Being a film and TV critic these days is a pretty thankless job, especially if you weigh the hours against the money and the declining number of suitable outlets for such work. Luckily for us, our critics mostly do it for love, and because they have an insatiable appetite for good screen storytelling. They are at their best when they’re describing, analysing and enthusing about things that delight and inspire them. So, despite our seductive ‘best and worst’ headline, these lists tend towards recommendations rather than damnations – although there are a few of those too.
In the explosion of available screen entertainment over summer, our critics’ picks will help you sift through the rubble for gems you may have missed and new titles to check out.
Top 3 Feature Films
- Lapsis was a great little sci-fi satire that flew completely under the radar when it was released here in June. Writer–director Noah Hutton has created a wickedly funny fable about the absurd exploitation of the gig economy; and hangdog star Dean Imperial (who reminded me of a young James Gandolfini) is wonderful as an everyman forced to surrender his dignity as he’s drawn into a web of conspiracy and cables. Absolutely check this out if you liked Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You.
- I was expecting Julia Ducournau’s Titane to be gruelling, particularly following reports that Sydney Film Festival wussbags had fainted and fled at its grisly violence. Instead, I found a stylish and perversely heartwarming allegory about found family that transgresses binaries of flesh and machinery, masculine and feminine, heroism and villainy, and parent and child – and also, in its intense viscerality, the spectatorial binary of watching and feeling.
- The Worst Person in the World (in cinemas on Boxing Day) snuck up on me. At first I read Joachim Trier’s romantic drama as a tragedy; it made me feel very melancholy, contemplating the fleeting nature of love and happiness; but then I was buoyed by Renate Reinsve’s effervescent performance as protagonist Julie, who spends most of the film aimless and unmoored, using lovers to substitute for her sense of purpose, but who ends the film in quiet equilibrium. This film insists on the value of listening to yourself and allowing experience, rather than social pressures, to guide and shape you.
Top 3 TV Series
The irritating thing about TV is that it forms such a peloton of discursive consensus: I had a wonderful time in 2021 watching such obviously fantastic, well-made shows as Squid Game, The Underground Railroad, The White Lotus and Ted Lasso, but there’s not much I can add in terms of critical insight.
- I really enjoyed Girls5Eva (Stan), a ruthlessly hilarious parody of both early 2000s pop-music culture and the way the industry cruelly discards older women. Busy Philipps and Renée Elise Goldsberry seem to have particular relish for their roles, and I appreciated that its terrain is resolutely comic and it rarely gets sidetracked by seriousness.
- I do love satirical tech dystopias, which is why I was delighted by Made for Love (Stan), a kind of slept-on series adapted from Alissa Nutting’s novel. Cristin Milioti, so excellent in similar terrain such as Black Mirror and Palm Springs, is great here as a woman escaping an abusive relationship… while her abuser (Billy Magnussen, kind of typecast by now as a sinister bro) stalks her using a chip he implanted in her head. Ray Romano continues his acting renaissance as her hangdog father.
- Finally, I was one of perhaps ten people worldwide who seemed to have loved Foundation (Apple TV+). I’d never read the classic Isaac Asimov novels on which this sweeping, philosophical sci-fi epic is based, but I did enjoy Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past novel trilogy, which was heavily inspired by Asimov; so I was all in for Foundation’s dizzying spread of time, and the way it interweaves religion, culture, science and love as different expressions of shared humanity. Should humankind change and adapt to survive, or should it protect and conserve itself? These are big questions, stunningly rendered onscreen with gorgeous production design and a charismatic cast – newcomer Lou Llobell is particularly compelling as maths prodigy Gaal.
Best Australian Screen Content
- It’s been a great year for Australian TV. I love a good period drama, so I’d been looking forward to New Gold Mountain – which did not disappoint. Beautifully realised, it has rich characterisation, powerful narrative intrigue and a strong, specific sense of place. The most boring, two-dimensional characters were the white people.
