My Top Content of 2021

Let’s be honest: television and film are now the same art form.

In the past, divisions between the two forms have largely been about modes of production and distribution. For most of TV’s history, it was subordinate to film for two key reasons: it looked cheaper and was viewed on a smaller screen.

As television budgets rise and film budgets (outside of blockbuster IP) rise, as the same cameras are often used to make film and television, and as the majority of content is viewed on large TVs, the two forms have become a distinction without a difference.

The biggest difference between television and film these days comes down to writing. The same actors, DPs, directors, grips, sound mixers, and make-up artists work in both forms. But, there still tend to be writers who specialize in television or film. But, this is simply a matter of whether a piece of content is episodic or close-ended. And is that distinction enough to sustain the fiction of two separate art forms?

For me, the answer is no. And furthermore, the film snobs have been impeding on TV’s territory for some time, and I think it's time TV fought back. It all began when Cahiers du Cinéma put Twin Peaks: The Return on their top 10 films of the year list in 2019. Twin Peaks is episodic.

This year, a number of outlets, placed Can’t Get You Out of My Head and The Beatles: Get Back on their best film lists. Last year, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a mini-series anthology series, also rated on many “best of” lists.

Essentially, film critics and cinephiles have decided if an episodic effort is artsy enough it is a “film.” I no longer have time or patience for such snobbery. So, as far as I’m concerned, everything is content. Sorry, film. You started it.

So, here is the best content I consumed this year. Film is dead. Long live film. Television is dead. Long live TV. It’s content all the way down.

7. The Card Counter

A lot of political content is cowardly. Paul Schrader is not a coward.

I have long publicly held the position that no good art came out of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, but this isn’t quite true. I think the nihilistic HBO miniseries Generation Kill was excellent, and The Card Counter offers a cold, empty counterpoint to the amped-up insanity of that effort.

The Card Counter is being somewhat forgotten among end-of-year lists because it is not pretty to look at. And I don’t just mean the fish-eye Guantanamo Bay torture recreation sequences. The locations department for this film seems to have been told to find the most depressing-looking motels, casinos, and diners America has to offer. And they came through dutifully.

Schrader tells us in no uncertain terms that there is no honor left in American empire. There is no justice. There is no good. There is no right. There is just pain and loneliness. And while that isn’t exactly a pleasant thing to consider, he makes one hell of an argument.

6. Zola

It would be reasonable to feel fatigued by a certain type of A24 film. This is a movie that shows us some urban underbelly in the American South where we shoot depressing poverty in bright colors. There is a shot from the passenger seat of the car panning shakily up to the sky symbolizing the impossibility of escape. There are goofily dressed character actors from your favorite TV shows doing something… different. And damn don’t the neon signs at seedy motels and liquor stores look so interesting at night?

Just like some guys tap their foot to every fucking classic rock song that comes on the radio, I am a sucker for A24’s Americana poverty dramadies. And Zola is no exception. Janicza Bravo has a more conceptual, experimental approach to directing that the similar auteurs in A24’s stable, and the cast is just great. No No, this is a different song. I promise. Listen to that bass line.

I will concede that Moonlight and The Florida Project are better entrants into the genre, but I still think we can have a few more of these before the subgenre descends into self-parody. And Zola is not far behind the greatest films in this mode.

5. The Other Two (Season 2)

The death of the sitcom has been greatly exaggerated.

In my opinion, this was a much better year for TV comedy than for TV drama. Dave, What We Do In the Shadows, Dickinson, and Pen15 all turned with fine new efforts. But for me, the best of this year’s sitcom batch was The Other Two.

The Other Two updates the backstage comedy for the TikTok-Insta-Twitter era by alternating savage showbiz satire with an exploration of what it means to seek a sense of purpose.

While many shows on the air right now are too-consciously trying to ape the style of 30Rock, The Other Two is the one true heir, creating all sorts of memorable bits, from the recurring Insta-gays who move to upstate New York in hopes of selling an HGTV pilot to Lance (Josh Segarra) coming up with some of the stupidest sneaker design ideas known to man.

Though the cast is perfect from top to bottom, Drew Tarver’s Cary deserves special mention as he captures the frustration of being smart enough to know show business is stupid but not savvy enough to consider it might be time to quit. Though I hope we get lots more of The Other Two, I also can’t wait to see what he does next.

4. The Power of the Dog

The only problem with The Power of the Dog is that it makes you think of other amazing movies. In recent years, the Western has become a vehicle for exploring how marginalized or oppressed identities are suppressed or destroyed by the brutality of life. While this is a beautifully shot, wondrously acted, and sharply written film, I probably place it just below Brokeback Mountain, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thelma and Louise, The Searchers, and Days of Heaven as far as that sandbox is concerned.

