This year, movie theaters reopened. Some of us eagerly returned to seeing movies in a space with other people, while others opted to keep watching new titles from the comfort of their home. Streaming services, as well as film distribution companies, offered both options to support viewers’ new habits—blockbusters like Dune premiered simultaneously in theaters and online.
But it was also a year that we watched a lot of TV, with some streamers going back to dropping one episode a week. Shows like I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and Squid Game led to plenty of memes and discourse.
In 2021, the Daily Dot culture staff watched a lot of content—from nail-biting dramas to silly franchise spin-offs. Below is a list of our favorite TV shows and movies that we streamed.
I Think You Should Leave (Netflix)
I have been trying to pinpoint what compels me to answer, “You sure about that? You sure about that that’s why?” when someone explains anything to me, or to bark, “I don’t want that” in Patti Harrison’s voice while scrolling my phone. Season 2 of Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave once again captured the attention of the Extremely Online this summer; there were think pieces and sketch rankings and memes aplenty.
There’s a new way of communicating around ITYSL quotes, a unique emphasis on inane wordplay and improvised rules. As Rachel Syme wrote for the New Yorker, “At its most absurdist extremes, I Think You Should Leave seems to invent entirely new ways of speaking.” (There’s now a ITYSL meme account that adds lines of famous poetry to sketches.) Ultimately, it’s something of a comfort watch, a show I can put on any time and still find something that makes me laugh, even if season 2 was a bit more morose than the first season. —Audra Schroeder, senior writer
Foundation (Apple TV+)
This Isaac Asimov adaptation is hugely ambitious, visibly expensive, and very possibly a ratings flop. Sure, Apple TV+ just renewed it for a second season. But do we know how many people actually watched it? No! Online, Foundation’s main cultural footprint is actor Lee Pace posting thirst traps to publicize the show.
That being said, Foundation is one of my standout faves for 2021. It’s a genuine sci-fi epic with tremendous scope—both narratively and in terms of its expansive galactic empire setting. The overall concept is too complex to explain here, but the tone skews more toward fantasy than you might expect from an Asimov adaptation, while still feeling like one of the nerdiest sci-fi dramas on TV. —Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, staff writer
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)
Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of the Colson Whitehead novel, which imagined the Underground Railroad as a literal railroad as one woman seeks freedom, is masterful. It features some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen this year, an incredible score from Nicholas Britell, and the cast (from Thuso Mbedu to Joel Edgerton and William Jackson Harper, among others) is firing on all cylinders, particularly as they tackle the book’s heavy subject matter head-on without falling into the trap of depicting full-on trauma porn alongside its more joyful moments. The Underground Railroad takes the much-needed time to breathe.
Amazon dropped all 10 episodes at once instead of opting for a weekly rollout—a move that might have ultimately hurt the miniseries—but it’s best watched in small doses, letting you both appreciate and process what you’ve seen. And it proves that Jenkins is, once again, at the top of his game. —Michelle Jaworski, staff writer
Word of Honor (Netflix)
This Chinese wuxia (martial arts) show is available on YouTube and Netflix, and it’s incredibly satisfying. Based on an adult novel with a queer romance at its core, it combines an unusual love story with gorgeous fight scenes and a complex, revenge-fueled wuxia plot.
Zhang Zhehan and Gong Jun star as the two lead characters—a pair of men with dark pasts, who could easily be cast as the villains in a different story. Over the course of 36 episodes, they come to understand each other and team up with a pair of adopted teenage proteges, battling some enticingly hateable antagonists. —G. B.-W.
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (VOD)
I rented Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar in mid-February, during a days-long power outage and winter storm in Texas. Watching it on my laptop, I was immediately transported to a world that was warm, colorful, and very, very silly. Since then, I haven’t forgotten Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, and Jamie Dornan dancing to a remix of “My Heart Will Go On,” or Dornan singing dramatically on a beach. I considered buying culottes, the lead characters’ favorite clothing item, multiple times this year.
