What to watch next: the 10 best TV shows and movies of 2021 so far

The viewing year is off to a great start with a diverse range of TV shows and movies given five-star and four-star reviews by our critics.

The Virtues ★★★★★

Why watch: Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire) delivers a devastating performance as a shattered man confronting long-buried trauma. The four-part series reunites him with This is England writer-director Shane Meadows. Singularly fearsome, vulnerable and magnetic, Graham has never been better. Outstanding television.

Stephen Graham plays Joseph in British mini-series The Virtues, streaming locally on Stan.Credit:Stan

If you like: This Is England (the 2006 film and two sequel mini-series are also streaming on Stan) and tough, unflinching dramas in which old wounds are ripped open and happy endings are not guaranteed.

What you’ll want to search: The interview in which Meadows explains how the series was informed by abuse he suffered as a child.

Read our review by Brad Newsome.

Its a Sin ★★★★★

The incredible cast of It’s A Sin is a mix of young stars and veterans such as Stephen Fry. Credit:Stan

Why watch: An incredible cast – from emerging young stars to veterans such as Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris – brings screenwriter Russell T. Davies’ depiction of London’s gay scene in the 1980s to life in all its highs and devastating lows, as a nascent health crisis engulfs the city. There’s plenty of heartbreak, but it’s also a joyful celebration of youth, discovery and embracing identity.

If you like: Most of Davies’ previous work, such as Queer As Folk, Cucumber and Years and Years, or US drama Looking.

What youll want to search: If you’re shocked by some of the bigotry depicted in the series, a quick Google will reveal the prejudice and misinformation around HIV, particularly in the 1980s. Also check out Michael Idato’s interview with Russell T. Davies.

Read our review by Kylie Northover.

Aftertaste ★★★★
ABC, Wednesdays at 9pm. Also streaming now on iview

Why watch: Erik Thomson (Packed to the Rafters, 800 Words) has made a career out of playing nice guys, but he has a lot of fun here letting the nasty loose as past-his-prime celebrity chef Easton West. He’s not the only big name on the menu – Rachel Griffiths and Wayne Blair have big supporting roles – but newcomer Natalie Abbott as budding pastry chef Diana is the standout ingredient of this delicious comedy-drama.

If you like: MasterChef, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Chef’s Table – but secretly find all that chef worship just a bit too much.

Angry chef Easton West (played by Erik Thomson) has some home truths coming his way in ABC’s Aftertaste.Credit:ABC

What you’ll want to search: Marco Pierre White’s autobiography White Slave. The photos will make you understand why the world fell in love with him; the stories might make you wonder how we could ever have been so foolish. You might even end up feeling sorry for Gordon Ramsay, who learnt his berating skills from the best.

Read our review by Karl Quinn.

The End ★★★★
Fox Showcase and Foxtel on Demand

Why watch: As well as the fact that it stars the brilliant Dame Harriet Walter (reason enough to tune in), The End’s ambitious exploration of euthanasia through comedy is unlike much we’ve seen on TV before, equally devastating and funny. It also has a great cast featuring some of Australia’s best actors, including Frances O’Connor, Robyn Nevin, Noni Hazlehurst, John Waters and Roy Billing.

Harriet Walter (left) and Frances O’Connor in The End.Credit:Foxtel

If you like: Comedy that doesn’t shy away from the dark and bleak; existential series such as The End of the F—ing World, The Good Place and Bojack Horseman.

What you’ll want to search: The different euthanasia laws around Australia and the world, or where else you can watch Dame Harriet Walter. You can also check out Craig Mathieson’s interview with Frances O’Connor.

Read our review by Kylie Northover.

Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time ★★★★
SBS on Demand

Jeff Goldblum in the documentary series Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time.Credit:SBS

Why watch: As well as being an excellent primer on classic cult horror and sci-fi films, particularly from the VHS era, Time Warp’s interviews with directors and actors offer a glimpse into a style of low-fi filmmaking that doesn’t exist in the same way today. That ranges from actors doubling as stuntmen on George A. Romero’s legendary Dawn of the Dead to Tobe Hooper using real chainsaw blades in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

If you like: Horror and sci-fi films, old-school, pre-CGI special effects and campy comedy.

