By Amy Dotson, Northwest Film Center Director and PAM Curator, Film and New Media
Out of the 12,000 films released in 2021, plus countless other cinematic works somewhat awkwardly pigeon-holed as “limited series,” “shows,” “anthology,” “premium content,” “same-day premieres,” “podcast” or “immersive storytelling,” these were not the “best” (because right now, who wants to rank creativity?) but by far the most interesting, ground-breaking and in some cases, uncategorizable stories I engaged with this year.
Whether through acting, technical achievement, direction, or bending of the very notion of story, these screen, and audio-based works expanded for whom, by whom, and how cinematic stories can be told–and gave a glimpse of where we’re going next when both content and the audiences it serves are no longer content to be contained.
Some of this year’s selections are mainstream, some considered more independent, while others are still uniquely place-based. But all are unforgettable reminders that art is all around us to discover if we don’t give so much weight to the boxes these gifts arrive in and find more comfort – and curiosity -in the liminal space we inhabit today.
Appearances (Radiotopia) – Even for those of us who don’t fancy ourselves podcast people, this nine-part series that Sharon Mashihi “spent her whole life prepping for” is a one-woman tour-de-force that has the creator playing all the roles in her Iranian-American family, blurring what is real and what lies in the world of imagination.
Judas & The Black Messiah (HBO Max) – Though released in January 2021 and lauded earlier this year, for anyone that missed Daniel Kaluuya’s full immersion into the life of Fred Hampton, this is pure cinematic storytelling at its finest. Look for director Shaka King –who the venerable New York Times says “went from outsider to trailblazer” – pretty much everywhere on screens big and small in 2022/3.
King Richard (Warner Bros) – Will Smith’s performance and sheer transformation is next level. This biopic about Serena and Venus Williams’ father Richard could have easily been one-note, but director Reinaldo Green crafts an unexpectedly complex ensemble drama where performance reigns supreme.
Lupin (Netflix) – Watching the modernized reboot of France’s most famous “Gentleman Detective,” this was by far the most fun I had all year. I mean, seriously, James Bond who? Arsene Lupin may have been invented 100+ years ago, but this enormous international hit (76 million viewers and counting) has made it cool to be kind and unafraid to take risks when it comes to those you love. And of course, a little (lot of) charm from lead actor Omar Sy sure doesn’t hurt.
Money Heist (Netflix) – I’m a huge fan of international cinema and heist movies. Throw in strong, unpredictable female-identifying leads and a few thousand plot twists, I might just watch for hours. Luckily, I can and may I highly recommend this edge-of-your-seat Spanish thriller that plays like an off-the-rails Soderberg movie…that just happens to go on for five seasons (and counting).
Reservation Dogs (Hulu/FX)- Sterling Harjo’s teen comedy-drama is a revelation. Focusing on teenagers in rural Oklahoma doing anything they can to make their way to the mysterious and tantalizing tomorrowland of California, this basic setup belies the incredible performance, design, and storytelling that’s crafted to both celebrate indigenous stories, but also make viewers howl with laughter, all the while feeling deeply about the outsized personalities that make up this incredible series.
Mitchell vs The Machines (Netflix)- For the parents out there who have sat through a lot of visual chewing gum this year with their kids, this one’s for you. A multi-media, animated feast for the eyes full of film, television, and comic references to keep you going, this dysfunctional family road trip to save the world is a blast. Protagonist Katie Miller’s bonkers journey to film school is a good one for the young and young at heart alike. And by the end, like any good coming of age, it gives you all the feels in a way that feels surprisingly modern and empowering for all involved.
Nine Days (Sony Pictures Classic) – If you need a good cry, there’s no better release than this gorgeously existential film by first-time director Edison Oda that will break your heart and have you double-down on the small joys of living once the credits roll. With no spoilers, I’ll just say that you should come into this movie without a lot of reading up on it first so you can fully experience all that unfolds.
Symbiosis (Polymorf) – When it comes to haptic and sensory-based VR, there’s usually something very Ready Player One about the whole experience that can be a turn-off. But somehow, Polymorf has managed to get past the mechanics and into participants’ minds through the use of smell, taste, and now, its full bodysuits. Transforming into a half butterfly, half orchid this past fall and feeling it multi-sensorially moved me in ways that I wasn’t aware were possible. I’ll be closely tracking whatever it is that they do next.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (HBO Max) – Jane Schoenbrun’s first feature debuted at Sundance 2021 and I’ve thought about it ever since. Loosely described as a young girl who becomes fully immersed in an online horror game that may or may not be causing radical changes to their body, it is a bold, multi-layered and wholly original debut with a fresh spin on the horror genre that is really tough to pull off.
The White Lotus (HBO)- The soundtrack and intro credits alone are enough to wow in the first two minutes (calling all my design and print lovers!), but Mike White’s rich tapestry of privilege is as complex and conflicted as it gets. The fact that there’s a second season on the horizon is something worth wrestling with, so stick around for the whole saga and become part of the debate about “that ending” which launched a thousand blog posts – and furthered the conversation.