A wild bunch
Netflix goes bloodily West in Godless, a seven-part limited series written and directed by Scott Frank (“Logan” and “Minority Report”). What begins in fairly conventional style grows wilder as Frank sinks his teeth into the dialogue. Jeff Daniels is chillingly persuasive as Frank Griffin, a one-armed, scripture-quoting mass-murderer at the head of a roving gang of outlaws. On the run from Griffin is Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell, above), a former gang member who comes to rest, perforated and leaking, in a mining town run almost entirely by women. There he meets sharpshooting widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, above), the mayor’s trouser-wearing, gun-slinging widow (Merritt Wever) and several others who are “done with the notion that bliss for me and my sisters is to be found in childbearing and caregiving”. But with the mad, bad Griffin using the pointing finger of his own severed arm to navigate the landscape, a grim reckoning is coming.
On Netflix from Nov 22nd
Rude, shrewd and heaving with good jokes, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel (by Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of “Gilmore Girls”) has star quality written all over it. Rachel Brosnahan (below) is irresistibly energetic as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a Jewish mother-of-two living in fabulous wealth on the Upper West Side with her husband, an aspiring stand-up comic. When he leaves, her world collapses – for just as long as it takes her to stagger on stage at the Gaslight Café, full of booze and fury, microphone in hand. Within days she’s rocketing towards stand-up fame, in the company of her growling agent, Susie (Alex Borstein), and newfound comedy colleague Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby, capturing the real Bruce to the life). It’s a heady trip through the hard-scrabble world of gleaming 1950s New York, bathed in big-band tunes and yanked along by Sherman-Palladino’s unstoppable comic energy. Binge material if ever there was.
On Amazon from Nov 29th
Not flying but falling
It’s documentary television, but not as we know it. Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”, “The Thin Blue Line”) uses a mixture of interview and dramatisation to tell the story of Frank Olson, a CIA biochemist who fell from a hotel window in 1953 after being fed LSD by his employers. That’s the official story of Wormwood, but as Morris peels back the layers with Olson’s son Eric, who has devoted much of his life to investigating the incident, other whispers emerge: a bioweapons scandal, the horrors of the MKUltra experimental drugging programme and, not least, a sorrowful portrait of Eric’s life spent chasing shadows. In the splendidly noir drama sequences, Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker give haunting performances as a couple flailing in the tightening noose of paranoid plot and counterplot. Answers are in short supply, but this is film-making of striking confidence, with Morris delightedly at ease in his custom-built docudrama form.
On Netflix from Dec 15th
Tim Martin writes about TV, games and technology for 1843
Something in the water
The latest waking dream from Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water, is more than simply one of the most enjoyable films of the year, it’s six or seven of them: a romantic comedy which is also a monster movie, a cold-war spy caper, and more. The fantasy expert behind “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy” has poured all of his obsessions into one lavishly designed, intricately scripted and exquisitely acted fairy tale. Sally Hawkins stars as a mute janitor in a government research facility in Baltimore in 1962. While cleaning one of the cavernous laboratories, she finds an otherworldly amphibian creature (Doug Jones), captured in South America by a sadistic security goon (the reliably intimidating Michael Shannon). The beast may have gills and webbed feet, but she dives into a relationship with him. Viewers should take the plunge, too.
In America from Dec 8th and in Britain from Feb 14th
It’s the size that counts
Two Midwesterners (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are having money problems, but a discovery by scientists in Norway could solve them all. For a small fee, they can be miniaturised to a height of 13cm, enabling them to live the high life at low cost. After all, anybody can afford a luxury mansion when it’s no larger than a doll’s house. They can also rest easy in the knowledge that their carbon footprint has shrunk too. The offbeat premise of Downsizing is quite a departure for Alexander Payne, the creator of such leisurely comedy dramas as “Sideways” and “About Schmidt”. But his swerve into surreal Charlie Kaufman territory is just the beginning. The film starts as a quiet, wryly funny satire, and grows ever stranger, bolder and more apocalyptic to become a toweringly ambitious science-fiction epic.
In America from Dec 22nd and in Britain from Jan 19th
Michael Haneke is 75, but the Austrian writer-director is still showing younger film-makers how it’s done. Who else experiments more playfully with narrative structure, looks more squarely at humanity’s capacity for evil or engages more eagerly with digital technology and contemporary politics? Haneke’s first film since “Amour” in 2012, Happy End is a blackly comic portrait of the Laurent family (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, among others), a clan of industrialists so used to extreme wealth and power that they are as contemptuous of the law as they are of other people’s feelings. Worse still, the next generation of Laurents promises to be even more cruel than their parents. The Calais setting may link the film particularly to Europe’s refugee crisis, but any of today’s plutocratic dynasties will see its reflection in Haneke’s bracingly bleak amorality tale.
In America from Dec 22nd and in Britain from Dec 1st
Nicholas Barber is a film critic for The Economist and BBC Culture online