What you’ll want to search: The JustWatch app to find where you can watch many of the films mentioned. Otherwise, eBay for some of the VHS slashers that almost certainly haven’t made it to any of the streaming services.

Read our review by Kylie Northover.

The White Tiger ★★★★

Adarsh Gourav, ​Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao in The White Tiger.Credit:Singh Tejinder/ Netflix

Why watch: Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker winner is a ferocious satire about Balram, a boy from a rural village who is on the make in modern Delhi. Ramin Bahrani’s film version succeeds in capturing its tone, although Balram’s mordant narration loses a little of its edge. His story would be barely credible in another kind of society, but Adiga and Bahrani portray the machinations governing this one so vividly that you’re never in doubt.

If you like: Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire or Bahrani’s 2014 film 99 Homes.

What you’ll want to search: The life and career of The White Tiger’s author, Aravind Adiga, who spent three years living in Australia.

Read our review by Sandra Hall.

WandaVision ★★★★

Why watch: It’s a smart and slick entry-level piece of Marvel comic book storytelling. Many of the big-ticket titles expect a measure of pre-knowledge, but WandaVision lands with a fairly easy premise that isn’t too overloaded with comic-book case history.

If you like: Classic American sitcoms such as Bewitched and The Brady Bunch, then you will appreciate the production design and the attention to detail in WandaVision. Ultimately, though, this is a series for people who are investing in the slowly unfurling mystery and the inevitable reveal of Wanda and Vision’s superhero selves.

Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in WandaVision. Credit:Marvel Studios

What you’ll want to search: The Wikipedia articles on Wanda Maximoff and Vision give a good background to the key characters if you’re not up to scratch on your comic book canon. If you have the time, the 2015 film Avengers: Age of Ultron (streaming on Disney+, or for rent on iTunes, Amazon, Fetch and YouTube) introduces both characters to the Marvel “Cinematic Universe”.

Read our review by Michael Idato.

The Dig ★★★★

Why watch: Ralph Fiennes can slide effortlessly up and down the British class system, adjusting his accent as easily as he changes costume. Here he lands among the enterprising working class as Basil Brown, the self-taught archaeologist who, in 1939, uncovered the Anglo-Saxon burial ship the Sutton Hoo, one of the world’s most dazzling archaeological finds. Carey Mulligan shines as Edith Pretty, the prescient landowner who hires him to excavate the mysterious mounds on her property.

If you like: The English Patient (1996), which is possibly the most romantic film Fiennes has ever made. For more archaeology on film, there’s The Lost City of Z (2016), the story of British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1920s while searching for the ruins of an ancient city said to have existed in the jungle.

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty with Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig.

What you’ll want to search: It’s instructive to read John Preston’s novel The Dig, the source of the screenplay, and compare the differences. If you want to go deeper, you can also look into the true story of the Sutton Hoo and the lives of those involved in the dig, including Brown and Pretty.

Read our review by Sandra Hall.

Love & Anarchy ★★★★

Why watch: Because this unconventional romantic comedy develops in surprising ways.

If you like: off-beat rom-coms with an eye for the complications of modern life such as High Fidelity, Run, Love Life and Modern Love.

Ida Engvoll as Sofie in the Swedish romantic comedy Love & Anarchy. Credit:Netflix

What you’ll want to search: Other work by lead actress Ida Engvoll, which includes A Man called Ove, which received on Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.

Read Debi Enker’s review and watch the trailer.

Vikings ★★★★
SBS on Demand

Why watch: Spectacular far-northern scenery, a variety of easy-on-the-eye actors in impeccable period costume, and expertly layered tension building to deeply satisfying battle scenes.

The cold, blood-soaked pleasure of Vikings now in its final season. Credit:SBS

If you like: Game of Thrones, which shares Vikings′ medieval brutality but lacks its historical credentials; grandly sweeping historical epics such as Kingdom of Heaven or Braveheart.

What you’ll want to search: The real history of the Vikings – the actual exploits of Bjorn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Erik the Red et al are every bit as fascinating as the fictionalised version on your screen.

Read our review by Ben Pobjie.

* Stan is owned by Nine, the owner of this masthead

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