Not sure what to watch? Start with our picks for 2021’s best movies and TV shows

For those sitting in front of their devices and wondering, “What should we watch now?", Jeffrey Brown gets the answers from a film critic and TV critic who shared their recommendations for the holidays and beyond. This report is part of our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As the year comes to a close, we know a lot of you have been asking the same pandemic question of: What should we watch now?

    Jeffrey Brown spoke with a film critic and a TV critic, who shared their recommendations for the holidays and beyond.

    It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This year brought a deluge of new viewing choices.

    I'm joined here in the studio by Ann Hornaday, film critic for The Washington Post and author of "Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies," and, from Los Angeles, Lorraine Ali, television critic for The Los Angeles Times.

    Nice to see you both again.

    Lorraine Ali, why don't you start us off with a couple of your favorites from the world of television?

  • Lorraine Ali, The Los Angeles Times:

    OK, well, one of my favorites is "Only Murders in the Building" from Hulu. And it is a comedy, but also a murder mystery, starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, which is an odd trio.

    But, together, they play kind of these amateur sleuths that all live in the same apartment building in New York. They become podcasters of a crime podcast, but they also become part of the crime. And it's just hysterical. It's a great combination.

    I also really love "Impeachment: American Crime Story," which is a dramatization of basically the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton, what do you want to call it, fiasco, scandal. And it's fantastic. And it kind of takes a salacious aspects of that era, but it adds really kind of this depth in there and gives you the background on all these characters. It's just fantastic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Ann, want to give us a couple of movies?

  • Ann Hornaday, Film Critic, The Washington Post:

    Sure.

    I mean, I will start with one that we saw earlier this year that was one of the most ecstatic theatrical experiences I had, which are still rare.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    But the documentary "Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)," it is the directorial debut of Questlove.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I know that one well. I got to talk to him.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    Oh, lucky, lucky.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, great film.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    So, you know what an ecstatic experience this was.

    And it's a great film because it's not only preserving a wonderful moment, which is the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 that involved so many just absolutely fantastic performances, but then Questlove layers in commentary, present-day commentary, and reminiscences of people who were.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    To create a really wonderfully layered work of art.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How about another one?

  • Ann Hornaday:

    "Parallel Mothers" by the great Pedro Almodovar.

    He is so good, and he is so consistently good that I think we're almost in danger of taking it for granted. This is another fantastic Circean melodrama starring Penelope Cruz, Almodovar's muse, as one of two mothers who give birth on the same day. And then drama ensues.

    And he manages to get these lurid, gorgeous production values that we have come to expect from him and weave them together with much deeper themes about memory, personal history, political history that feel very much of a piece with our moment right now, when people have had time to kind of reflect on their own pasts.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, when I asked you both beforehand to think about themes for the year, Lorraine, you said one theme that jumped out at you was series that you saw with strong women.

    What are you thinking of?

  • Lorraine Ali:

    Incredibly fierce woman is more like it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Fierce woman.

  • Lorraine Ali:

    Fierce women, yes.

    The first series that comes to mind is "Hacks" from HBO Max. And it is a half-hour comedy, again, and starring Jean Smart as an aging comedian in Vegas who's kind of doing the Vegas circuit, popular, but she's not as funny as she used to be.

    She's paired up with a Gen Z comedy writer who's been canceled because she's so raw and so rough in her comedy, and the two of them together try and revive her career, basically.

    But it's kind of a generational look at how women have been treated in the comedy world, in the entertainment world. It's really fantastic, and it's got a kind of a depth in it and some messages about feminism then and now.

    I think my second pick would be "Yellowjackets." And this has come later in the year. This is right here at the end of the year. And that's on Showtime. I like to call it "The Lord of the Flies" with teenage girls.

    They are a '90s era soccer team that crashes in the wilderness, and they have to survive. And it is basically how these girls personalities come out and what they have to do to survive. And it's just a thriller. It's a mystery, but it's also kind of this generational look at how incredibly strong these women were and the price they have paid for being that strong. And I just love it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One thing that jumped out at you, Ann, was movie musicals this year.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    They're back.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They're back.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    Who knew? Musicals.

    If you had asked me two years ago what would be hot in 2021, I probably would not have said musicals. But two of my favorite movies of the year wound up being musicals. And that's "West Side Story," Steven Spielberg's new adaptation of the classic '57 Broadway play/'61 movie.

    It is absolutely magnificent, just bursting with color and movement and present-day resonance that feels utterly organic and not forced, terrific performances across the board.

    And then another one that's coming our way is "Cyrano," which is Joe Wright's adaptation of the classic novel. This features Peter Dinklage in the title role. And he just has so much soul, and the production is just full of so much passion and vision and poignance that you have this one kind of classic American musical, and then one that's kind of taking it in a different direction, which I thought boded quite well for the form.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I can't resist asking you both.

    I always love to just ask if there's some hidden gem that you loved this past year that didn't get enough attention.

    Lorraine Ali, let me start with you. What would that be?

  • Lorraine Ali:

    My favorite hidden gem is "We Are Lady Parts," which was on Peacock, which is really kind of a hidden gem of a streamer as well.

    It is a limited series out of Britain. And it is about an all-female Muslim punk rock band. It basically plays with tropes about rock 'n' roll and punk rock. And it also busts of stereotypes about Muslims at the same time. And they have an album out as well. And the lyrics to this album are just — they are hysterical, and they are funny.

    And they kind of bust open these taboos about women, Muslim women, about women who cover. And the imagery is fantastic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ann Hornaday, hidden gem?

  • Ann Hornaday:

    Well, one I'd love to lift up as a movie called "CODA," which was the big hit out of Sundance.

    It is directed by Sian Heder. And it's about a young woman, senior in high school, who is facing her future and wants to kind of bust out of her small town and her family. In this case, she's the only hearing member of a deaf family.

    It's kind of a throwback to that wholesome coming-of-age movie that a lot of us probably grew up with and worry that Hollywood doesn't make so much anymore. And, to me, this just proves that, again, that genre is strong and can be strong if it gets the support it deserves.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, some of the best TV and films from 2021.

    Lorraine Ali, Ann Hornaday, thank you very much.

  • Ann Hornaday:

    Thank you.

  • Lorraine Ali:

    Thank you.

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