’t into comic books and superheroes (again, what’s wrong with you?), this is one of the shows still worth watching. As with the best TV shows, the hook is superheroes and such, but the meat and potatoes of the show is about power and corporatism run amok. It paints a bleak, sometimes hard to watch, picture, but it’s one of the more welcome surprise watches of last year for me.
Amazon Prime: Films
The Big Sick
Apparently, I’m really into romantic comedies, as I’ve unintentionally selected a lot of those, but 2017’s The Big Sick is one of those films I saw getting a lot of hype, and I finally watched it last year. I believe it lived up to the hype. It’s a beautiful film, and again, somehow manages to do the romantic comedy routine in a new and interesting way. Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardner, Kumail Nanjiani’s girlfriend, is so lovely in this, too. She gives one of my low-key favorite performances in the last half decade. I may disagree with how some people have extrapolated the politics of this film, but who cares, the film itself, on its own merits, is great.
Runner-up: Leaving Las Vegas
Back to my old school shoutouts: If you haven’t seen Nicholas Cage, who in the late 2000s became a bit of a parody of himself, albeit, he’s making something of a career resurgence now, in his best performance ever, then you need to see this 1995 film. Incidentally, opposite him in this film is also one of the main characters in The Boys: Elizabeth Shue. She’s not out-staged by Cage here at all; she more than holds her own. Even up against Cage giving his great performance as a suicidal alcoholic. Yes, I know Cage won Best Actor, Shue was nominated (lost to a worthy contender in SUsan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking), and Mike Figgis’ direction and screenplay were also nominated, but I still feel like this film is in the Up in the Air category of being forgotten about.
Again, there are so many films and TV shows across these streaming platforms I could also recommend, both new and old. It’s hard to narrow it down, but even if you only take up one of these recommendations, I’d be happy to hear that! Let me know what you think!
What are some films and TV shows on these platforms you would recommend? There’s a good chance I may have already seen them, but you never know, you could be giving me something new to dive into!