My Top 30 Movies and TV Series for 2021

While we all continue to  shelter-in-place during this lockdown, many of us craved new content to watch, some less well-known and under-the-radar.  Well, this year I watched more movies and television than ever before, so I have thirty to recommend, instead of the usual 15-20.

Here are the reviews I wrote this past year with the criteria that they were available online since movie theaters were either shut down or offered very limited screenings. Of the 52 reviews I reviewed this year, here are my favorites.  Yet another difficult year to make my “listicle”.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1)Toni Morrison:  The Pieces I Am–Dissembling the American Dream (February 22 review)

Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was a complex artist who did not hold back from confronting the worst of human history. This documentary is a historical panorama of a slice of history dating from the 1930’s. Morrison emerges as a powerful, iconic, and formidable moral and intellectual force. The film gives us a retrospective of her groundbreaking novels which challenged the literary status quo,   rewarding the reader with imagining black lives on their own terms, devoid of the “white male gaze”.

2)  Promising Young WomanBreaking Over and Over Again (March 15 review)

Don’t let the title mislead you.   In the opening scene we see a very inebriated Cassie barhopping and wandering the city streets at night. The viewer doesn’t know why this bright and attractive woman is engaged in such risky, dangerous behavior.  This is an extraordinary directorial debut that explores sexual aggression, objectification of women, and the denial of women’s voices.

3) I Care a LotCaregiver or Caretaker?  (April 5)

This is a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior.   Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to  conceal bad acts  because they are  trusted.  They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility.   And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.

4) Ammonite–Two Women Shedding Their Shells (May 3)

This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight.   Set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, this film chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).  Their friendship transforms both of their lives.

5) Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker-First Female Millionaire in the US  (May 24)

A little-known and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America, Self-Made recounts Madam C J Walkre, a brilliant entrepreneur, who created thousands of jobs during the worst of the Jim Crow era  and became a neighbor of John Rockefeller in upstate New York.  No bank loans, no white retail store support, and competition and sexism among the Black male business community presented almost insurmountable obstacles to Madam CJ Walker’s dreams and ambitions.  Walker’s story is one of extraordinary grit, cunning and marketing ingenuity, and absolute determination against post-slavery racial and gender oppression.

6) Navillera-Soar Like a Butterfly (July 25)

 Navillera in Korean means “like a butterfly.”  Sim Deok-chul, a retired mailman,  is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives.  He has always dreamed of performing “Swan Lake” on stage and now, at his advanced age,  is determined to follow his passion after seeing how  his friends regret not pursuing the dreams of their youth.  Accidentally, he observes a  gifted male dancer Lee Chae-rok, practicing for his upcoming ballet competition.  This quirky and endearing sleeper mini-series from Korea is a definite winner. 

7) CodaA Song from the Heart  (September 7)

How does a hearing child raised by deaf parents acquire speaking skills, and navigate school with students who do not understand what her life is like straddling two cultures:  Deaf and hearing?  That is the main theme of Coda, yet laced with humor and the usual teenage angst towards parents. . . and then some. 

8) Squid Game–Hunger Games Meets Snowpiercer: Gangnam Style  (October 13)

An over-the-top critique of what happens when the powerless are at the mercy of the powerful. The series’ brutality and bloodfest give off a computer-game vibe, where the body count is grotesque but meaningless.  This is what Squid Game drives home. I was begrudgingly captivated by Squid Game. It hooks in the voyeur’s curiosity:  watching a car-accident, a boxing match, contact sports, “survival” tv, or gladiator-style competition.

9) Supernova–Nebulous? (November 1 review)

“A person dies when he loses his memories.” Sam, a concert pianist, and Tusker, a novelist, travel across England’s Lake District,  in their van  to visit friends, family and places from their past. Tusker was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, and Sam and Tusker have been partners for over thirty years. Driving along in their van, Sam and Tusker first engage in the familiar banter of any long-married couple who have spent the majority of their lives together.  Tusker’s early onset dementia, frightening to both of them but left unsaid, soon has to be acknowledged. Both main characters’  worlds begin to unravel in terrifying ways and the viewer soon realizes that whatever has just happened, the worst is yet to happen.

