Best Streams of 2021

Television:

The Mandalorian (seasons 1&2 on Disney+)

I heard great things about The Mandalorian when it premiered a couple years ago and had been wanting to see it, but I did not have Disney+ (until this past year). So I finally got around to watching the first two seasons of the show and really enjoyed it. I normally prefer movies over TV series, but The Mandalorian was better than the recent Star Wars film trilogy. That’s probably because the showrunner (John Favreau) had more creative freedom since he wasn’t working with the core franchise characters. There were likely too many cooks in the kitchen for the movies, with producers, studio execs, marketing experts, toy manufacturers, and Disney brand advisors all having a say in the plot and characters. Plus there were different writers and directors for the three movies and they apparently didn’t plan together. Beyond that, so much was on the line for the Disney mega-corporation with those movies because of the production and marketing budgets. The Mandalorian had a relatively high budget (~$120 million per season), but the budgets of each Star Wars movie were 2-3x that. They surely saved a lot on marketing by just dropping the show on Disney+ (while people were stuck at home during a pandemic with nothing else to do but watch TV).

I had all but given up on the Star Wars franchise ever being able to produce something great again after the conclusion to the recent movie trilogy, but The Mandolorian was a return to form—Star Wars as it should be. Rather than continue the soap opera of the Skywalkers and nostalgia-fest with old characters, they created an entirely new storyline and characters. Although season two did have some old faces (or young faces of old faces), but it was well-done at least.

The Star Wars universe is enormous, and there are so many possibilities to tell different kinds of stories (as the Expanded Universe did…until it was deleted from the canon.) The Mandalorian showed one example of what you could do. They took the space-western aspects of the original movie and leaned into that genre. Mando is like a classic “Man With No Name” gunslinger. My only critique is that the show is sometimes uneven tonally, mixing gruesome violence with tender moments of cute Baby Yoda. Then again, I like this dark/gritty crime version of Star Wars, and how can you resist those tiny Baby Yoda hands using the Force?

How to with John Wilson (season 2, HBO)

This continues to be one of my favorite shows on television. From last year’s list: “Basically, John Wilson films his entire daily life living in New York City, then he edits the footage together into episodes around a certain theme (How to…). It doesn’t sound all that special, but the real-life characters he meets and the situations he finds himself in, plus the juxtaposition of his footage and his narration are often hysterical and sometimes profound.”

Brand New Cherry Flavor (miniseries, Netflix)

This is a horror story set in 1990s Hollywood about a young female auteur film director trying to make it in the movie industry, but she gets screwed over by her producer, so she finds a witch to put a curse on him for revenge. If that plot description sounds crazy, it is—but in a good way. It’s almost like if Quentin Tarantino made a Lovecraftian movie set in Hollywood. The tone is sometimes disjointed, blending dark comedy with cosmic horror, but overall it works.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia (season 3, Viceland)

An educational and entertaining exploration of the chemistry and pharmacological (and societal) effects of various drugs. The host/creator Hamilton Morris is both brilliant and hilarious. Most people have a completely warped (or propagandized) view of “drugs,” especially many of those that are currently illegal. The term “drugs” itself is meaningless as it is completely arbitrary which substances society has chosen to place under that label. There are no inherently “good” or “bad” drugs—it depends entirely on how you use (or abuse) them. I’m sad to hear Hamilton won’t be making any more episodes.

Ancient Aliens (various seasons, History Channel/Hulu)

Ancient Aliens oscillates between “wow, interesting” and “lol, preposterous,” but it is always entertaining. The show mixes real history, science, and archeology with highly speculative theories. (Ancient astronaut theorists always say yes.) I don’t come down on the ancient alien hypothesis either way. There is a lot of intriguing evidence, but not enough to fully prove—nor disprove it. I don’t know what happened in humanity’s ancient past, but the current story is certainly incomplete.

Mare of Easttown (miniseries, HBO)

I love this format of a miniseries murder mystery like the original True Detective. The writing and acting of this show were both fantastic. Though like TD, the subject matter is dark and heavy. The show is full of twists and turns (maybe one too many by the end), though I still enjoyed the ride.