But, this time of year, we judge films by their contemporaries, and by that measure, The Power of the Dog should clean up at the Oscars. I personally had some script quibbles: I think the film is at times too subtle and at times too obvious. But if I told you I wouldn’t watch Jesse Plemons shrug and aww shucks his way around Kirsten Dunst’s kitchen as I look at the beautiful American (New Zealand actually) West for hours on end, I would be lying to you.

3. Cyrano

This is sure to be the most controversial pick on my list, as early critical reaction hasn't been as warm to this film as I am.

My argument is simple: Cyrano is the only complete film I saw this year. Every aspect of this adaptation works to illuminate a text that feels sort of goofy or outdated in most attempts at re-staging.

Peter Dinklage channels both Cyrano’s charm and pain beautifully here and director Joe Wright surrounds him with so many elements that help his performance succeed. The spare, charming music from The National feels appropriately more like an operetta than a musical. The young leads with their beautiful voices may be lesser actors than Dinklage but they serve the story, reminding us to consider that ugliness is far interesting than beauty. And Wright’s staging and composition are so sure in a year where COVID-complicated productions led most veteran directors releasing films to make amateur mistakes.

Frankly, Cyrano is the awards-season film I enjoyed watching the most and I think that many prominent critics have been reviewing the films they hoped to see rather than what came out of the editing room as they create their year-end lists. All I can tell you is what I saw on the screen. And what I saw was good.

2. I Think You Should Leave (Season 2)

I Think You Should Leave is a work of genius.

I love sketch comedy and have seen pretty much every prominent effort in the form of the last twenty years. My wife Claire cut her teeth in sketch and was on a UCB Maude Team. When we tried to compare this show’s brilliance to anything else in the art form, we had to go back to at least Mr. Show and maybe to Monty Python. This show is revolutionary.

Tim Robinson’s approach to sketch is almost “post-sketch.” It isn’t exactly absurdist like the work of Tim Heidecker and his disciples at Adult Swim. It is almost as though Robinson has taken every possible comedic turn in a sketch that someone else might write and played them over and over in his head until he finds that most unexpected but also most correct move. Tables!

I could offer a close reading of any number of sketches from Season 2 as they have been on repeat in my head and on the Twitter timeline since they premiered. But, the genius of “sloppy steaks” is one that I’ll pick out of the pile for the moment. The sketch is a perfect deconstruction of how men insist they “can’t be fixed,” that they will always be “bad boys,” and always have “darkness” within them. It’s a universal idea that Robinson both embraces and mocks in a way that is both absurdly unique and totally universal.

And he does it with seeming ease. Robinson drops at least a dozen sketches worthy of thesis-length analysis in the course of the too-brief season.

I Think You Should Leave is the kind of work parents of today will show their grandchildren when explaining to them what good comedy is. It will launch a thousand imitators and inspire a generation. And so it should.

  1. The White Lotus

The slander The White Lotus online nearly drove me insane.

The argument was that the show “centered” rich white people. The discourse around identity has become so ridiculous in recent cycles that we have now decided that a depiction of something on-screen is an endorsement deserving of a Twitter thread corrective from every sophomore gender studies student currently enrolled at an Ivy. I could dissect the stupidity of that way of thinking, but luckily The White Lotus already did it for me.

Rich white people are centered in The White Lotus because these are the people who center themselves in American imperial life. The female and BIPOC characters who orbit them fall away towards the end of the series because they aren’t stupid enough to think they can be saved by their wealthy patrons. These characters are used to being trampled underfoot, and so over the course of the last few episodes, they manage to get out of the way.

Only Armond (Murray Bartlett), a white man, is naive enough to believe that devoting himself totally to the service of the wealthy will bring him fulfillment. Because he dresses like them, talks like them, and thinks like them, he thinks, he can be one of them.

Guess what? He is wrong.

Because of this tragic flaw, Armond is our protagonist. He is the one actually centered in the narrative. The rich guests are our collective antagonist. And he is our unlucky tragic hero. He is NOT a rich white man. He is a white man who thinks because of his whiteness, he is safe from the ravages of capitalism. It turns out that he is WRONG.

And while some Twitter users may not understand this, thankfully, everyone involved in the production, from the sound designer who created a soundtrack that was both primal and manufactured to the production designer who evoked natural beauty but was sure to put it behind glass to the cast that was easily the best ensemble of the year, did.

Thankfully, HBO doesn’t consult Twitter threads when considering renewals, so I’ll be looking forward to Season 2.

And even if we don’t get the next Season in 2022, it’s sure to be another year filled with CONTENT. Praise be.

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Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher

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