- The Newsreader hit me in my sweet spot: period setting; workplace drama; sublimated romance. I relaxed completely into its storytelling. (Justice for Gay Tim!) It’s completely, meticulously of a specific point in lived Australian history; yet its themes are also universal – Variety recently included The Newsreader on its ‘Best International TV Shows of 2021’ list.
- It feels so long ago now, but Bump came out on New Year’s Day this year. This ‘Claudia Karvan urban fantasy’ about the liminal territory between adolescence and adulthood was a hit for Stan – for a reason. It’s warm, affectionate, and thoughtful about probing the intersections of class, race, sexuality and age without wielding them didactically as Themes. The third season drops on Stan on Boxing Day.
- Finally, Fires was gripping and humane, and featured knockout performances from a huge cast. Episode two, starring Miranda Otto and Richard Roxburgh, is still my favourite, but Kate Box is brilliant, too, in episode five. What I still admire about the series is the way its characters’ responses to the fires are idiosyncratically shaped by their pre-fire personalities and experiences – they’re not just blank mannequins, as in so many disaster stories.
Most Disappointing Viewing Experience
I’d heard Dear Evan Hansen was bad, but I struggled to cope with how comprehensively bad it was. Lots of people have observed, correctly, that Ben Platt is catastrophically miscast in the role; but there hasn’t been enough discussion of what a fundamentally ill-conceived project this musical was from the start.
Its sanctimonious, saccharine story and bland, crappy songs might have done okay on Broadway, because of stage audiences’ generous suspension of disbelief (cf. Cats; Wild Mountain Thyme); but Stephen Chbosky’s turgid, network-TV-soapie-level adaptation refuses to lean in to the awfulness of the story or exploit the kinetic possibilities of cinema. Instead it actually wants us to sympathise with its titular craven goblin! I had more sympathy for the rest of the talented cast mired in this purgatory!
As soon as the characters sat down resignedly and gentle guitar and piano chords seeped up on the soundtrack to signal the beginning of another cursed song, my brain began to cry, “No! No!” Titane does smart, daring things with a similar storyline about an impostor cuckoo in the heart of a grieving family, but Dear Evan Hansen has worse body horror and is more morally bankrupt.
Most Anticipated Films for 2022
My appetite whetted by the monochrome Shakespearean classicism of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (which hits cinemas on Boxing Day), I’m keen to see Robert Eggers’ The Northman (currently slated for April next year), which is basically Viking Hamlet. Alexander Skarsgård is too old for the role, but I guess people lived hard in the Viking Age.
I’m also keen to check out Ivan Sen’s new film Loveland. From the trailer, I think it might draw comparisons to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives or Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, but this is Ivan Sen, so I’m hoping for something enigmatic, like his Dreamland.
Top 3 Feature Films
- Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01 Thrice Upon a Time: The long-awaited conclusion to the series of ‘rebuild’ movies loosely based on the classic anime TV series delivered both a series of increasingly insane giant robot battles and (more importantly) some surprisingly heartfelt emotional scenes.
- Nobody: This John Wick movie without John Wick went one better by turning Bob Odenkirk – a former sketch comedy star who’s pretty much the least likely action hero in recent cinematic history – into a hangdog arse-kicker capable of taking out a busload of Russian mafia types.
- The Worst Person in the World: This relationship-slash-coming of age drama works in large part because it doesn’t nail down it’s focus. It’s about a twenty-something woman trying to work out what she wants out of life, a mix of regret and fun and trying on identities that doesn’t put a foot wrong (even when the lead does).
Top 3 TV Series
- Mr Inbetween: This largely undiscovered Australian crime gem was treading water just a little in its final season, but its final few episodes brought it all home perfectly (and the final moment was the best ending to a TV series in 2021)
- Fisk: If you’ve been watching comedy, and especially Australian comedy, recently, then you know there’s no higher praise than this: Fisk was a series that set out to be funny, and it achieved that goal.
- Gomorrah: The fifth and final season of this long running Italian crime series finally dropped this year, but it’s worth picking up from the beginning – if only to discover the origin of Genny’s haircut, the most sinister ‘do on television.
