Another COVID year that echoed the one before: surprisingly little time was spent relaxing in front of a book, watching good TV, or catching up on movies. Once again, I felt pangs of disappointment that I couldn’t immerse myself in more culture. Below you’ll find the few books, films, and shows that stood out. There were more that didn’t make the list: they didn’t bring anything notable to the table, and weren’t worth mentioning. You can see my lists from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 here.
The Best Books I Read in 2021
The problem with my reading this year is that I got stuck on a couple of stories. I began listening to my first audio book, a new experience for me. While it’s a good book (which I may finally finish in time for next year’s list), man, was it loooong. And then I got started on a story that didn’t inspire me at all. Instead of dropping it and picking up something else, it just sat around waiting for me to come back. I feel like I wasted a month trying to get going on that one until I finally moved on to something better. So the list is fairly short this year.
6) Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan: A lengthy recounting of the life of fictional slave George Washington Black, whose early struggles in captivity morph into worldwide adventures upon his escape. Exposed to science and literature early in his life by a benevolent but troubled mentor, Black’s world and knowledge expand quickly, but he spends much of his subsequent travels desperately trying to reconnect to his childhood benefactor. Overall, the tale is well-written, and as is often the case, a story of individuals overcoming serious trauma and hardship can be inspiring. It’s a good yarn, though I found it somewhat frustrating that the protagonist didn’t put his myriad gifts to use to maximize his talents, instead spending so much energy obsessing over a search that was often fruitless and frustrating.
5) The Interdependency Series, by John Scalzi: I figured I’d read some of Scalzi’s work before. He specializes in “space operas,” of which I’ve read my fair share. But I guess I was confusing similar stories from other authors (mainly Joe Haldeman’s work, which is similar thematically). So this was my first try with Scalzi… and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The Interdependency is a collection of human habitats scattered throughout different star systems, all reliant on each other and connected by a somewhat ambiguous, naturally-occurring “space current” known as The Flow. When the Flow begins to collapse and cut off access between the systems, human survival is at stake. The story focuses largely on the new leader of civilization (known as the emperox) and her attempts to solve the Flow problem while navigating all manner of political machinations and villainy around every corner. It’s all quite entertaining for most of its run, but suffers from a couple problems: 1) the villains are mostly bumbling and bad at what they do, so the stakes raised by the human threat never seem quite high enough, allowing the protagonists to prevail too easily time and again… and 2) the final book wraps up far too quickly. This seems to be a reoccurring problem in many books I enjoy (e.g, the crime novels of Michael Connelly). They don’t close well. There’s a lot written about the mysteries of The Flow and the work needed to solve it and save humanity… we never quite get the answers we’re promised before the final volume wraps things up. Nonetheless, I mostly enjoyed the ride until that point.
4) Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir: Weir’s first book, The Martian, is a modern sci fi classic. Filled with humor and grounded in endless science, it’s manages to be technical but somehow simultaneously entertaining the entire time. Project Hail Mary, Weir’s third novel, is much in the same vein. But despite following the same formula in many ways, it’s not quite as successful. The humor doesn’t hit quite as well (the quips almost seem forced at times), and our stranded protagonist is doing nothing but problem-solving throughout much of the story. However, I found the novel to be most successful when our hero was—without offering up spoilers—presented with new challenges that stretched beyond just the standard “stranded alone in space” theme. So to me, it got better as it went along, and ultimately ended on the right note.
3) Deacon King Kong, by James McBride: I had to try one of the best-reviewed books of 2020. It largely lived up to the hype. Set in a New York neighborhood in the 1960s, Deacon tells the story of a wayward alcoholic nicknamed Sportcoat, whose actions set off all manner of unrest in his neighborhood. Filled with colorful language and a wide range of colorful characters, the story is filled with plenty of humor while navigating cultural, racial and religious themes. And there’s even a bit of a mystery thrown in, an informal caper that keeps things rolling after something of a slow start. The writing is mostly superb. Though at times I felt it was too wordy and descriptive, the flowery prose largely works to its advantage, and is almost necessary in describing such a diverse cast and its community.
2) Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman: Backman’s A Man Called Ove was my favorite novel on this list a few years ago. I finally circled back around to see what else he had produced, and this one was well received, so I eagerly gave it a go. I was almost scared off… the novel begins by admitting that the characters we are going to meet are awful people, and they certainly come across that way at the outset. I detest stories with dislikeable (and stupid) characters. The Girl on the Train is a prime example. Thankfully, Anxious People isn’t exactly about a bunch of awful humans after all. As the story of a botched bank robbery progresses, layers are peeled back and we begin to learn more about the traumas, anxieties, and life events that shape a group of people forced together into a tremendously awkward situation. That last part echoes Ove, with strangers coming together in an initial clash of personalities, occasionally in humorous ways, before ultimately leading to a warm-hearted resolution. Backman seems to excel at feel-good, funny stories, so I may just have to see what else he’s got waiting for me.
1) A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, by George R. R. Martin: This was a nice reminder of how good of a writer Martin can be. When he actually finds time to write, that is. We haven’t seen anything new from him on the Game of Thrones front in a while, and the last couple novels in that series were far from his best work. So it was good to travel back in the GoT storyline (and in the author’s publication timeline) to find some entertaining and well-written short stories centering around Ser Duncan the Tall—an aspiring but somewhat mediocre knight—and his squire Egg. In the grand scheme of things, these stories are but a blip in the greater history Martin has created (the characters themselves actually end up being more important in the world of Westeros in subsequent years), but I greatly enjoyed being back in this world thanks to some of Martin’s better writing once again.
I also read: The Worlds Trilogy, An Elderly Woman Is Up to No Good, Peace Talks, Battle Ground, King Bullet, The Giver
My Favorite Movies Seen in 2021
8) The Father: Anthony Hopkins has always been an actor whose presence consistently blows me away on screen. This year, he somewhat controversially won his second Best Actor Oscar for this role, surprising everyone caught up in the hype surrounding the late Chadwich Boseman’s nominated role in the same category (for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). I never had a chance to see Ma Rainey, but I did catch The Father during a flight, and the only thing I can say is that Hopkins’ work is certainly award-worthy. This is a small, intimate story (based on a play written by the film’s director) of a man named Anthony who is slowly losing his mind, and the trouble this causes those around him. Hopkins dances adroitly between lucid moments and those less so, and a rotating cast playing the same characters—used to illustrate Anthony’s growing confusion—does wonderful supporting work.
7) No Sudden Move: A Steven Soderbergh heist movie? That usually promises to be good. Out of Sight is an underrated classic. His take on Ocean’s Eleven remains one of my favorite films. The follow-ups were less successful but enjoyable for the most part, as was 2017’s Logan Lucky. So the pedigree is there. No Sudden Move (which debuted this summer on HBO Max) feels different, however. A bit more violent and dangerous, leaving more uncertainties about where the story was going to go as characters double- and triple-cross each other. Sparring machinations are revealed seemingly every five minutes. The dialog, acting, and frequent dabs of subtle humor are spot on. The cinematography, often handled by Soderbergh himself, employs a lot of quirky fisheye shots that are a bit distracting, but which ultimately don’t detract too much from an otherwise entertaining yarn.
6) Druk (Another Round): A Danish film starring Mads Mikkelsen, I caught Druk on the plane (right after The Father). A group of middle-aged school teachers takes it upon themselves to conduct a social experience to see if imbibing alcohol every day will bring happiness and joy, something missing from some of their lives. The overall tone is conveyed as a light-hearted journey of self-discovery, until things end up exactly the way you’d think they would in a tale of alcohol abuse. Nonetheless, there is some important maturation and growth for Mikkelsen’s character, and we ultimately hope he’s found a way to become a better, happier person by the end.
5) The Rescue: This year was a bit more documentary-heavy for me (including on the TV side). I was excited to hear that Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi—the team behind Free Solo—were tackling the story of the rescue of 13 young boys from a flooded cave in Thailand. This film is thrilling, with the many, many challenges faced by the rescuers explained and presented in excellent detail. While it relies in part on news footage recorded during the rescue, the movie also makes good use of reenactments to show just how harrowing the operation was.
