Entertainment has been a crucial part of the transition this year from isolation to pseudo–normalcy. Last winter, we snuggled up in bed binging tried and true comfort shows (Community for me), while major blockbusters like Dune were postponed due to COVID–19 concerns.
In the spring, streaming platforms granted us a fix of newness—Made for Love and Shiva Baby provided an escape into equally nerve–wracking worlds—as we pondered a return to the theater. How can we do so in the safest way possible? Is it even worth it?
This summer, In the Heights was the first movie I saw in a theater in over a year. Masked and vaxxed, I was still anxious, but once the big screen lit up with colorful dancers I felt at home again.
Though we're already careening into a new winter, we’ve come a long way. Street’s best of 2021 takes into account the shows that got us through quarantine and the films that made their way back to theaters by the end. Sit back, relax (we deserve it after this year), and enjoy.
–Arielle Stanger, Film & TV Editor
If I had to sum up Genera+ion in two words, they would be “gay chaos.” Beginning with a teaser sequence, the new HBO dramedy dives headfirst into a whiplash–inducing plot of teen pregnancy, depression, forced outings, immigration issues, and sexual mishaps. But I loved every second of it. The plot unwinds in a nonlinear series of flash–forwards and backs, giving all the unpredictability of an unscripted reality TV series with the satisfaction of scripted plot development.
The fact that one of the show’s co–creators Zelda Barnz drew on her own experience as a teenager in a Los Angeles high school only adds to the show's caricatured realism; the storylines feel so absurd that they must be rooted in some degree of truth, and they are. Genera+ion, as suggested by its name, is like a portrait of Gen Z. We’re messy, unpredictable, but damn entertaining.
–Emily White, Focus Editor
No Time to Die
I’ve been a James Bond fan since I was a tween, watching the old versions starring Sean Connery while curled up on the couch with my dad. Over the years, I’ve watched the Bond saga thrive with Daniel Craig as the inimitable 007, and I’m devastated that No Time to Die is his finale in the iconic role. But what a film it is. There’s romance. There’s action. There’s sci–fi. There’s drama. The cinematography is breathtaking, the fight scenes are badass and absolutely riveting, and the acting is surprisingly evocative and un–cringey—likely a result of the film's all–star cast, including Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Ana De Armas, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, and Lashana Lynch.
I left the film an emotional wreck, ugly crying while passersby gave me strange looks. I never in my life thought James Bond would have me bawling. But honestly, there is nothing better than crying from a movie—it’s a sign that the film has sucked you into an entirely different world, suspended you from reality for a few hours, and touched you in a deeper way. And this movie did just that for me.
Oh, and Billie freaking Eilish sings the title song. But if this hasn’t already convinced you to watch the movie, let it be known that I only had the urge to check my phone once during the nearly three hour duration of the film. I mean, what could be more telling about a movie’s quality than that?
–Eva Ingber, Features Editor
As Marvel’s first Asian superhero, Shang Chi had a lot of expectations to live up to. Fortunately, the Chinese dialogue—which took up a surprising portion of the film—were delivered with refreshing authenticity, and the movie’s accurate yet subtle depictions of Chinese culture, whether through its myriad of martial art forms or portrayal of traditional gender roles in Chinese society, served to represent instead of appropriate.
The blockbuster follows the journey of Shang–Chi, whose normal life is upended when he’s dragged back into his father’s Ten Rings organization. The plot alone deserves a standing ovation, with the seamless transitions between flashbacks and the present, the buildup of tension as father and son increasingly diverge in their views, and the cathartic release of emotions as forgiveness is implicitly granted. So much of the conflict between father and son or the siblings is driven by misplaced grief, resentment, and anger, adding dimensions to each of the characters and emotional depth to the action–packed movie.
With its skillful integration of CGI and immaculate fight choreography, the film is visually arresting. Most importantly, the relationship between Shang–Chi and Katy, played by Simu Liu and Awkwafina, remains platonic as a satisfying rejection of the friends–to–lovers trope. The predominantly Asian American cast holds a lot of promise for increased Asian American representation in film. It's safe to say that Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was inspiring both as a piece of fictional work and a model for casting.
–Cindy Zhang, Film & TV Beat
The Pursuit of Love
The rise of the miniseries has taken the reins of the streaming world, offering neatly tied story arcs to binge watch in a short amount of time. Prime Video, in Amazon’s effort to become a competing streaming platform, has advanced its game with The Pursuit of Love. The three–episode drama transports the viewer to a European landscape at the start of WWII, and tracks the relationship between two cousins aging in the face of love.
