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.

Joe Winston: Punch 9 for Harold Washington (2021) | poster

Punch 9 for Harold Washington

Director: Jose Winston

Joe Winston’s compelling documentary chronicles the story of Chicago’s first African-American Mayor, Harold Washington (1983-87). We see the best and the worst of politics, from the indifference towards the responsibilities of public office to the determination to serve not some, but all the people, in pursuit of fairness and social equality.

Punch 9 for Harold Washington is a rousing reminder of the empowering force of democracy. Its inherent vulnerability makes it vitally important that we individually and collectively defend it, especially in a time when the “Right” – both in the US and here in the UK – are actively seeking to undermine the democratic process. Washington’s story, his candidacy, and his reign as mayor are a testament to how the politician stands on the shoulders of the electorate. This reinvigorating message is a tonic to the negative cries about politics and reminds us that democracy is a collective effort that we can influence. – Paul Risker

Agnieszka Woszczynska: Silent Land (2021) | poster

Silent Land (Cicha Ziemia)

Director: Aga Woszczyńska

Resisting the temptation to critique the bourgeoise, Aga Woszczyńska’s’ Silent Land, screened at TIFF 2021, is shaped by Europe’s immigration crisis. It’s a supremely confident work from the first-time feature director. It’s evident that she’s in command of her craft from the first to the last image. She navigates tonal and narrative shifts with ease, explores topical thematic issues, and ends the film with a subtle spark of brilliance.

 A film of two halves, its initial cold and distanced aesthetic thaws, giving way to a traditional approach to cinematography. Woszczyńska and co-writer Piotr Jaksa  Litwin present us with a moral story that deepens the contradictions between the two halves. Witnessing the lies and the prejudicial investigation provokes anger at the injustice perpetrated and motivates our emotional investment in the drama. – Read Paul Risker’s full review here.

Mark Cousins: The Story of Film: A New Generation (2021) | poster

The Story of Film: A New Generation

Director: Mark Cousins

Filmmaker Mark Cousins expands his odyssey voyage with a new chapter to his original 915-minute documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). He has delved into other aspects of cinema’s ongoing story, with A Story of Children and Film (2013) and Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018). To identify Cousins as a documentarian of cinema is a natural inclination. His contributions to thoroughly understand and appreciate the form has offered invaluable insights, but he’s a filmmaker whose oeuvre reveals an interest in a range of subjects. With his poetic or lyrical accent, an Irishman living in Edinburgh, Scotland, his words are seductive. They’re a sensual as much as an intellectual experience. He steps in and out of cinema.

This year, he took audiences on a road trip with producer Jeremy Thomas to Cannes, chronicling his career (The Storms of Jeremy Thomas), and he explored human sight in The Story of Seeing (2021). He has also directed films on cities, I Am Belfast (2015) and Stockholm, My Love (2016).The Story of Film: A New Generation is a captivating conversation about the reasons we watch films, the way cinema reveals who we are and how it connects us, breaking down borders. Cousins continues to reveal his value to this dialogue and avoiding elitism, he allows all types of films to contribute to the discussion. – Paul Risker You might also enjoy Paul Risker’s interview with Cousins about this film, here.

Summer of Soul: (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Director: Questlove

Summer of Soul follows in the footsteps of a grand legacy of monolithic music festival docs, from Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterrey Pop (1968), and Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) to—perhaps most relevant of all—Mel Stuart’s wildly underseen Wattstax (1973), the movie that captured Stax Records’ 1972 benefit concert for the anniversary of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Like Wattstax and Woodstock before it, Summer of Soul is primarily concerned with the unique dialogues that happen between art and audience, style and society, music and politics. Its interest, beyond the irresistible spectacle of a summer music festival, is in the people—the attendees, the artists, the onlookers—all sharing in their work and worldview.

In transcendent moments, the film’s percussive editing masterfully weaves together big musical impacts on stage with outside protest footage—demonstration chants interpolated over the rhythms of the festival, scenes from boycotts and marches colliding against the park crowd’s relaxed solidarity—beautifully and succinctly capturing the inextricable connections between Black ’60s music with the American social turmoil that gave birth to it. Questlove’s Harlem Cultural Festival documentary, ‘Summer of Soul’, is a propulsive reminder of the ways art and society speak to each other. – Read Colin Fitzgerald’s full review here.

Julia Docournau: Titane (2021) | poster


Director: Julia Ducournau

The excitement surrounding French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, who caused a stir with her debut, the cannibal horror RAW (2016), was heightened when she won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for her sophomore feature Titane. The second time around, the director is pushing to greater extremes with an arresting and divisive film. It calls for us to present our mind as a blank canvas, allowing Ducournau’s vision to be unimpeded by expectation.

Art is made for a response, and it thrives only when discussed. Titane’s themes and ideas will provoke discussion. The challenge is the need for a repeat viewing to digest what feels like a dream or nightmare. In the immediacy of the experience, there’s clarity, but afterward, like waking up from a dream, we realise it challenges the conscious mind. Titane in part belongs to the unconscious, but its themes and ideas draw it out into the intellectual arena. – Paul Risker