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The Morning Dispatch: Our Favorite Movies, TV, and Music of 2021
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The Morning Dispatch: Our Favorite Movies, TV, and Music of 2021

Spider-Man, Succession, Ted Lasso, Donda, and more.

Happy Thursday! Today’s will be the final TMD of the week, and as it turns out, of 2021! We hope you have an enjoyable and safe New Year’s Eve, and we’re so excited for all the ways The Dispatch—and this community—will continue to improve and grow in 2022. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Another pro-democracy media outlet in Hong Kong, Stand News, is shutting down after national security police arrested seven people associated with the news site in a pre-dawn raid for “conspiracy to publish seditious content.”

  • One day after Russia’s Supreme Court claimed Memorial International neglected to identify itself as a foreign agent and ordered the human rights organization to liquidate, a Moscow court ordered its sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, to close as well.

  • The National Security Council announced Wednesday President Joe Biden will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin today “at the request of the Russian side” to discuss upcoming diplomatic negotiations on Ukraine and NATO. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday and “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.”

  • A Manhattan jury has convicted Ghislaine Maxwell—longtime Jeffrey Epstein accomplice—on five of six charges against her, including sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to transport a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. Prosecutors alleged Maxwell had received payments from Epstein in exchange for her grooming and luring teenage girls for him.

TMD’s Best of 2021

In a whole bunch of ways, 2021 was a disappointment. The pandemic isn’t over. Political polarization didn’t magically disappear with the end of the 2020 election. But after a herky-jerky 2020, a lot of great movies, TV shows, and albums were released this year. Here’s what we recommend:

Our Favorite Movies of 2021

Alec Dent

  1. Licorice Pizza

  2. Little Fish

  3. King Richard

  4. The Last Duel

  5. The Harder They Fall

Lots of directors can make movies, but only the best know how to make cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those directors—his film The Phantom Thread may very well be the most gorgeous movies of the 2010s—and his latest picture, Licorice Pizza, is storytelling in movie form at its best. The film follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) a teenage hustler in 1970s Los Angeles who strikes up an unlikely friendship with 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) on whom he harbors a crush. Beautifully shot, stunningly well-acted, and sharply written, it takes one of the most bizarre premises for a coming of age story I’ve ever heard and makes it work.

Audrey Fahlberg

  1. Don’t Look Up

  2. No Time to Die

  3. Nightmare Alley

Two scientists, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), discover that the human species has six months until a 9-kilometer comet collides with Earth and causes an extinction-level event. Upon learning the news, the president of the United States (Meryl Streep) decides that the fast-approaching midterm elections are a more pressing concern. The two scientists’ solution? Begin a media tour to try to convince the American public that the planet-destroying comet isn’t a hoax. Released in the middle of a pandemic, Adam McKay’s dark satire about the dangers of misinformation, partisan politics, and media obsession is the perfect movie for our times. And with its star-studded cast—DiCaprio as a nerdy scientist, Cate Blanchett as a shallow Barbie doll newscaster, Timothée Chalamet as a religious skateboarder—what’s not to love? 

Ryan Brown

  1. No Time to Die

  2. The Unforgivable 

  3. Spider-Man: No Way Home

  4. Tick, Tick, … Boom!

  5. The Beatles: Get Back

So apparently I’m in the minority after having talked with friends and family who also saw the new James Bond movie this year, but I loved it. I’ll try not to spoil anything here, but as sad as the ending was, I thought it was the only way to end the Daniel Craig era of the iconic movie series. Now, I just can’t wait to see who the new Bond will be!

Charlotte Lawson

  1. Jungle Cruise

  2. The Lost Leonardo 

  3. We Ate Cicadas So You Don’t Have To (a short film)

  4. The Beatles: Get Back

  5. Queen Bees

I’m not a big movie-goer, but on the rare occasion I do get to the theater it’s for something action-packed and entertaining. Disney’s Jungle Cruise delivers on both fronts, bringing an iconic Disney theme park ride to life with impressive special effects and a surprisingly intricate plot line. The film is capped off with a romance between Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Emily Blunt—an odd but effective pairing. 

Declan Garvey

  1. Spider-Man: No Way Home

  2. The French Dispatch

  3. Judas and the Black Messiah

  4. Belfast

  5. Soul (released on December 25, 2020, sue me)

  6. The Beatles: Get Back

Off the bat, I fully expect every movie on my list to shift down a spot once I finally see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza this weekend. But it is so, so rare for something as anticipated as Spider-Man: No Way Home to actually live up to the hype that I had to make it my No. 1. I’m not going to spoil it—though I could’ve, keep your head on a swivel!—but there’s a reason it’s the first movie to earn more than $1 billion globally since 2019. It’s not perfect—there are some plot holes and underdeveloped characters—but it’s the most fun 2 hours and 28 minutes I’ve had in 2021 (besides shooting an apple cannon last month). Go see it.

