Best pop culture moments that got us through 2021

Best pop culture moments that got us through 2021


Taylour Paige in “Zola”

Annoyed, bewildered, frightened, disgusted — Paige’s eyes speak volumes about the horrors of driving around central Florida with a scheming new friend and her menacing, er, “roommate.” Whether the Academy will rightfully give Paige what’s hers remains to be seen, but we at CNN’s Culture team are DELIGHTED to present her with a spot on this equally revered and not at all silly list.

Best 10-minute performance in a film

Zendaya appeared more in sand heir Timothée Chalamet’s hallucinations than she did in plot-relevant sequences of “Dune,” but she made the most of those bright blue contacts for the handful of minutes she was onscreen. As Chani, she had the first and final words of the film — take that, Timmy! — and nailed a searing takedown of Chalamet’s Paul when she lends him her prized crysknife. Bring on Part Two, Denis Villeneuve, and put our gal front and center next time.

Best unexpected celebrity couple

Zoë Kravtiz and Channing Tatum

Kravitz and Tatum are simply the latest in a long legacy of beautiful Black women with men who do not reach their levels of hotness (see also: Jodie Turner-Smith and Joshua Jackson, Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian, uh Zoë Kravitz and her ex-husband). History aside, Tatum and Kravitz were our favorite hipster Brooklyn couple this year, looking glamorously unglamorous as they rode bikes, grabbed groceries and just walked around — making us mere mortals shake. Even if it was just all a paparazzi ploy, we ate it up.

Best-worst excuse for not getting the Covid-19 vaccine

Nicki Minaj

Who else could create international havoc over Covid-19 vaccine misinformation? None other than Nicki, whose claim — based on the assuredly unerring account of a friend of a cousin of a… we’ll stop — that the vaccine caused swollen testicles and impotency resulted in multiple national leaders stepping in. Misinformation is always a party foul, but thanks for the memes, Nicki.

Best reason not to cancel cable

The Oprah/Meghan/Harry interview

"What? WHAT??" - Oprah
This was primetime appointment viewing the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. A good old fashioned bombshell bonanza. It also gave us this perfect response to the unbelievable.

Best early 2000s revival

Britney Spears, post-conservatorship

In a crowded field that included the return of Tony Soprano, Ben Affleck and J.Lo’s reunion, the “Gossip Girl” reboot and the low-rise jeans renaissance, it was Ms. Britney Jean Spears who had perhaps the most eventful 2021 — and the happiest ending. Not only is the “Toxic” songstress free from a 13-year conservatorship that by all accounts was severely restrictive, she’s now engaged to a guy that once played a wordless “Sexy Santa” in an HBO Max original series. Bravo, Ms. Spears, for taking what’s yours!

Best superhero movie heartthrob

Tony Leung in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Marvel’s “Shang-Chi” may have been most notable for showcasing the first Asian American superhero in the MCU, but who could forget the one, the ONLY, Tony Leung, stealing the show (and our hearts) in every scene. Against his piercing gaze and ripped forearms, we were powerless. Thank you, Tony, for your service.

Best Instagram heartbreak

Alex Rodriguez

When Alex Rodriguez took to Instagram following his break up with Jennifer Lopez, it was bound to be devastating. As the former baseball star turned soft boi panned through happy photos of him and J.Lo, with sad anthem “Fix You” by Coldplay spinning in the background (one of many red flags), he set a new bar for public mourning and heartbreak. Sad people everywhere, take note.

Runner Up: Ben Affleck throwing away his life-sized Ana de Armas cutout in front of paparazzi. We love a scene!

Best red carpet-to-sleepover fit

A$AP Rocky, AKA Mr. Rihanna

A$AP Rocky gets it.
Rocky knew this year’s Met Gala was going to be middling at best, so, in opting to wrap himself in this piece by Cali-cool brand ERL, he came prepared for a snooze should he need one. Comfort over style any day.

Best accent work

Kate Winslet in “Mare of Easttown”

Winslet, a born Brit, seamlessly slipped into the voice of a vaping Pennsylvanian with brassy roots and enough emotional baggage to power her to an Emmy, maybe. Even if she doesn’t win the top prize, we’ll always have her saying “wurtur” and “hewgie.”