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar was delayed due to the pandemic, and it was released on VOD. That likely prevented the film from becoming as talked about as Bridesmaids, which Wiig and Mumolo also wrote. But Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar deserves more attention. It was secretly one of the best comedies of the year. The film is now streaming on Hulu. —Tiffany Kelly, culture editor
Hacks (HBO Max)
Jean Smart’s portrayal of Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance is a joy to watch, and one of the reasons she won the best actress Emmy this year. Hacks—created by Broad City’s Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky—pairs comedy vet Deborah with young writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), illustrating a generational divide from a new point of view. It’s a show about the process of comedy that also finds humor in pain, grief, and regret. —A.S.
The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
Acclaimed director Jane Campion returns to feature filmmaking for a nontraditional kind of Western, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in his most interesting role in years.
Typically cast in British costume dramas and watered-down knockoffs of Sherlock, Cumberbatch is a shocking presence in The Power of the Dog, playing a deeply unpleasant and volatile 1920s rancher. He torments his new sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in a nail-biting psychological drama, backed up by a characteristically intense score by composer Jonny Greenwood. —G. B.-W.
A blend of Lost and Lord of the Flies with dashes of cannibalism, Yellowjackets follows a high school girls’ soccer team whose plane crashes on the way to nations, resulting in them having to fend for themselves for 19 months and sometimes resorting to extreme measures to survive. Twenty-five years later, four of the survivors (Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci) are trying to move on when their past comes creeping up to haunt them.
The rare show when each timeline (1996 vs. modern-day) is compelling in its own right, as is the uncanny similarities in the performances between the teen girls and their adult selves, even when they might look like carbon copies It taps into many of the elements of a mystery show, but the characters are the main draw.
More than a few TV shows have their characters call New Jersey home over the years, but none of them have managed to come closer to the New Jersey I grew up in than Yellowjackets, a show that was created by Jersey natives Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson. (Mare of Easttown—another 2021 show I loved this year that captured something quintessential about the region despite being set in Delco—came close.) —M.J.
Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix)
Burnham managed to avoid giving any interviews for the Emmy-winning Inside, his most recent Netflix special. Not that he needed to: Viewers instead read into the songs, trying to find deeper meaning or some connection to their own pandemic sadness. The success of Inside spilled over onto TikTok, where songs from the special were recontextualized, and into the setlist of Phoebe Bridgers, who covered “That Funny Feeling.”
It’s quite an accomplishment for Burnham, who started staring into the camera as a teenager on YouTube and literally stares at his past self here. Inside is a mirror, and we all looked. (Or at least it feels that way. This is one instance where Netflix’s viewer data would have been instructive.) —A.S.
Dickinson (Apple TV+)
I’ve probably annoyed everyone in my life by talking about Dickinson constantly. The Apple TV+ series’ third and final season is ending this month, and it’s always sad when a series you really love comes to a close. The level of detail in Dickinson is unreal—from the way Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) writes poems in her head to her interactions with other well-known 19th-century writers.
Of course, not all of Dickinson is an entirely accurate portrayal of the poet. But creator Alena Smith clearly had fun with the material, and she is committed to showing everyone what a weird and interesting person Emily was. The third season is heavier than the last two, but it’s also the most satisfying one as it depicts a productive period in Emily’s life. —T.K.
Minari (A24 screening room)
Minari was another film delayed by the pandemic. When it finally hit theaters, in early 2021, most people were not yet venturing out to their local cinema. Luckily, Minari was also available virtually. I rented it through A24’s screening room, the film company’s site that screens its new releases for a limited time.
I was blown away by Minari, which was nominated for six Oscars—winning one, Youn Yuh-jung for best supporting actress. The film, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, follows a South Korean family who move to Arkansas in the 1980s with the goal of selling produce that they grow on their land. Jacob (Steven Yeun) faces farming difficulties, while the rest of his family struggles with the relocation. It’s one of the purest films I saw in 2021, and the soundtrack by Emile Mosseri is magical. The film is now streaming on Showtime. —T.K.
The Other Two (HBO Max)
I slept on season 1 of this Comedy Central series, but season 2, which debuted on HBO Max this summer, pulled me in. The show, created by former SNL writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, focuses on the older brother (Drew Tarver) and sister (Heléne Yorke) of internet-famous singer Chase Dreams (Case Walker) and the indignities that come with being adjacent to fame.