4) Palm Springs: The time loop concept has nearly been worn out. You can find many, many examples of books, shows, and films that involve someone living the same life or day over and over again. Several such examples have popped up on my Favorites list from time to time, because occasionally a writer manages to find a slightly different take on the subject. In this case, Andy Samberg’s character is stuck reliving the same wedding day celebration countless times. Palm Springs comes from Samberg and the Lonely Island crew, mostly known for their work on some iconic Saturday Night Live video shorts. And yes, Palm Springs is primarily a comedy (which is a less frequent approach to the time loop genre), but it avoids the temptation to stick with straight bawdy humor, in favor of a slightly more laid back “quirky” vibe. Not that it doesn’t welcome the chance to pounce on opportunities for physical or sexual comedy, but in general it seemed a bit more sophisticated. Cristin Milioti really shines as Samberg’s accidental companion in a story that, once again, proves that sometimes it’s not about how we spend our time, but whom we spend it with that matters most.
3) The Mitchells vs. The Machines: Netflix’s animated family road trip/apocalypse mashup was one of the funniest movies of the year. Though I sometimes have a tough time buying into animation not made by Pixar, Mitchells was full of hilarious gags, and an out-of-the-box animation style that reminded me of another non-Pixar masterpiece: Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse. The mix of animation styles and random zingers really was refreshing. Producers Lord and Miller have succeeded before in this genre with The Lego Movie, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but the high bar set by this film was a pleasant one.
2) Nomadland: Chloé Zhao’s restrained look at modern day nomadic life in the United States is beautiful, challenging, and packed with a lot of subtle emotional moments. Francis McDormand continues to prove she’s one of our greatest actors as she tackles the role of a widower who is living out of her old, beat-up van. The wanderers depicted in the film—many of whom are bringing their real-life roles as nomads to the screen—are forced into the lifestyle by economic hardship. Others choose it in order to distance themselves from our more materialistic society. There’s a constant question lingering throughout: what is home? McDormand’s character Fern grapples with this, as the draw of family, love, and stability conflict with her sense of freedom and her ties to a past life. Some find this film depressing, but the enduring, apparent hardships these characters may appear to face are interspersed with uplifting, beautiful moments, and meditative reflection that ultimately leaves one at peace.
1) Dune: Nomadland was probably the better film, but I enjoyed Dune more. In part because it overcame my problem of setting expectations too high. I often get so amped up for blockbuster epics that I inevitably feel let down when an imperfect film can’t meet my lofty expectations (e.g., The Dark Knight, Interstellar, The Revenant…). I was looking ahead to Dune for most of the year, hoping it would land in theaters around the time I actually felt comfortable going back to the theater again. That timing worked out (it was the second theater film I saw this fall after the new Bond movie). Why was it important to see it in the theater? Denis Villeneuve, of course! Villeneuve has made a mark as a director who can craft good movies that happen to look amazing. Every shot is a work of art. I had to see this one on the big screen.
While early reviews were promising, there was some minor backlash as well (mainly that it’s only Part One of the book adaptation, but some folks found it convoluted). I also had adjusted expectations because I felt the book was a bit overrated when I read it many years ago. Could Villeneuve not only meet his usual visual standards, but also improve upon the source material’s storytelling? Surprisingly, yes! Not only is it the best-looking film of the year, but the characters and plot are compelling (and it’s all fairly easy to follow). Aside from a bit too much exposition at times, I was surprised and impressed. While I hope they can stick the landing on Part Two, I absolutely loved Part One.
Wish I’d Seen: CODA, The Power of the Dog, Spider Man: No Way Home, Licorice Pizza
My Favorite Shows That I Watched in 2021
10) What We Do In the Shadows: This was a busy season for Taika Waititi comedies. We got to finally try the cheeky Wellington Paranormal, and Reservation Dogs was one of the more surprising shows of the year. But Shadows remains one of my favorites. This rollicking vampire comedy dipped a bit this season, but remains far more entertaining that most other comedies on television. Thankfully, Season 4 recently wrapped filming!
