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Pop Culture Happy Hour team points out 2021's best films and TV shows

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The end of the year means we're looking back on the best film and TV of 2021, and few people here at NPR spend more time thinking about those things than the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. That's why they're here to talk about their favorite movies and shows of the year, so you hear how that connection works. First off is Glen Weldon. Glen, welcome.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, thanks for being here.

MARTINEZ: Aisha Harris is next. Hello, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTINEZ: And Linda Holmes. Hello, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Hello. Thanks for having me.

MARTINEZ: All right, I want to start off with movies this year. Aisha, let's start us off. What's a movie that you recommend?

HARRIS: Well, I would love to recommend "Zola." There have been many movies made out of the thinnest of threads - board games, poems, you name it. But this had very much a challenge ahead of itself where it was going to take a viral Twitter thread from a woman named Zola who told this really wild story about meeting a woman and going on an impromptu road trip with her, without even knowing her, to go make money dancing. And it turns into this, like, high jinks of robbery - attempted robberies and pimps, and it's a wild, wild story. And it's directed by Janicza Bravo and co-written with Jeremy O. Harris, who you might be familiar with from the play "Slave Play." And I just think it's a really, really fascinating road trip movie. It takes the language of social media and makes it visual in a way that - I've never seen anything quite like this movie before.

MARTINEZ: Let's go to Glen. Glen, what do you recommend?

WELDON: Well, again, "The Power Of The Dog" - I've talked about this film with you before, A. I keep talking about it. It is my favorite film of the year. It's a Jane Campion film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst. Cumberbatch plays this cattle rancher who is so consumed with self-loathing that he just makes the lives of everyone around him miserable. Sounds fun, but it's really a breathtakingly beautiful film about ugliness. And it's a film that really rewards a second viewing because that's when you start to see how it all connects, how it all comes together.

And on that second viewing - and on that first viewing - keep your eye on Kodi Smit-McPhee. He plays a kid that Cumberbatch's character torments. The kid's a relative newcomer, but he ends up carrying so much of the weight of this film. It's a great film. It's in theaters, and it's also on Netflix.

MARTINEZ: Now, one I want to make sure that we talk about is "Summer Of Soul," the Questlove documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. I know a couple of you loved it. Linda, it was on your list of favorites. Why was it so good?

HOLMES: This is a movie that really made me feel great. As you said, it's a documentary showing, you know, parts of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. You'll see musicians - Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson with Mavis Staples. It's a beautiful document that Questlove put together. But it's also, I think, a great example of taking a lot of different kinds of music - older musicians, younger musicians. You know, you've got these really important gospel and R&B performers. You've got The 5th Dimension, which, at the time, was sort of coming up as a - more of a pop group. And he has some of these artists go and look back on the footage of this festival, and I just found it vibrant, exciting. It's great music. They're great performances. It's a wonderful feeling, just sitting down to enjoy this film, I think.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, you guys all see more TV and movies than probably most folks listening. So what did you see that maybe didn't get the recognition that it should have? Glen.

WELDON: Well, "We Are Lady Parts" - it's on Peacock, so maybe that's why not enough people saw it. But this is a British sitcom about an up-and-coming punk band in London. All of its members are young Muslim women from very different backgrounds, very different sensibilities, who recruit a shy and kind of nerdy microbiology Ph.D. student as their lead guitarist. And she keeps trying to keep her life in the band separate from her life with her friends and family.

This is, at first, a very broadly funny show. There's lots of good, solid jokes, and the band's songs are both hilarious and really kind of bangers. But it leaves room for real nuance and exploration. It shows that these young women can be irreverent. They can even be horny but still devout. It's not that any of these women are rejecting their faith. But instead, as you watch the show, you watch them navigating it, and that's just a lot more interesting. It's a lot more real. And it really shouldn't come as the revelation that it does, but, you know, here we are - it's just six episodes. God bless the Brits, A. They know what they're doing. And there is a new season coming. I just think a lot more people need to see it. That's "We Are Lady Parts" on Peacock.

MARTINEZ: Aisha, what about you?

HARRIS: Well, I cannot stop evangelizing about "South Side," which originally had its first season on Comedy Central a couple of years ago and then got picked up by HBO Max. And so the second season aired this fall. And it is a show that is set on the South Side of Chicago. It is very much an ensemble show where you have all of these people who are connected in some way. Two of the main characters work for a rental company - a rent-to-own company - and so half of the show is about them trying to get back products that were rented by these weird characters within the South Side of Chicago. And then the other two characters - main characters - are cops. And this has one of the sharpest critiques I've seen on TV of policing, but it does so without being too preachy. I think they've - the creators have described it as sort of, like, "The Simpsons" but with Black people and live action, and I think that's a pretty good description of it. And it is just fun and weird and also really interesting cultural commentary.

MARTINEZ: All right, Linda, you get the last word.

HOLMES: Oh, that's amazing because I want to talk about the movie "Plan B," which is available on Hulu. It's a high-wire act which balances an out-all-night comedy about two high school friends who have to go sort of on one of these adventures where you're going to different places and people are chasing you and all kinds of crazy, wacky things are happening. But the balance is that the reason why they're doing this is that one of these two friends - their names are Sunny and Lupe. Sunny has had a very unsatisfying first sexual experience that also involved a birth control mishap. So she's looking for a Plan B pill.

And so it has this incredibly significant and loaded backdrop and this kind of wild comedy, and it's such a hard thing to get right. I think everybody involved - it's directed by Natalie Morales. I think everybody involved did such a brilliant job controlling the tone so that it is funny, it's raunchy, it's a, you know, high school comedy. But it also has so many wise things to say about these girls, their lives, what they do and don't know about pregnancy. And it's a terrific movie. I recommend it so highly. Again, it's on Hulu, and it's called "Plan B."

MARTINEZ: That's Linda Holmes, Aisha Harris and Glen Weldon from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. My thanks to all three of you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

HOLMES: Thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIROCRATIC'S "SLEEPYFACE")

MARTINEZ: And you can find the full list of the year's best film and TV chosen by NPR critics at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.