Last year I derived a lot of pleasure from making this list. This year not so much. In fact as I write this I have not complied a full list. Typically I have a word document I update every week with what I have watched. This year I stopped in April. There was no good reason other than lack of interest in keeping a list. That being said I found that what I wanted to watch this year was quite different than usual..
A number of incredible films and television shows came out in 2021. Things that in a different time and headspace I would have loved to watch and think about. This year the thought of watching Underground Railroad was simply too much (which is a cop out. I watched The Last Duel a few days ago and it is amazing – just because you are sad does not mean you cannot appreciate sad things. Forgive me Mr. Jenkins!).
If I had to sum up my viewing habits this past year it would be thus: 1) I needed to watch things that did not deepen my sense of dread and despair and 2) I only finished about half the things I watched.
It is strange looking back at all of the movies and shows I simply stopped watching. I do not usually do that. Even if it’s a season of television, I typically muscle through and finish it. Partially to see if it improves and partially out of respect for the people who put the time and energy into making it. For some reason I gave up this year. Quite a lot. I gave up on enough things that I managed to circle back to some and, lo and behold, discovered that they were very good. Be patient with me.
If there is one thing I have tried to remind myself through the year it is that no one wants to make something bad. I have attempted to keep this in my mind even when something has struck me as awful. I have looked for the intention of the project. Perhaps this is unnecessary. I would rather be looking for the light than just sitting in the dark wallowing at this point.
So, without more blathering, a list!
DEATH TO 2020
I didn’t plan on watching this film. It was one of those terrible moments where I was in the mood to watch something and nothing looked good. The concept of this film was not appealing. But the trailer, oh the trailer, it did the trick.
Quick side note: trailers are my favorite thing when it comes to film and video. I wish more people felt this way. Watch them. Use Apple’s site to watch them so you can avoid commercials and advertising. Take back the trailer!
Anyway, this film is funny. It is laugh out loud funny. Unlike many things that I attempted to watch last year regarding the pandemic this does not try to coddle or offer solace. It just pokes fun at every idiotic thing that was done (and not done) to deal with a global pandemic. Everyone in it is incredibly funny. Laurence Fishburne (as the narrator) easily has the best lines (and delivery of those lines) from any film. Ever.
The Magicians: Season 5
In the past I wobbled a bit as to why I was watching this show. I read the books, thought they were decent, and gave the show a chance. Some of the changes they made were interesting (I liked the name change to Margot to avoid confusion with Julia) others seemed like typical Hollywood nonsense.
What I found over the seasons were the common annoyances of any show – forced storylines or big problems that suddenly do not matter because the people writing the episodes no longer wish to explore them (or a character that is forced on you, repeatedly, for some unknown reason).
What I like about this show and why I am glad I finished it:
- They improved the Penny character. In the books he does not have much depth or much purpose. Here they gave him an interesting arc and by season five a lot of complexity. I dig it.
- Margot. Dear lord everything Margot. This may be the best example (perhaps Steve Harrington from Stranger Things is tied) of an amazing character pivot. In the books this character was not interesting to me. In season one – same thing. Just a boring, vapid character that I felt brought nothing to the show. Somehow, somehow! They managed to take this one dimensional uninteresting character and, in my humble opinion, make her the star of the series. Margot went from “Why is she here?” to “Why isn’t she in every scene?”. It’s incredible.
- The character of Josh (and to a lesser degree Fen) are also wonderful examples of supporting characters who grew and flourished and became important and lovable. I am glad I was able to see that.
It’s not a perfect show and there are certainly forgettable parts but I am very pleased I finished it.
Better Than Us
Netflix has a long history of making/releasing movies and television shows and doing absolutely nothing to promote them. I suppose all of the streaming services are doing this now but I’ve been paying attention to Netflix the longest so their sins strike me as the most egregious. Better Than Us is a prime example of this neglect.
