Friday, January 07, 2022

The best TV series of 2021

Although I still review TV shows pretty steadily, it's been a while since I put together a full yearly top 10 list, in part because I tend to get behind on keeping up with shows I'm not writing about. But even though I missed many of 2021's most acclaimed shows (Succession, The White Lotus, Squid Game), and fell behind on some others that I previously enjoyed (Insecure, Star Trek: Discovery), I saw plenty of great TV series this year, more than enough to write up this (belated) list of shows worth watching.

1. Yellowjackets (Showtime) I haven't felt this level of week-to-week excitement for a show in quite some time, perhaps since the heyday of series like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. There is a lot of Lost in creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson's vision for this series, which flashes back and forth between characters stranded in the wilderness and their lives back home. But what's so brilliant about Yellowjackets is how it finds new ways to mix and match various elements of its influences, from Lost to Lord of the Flies to Stephen King's It. The acting from both the teenage stars and the more famous adult stars is fantastic, and the storytelling is riveting and unpredictable. More in my CBR review.

2. Landscapers (HBO/HBO Max) I'm surprised that this show hasn't gotten more critical attention at the end of the year, and that it wasn't even all that extensively reviewed when it first premiered. Given the proliferation of mediocre-to-poor true crime series (both narrative and documentary), Landscapers is a welcome deconstruction of the genre, with great performances from Olivia Colman and David Thewlis as a codependent married couple who were convicted of murdering the wife's parents. The show uses surreal, dreamlike techniques to depict the fragile mental state of the main characters, along with frequent fourth-wall-breaking to call attention to the entire concept of true crime storytelling. It's both thoughtful and heartbreaking. More in my CBR review.

3. Midnight Mass (Netflix) I've mostly enjoyed Mike Flanagan's feature films, but I've been less enthusiastic about his longform series. I gave up on The Haunting of Hill House before finishing it, and never watched The Haunting of Bly Manor, so I was skeptical of this latest horror miniseries. Midnight Mass is a bit ponderous and long-winded, but it's also beautiful and bleak, full of genuine horror as well as genuine wonder. Hamish Linklater and Samantha Sloyan are both terrifying as two different kinds of villains, and Zach Gilford and Kate Siegel make the upstanding protagonists into fascinating, multilayered characters. There are a lot of lengthy, heavy monologues, but the actors make them work, and Flanagan balance the intense scares with meditations on mortality. More in my CBR review.

4. Girls5eva (Peacock) Tina Fey's own new show of 2021, NBC's Mr. Mayor, is a middling, mildly amusing effort, but this show from her longtime collaborator Meredith Scardino (with Fey as executive producer) comes closer to capturing the spirit of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's similarly densely packed with jokes, many of them with references to '90s and '00s pop culture, the era when the eponymous girl group was a brief success. Stars Sara Bareilles, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps and Paula Pell have great chemistry as the former pop stars attempting to navigate a reunion in their 40s, and the catchy music is a perfect recreation of a particular time and place, while also packing in just as many jokes as the dialogue. More in my CBR review.

5. Schmigadoon! (Apple TV+) If nothing else, I have to appreciate that a streaming behemoth produced a star-studded six-episode homage to a genre (the classic Hollywood musical) that hasn't been popular in decades. This is a loving tribute to and parody of old-fashioned musicals, and it's also a fabulous musical on its own. Cecily Strong proves that she could carry a Broadway show, alongside actual Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. It's also director Barry Sonnenfeld's best work in years, the perfect fit for his blend of whimsy and snark. Everything in this magical, musical town is lovingly recreated, and spending time there is a delight. More in my CBR review.

6. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) Of course Steve Martin and Martin Short are a lovely comedic team (and I have fairly low patience for Short, who properly tones down his mania here), but it's their collaboration with Selena Gomez that really makes this show work. It's a funny but gentle satire of true crime podcasts and NYC privilege, a sweet story about intergenerational friendship, and a pretty decent murder mystery, too. More in my CBR review.

7. Hacks (HBO Max) The best representation of Las Vegas on TV since the third season of GLOW (even though very little of it was shot here in Vegas), this is also an intelligent comedy about aging and sexism in showbiz. Jean Smart is excellent as the kind of Vegas entertainment lifer that is very familiar to me after covering local productions for so long, and she brings layers to a character who seems at first like a simple caricature. Hannah Einbinder matches her as the snarky youngster who is also more than a set of recognizable quirks, and their growing friendship and respect is endearing without being sappy.

