Our ultimate 2020 / 2021 holiday film and series binge guide | 9Lives
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If there is one industry that saw massive growth during this turbulent year, it is the streaming industry. In fact, it just might be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for linear television programming. And even though we are heading into summer where we traditionally head for South Africa’s renowned beaches, you might find yourself quarantined this summer or cancelling your holiday plans in an attempt to flatten the curve.

Wherever you may find yourself this December holiday, we have put together our ultimate binge guide of films and series that we enjoyed this year, as well as links to where you might find them for easy holiday viewing.

Best Show Of The Year

Lovecraft Country
Showmax
Series
Drama, Fantasy, Horror
This show is without a doubt one of the best series I’ve seen in a long time. Created by Misha Green and produced by J.J. Abrahms and Jordan Peele, this explosive story set in Jim Crow America will keep you on the edge of your seat. The entire series follows a Goosebump-like episode composition with an overarching hero’s arc for the main character Atticus Freeman. It’s a must-see for all, especially if you are interested in H.P. Lovecraft’s work, but even if you’ve never heard of him, Lovecraft Country is a thrilling ride.
Click to view our full review.

Feel Good Film

Ben Platt Live From Radio City Music Hall
Netflix
Film
Music
I know exactly when I fell in love with Ben Platt. It was when he sang River by Joni Mitchell on The Politician, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. Except for his stunning voice, that was very clearly trained for Broadway with amazing pitch and control especially during live performances, his quirky style and character makes me obsess over him even more. With this live performance, which he kicks off with my favourite song, Bad Habit, is one of my absolute favourite things to come out of 2020.

Local Love

Queen Sono
Netflix
Series
Action, Crime, Drama
The early days of lockdown had me lazily scrolling through Netflix for some hidden gems. Admittedly, Queen Sono was well advertised and anything but ‘hidden’ but I gave it a go out of sheer boredom and I quite liked it. Pearl Thusi is probably the closest we have to a big movie star glam icon in South Africa and she really shines in this starring role. I also appreciate the way this spy series doesn’t take itself too seriously and has a bit of fun. It is also a celebration of African women and Netflix’ first fully produced original series from Africa, so definitely do give it a try.

Reality Hits

Love Island UK Season 6
Showmax
Series
Reality
Trust me on this, once you start watching Love Island, you’ll find it hard to stop. I wish I could say that I only watched season 6 because it was filmed in South Africa, but alas I watched it because I am totally addicted. This season has a good mix of drama, love and friendship with just a little touch of conflict – just the way I like it! I was thinking that Love Island actually kind of mimics lockdown in a weird, twisted way because it is a bunch of strangers locked in a villa that they cannot leave for seven weeks… or maybe that’s just me trying to justify my obsession again.

A bildungsroman

Chemical Hearts
Amazon Prime Video
Film
Drama, Romance
I was scrolling around Amazon Prime Video one afternoon when Lili Reinhart from Riverdale caught my eye. Chemical Hearts, where she stars alongside one of my new favourite actors, Austin Abrahms, is a coming-of-age film released in August of this year. It’s a beautiful story of a hopeless romantic who falls in love with an unattainable girl. The film not only explores the traditional topics of teenage angst and lust, but also takes an in-depth look at grief and loss, which does make it unpredictable and more serious than you might expect.

Facing your demons

Devil All The Time
Netflix
Film
Crime, Drama, Thriller
In a film where no one character has redeeming qualities and human nature is laid bare, The Devil All The Time is a hands-on exploration of the gothic noir genre. This gritty thriller is like a Ferris wheel ride: moving in circles, with some people getting on, some people getting off, some people being thrown off or jumping, and you in the middle, confused, horrified but also, and you might not want to admit it, entertained. Spanning roughly 20 years and more than 8 individual character plotlines which run parallel, you’re in for a wild ride of seemingly never-ending death, love, more death, serial killers, vengeance, crazy preachers, orphans, and a whole lot more.
Read our full review here.

Runaway Train

Run
Showmax
Series
Comedy, Romance, Thriller
Not to be confused with Run starring Sarah Paulson that was also released this year, Run by HBO is the story of two ex-lovers that reunites on a train. The reunion, which is an escape plan hatched years ago, gets them both in trouble and an adventure ensues. My favourite part of this show is the two actors in the main roles who are not your normal hunky or size 2 beauty queens, but rather two very normal and relatable human being feeling trapped in their normal, monotonous lives.

