I’m going to try something different with this post. Every year, I list my favorite movies of the year, but it pigeonholes the post into avoiding any of the other media I consumed throughout the year – books, TV-shows, video games, and even movies that came out years ago that I happened to come across in 2021.
2021, of course, was the second year dominated by COVID-19, so I spent a lot of time at home and discovered a number of new medias that were pretty incredible. Here are my top 5 of the year:
Honorable Mention: Squid Game – Season 1 (TV, 2021, Netflix)
I feel like basically everyone has seen or at least heard about Squid Game at this point. The show pretty consistently surprised me, and I was really impressed with how well it was able to balance tones between unbearably cynical/bleak and darkly comedic. It’s a really excellent execution of the “class dystopia” / “Battle Royale” genres with great twists and turns, but perhaps the most surprising element was just how popular this show became in America. Korean stories like Squid Game used to be reserved for pretty niche movies that were difficult to find in the West, and now a pretty good entry into the genre has become the number one most watched thing on Netflix, ever. That’s pretty incredible if you ask me, and makes me appreciate that Netflix is willing to invest in less familiar content.
5. Search Party – Seasons 1-4 (TV, 2016-2021, HBO Max)
Search Party rules. I totally missed this show on cable television, but discovered it on HBO Max and was quickly addicted. The show is about four highly narcissistic Millennials who start pulling on a thread of a missing person case, only to spiral their own lives out of control. The show is about an uncontrollable need to be important and find a sense of purpose, even at others’ expense. None of the characters are by any means “good people”, which makes it hard to root for them at first. Eventually though, it becomes more about the chaos that they sow in their wake and the consequences of their actions. More than anything, this show is hilarious, and never satisfied with any status quo. Season 5 (2022) was a little disappointing for me, but those first four seasons are nothing short of incredible TV. Plus each episode is only like 23 minutes – extremely easy to digest.
4. In the Mouth of Madness (Movie, 1994, VOD)
When I think of John Carpenter movies, I think of a lot of classics from the late 70s/80s: Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York, They Live!. I had always assumed that by the time he got to the 90s, Carpenter was tapped out of classics. That’s why I was frankly blown away by In the Mouth of Madness, his somewhat forgotten Lovecraftian horror of 1994. This movie is every bit as good as many of Carpenter’s classics. It stars Sam Neil as an investigator trying to get to the bottom of a Stephen King-esc author’s disappearance, while meanwhile strange things begin to happen to fans of the author’s work. This movie takes the paranoia, unease, and stakes of The Thing and applies it to the broader world, leading to a fantastical mystery with some truly unique and bizarre imagery.
3. Midnight Mass (TV miniseries, 2021, Netflix)
It’s tough to talk about Midnight Mass without spoiling at least some of the premise. It basically begins when a small island town’s priest doesn’t return from his sabbatical, replaced instead by a young, charismatic priest who reignites the faith of many on the island, sometimes performing literal miracles. However, it’s clear that something dark has also come to the town, stalking and killing in the shadows. This show has a LOT to say both about faith and grace, and also how religion can be used to corrupt ends. One of the things that really impressed me about it was its ability to balance the hopefulness of faith versus the potential for abuse in religion in general, with a focus on Catholicism in particular. Personally I found its take pretty even-handed on both sides, though I’m sure others will disagree. It also has some of the best twists and turns of any show I’ve seen, with an extremely satisfying ending to boot.
2. A New Leaf (Movie, 1971, VOD)
Elaine May is a filmmaker that was a major blindspot for me, so when the Blank Check podcast announced they were covering her, I followed along. She is best known for the historic flop Ishtar (which, for the record, is criminally underrated). My favorite of her features by far was her debut, A New Leaf, a movie about a completely inept playboy who has managed to spend through his entire inheritance. He decides he must marry someone wealthy in order to keep his lavish lifestyle, and stumbles upon the highly aloof Henrietta (played by May herself). This movie is hilarious in its dry wit. It has moments of humor akin to the classic Pink Panther films, but never winks at the camera or pauses for a laugh. It also has some surprising moments of tenderness sprinkled between callous, selfish acts. May’s later films are perhaps more ambitious, but for my money, A New Leaf is her most entertaining, and one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time.
1. Returnal (Video Game, 2021, PS5)
When I think of the games I played in 2021, most of them were pretty average – Guardians of the Galaxy and Metroid Dread are both fun but have flaws that made me disengage, Spider-Man Miles Morales is really just more of the same. Even The Last Of Us Part 2, while having fantastic gameplay and narrative, is just so unrelentingly bleak for so long that I haven’t even finished it yet despite really appreciating the story it’s telling. That’s one of many reasons it absolutely shocks me that Returnal is not topping most critics’ game lists in 2021. It is one of the most fun and original games I have ever played, and is on my top list of all time, let alone 2021.
To be clear, Returnal is not the most accessible game. To start with, it’s a PS5 exclusive, which alone narrows its potential audience to about 17 people. It’s a roguelite, meaning that every time you die, almost all of your tangible progress is wiped away. It’s punishingly difficult at times, intending to put you into situations where you will die. All this is to say, it’s a game that takes patience, and willingness to figure out how to use and abuse the game’s mechanics to stay alive. But as you start to learn the ins and outs of how to play, and especially as you upgrade new abilities, man, does the progress feel good.
The gameplay itself I can best describe as a fast-paced combination of Control‘s third-person shooter with Enter the Gungeon‘s bullet-hell roguelite. The controls are extremely tight, and it almost always feels like deaths and mistakes are on the player rather than the game being unfair. The cryptic nature of the narrative is also fascinating, as future astronaut Seline is stranded on an alien, Lovecraftian (there’s that word again) world from which she can never escape, even through death. How she got there and where “there” is are questions you decipher throughout the game, the lore of which is open to debate and fascinating.
Now, Returnal does have its share of flaws too. Not being able to save mid-run was a huge bummer, since you’d need at least a couple hours for any of the longer runs (though this has since been rectified with a mid-run save option). I’d also argue that the game lacks a satisfying endgame, leaving you with a bit of an “oh, I guess that’s it” feeling when it’s done (although, the new update in a couple of weeks may provide exactly the endgame fights I’ve been craving!). All of that is more than made up for in the unique combination of combat, gameplay, and narrative. Returnal is not only easily my game of the year, but also my favorite non-movie media of 2021.
That’s the list! Again, this left out any 2021 movies I saw this year, since that list will be coming shortly. Hope 2022 is just as good!