9) Sex Education: Part-way through Season 3 of this Netflix high school sex comedy, I thought to myself, I love this show. I’ve sung its praises for a while, as it’s not just a cheeky sex romp as much as an intense personality study of a community formed by kids and parents from different backgrounds. So often in this show, the kids are smarter and more mature than the adults, a theme that perhaps starts to wear thin at times. But overall, seeing these students overcome their obstacles (often presented by their obstinate or downright villainous instructors and parents) and achieve personal growth is commendable. The biggest frustration, perhaps, is that the show’s two leads—will they or won’t they get together???—spent too much time apart in Season 3. It appears we’re fortunate to get a Season 4, but it probably needs to take things in a new direction and somehow find a proper, er, climax to the relationship drama between these two.
8) Ted Lasso: Season Two of the hit Apple+ show about an American football coach heading up an English football club touched on some different notes. The first season was renowned for being the best “feel good” show on television… Season Two takes some darker turns. And I appreciated that. It was not afraid to set aside the fun at times to delve into personal trauma. A season-long story line with the club’s new sports psychologist brought forth some of the best and most meaningful material the show has presented so far.
7) Hemingway/Muhammad Ali: I mentioned watching more documentaries this year. That included these two series by Ken Burns, documenting the lives of two titans of the 20th century. I was a bit more familiar with Ali’s tale—having pored over old Sports Illustrated copies and the occasional TV feature in past years—but I knew very little about Hemingway. I’ve mostly avoided his work to date, skimming through one book back in high school and never getting far in another a decade-and-a-half ago. So I have no idea if I’d really enjoy his writing, but it was fascinating getting a glimpse of his world at the time his stories became famous. Of course, in both cases, these men were severely flawed individuals, but their exploits and the body of their work inspired millions, so it was interesting getting a glimpse of their genius.
6) Warrior: A martial arts drama filled with decent-but-not-stellar acting, “okay” storytelling, and mildly likable (or mildly dislikable) characters makes my Top Ten? In this case perhaps I was impressed by how different this show—originally on Cinemax and now on HBO Max—was from anything else we’ve watched. The tale of Chinese immigrants in turn of the (20th) century San Francisco is filled with the expected story lines: political corruption, and oh, so much racial strife. But the world-building is solid, the clashes between rival Chinese and established Irish gangs feels real, and most importantly, the fight choreography is lights out. Warrior has found a unique niche by presenting some of the best action on television every week.
5) Mythic Quest: This is the second Apple TV comedy I’ve taken to (following Ted Lasso). Though I typically find myself way out in front of TV drama trends, I’m somewhat picky—and therefore almost always behind—when it comes to comedies (though I can proudly say we were all in on What We Do in the Shadows and Fleabag from the start). So we often end up binge-watching multiple seasons of more popular humorous shows if they end up in my wheelhouse. In this case, we latched onto Mythic Quest after the second season had already debuted, and quickly got caught up in time for the Season Two finale. The show is set in the world of video game development. Of course, video games and the company at the center of the story are of secondary concern (one reason the show works well), so we’re thrust into the office environment not at the beginning of their journey, but as they’re struggling to follow up on their fantasy role-playing game’s initial success. While development, digital storytelling, and all the other tech stuff are intertwined with the plot, it never supersedes the relationships and human drama (yes, drama) that makes it compelling and fun. MQ has a serious side (something any successful comedy has to handle well), and in fact, the most successful episodes in the first two seasons are more dramatic flashback stories that are only very loosely tied to the main characters or the story being told throughout the rest of the show. It’s not afraid to mix things up and go the dramatic route while maintaining a funny edge, so it helps to have a strong cast on board (including Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham in a standout, hilarious performance).
If the show suffers in any specific area, it may be its underdeveloped prominent female characters. Lead developer Poppy is, out of anyone in the entire office, probably the closest thing we have to a protagonist. But most of the time it seems she’s there simply to deflect the absolute bonkers mentality of her selfish, arrogant, or simply looney co-workers. Meanwhile, we get very little sense of what makes Poppy a supposed genius and highly successful at her job (she’s given ample opportunity to at least show that she too can be a terrible boss). Tester Rachel gets a lot of screen time, but in a similar vein: she’s fending off horrible co-workers while complaining about not knowing what to do with her life… to the point where she’s often the butt of jokes from her superiors for the very thing that makes her character annoying to the viewer. She’s intended to be a sympathetic character, but is rudderless (a perfunctory office romance story line gives her character something to do amidst all the complaining). The most compelling female character is probably the power-hungry Jo, played with glee by Jessie Ennis, who keeps switching bosses and throwing others under the bus in her attempts to climb the ladder. I’d love to see stronger writing that can make the other women more than just foils for the over-the-top male characters that carry most of the show’s entertainment value.