Millennial Pen Pals

The Circle USA
Netflix
Series
Reality
Oh man, if only I knew in January that the rest of the year would be a twisted version of The Circle, I might not have enjoyed it as much. The premise for this show is simple; you get an apartment, you get a social media account and you need to wheel and deal with other profiles (real and catfish) to make it to the end. Seems ridiculous? I know right, and I watched the entire season! Since the premiere of the US version, Netflix has also added a French and Brazilian version which I am yet to check out.

An Entry To Local Horror

Rage
Showmax
Film
Horror
From the pen of Tertius Kapp, comes Rage, directed by Jaco Bouwer and starring Jane de Wet. It’s a return to classic horror with loads of jump scares, intimacy, gore, that sense of claustrophobia, mythos and no means of escape. The film never pretends to be anything other than this, and paves the way for other similar films in the South African film landscape.
Read our full review here.

Child protege

Queen’s Gambit
Netflix
Series
Drama
Now, I know this wildly popular series needs no introduction. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, it’s a coming-of-age story that explores the true cost of genius. this series is a fascinating look at the world of chess, or let’s rather call it the chess sub-culture. If you barely know chess rules, as I do, the world of professional chess as portrayed in this series is fascinating. It’s tactical (which is, pardon me, something I never knew about chess) and challenging and complicated, and in this case, makes for a good backdrop to what can only be described as a very insightful glance into mental illness and, as mentioned above, the cost of genius.
Read our full review here.

Biographical explorations

The Loudest Voice
Showmax
Series
Biography, Drama
Around the US election time, The Loudest Voice was released on Showmax. It’s a story about media mogul, Roger Ailes, who was the brains behind the right-wing conservative station, Fox News. It tells the same story as the motion picture starring Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie, Bombshell. Unlike the film, the series focuses more on the rise of Fox News and how it shaped Donald Trump and paved the way for his 2016 victory. A nearly unrecognisable Russel Crowe stars in the series, together with Sienna Miller and Naomi Watts.

Farewell, Old Friend

Bojack Horseman Season 6
Netflix
Series
Animation, Comedy, Drama
Everyone’s favourite nihilistic horse graced our screens for the very last time during 2020. It was never going to be a happy ending for our alcoholic star and his downwards spiral climaxes in this sixth and final season, as we wave him farewell. The series creators give us a fair chance to check in with our favourite characters one last time. And somehow I’ll always be on the rooftop with Bojack and Diane to the sound of Mr Blue.

An Apple First

On The Rocks
Apple TV+
Film
Adventure, Comedy, Drama
On The Rocks is the first Apple Original film that I’ve watched. It is written and directed by Sofia Coppola. I’ve always followed her career with great interest, not just because of her family name, but because of films like Marie Antoinette, Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. This film once again stars Bill Murray, as an eccentric millionaire and father, joined by Rashida Jones, from Parks and Recreation fame. It’s an easily watchable feel-good movie that takes a look at familial relationships – especially the father-daughter relationship. Coppola has a great knack for cinematography and it clearly shows through the gorgeous depictions of New York City.

A Star Rises

Selena: The Series
Netflix
Series
Biography, Drama, Music
If ever there was a series to binge with the family – this is it. Selena: The Series tells the story of the Quintanilla family. The family started the band Selena y Los Dinos which would eventually become the famous Tejano group called Selena. The series is all about the family’s rise to fame and how they became a household name. If you are wondering if this is the same Selena of the 1997 film starring Jeniffer Lopez – yes, it is!

Fitspo

Brittany Runs A Marathon
Amazon Prime Video
Film
Comedy, Drama
It would be a mistake to think that this film is an easy Sunday evening comedy. Although it does have its comic relief, Brittany Runs A Marathon is far from a relaxing watch. It is one of those films that make you uncomfortable with your own life – but in a good way. It makes you take a step back and re-evaluate. It is the story about a 20-something that turns her life around by running. The film is based on a true story and it might not get you running a 10km anytime soon, but it does inspire action.

Mind-blowing stuff

Dark
Netflix
Series
Crime, Drama, Mystery
I cannot stress this enough; if you are into fantasy, mystery and / or time travel, you need to stop what you are doing and go watch Dark. It is the wildest ride I’ve ever been on – hands down! It is such a challenging series to watch, not in a difficult way, in a way that it challenges your very idea of time and the fabric of our reality. It is a foreign language film and you have the option on Netflix to watch either the dubbed or the subtitled version. Their final season released in June of 2020, so you can binge the series in its entirety.