Best Adele song to mourn your ex to

“Love is a Game”

In her first album since 2015, Adele finally came back this year, ready to soundtrack all our late-night sob sessions with “30.” The album, which in part chronicles the singer’s divorce and the ensuing revelations, is ripe with sad songs, but the best one may be the nearly 7-minute long closer. “Love is a game for fools to play,” Adele croons, leaving us to pick up the pieces of a heart we didn’t even realize was broken. Adele, why must you hurt us so?!

Best drama queen

The ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal

The Ever Given gave until it could give no longer. For some reason, we were all glued to the drama of the tired ship that got lodged in one of the world’s most significant trade routes for almost a week and wouldn’t budge. “Would today be the day the Ever Given finally gives in and allows 400 other ships to pass?” we mused. “Why do I identify with this ship who just gave up on its work and disrupted an entire global economy?”

Best ‘stache

Ted Lasso

The stache in question
From his quirky sayings to his incredible sneaker collection, Coach Ted Lasso (of the hit Apple TV show “Ted Lasso,” and played by Jason Sudeikis) is an icon. But there are few things more praiseworthy than his epochal mustache, a luscious chevron ripped straight from the ’80s. You know he moisturizes. Bravo, Coach.

Best age barometer

The return of Steve from “Blue’s Clues”

Remember when Steve — now bald but still dressed in his signature green striped rugby shirt — visited our Twitter feeds with a little message on how proud of us he was since his abrupt departure from the show in 2001? Your reaction to it gave the rest of us a good idea of how old you were. Touched and teary? You were either a parent of a kid who loved “Blue’s Clues” or said kid. Unaffected and creeped out? Either too young or too old to enjoy Steve’s run on the show.

Best kitchen appliance you’ll use, like, maybe twice

Air fryers

Your mom has one. Your neighbor has one. Heck, even your roommate who doesn’t cook has one. Air fryers have been around since 2010, but have somehow become ubiquitous in the last year, known for making anything — from Brussels sprouts to frozen chicken nuggets — taste crisp and freshly fried, without all the work. Of course, a similar effect can be achieved with a standard oven, but we digress.

Best reason to still watch ‘SNL’

Bowen Yang

Bowen Yang as the iceberg that sank the Titanic, left, and Colin Jost, blessed to be in the presence of genius.
Yang is the kind of once-in-a-generation talent who can land a spot among People’s “Sexiest Men Alive ” and play the iceberg that sank the Titanic with such conviction that you’re rooting against the boat. May he continue to grace us with his TITANIC talents for years to come.

Best superstars who will make you feel old

TIE: Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X

Oh, to be young and successful.
She had some of the most streams on Spotify, visited the White House, and broke Ticketmaster when her tour went on sale. He has a cosign from Dolly Parton, trolls Drake, and created one of the most memorable music videos of all time. And neither of them are older than 25 — Rodrigo is only 18 (and just got her driver’s license, who could forget), while Lil Nas X is just 22. And yet, these babies are running the music industry — and soon, maybe, the world.

Best couple we couldn’t look away from no matter how hard we tried

Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly

It’s the age-old story: Boy (rapper, associate of Pete Davidson) meets girl (gifted deadpan actress and mother of three), girl tells boy he smells like weed, boy says “I am weed,” they go their separate ways only to cross paths on a film set years later and dive headfirst into a very public, very PDA-packed relationship that you either cringe at or wholeheartedly support or a blend of both. Even if their love doesn’t last, we’ll always have their delightfully unhinged British GQ interview. You know the one.

Best android-witch love story

Wanda & Vision in Disney+’s “WandaVision”
Theirs is a love story for the ages. And the multiverse, probably.

We all deal with heartache in different ways. And for Wanda, when her android-boyfriend Vision is killed by an alien dictator (not cool, Thanos), she creates an alternate reality to prevent herself from dealing with the grief of a love gone too soon. We can all relate! From their quirky eating habits to their literal magic shows, Wanda and Vision were a delight on our screens. We’ll be sobbing over “What is grief, if not love persevering?” forever.