Haley Byrd Wilt

  1. Dune

Dune was good.

Our Favorite TV Shows of 2021

Alec Dent

  1. Only Murders in the Building

  2. Search Party

  3. Impeachment: American Crime Story

  4. Mythic Quest

  5. Ted Lasso

Only Murders in the Building has got a lot going for it: Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as the leads, luxury apartments in New York City in the fall as a setting, and a sharp script that satirizes the true-crime craze while also creating a genuinely fascinating mystery. It’s funny, it’s riveting, it’s available to binge on Hulu, and I envy you if you watch it for the first time that way—it’s the type of show where waiting for weekly episodes was hard. Waiting for Season 2 right now is a challenge of its own. 

Audrey Fahlberg

  1. Scenes From a Marriage

  2. Maid

  3. The White Lotus

I don’t watch very much TV, but when I do, I want it to be a drama. Hagai Levi’s Scenes From a Marriage fits the bill. A stunning modern adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish miniseries of the same name, the five-episode series tracks the crumbling marriage between Mira (Jessica Chastain), a successful workaholic in the tech industry, and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac), a philosophy professor at Tufts. For those who love dramatic deep dives into what makes relationships tick and what makes them disintegrate, this series is a must-watch.

Ryan Brown

  1. Ted Lasso

  2. Succession

  3. Only Murders in the Building 

  4. DopeSick

  5. Pretend it’s a City with Fran Leibowitz 

I know it sounds cliche: A white guy from the Midwest loves Ted Lasso. But, this white guy from the Midwest LOVES Ted Lasso. The first season just made you feel warm and fuzzy, and this season had that, too, but delved into deeper issues with all of the characters. Ted Lasso deals with important, human issues in a fun, heartfelt way. And until it stops doing that it will always be my favorite.

Charlotte Lawson

  1. Emily in Paris

  2. This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist

  3. You, Season Three

  4. 1883

  5. Squid Game

The second season of Netflix’s Emily in Paris kicks off not in Paris but in Saint-Tropez, where our protagonist and her girlfriends enjoy a sun-soaked week of yacht sailing and wine drinking. Like the show’s first season, the 10-part series embraces its own ridiculousness, offering a self-aware portrait of how Europeans view Americans abroad. Bonus: stunning shots of France and outfit inspiration from Emily’s seemingly-endless wardrobe. 

Declan Garvey

  1. Succession

  2. I Think You Should Leave

  3. Loki/Hawkeye

  4. Curb Your Enthusiasm

  5. Mare of Easttown

  6. Bo Burnham: Inside

  7. Ted Lasso

At the ripe age of 26, I’m the oldest person here at TMD—and one of the only ones who remembers life before streaming. And I think that’s part of why I like Succession so much: It airs only one episode a week, on Sunday nights, and has managed to revive the TV monoculture—at least in part. You have to watch it when it first airs to avoid having it spoiled for you online or around the watercooler on Monday, and the anticipation that builds between episodes is part of its allure. Plus, the casting and writing and acting and directing is fantastic, etc.

Our Favorite Albums of 2021

Alec Dent

  1. Half Drunk Under a Full Moon by the Fratellis

  2. Harmony House by Dayglow

  3. Blue Banisters by Lana Del Rey

  4. Donda by Kanye

  5. I Know I’m Funny haha by Faye Webster

The Fratellis’ first hit was their 2006 indie garage rock song “Chelsea Dagger.” That they can come along 15 years later with an album that’s just as good—maybe even better?—but has a completely different style is a testament to the band’s brilliance. Gone is the rough rock sound of the mid-2000s; in Half Drunk Under a Full Moon the Fratellis incorporate elements of classical music infused with an indie pop sensibility. Lush strings, heavy brass, and a quirky harpsichord come together in a gorgeous 10-track album with standouts “Action Replay,” “Need a Little Love,” and “Six Days in June.” 

Audrey Fahlberg

  1. Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

  2. Chemtrails Over the Country Club by Lana del Rey

  3. Blue Banisters by Lana Del Rey

  4. The Untourable Album by Men I Trust

  5. Donda by Kanye West

Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever is a striking coming of age album about love, loss, and finding purpose in a media-obsessed generation. The album’s best song, “my future,” is a perfect distillation of the album, featuring these extraordinary lyrics: “I know supposedly I’m lonely now / Know I’m supposed to be unhappy without someone / But aren’t I someone?”