Stating The Obvious

The Undoing
Showmax
Series
Crime, Drama, Mystery
ICYMI, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant stars in the biggest whodunnit series of the year. This is just one of those series that will have you texting your friends; ‘Did you see that!” The Undoing is an HBO Original limited series, much like Big Little Lies, that also starred Kidman. The whole premise of the story revolves around the one singular concept – who killed Elena Alvez? The series is currently releasing on Showmax and DStv weekly.
Read our full review here.

What the f&^** did I just watch?

Love is Blind
Netflix
Series
Reality
Before lockdown and before Covid, there was Love is Blind. The insane story of individuals meeting in pods, falling in love and proposing – all before ever seeing each other. Yes, you read that right. I remember watching the first episode thinking that there is no way that this turns out well and trust me, it was a wild ride! And just to think, back then we thought Jessica was the worst thing to come out of 2020! Oh yes, and it is somehow presented by Nick and Vanessa Lachey.

We’ll cross that bridge when we burn it

The Boys Season 2
Amazon Prime Video
Series
Action, Comedy, Crime
The foul-mouthed, supe-hating bad boys are back with their second season of action and gore and this time there are even more shocking revelations and political plays. They even threw in the Nazis this season. The premise of this show is so unique that I think the showrunners are having a field day-dreaming up crazy scenarios for these unlikely ‘heroes’. If you are still new to The Boys – I’d definitely start at Season 1, as it is a complicated universe and it will take some time to understand it fully.

A good ol’ detective story

Perry Mason
Showmax
Series
Crime, Drama
Perry Mason is an adaptation of lawyer and author Erle Stanley Gardner’s series of detective stories. Firmly situated within the post-Depression noir genre, this series is known to be HBO’s biggest release in the last two years. Matthew Rhys does a great job of portraying this iconic character with the torment and inner turbulence characteristic of Mason, in both his professional and personal life. Although the series is set in Los Angeles, Hollywood takes a backseat as the more unglamorous parts of LA take the forefront adding to the noir and grunge backdrop of the series.
Read our full review here.

House of horrors

His House
Netflix
Film
Drama, Horror, Thriller
I can truly say that this film is unlike any other I’ve seen on Netflix. It follows the story of two South-Sudanese asylum seekers that find refuge in England. As they struggle to adapt to British life, they are plagued by the ghosts of their traumatic past. This film is not what you expect and even though it does fall within the horror genre, it will definitely be of interest to those that have known grief and loss and the permanent scars it leaves on the psyche. It also stars Wunmi Mosaku from Lovecraft Country fame who is definitely an actor to watch.

Afrikaans language film

Meisies wat Fluit
Showmax
Film
Romance
I am overjoyed to have an Afrikaans language film on this list. This film by writer and director Johan Cronje captures something about the Afrikaans culture that other Afrikaans filmmakers often struggle with. It is also not his first triumph in this field, Wonderlus is another stellar movie by this talented filmmaker. The film shies away from overused cliches and Afrikaans fil tropes to produce an engaging heartfelt film that is both beautiful and relatable.
Read our full review here.

South African Reality TV

The Bachelor SA Season 2
Showmax
Series
Reality
Lockdown, for me, will always be synonymous with the Bachelor SA. Every Thursday evening I’d hurry to the television with the in-laws to see the fights, the kisses, the craziness and the oh-my-word moments. Each of us had a favourite contestant and would root for her, come hell or high water. We discussed every outfit, every awkward kiss and cringe comment – it was the most fun you could have during Level 5 lockdown.

On the subject of Nazis

Hunters
Amazon Prime Video
Series
Crime, Drama, Mystery
Hunters is probably one of the most underrated series to come out of 2020. Except for the fact that it stars big names like Al Pacino and Logan Lerman, it tells a very interesting story. Jonah Heidelbaum, Logan Lerman’s character, is a troubled young Jewish man bent on revenge. He is taken in by a secret group of Nazi hunters fighting a clandestine war against high-ranking Nazi officials in hiding in the US who is working to create the Fourth Reich. If you love The Boys and do not mind the gore, then this one is definitely for you.

