Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.
At this time of year, practically every outlet – from dying newspapers to new social media channels – churns out list upon list of the best entertainment products of the year. The top threes, top fives, top tens and more of 2021 abound! I have something similar in the pipeline, but today I wanted to take a look back at a handful of films, games, and TV shows from previous years that I found myself enjoying in 2021.
I have long and seemingly ever-growing lists of films, games, and TV shows that I keep meaning to get around to! I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad, for example, nor played The Witcher 3, despite the critical and commercial acclaim they’ve enjoyed! I also have a huge number of entertainment properties that I keep meaning to re-visit, some of which I haven’t seen since we wrote years beginning with “1.” In 2021 I got around to checking out a few titles from both of these categories, and since there are some that I haven’t discussed I thought the festive season would be a great opportunity for a bit of positivity and to share some of my personal favourite entertainment experiences of 2021… even though they weren’t brand-new!
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)
We’ve recently marked the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. The passage of time has done nothing to detract from these amazing films, and this year a 4K Blu-Ray release has them looking better than ever before.
The early 2000s had some serious pitfalls for film and television. CGI was becoming more mainstream and many filmmakers sought to take advantage of it, but just look to the Star Wars prequels and how outdated the CGI in those titles is; it hasn’t held up well at all. The majority of the special effects in The Lord of the Rings were practical, and combined with clever cinematography even incredibly dense and complex battle sequences still look fantastic two decades on.
Though I don’t re-watch The Lord of the Rings every single year without fail, I’m happy to return to the trilogy time and again – and I almost certainly will be for the rest of my days! The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Middle-earth was one of the first fantasy worlds I encountered as a young child; I can vaguely remember the book being read to me when I was very small. The conventional wisdom for years was that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable – but Peter Jackson proved that wrong in some style!
Despicable Me (2010)
I spotted this while browsing Netflix one evening, and despite having seen at least one film with the Minions, I hadn’t actually seen the title that started it all. I have to confess that I didn’t have particularly high expectations, thinking I was in for a bog-standard animated comedy. But Despicable Me has heart, and there were some genuinely emotional moments hidden inside.
The Minions got most of the attention in the aftermath of Despicable Me, and can now be found on everything from memes to greetings cards! The critters are cute, but they’re also somewhat limited – and I think it’s for that reason that I didn’t really expect too much from Despicable Me except for maybe a few laughs and a way to kill an empty evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a much more substantial film than I’d been expecting.
There were still plenty of laughs and a ton of cartoon silliness to enjoy and to keep the tone light-hearted. But there was a surprisingly emotional story between the villainous Gru and the three children he adopts – especially Margo, the eldest. I can finally understand why the film has spawned four sequels, fifteen shorts, and a whole range of merchandise!
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
The Final Frontier has a number of issues that I’m sure most of you will be aware of. It arguably suffered from a little too much involvement from William Shatner, who sought to put Captain Kirk at the centre of the story at the expense of others. But The Final Frontier has some truly great character moments, including one of the final times that Kirk, Spock, and Dr McCoy would be together before The Undiscovered Country brought an end to Star Trek’s original era.
The film has some truly funny moments, too: the scene where Uhura catches Chekov and Sulu pretending to be caught in a storm being one, and Scotty’s moment of slapstick being another that never fails to win a chuckle. The Undiscovered Country was a great send-off for Star Trek’s original crew, but it was quite a heavy film with a lot of tense moments and high-octane action. The Final Frontier brings more light-hearted moments to the table, and that’s something I can appreciate when I’m in the right mood.
There are some exciting sequences too, though. The shuttle crash is a very tense and dramatic moment, and the final confrontation with the entity at the centre of the galaxy, while silly in some respects, does succeed at hitting at least some of those same dramatic highs. Though I wouldn’t suggest that The Final Frontier is anywhere near the best that Star Trek has to offer, it’s well worth a watch from time to time.
Though hardly an “old” game, I missed Control when it was released in 2019. It had been on my list for a couple of years, and I was pleased to finally get around to playing it this year. The game had a far creepier atmosphere than I’d been expecting, with protagonist Jesse having to battle an unseen enemy called the Hiss.
One thing I really admire about Control is the way it made incredibly creative use of some fairly plain environments. The entire game takes place in what’s essentially a glorified office building, and rows of cubicles or the janitor’s workspace could, in other games, come across as feeling bland and uninspired. But Control leans into this, using the environments as a strength, juxtaposing them with incredibly weird goings-on at the Bureau of Control.
I also liked that, for the first time in years, we got full-motion video sequences in a game! FMV was a fad in gaming in the early/mid-1990s I guess, primarily on PC, and titles like Command and Conquer and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy made use of it. It had been years since I played a game with FMV elements, and it worked exceptionally well in Control – as well as being a completely unexpected blast of nostalgia!
Super Mario 64 (1996)
Despite the serious limitations of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch, which I picked up last year, I can’t deny that it’s been fun to return to Super Mario 64. One of the first fully 3D games I ever played, Super Mario 64 felt like the future in the late ’90s, and even some titles released this year, such as Kena: Bridge of Spirits, owe parts of their 3D platforming to the pioneering work that Nintendo did with this game.
