TC’s Ten Best Films of 2015


I watched a lot of films last year. The final tally was 371 – I’ve no intention of even attempting to match that goal in 2016, and to make sure I’m not even tempted, January was largely spent falling behind, through a carefully staged process of slacking off and watching TV series instead.  Despite that volume, I think fewer qualify for this article, mostly due to age. Without a Phoenix FearCon this year (we still took submissions, but stockpiled them for the 2016 fest), I was certainly not up on contemporary indie horror, which provided the backbone of last year’s list. Did actually go to the cinema more often, though this was simply a reflection of more “big” films being out which felt that they justified the expense and the effort [both of which continue to weigh heavily in our decision].

Here’s the top 10. As usual, I have a fairly loose definition of “this year”, so if some of these actually appeared somewhere in 2014, I don’t care.

10. Bone Tomahawk. There have been a good number of “revisionist” Westerns of late, but this was the one that’ll stick in our mind – less for the Western aspects, than the sudden shift into Italian cannibal territory that occupies the final reel. That was not expected, and was all the more impactful for it. As noted above, we didn’t see as much horror this year as previously, yet there was one sequence here which was the match of anything in more traditional genre entries.

9. Sicario. Somewhat enhanced by the local interest of being largely set in “Arizona” [quotes used advisedly, since it was filmed in New Mexico], this made an interesting companion piece to Cartel Land, which we’ll get to shortly. If a little bit derailed by the suddewn shift in focus to Guillermo Del Toro’s character during the second half, this still contained tension in buckets, not least during an extended sequence depicting a masterfully constructed cross-border “extradition raid”.

8. Victoria. Yeah, sure. It’s a gimmick, shooting an entire film in a single, unbroken take. But actually having the guts, and no small degree of technical skill, to pull it off? This would likely be a fairly decent film, shot in a “normal” fashion, though the first quarter is rather sluggish. However, the more it goes on, the greater the impact, as you become trapped, right alongside the heroine, without any apparent way out. Not something we necessarily want every film to adapt, yet it works well in this case.

7. Lila & Eve. What feels like it might be a Lifetime TVM from the outside, actually delivers much greater depth. This is mostly thanks to the great performance of Viola Davis at its heart, as a woman who suffers unimaginable loss, and reacts by vowing to take out those responsible. In other hands, this could have been Death Wish Mom [which, actually, might have been fun]; instead, it’s rather more nuanced, and the fact the “twist” is obvious a mile off doesn’t harm the film significantly.

6. Cartel Land. I don’t really review documentaries, but this one packs an enormous wallop. It covers both sides of the US-Mexico frontier and the groups on each side trying to stop the criminal activity which drives much of the economy south of the border. Particularly chilling are the Mexican “vigilantes”, who start out with good intentions, to defend their communities from the predations of organized crime. Yet it doesn’t stay that way for long. Oscar-nominated, and for good reason.


5. Let Us Prey (above). As noted, we didn’t see as much true horror this year, but this was the best, and still thoroughly worthy of inclusion. Anchored in a pair of excellent performances from Liam Cunningham and Pollyanna McIntosh, it succeeds in being disconcerting from the opening sequence, and builds an escalating sense of tension and claustrophobia out what’s close to a single location. Despite my own lack of religion, I’m a big fan of religious horror, and this is among the best in recent year.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road. It was thirty years ago that Beyond Thunderdome came out; must be close to the biggest gap ever between franchise entries. But it was just like yesterday, George Miller bringing the same spectacular carnage to the screen. Sure, Tom Hardy was hardly Mel Gibson; fortunate, therefore, that this turned out to be more about Imperator Furiosa and her journey. The biggest bad-ass of the year, even though her count of functioning limbs failed to pass three.

3. Spy. The year’s biggest surprise: I’d always though of Melissa McCarthy as a one-joke actress. Yeah: she’s fat. So what? But this proved she can be a lot more, in an affectionate yet pointed riff on the “secret agent” film genre, with Jason Statham also deadpanning his way to stealing all his scenes. Need I say more than, underground poison-ingesting crime ring? I laughed, way more than expected, and also more than any other movie of 2015, and find myself genuinely anticipating the Ghostbusters reboot.