Best Australian Screen Content
- My Name is Gulpilil
- Have You Been Paying Attention
- Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell
Most disappointing viewing experience
The Mortal Kombat reboot didn’t begin with someone shouting ‘MORTAL KOMBAAAAT’.
Most anticipated films for 2022
Sadly, at the moment it’s probably Guy Ritchie’s upcoming team-up with Jason Statham (after this year’s excellent Wrath of Man), Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre. At least it’s not Minions: The Rise of Gru.
Most fascinating trend in cinema or TV in 2021
Women continue to take over the traditional action genre. Gunpowder Milkshake, Jolt and Kate (to name three that got at least some attention) weren’t ground-breaking, but they definitely featured the leads breaking a lot of other things.
Most bizarre thing you’ve watched this year
At least fourteen UK crime films set in Essex, most of which revolve around a real-life drug murder from the mid-90s: Five Rise of the Footsoldier films, two Bonded by Blood films, Essex Boys, Essex Boys: Law of Survival, Essex Boys: Retribution, Essex Heist, The Fall of the Essex Boys, Essex Vendetta, and The Corrupted.
TOP 3 FEATURE FILMS
- The Card Counter: Less than a decade ago, Paul Schrader was directing The Canyons, a tragic Bret Easton Ellis provocation starring disgraced porn actor James Deen and an on-the-cheap Lindsay Lohan. This was the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed Mishima among other classics! What a wonderful switch up, then, that following the brilliant return-to-form of First Reformed in 2017, he has now given us this moody poker drama. Stars Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish have the craziest, sexiest chemistry of the year.
- Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar: Comedies aren’t very funny these days (just look at Ghostbusters: Afterlife; or better yet, don’t). That’s what makes this go-for-broke hallucination of a movie so special. A stoner classic is born.
- The World to Come: My personal favourite of the sad-lesbians-in-period-costumes trilogy that we got in recent years (the others being Ammonite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire). A story of discovery and defiance in the face of seemingly insurmountable struggle. A beauty that played the Melbourne Queer Film Festival in March between lockdowns, but which was about that very feeling of being caged beyond our own control.
Top 3 TV or Streaming
- Exterminate All the Brutes: Haitian director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro about James Baldwin was one of the last decade’s best documentaries. This four-part HBO documentary (on Foxtel and Binge) is even better—it’s one of the best works of art I have ever seen. Peck goes into remarkable detail to the world’s history of genocide and so while not exactly fun viewing is full of filmmaking choices that take it beyond four hours of pure misery.
- Bo Burnham Inside: The definitive work of pandemic art came just as Australia’s eastern states were tipping back into lockdowns. What could have been Burnham’s (Promising Young Woman) amusingly personal take on quarantine suddenly took on greater resonance as he tackled paranoia, capitalism, humanity’s selfishness, meta comedy and online culture in this one-man pop musical for Netflix.
- Pretend It’s a City: Filmmaker Martin Scorsese and noted satirist Fran Lebowitz are a match made in heaven. This hilarious observational comedy doc-series on Netflix was a much-needed savage take-down of contemporary living full of biting wit.
Australian Screen Content
- The Cheap Seats: This companion series to Working Dog’s Have You Been Paying Attention on Network Ten is a scrappier but no less funny millennial take on current events, memes and Chemist Warehouse. Hosted by comedians Melanie Bracewell and Tim McDonald, this would’ve been a Friday night sharehouse pre-drinks staple in another life, a la Good News Week.
- Fisk: Something strange happens when Australian comedians are given a series order: they often become extremely unfunny. Trust Kitty Flanagan then to take the trappings of The Office and give it an Aussie twist full of comical observations and silly exaggerations. This ABC legal office sitcom was home to a long list of local comic talent whose only job was to make us laugh – and they did!
- New Gold Mountain: Diversity on Australian screens got an immense shot in this arm with this mini-series set on the gold fields of 1857. Directed by Corrie Chen and with an extremely talented cast including the wonderful and handsome Yoson An at its centre, it was big and glossy in ways Aussie TV rarely is. Naturally, the AACTA awards ignored it in the top categories.
