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.

Barry Jenkins: The Underground Railroad (2021) | tv poster

The Underground Railroad

Creator: Barry Jenkins

Challenging the present streaming series style with its unapologetically lengthy tangents, stylistic filigree, and avoidance of most typical episode-ending hooks, Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad is better thought of as a ten-part film. It doesn’t lend itself to the kind of breathless episode-recap coverage one gets with similarly-minded shows like Bruce Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Rather, Jenkins’ beautiful and brutal adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s alternative history indulges in compelling retro Afrofuturism.

Jenkins is generally more experiential than plot-driven, and so The Underground Railroad ripples with the silently evocative and luxuriantly filmed moments that gave Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) much of their power. Even though The Underground Railroad also has its share of sinking-gut horror and hairbreadth escapes, Jenkins ultimately delivers a subtler and yet grander impact by telling the story as a unified whole rather than a string of attention-grabbing peaks and valleys to jolt viewers out of pandemic streaming torpor. – Read Chris Barsanti’s feature article here.


Todd Haynes: The Velvet Underground (2021) | poster

The Velvet Underground

Director: Todd Haynes

There’s not a lot of laughter in The Velvet Underground. But even though this is a documentary about a dark and squalling art-rock quartet that took its name from a scandalous 1963 book about fetishes, it is fairly bursting with life, passion, and the burning need to make art. To recreate the crashing symphony of experimentation that birthed the Velvet Underground, Haynes turns his documentary into something that looks like it could have been projected on a bedsheet tacked to the wall of a rat-trap art gallery below New York City’s 14th Street. It’s an immersive bricolage of frame-within-frame visuals and overlapping dialogue and audio clips occasionally studded with reminders that you are watching a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll band when something like “Venus in Furs” comes blasting out of the speakers with a banshee howl.

Haynes is a gifted mimic of various ’50s and ‘60s cinematic styles, as he showed with 2007’s I’m Not There and 2002’s Far From Heaven. But rather than approximating the style of, say, Douglas Sirk, here he is trying to impersonate cult experimenters like Jona Mekas, whose groundbreaking shorts helped inspire Warhol. It’s an effective technique and helps to recreate the dynamic creative landscape in which the Velvet Underground formed. – Read Chris Barsanti’s feature article here.


Wandavision (Marvel, 2021) | poster

WandaVision

Creator: Jac Schaeffer

Addressing pandemic-induced topics such as loss, grief, and mental illness, Marvel’s WandaVision serves as a metaphor for life in the time of COVID. The story is first and foremost a deep, touching meditation on coping with grief and trauma. It is also a brilliant, detailed examination of the history and evolution of the network family sitcom. For their first television show, Marvel Studios produced a deconstruction of television itself.

A series such as this, a “puzzle box show”, is not required to solve every mystery or pay off every reference. It would be far less interesting if it did. What is required is that it remain relevant to the emotional truth of the characters. WandaVision does that perfectly. It tells a deep, emotional character study of coping with grief and trauma, and it packages it in a highly entertaining veneer of classic sitcoms and superheroic spectacle. Indeed, it’s a unique take on a Marvel superhero story that is anything but formulaic (a common criticism of MCU films). WandaVision is bold, ambitious, deeply personal storytelling, and an undeniable triumph. Phase 4 of the MCU started with WandaVision, and it may not get much better. – Read Michael Curley’s feature article here.


We Are Lady Parts

Creator: Nida Manzoor

The arrival of We Are Lady Parts to television feels nothing short of revolutionary. It’s a hilarious and charming coming-of-age comedy about young women struggling to find their voice and fighting to carve out space for themselves. The plot feels familiar at times, but it’s refreshing for its empathetic and joyful representation of Muslim women, who rarely get to be the protagonists of their own stories.  

Indeed, Nida Manzoor’s punk rock comedy beautifully captures that the performance and expression of Muslim identity are complex and multifaceted. Manzoor’s experience encapsulates how much pressure there is on creators of color to get representation right. There is such a lack of diversity behind the cameras, in writers’ rooms, and in executive positions that people of color are often left with the impossible task of representing their entire communities. 

We Are Lady Parts succeeds and feels vital precisely because it doesn’t presume to be a universal representation of Muslim women. It is a specific portrait of five young women who enjoy playing brash punk music together. And along the way, We Are Lady Parts shows that stereotypical representations of minorities can only be shattered when people of color take control of the means of production. – Read Linette Maniriques’ full review here.


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