If 2021 gave us anything good, it was good film and television. As the pandemic raged on, many of us continued to hunker down and enjoy the slate of new projects the year had to offer, since that was really all it had to offer. Netflix put out more content than we all knew what to do with, with new original films debuting every week throughout the year alongside new and returning series.
Our co-director, Kaity, and one of our editors, Hannah, sifted through all of Netflix’s new releases and chose a few favorites to highlight as 2021 (thankfully) comes to a close.
Bo Burnham: Inside
Bo Burnham took us on a journey of inner turmoil this year when he released his fourth comedy special, Inside. Its profound, raw honesty was something that so many are unwilling to share, but Bo Burnham came back to comedy after a five-year hiatus and bared his soul to the world. In the 90-minute special he tackled the issues plaguing our culture as he shared his own struggles with isolation, anxiety, and dwindling hope for a societal reconciliation. What starts off with a glimmer of hope and some laughs in “Comedy” and “White Woman’s Instagram” ends after a metaphorical descent into madness and despair as “That Funny Feeling” and “All Eyes on Me” close out on a somber tone; a tone that is much more rooted in reality. Burnham has solidified himself as one of the voices of a generation, and we are forever grateful, and hopefully better, because of it.
Don’t Look Up
If my personal favorites of 2021 had a tone, it was the projects that turned a mirror onto us as a society to hopefully begin a new culture of change. Don’t Look Up hit the nail on the head. It put a glaring spotlight on the ever-growing anti-science community, the polarization of society by our politicians, and the exasperated frustration felt by so many as conspiracy theories and willful ignorance threaten the planet as we know it. Originally written pre-2020 to be a message for climate change, the film’s supposedly satirical content took an all too real turn as the world now enters year three of a global pandemic. With a star-studded cast and witty jokes to soften the blow, Don’t Look Up took a new approach to present vital information. Let’s hope it takes. You can check out our review of the film, too!
Squid Game was obviously the surprise hit of 2021 and for good reason. Its brutally violent challenges were only outshined by its massacre on capitalism, making viewers sit and watch this abhorrent class war play out in abject horror. It was enraging and enlightening all the same. Strong performances and great writing led to quick attachments being made to these characters, which only aided in fueling the rage felt for their circumstances and the elite few that had created them. It was remarkable storytelling from start to finish, and while it’s shocking to learn that it took creator Hwang Dong-hyuk 10 years to get this made, it debuted at the perfect time.
And please, if it’s an accessible option for you, watch it with subtitles and not dubbed. It’s substantially better.
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The Andrew Garfield renaissance may have started with Spider-Man: No Way Home‘s release, but it should have started November 12 when tick, tick…BOOM! released on Netflix. Starring in the film adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s rock monologue about writing a musical, Garfield gave his best acting performance to date expressing a depth of emotion as well as his first singing performance, which was stunning. tick, tick…BOOM! marks the directorial debut of musical theater giant Lin-Manuel Miranda, who proves his keen eye and capability of building a scene in phenomenal ways throughout the film. The entire cast provided incredible musical and acting performances, and musical theatre fans will enjoy a slew of cameos and Easter eggs from approximately 40-years of musical theatre history.
As can be expected of any Larson work, the soundtrack is emotional and compelling. You can check out my article on which three songs make me consistently cry from the film here.
The Witcher Season 2
The two-year wait for The Witcher season 2 was excruciating, but ultimately the pay-off was more than I could have asked for. The budget for this series obviously increased following the success and popularity of season 1, and with that we have much better overall design, especially in the armor department. Henry Cavill once again earns his crown as the “king of geeks” with his devoted and intense portrayal of Geralt of Rivia. Joining Cavill with equally stunning performances, Freya Allen, Anya Chalotra, and Joey Batey once again steal every scene they’re in, but we are also introduced to plenty of new characters. In this season, rather than isolation and loneliness being the underlying theme, we have the themes of family and hope, despite how hard life currently is on the Continent for anyone non-human. You can check out our episode recaps for season 2 here.
Look, Mike Flanagan is a genius. The level of care and attention to detail Flanagan puts into every scene and his understanding of the deepest parts of the human psyche came together beautifully for Midnight Mass. I personally always enjoy seeing work that deconstructs organized religion and exposes the all-too-frequent and all-too-dangerous cult mentality that is beneath a thinly veiled mask of acceptance and love. Blindly following any group can be dangerous, and the citizens of Crockett Island unfortunately learn this in a literal blaze of fire. The script is moving with multiple emotionally moving monologues that make audiences think about the bigger picture of life and our place in the universe, as well as incredible performances from every single member of the cast. Check out our review of Midnight Mass, as well as episodic recaps here.
Kaity’s Runner Up: The Power of the Dog
As someone who does not enjoy Westerns, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog took me by surprise. While I admittedly watched for lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch (what can’t he do, right?), I was taken aback by just how topical this film set in 1925 turned out to be. When one thinks of the Western genre, they don’t expect an absolute attack on toxic masculinity, but that’s exactly what this film was. Incredibly strong performances told this twisting story in few words, and the stunning cinematography really rounded this out as one of 2021’s best. It started a little slower than I would have liked, but by the second act, the story was rolling in full force until its shocking and absolutely satisfying ending.
Hannah’s Runner Up: The Guilty
Jake Gyllenhaal may not have been the internet’s favorite person this year thanks to a decade old relationship rehash, but that didn’t stop him from giving an incredible performance in The Guilty. This film is a remarkable piece of pandemic-era storytelling, having been filmed on an 11-day schedule with an extremely light cast. While Gyllenhaal gave an incredible performance his second team-up with director Antoine Fuqua, I still prefer the original Danish version of this film Der Skyldige which is ultimately why The Guilty is my runner-up. Check out our review of The Guilty as well.
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We know we didn’t get all of Netflix’s greatest 2021 hits, so share your favorites with us!