Written by Lindsey Cook
Forgive me for the delay, but I do like to wait until the previous year truly ends to fully lay out my thoughts about the top movies, shows, songs, and other pop culture moments. For 2021, my favorites are often tied to the circumstances in which I saw them, whether that was a triumphant return to the cinema or a moment of reflection on the pandemic era, and more often than not they were about the beauty of art and the process of creation. I'm not sure what that all says about me and my personal tastes, but here they are, my top 10 of 2021.
Jean Smart is legendary for a reason, and Hacks was an absolute delight. Smart is fabulous as a Joan Rivers-esque aging comedian named Deborah Vance who is trying to breathe a little new life into her act, with a young writer on the outs of the industry (played by Hannah Einbinder) to be the Andy to Smart's Miranda Priestly, albeit with a little more vulnerability than The Devil Wears Prada icon. The supporting roles in this series also lift it up, and I cannot wait for its return (hopefully this year).
9) Bennifer 1.0 (part II) & the House of Gucci paparazzi photos
Celebrity moments were lacking in 2020, so I loved that 2021 gave us some major A-lister content to make up for it. We should have known that the actual House of Gucci film couldn't possibly live up to the expectations built by the iconic paparazzi photos from the set, but boy, what a joy it was to see Adam Driver and Lady Gaga galavanting through Europe, donning their chicest skiwear and feeding pastries to one another.
As for the reunion of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, it brought joy in a way that I cannot entirely explain. When the stars aligned after J-Lo and A-Rod broke up (and Ben Affleck had discarded his Ana de Armas cutouts with the help of bro Casey) I remember jokingly thinking maybe the iconic early aughts couple could rekindle their romance. And then...it happened! In the most wonderful, celebrity way possible, with paparazzi photos at buzzy restaurants and gushy Instagram posts and finally a glamourous red carpet debut. Who knows if this whirlwind will last this time, but wow, it has been a delight.
With vaccinations and what felt like a dwindling pandemic at the time (thanks a lot, Omicron) 2021 was all about going, "The movies are back, baby!" Several moments made me feel that joy of returning to the cinema: my actual first movie back in theaters, Cruella, which I thought was a fantastic fashion adventure disguised as a fine movie; the boisterous fan reactions to Spider-Man: No Way Home; watching Nicole Kidman experience the magic of AMC theaters (stars, they're just like us!).
For me, though, Dune was at the peak of moviegoing this year, and I'm glad I saw it the way Dennis Villeneuve intended. This was the movie I was most anticipating and dreading this year, not sure if my expectations would live up, especially knowing the source material's track record with adaptations, but I loved it. The performances, the costumes, the atmosphere, the funky music...I'm only sad I can't watch Part II immediately.
7) Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Steph told me I had to watch this immediately with one warning: don't look into it at all, don't read anything about it, just hit play. I did, and I'm so glad. Let Barb & Star host the Oscars.
Pandemic art is a weird thing. Is it using the pandemic as a means for artistic release, a la the Shakespeare King Lear Tweets or Taylor Swift's folklore? Is it literally about the pandemic, with Zoom specials and masks and jokes about staying 6 feet apart? Or is it about the emotional and mental effects of the pandemic, the way that it's changed how we interact with one another, the isolation it's created, the feelings of helplessness?
Bo Burnham's Inside is all of these things, a shining example of how art can be tied to a particular moment without feeling instantly obsolete. I had to watch this special in chunks, as for every zippy high ("White Woman's Instagram", "Bezos I", "Problematic") there were emotional depths that hit me like a ton of bricks ("That Funny Feeling", "All Eyes On Me", "Goodbye"). The key to this unique piece is that the songs are legitimately good, not just in a jokey way but in a "these songs showed up on my Spotify wrapped" way.
And as with any piece of art, context is going to influence how you feel: this special dropped on Netflix on May 30, 2021, just a little over a year into the pandemic but after I received two shots of the Pfizer vaccine and I was gearing up for "Vax Girl Summer". Inside summed up so much of how I felt since March of 2020: helpless, aimless, with bursts of creativity and productivity, and mostly just trying to make it through, but with a light at the end of the tunnel.