The young women are startlingly different in their family history: Linda (Lily James) is addicted to the idea of love and cycles through romances, while Fanny (Emily Beecham) settles for a comfortable life as a mother with the first man that catches her attention. While Linda’s melodramatic lust for life is enticing, viewers watch as she burns herself out and becomes a careless mother and partner which Fanny can only witness from a distance.
The highlight of the show is Lord Merlin, played by the notorious Andrew Scott. His eccentricity breathes a colorful modernism into the traditional lifestyle of Linda and Fanny’s family. The Pursuit of Love is a heartbreaking depiction of what happens when one tries to come of age in the face of romance too quickly, and is completely worth the binge.
–Mehek Boparai, 34th Street Culture Editor
Post–Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe could have lost its way—the blockbuster realized the cumulative effort of over twenty films and saw many of the franchise’s founding characters exit. However, the company’s revolutionary foray into television undeniably steered a franchise at a crossroads onto the right track. The MCU tapped into its still–abundant creative potential with the refreshingly experimental WandaVision, a show in which Wanda Maximoff and Vision create a picturesque suburban family in an enticing ode to sitcom television. However, beneath its trope–y humor is a burgeoning mystery.
Overall, the series is a brilliant start to Phase Four that deviates from audience expectations. Its first half plays with a unique style that wouldn’t make sense creatively in a film. At its core, WandaVision is a poignant look at escapism and a touching exploration of grief and trauma that feels especially timely on the heels of quarantine; the additional time allotted to character exposition allows Marvel to position complex issues front and center for the first time in its repertoire.
Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and Kathryn Hahn’s nuanced performances as Wanda, Vision, and Agatha Harkness respectively are some of the best in the MCU to date. While the second half of the series may succumb to the action–packed CGI sequences that define the franchise, WandaVision still manages to highlight the power of an episodic format and revive a tired fantasy genre. This Disney+ original is not only a must–see for Marvel fans, but a compelling watch for anybody who appreciates the introspective mystery.
–Kayla Cotter, Staff Writer
This Hulu original miniseries takes an unflinching look at the origins of the opioid crisis, focused largely on the rise of Purdue Pharma and its drug OxyContin. The story, which is based on a nonfiction book of the same name, is told in three parts and spans multiple timelines. The first part follows the Sackler family—the owners of Purdue Pharma—as they use pseudoscience and bribery to falsely market their drug as “non–addictive.” The second centers on law enforcement efforts to hold the Sacklers accountable. The third—and most heartbreaking—shows the drug’s devastating effects on the residents of an Appalachian mining town, a representation of countless rural towns that have been destroyed by the opioid crisis.
Dopesick doesn’t shy away from the intricacies of drug manufacturing and marketing, forcing viewers to understand exactly how Purdue Pharma fueled addiction. They intimidated pharmacists into selling their product and pushed doctors to “double the dose,” all in the name of profit. The show also delves deeply into personal repercussions through the story of a young miner who gets addicted to OxyContin and the small–town doctor who first prescribes her the drug.
More than 100,000 people in the United States died of drug overdoses from April 2020 to April 2021, the most ever in a one–year period. There has never been a more urgent time to confront our country’s opioid epidemic; through the realm of fiction, Dopesick can help us learn, empathize, and process.
–Chelsey Zhu, 34th Street Campus Editor
Mare of Easttown
For a Pennsylvania native, Mare of Easttown’s great joy is watching Kate Winslet say things like “wudder” or “hoagie” in her shaky Delco accent, and rattling off the names of familiar West Philadelphia suburbs like Conshohocken and Valley Forge.
For the rest of y’all, this is high–quality television that deserves to be savored over the course of its seven episodes.
What Mare of Easttown does best is creating character dynamics that feel authentic while burying just the right amount of mystery under the surface (and kudos to HBO for somehow managing to get Jean Smart on retainer and then singlehandedly kickstarting the Jean Smart Renaissance). The cast includes Smart as Mare’s mother and Evan Peters as county detective Colin Zabel, who is rather bumbling and irresistibly lovable. And then there’s Mare herself. A show about law enforcement could’ve left a bad taste in our mouths this year, but Winslet’s career–best performance is saved by making it clear as day that Mare is a servant of her people above all else.