Sasquatch (miniseries, Hulu)

A true-crime docuseries about an investigative journalist looking into a case of three men murdered on a cannabis farm in 1993 who were claimed to have been killed by Bigfoot.

Surviving Death (season 1, Netflix)

This is a docuseries about people who claim to have had experiences of the afterlife. The first episode, about near-death experiences (NDE), and the last episode, about reincarnation, were highly intriguing, but the middle episodes about mediums (no pun intended) were not as good. The mediums seemed like charlatans, but the NDE and reincarnation evidence seemed irrefutable. I used to be much more skeptical of such supernatural claims, but now I don’t know what to make of them. At the very least, more research in this area is needed.

Dave (seasons 1&2, FXX/Hulu)

A hilarious comedy about a white Jewish dude in Los Angeles (aka Lil Dicky) trying to become a famous rapper. His sidekick Gata steals the show.

Rick and Morty (season 5, Adult Swim)

Not as good as earlier seasons, but still a fun sci-fi comedy.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (season 11, HBO)

Again, not as great as earlier seasons, and some of the situations feel a bit too contrived, but Larry David is still funny.

Love, Death & Robots (season 2, Netflix)

I continue to enjoy this anthology of animated short films based on short sci-fi stories. Some are hit or miss, but I’d love to see more. There are so many great short stories ripe for adaptation.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? (Season 1, Nickelodeon/Netflix)

I wasn’t expecting much from this reboot of the classic Nickelodeon series, but it was surprisingly decent. Though I would have preferred if it kept the half-hour anthology format of the original series, rather than a 3-part miniseries.

Dishonorable Mention:

Solar Opposites (season 1, Hulu)

Current Rick and Morty is a poor man’s version of early Rick and Morty, and Solar Opposites is a poor man’s version of current Rick and Morty.

Movies (alphabetical):

I already did my annual list of best movies 10+ years old, so this list is for the newer movies I watched and liked this past year (with brief mini-reviews).