8. Central Park (Apple TV+) Coverage of this show's second season was virtually nonexistent, but it's still sweet and funny and full of multiple Broadway-caliber songs in each episode. Yes, I have two Apple TV+ musical series on this list, but they're very different shows. The animated Central Park is a warm, inviting ode to family and the oddities of New York City, and the second season deepens the character relationships while pulling back on the serialized story. It's family-friendly in the best way, and I hope it gets more attention when new episodes resume.

9. Star Trek: Lower Decks (Paramount+) This is another animated series that seemed to get very little coverage in its second season, but it remains my unlikely favorite of all the current Star Trek series. It's a perfect combination of respect for and mockery of the franchise, both rooted in the creators' extensive knowledge of Star Trek lore. I'm only a casual Trekkie, so I certainly miss quite a few references, but the show stands on its own as a fun, lighthearted space adventure with appealing characters and creative missions.

10. Search Party (HBO Max) The fifth and final season of this dark comedy is already streaming, but this entry is about the fourth season, which continued to showcase the main characters' entitled awfulness in hilarious and disturbing ways, while remaining engaging and clever. Even when creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss make a misstep, it's always bold and unexpected, and they always have a new even more outrageous direction to take the story next. The fourth season ends at a perfect stopping point, but I'm still eager to see what the new season has to offer. More in my Slant Magazine review.

Honorable mentions: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), Mr. Corman (Apple TV+), Starstruck (HBO Max), WandaVision (Disney+), Reservation Dogs (Hulu), We Are Lady Parts (Peacock), The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC)

Saturday, January 01, 2022

My top 10 non-2021 movies of 2021

When I started making these lists in 2008, I was inspired by a random commenter on an AV Club post. Letterboxd didn't exist yet, and I hadn't seen anyone else regularly recap their year of watching movies from previous years. Now, I see lists of "first-time watches" all over social media, sometimes monthly, and I think it's an awesome development, highlighting people's explorations of cinema's past (even if it's just a year or two in the past). Maybe that makes me less special for posting this list every year, but it's still one of my favorite things to do. These are the best movies I watched for the first time in 2021 that were initially released in previous years. 

1. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) This is the first time in a while that I've had a well-known classic at the top of this list, and of course it's shameful that it took me this long to watch Laughton's lone directorial effort, featuring an iconic, terrifying lead performance from Robert Mitchum. What's great about Mitchum's performance is the way he shifts so easily from the ingratiating, likable preacher to the menacing killer, while making it clear that those two sides are part of the same continuum within a single person. The story is suspenseful and often unexpected, and the haunting visual style, influenced by German expressionism, is still astounding nearly 70 years later. It's pointless to lament that Laughton never made another movie, but it's also impossible to watch this movie without having that thought.

2. Prospect (Zeek Earl & Christopher Caldwell, 2018) I love sci-fi movies that feel like they are a glimpse into one out-of-the-way corner of a fully realized future world offscreen. Earl and Caldwell clearly had a small budget for this sci-fi movie set on a remote mining planet, and all they really need are a couple of worn-out space suits and a janky-looking pod command center set in order to create a believable alien setting. Prospect is full of unexplained jargon that gives it a more authentic, lived-in feel, and the core of the plot is about the relationship between Pedro Pascal's hardened prospector and Sophie Thatcher's fierce teenage girl. It's a timeless human story of survival and connection, with plenty of nods to classic Westerns, given new life by being placed in an otherworldly context.

3. Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981) And speaking of sci-fi worlds that are believably grungy and lived-in, this mostly forgotten Sean Connery vehicle could easily take place across the solar system from Prospect. It's also about blue-collar space miners, rank-and-file employees rather than Prospect's freelancers, toiling for a heartless company that would rather get its workers addicted to productivity-enhancing drugs than offer them decent working conditions. Connery plays the outsider security chief who's the only man of integrity on the base, setting up a High Noon-style showdown with organized criminals. Connery is at his ornery best as the upstanding lawman, and Hyams delivers a noir-style crime story in the midst of convincingly ramshackle future technology.

4. Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) This year, I wrote articles on two vintage Jane Fonda movies that I love (The China Syndrome and Barbarella), and this could fit right alongside them, with another complex, intelligent and alluring Fonda performance. She plays Bree Daniels, a high-end escort in New York City who gets caught up in the investigation of a missing executive. Donald Sutherland plays the title character, the private detective on the case, but this is really Fonda's movie, and she makes Bree into a smart, capable woman who isn't defined or diminished by her profession. The movie has a remarkably forward-thinking perspective on sex work for 1971, never denying Bree her own agency as a person. Often grouped in with Pakula's other 1970s conspiracy thrillers The Parallax View and All the President's Men, Klute is more personal than political, although the way the two seamlessly blend together is part of what makes it great.

5. Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967) I watched this movie right before we started our 1967 season of Awesome Movie Year, and I almost switched up my pick for the season after seeing it. I'm happy with Point Blank (which topped this list for me in 2019), but Wait Until Dark is an excellent, somewhat underrated thriller, making great use of a single location and a simple home-invasion premise. Audrey Hepburn was deservedly Oscar-nominated for her role as a blind woman facing criminals who break into her house looking for their smuggled drugs. She conveys the character's terror and vulnerability, but also the defiance that she musters to prove that she doesn't deserve to be a victim just because she's disabled. Alan Arkin is devious and menacing as the main villain in the kind of role he doesn't usually play, and Young comes up with new and inventive ways to maintain tension in the confined space.

6. Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green, 2017) I had Green's debut narrative film The Assistant pretty high on my 2020 top 10 list, and this docu-fiction hybrid has many of the same unsettling qualities. It's a deconstruction of the idea of true-crime documentaries -- which have proliferated even further since it was released -- as well as an interrogation of the motives for people's obsessions with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Green uses deliberately artificial re-enactments featuring actual members of Ramsey's local community, and she interviews those people about their reactions to and thoughts about the crime. The movie is less interested in investigations and solutions than in perceptions and emotions, using the participants as a reflection of the crime, and vice versa.

7. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966) Rock Hudson plays with his pretty-boy image as the reconstituted version of a frustrated middle-aged man who accepts an obviously sinister offer to be reborn as a handsome playboy. The concept of Seconds is a Twilight Zone-style morality play that sounds a bit limited at first, but Frankenheimer turns it into a surrealistic nightmare that's also a meditation on the culture clashes of the 1960s. Hudson is great as the tortured everyman who doesn't appreciate his mundane life until he loses it -- and then is violently prevented from ever getting it back. More in my Inverse spotlight piece.

8. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) I ended up watching quite a lot of Christmas movies this year for various articles, and this was catch-up viewing for my list of HBO Max Christmas offerings. It definitely has a holiday flair, and the climax takes place on Christmas Eve, but it's not quite as Christmassy as many seasonal favorites. It's probably best known now as the source material for the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com You've Got Mail (which I've never seen), but it's more than just a love story between two bickering retail employees (played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) who don't realize they're secretly romantic pen pals. It's a witty, warm portrait of all the employees at this little shop in Budapest, the community that forms among workers and the ways they come together in the face of their various emotional and financial struggles.

9. Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012) This movie has become an unlikely cult classic since its 2012 box-office failure, and it's not hard to see why. It's a simple, brutal and efficient action movie, with a plot similar to The Raid, as the main characters work their way up an enormous high-rise en route to a showdown with the main villain. Travis and writer Alex Garland balance that B-movie simplicity with effective bits of sci-fi world-building, and even as someone largely unfamiliar with the comic book source material, I got a clear sense of the scope of this dystopian future. Karl Urban is dedicated to the title character's taciturn grimness, never even taking off his helmet, so it falls to Olivia Thirlby to provide the character development and emotional arc as his partner, and she delivers, while retaining the focus on the suspense and action.

10. Highlander (Russell Mulcahy, 1986) As I said on Letterboxd: I really screwed up by not watching this like 25 times when I was 12 years old. It delivers everything I loved about movies at that age (and still mostly love now) in a stylish, fabulously entertaining package. Mulcahy directs the hell out of this cheesy sci-fi/fantasy nonsense, crafting what is essentially a two-hour bombastic '80s rock video. The Queen music is majestic and fits the epic material perfectly, the shot composition and visual transitions are creative and evocative, and Clancy Brown (looking like Glenn Danzig for the first two-thirds of the movie) is a perfect villain. Instead, kid me obsessively watched the Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe movie, which I now realize is just an inferior version of Highlander.

Honorable mentions: The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951); A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Will Becher & Richard Phelan, 2019)

Previous lists: