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From Steph Curry to 'Squid Game,' this year-end list will surprise and delight you

Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors reacts after the Phoenix Suns missed a basket during a game Dec. 3.
Ezra Shaw
/
Getty Images
Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors reacts after the Phoenix Suns missed a basket during a game Dec. 3.

Although the world began slowly opening up this year, I still spent countless hours in my home plowing through movies, TV shows and books, many of which I reviewed on this show. As 2021 comes to an end, I want to single out for praise seven revelatory people or things that I haven't talked about but that surprised me, or filled me with delight.

Steph Curry

Topping my list is something you might not expect: a professional athlete. Steph Curry shoots a basketball better than anyone who ever lived — even other NBA stars are in awe. Yet a few years ago, when his Golden State Warriors were unbeatable, his genius became the target of nitpicking and resentment. This year he's enjoyed a renaissance. We're now back to the point at which a shiver of pleasure goes through the crowd each time he touches the ball. Even better, in an era when too many sports stars grimly chase titles or relentlessly push their brands, Steph invariably exudes ease, joy and playfulness. He's the Fred Astaire of American sports.

No Time to Die

Bond (Daniel Craig) teams up with secret agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) in Havana in <em>No Time to Die.</em>
Nicola Dove / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
Bond (Daniel Craig) teams up with secret agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) in Havana in No Time to Die.

You find the same lightness of spirit in the most enjoyable scene of the new James Bond movie, No Time to Die. When 007 crashes a SPECTRE soiree in Havana, he meets up with a newbie agent played by Ana de Armas, the Cuban-born actress best known for Knives Out.

What follows is a beautifully choreographed sequence in which the two banter, flirt and blast their way out of a death trap, punctuating the pandemonium by knocking back martinis that are surely shaken and not stirred. Although this thriller hopes to shake us with its air of romantic tragedy, de Armas stirs us with something far better: She unleashes the fun side of Daniel Craig.

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

It would be misleading to say that George Saunders' A Swim in the Pond in the Rain unleashes the fun side of Russian literature. But his book fills you with the life-enhancing excitement one can get from reading the likes of Chekhov or Tolstoy. Based on a writing class Saunders teaches at Syracuse University, the seven essays in this volume are an inspiring master class in how to read, how to write, and how reading and writing can help us learn how to live. As a one-time literature professor, I read Saunders' book with the awed admiration of an ordinary basketball player watching Steph Curry shoot.

Jean Smart

Now in her 70th year, actor Jean Smart may have reached the pinnacle of a crackerjack career in 2021. If she was terrific as Kate Winslet's snappish mom in Mare of Easttown, she was flat-out brilliant in Hacks as Deborah Vance, a legendary Vegas comedian whose past is as layered with struggle and pain as her dialogue is studded with wisecracks.

Zola

Taylour Paige stars as the on-screen incarnation of <em>Zola.</em>
/ A24 Films
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A24 Films
Taylour Paige stars as the on-screen incarnation of Zola.

Based on a viral twitter thread, this feminist shaggy dog story stars eloquent-eyed Taylour Paige as a Black stripper named Zola who gets lured to Florida by a saucy white stripper — that's Riley Keough — with the promise of making a fortune. Although their trip spins dangerously out of control, the movie doesn't thanks to sharp, inventive filmmaking by Janicza Bravo. From its wild and woolly characters to its witty sex scenes, Zola deals with a series of hot button topics, including race, sex work and online madness — through eyes very different from the white male gaze.

Squid Game (Netflix)

If some of the references in the hit Netflix series <em>Squid Game</em> are going over your head, we can help.
Noh Juhan / Netflix
/
Netflix
If some of the references in the hit Netflix series Squid Game are going over your head, we can help.

In the addictive Korean series Squid Game, 456 poor people engage in a murderous battle royale for $38 million that hangs over their heads in a huge glass pig. A triumph of pop storytelling, the show's two best episodes highlight the pointed critique of contemporary capitalism. Without spoiling anything, I'll simply say that, in Episode 2, the participants learn that merely winning a democratic vote won't save you if you're poor, while Episode 6 shows that, when you're caught in a system based on winning and losing, there's no way to survive and stay morally clean. Dark, paranoid and hyper-violent, Squid Game is 2021's's biggest worldwide hit, which tells you a lot about how life feels to people these days.

The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)

<em>The Beatles: Get Back</em> concludes with the band's legendary 1969 rooftop concert.
/ Courtesy Apple Corps Ltd. / Disney +
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Courtesy Apple Corps Ltd. / Disney +
The Beatles: Get Back concludes with the band's legendary 1969 rooftop concert.

On Thanksgiving night, my sister and I were watching The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson's documentary series about the Fab Four rehearsing to do an album and a TV special. The series contains fascinating scenes, from George Harrison walking out on the band to Yoko Ono sitting among the quartet like a ghost. Yet the moment that really got us talking comes when the staggeringly talented Paul McCartney sits there seemingly goofing around on his guitar and, before our eyes, he goes from making sounds, to making music, to creating "Get Back," a song that would reach #1 on the charts.

I can think of no better antidote to our dread of the latest COVID variant than to hear the song that McCartney created while waiting for the ever-tardy John Lennon to show up for rehearsal.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.