  • 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot (#1 Will Blow Your Mind) (2019) – A mockumentary satirizing clickbait journalism, about a serious video journalist who is forced to investigate a Bigfoot sighting.
  • Alongside Night (2014) – This is not a good movie, but it’s somewhat entertaining to watch for fans of the book and philosophy just to see all the inside jokes and cameos, including Ron Paul.
  • The Block Island Sound (2020) – Lovecraftian sci-fi horror movie set in a sea town.
  • Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) – One of the best recent horror movies I’ve seen. A college student’s imaginary friend from childhood returns, and like Tyler Durden, tries to get him to do some morally questionable things.
  • The Dead Center (2018) – A gripping psychological horror movie starring the great Shane Carruth from Primer.
  • The Deep Ones (2020) – A decent low-budget Lovecraft adaptation–not a direct adaption but heavily influenced by his stories and mythology, both Innsmouth and Cthulhu. Being low budget, I can forgive the cheesy special effects for the monsters, but the soundtrack was equally cheesy and sounded very generic. The movie could have been much better with a better soundtrack.
  • Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself (2020) – A live recording of the stage show, which combines magic, storytelling, and performance art. A truly unique experience.
  • Dune (2021) – See my full post on Dune.
  • The Empty Man (2020) – I had been looking forward to this movie after seeing the writer/director David Prior’s short film (AM1200) last year. I knew Prior’s feature debut, whatever it was, would be something to watch. But I read the comic book beforehand and was not a huge fan, so my expectations dropped. Then I saw the movie and was blown away. The Empty Man is a masterpiece of cosmic horror; a cult movie in both senses of the term. The movie deviates vastly from the source material and is vastly better for it. Prior basically took a couple ideas and images from the comic but then created his own story and mythology for the movie, which is heavily influenced by Lovecraft. The opening prologue set in the Himalaya mountains is like a perfect self-contained short horror film in itself. A scene in the middle of the movie with the main character watching a cult perform a ritual around a fire by a lake in the woods is one of the most intense film scenes I’ve ever seen. And the ending will blow your mind. This ranks for me as one of the best cosmic horror movies ever made.
  • The Final Girls (2015) – A meta horror comedy about horror movie fans stuck inside an 80s slasher movie.
  • A Glitch in the Matrix (2021) – One of my favorite documentary filmmakers (Rodney Ascher) with a documentary about one of my favorite topics: the simulation theory. It focuses less on the science and philosophy and more on the personal stories of several people whose lives have been impacted (both positively and negatively) by the simulation theory.
  • Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) – I had low expectations for this action blockbuster, but it was surprisingly decent and included the “Hollow Earth” conspiracy theory.
  • The Green Inferno (2013) – A disturbing horror movie about environmental activists encountering a native tribe of cannibals deep in the Amazon jungle.
  • The Hunt (2020) – Maintains a subtle balance of not painting either side as entirely good or bad, as they are both somewhere in between.
  • In the Earth (2021) – A brutal pandemic horror set in the woods.
  • Intersect (2020) – Good premise—Lovecraftian time travel horror—but bad acting, writing, editing, music, and just about everything else. Disapointing.
  • Bo Burnam: Inside (2021) – Comedian/musician/filmmaker created this one-man show while locked down alone in quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The Kid Detective (2020) – This was way better than it may sound from the premise. A former kid detective now grown up and struggling in life takes on his first murder investigation. It is full of dark humor and is a really compelling mystery—reminiscent of Brick by Rian Johnson.
  • Krampus (2015) – A Christmas horror movie.
  • The Little Things (2021) – A crime thriller about a detective (Denzel Washington) trying to catch a serial killer, remeniscent of Se7en.
  • Low Tide (2019) – Really enjoyed this Stand By Me-type mystery thriller about teen boys from the Jersey Shore who find stolen pirate gold coins. I normally don’t mind ambiguous endings, but this felt too premature.
  • The Many Saints of Newark (2021) – A worthy addition to the Sopranos saga.
  • The Matrix Ressurections (2021) – I’d call this franchise reboot a disappointment except it was about what I had expected: a mediocre mish-mash of good and bad. At least the meta aspects were entertaining. The ultimate flaw of the Matrix sequels (including this one) is how they tell story through tedious talking head exposition scenes with no action, interspersed with long mindless action scenes with no story. The brilliance of the original Matrix movie was how it told story through action.
  • Missing 411 (2016) & Missing 411: The Hunted (2019) – Two documentaries about a series of bizarre missing persons cases that take place in remote wilderness areas throughout the country with various similarities between them. The films stick to the facts and don’t speculate—but others do, some suspecting Bigfoot, others alien UFOs.
  • Motherless Brooklyn (2019) – Jonathan Lethem’s book was much better.
  • My Octopus Teacher (2020) – Heart-warming documentary about a friendship a diver developed with an octopus over the course of a year.
  • Onward (2020) – A good Pixar movie.
  • Pilgrimage (2017) – Historical action drama about a group of monks attempting to transport a holy relic across medieval Ireland.
  • Possessor (2020) – Sci-fi horror thriller about secret agents who use brain chips to possess other people’s bodies to commit assassinations. Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Like father, like son. Be warned: it is gory.
  • Reminiscence (2021) – Had a great sci-fi concept, but not great execution.
  • The Rental (2020) – A group of friends discover hidden cameras at the AirBNB they’re staying at, then horror escalates from there.
  • Soul (2020) – A great Pixar movie.
  • Synchronic (2019) – A unique take on time travel (which is always welcome), in which a synthetic DMT-like drug sends you back in time.
  • Tenet (2020) – See my post on Tenet & Movies That Make You Think .ti dniwer uoy fi esnes sekam teneT
  • Voyagers (2021) – Lord of the Flies in space — somewhat entertaining, but I think their assumptions about human psychology and group dynamics are wrong.

Some new Youtube channels I discovered this year:

And some old favorites:

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