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.

Mickey Keating: Offseason (2021) | poster


Director: Mickey Keating

Director Mickey Keating continues to surprise filmgoers. His filmography is aptly likened to a river delta – all the films originating from a single voice, but each distinctly different. Following the psychedelic horror Psychopaths (2017), Keating again shifts the tone toward the nightmarish and supernatural. Full of atmosphere and suspense, Offseason revels in playing around with the audience’s awareness that there’s something untoward about this deserted island that has lured a woman back to her childhood home.

Superficially entertaining, beneath its surface, there are themes and ideas at play that show Offseasons’ deceptive nature. The director riffs on the idea of generational trauma, exploring how the actions of one generation befall future generations, shackling them to the past and impeding their free will. Keating’s skill is an appreciation for subverting the three-act structure, treating the story as a chapter. As in life, there’s no literal ending. The page may be turned, but is it the end, or are we locked in a state of the eternal recurrence of suffering? – Paul Risker

Kilian: The Other Side of the River (2021) | poster

The Other Side of the River

Director: Antonia Kilian

In Kilian’s documentary, The Other Side of the River, we are taken to Rojava in northern Syria where we meet Hala, a young woman who has fled her conservative Arab family. She is enrolled at a military academy that trains women to become soldiers in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which is part of the Syrian Democratic forces controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Hala comes to represent the complexity of the region, the politics, family life, religion, feminism, and the possibilities of challenging existing power.

With a delicate touch, beautiful cinematography, and a dynamic protagonist, Kilian unveils the intricacies and layers of the situation without ever judging. Her camera and narrative eventually take us across the Euphrates River to Hala’s hometown of Manbij where she is employed as a policewoman and tries to put the feminist theory and military training she has learned into practice. – Read Paul Risker’s interview with Antonia Kilian, here.

Céline Sciamma: Petite Maman (2021) | poster

Petite Maman

Director: Céline Sciamma

French director Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman is a curious and beguiling film. It’s a sensitive whisper, whose 73 minutes pass by in the blink of an eye. Its narrative sparseness is similar to the director’s previous film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Each film chooses to focus on characters that create a space for themselves, a place of belonging by connecting with a kindred spirit. These are fleeting but transformative moments in the lives of the characters. The contrast between these distinct yet thematically connected dramas is that the painter Marianne (Noémie Marlant) and subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire belong to the adult realm of sensual pleasures, while Petite Maman’s eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her friend Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), belong to the platonic realm, driven by imagination and childlike innocence.

With its simple premise of watching children at play and building a treehouse in the woods, it opens up into a metaphysical story with a tantalising and mysterious revelation. This humble and charming film has a mischievous side, embracing cinema as a medium of ideas. Petite Maman asks its audience to forget what’s possible, foregoing the analytical adult mind to reconnect with our inner child. – Paul Risker Also: Read Paul Risker’s interview with Sciamma about this film, here.

Campion: Power of the Dog (2021) | poster

The Power of the Dog

Director: Jane Campion

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is spellbinding and disturbing in Jane Campion’s taut exploration of identity and family relationships. Rose, too, is superbly brought to a miserable on-screen life by Kirsten Dunst. A “widow by suicide” and mother of a “half-cooked son”, she marries into the Burbank family and comes with her adolescent boy to live on a prosperous Montana ranch. This is when the misery starts, or at least escalates, before a spectacular resolution. Her unraveling in this utterly morbid and fascinatingly sadistic film might be but a part of a much greater story in Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, set in 1925, from which Campion’s film is based. Both the book and the film provide astute observations on how the patriarchy hurts women (and men) on all fronts.

The Power of the Dog is an excellent film that you must see. Campion and her crew deliver a shockingly morbid story. It’s also an understandable and relatable portrait of a family in disarray and a society that’s more hostile than the plains full of beasts that roam amongst them. – Read Ana Yorke’s feature article here.

Martin Scorsese: Pretend It's a City (2021) | poster

Pretend It’s a City

Creator: Martin Scorcese

Pretend It’s a City offers proof that the way Fran Lebowitz wields wit at age 70 is every bit as fast and pointed as when she was 19. She is a natural-born critic–not exactly a comedian and not exactly a misanthrope. Her appraisal lives on a spectrum that runs from annoyed to enraged, coloring her adjectives and facial expressions with varying degrees of disapproval. When she smiles, her mouth can’t help but twist itself sideways in an archetypal example of smugness because the thing that most makes Lebowitz smile is when she’s just said something the entire room damn well knows is very witty. She is still unabashedly delighted by her own wit, and she’s completely aware of how irritating both the wit and the smugness about it can be to others.

Scorsese and Lebowitz are longtime friends who agree that New York City used to be better than it is now. Each of the seven episodes revolves around a loose theme like “metropolitan transit” or “sports and health, but basically, these are to wind up Lebowitz so she can
go go go, spouting her opinions the way she’s always done. The B-roll is mainly classic clips of her walking all over Manhattan, pausing now and then to read a street plaque or arch an aggravated eyebrow at a stranger. These quiet bits show that her gait has slightly slowed—easy to overlook when her shades, boots, and custom suiting captivate as usual—and the long sit-down portions of each episode reveal that her smoker’s cough is somewhat more interruptive than it used to be. The unwavering familiarities of her hands and voice persist with incredible alacrity. – Read Megan Volpert’s feature article here.