Backstage: The top films and TV shows of 2021
Written by Hitmix News on 24 December 2021
Another year of restrictions, lockdowns and limited live entertainment meant more heavy reliance on screens, and TV and film certainly delivered – despite productions having to adhere to new COVID protocols in order to keep cast and crews safe.
Once again, the team behind Sky News’ film and TV podcast Backstage has whipped out the calculators and used a fiendishly complicated points system, plus some healthy debate (listen to the latest episode to hear some of that) to come up with their picks of the best shows and films of the year.
The lists prove that there really is a wealth of great stuff being made – so if you’re wondering what to watch while isolating, while bored over the holidays, or just so you’re in the know come awards season, we’ve got you covered.
Starting with TV…
10. In My Skin series two – BBC iplayer
Image: Gabrielle Creevy as Bethan in In My Skin. Pic: Clémentine Schneidermann/ BBC
A touching and funny teen drama set in Wales, In My Skin is inspired by writer and executive producer Kayleigh Llewellyn’s own experiences. The new series sees lead Bethan, now in her final year at school, falling in love and planning to leave home while still trying to hide what goes on behind closed doors thanks to her violent father and her mum’s mental illness. Star Gabrielle Creevy is no doubt one to watch over the next couple of years, while This Is England’s Jo Hartley puts in a great performance as her mother. With only five bittersweet episodes per series, In My Skin is highly bingeable and well worth seeking out.
9. Wandavision – Disney +
Image: Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda/The Scarlet Witch in WandaVision. Pic: Marvel Studios
The first TV series set in the Marvel Universe turned out to be a real benchmark for others to live up to. Set just after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany return as Wanda Maximoff and Vision from the films, trying to figure out what’s going on when their surroundings start to change. A study of grief in the form of a sitcom, the show was perhaps a surprise to some coming from Marvel. While there are no plans for a second season it has led to a spin-off starring Kathryn Hahn in her role as Agatha Harkness.
8. Friends: The Reunion – Sky/HBO
Image: Friends: The Reunion saw the cast back together on screen for the first time in 17 years. Pic: Sky/ Warner Media/ HBO
The pandemic has had many of us desperate for a bit of comforting nostalgia, so the Friends reunion, despite taking ages to arrive after first being announced, was like seeing, well, an old friend. The special featured celeb guests, interviews and a return to the original set for all six main cast members, and they didn’t disappoint when it came to some new revelations – could Rachel and Ross’s real-life crushes BE any more thrilling for fans of the show? It was quickly announced as Sky One’s most viewed show ever, with 5.3 million people tuning in, so it’s no real surprise it’s secured a spot in our top 10.
7. Ted Lasso series two – Apple TV +
Image: Brendan Hunt, Jason Sudeikis and Nick Mohammed in Ted Lasso. Pic: Apple TV+
A somewhat maligned second series after the first one became a surprise mega-hit, some critics weren’t bowled over by the first few episodes of the season, which looked at Ted’s second season in charge at AFC Richmond. But with a new villain emerging, an insight into Ted’s psyche and so much heart we think the show is impossible to resist, it was still a brilliant series. Plus, it’s worth watching for Hannah Waddingham alone, if nothing else. A third – perhaps final – series is on its way, the popularity of the show perhaps proving that we all want to be inspired to “believe” by The Greyhounds.
6. The White Lotus – Sky/HBO
Image: Connie Britton as Nicole in The White Lotus. Pic: Sky UK/HBO
The White Lotus sees satire taking a trip to a tropical beach hotel, and series creator, writer and director Mike White pulls no punches whatsoever in his skewering of the residents and staff at the high-end resort where this show is set. Star Murray Bartlett – who was almost set to give up acting – plays the spiralling hotel manager whose guests are so disgracefully self-absorbed that it is almost uncomfortable viewing. Almost. This first series proved such a hit that it’s launched the show as an anthology, and we’ll see a whole new group of travellers heading to another hotel in the White Lotus chain next season.
5. Squid Game – Netflix
Image: Squid Game has been a huge hit. Pic: Netflix/Youngkyu Park
A TV phenomenon – what can we say about Squid Game that’s not already been said? The show about the class divide in South Korea, which sees people forced to play games for their lives in a bid to get themselves out of extreme poverty, Squid Game broke Netflix viewing figures and proved that television doesn’t have to be western to be a juggernaut of a hit. The compelling aesthetic and cliff-hanger episodes drew audiences in and kept them watching, and of course there’s now a follow-up in the works. This may not have been anyone’s favourite show of the year, and the ending may have left some a little cold, but its place on our list recognises the massive impact it had – a feat it’s not easy to pull off in a time when viewers are swamped with content.