2. Spooks: The Greater Good. Sometimes, you can go back. That seems to be the moral here, as once again, Sir Harry Pearce and his crew take on the worst threats Britain can face. It’s just like 24! Only with more cups of tea! But you didn’t need to have seen the TV series (full disclaimer: one our favourites) to appreciate a rather less gung-ho and ambivalent approach to counter-terrorism. Appropriate, given its London setting, that there was an awful lot of grey, in both characters and storyline.

1. The Martian. Yeah, it’s another “hard” science fiction story, marking the third year in a row that one of those has topped our list. I think it’s just a genre that is a perfect match for cinema and feeds into my life-long fondness for space: I almost studied astronomy at university, and films like this make me wonder what path my life might have taken if I had. Yet, as ever, it doesn’t ignore the essential human aspect, with Matt Damon a smart and thoroughly sympathetic hero. If this doesn’t make you want to be an astronaut, you’ve got no soul!

Top 10s: 1998-2015


TC’s Ten Best Films of 2014

The final tally of films seen in 2014 was 317, which is a handful up on last year. Felt like a better selection, with submissions to the Phoenix FearCon representing a very significant chunk of the top tier. Mind you, they would probably also feature heavily if I did a list of the bottom ten films: there were a number of cases where I seriously had to wonder, in what universe this was a movie you’d show to anyone outside your immediate family. But those are already all but forgotten, and finding the gems listed below, which we’d never have seen otherwise, made up for it. Cinema going continues to decline, with traditional theater visits contributing a whopping total of… Two: Godzilla and Lucy.

In vaguely chronological order of viewing, honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the top 10, either because they weren’t quite good enough, or I couldn’t quite squeeze them in to even my famously loose definition of what constitutes “2014”: Wolf of Wall Street, Cat Run, Daddy’s Little Girl, Final Cut, Die Wand, Nurse 3D, Big Bad Wolves, Sharknado 2 [so sue me, it was fun], The Man in the Orange Jacket, Roseville, Mirage Men, Snowpiercer, Dead Snow 2, 009-1: The End of the Beginning and Gun Woman. Said definition is “got some kind of US screening or release in 2014, in one format or another,” and links go to wherever I wrote the longest review, which may be this site, or, in one case, over on


10. Godzilla. There were a lot of complaints about this one, and justifiably so, in the case of a hero who was blander than vanilla pudding. However, it’s worth remembering how little Godzilla there was in the original fifties version too, and what we did get here, was simply majestic. The first glimpse of the big G was one of those moments that made even my jaded, cynical heart beat like a hummingbird’s, and reminded me of why I love film. What we said: “Complaining about the acting in a Godzilla film, is like complaining about cinematography in gonzo porn: it’s missing the entire point of the endeavour.”

9. The Battered Bastards of Baseball. Similarly, this documentary shows a pure love of the sport that’s thoroughly invigorating, It details the efforts of Kurt Russell’s father [yep, that Kurt Russell] to buy and run a minor-league baseball team, independent of any major-league affiliation, recruiting a mix of has-beens and never-weres (the latter including Kurt), and using savvy marketing to survive in Portland. A true gritty underdog story. What we said: “With the game seeming to be increasingly corporate, this film shows there is another way: it may not be more profitable, but it sure looks a lot more fun.”

8. 300: Rise of an Empire. While this may not have made quite the same startling impression as the original, we say in the Sin City sequel that merely repeating the same thing isn’t enough. Wisely, the makers here took the same tech but opted for a broader story and avoiding the uber-macho posturing [rightly skewered in Meet the Spartans]. Instead, it gave us a genuine, kick-ass historical heroine in Artemisia (Eva Green), and a ceaseless palette of visual inventiveness which made for a sequel which was straight-up more entertaining. What we said: “If what you have here occasionally topples over into video-game style, it rarely looks less than lovely.”