Surrealist viewing

The Third Day
Showmax
Series
Drama, Mystery, Thriller
What can only be described as an ode to filmmakers Von Trier and Yorgos Lanthimos‎, The Third Day is an HBO series starring Jude Law and Emily Watson. It’s a harrowing journey of grief and turmoil on a mysterious island off the British coast. The cinematography is experimental and gorgeous, while the scenery is breathtaking. You cannot fault any of the actors who do an amazing job of portraying very complicated characters, but there is grandiosity to the surrealism that will not be to everyone’s taste. If you are a lover of experimental film and series, as well as the art of surrealism – this is not to be missed.

Comedic Relief

Space Force
Netflix
Series
Comedy
Love it or hate it, Space Force and the debate surrounding it was a big part of 2020. I personally found it extremely amusing and would definitely rank it as one of my favourite comedies of the year. The series General Mark R. Naird who is tasked with getting ‘boots on the moon’ by heading up the very first US Space Force (similar to the Air Force). There is this rendition of The Beach Boys’ Kokomo (that is also in the trailer), performed by Steve Carell that will have you in stitches. Can definitely recommend this one.

A visit to Egypt

Paranormal
Netflix
Series
Drama, Fantasy, Horror
If you’ve ever been fascinated by the Old World, then this one is for you. This fantasy horror revolves around the life of Egyptian physician, Refaat Ismail. Set in the 1960s, Refaat faces a series of supernatural events. He is joined by his university colleague, Maggie, as he enters the paranormal world. The series is quite reminiscent of the Indiana Jones adventures and every episode is loaded with suspense and mystery. You have a choice between watching the subtitled or dubbed versions.

It’s like Suits for Gen Z

Industry
Showmax
Series
Drama
This finance series revolves around the lives of a bunch of graduates competing for a permanent position at one of the top firms in London. Show creators, Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, accurately captures the anxiety that comes with your very first job. The job becomes religion, any time not spent on anything work-related is frowned upon. The graduates are encouraged to ruthlessly challenge the hierarchy, ensuring tension and ambitious drive amongst seniors and juniors. Top that with a Don Draper-esque approach to client entertainment and you find a myriad of personalities caged together fighting for a position at the top, disguised as a financial firm.
Read our full review here.

Old Hollywood

Mank
Netflix
Film
Biography, Comedy, Drama
After a long hiatus, David Fincher is finally back with a new motion picture, released on Netflix in December. The film is about how Citizen Kane, who some regard as the best film of all time, came to be. It is a close look at 1930s Hollywood and all the booze-filled political plays and glamour heydays. It is very much a film about social decline and the pressures related to relevance in the film industry that still exists even today. It is a black and white film and a very interesting addition to the Fincher canon. Oh, and did I mention it stars Gary Oldman?

An ode to Broadway

The Boys in the Band
Netflix
Film
Drama
The absolute delight that is The Boys in the Band cannot be understated. I know, I know, it is one of those films that you can see was actually a theatre production – but isn’t that wonderful? Grand scenery and multiple sets make way for clever dialogue and more intensive acting. The film stars a bunch of Ryan Murphy regulars and is very much an exploration of homosexuality in the 1960s. The claustrophobic setting of Michael’s apartment ensures that strife is sparked between these friends when an uninvited guest shows.

Another Murphy Classic

Hollywood
Netflix
Series
Drama
Another look at old Hollywood, this time post-WW2 Hollywood. Think old Hollywood glam, happy endings, hope and the American dream. Think about why you love movies in the first place, how they make you feel and what they symbolise. Imagine changing the world and rewriting history – but in an indulgent way, in a Ryan Murphy way. Murphy places a magnifying glass on issues of race, class and sexual orientation by reimagining this era in Hollywood that we have come to idolise.
Read our full review here.

And finally, a Christmas treat

Dash & Lily
Netflix
Series
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Based on the book, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, the series is an ode to Christmas in New York. The streets are filled with people, the lights are gorgeous, carolers deck the streets, it is most definitely a Christmas Wonderland. The series incorporates New York in such a manner that the city not only guest star in this love story, it shines as lead. Dash & Lily was shot in New York during Christmas 2019 and of course, none of us had a clue that this year would look so much different.
Read our full review here.

Author

Free State-girl, living in Stellenbosch. Love to explore small towns, read in Afrikaans and everything pop-culture. My favourite yoga move is 'The Pigeon' and one day I'd like to own my own vintage cinema.

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