Most disappointing viewing experience
In a year where there is still a pandemic happening, it was disappointing to witness distributors and sales agents pull films from virtual festivals or delay digital releases. Some titles will go completely un-screened in Australia as a result, while some audiences are resorting to VPNs and even piracy once again. People cannot support local film culture if it’s not there. And while it is all well and good for The Power of the Dog and Nitram to be produced by streaming platforms, there needs to be much more of their quality. Byron Baes is not the answer.
some audiences are resorting to VPNs and even piracy once again. People cannot support local film culture if it’s not thereGlenn Dunks
Most anticipated titles of 2021
A decade ago, ScreenHub’s own Rochelle Siemienowicz hired me to write about the Scream movies upon the release of Scream 4 in one of my first ever paid gigs. Now in 2022, a fifth film is being released and I am over the moon—as giddy as I was when I was a teenager. Who’s behind the Ghostface mask this time? I’ll be finding out this January 14. On the local front, I am anticipating whatever it is Baz Luhrmann is doing with Elvis Presley’s life story because I am sure it won’t be dull.
Most disturbing trend
The box office results out of America for big-budget productions like West Side Story and Nightmare Alley (as compared to the domination of Spider-Man: No Way Back) are a terrifying prospect. There isn’t much space for growth within the streaming platforms to keep giving more and more filmmakers we love the space to make what they want to make. Something’s gotta give and it won’t be pretty.
Most bizarre thing I have watched
The Cinderella remake with pop star Camila Cabello from Amazon Prime was truly cursèd lockdown viewing. That viral video of James Corden hip-thrusting at strangers on the freeway while dressed as a rat cannot prepare you for the horrors.
Top 3 Feature Films
- Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve): Efforts to bring Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi saga from the page to the screen have over the decades confounded the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott (who couldn’t make it happen) and infuriated the likes of David Lynch (who did make it happen in 1984 and reportedly called the experience ‘a nightmare’). The hospital-corners formality and innate humanism of Denis Villeneuve, who displayed a kind of fearlessness in tackling a sequel to the often-imitated-rarely-duplicated Blade Runner and a kind of wizardry in making his 2049 a worthy continuation, turned out to be just the right match for the material, making this tale of colonisation, domination and destiny equally majestic and recognisable.
- The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson): I find with Wes Anderson’s films that they’ll either entrance me upon the first viewing or take a little time to cast their spell. (It was maybe my third go-round with The Life Aquatic that locked it in as one of my very favourite Andersons.) The first time I watched The French Dispatch, the filmmaker’s tribute to print magazines – The New Yorker in particular – and the people who create them, I walked out satisfied but a little dubious; it felt like the intricacy of Wes’s world-building had occasionally outstripped the heart and soul of his storytelling. A second viewing, however, revealed subtle shades of melancholy and joy that had eluded me the first time; I’m confident even more will reveal themselves each time I revisit it, which I will. ‘A new flavour,’ says the great chef Nescaffier near the end of the film. ‘That’s a rare thing in my age.’ One to savour.
- Wrath of Man (dir. Guy Ritchie): I feel like I’m treading on the toes of my friend Anthony Morris, the nation’s pre-eminent Jason Statham scholar, by name-checking the latest collaboration between the UK bruiser and his mate Guy Ritchie, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to this armour-piercing bullet of an action-thriller, one that deftly wove white-knuckle dread and jet-black humour into its gunplay and affray. Ritchie can be the very definition of hit-or-miss, but he and Statham, given a role ideally suited to his skillset, hits the bullseye with this one.