7. Circus of the Dead. The first, but not the last, feature on the list which was screened at this year’s Phoenix FilmCon, this would also win Best Performance by an Actor, thanks to Bill Oberst Jr’s chilling portrayal of the most amoral clown ever. He can snap from lovable to psychotic in a second, then back to charming before you’ve caught your breath: without that at its core, this would have been not much more than an empty parade of atrocitities [Hello, A Serbian Film]. Instead, it packs a genuine wallop, taking the viewer over the edge and beyond. What we said: “Hypnotic to watch, and feels like being trapped in a box with a rattlesnake: you cannot let your guard drop for even a minute”

6. Blood Runs Black. Another FearCon flick, this one was the opposite of Circus in some ways: where that was expansive and explicit, this was claustrophobic and understated. But either approach is valid, since it’s the execution which matters. Shot with a crew which consisted almost entirely of the director, this depicts the gradual collapse into insanity of a woman, after her boyfriend leaves on a business trip. But is it paranoia, or is someone genuinely out to get her? The audience is pulled along with the heroine, and you’re never sure of whether what you’re seeing is real or not. What we said: “A textbook example of how a limited budget can be made to work for a film, rather than against it.”

5. Maleficent. This, meanwhile, was a Hollywood blockbuster in all ways, but succeeded simply on the basis of an inspired casting choice. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else but Angelina Jolie as the evil sorceress, yet the film provides an effective back-story, providing a plausible explanation for why she became that way. While I’d love to see some other stories told from the supposed villain’s perspective, they would be extremely hard-pushed to come up with as impeccable a match of character and actress as we say here. What we said: “Jolie as Maleficent? Suddenly, the idea doesn’t just make sense, it became more a case of, why did nobody think of this before?”

4. Mar Negro. This is the first Brazillian horror movie I’ve ever seen – I’ve heard of, but have never watched, any of the Coffin Joe series. On the basis of this, I’ve been missing out terribly, for this is a joyously excessive exercise, perhaps the goriest movie since Brain Dead. It does take some time to get to that point, but even the journey there is still a fun one, filled with quirky characters, an unusual setting and an escalating sense of something being very wrong. Then, when it all explodes – it’s totally glorious. And I haven’t even got as far as the beached whale yet. What we said: “The insanity on view is not just epic, it’s also highly entertaining.”

3. Raze. We’ve been waiting for someone to give Zöe Bell another starring role since Death Proof: we’ve seen her in a few things, but nothing has been quite worthy of her talents. Then this shows up, filling our request with, basically, 95 minutes of righteous Bell ass-kickings. It’s a nasty, brutal and vicious fight flick – so, just the way we like them. The fact that it’s women delivering the brutality, however, renders the entire operation radically original, and with Bell at the core, it delivers a mean grindhouse wallop, surpassed only by Hobo With a Shotgun in the last few years. What we said: “Much like Bell herself, it punches well above its weight.”

2. Berkshire County. After watching this, someone at the Fearcon screening said, “So, why isn’t this in the cinema?” And they were right: this isn’t just the equal of anything cinematically released this year in the horror genre, it thoroughly destroys them.  In terms of storyline, it’s a straightforward “babysitter in peril” plot, that goes all the way back to Halloween. However, it takes this well-known concept and delivers impeccably, adding its own variety of twists, and giving us a “final girl” that’s truly worthy to stand alongside Curtis and Weaver. What we said: “You’ll find yourself frequently holding your breath, for close to an hour after things kick off.”


1. Gravity. For the second consecutive year, hard SF leads the way. Much the same breath-holding is true here, which opens with one of the most bravura and jaw-dropping shots in cinema history, and doesn’t let up thereafter. This is truly what cinema is supposed to do: show us places we’ve never been to, and takes us along with the characters for the ride. No film has ever done such a good job of showcasing the perils of space. But while this pushes the boundaries of technology, it also still keeps a firm grip on the core essential of good movie-making: telling a story that captures your interest, concerning a character you care about. What we said: “Everyone involved here deserves enormous praise for their work in crafting a memorable piece of cinema.”

