My Pop Culture Year

Me, one year ago: “2021 HAS to be better, right?”

2021: “Hold my beer.”

Yeah, I’ll say it – 2021 was a giant dumpster fire. I was happy to say goodbye to it. Obviously, there were some bright points, the brightest being writing Peanut Butter & Julie for you lovely people. But much of 2021 sucked a fat one. As usual in years fraught with anxiety and tension, popular culture – in all its wonderfully diverse forms – was what got me through the day-to-day. So as I look back on 2021, these are some of the stand-outs. This is not by any means a “Best Of” list; some of these weren’t even released in the past year. This is simply a list of some of the movies, series and books that I enjoyed for the first time in 2021.

  • Mare of Easttown

What to say about HBO’s crime drama that hasn’t already been said? Probably nothing. But every aspect of this limited series – from the writing to the production design to the editing – is just so fucking good. Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is watching her personal and professional lives fall apart as she attempts to solve the murder of a local teen. Though the central mystery is interesting, the most intriguing facet of the series is Mare herself. Winslet, in a spellbinding, Emmy-winning performance, is masterfully supported by a cast that includes Guy Pearce, her fellow Emmy winners Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson, and the peerless Jean Smart.

  • Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Almost two years into the pandemic, I broke my COVID-era rule about pandemic-related media to finally read Mandel’s gorgeous, Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel. Am I ever glad I did. Unlike most post-apocalyptic stories, Station Eleven focuses not on the survival of humanity, but on the preservation of human culture. Spanning multiple timelines and featuring a cast of interconnected characters, Station Eleven is both heartbreaking and uplifting (it’s also the first novel I finished since 2019). My husband and I are four episodes into the terrific HBO Max adaptation, and while he is getting a little antsy for some Mad Max-style action to happen, I am content to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

  • Soul

Pixar’s Soul is a lovely ode to finding your spark. Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a music teacher who hasn’t given up on his dream of becoming a jazz pianist. On the day of his biggest break yet – a gig with Angela Bassett’s Dorothea Williams – Joe falls down a manhole and finds himself headed to the Great Beyond. Not content to leave his earthly business behind, he escapes to the Great Before and is paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent millennia avoiding being placed in a body. In the film’s funniest scene, we see some of 22’s historical mentors, including Archimedes, Copernicus, Marie Antoinette, Carl Jung, and Muhammad Ali (“You are the greatest…pain in the butt!”). The animation is gorgeous, of course, and the voice work spot-on, but my favorite aspect of Soul is the music. An ambient score was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the jazz sequences were written by Jon Batiste; the three shared the Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for their efforts.

  • The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit was released in the fall of 2020, but we didn’t get around to watching it until early 2021. To be honest, I was skeptical that a series about chess would be all that interesting, but I was so very wrong. Based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel of the same name, The Queen’s Gambit is exhilarating. The chess sequences, which most experts agree are quite accurate, are electrifying. Every last period detail – costumes, hairstyles, set decor -is exquisite. And it’s all anchored by Anya Taylor-Joy’s riveting performance as Beth Harmon, our extraordinarily gifted and heartbreakingly damaged protagonist. I simply could not keep my eyes off of her. In a rare case of critics and audiences agreeing, The Queen’s Gambit won eleven Primetime Emmys and became one of Netflix’s most-watched series of 2020.

  • Don’t Look Up

Don’t Look Up is one of the most divisive films of the year, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, the satire is heavy-handed at times, but the A-list cast – led by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio – more than sells the material. Although Don’t Look Up is clearly intended as a climate change cautionary tale, I couldn’t help but see the similarities to our COVID response: craven, anti-science politicians looking for ways to enrich themselves, their cult-like followers chanting mindless slogans, the vacant-eyed tech billionaire who swoops in with a flashy fix. It’s over-the-top for sure, but it worked for me.

  • Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan’s elegy to love and loss and faith overwhelmed me. Critics of the series complained it was too talky, but I was blown away that long sequences of dialogue could be that thrilling – or that unsettling. Midnight Mass is not perfect; the makeup used to age the actors is laughably bad and even I’ll admit that fewer monologues would have improved the pacing. But the series delivers a slow-burn dread – and a few brilliantly placed jump scares – that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. And the cast, led by Zach Gilford and Kate Siegel, more than makes up for any flaws in the material; Hamish Linklater, in particular, gives a mesmerizing, career-defining performance as Father Paul.

  • No Sudden Move

Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a twisty crime caper with a top-notch cast, including Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Jon Hamm, David Harbour, Ray Liotta and Brendan Fraser (as well as an uncredited cameo from one of Soderbergh’s most frequent collaborators). The storyline kicks off when two gangsters are recruited as part of a blackmail scheme; the target – an accountant for General Motors – seems an unlikely one, at least at first. It all becomes clear in the end, but don’t doze off because the pace is brisk. In the end, No Sudden Move might suffer from one twist too many, but it’s a hell of an entertaining ride nonetheless.

  • Palm Springs

Groundhog Day meets Bridesmaids, with healthy doses of both sweetness and raunch, Hulu’s Palm Springs is a rom-com with a metaphysical twist. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play stuck-in-time soulmates Nyles and Sarah, who are reliving Sarah’s sister’s wedding day over and over (Nyles is a guest of one of the bridesmaids, Sarah is the maid of honor). Samberg and Milioti are so charming together; their chemistry is authentic and when their characters inevitably fall in love, it feels earned. Unlike Groundhog Day, the two can’t “become a better person” their way out of the time loop, so they play with the boundaries of it instead: they steal an airplane, learn a dance routine, get revenge on Nyles’ cheating girlfriend and a skeezy groomsman, and give each other some very NSFW tattoos. It’s hilarious and heart-warming, and I loved every minute of it.

SERIOUSLY VERY VERY NOT SUITABLE FOR WORK
  • Fargo series

Fargo debuted in 2014, and I was initially reluctant to watch it; television adaptations of iconic films typically fail to live up to their source material, and Fargo is a film that I LOVE. But then I learned that creator Noah Fawley pitched the series to the Coen brothers, who were so impressed that they signed on as executive producers. Gorgeously shot, flawlessly acted and shockingly violent, Fargo pays perfect homage to the Coens’ darkly comic vision while also maintaining its own unique point of view. The series, which has received more than two hundred nominations and won fifty-one awards (including the prestigious Peabody), is simply one of the best of the past decade.

  • Yellowjackets

The less you know about Showtime’s bonkers-in-the-best-way Yellowjackets, the better. The series takes place in two timelines: one in 1996 as a girls’ soccer team from New Jersey embarks on an ill-fated trip to nationals and the other in the present, where the now middle-aged women remain haunted by the demons of the past (let’s just say the plane crash isn’t the worst of it). The younger and older versions of each character are perfectly cast; I especially love Christina Ricci and Sammi Hanratty as the team’s bullied (and deliciously sociopathic) equipment manager Misty. And Juliette Lewis is giving an award-worthy performance as Natalie, whose badassery masks a profoundly damaged psyche. One part Lord of the Flies and one part Heathers, Yellowjackets is twisted and terrifying and absurdly entertaining. Word is the creators have a five-year plan for the series and I worry about its shelf life over that many seasons. But for now, I just can’t get enough.

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