While not much can be said in favor of 2021, it did deliver some seriously good film and television. From soul-crushing period pieces to laugh-out-loud comedies and soothing commercial successes, 2021 offered a range of viewing options fit for a truly unpredictable year — and the many moods that accompanied it.
'The World to Come'
In the grand tradition of heart-wrenching lesbian period pieces like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Carol,” “The World to Come” is a deeply moving story of star-crossed lovers who meet on the American frontier in the mid-19th century.
Based on a short story by Jim Shepard, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the film follows neighbors Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) as they discover a romance unimaginable within the confines of their marriages. But nothing comes easy on the frontier: The two contend with Tallie’s cruel, controlling husband, played by Christopher Abbott, and the harsh, though beautiful, landscape that surrounds them. When the film arrived around the one-year mark of the pandemic, it gave viewers a much-needed reason to weep — unrelated to lockdown.
“The World to Come” is available on Hulu and various video-on-demand platforms.
'Swan Song'The final film in director Todd Stephens’ Ohio trilogy, “Swan Song” features the inspired combination of Udo Kier and small town USA. Set in Stephens’ hometown of Sandusky, the film is a love letter to the real-life hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger, played by Kier, and the flamboyance of yesteryear’s gay culture.
Mr. Pat, as he’s affectionately known to everyone in the small town, escapes his nursing home for one last big adventure: styling local celebrity and ex-client Rita for her funeral. Along the way, he mourns his loved ones lost to the AIDS epidemic and celebrates the life that’s left to live. Kier’s eccentrically dressed and charismatic Mr. Pat was the perfect style icon during a year when fashion was summed up as: anything goes.
“Swan Song” is available on Hulu and various video-on-demand platforms.
Unabashedly violent and full of big ideas, this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, directed by Julia Ducournau (“Raw”), has stunned its way into becoming one of 2021’s most notable films.
While “Titane” boasts an abundance of body horror — pregnant breasts engorged with motor oil, metal tearing through skin, cranial fluid frothing out of a punctured ear — it’s the lead character, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who is the most unsettling part of the film. Alexia is a gender-bending psychopath with a dangerous attraction to motor vehicles and an apathetic view on human life. Simultaneously ruthless and tender, the film delivers a strong hit of catharsis that will linger well beyond 2021.
“Titane” is available on various video-on-demand platforms.
Inspired by Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, the black-and-white film follows two childhood friends who choose two very different paths. After 12 years apart, Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson) reunite in 1920s New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The two Black women find themselves living on opposite sides of the color line: Irene moves in the upper echelon of Black society, and Clare, playing with fire, passes for white in her marriage to a wealthy racist. As the film dives into issues around race and identity, the two women see their love for each other grow in new ways.
With its soothing jazz-filled soundtrack, lingering close-ups and longing looks, “Passing” might be one of the easiest-to-watch films of the year, despite its heavy subject matter.
“Passing” is available on Netflix.
'The Power of the Dog'
Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst star in this Western drama from Jane Campion (“The Piano”) about a domineering, misanthropic rancher who faces a crisis of self when a mysterious young man enters his orbit. Wealthy and Yale-educated, Phil (Cumberbatch) lives a semi-reclusive life defined by the toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality of Montana in 1925. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, their presence spurs the hyper-masculine anti-hero down a path of cruelty and desire.
“The Power of the Dog” is an acting tour de force: Dunst is nuanced and affecting, and Cumberbatch disappears into his tortured character. But it’s newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee who gives perhaps the year’s best performance as Peter, the beguiling object of Phil’s interest.
“The Power of the Dog” is available on Netflix.
The animated documentary "Flee" centers on a man identified as Amin Nawabi, a refugee from Afghanistan who left his country for a new life in Denmark, as he shares a painful hidden past ahead of marrying his soon-to-be husband.
“Flee” is co-written by Nawabi and his close friend and the film’s director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen. After winning a Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and a host of other accolades, it’s become one of the buzziest Oscar contenders of the year. This month, it made the Academy Awards shortlist for both documentary and international feature, with nominations for animated feature and, even, best picture still anyone’s game.
“Flee” is available in theaters.
Even in a particularly good year for cinema, a new Pedro Almodóvar film is a noteworthy event. Written and directed by the Spanish auteur, “Parallel Mothers” is about two women, Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), who meet in the hospital while giving birth. The women are bonded by motherhood and tragedy, developing a relationship that fluctuates between maternal, platonic and sexual. In the background, a storyline about the brutality under Francisco Franco’s fascist regime plays out.
While many male directors have attempted to make Sapphic romances, Almodóvar is one of the few to produce something as political, complex and moving. And Cruz never shines so bright as in an Almodóvar film.
“Parallel Mothers” is available in theaters.
'RuPaul's Drag Race' (season 13)
After 12 years and countless spinoffs, it’s rare that a season of “Drag Race” offers something new to the show’s canon. But season 13, which premiered during the bleakest January in recent memory, did just that.
It features the franchise’s first trans-masculine contestant, Gottmik, who woos the show’s discerning judges with a combination of fashion and good humor. Gottmik’s casting signaled a more gender-inclusive direction for the show, following years of foot-dragging and controversial comments from RuPaul. Subsequently, the franchise has tapped a cisgender woman to compete, in the recently wrapped third season of “Drag Race U.K.,” and a heterosexual, cisgender man in the upcoming 14th season of the American series. This year also saw the competition’s first transgender winner: season six “All Stars” champion, Kylie Sonique Love.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 13 is available on WOW Presents Plus and various video-on-demand platforms.