Top 3 TV Titles
- Only Murders in the Building: Like a great many people, I’m assuming, I spent a decent portion of 2021 in front of the small screen. Do that long enough and you start to see a certain sameness creep into the programming – whether that’s a result of your own biases and preferences, the algorithm doing its thing or the industry as a whole responding to the market is for analysts far smarter than me to work out. But I do know that I was regularly, constantly charmed by the swerves in story and character made by this delightfully droll and occasionally touching murder mystery that brought together three true-crime aficionados turned amateur sleuths (Steve Martin, Martin Short and a beguiling Selena Gomez) living in the same Manhattan apartment building. It felt hand-crafted, not committee-designed. (Airing on Disney+)
- Heels: Wrestling has never really been my bag, so I was as surprised as the next person to find myself drawn all the way in by this series about a small-town wrestling league fronted by two brothers – the older the impresario and storyteller fashioning an ongoing saga of heroes and villains, the younger a flashy, immature star in the making – trying to simultaneously build on and break free from their late father’s legacy. Jam-packed with distinctive detail, wonderfully funny and consistently engaging, this follows proudly and honourably in the footsteps of shows like Friday Night Lights. It’s almost enough to make one check out what’s happening in WWE these days. Almost. (Airing on Stan.)
- Ultra City Smiths: Take a trip to the wrong side of the tracks. Hang out with the homeless, the hustlers, the crooks, the people doing whatever they have to do to get by, the people who make a dishonest buck exploiting or extorting them. Oh, and have them all portrayed by dolls brought to life via stop-motion animation. Every once in a while, they’ll break into a musical number that’s equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. And the whole thing has that weird, whimsical feel of a Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman collaboration. (it’s actually the creation of Steven Conrad, maker of underrated winners like Patriot, which you should also check out.) That’s Ultra City Smiths, unabashedly its own thing that may well turn out to be your thing as well. (Airing on AMC+ via Prime Video.)
Best Australian Screen Content
- Firebite: Genre material has long been the ideal smuggling vessel for big ideas and themes, horror traditionally serving as one of the most effective vehicles. Warwick Thornton and Brendan Fletcher proved themselves master smugglers with their series Firebite, in which they transform the 11 vials of smallpox virus transported by the First Fleet, which ravaged Australia’s Indigenous population, into 11 vampires who preyed upon the First Peoples. The series has its heroes, cocky vamp hunter Tyson (Rob Collins) and his fiery daughter Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), driving a stake through racism, one fanged coloniser at a time. (Airing on AMC+)
- The Newsreader: What looked at first glance as a stroll down memory lane, taking audiences back to the analogue, beige and less-enlightened 1980s, quickly revealed itself as a smart, sensitive character study of the TV presenters and reporters putting up a polished, professional façade to deliver the news of the era while wrangling their messy, unwieldy private lives away from the cameras. Sharp writing and smooth direction, and a brace of terrific performances, with Anna Torv the standout as the newsreader of the title. (Available on ABC iview.)
- My Name Is Gulpilil: It’s close to impossible to tell the story of Australia’s cinema’s halcyon days without saying the name David Gulpilil. The late actor and dancer was a pivotal part of the country’s cinematic New Wave in the 1970s, thanks to charismatic starring turns in films such as Walkabout and The Last Wave, and his collaboration with Rolf de Heer throughout the 2000s served as a bracing reminder of his talent and presence. Molly Reynolds’ documentary, charting the course of the man’s life and career in his final months, is a beautifully reflective tribute to a singular human being. (Available on ABC iview.)
Top 3 Feature Films
I hesitate to name a top feature film since I have seen so few new releases in 2021, I’ve mostly been filling gaps. I caught up, for example, with Miranda Nation’s Undertow (rather beautiful, in spite of the subject matter) and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (some narrative holes, but good). Of the 2021 releases, Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie (Netflix) was far and away the best thing I had seen in a while. It reminded me (in a good way) of a play. Think Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme.
DeLorean: Back from the Future, Mike Connolly’s fascinating portrait of car maker John DeLorean, and White Noise, Daniel Lombroso’s doco on white supremacy for The Atlantic.
To be honest, a couple of excellent single episode made-for-TV documentaries blew these two out of the water. The first episode of the 33rd season of PBS’s American Experience, which will eventually make it to these shores, is a stunning profile of the genius cryptanalyst Elizabeth Smith Friedman. Also worth tracking down is Mariette Auvray’s fine short documentary Young, Female and Palestinian: Striving for Independence which profiles a number of professional Arab women living in Israel and the West Bank. It’s currently available on DW’s web site. No registration or payment required.
