The Best Film and TV of 2021
Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

The Best Film and Television of 2021

If you missed any of these films and television shows from 2021 you’ll want to seek them out and bask for a while in their light – or follow their darkness.

Philippe McKie: Dreams on Fire (2021) | poster

Dreams on Fire

Director: Philippe McKie

Likely to displease some audiences for not delving into the depths of its themes and ideas, Dreams on Fire is best understood as an impulsive and energetic love letter to the journey narrative. Yume (Bambi Naka), a penniless, aspiring dancer who runs away from home to pursue her dream, works as a hostess in Tokyo’s red-light district to get by. She’s a captivating character who echoes the universal yearning we share to bring purpose and meaning to our lives.

What gives Dreams on Fire its dramatic urgency is the uncertainty of whether Yume will fulfil her dream. Then as she begins to find success, her vulnerability raises the risk. – Paul Risker

Jonas Poher Rasmussen: Flee (2021) | poster


Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated Flee fearlessly discusses the value of life, the arbitrary inhumanity of immigration law, and the resilience of family, borders, and identity. Flee depicts the refugee experience in color and motion, glimmering with fluid detail and memory that makes it feel dangerously tangible, even behind the veil of its animation. From the start, when Rasmussen asks the refugee, Amin, what home means to him and he replies, “Home? It’s someplace safe,” Flee is devastating. Then, in the following minutes, as Amin describes growing up in Afghanistan in 1984, wearing his sister’s dresses and dancing in the streets to cassette tapes of American synthpop music, his joy comes to life before our eyes. It becomes a cinematic reality.

The animation is not distancing but illuminating, bringing sound and movement back to Amin’s memories when institutions force them into silence and darkness. As hard as it is to talk about, it can’t leave your mind. It’s a biographical monologue that needs no response, no answer but action. Flee is not just who we are, but who we could be. – Read Colin Fitzgerald’s full review here.

David Lowery The Green Knight (2021) | poster

The Green Knight

Director: David Lowery

Say what you will about Hollywood, or whatever we are calling the studios these days, they might regularly spend hundreds of millions of dollars on dreckish sequels out of sheer laziness and lack of imagination, but somebody is still giving David Lowery money to continue putting his unique, worthy, and generally unprofitable stamp on cinema. His anti-heroic re-telling of the quest story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features Dev Patel playing a dissolute and drunken wastrel take on the hero, Alicia Vikander as his favored prostitute, and a haunting Sarita Choudhury as his cooly witchy mother.

As in most good tales of this kind, the quest itself—hunting down the legendary Green Knight for what looks like a certainly doomed matching of swords—is somewhat beside the point. It’s a picaresque saga packed with both grubby medieval realities and magical wonders (giants looming in the mist, a talking fox) that puts the simplistic heroics of many a cinematic medieval tale to shame. – Chris Barsanti

Stephen Satterfield: High on the Hog (2021) | poster

High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America

Host: Stephen Satterfield

Netflix’s limited series, High on the Hog, is, at first sight, a familiar combination of the travelogue and food show genres. But it is unique for how it frames African American cuisine as central in the development of the American nation. Based on the eponymous book by the culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog is the product of an all-Black creative team that includes filmmakers Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback, director Roger Ross Williams, and showrunner Shoshana Guy. It is hosted by the food writer, chef, and former sommelier Stephen Satterfield.

laces white men at the center of the narrative. High on the Hog succeeds in reclaiming Black history and demonstrates that Black foods, traditions, and customs have been the backbone of the American nation from its inception. – Read Linnette Manrique’s full review here.

Machoian: The Killing of Two Lovers (2021) | poster

The Killing of Two Lovers

Director: Robert Machoian

There is more than a little John Cassavetes to this alternately sparse and overwhelming two-hander about a couple, David (Clayne Crawford) and Niki (Sepideh Moafi), who have technically split up but cannot quite unravel their lives. Starting with the gripping opening scene (David pointing a gun at a sleeping Niki in the house he no longer lives in), it is clear that this is a bad relationship. But the small-town Utah setting is so epic and eerie in its emptiness that despite David’s rage, he seems to cling to her like they were the last people on Earth.

Robert Machoian’s terse filming style is given to wide angles and dramatically long takes that ratchet up the tension with the technical skill of a bravura action filmmaker. Crawford’s performance is just as impressive, rendering David’s flailing attempts to patch some sort of life together with both sympathetic pathos and menace. It’s a credit to the film that it never tries to present David’s potential for family violence as anything short of frightening while not depriving him of his humanity. – Chris Barsanti Also, enjoy Paul Risker’s interview with Machoian about this film here.