4. Sex Education series three – Netflix
Image: Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn and Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong in the third season of Sex Education. Pic. Sam Taylor/ Netflix
The students of Moordale High returned for arguably the best series yet of the sex-positive teen drama. A refreshing look at teenagers, relationships, sexuality, and much more, this show manages to be very entertaining while quietly educating its viewers. The will-they/won’t-they relationship between main characters Maeve and Otis continues to simmer, but it’s really the side plots that tackle the more interesting issues. This series saw yet more characters introduced, including Girls star Jemima Kirke as the new uptight headmistress of the school, but manages to swap between stories without rushing too much. A teen drama that should be seen by all ages.
3. It’s A Sin – All 4
Image: Olly Alexander and Nathaniel J Hall in It’s A Sin. Pic: Channel 4
Water-cooler TV at it’s finest, It’s A Sin got everyone talking when it came out towards the start of 2021. The story of a group of young, gay, men and their female friend, set at the start of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, looked at how the disease, and people who caught it, were treated. Funny, heart-breaking and so well acted, the mini-series from Queer As Folk creator Russell T Davies is an absolute must watch. Years And Years star Olly Alexander proves he can act as well as sing in the lead role – and is now in the running for both Critics Choice and Independent Spirit awards in the US. The show also saw an upsurge in HIV testing, according to charity The Terrence Higgins Trust, and it broke All4 streaming records, too. Definitely worth a watch, or even a re-watch – TV like this doesn’t come round too often.
2. Succession series three – Sky/HBO
Image: Succession returned after a long wait for season three. Pic: Sky UK/ HBO
After Season two’s news conference cliffhanger, it felt like an age waiting to find out what had happened to the scheming Roys. Season three didn’t disappoint. The double-dealing was even more ruthless, the put-downs more cutting. We had Kendall’s wild attempts to bring his dad down, Shiv’s willingness to resort to any means necessary to stop him, Connor’s bid for the American presidency and Roman’s negotiating skills finally winning him his father’s respect… until he accidentally sent that picture. Cousin Greg and Tom’s oddly touching friendship came to the fore and along the way we met Scandinavian tech giants and senators – and learned why you just can’t bet against Logan Roy. Nine episodes came and went in a flash, ending with a wedding in Italy and yet another cliffhanger. Distracted by a finale packed with backstabbing, it was impossible to predict who’d be walk away holding the knife. So funny, brilliantly written, just glorious TV.
1. Mare Of Easttown – Sky/HBO
Image: Kate Winslet stars in Mare Of Easttown. Pic: Sky UK/HBO
Kate Winslet told Sky News that the eponymous Mare was her “most challenging role ever” and goes all out for her performance as the small-town detective battling her own demons while trying to solve a murder – in a community where everybody knows everybody and yet somehow, there are still so many secrets. An acting masterclass – not just from Winslet but from the supporting cast as well – this is a drama with a difference, where the twists and turns keep coming and yet nothing seems far-fetched. A worthy winner of our list, Mare Of Easttown has already won a whole host of awards and is nominated for more in the upcoming season. With so much success it seems likely a second series will be on its way – though nothing has been confirmed just yet, but the first is so good you may as well watch it twice – or three, or four times…
Subscribe to the Backstage podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker
And now films…
10. Framing Britney Spears – Sky Documentaries
Image: Framing Britney Spears highlighted the problems with the stars conservatorship to the world. Pic: FX Networks
The #FreeBritney movement was already working hard when this documentary came out, but arguably this film really thrust the singer’s plight into public consciousness in a way that it hadn’t been before. A look at the pop superstar and the unusual legal arrangement she’d been under for years, Framing Britney Spears explained how she’d come to be under a conservatorship. We know from the star’s Instagram that she perhaps wasn’t happy with certain aspects of the film, but with its release came a wave of public support for the star – and renewed media interest in the legal arrangement. She’s subsequently been freed from the agreement, making the documentary dated already, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer worth watching.
9. The Harder They Fall – Netflix
Image: Idris Elba plays Rufus Buck in The Harder They Fall. Pic: Netflix
A whip-smart cowboy movie with an all-black cast from director Jeymes Samuel, this is a Western even for those who don’t like Westerns. Idris Elba, Regina King, Jonathan Majors and Zazie Beetz are among the starry and stylish cast playing two rival gangs, with characters based on real cowboys, lawmen and outlaws who lived in the west of America in the 19th Century. With Jay-Z on board as a producer it’s no surprise that the film’s soundtrack is an absolute knock-out and as a feature film debut from Samuel, it makes him one to watch.