Best politics and teen culture collab

Sen. Richard Blumenthal asking Facebook to “stop finsta”
Antigone Davis, the head of global safety for Facebook, truly kept trying to explain that “finsta” is actually just a slang term for the private “fake Instagram” accounts many use — not actually something the social media company controls. Nevertheless, the 75-year-old Connecticut senator persisted, asking Davis “Will you commit to ending finsta?” during the Facebook trial. Blumenthal, though he tried, simply didn’t get it. The whole thing is a mirror to modern societal issues, and it would be funny if it wasn’t so grim.

Best time to be a Swiftie

Fall 2021

While neither author of this piece can attest to being a Taylor Swift stan, we know 2021 was a good time to be one — especially November, with the release of the 10-minute version of the song that turned a legion of young people against Jake Gyllenhaal. Taylor was also nominated — again, for like the 40th time — for Album of the Year at the Grammys, a category she won at the last ceremony. Congrats to Swifties everywhere — every year is your year.

Best villain

Red light, green light doll from “Squid Game”

Netflix’s “Squid Game,” a South Korean anti-capitalist thriller, captured the world’s imaginations, becoming the streaming service’s most popular show at launch — with more than 111 million accounts watching in less than a month. Though lots of moments gave us the heebie-jeebies, none as much as the killer child-like doll from the Red Light, Green Light game. We had nightmares for weeks.

Best meme your mom liked

Bernie Sanders at the inauguration
Sen. Bernie Sanders had places to go and people to see.
The mittens! The casual Burton coat! The sassy crossed legs! Listen, the installment of a new head of state is great and all, but some of us (mainly, it seems, Sen. Bernie Sanders) had a busy Wednesday planned. Can we please wrap this up? The post office closes at 6.

Best buzzword to identify annoying people by

Spending millions on an NFT of, say, Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, when you could just Google “jack dorsey’s first tweet” if you wanted to see it, is something we don’t fully understand. But we’re not here to yuck anyone’s yum, and NFTs have become ubiquitous in 2021. From NFTs of a LeBron James dunk video clip to a decade-old “Nyan Cat” GIF, people are spending thousands, sometimes more, to claim ownership of these digital assets. It’s almost like art collecting, but in the metaverse? Regardless of your NFT opinion, the fact is, you probably have one.

Best accessory

Masks

Best onscreen ‘death’

Natasha Rothwell as Kelli, “Insecure”

Let it be known that Kelli, joyously depicted by Natasha Rothwell, is one of our faves on HBO’s “Insecure.” And when a mix-up led to everyone at her college reunion thinking she was dead, we couldn’t stop laughing. “She had the best Stanky Legg,” one person eulogized, and Kelli shows us it’s true. Though the incident wasn’t all fun and games, the group does later give our girl a proper eulogy over pancakes — the way all eulogies should be, if you ask us.

Best celeb-food mashup

Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hottie Sauce” at Popeyes

Only Megan could one-up Popeye's chicken sandwich.
Fast food has apparently replaced fine dining for all the hottest celebs — as Saweetie, Jack Harlow, and Lil Nas X all, for some reason, spent 2021 endorsing their favorite purveyors of chicken nuggets and tiny hamburgers. But Megan’s “Hottie Sauce,” delightfully sweet with a sneaky kick, takes the proverbial cake, if only for the name. Don’t we all, ultimately, just want to be hotties?

Best private information celebrities willingly offered against our wishes

Celebs don’t shower

Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kristen Bell — please, for the love of all things sacred and clean, stop. We didn’t need to know.

Best Zendaya look

ZENDAYAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Personally, we think Zendaya’s appearance in “Space Jam” as the animated Lola Bunny, playing sidekick to LeBron, was the best the starlet has ever looked. Buuuut we’ll note that Zendaya has truly never missed, and the custom nude leather dress she wore to the Venice Film Festival, complete with an emerald necklace the size of a baby’s fist, is a close second.

[CNN, HBO/HBO Max series such as “Mare of Easttown” and “Insecure,” and “Dune” movie studio Warner Bros. are all part of WarnerMedia.]



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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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