5) "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault)"
You might not know it based on how deep into SwiftTok I am now, but I was not always a Taylor Swift fan. In fact, it wasn't until 1989 that I was truly a believer, and it took me until 2020 to actually dive deep into her earlier work. Through her re-recording project, I've been able to appreciate Fearless and Red in a way I hadn't before.
There was one song on Red that I was already quite familiar with, though, one with a fanbase and mythology all its own: "All Too Well". Swift's 5-minute long powerhouse of a breakup song detailing the disintegration of her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal is a fan favorite for a reason, often regarded as one of her best works and with a legendary (previously) unreleased "10-minute version" that Swift has teased and fans have demanded for almost a decade. When Swift announced Red was her next re-rerecording, the rumors reached a fever pitch, then the tracklist proved the impossible: we were at long last getting the glorious 10-minute version.
The new version features expanded verses and new sections that have exposed the shittiness of Jake Gyllenhaal to a new generation ("And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes / 'I'll get older, but your lovers stay my age'" is particularly scathing) but what I love most about this new version is that it's taken a song that's rooted in heartbreak and transformed it into a celebration of sorts. With a new production by Jack Antonoff that feels more wistful and dreamlike than the slow build of the original, and Swift's stronger voice singing those heartbroken lyrics now with the hindsight of someone who has found the right one after all. The existence of the 10-minute version is in itself a gift to her fans that have been with her so long, and it's a gift that was well worth the wait.
4) The Power of the Dog
Currently my preferred pick to win Best Picture, I can't explain exactly why this resonated with me but I thought it was a wonderful piece of filmmaking and an example of how slow and deliberate storytelling can be just as exhilarating as a noisy action movie. Also, give me the Bronco Henry prequel.
3) Mare of Easttown
A strong example of why the week-to-week release model will always be superior, Mare of Easttown was a murder mystery that wasn't really about murder at all. Instead, it was a moving and sympathetic look at a small community and the ways in which grief, trauma, addiction, and pain can ripple out. In the end, it chose compassion over sensationalization in a way that most detective shows don't. Grounded by incredible performances from Kate Winslet, Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, and Jean Smart, this gave me exactly what I needed out of a show that could have been all bummers but found a way to show the power of forgiveness and healing in an unkind world.
2) Succession Season 3
I think everyone knows how much I adore Succession at this point, but there was a part of me that was nervous ahead of the third season. Two years had gone by since we had last seen the Roy family, and maybe they could never live up to the incredible season two finale. I was a fool to even consider this as a possibility, and while it was fun to posit if Kendall had drowned in a Tuscan pool or wonder where on earth everyone's favorite sadboi could go next, I should have known that Jesse Armstrong & Co. would find a way to pivot in a way that shocked but where the seeds had been planted along the way. Call me when season 4 is here.
1) Get Back
I switched up the order of my list a few times, but at the end of the day, it had to be this 8-hour, 3-part documentary that I watched twice in the span of a few weeks (once on my own, once with my dad). Obviously, I am familiar with the Beatles, but I never had a serious obsession like some people go through when discovering their music, so I went into watching this Peter Jackson documentary with curiosity but a lot of distance. I was floored by it.
Get Back is of course a technical achievement, remastering hundreds of hours of video and audio footage originally captured by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg in 1969 for what became a 2-hour documentary film called Let It Be, a film that was not well-regarded when it was released and became lost to time. By expanding the length of the footage and of course giving 50 years of breathing room, Peter Jackson found a way to tell the story of the Beatles' drifting apart mostly by just letting moments play out.
The result provides a lot of nuance to the oft-repeated rumors regarding the group's demise, showing how all four were naturally drifting apart due to both internal and external forces, but also how, even then, there was so much love and creativity to go around. It's bittersweet to watch four musical geniuses, so young, with the remastering making it feel as if this was only filmed the other day and not half a century ago, knowing what would come in the months and years to come. I've always gravitated towards George's music the most ("What Is Life" is one of my favorite songs ever, and "Something" is transcendent) so I've been spending a lot of time since seeing Get Back watching old interviews with him on YouTube and combing through his discography, which has been hard knowing he's no longer with us and hasn't been since I was seven years old. It's strange to feel so connected to art and artists that are far removed from my lifetime, but that's the beauty of art; it can transcend across time.