Top 10s: 1998-2014

TC’s Ten Best Films of 2013


Just over 300 films seen in total during 2013, though not all were eligible for inclusion here – some were too old, even by the somewhat loose definition of “2013” that I’m using again. [Pretty much anything which had its first US distribution this year, in some way] Feels like the standard this year was somewhat lower, probably affected by us not having our film festival, so there were virtually no submissions – three of those made the top ten last year. I think I also mined rather more old films this year, or perhaps it just seems that way. Certainly, cinema-going remained at a premium, with probably only a handful of actual trips at most. Netflix likely helped fill in the gaps, along with TV shows – we discovered Game of Thrones this year – and the “unofficial sources.”

Previously, I’ve generally ordered the films simply by rating, but this time, I have adjust certain rankings, because some of the films have stuck in my mind more than others, and that should probably be recognized. Right, enough rambling. Into the top 10.

10. Riddick. I think this is likely one which will repay repeated viewing, even if it’s never going to be anything approaching great art. It’s simply two hours of Vin Diesel returning to his roots, and doing what turned him into a star i.e. being a total bad-ass. You’re either with this or you’re against it: Diesel probably doesn’t give a damn either way, and we’re right there with him there.  What we said: “Diesel is entirely at ease with his character by this stage… a simple pleasure, yet certainly a satisfying one.”

9. GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. I always like wrestling documentaries, because of the multiple levels – real people, pretending to be fake people, pretending that what they’re doing is real. Drawing the boundaries is often difficult, and that’s some of the appeal. This was a fascinating and poignant portrayal of what happen once your 15 minutes of fame have gone. What we said: “A thoroughly satisfactory snapshot of a pop-culture element from another era. “

8. Violet & Daisy. All the more poignant due to the death of James Gandolfini, this tells of two young assassins (top) sent to kill him, only to find him waiting to offer then, literally, tea and cookies. As things unfold, we discover the reason why, and also some hard-to-swallow truths about the girls’ relationship and employment. Not what you’d expect from the screenwriter of Precious, to say the least.  What we said: “An engaging and effective action heroine film too, and one which doesn’t rely purely on adrenalin and cleavage.”


7. Maniac (2013). A horror remake that doesn’t suck, or even have you going “Meh”? Hello, good to see you – it has been a while, hasn’t it? Here, we go deep into the head of a serial killer, with much of this filmed in brutal first-person style. There’s no shrinking away, and the results are a disquieting update on what was already one of the sleazier entries in the grindhouse genre. Missed the shotgun head-blast though. What we said: “Packs a nastier wallop than the original, with more depth, and doesn’t sacrifice the rawer elements to do so.”

6. The World’s End. The Cornetto trilogy comes to its conclusion, with another global apocalypse against which a small band of friends must make a stand. There may be a pub involved. 🙂 Still, it’s a fully-satisfying finale, which shows how both Pegg and Wright have grown since Shaun. Mind you, this still isn’t quite as good: sometimes, becoming more mature is a double-edged sword. What we said: “Such an entertaining and smart ride, possessing both brain and heart, that its flaws are absolutely forgiveable.”

5. The Attacks of 26/11. It’s easy to forget in the West that there are places where terrorism is far more common that here; the assault on Mumbai in 2008 is among the worst anywhere since 9/11. Being reminded of this is no bad thing, and this well-crafted reconstruction of events also proves beyond doubt that there’s more to Bollywood cinema than pretty costumes and elaborate dance numbers. What we said: “A very solid and engaging piece of work, shining light on an incident not as well-known in the West as it should be.”

4. Escape (Flukt). Straightforward and to the point: in medieval Scandinavia, a girl is kidnapped, but escapes, and has to make her way to safely, pursued by the single-minded (and borderline psychotic) leader of the tribe. With its bow-wielding heroine (below), plays like a more up-close and personal version of The Hunger Games, unfolding against a spectacular Northern landscape,  What we said: “Hardly an ounce of fat in the form of wasted moments, on its lean Scandinavian frame.”

3. Star Trek Into Darkness. This is one I think I over-rated at the time. Sure, it was very good, and Benedict Cumberbatch made for one of the best villains in the entire series. But how much of this can I honestly say stuck in my mind? Surprisingly little, resulting in its lowered position, at least pending a re-view and re-calibration. Certainly slick, and considerably better than our other cinematic outingPacific RimWhat we said: “If there are any better big-budget movies this year, I can’t wait to see them.”