Some of the best documentary television series of the last year are unavailable in Australia. CNN’s excellent eight-part History of the Sitcom, PBS’s four-parter on rock and roll photographers Icon: Music through the Lens and the improbably engrossing BBC2 series Gods of Snooker (which ignores Eddie Charlton completely, but gives us all the dirt on Hurricane Higgins) made lockdown feel a little less glacial and made VPNs essential. Honourable mentions: The Lady and the Dale (Binge, Foxtel) and Allen v. Farrow (ditto) which was one of the better podcast-to-TV transfers. (Another was Fiasco, in which Leon Neyfakh reprised his investigation into the Iran-Contra affair.)
2021 has been a great year for Sci Fi and the other SF: speculative fiction. I found the recent War of the Worlds adaptations unbearable, but Invasion (Apple TV+) worked for me despite (or perhaps because of) its portentousness, overblown loose-weave narrative and vaulting ambition. Foundation (also Apple TV+), a series based on Isaac Asimov’s trilogy and the prequel novels, had some idiotic flaws (some glaring lapses of judgement in the writers’ room, or by the showrunner) but ultimately provided a welcome and potent rival to the tired Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Look out, too, for the TV adaptation of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. The first three episodes dropped on Stan this week. The first episode is very impressive.
The best show not (yet) on Australian TV
The Hulu reboot of The Wonder Years. This blew me away. Instead of an exercise in nostalgia, this is far more significant and ambitious. It focusses on a middle class black family in Montgomery Alabama. In 1968. Think MLK, bus boycotts and the march from Selma to the capitol. They’re the tectonic quakes beneath this wise and beautiful sitcom. As in the Fred Savage original, the narrator is the main protagonist’s grown-up self, looking back on the travails — and triumphs — of his boyhood. Dad is a jazz musician, mum is an office manager with a masters degree, the older brother is in Vietnam (of course) and older sister is an oil and vinegar mix of maturity and rebellion. I found the half-hour episodes daunting, but never regretted a single second of the time I spent watching.
Best Australian content
The Bachelorette Australia. Yep. I watched every minute. That’s a first for me. There was a shocking lapse at the start of episode six, I think, when some exec obviously decided to shake things up and attempted to make Brooke look like a psycho hypocrite. And, god, the Guinness Book of Records on-screen same-sex kiss was a bizarre miscalculation. Wincingly awful. But the series wasn’t derailed by the brief coup. The Brooke experiment was a resounding success, so much less creepy than the usual meat market.
The Brooke experiment was a resounding success, so much less creepy than the usual meat market.Chris Boyd
Most disappointing viewing experience
Gruen. Here’s a show that has lost its mojo. It needs to focus on what it does well — its uniqueness and insights — and give up on its forced attempts at comedy.
Most anticipated in 2022
Station Eleven, see above.
Most Disturbing Trend
Well, it’s more of a continuation of a disturbing trend: shows which focus on a tedious, uninteresting man who is surrounded by interesting (and inexplicably interested) women. Exhibit A: the vastly overhyped Mr Corman. If the show had been about Lindsey, the woman Corman meets at a bar in the pilot episode, played by Emily Tremaine, I might have persisted. What could be less interesting than a man who doesn’t know himself and doesn’t appreciate anyone else? Ditto Ordinary Joe (or VERY Ordinary Joe as I like to call it) in which the protagonist is far and away the least interesting character. Gah.
Most Bizarre Viewing Experience
Watching WandaVision (Disney+) without having seen The Avengers, Age of Ultron, Infinity War, Endgame — or, indeed, any of the Marvel Universe movies — was an absolutely bonkers act. But the sheer style of the thing, the episode-by-episode references to different eras and shows (like Bewitched), and the overcapitalised closing credits were all insanely addictive.
Also Ultra City Smiths, Steve Conrad’s highly developed and shockingly original animated series (for AMC+) about a good cop in a bad town. Think: The Boondocks (US, 2005) or Monkey Dust (UK, 2003). There’s hope for the world if something this weird can get made.