10) Chestnut Man–A Nut Case (December 6 review)

This series,  a Nordic Noir crime thriller,  has violent and gruesome serial murders, a workaholic  female detective, an initially ineffectual male partner, and a dark and ominous landscape. This is  a story concerned with mangled corpses, haunting blood pools, and a weaponization of a childhood arts and crafts project.  In 1987 a local sheriff walks into a barn in response to a call that some of the farmer’s cows have escaped.  He finds three people brutally murdered, and a fourth seriously injured. Chestnut figures, toothpicks sticking out for hands and feet, are nearby.   

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

11) The ReagansTruth at Last (January 18 review)

How the carefully curated story becomes the reality is the emphatic warning of The Reagans.  Beginning in  the 1950s, when Reagan first testified in front of Senator McCarthy to support investigating and expelling film industry professionals as communists, we see the former Screen Actor Guild  president rewrite the facts of his own life.    Scanning the political landscape with her bird-of-prey eyes and instincts, Nancy was a force to be ignored at a politician’s own peril.  Nancy’s stagecraft is in play when announcing her husband’s presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi –the notorious site of a Ku Klux Klan massacre.  The viewer sees Reagan’s dog whistle raise the attention of those who will be his first believers.

12) The Father A Patriarch’s Decline (April 12)

A devastating, disquieting journey into the horrors of dementia, both for the afflicted and for those who are close to the afflicted.    The viewer is invited into a breathtaking and  wrenching look at advancing dementia through both the individual frightened by what is happening and to the no-less-terrified family and caregivers. Watching a loved one die is always harrowing, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so.  The Father  breaks new ground on this difficult subject.   

13) The Mauritanian–Guatanamo Diary (April 19)

We see the endurance of a young Mauritanian, Mohamedou being held in Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.  The legal drama The Mauritanian demonstrates the lawyer’s duty to represent a client, regardless of  doubt in his innocence, and whether winning at all costs is what a justice system should condone.  after going to trial, there is a surprising turn of events.  Definitely worth watching for a better understanding of the existence and ostensible justification for Guantanamo Bay.  A painful reminder that Gitmo still prevails, twenty years after 9/11, with detainees who have never been charged.        

14) Red Dot–Laser Focused (May 17)

Trying to put more excitement into their marriage, Nadja and David, a young doctor and engineer, decide to go on a camping trip in a remote forest in Sweden, fantasizing that it will be romantic, gazing at the Northern Lights with their adorable dog.  The impending “excitement” is not exactly what they bargained for, however.  Stalked by an unseen enemy, they become the targets of a hellish nightmare.  Red Dot is an intense psychological thriller.

15)Tell Me Your Secrets–Tell Me Your Lies  (June 27)

All three main characters have pasts which haunt them and each other.  As their damaged psyches unravel their secrets to each other, more questions arise:  Is Karen/Emma being truthful when she claims she doesn’t know about the murders? Is there a natural tendency to gaslight and condemn women whose lovers are criminals, guilty by association? Can a brutal serial killer actually be capable of redemption?  And when does a mother’s obsessive quest for a missing child become pathological?

16) The Underground Raiload–Tracking US History (july 5)

The Underground Railroad, in the mid-1800s,  was actually a network of safe houses and routes from the southern US up into Canada– with other routes to Mexico (which had abolished slavery decades earlier).  The book and film re-imagine these escape routes and safe havens as an actual train running underground to assist runaway slaves in their escape from their plantation owners.

17) Mare of Easttown–Living with the Unacceptable  (July 12)

In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness the main character, policewoman Mare Sheehan– and all those impacted by her son’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children.  The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene. 