It is a Russian television show about a society dependent on robots. What I like about this show is the focus isn’t just on the haves and the have nots. It’s not a dystopian show that wants to wallow in a future society where the one percent have it all and the rest are slowing dying in the sewer. I mean, it’s Russian, so there are absolutely elements of people dying in the sewer. I’m just trying to say that the focus is not the same old, same old and I appreciate that.
I haven’t been keeping up with all of the robot/synthetic shows so it is possible that this borrowed from Humans. For me it’s a fresh story that focuses on a man and his estranged family. There is also a mysterious robot and hijinks.
What I love most about a show like this is that because it is Russian none of the actors have any baggage for me. I’m not continually spotting the police chief and saying, “Oh it’s that guy”. Everyone is fresh and new. It helps with the storytelling. Especially because there are twists and turns that I don’t think a Hollywood production would have made. It’s different and interesting.
Just before I watched this show I realized I was getting sick of watching superhero films and shows. We have reached a point where so much of what is being made is a comic book adaptation. Most of those seem to be about superheroes. Which up until recently I did not mind, having grown up reading these comic books. But, you need variety (both in terms of the kinds of things being made and the stories being told).
That being said I watched the trailer for this series and it looked interesting. Rather than just a story about a family with super powers Jupiter’s Legacy is largely about the mystery of how did these people get these super powers? The biggest compliment I feel I can pay anything I watch is that I did not see the ending coming.
Throughout this season the present day action is intercut with how the original group came to become superheroes. It is very well done. At no point was it clear to me what, exactly was going to happen next. It was interesting and surprising. Enough so that when the season ended I was quite pleased I had watched the show. I was genuinely looking forward to what the next season would be like. It was immediately canceled. Thank you, Netflix.
I think I heard about this film when it came out. None of the three leads were people I really knew and it did not look like much of a film to me. Then, in 2021, I saw it on Netflix. The trailer spoke to me. It said, “You can watch me and have a good time. There is no sadness within”. This was what I needed and I watched.
I have yet to watch Silicon Valley so perhaps that helped the experience. I do not know. This was fresh to me in terms of seeing two of the leads interact with one another. Aside from some basic sexism and misogyny, thrown with some force at the always wonderful Alison Brie, it’s a fun and funny film.
There are a number of unexpected moments, some truly comedic moments where people like J.B. Smoove let loose and deliver the goods. It’s a late night watch that won’t make you cry and right now I appreciate that greatly.
The Witcher – Seasons 1 & 2
When the first season of The Witcher came out, I watched. I wasn’t really excited about the show but it looked like it could be interesting. I did not love it. I am not sure if I liked it. My response to it was a step above indifference. I finished it, felt no need to think about it or discuss it. It had happened.
Last month season two was released and after watching the recap of season one I dove in again. What can I say? Season two is vastly better. Enough so that when I finished it I watched season one. Then season two again. For all the cleverness of the scene where that scamp of a bard, Jaskier, fires back at his critic with comments designed to defend the first season, it does, ultimately, fall short. Because season one is needlessly convoluted and confusing.
It’s not only that they made no attempt to ground the audience in the different times the story takes place but they also intentionally told the story out of sequence without an indication of when in time you were. Personally I think season one would work better if it were linear, like season two, as there is so much happening that you do not need to rely on a narrative trick to keep the audience entertained.
And entertained I was with season two (and I might add with season one after watching season two – because I then had a sense of who everyone was and what was happening). The show is well made and is a feast for the eyes. The character development with Ciri worked very well. It was nice to see them improve upon the first season and makes me hopeful for what comes next.
Homecoming – Season Two
What I like best about season two is that they didn’t try and replicate the first season. What am I talking about? I’m talking about the weird cropped image that was used to portray Julia Roberts in the present day in season one. That was strange and off-putting. Honestly this modern mania for altering aspect ratios from shot to shot (and so often now within the same shot) needs to stop. More often than not it is simply distracting rather than illuminating. It took me reading several interviews about Legion before I could “understand” what, exactly, they were trying to achieve with their numerous aspect ratios on the show.