2. The Last Days. It’s nice to see a film that can take a genuinely-new concept for the global apocalypse, and develop it in a fully-formed manner. Who needs zombies when you have claustrophobia? The modern world is so shut-in by default, it’s easy to forget the need to emerge every now and again. But turning that in to the enemy is a fascinating twist, and the resulting deserted city is brilliantly depicted. What we said: “One of the most engrossing apocalypse movies I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly more emotionally satisfying than World War Z.”

1. Europa Report. It goes to show how the landscape of SF has changed so dramatically, that something which is virtually pure, “hard” SF can seem completely revolutionary. What it lacks in “star power” is made up for in solid science and storytelling. The best film of the genre I’ve seen in a while, though disclaimer: we have not yet seen Gravity, so we’ll see how that stacks up. What we said: “Refreshing, well-constructed and an intelligent entry in a genre that is not often known for that of late.”

Top 10s: 1998-2013

TC’s Ten Best Films of 2012

Let’s by giving props to four films seen this year, which would have made the list, but were just a little too old to qualify (even in our new, looser definition!) for a ‘Best of 2012’ article. Topping those – and it would in all likelihood have topped the entire list – is Confessions. Probably among my favorite Japanese movies of all time [maybe behind Bird People of China, maybe not], we said it was “tragedy on an intense, Shakespearean level, that packs an enormous wallop in a way you can’t see until too late.” Hardly any less impressive was Elite Squad, a Brazillian action-thriller, with cops that redefine “zero tolerance.” Also worthy of an honorable mention are Tell No One and Eden Lake.

Also worthy of an honourable mention are the following, which did come out this year, and were enjoyed, but didn’t quite make the top 10 list. [Entries are in chronological order of when we say them, the links go to our review, or, as appropriate!] Haywire, ID:A, Special Forces, The Devil’s Rock, Claustrofobia, Blooded, Naked Soldier, Zero Killed, Rec 3: Genesis, Mother’s Day, Grabbers and Resident Evil: Retribution. And with those two groups out of the way, let’s move on to the top 10…


10. The Cabin in the Woods. The best film with which Joss Whedon was involved this year, easily blowing away the bloated (if mindless fun) Avengers. Quite why that became the #1 film of the year, while this was sat on, I’m not sure. For this had much more invention and wit, not relying just on large-scale spectacle [though it certainly had its share of that, especially toward the end]. The less you know, the more fun this will be. What we said: “The further this goes on, the further it diverts off-track, providing a fascinating alternative explanation for more or less the entire genre.”


9. The House With 100 Eyes. The pseudo-snuff movie has been done before, with results that could kindly be described as “inconsistent”. But this succeeds because it has a couple of very solid performances at its core, in husband-and-wife psychopaths Ed and Susan, and a defiantly twisted sensibility that helps turn its low-budget nature into a strength, rather than a weakness. What we said: “An impressively sick and twisted creativity at work here, with elements which will stick in the mind for a lot longer than many of its colleagues.”

8. Iron Sky. Two words: “Space Nazis.” A brilliant concept, that almost certainly could only have been fully realized outside the Hollywood system – not least because of its acerbic attitude towards America, which is not always shown as morally superior to the Moon Reich. It’s even more impressive that it was largely created “by committee”, with a lot of the work involved being parceled out and crowd-sourced. Might this be the wave of the future? What we said: “Does a much better job of living up to the trailer than I could have hoped.”

7. The Holding. The first of two British “rural nightmare” films to make the top ten, this starts off a lushly-pastoral piece. But the beauty of the English countryside rapidly becomes a contrast to the creepy stalkerness which unfolds as an itinerant farm-hand decides to take up permanent residence, and turn the single mother trying to run the farm and raise her kids, into his own family. However, he will eventually find out that hell hath no fury like a mother… What we said: “A slick, yet still uniquely British, twist on survival horror.”

6. God Bless America. A deeply-held, passionate scream of anguish about the current state of American culture and life in general, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the equally-unPC Falling Down. But beneath the shock tactics is a movie with a brain, and one that doesn’t shy away from asking questions that we’d rather not answer. Events this year, e.g.  the Colorado cinema shooting, have perhaps given this film additional sick resonance. What we said: “The tension between the likeable lead characters and their extremely unlikeable actions makes for a thought-provoking experience.”


5. Inbred. Yeah, I’m biased (the director was a guest at our wedding reception!), but this is such a gleefully excessive piece of horror, it’s impossible not to love it. Alex Chandon’s aim was to make a throwback to the days of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, a splatter flick to watch with mates and plenty of beer – that target is basically nailed in the bulls-eye. Contains as many FM!RT! moments (such as the one shown on the left) as any flick in recent memory. What we said: “Plenty of originality on view, and the technical skill on view is remarkable, especially given almost all the effects are in-camera rather than CGI.

4. The Raid: Redemption. I love a straight-forward, hard-core action flick, and this is one of the best examples I can remember. It plays like a first-person video-game, and I mean that in the best ways, as the hero fights his way up a tower-block against an apparently endless stream of bad guys, taking damage and acquiring power-ups. More crunchy violence than a Fist of the North Star box-set, and puts the “hits” in “Greatest Hits.” What we said: “in terms of pure, undiluted kickassishness… up there with anything the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen or Tony Jaa have ever delivered.”

3. Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell. I didn’t actually review this, because it’s more stand-up than feature, or even documentary; it’s Smith’s one-man show, filmed in Austin, Texas, and is the fifth such film he has done. This one concentrates on the making and subsequent furore around Red State, as well as his dealings with the Westboro Baptists who were one of the inspiration. It’s simply fascinating, marvellously honest and funny as hell: there aren’t many people whom I could just sit and listen to talk for hours, but Smith is right up there, alongside Henry Rollins. What we said: nothing.

2. ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards. If Elite Squad couldn’t quite qualify due to its age, this is a more than admirable replacement, depicting with wonderful balance the thin line separating, but also the difference between, maintaining the law and dispensing  justice. To me, the latter is much more important, and so Cobra and his Italian police colleagues have a truly heroic quality that is easy to buy into, thanks to some excellent performances. What we said: “A very eye-opening look at life on the ground, where the pointy end of law-enforcement meets those who’d challenge its power.”

1. Skyfall. Right up there with Goldfinger and Goldeneye in my personal favourite Bond films, this rejuvenates the franchise in a way the first two “reboot” attempts didn’t manage, because this both re-invents Bond and is thoroughly loyal to what has gone before. It’s the first time that I’ve felt Daniel Craig really became 007, rather than going through the motions, and he also has a memorable villain to go up against in Javier Bardem. Add in more emotional depth than any Bond since OHMSS, and it’s almost entirely undiluted win. What we said: “Mendes delivers some truly kick-ass action sequences, but doesn’t forget time with the characters.”

TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2012

Shows which were listed in the 2010 or 2011 pieces on this topic are disqualified from a repeat nomination. I’ll probably lift the moratorium next year, on a rolling three-year basis, so that the 2010 shows – or. at least, any of them that are still being screened (Caprica, Spooks and 24 have already gone, with Fringe on its last series and The IT Crowd likely not returning either) – will be eligible to repeat. But, for now, here are ten more of the best pieces of televisiual entertainment to have graced our screens in the last 12 months.

American Horror Story
We had some catching up to do, having missed the first season when it aired last year, and centred on a house with a long history of murder, inhabited by a family of three – and all the people who had died in it previously. The second season is even more disturbing, taking its horror from the realm of the supernatural back to the evil that men (and women) do, set in a 1964 insane asylum, ruled over by a seriously-twisted nun and even more insane Doctor. Jessica Lange, as the former, fully deserved the Emmy she won, and James Cromwell… Well, Babe will never seem the same again.

The Aquabats Super Show!
They’ve been one of our favourite live bands for a decade now, with their mix of B-movie insanity and ska-punk pop tunes as infectious as Ebola, and they’ve wanted to get their own superhero TV show for even longer. Finally, The Hub – also home to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – gave them a shot, and the result is a brilliantly deadpan slice of fun for all ages (such as the TARDIS-like van, infinitely bigger on the inside). The production values are deliberately cheap and shoddy, but there’s an enormous and obvious affection for everything from Japanese monster flicks to Saturday morning cartoons.