4) WandaVision: I truly appreciated the run of Marvel shows on Disney+ this year. They weren’t all great (Loki was perhaps the most-hyped, but was by far the weakest entry), but I appreciated getting a chance to see what happened to some famous and often beloved characters following the most recent phase of Marvel films that culminated with Endgame. And what happened in most cases was a lot of trauma. These shows didn’t shy away from that, and WandaVision probably did the best job of telling the story of grief and loss, and its affect not just on regular humans, but those imbued with special powers. The premise of this show initially caused a lot of head-scratching: a story bouncing through different eras of television, starring two superheroes whose lives were extremely different the last time we saw them on film. But it’s so much deeper than that, and as the reveals keep coming, we begin to realize how traumatic the cataclysmic events in those films really were.
3) The Expanse: This one makes me sad. The review is largely for the fifth season of the show, which details some of the best and most dramatic events of the fantastic series of sci fi novels by James S. A. Corey. I’ve written about both the books and the show ad nauseam over the years, so I’m not going to recap (or spoil) the story. Let’s just say that the show does its usual excellent job of cramming in the dramatic, galaxy-wide action and intrigue into just a few episodes made for the small screen. What made me disappointed, however, was finding out that the truncated sixth season will be the final one… wrapping up one of the best shows on television well before the story told in the nine novels comes to a close. There’s so much left to tell, and it’s a pity if we never get to return to the world of The Expanse some day in the future.
2) Succession: I admit that films and shows showcasing the lifestyle of the ultra-rich make me a bit nauseous after a while. Immerse me too much in the customs, traditions, and extravagance of high society, and it becomes a turnoff. This was true with Downtown Abbey, and it’s certainly true with Succession. But this actually helps the latter. Since the characters caught up in this world are universally dislikable, twisted, or just plain moronic, you start to feel they absolutely deserve that inability to discover happiness in their lavish lifestyle. The political and family intrigue remains top notch, coupled with some of the best performances on television. Though a few plot lines eventually fall flat, some incredible episodes and stunning betrayals keep Succession humming right along as one of the best dramas on the small screen.
Warning: the following clips contains adult language.
1) Staged: The quintessential quarantine show. It’s literally about two actors—David Tennant and Michael Sheen, playing themselves—surviving COVID lockdown via video chats. It’s a testament to these performers that they can pull off two seasons of home video and come up with something so poignant and hilarious so effectively. Loosely framed around the production of a television show (created by their bumbling director friend), as well as the subsequent re-make of that show for American audiences, the power of Staged is found more in the personal reflections, petty squabbles, and occasional sad moments between the two friends, as they navigate a difficult pandemic world via Zoom. It’s consistently funny, and very subtle in its dramatic moments, but it really hit the spot during home confinement.
Best Moment: Big props to Hawkeye, the only show which made me blurt out, “Where’s the saw-whet owl?!” …only to actually answer that question two seconds later!
(So what if they botched its call?)
Other shows I Enjoyed: The Queen’s Gambit, Chef’s Table, What If…?, Reservation Dogs, Wellington Paranormal, For All Mankind, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Foundation, Hawkeye, Lupin, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? The Great British Baking Show
Wish I’d Seen or Finished: Normal People, Station Eleven, Only Murders in the Building (a few episodes in), The Great (a few episodes left), Squid Game
More Year in Review Content
2020 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature
2019 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature
2018 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature
2017 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature
2016 Favorites in Entertainment & Literature
We haven’t been to the movie theaters in months.
We did see Nomadland and loved it.
I would love to see The Father and The Rescue.
On Netflix we watched a.o. The Queen’s Gambit.
I like shows like the Great British Bake off and Masterchef Australia.
And the last couple of weeks…………I mainly watched Hallmark Christmas movies and Erik is very happy that he doesn’t need to watch them with me 😊.