8. House Of Gucci – cinemas
Image: Lady Gaga stars as Patrizia Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s House Of Gucci. Pic: MGM
“Our name, Sweetie” – Lady Gaga puts her heart, soul and months of accent work in to her performance as Patrizia Reggiani, the woman who married into the family behind the fashion house, separated from her husband Maurizio Gucci, and went on to hire a hitman to kill him. Adam Driver, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto in heavy prosthetics also star in the drama – and we mean DRAMA – but it’s Gaga who steals the show, and might even steal an Oscar nomination, too. At more than two-and-a-half hours, director Ridley Scott takes his time telling the story but it’s impossible not to enjoy the ride the film takes you on – worth watching for its fashion if nothing else.
7. CODA – Apple TV+
Image: Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant in CODA. Pic: Apple TV+
A gorgeous coming-of-age tale about a teenager who is the only hearing member of her family. She has to decide whether to pursue her own dreams of singing or to stay at home and help her family, as often their only means of communication with the outside world. Beautifully acted, with much of the dialogue in sign language, the film sold for a record amount after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. While Emilia Jones is absolutely brilliant in the lead role, it’s the supporting performances from Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin that really make this film special.
6. The Rescue – National Geographic via Disney +
Image: The Rescue chronicles the 2018 rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach. Pic: National Geographic
The rescue of the young Thai football team who got trapped in a cave by rising rain water was a huge news story when it happened. Now this documentary looks at exactly how they were rescued and who and what was involved; despite us all knowing the ending, it still manages to be hugely emotive. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin – who previously did Free Solo – use previously unseen footage, interviews and news clips to keep up the tension, while looking at the extraordinary story of how a couple of hobbyists were ultimately the ones who came up with the only workable plan to get the boys out. This fascinating film is bound to be on shortlists for best documentary come awards season.
5. West Side Story – cinemas
Image: Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony in West Side Story. Pic: 20th Century Studios
Perhaps it’s no surprise that mixing legendary director Steven Spielberg with one of the most iconic musicals of all time would bring great results, and this new adaptation of West Side Story certainly does not disappoint. An authentic re-telling of the 1957 play, Spielberg spent a year doing open casting calls to find the right people to play the Jets and the Sharks – righting some of the casting wrongs of the past, and making an instant star of Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria. It looks great, sounds great and justifies every second of its two-and-a-half hour running time.
4. No Time To Die – cinemas
Image: Daniel Craig was Bond for the last time in No Time To Die. Pic: Nicola Dove/ DANJAQ/LLC/ MGM
After multiple delays to its release thanks to the pandemic it’s hard to imagine anything being able to live up to the hype of the 25th Bond film, but incredibly No Time To Die managed it. Secrecy surrounded the film right up until its release, with no early screenings for press or critics, and once you’ve watched it you realise why the makers were keen to avoid spoilers. Daniel Craig seems to be enjoying his final time playing the spy and there’s a brilliant supporting cast – both new and returning – including a genuinely sinister baddie, played by Rami Malek. Plus you’ve got car chases galore, gadgets, and a bit of family drama thrown in to boot. A great addition to the franchise – it was worth the wait.
3. Sound Of Metal – Amazon Prime Video
Image: Riz Ahmed in Sound Of Metal. Pic: Amazon Studios
While Sound Of Metal may have been on many US lists of the best films of last year, it’s UK release date means it qualifies for us this year, and it is clearly a favourite among the Backstage team. Riz Ahmed’s performance as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing saw him learning to drum and learning ASL for the role. It’s a film that stays with you – and it’s not just us who loved it: Sound Of Metal was nominated for six Academy Awards last year – winning two, for best sound and best film editing.
2. Dune – cinemas
Image: Zendaya as Chani and Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune. Pic: Warner Bros/ Legendary Pictures
Denis Villeneuve’s star-studded sci-fi turned out to be just the first part of his vision, but it certainly left us wanting more. Beautiful, sweeping cinematography and a story that takes its time made Dune the perfect film to enjoy in newly re-opened cinemas this summer. It follows Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides as his family and their people are sent to the inhospitable planet of Arrakis. Rebecca Ferguson puts in a brilliant performance as his mother, and while Zendaya doesn’t get much screen time she’s magnetic when she’s there. Since its release a sequel has been confirmed but we’ve got a bit of a wait on our hands – it’s currently scheduled for October 2023.
1. Promising Young Woman – Sky Cinema/ NOW
Image: Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Pic: Focus Features/Sky Cinema
Carey Mulligan is perfectly cast as a woman out for revenge in this hugely clever, dark tale from Emerald Fennell. The takeaway is that even “nice guys” can be not so nice, and perhaps was particularly resonant in a year that saw female safety propelled into national conversation. While some are divided about the ending, there’s no doubt that Promising Young Woman will stay with you – it’s a film you’ll recommend to other people and is well deserving of the top spot.
To hear more on our lists – and some thoughts about what should have made it but didn’t – check out the latest episode of Backstage, the film and TV podcast from Sky News