The year that was – movie and TV guide

7 December 2021

Powerful dramas, thought-provoking arthouse cinema, TV that makes you smile and some that makes you cringe, Jesuit Communications staff pick the shows that amused them, made them think, and gave them a window to the wider world in 2021.

Once again, COVID-19 and pandemic lockdowns curtailed visits to the cinema, but in many cases cinema’s loss was a gain for streaming services. Home audiences were treated to a variety of movies and quality TV.

Australian Catholics film reviewers Peter Sheehan and Peter Malone select their top five films for 2021, while other Jesuit Communications staff talk about the shows that got them through the various lockdowns.

Peter Sheehan – Australian Catholics movie reviewer

This American supernatural film dramatically tells the story of a man who interviews five unborn souls to determine which one should be given the chance of life on earth. It contains content that is highly suitable for spiritual discussion, and is a quality product of fine art-house cinema.

LA FINE FLEUR (The Rose Maker)
This French comedy-drama is enjoyable and pleasurable in an aesthetic way. The director pursues the theme of personal betterment, and has created a gentle movie to sustain it. The acting is spirited and delightful, and glorious fields of roses are amply displayed.

This Australian drama tells the factual story of events deeply embedded in Australian National consciousness. It is a powerful anti-gun movie about a disturbed youth’s mental aberration, and it is unnerving. The film is based on the 1996 Port Arthur massacre of 35 people in Tasmania.

This multinational film is inspired by true events, and tells the story of a young dying father who needs to find the best way of making sure his young son is looked after, when he has gone. It poignantly tackles fatherhood and personal loss in an especially moving and insightful way.

This Australian-New Zealand Film is a thought-provoking film about the wreckage caused by maleness, not yet tamed by the environments created to sustain it. It is a psychological drama about outback ranch life in the US that Jane Campion intelligently and creatively brings to the boil.

Peter Malone – Australian Catholics movie reviewer

A jobless widow joins the many American men and women travelling in their trailers on the highways, taking on temporary jobs and becoming part of the community found in trailer parks. She is adamant that though she does not have a house she is not homeless. Oscar-winning director, Chloe Zhao, invites us to share the experiences of Fern (Frances McDormand) at her best, and to meet and keep company with these travellers in nomadland.

A Korean boy, adopted at three by Americans, has found a life in Louisiana, with an American wife and stepdaughter. However, he still experiences racism, and runs foul of strict and heartless bureaucratic interpretations, finding himself on the edge of deportation to a country he hasn’t seen since he was three, and one in which he doesn’t know the language or have any ties. He is a flawed man but does not deserve the victimisation towards refugee or the threats of deportation. Australian audiences sympathetic to refugees and those interned will identify with the story and likely be emotionally challenged and stirred for social justice.

Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for this portrayal of a man trapped in dementia. There is confusion, shuffling memories, difficulties with identifying daughter, family and nurses. As we are drawn into the film, we find we share the same bewilderment and confusion – noticing the sadness and noting some joy.

As with The Piano, Jane Campion can take us into an unfamiliar world, this time Montana frontier 1925. She can create challenging characters, sympathetic and not, gradually opening up some depths in the psyches of her characters, their inner conflicts as well as conflicts with one another. And the enigmatic title is from the Psalm which Jesus prays as he dies on the cross.

An exhilarating ride. On the one hand there are some serious themes of death and justice. On the other hand, we enjoy the filmmakers’ eccentric characters, smart and funny dialogue, and surprising interactions. Even though the characters’ actions are difficult to approve of, which we enjoy but sometimes find hard to approve. Scandinavian, eccentric, and enjoyable.

Michael McVeigh – Jesuit Communications head of publishing

Last year’s first season of this warm-hearted, people-focused sports comedy was a surprise hit. The second season finds various characters dealing with their past and present trauma, helped with the introduction of Sarah Niles to the cast as Dr Sharon Fieldstone. This is a show that can make you laugh and cry – sometimes in the same scene – because of its care for every person on the screen. If you’re looking for a change from programs about awful people doing awful things, this is a show for you.

LUPIN PART 1&2 (Netflix)
This fun French show is about a master thief, Arsene Lupin, with an interesting past that’s revealed through flashbacks over the course of the season. The fact that Lupin is an African migrant is central to both the events that derailed his childhood, and also to his success as a thief. During his heists, he’s often dressed as a service worker so that most people completely ignore him. The show has plenty of fun moments, intrigue and suspense, as well as some food for thought about race and class. 

ARCANE (Netflix)
This is a TV show based on the League of Legends online video game, where people fight each other using a variety of characters with different weapons and skill sets. There’s not even much of a backstory to those characters. All of this is to say that it’s astounding that Arcane is one of the best animation shows Netflix has produced. The show is set in a city divided into two halves – the wealthy and advanced upper city of Piltover, and the impoverished and violent underground of Zaun. There are a number of concurrent stories that come together as the episodes progress, all rendered in some of the most beautiful animation I’ve seen. 

While Disney put most of its promotional efforts behinds it’s Marvel and Star Wars TV shows, this might be the best it produced this year. The stars carry the show – Steve Martin and Martin Short have great chemistry together – but it’s the murder-mystery elements that really keep the viewer hooked. It’s surprising more TV shows don’t follow the ‘whodunnit’ formula given how successfully it’s done in this show.