I digress! Did I like season two? About the same as season one – which is to say not overly. I watched season one for Julia Roberts. The actor I know best in season two is Chris Cooper and frankly I don’t feel he was given enough to do. Everyone in this show is great, they all do a wonderful job with their characters and I no mean to slight them in anyway. I became invested in everyone and I felt that each character had a unique perspective. It’s just a tough show to like. The overall story and message is not easy.
If there are two things I like, it’s movies I cannot predict and Anthony Mackie. Anthony Mackie has become one of those actors who manages to appear in five movies a year without you noticing. Julianne Moore did it and I swear I am the only person who caught on. It’s a neat trick and when it works well you, the viewer, reap all of the rewards (I mean I’m sure they get paid but…you get it).
Synchronic is the good kind of low budget science fiction. I think the movie Kin almost nailed what this movie gets right. You can’t do a lot of big fancy stuff so you have to imply things. It’s like Steven Spielberg and Jaws. If his shark had worked correctly we would have had a very different and possibly less scary movie. This film greatly benefits from what is not shown.
I don’t want to say much of anything about the plot, this is a good one to see knowing little. Both actors gave solid performances and I enjoyed watching the movie.
Zach Snyder’s Justice League
Of the many things you simply could not get away from in 2021 was this film. Long touted as a myth, Zach Snyder and HBO did the weird thing and released The Snyder Cut. To say it is an anomaly is an understatement. To allow a director to come back, shoot new material and radically recut a film for a rerelease on a digital platform – it’s a first is what I am saying. No one has done that before.
Sadly it looks like it will not be happening again any time soon, which is a shame. All of the other DC directors who publicly clamored for the same treatment where systematically shut down. I am not a money person, so I can appreciate that from a financial perspective it probably makes no sense to do this. But from the perspective of a viewer (and aspiring filmmaker) I am at a loss. No one on the Internet seemed to talk about anything else for months. There is definite interest.
I have no idea how successful this film’s release was but the film itself is a vastly better film than the original. It is long. It is so terribly long. And it is in 4:3 format which just smacks of weird.
Yet it’s a much better movie because suddenly those moments from the original film, when the big thing happens and it is supposed to matter – they matter in this film. You are given the time and context to understand that the big circular building is filled with Amazons. Or anything relating to Joe Morton has an actual backstory and consequences.
There are about fifty moments in this film that make sense, that offer an emotional payoff, that were not there in the previous version. Lois Lane not only has an arc but her presence when Superman returns actually makes sense (rather than her being the “big guns” that Batman and Alfred refer to in a previous scene). I keep saying that but it is true – there are so many elements of this film that make sense from a storytelling perspective that did not in the prior version. That is nice to see.
I feel odd saying something that takes away from this film because it is so vastly superior to its predecessor, but, it’s not amazing. It is really, really long. And not all of the stories pay off or make sense. But I am glad, both as a viewer and aspiring filmmaker, that this was made. It gives me hope that there are actually people in the Hollywood system who want to support filmmakers.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Keeping with the DC films I saw this year I need to mention Birds of Prey. My expectations for this film were so terribly low. Between the trailer and the reaction when it was released I thought it would be terrible film. Much worse than Suicide Squad (not The Suicide Squad which had not yet been released). I was wrong.
This is a very good movie. It many ways it makes me think of Hustlers from last year. I want my daughter to see it. Maybe not yet, but someday. I like the message of the film, I like the way it was made and I really enjoyed this version of Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie won me over in this movie. This character was truly alive on the screen and I enjoyed going on this journey with her.
The rest of the cast was good as well. The men were all quite terrible as they were meant to be. I had heard about the breakfast sandwich scene and on paper it did not seem like it would be good. But as a person who has fallen in love with foods (and as a man who has watched his wife when she has fallen in love with foods) I can safely say I enjoy that sequence. It feels correct and earned. I’d love to see Cathy Yan get a chance to do her version of Justice League with the film (as she has expressed a desire to do so). I’m very happy with how it is, so it would be interesting to see what she was forced to exclude.