The jokes come fast and hard, and the series perfectly satirizes celebrities, gay culture, and online media. Molly Shannon plays their mother Pat, and steals the second season as a newly famous—and sleep-deprived—talk show host. If Succession is feeling a little too dark this season, this is a more consumable show about another dysfunctional family. —A.S.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Netflix)
If Into the Spider-Verse was like watching a comic book come to life, The Mitchells vs. the Machines—producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning film—was like watching our internet and meme-fluent minds jump onto the screen. Hilarious, heartfelt, and, a prime example of how to effortlessly include LGBTQ representation into an animated film, it also features a scene so funny that I started crying from laughing so hard. As Katie Mitchell, the creative protagonist whose family road trip to film school puts many of the film’s conflicts into the forefront, proclaims as a young child, “Behold, cinema!”
In the case of TMVTM, framing is everything. Just before the pandemic shut theaters down, the first trailer for the film—which was then called Connected, a title that Sony picked despite vehement opposition from director Mike Rianda—leans hard on the emotional conflict at the center of the film; it tends to come off a bit as “old man yells at cloud.” Netflix would eventually purchase the film from Sony, let Rianda revert back to the old title, and, most importantly, wore its delightfully weird heart on its sleeve when marketing it to viewers. Netflix’s trailer, which centered more on the robot apocalypse, brought out more laughs to the forefront. It was still the same movie (and most of the footage in those trailers show up in the film), but only one of those movies seemed to embrace its weirdness. —M.J.
Squid Game (Netflix)
The hottest show of 2021, for good reason! Released on Netflix, this Korean thriller series is a grim but very entertaining evaluation of modern capitalism. Lee Jung-jae stars as a down-on-his-luck man who volunteers for a gruesome series of deadly games, where 456 people compete for a massive cash prize.
While non-Korean-speakers may miss out on some detail due to Netflix’s widely-criticized subtitle translations, this show still gives you plenty to chew on. In addition to being a gripping thriller with memorable characters, there’s a lot of nuance to its storytelling—and it makes great use of colorful, distinctive production design. —G. B.-W.
Dune (HBO Max)
Dune, a film that director Denis Villeneuve wanted to make for decades, is flawed. It’s slow, it’s weird both on the surface and several layers deep, and it probably ends at the worst possible moment (all but guaranteeing a fervent cry for a sequel). It both culturally appropriates and minimalizes many of the book’s Islamic and MENA influences from the story all the way down to the score, something that very few people on the creative team have yet to publicly reckon with. But I loved it anyway. It’s the kind of sci-fi epic that felt as big as the vast world it tried depicting, one that was completely immersive and didn’t hold its audience’s hands while navigating Frank Herbert’s lore, and having an all-star cast whose weight could be felt even for the smaller roles fed into that. (Reading Dune over the summer also helped spark an interest.)
But nothing could beat the actual release of Dune in theaters and on HBO Max, which, for a brief moment, made the internet a little less terrible. People went wild on the puns, the memes, highlighting just how much weirder Dune would get (but not in a gatekeeper kind of way), and celebrating the perfectly named Duncan Idaho, who’s unequivocally the film’s best character; it almost felt like how people reacted immediately after The Force Awakens before Star Wars fandom’s toxicity set in. Fortunately, we only had to wait a few days for that sequel to be greenlit, guaranteeing us at least one more sand romp with Shai-Hulud. —M.J.
Y: The Last Man (FX on Hulu)
I eagerly awaited the adaptation of Y: The Last Man, a comic book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra that takes place in a dystopian world where every person with a Y chromosome suddenly dies. Or almost every person. As the title suggests, there is one cis man who survives (plus his pet monkey, Ampersand). The TV series was stuck in development hell for a few years, but the end result is a nuanced, smart story with great performances by the lead actors, notably Ashley Romans as a secret agent who is tasked with protecting the titular last man, Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer).
Unfortunately, FX canceled the series after only one season, but there is the hope of it continuing on another network. What’s heartbreaking about the cancellation is that it happened before season one concluded. I watched the last couple of episodes, which were excellent, with the knowledge that I might not see these characters again. Y: The Last Man was the show that surprised me the most in 2021. I didn’t think I’d enjoy watching a dystopian show mid-pandemic, but it ended up being the show I couldn’t wait to watch every week. —T.K.