Ryan Brown

  1. Home from Home by the High Kings

  2. Sob Rock by John Mayer 

  3. Into the Mystery by NEEDTOBREATHE

  4. 30 by Adele

  5. Merry Christmas (Single) by Elton John & Ed Sheeran

This year had lots of great music, most of which you’ve probably heard about. That’s why my No. 1 is something you probably have not heard before. The High Kinds are a fantastic Irish folk group that has been bringing Irish folk music to a younger audience for years now, and this year’s album is a simple, pared-down version of some of the absolute best Irish songs out there. If you like Irish music at all, this is well worth your time.

Charlotte Lawson

  1. Let It Be (Super Deluxe) by the Beatles

  2. Harmony House by Dayglow

  3. The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980–1985 by Bob Dylan 

  4. Donda by Kanye West

  5. No Choice by Tame Impala

What can I say? “Let It Be” is the perfect album (though it has long been the subject of heated debates among the Beatles’ most devoted fans). In honor of its 50th anniversary earlier this year, Universal Music Group re-released the original 12 songs along with remixes and several bonus tracks. As always, they’re worth a listen. 

Declan Garvey

  1. How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine

  2. Donda by Kanye West

  3. star-crossed by Kacey Musgraves

  4. Quietly Blowing It by Hiss Golden Messenger

  5. Signs of Life by Foy Vance

  6. Call Me If You Get Lost by Tyler, the Creator

  7. An Evening with Silk Sonic by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak

  8. Valentine by Snail Mail

  9. I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs

Kanye West’s Donda is actually my favorite album of the year, but I’ve already written far too much about that. Big Red Machine, formed in 2018, is a collaborative effort between Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of the National—two of the best indie folk artists around. There have been plenty of excellent musical supergroups—the Traveling Wilburys, the Postal Service, Run the Jewels, boygenius, Kids See Ghosts—but Big Red Machine may be the best of the bunch. To get a sense of their sound, Vernon and Dessner were two of the biggest collaborators on Taylor Swift’s Folklore and evermore—and she returns the favor by lending vocals to two songs on their album.

Worth Your Time

  • Back in September, Los Angeles Unified—the second-largest school district in the country—announced a fairly comprehensive vaccine mandate for students set to go into effect on January 10. But earlier this month—faced with the prospect of barring more than 30,000 students from classrooms—the school board punted the decision several months down the road. For Politico, Jessica Calefati explores what happens when good intentions bump up against reality. “Other U.S. districts in blue states are scaling back previous student mandate ideas, too,” she writes. “School leaders in Portland, Ore., tabled discussion this fall amid vigorous pushback, while New York and Chicago have taken a wait-and-see approach. Not only are they wary of mandate critics, but they also question whether they should impose a requirement before the Food and Drug Administration fully approves vaccines for their students—a threshold Los Angeles Unified didn’t wait for. … One problem Los Angeles Unified faced as it weighed whether to impose its vaccine requirement for students is the disproportionate impact the move would have had on Black and Latino children. Only 60 percent of Black Los Angeles County residents 12 and up have gotten at least one dose. The vaccination rate among the county’s Latino residents 12 and up is 68 percent. The mandate requirement would have disproportionately moved students of color off campus.”

  • In The Athletic, sports broadcaster Joe Buck pens a tribute to John Madden, who passed away this week at the age of 85. “At his core, he was always the teacher, and for decades players, other broadcasters and viewers were his students. If you loved watching football, John Madden was your teacher. He had a booming voice and an infectious laugh. Those were the tools he used in his classroom every Sunday afternoon or Monday night,” Buck writes. “He loved the game, and he wanted you to love it too. What better way to make that happen than by highlighting the individual and his quirks and how he fit into the larger structure of the team. He was an ‘everyman,’ and despite the enormous salary he was making to call the games, he came off as the guy on the couch or barstool next to you just enjoying the action while ‘talking ball.’”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Scott Lincicome railed against the bureaucratic failures that have left the U.S. behind the curve on COVID rapid tests back in September. He uses the year-end edition of Capitolism  to remind us that he told us so, but he also looks at all the other ways the government hampered our pandemic response. “It seems clearer that a system with far (far) less government involvement, while surely messy and chaotic at times, would’ve produced far better results than what we’re experiencing today (which is, by the way, also quite messy and chaotic!),” he writes. 

Let Us Know

You just read about our favorite movies, TV shows, and albums of 2021. What are yours?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).