Super Mario 64 is and always has been good, solid fun. There doesn’t need to be an in-depth, complex story driving Mario forward to collect stars, because the game’s levels and bosses are all so incredibly cleverly-designed. Jumping in and out of different painting worlds is relatively quick and feels great, and the sheer diversity of environments is still noteworthy in 2021. Mario goes on a journey that takes him through snowy mountains, a sunken shipwreck, sunlit plains, cities, clouds, and more.
I can’t in good conscience recommend Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The way these games have been adapted for Nintendo Switch isn’t worth the asking price. But even so, going back to Super Mario 64 has been one of my favourite parts of 2021, a chance to reconnect with a game I played and loved on the Nintendo 64. If you’ve never played it, track down a copy and give it a go. You won’t regret it.
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)
I’d been meaning to get around to Red Dead Redemption II for three years – but I’d always found a reason not to pick it up (usually it was too expensive!) It took forever to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but it was well worth the wait. I’ve had a fascination with America in the 19th Century for as long as I can remember – I guess partly inspired by playground games of “the wild west” that were fairly common when I was young. I even had a cowboy hat, toy gun, and “Davy Crockett” hat when I was a kid!
Red Dead Redemption II transported me to that world in a way that I genuinely did not think was possible. Films and TV shows can do a great job at pulling you in and getting you lost in a fictional world, but the interactive element of video games can add to that immersion – something that was absolutely the case with Red Dead Redemption II. The amount of detail in the game’s characters and open-world environments is staggering, and having finally experienced it for myself I can absolutely understand why people hail this game as a “masterpiece.”
I wasn’t prepared for the many emotional gut-punches that Red Dead Redemption II had in store. In many ways the game tells a bleak and even depressing story, one with betrayal, death, and many examples of the absolute worst of humanity. But every once in a while there are some incredibly beautiful moments too, where characters sit together, sing, play, and revel in their bonds of friendship. Red Dead Redemption II gave me the wild west outlaw fantasy that my younger self could have only dreamed of!
TV series #1:
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69)
I’ve re-watched quite a lot of The Original Series this year, probably more episodes than I’d seen in the past few years. Because of its episodic nature, it’s easy to dip in and out of The Original Series, firing up an episode or two to spend an hour with Captain Kirk and the crew without feeling the need to commit to an entire season of television.
The Original Series started it all for Trekkies, and I’m always so pleased to see that modern Star Trek hasn’t lost sight of that. In this year’s episodes of Lower Decks and Discovery we’ve gotten many references and callbacks to Star Trek’s first series, keeping the show alive and relevant as we celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary – and the centenary of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.
Though dated in some ways, many of the themes and metaphors present in The Original Series are still relevant today. Society has changed since the 1960s, but in some areas we’re still fighting the same or similar fights for acceptance, for equality, and so on. The Star Trek franchise has always had a lot to say about that, being in some ways a mirror of society and in others depicting a vision of a more enlightened, optimistic future.
TV series #2:
I went back to re-watch Fortitude this year, for the first time since its original run. The series starts very slowly, seeming at first to be little more than a murder-mystery in a different setting. But it builds up over the course of its first season into something truly unexpected, crossing over into moments of political thriller, action, and even horror.
There are some truly shocking and gruesome moments in Fortitude, and it can be a harrowing watch in places. But it’s riveting at the same time, and I managed to get hooked all over again by the complex characters, the mysteries and conspiracies, and the bleak but beautiful arctic environment.
Fortitude featured some star names among its cast, including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, and Dennis Quaid – the second-most-famous Dennis to be featured on this website! Although it was fun to watch it weekly during its original run, Fortitude is definitely a show that can be enjoyed on a binge!
TV series #3:
Family Guy (1999-Present)
Family Guy’s sense of humour sometimes runs aground for me, dragging out jokes too long or failing to pay off neat setups with decent punchlines. But with the full series (up to midway through Season 20 at time of writing) available on Disney+, I’ve found myself putting it on in the background a lot this year. The short runtime of episodes, the lightheartedness, and the way many of the jokes are often disconnected from whatever nonsense plot the episodes have going on all come together to make it something I can dip in and out of while doing other things.
There are some insensitive jokes, and some entire storylines in earlier episodes have aged rather poorly. But Family Guy seldom strikes me as a show punching down; it satirises and pokes fun at many different groups. In that sense it’s kind of halfway between The Simpsons and South Park; the former being more sanitised and family-friendly, the latter being edgier and meaner.
I rarely sit down and think “gosh, I must watch the latest Family Guy episode.” But if I’m in need of background noise or something to fill up twenty minutes, I find I’ll happily log into Disney+ and put on an episode or two.
So that’s it.
There have been some great films, games, and television shows that were released in 2021. But there were also plenty of entertainment experiences from years past that, in different ways, brightened my year. As we gear up for New Year and for everyone’s end-of-year top-ten lists, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that.
I hope you had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or just a relaxing day yesterday! I did consider writing something to mark the day, but I found that I had remarkably little to say that was different from the piece I wrote last year. 2021 has been “2020 II” in so many respects, unfortunately. However, unlike last Christmas I will be able to visit with some family members – I’ll be seeing my sister and brother-in-law later this week, which will be a nice treat! So here’s to 2021’s entertainment experiences – and as we enter the new year, it’s worth keeping in mind that we don’t only have to watch and play the latest and newest ones!
All titles on the list above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, developer, network, publisher, studio, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.