Mare of Easttown
I’ve been watching Kate Winslet forever. In that time I have endured a fair number of films that I would rather not have watched. I have done so because I think she is a fantastic actress. That was certainly the case with Mare of Easttown. This show does not fall into my happy/fun/unchallenging category of 2021. This is a tough watch and for me it was compounded by the whole “living in a small town despite you always wanting to get out of a small town” thing (even though her small town seems quite large). Parts of this hit close to home.
Thankfully the really bad parts do not. I am grateful for that. This is a well made show with a ton of great performances from the supporting characters. Once again Kate Winslet demonstrates she is an amazing actress with no fear. I can’t imagine that many people would want to play this role (or at least play it the way she did). It isn’t glamorous or flattering. It is also not so far in the opposite direction as to be “awards acting” (thinking of Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman in The Hours – I don’t mean to put these performances down, it’s just a different kind of performance) but is a very grounded, realistic portrait of a woman in this particular place and time.
There are several films I have been putting off writing about and Tenet is near that top of that list. That this film did not receive universal acclaim is beyond me. That it is not the best film I saw in 2021 is astounding.
I’m not someone who praises Christopher Nolan because I consider him a great filmmaker and infallible. On this site I wrote about my struggles with the ending of Inception. It makes no sense. Michael Caine revealing that he knows the true ending only makes it worse. I found Dunkirk to be a well made movie that did not need to be made. I am trying to earn my praise for this film and I fear it is not working.
The amount of thought that must go in to writing a script like Tenet is baffling. Everything has to be known and understood before they begin any of the preproduction planning. I cannot imagine. When I think about sequences of this film, like the section on the highway and the case being passed between the vehicles I blanche. Perhaps when you write that you just put something in like, “some cars are inverted, things are complicated, the case gets passed” I’m not sure. But you have to know who is where and when, how that would work if some are inverted, and so on. It makes my head hurt. That type of work feels more like engineering than writing to me.
I love this film. I love that it opens and just goes. I think you are into the action in the first two minutes of the movie. I love that it shifts and coils and unfurls and that at each stage you feel like you have a handle on things. Then ten minutes later, despite having seen it five times this year, you find yourself trying to work the logistics out in your mind. To then have something happen onscreen that breaks your concentration and makes you realize you don’t really understand how all the pieces fit together.
What I appreciate most about this film is how incredible cerebral it is and how you can just sit and let it wash over you. It works on all levels, as spectacle and thought-exercise. It is incredible. Of all the stellar cast members I was most impressed by John David Washington. I had a similar response to him when I watched Black Klansman. At first he doesn’t seem quite right, a bit too timid or out of his depth. Then there is a moment in the film, for me it’s the fight scene in the kitchen, where you just realize how perfect he is. Each time I watch that scene I am amazed at how well done it is, how the action is clear and his power is undeniable. It is truly impressive.
For the life of me I do not know why people failed to respond to this film. I am grateful that it exists and that I am able to watch it, again and again.
It feels odd to say it but I was quite nervous about watching Dune. There was so much that was unknown and I had allowed myself to get excited about it. The trailers were all very, very good. I read the book about two years ago and I was amazed at how well the trailers captured the essence of it. My hopes were up and so often, it seems, that leads to disappointment with movies.
My first viewing of Dune was mixed. I was not quite sure. There were parts I enjoyed very much. Others were odd, or lackluster. It was not what I expected. In the month that it was showing on HBO Max I think I watched it five times. It is a film that holds up to rewatching quite well. It is a long movie that feels like a long movie. Tenet is a long movie that knocks you about enough that you stop paying attention to its length. Dune is so calm and controlled that aside from a few sequences you notice the passing of time but that passing is pleasant. It is like a warm afternoon that you spend in your backyard sitting in silence with someone you care about. It is comfortable.