It’s hard to talk about this show without spoilers, but the twists and turns of plot seem to fall away as you become immersed in Easttown’s intoxicating sense of place. With a cliffhanger at the end of just about every hour, one might be tempted to binge Mare of Easttown all at once, but I recommend consuming the show in the way it was originally, and very much intentionally, released: one episode at a time, once per week.
–Walden Green, Arts Editor
While Belfast could have been an overly sweet and romanticized depiction of Kenneth Branagh’s childhood in Northern Ireland, the film uses its rose–colored glasses to its advantage. Set in the late 1960s in Belfast, Northern Ireland amid religious violence known historically as “The Troubles,” the film shows the conflict and destruction through the eyes of a child. The child, a 9–year–old named Buddy, is meant to represent Branagh, and the film itself is semi–autobiographical.
Over the course of the film, Buddy and his Protestant family reckon with the possibility of leaving Northern Ireland after the Catholic homes on their peaceful street are looted, Protestant nationalists violently riot and threaten their family, and Buddy’s father, Pa, finds job opportunities in England. The film grapples with love, death, and religious conflict, while also providing a heartfelt vignette into Branagh’s childhood. The viewer sees Buddy fall in love with his schoolmate, attempt to steal candy with his cousin from the local sweet shop, and bond with his grandfather in the days before his death.
In Belfast, the juvenile perspective is perfectly mixed with the complex subject matter, infusing a commonplace story of an Irish family grappling with violence with fresh perspective. Even though the story sadly ends with Buddy’s family leaving all they know in Belfast for a safer and more isolated life in England, the viewer is left with their heart warmed regardless.
–Karin Hananel, 34th Street Assignments Editor
Sex Education (Season 3)
UK teen shows are arguably superior to those of the US, and Sex Education in particular stands above the rest. It combines the drama of Skins and The End of the F***ing World with the color and cheekiness of The Great British Baking Show, but unlike these series, stays on top of real–world social issues and handles them clearly, sensitively, and productively. Though the plot of the third season might be busy and far–fetched, the show excels yet again at displaying self–growth and the difficult conversations that come with it.
Among the plethora of plot points explored in the show’s latest installment are interabled relationships, relationships after sexual assault, relationships that hold one person back, queer relationships, non–binary students in a highly gendered school, familial struggles, pregnancy, divorce, and friends supporting friends. You might think this means the show has spread itself too thin, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In eight 45–minute episodes, the writers dedicate ample time to each and every character, gifting us an ending that’s satisfying yet leaves us wanting more.
On paper, the show creeps dangerously close to soap–opera territory, but really, it’s equal parts witty, raunchy, wholesome, and straight–up weird. If you’ve ever had an evil headmaster, a complex and unconventional family life, dated someone with an alien fetish, gone through a breakup, or made a lifelong friend, you’ll find something to relate to in Sex Education season three.
–Arielle Stanger, Film & TV Editor
Despite the film’s setting in sleepy Storm Lake, Iowa, with pastoral fields, quaint Main Street, and charming parades, Storm Lake hums with fear and chaos. Watching the film is excruciating in a necessary way, forcing viewers to confront a reality they’ve never considered: If local news dies, so does American democracy.
The documentary follows The Storm Lake Times, a Pulitzer Prize–winning family–run newspaper serving rural Iowa, as it diligently covers 2020’s messy caucus and a bevy of crucial local affairs. Topics include a prominent meat processing plant sparking a COVID–19 outbreak, school board meetings, and corn harvests. The skeleton staff of The Storm Lake Times does a lot, and the film oscillates between them preparing to do more or preparing to be laid off. One scene shows reporter Tom Cullen encouraging his dad (and boss) to try a new subscription model, the next shows him straight–faced, telling the camera he doesn’t think the paper could survive six more months. Another segment shows editor–in–chief Art Cullen agreeing to combine the company with a Spanish–language paper, the next shows him talking about crippling debt.
Like most hyperlocal news sources, The Storm Lake Times doesn’t have enough money to exist in perpetuity, though it must—as a paper of record, as a community cornerstone, as a bulwark against news deserts. And while the documentary’s pacing is an occasionally boring steady drip, the film is effective at communicating something bigger than an underdog story. It tells viewers to keep believing in journalists.
–Bea Forman, 34th Street Editor–in–Chief