This show hasn’t gone to air yet, but the last season is released this month. The Expanse has been one of the most compelling and well-acted shows on television for the last few years. The show was styled as ‘Game of Thrones in space’, but while that show struggled in later seasons this one has only gotten better. Like much of the best sci-fi, The Expanse takes all the drama and messiness of human relationships and politics, and explores them in the context of new and strange technology and environments. If you haven’t watched it yet, check it out.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ – Jesuit Communications editorial consultant

This Australian remaking of an earlier Finnish film explores the relationship between two ageing, alienated brothers on neighbouring farms. Cranky and not on speaking terms, they are brought together by the threat of bushfire and of the destruction of their sheep because of disease. At the centre of the film is the harsh but beautiful Western Australian country that matches the wrinkled humanity of the brothers.

A contemplative Italian film that explores the rich relationships involved in hunting truffles. It follows elderly men and their treasured dogs through the Piedmont woods as they seek truffles, bringing out the simplicity and human richness of their lives. It is elegiac, showing the intrusion of modern business on their way of life.

The second series of Total Control reintroduces Alex Irving, the Indigenous woman who having left both political parties in the first series, now is now standing for Parliament as an Independent. In a world that wants total control over her and her Indigenous brothers and sisters, she is totally out of control. Her experiences and her responses to them offer a perspective on the world of politics and of racial discrimination. Deborah Mailman is outstanding in the role of Alex.

Michele Frankeni – Madonna associate editor

TURNER & HOOCH series (Disney+)
A TV adaptation of the 1989 film Turner and Hooch, which starred Tom Hanks as detective Scott Turner. In the series, Turner Snr has died and his son Federal Marshall Scott Turner Jr (Josh Peck) has to care for Hooch, the latest in a line of his dad’s Dogue de Bordeaux pets. There’s mayhem as the uptight Turner has to make room for a big, slobbery dog with a tendency to do his own thing. While each episode stands alone (and with pun titles such as ‘In the line of fur’ and ‘Diamonds are fur-ever’) there is an overarching quest to solve Turner Sr’s last case. With diverse casting and plenty of humour, it’s a warm, light-hearted series; and it would be a hard heart that resists the soulful looks of its star, Hooch.

CALL MY AGENT! ­(Netflix)
This French series is a love letter to French cinema, its actors, and to something that has been disappearing because of COVID-19 – the work ‘family’. Employees, especially those in highly charged environments, can form incredibly tight bonds. For four seasons, the ASK talent agents do their best for their clients, the firm and each other – sometimes getting it right. As with all families there are hurts, misunderstandings and dysfunction, but there is also love and tolerance. The show itself mixes drama, humour, as well as some social commentary. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Call My Agent should be overwhelmed by the number of countries looking to make their own version.

The original and best, The Great British Bake Off is a sweet treat. In the 12 years it has screened there have been changes in presenters and judges – professional baker and Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood the only person to have lasted all 12 seasons – but its core delights remain the same. These include new rounds of amateur bakers who seem to genuinely delight in each other’s work and are pleased to demonstrate their talents. For nearly half of last year, lockdown was made bearable watching the amateur bakers make sponges, cakes and bread. It’s great to welcome it back with Season 12 screening late 2021. Have a cuppa and an episode of Bake Off to satisfy any nightly sweet tooth cravings.

David Halliday – Eureka Street editor

The long-awaited adaptation of Robert Jordan’s bestselling fantasy novels is a fun, albeit paint-by-numbers approach to high fantasy where a magical mentor (Rosamund Pike) whisks some ‘chosen’ 20-somethings away on a quest, narrowly escaping the forces of darkness. Imagine Lord of the Rings without the hobbits, or the subtlety. The pilot contains gruesome and exciting action pieces and Pike does well with limited source material. If you took a time machine to 1995 and gave the showrunners of Xena: Warrior Princess a $10 million production budget, the result would look breath-taking, but it would still be Xena. Nevertheless, WoT has already become a fan favourite.

GET BACK (Disney+)
To create this eight-hour miniseries, director Peter Jackson distilled 57 hours of fly-on-the-wall footage of the Beatles writing and recording songs for the album that became ‘Let it Be’. The band starts in an uncomfortable funk, still reeling from the death of long-time manager and mentor Brian Epstein, but as time passes we see the Beatles at the height of their creative and performative powers. They pull in different directions musically, but with a gentle bonhomie entirely absent from the established lore around the Beatles’ breakup. Watching the fab four create some of the greatest songs in the canon of pop music is a wonder. Watching them love one another is a revelation.

With no particularly likeable characters, The White Lotus is very frequently hard to watch and even harder to look away. Filmed at a resort in Maui, this darkly comedic social satire was written and directed by Mike White about staff and wealthy holiday makers at the fictional White Lotus resort, and asks some important questions around class, wealth and exploitation. With standout performances by Jennifer Coolidge playing a flaky grieving alcoholic, and Murray Bartlett, who steals every scene as progressively savage hotel manager Armond, it offers a peek at the humanity beneath our masks of class, power and identity.