There is something special about this film, something different, that pleases me greatly. It is not just the fidelity it has to the book, although that is wonderful. This story has a calm center to it, to my mind it is like a person that has achieved inner harmony and feels neither fear nor desire, that is pleasant to be around but is also unknowable. It is a unique experience and I look forward to the second film to see if the two halves are greater than the sum of their parts.
The best film I saw in 2021 is easily Girlhood. I do not feel qualified to write about it. What makes this film so good? It feels like a documentary rather than a narrative, fiction film. Somehow I feel as though I have been a fly on the wall in this young woman’s life and seen so many amazing moments – yet I feel none of the ickiness that comes with such voyeuristic moments in documentaries.
Of the many things I appreciate about this film I love that race is not the issue. I am assuming this is possible because it is a French film, I do not really know. When I was watching this film I kept being struck by the idea that a white woman in America could not have made it. For many reasons. I have a sense of how things are here, in America, and to not attempt to address these issues would be dishonest. Does the same hold true in France? I don’t know. I do know that I love that the film does not have to deal with the same issues and can simply be what it is. A complex coming of age story with one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a film. Celine Sciamma is getting no shortage of praise lately but after seeing Girlhood I am certain she deserves more.
The Wheel of Time
My expectations for this show were on par with The Witcher. I was aware of the books but never read them. From the promotional material for the show I only had the sense the Rosamund Pike was the center and it would be something like The Lord of The Rings. The trailer did little more to help (except show some not great looking creatures, they do not look as terrible in the show itself so perhaps they were unfinished).
What I ended up watching was quite lovely. The young people are, well, young people. They are pretty, they are rather dim and not all of them are developed (as characters). But the rest of the characters, even those who are only slightly older, are interesting and a joy to watch. The relationship between Moiraine Damodred and Lan Mandragoran in particular is rich and rewarding. You have a sense of it and then it shifts and then shifts again.
I think the most interesting aspect of this story is the notion that only women can access the one power without going mad. Yet this does not stop men from trying to access the power nor does it mean women are the rulers. It is a painful and accurate depiction of the problem of power between men and women. The numerous dynamics this creates in the show are what I found most interesting and rewarding.
I saw this in December, after a year of watching many things on numerous streaming services. It struck me (I believe I watched this after finishing The Witcher) how good everything looks now. Even low budget films like Killerman which was shot on film. We have reached a point where the technology and the know-how is so advanced and good that things just look fantastic. It’s wonderful, it really is. I don’t say this in a dismissive way, I think the writing on The Wheel of Time was quite good and I was impressed with the relationships on the show. It’s a fantasy show and the language is somewhat unnatural to my ear, but it works. It is just as impressive to me that they went to these amazing locations, shot at the correct time of day, and captured so many stunning images for what just a few years ago would have been “just a television show”.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
One of the bigger surprises for me in 2021 was this film. I had never heard of let alone read the comic. I had never seen Simu Liu in anything. I didn’t know that Tony Leung was in the film until it began. To say that I enjoyed this film is an understatement. It is everything I want right now in a movie. It does not put me into a three day funk where I question life, my place in the world or how this is all going to affect my children. It is fun, it is funny and it has some truly inspired action sequences.
I highly recommend anyone who wants to learn more about this film and how it was made to look at the Corridor Crew videos:
These videos do such an excellent job of showcasing all that is wonderful and good in this film. In particular the stuntmen react video gives you a sense of how much the people working on this film cared and wanted to do a good job.
The story is interesting and the relationships believable. Each part adds up to something more and there is true character development and growth over the course of the film. The villan, Shang’s father, is completely understandable and relatable. So much care and love was put into making this movie and it is obvious from the result.
Much like the rest of the world, I have been won over by Ryan Reynolds and his social media presence. What started as commercials for his gin company has spiraled and morphed into something unnamable and wonderful.
Because of this I have been aware of Free Guy for some time. He mentioned it often and how much he loved it. Which I found amusing since he had a decent number of films come out just before or after it that he said next to nothing about. Perhaps I am the only person who finds that weird.