18) Cruella–DeVil’s Delight?  (July 28)

Set in London in the 1970s, Cruella focuses on the backstory of the woman who becomes Cruella DeVil, the villain in the beloved children’s story, 101 Dalmatians.  This Disney film is the origin story of Cruella DeVil.   Beautifully costumed, creatively re-interpreting characters from the much-loved two previous 101 Dalmatians films, we are treated to a prequel like none this reviewer ever expected.

19)  Unforgotten (Season 4) And Unfogettable (August 3)

DCI Cassie Stuart is a brilliant sleuth.  She is a master at understanding the connection between good intentions on one hand and bad actions on the other.  Despite that clear-headed detective’s acumen, will the darkest corners of Cassie’s psyche overwhelm her?  She is frequently at the mercy of her emotional tides, regretting her impulsive responses.

20) Silent Witness or Dead on Arrival (August 11)

The title character is a corpse lying on a slab prepared for a post-mortem analysis–a “silent witness”  providing evidence of a crime, suicide, or death by natural causes.   Stories untold, things unsaid. The crimes range  from human trafficking to  biological weapons, drug cartels, organized crime, corporate skullduggery, mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional insurance scam or  accident. The most insignificant anatomical anomaly or physical trace of soil or insect can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not.   

21) Sandra Day O’Connor–The First (September 20)

Although Sandra O’Connor graduated at the top of her Stanford Law School class (one of only four female students),  no law firms interviewed her. While her fellow classmate and future husband, John O’Connor, thrived in a successful law firm, Sandra was resigned to set up her own law office to offer her legal services to anyone who entered on a walk-in basis:  mostly bankruptcy and small claims clients.  Her riveting–often unexpected– family and career trajectory are explored in this timely biographical portrait. 

22) Goliath Season 4 Finale–Addiction (October 5 review)

 We see again the still down-and-out “lemon lawyer” Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) take on a giant corporation.  This time it is an opioid mega-corporation, Zax Pharmaceuticals, and its billionaire CEO).   In a fierce and lurid courtroom battle in San Francisco  (eerily conjuring the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in recent headlines), will McBride prevail?

23) The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (November 7)

In 2014 Theranos is  a startup in blood-testing technology.   Filmed at Theranos’s spectacular Silicon Valley headquarters in Palo Alto, The Inventor follows founder, Elizabeth Holmes,  hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire.  With a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and a recent $400 million investment from many Trump supporters (the Waltons, Betsy DeVos, Murdoch) as well as other luminaries with gravitas–George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former Secretaries of State), General James Mattis, and a stable of others, Theranos is revealed to have been a massive con game, with its pending collapse looming just around the corner.

24) American Rust–Corrosion and Decay (November 23)

Police chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), struggles with his past.  He is  an  Army combat veteran with  PTSD, investigating the  murder of a fellow police officer. Billy Poe, son of the woman he loves, is suspected of the murder.  In the opening scene, we see the waste and decay in Buell, Pennsylvania–a “flyover” town outside Pittsburgh. The residents and community are on the margins of life.  Two teenagers, Billy Poe and his best friend, Isaac English, are seen running from the murder scene,  the abandoned steel mill.  Isaac flees and Billy is left to maneuver the police and prison system.

25) Impeachment: American Crime Story  (November 29)

From the point of view of Monica Lewinsky, a naive twenty-two year old intern, we witness her self-destructive infatuation with a charismatic  president. There are more than several awful and illegal actions taken against Monica: interrogation in a hotel room by the FBI without legal counsel present; threats by Bill Clinton’s staff; media “slut-shaming” for her testimony–all make Impeachment a compelling narrative presenting facts and corrupt behavior not well-known.

26) Dopesick–Lies Upon Lies (December 13)

Dopesick” refers to the excruciating withdrawal from OxyContin  and this mini-series  depicts  withdrawals in  visceral detail where most other shows only touch the periphery.   Multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are the true drug cartel behind America’s opioid crisis.  The Sacklers’  avoid culpability and accountability for years by paying relatively low million-dollar fines while retaining billions as they continued to increase distribution of the drug.  The drug lords here, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, are quite aware of the horrific consequences of their business.  Dopesick exposes the systemic manipulation of people for profit. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

27) Your Honor–Judge Me Not (March 22 review)

Unconditional love–are there limits?  A highly respected recently widowed New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato  is known for his fair and impartial sentencing of young criminals. But the judge  gets personal to protect his teenage son, Adam, from the consequences of his reckless actions. Time after time the judge tries to use some moral principle to justify bad acts, and it all goes horribly wrong.