Being Human (UK)
This took its own time to make the list, having got through three seasons of spectral, lycanthropic and vampiric angst without troubling any of my lists. However, the fourth season saw two of the trio replaced. Much as we had enjoyed Russell Tovey’s performance as previous werewolf George, the chemistry of the new household was a great deal better (and less whiny, it has to be said), while the storylines, too, seemed to have improved, with more thought put into them. It remains, however, really confusing to be watching this and the US version simultaneously, with characters and plot threads getting mixed-up in our poor old heads…

The Borgias
Not the British series, which still is widely regarded as among the worst of all-time [I don’t remember it as being that bad. Mind you, I was 15, and likely couldn’t see past all the tits. Minor factoid: watched some of it being filmed at Doune Castle]. This is rather better, held together largely by a great performance from Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI in a time when popes were allowed to have a wife and expected to have a mistress. Advertised with the tagline, “The original crime family”, the Borgias were supposedly an influence on Mario Puzo when he wrote The Godfather. It’s easy to see why in this historical romp.

Covert Affairs
It’s like Spooks/MI-5, only with better teeth and hair… Piper Perabo is perkily perfect CIA operative Annie Walker, jet-setting around the world, looking for intelligence in all the wrong places. But what initially looks to have about as much substance as a tanker of candy-floss, proves surprisingly steely, with no shortage of mayhem, betrayal and treachery. It also gets bonus points for re-introducing us to one of the best TV villainesses of recent years, Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) a.k.a. the woman who shot Mrs. Jack Bauer. Needless to say, we didn’t trust her, from the moment she showed up here, as department head Lena Smith.

This started the same week as another fairy-tale themed series, Once Upon a Time, and we opted for the grittier approach taken here, with a cop who discovers he is descended from a long line of monster hunters. He has to sort out the good from the bad in the communities that lurk just beneath the surface, and also try to keep his personal life personal. In the second season in particular, that has become increasingly impossible, and the show has also improved beyond being just a “fairy-tale of the week,” which it looked like it might be early on. It now has depth and a universe of its own in which to work.

Claire Danes also won a well-deserved Emmy, for her role as damaged CIA intelligence analyst Carrie Mathison, who becomes convinced that Nicholas Brody, a returning rescued POW from Iran, has been turned and is now a sleeper agent for the terrorists, despite being on the fast political track. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that she’s basically right: but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as she tries to convince her bosses that these are not just psychotic delusions, because she’s off her meds. And is Brody necessarily the bad guy he initially appears? Can he perhaps be turned into a useful asset?

This is a guilty pleasure, a sprawling soap-opera which sees millionairess “Amanda Clarke” move to the Hamptons. Except, as the quotes suggest, that’s not her real identity: she is out for complete and utter vengeance on the family responsible for branding her late father a terrorist, and having him killed. #1 with a bullet is Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), her father’s former lover, who betrayed him and is now reaping the rewards. Stowe is deliciously malevolent, and there are just so many shenanigans going on here, that you can only snuggle up on the couch with ice-cream, and enjoy the class warfare as it unfolds.

Kiefer Sutherland’s post-24 show on Fox is a lot more touchy-feely, with Sutherland playing a former journalist with a severely autistic son, Jake, who doesn’t speak, but seems to have an incredible awareness for numbers and the interconnectedness of things. That allows him to bring people together – but also makes the kid a potentially very useful commodity [if you’ve seen Pi, you’ll know why]. It’s a novel mix of the emotional (almost spiritual) with thriller elements, and the first season ended with Jack, sorry, Martin going on the run with Jake, after losing a custody battle. Interested to see how things develop, when it returns in February.

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After a couple of seasons where the show was content largely to mimic the most famous of London crimes e.g. the Ripper (inevitably!) and the Krays, the third went for more original ground and was a good deal more successful as a result. It manages to find the sweet spot between characterization and cases, which is often difficult for police procedurals – most tend to concentrate on one or the other. Not to say that this is staid or even slightly plausible, however; instead, it is played with all the enthusiasm and loopy imagination of a Victorian “penny dreadful”, and is all the more fun for it.