Regardless he built up my expectations for this film and I have to say they were met. The premise of the film and its execution are both solid and satisfying. The conclusion felt true and justified. It’s a fun movie and it is a funny movie. Jodie Comer does not feel wasted in the film and Lil’ Rey Howery all but stole the show. The movie has a lot of heart and it isn’t afraid to show it. I like that.
The Harder They Fall
I had never heard of Jeymes Samuel before this film. After watching and looking him up the use of music suddenly made a lot more sense. The trailer gave me an impression that the main character would be Idris Elba. This is not so. The opening sequence disabused me of the notion that Mr. Elba would be the hero – decidedly not so.
I almost did not include this film because my reaction to it was split – I did not love it. But I am happy that it exists, that it was made and it is so rough and nasty, and that I get to watch it and debate whether I like it or not. This was the second project I saw Jonathan Majors in this year (I have still yet to watch Lovecraft Country) and that the other was Loki, the range the he displays is impressive. The cast of this film is amazing and the locations are incredible. It is just another great example of people going out into the world and capturing stunning locations.
The Mosquito Coast
So I haven’t read the book and I could never bring myself to watch the film. I love Harrison Ford but he had several films from the late 70’s and 80’s that just looked unappealing. This was certainly one of those films.
The trailer for this show is solid. I felt going in I had a sense of all four of the main characters and what the story would be. I did to a point. I have a feeling that this will be the kind of show that once you have more episodes you can appreciate the breadcrumbs that were sprinkled early on.
What I loved about this show, Justin Theroux’s masterful portrayal of Allie Fox. By the end of the first episode you are absolutely smitten and charmed by him. By the end of the season you are a bit disgusted and afraid of him. It’s a wonderful character arc and it feels fully earned.
Despite a few questionable moments with the children I also enjoyed their journeys and how they were handled. Some moments, like when the family is hiding in Mexico and both parents just leave the kids for a day, did not feel right. The children have been sheltered from the world, hidden away and taught nothing about how to navigate on their own…and these overprotective parents are out the door and thinking not at all about the kids? It doesn’t work like that.
I digress. The only aspect of the show that felt a bit like watching a television show concerned Margot and her “secret”. It becomes clear somewhat early on that she has an important secret, that all is not as it seems. To end the season with that unresolved felt a bit too manipulative for my taste. I can’t wait for the next season though and I hope they are able to explore the characters further.
Riders of Justice
I had felt that I had finished my list (largely because I don’t have a full year accounted for as I normally would) when I saw something about Riders of Justice and remembered the film. When I saw it I thought, “This might be the best film I’ve seen this year” and it certainly is one of them. I try not to rank (despite doing so with Girlhood) but sometimes it is hard.
This film, based on its trailer, really seems to be one thing. I had thought it would be a simple, straightforward story about a man bent on revenge. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it is much more than that. It is a rich, layered film that sneaks up on you. There is nothing formulaic or predictable about Riders of Justice and I love it for that. So many moments are singular, they feel spontaneous and unrelated to the rest of the story. But they belong and they are connected and what ultimately unfolds and is a fantastic film.
Despite having seen him in many movies and one utterly disgusting television show, Mads Mikkelsen continues to defy my expectations. He is such an interesting actor, capable of great humor and terrible violence, and watching him in this film is a treat. That being said the supporting characters steal the show. There is no question that the three men who come to be his “team” and his daughter and her boyfriend are all important and interesting.
This film pleased me and excited me when I watched it. It made me want to get to my computer and get writing to try and tell stories as interesting and wonderful as this.
I am concluding my list here. I have, yet again, not including any of the cooking or food related shows and films I watched this year. Why? I do not know. It doesn’t feel right. I have no documentaries on this list but honestly I don’t watch that many. I think I watched two this past year. A lot of food and cooking programming though. I think that needs it’s own list so perhaps I will do one soon.
Last year I included a list of films and shows I was anxious to see in the upcoming year. At the moment my mind feels too scattered to put that together properly. There are always things on the horizon to be excited about and I certainly am.