28) The One–A Perfect Match DNA-Style(August 22)

Can true love be analyzed and dissected by science?   Entrepreneur Rebecca Webb uses her own husband as proof that genetic matchmaking works.  Her own match is  purportedly the perfect soulmate identified through algorithms and DNA analysis.  Her message:  “You’re not going to end up alone.”As CEO of the start-up MatchDNA, Rebecca becomes unimaginably wealthy manipulating the human desire to find one’s perfect match.   Through scientific datamining, MatchDNA promises to  shortcut all dating disappointments.

29) The Chair–Academic Patriarchy (August 29)

The English department is not at all popular with students. Declining enrollments are triggering budget cuts and forced early retirement on the old white professors who never thought of sexism and racism. Ji-Yoon is highly motivated to bring excitement to teaching, modernize the curriculum, and work toward greater diversity.  But the old-school profs will have none of it.  Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon, without over-the-top theatrics, has perfect comedic timing in her attempts to balance what is impossibly askew. 

30) The Last Kingdom –“Game of Thrones” Meets “Vikings”  (December 27)

Loosely based upon the history of tribal and internecine warfare between various factions of Saxons and Danes (=Vikings), \a Saxon aristocratic boy named Osbert, is taken after his father and older brother are slain by Danes. Only his ruthless uncle survives and robs him of his birthright. The year is 866.  Renamed Uhtred and, along with a little Saxon girl, Brida,  the two children are taken as slaves and raised by the powerful but loving Earl Ragnar in Danish Northumbria. Time passes and The Last Kingdom follows the now determined warrior Uhtred (newcomer Alexander Dreymon) to reclaim Bebbanburg  and seek revenge on his uncle.   

“Guilt”–A Hit-and-Run

Guilt is a four-episode Masterpiece Theater mini-series, a darkly sinister and acerbic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who leave a wedding drunk and eager to get home. We see the elegant lawyer Max (Mark Bonnar of “Shetland”) and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Jake hit an elderly man who steps in front of Max’s car.  Jake (Jamie Sives) is driving because Max thinks his brother is less inebriated than he is.

Jake wants to report the accident to the police, but Max is concerned about his professional reputation so they agree to cover up the hit-and-run by dragging the old man back into his house, positioning him to look as if he died of natural causes.

Max is very clever with the cover-up, having knowledge of what constitutes evidentiary material.  So, luck appears to be on their side. But then Angie (Ruth Bradley), the only living relative of the old man, shows up and begins to ask questions.

Nervous about the subterfuge, Jake wants to come clean, but Max will have none of it.  Reassuring his younger brother that he has always had his best interests at heart, Max convinces Jake that he will be safe with his older brother in control. But there are no secrets kept.

A nosy neighbor, a newly sober detective, and Angie’s change of heart all add to the suspense–can the cover up be sustained?  Will the two brothers face their own reckoning as the lies of the past and the crimes of the present come back to haunt and possibly destroy them?  For Jake–the man-child whose record shop was bought by his brother to help him out–the guilt over the hit-and-run gets more intense.   Jake dreams of a life with Angie, far removed from his brother’s shadow.  For Max, guilt is what the evidence reveals.  If there is insufficient evidence to convict, then they’re not guilty, whether a crime was committed or not.

Guilt is a four-hour guilty pleasure for those viewers who love a good mystery with lots of subplots. At times–particularly when a new character pops up on screen–the viewer is jostled trying to figure out where he or she belongs in the story.  Full of surprises –cannot mention all the characters for that reason–this is quite a chilling portrait of betrayal and brotherly love.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  PBS streaming (Masterpiece Theater)