'P-Valley' (season 1)
The Starz series from playwright Katori Hall centers on the big personalities and big talents that populate a Mississippi Delta strip club, called the Pynk. Under the club’s neon lights, the Pynk’s dancers seduce audiences with gravity-defying routines set to Southern music, earning them wages and small-town celebrity status — each with their own secret agenda.
Reigning over it all is Uncle Clifford, the club’s proprietor, fierce protector and dispenser of tough love. Played by Nicco Annan, Uncle Clifford is a rare on-screen realization of a Delta culture in which gay men openly flaunt gender stereotypes and, yet, live under the very real threat of violence. The price of donning wigs, long nails and modern madam clothing in “P-Valley” is never letting down one’s guard, it seems.
“P-Valley” season one is available on Starz.
'Hacks' (season 1)
After being canceled for tweeting a joke about a conservative senator’s gay son, a bisexual TV writer based in Los Angeles, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), is forced to lower herself to ghostwriting for an aging Vegas stand-up legend, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart). The two women — whose comedic sensibilities are as different as their generations — go toe-to-toe with insults and witticisms that range from subtle to scathing.
Though no one in “Hacks” is particularly likable, including the comedian’s silver-spoon agent (Paul W. Downs) and Vance’s put-upon manager (nonbinary actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins), it’s the kind of show that makes you root for the characters against your better judgment. And it provided some of the year’s best comedic relief, ultimately earning several Emmy nominations for creators and “Broad City” alumni Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello and Downs and a fourth Emmy win for Smart.
“Hacks” season one is available on HBO Max.
'The White Lotus' (season 1)
If the characters of “Hacks” are unlikable, the protagonists of the year’s other great comedic series, “The White Lotus,” are downright detestable. There’s something ominous in the air when a group of wealthy vacationers arrive at a luxurious Hawaiian resort, helmed by hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett). And that feeling — that something horrible is on the gorgeous, palm-lined horizon — grows with every class-colored, sexually fraught interaction between the staff and their demanding charges.
The show’s expertly cast ensemble of actors — including Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Lacy, Natasha Rothwell, Steve Zahn and Molly Shannon — breathe life into “Enlightened” creator Mike White’s brilliant tragicomedy. White even draws on his father’s coming out story for a particularly discomfiting storyline.
“The White Lotus” season one is available on HBO Max.
'Love on the Spectrum' (season 2)
The heartwarming Australian dating show starring people on the autism spectrum returned to Netflix at the tail end of “hot vax summer.” Fan-favorite Chloe, an autistic woman who is also deaf and identifies as pansexual, is back for a second chance at love. But this time, she isn’t the only cast member looking for love across genders.
While the first season of “Love on the Spectrum” received backlash for being too heteronormative — and therefore under-representative of the neurodiverse community — half of the season two singles are sexually fluid. Much like their approach to love and relationships, these romantic hopefuls approach sexuality with an openness that makes the year’s other reality dating shows look antiquated by comparison.
“Love on the Spectrum” season two is available on Netflix.
'The Morning Show' (season 2)
“The Morning Show,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, dramatizes the lives of newsmakers who wake up with America every day. The show’s award-winning first season focused as much on Aniston’s disgraced former co-anchor, played by Steve Carell, as the leading women. But season two, which premiered in September, happily takes a female-centric turn.
Julianna Margulies joins the cast as Witherspoon’s love interest — an A-list anchor who climbed back to the top of her field after being fired for being a lesbian in the late ‘90s — making for one of the year’s most iconic on-screen queer romances. Those who prefer to find escapism in their entertainment should tread with caution, though, as Covid-19 also takes center stage in the steamy plot.
“The Morning Show” season two is available on Apple TV+.
'Dickinson' (season 3)
The Peabody Award-winning series about the early life of great American poet Emily Dickinson closed the year with its final season. In the last chapter, which takes place during the Civil War, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) grapples with life in a divided, traumatized country and the demands of her complicated romance with longtime friend Sue.
Despite the solemn backdrop, the series delivers its usual campy, stylized take on mid-19th-century living, along with a new host of comedic favorites playing historical characters: Ziwe Fumudoh as Sojourner Truth, Billy Eichner as Walt Whitman and Chloe Fineman as Sylvia Plath. Over just three seasons, “Dickinson” left a lasting mark on queer entertainment, achieving commercial success with a unique combination of sincerity and humor.
“Dickinson” season three is available on Apple TV+.
'We're Here' (season 2)
After the first season was abruptly ended by Covid, “We’re Here” returned in the fall for a new round of one-night-only drag shows across the country.
In season two, the reality show — led by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alums Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela — makes waves in Selma, Alabama; Evansville, Indiana; Kona, Hawaii; and several locations in between. This time, the queens recruit primarily LGBTQ residents for drag makeovers and tailored choreographed performances, abandoning the early format that featured allies and even skeptics in equal measure. But it was an Indiana pastor, who participated in solidarity with his queer daughter and the community’s youth, who grabbed the season’s biggest headlines after he left his job following post-show harassment.
“We’re Here” season two is available on HBO Max.
'Vigil' (season 1)
In the BBC One show from creator Tom Edge (“Judy”), Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva is tasked with investigating a mysterious death aboard the HMS Vigil, a ballistic missile submarine. But the inquiry quickly puts Silva, played by “Gentleman Jack” star Suranne Jones, at odds with the officers on board and the Royal Navy at large. As it becomes clear that something sinister is lurking deep beneath the ocean, Amy’s partner and love interest, played by “Game of Thrones” star Rose Leslie, scrambles to uncover the source of the danger on land.
“Vigil” is a thrilling, claustrophobic show that leans as much on its characters’ complexities as it does on action, exemplifying the new era of women-led crime dramas.
“Vigil” season one is available on Peacock.