Nate’s Many A Spendid Look at the Best and Worst of 2021 Film
Welcome back, dear reader, for my once a year look at the best and worst and everything in between in the year of cinema. After the tumult that was 2020, the year 2021 was something of a catch-up year thanks to the many COVID delayed movies getting relaunched, and even the Oscars treated the first two months as 2020 eligibility. I stuck to the traditional calendar window, thank you very much. I saw about a dozen movies in the theater that year, which is still a record low for me since I was probably a child. I think I might have even seen more than that number before COVID fully struck in the early months of 2020. Regardless, 2021 had a wide range of exciting foreign films that enlivened the year for me, and several will make appearances on my Best of the Year list. Speaking of which, the pandemic has accelerated the rise of streaming, and I have three Netflix movies on my Top Ten list and four Netflix movies on my Bottom Ten list (both highly placed, but I won’t spoil it for you). I doubt you’ll see another list with this combination of titles.
But before going into all that 2021 had to offer at the theater, let’s turn back the clocks once more as I take another crack at my top ten list from 2020.
2020 Top Ten List 2.0
10) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (formerly 6)
9) Dick Johnson is Dead (formerly 8)
8) Sound of Metal (formerly 9)
7) Collective (unchanged)
6) The Invisible Man (formerly 5)
5) Da 5 Bloods (formerly 4)
4) The Father (previously unranked)
3) Promising Young Woman (unchanged)
2) Palm Springs (unchanged)
1) Spontaneous (unchanged)
Not much movement although I forgot I hadn’t placed The Father on the list, easily a top film of 2020 and a heartbreaking and deeply moving performance from Anthony Hopkins. Now, ladies and gents, it’s on with the big show.
PART ONE: BEST/WORST FILMS OF 2021
10) Pyscho Goreman
The movie feels like a cleverly constructed episode of Rick and Morty where a crazy idea is given unusual consideration and development and layers of humor and ridiculousness are uncovered so that the whole enterprise impresses. Psycho Goreman is like a gloriously inappropriate Power Rangers episode for adults. The elaborate care and design of these monster and alien costumes is outstanding, especially for a relatively low-budget movie. If you’re a fan of low-rent, cheesy midnight movies, the deranged and demented, and giant silly costumes and bloody excess, Psycho Goreman will be everything you hope it to be. The filmmakers know they have a very specific, tailored audience that will celebrate their unique retro pastiche sensibilities, and if you happen to live on that same wavelength as I do, then you too will find Psycho Goreman to be an insane near masterpiece of low-budget, high-concept schlock
9) In the Heights
This is such a positive and overwhelmingly optimistic story that it becomes infectious, a pleasing balm to sooth all that ails you. It’s very easy to get swept away in the enthusiasm and energy of the movie, enough so that after the exemplary opening number setting up our characters, our setting, and our relationships and goals, people in my theater actually clapped, and I almost felt like joining them. With In the Heights, the music and lyrics are quite good and the presentation is phenomenal. In the Heights is a lively and welcoming musical experience that carries a deep affection for its cultural roots and invitation for others to join that celebration. It’s powerfully optimistic that it’s so easy to be swept away and smile with its charms and uplift. In the Heights takes advantage of its cinematic opportunities, the charisma and energy of the talented cast, and the soaring and lovely melodies and catchy rhymes from Lin-Manuel Miranda.
8) Petite Maman
It’s further proof to me that Celine Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and relationships. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.
7) Power of the Dog
This is less a traditional Western in several respects and more a tight character study that happens to be set at the conclusion of a Western fantasy for America, transitioning to modernity. There are thematic layers expertly braided together that touch upon the larger question over what it means to be a man in society. The acting is extremely polished all around, with each performer having layers of subtext to shield their true intentions. The Power of the Dog is an intimate and occasionally even sensual Western that pushes its put-upon characters to their breaking point, and perhaps the audience, while rewarding the patient and observant viewer. There’s gnawing, uneasy tension that gets to be overwhelming, but the movie benefits from the unexpected destination for where that tension will lead. Will it be violence? Will it be passion? Will it be a crime of passion? The acting is great, the artistic quality of the movie is high, and each scene has much to unpack, allowing for further rewarding examination.
I can completely understand if anyone chooses to ignore the indie movie Mass for its subject matter alone. It’s heavy. I get it. It’s about two sets of parents, one pair (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) whose child was murdered in a school shooting, and the other pair (Reed Birney, Ann Dowd) whose child was the school shooter. It took me weeks to even work up the courage and proper mood to sit down and watch the movie. I’m glad I eventually watched Mass because it was so emotionally engaging and ultimately cathartic. That’s what I want more people to understand so that they give this hard-hitting indie gem a chance. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s not all angry finger-pointing and gnashing of teeth. Mass is much more than you expect while being exactly what it sets out to be. It’s a small film brimming with big emotions and an even bigger wealth of empathy, allowing every participant to be a multi-dimensional human being struggling to make sense of the unimaginable that has dominated their life. Mass is one of the best written and acted movies of 2021 and deserves your time and consideration.
5) Space Sweepers
Luc Besson sci-fi opera by way of South Korea, the unfortunately named Space Sweepers is a wonderful surprise of a movie that could unfairly get lost amid the glut of Netflix. It’s immediately engaging and filled with intriguing world-building. Spending time with this world and these characters is such an enjoyable experience because it just uncovers more and more layers to the hefty world-building and history. The plot itself, at least in broad strokes, might be familiar, but it’s the level of detail and imagination and especially execution that sets Space Sweepers apart. The action sequences are exiting and visually immersive. I’ve never seen a harpoon in space battles before. It feels like a living anime moment. The special effects are consistently impressive. The set designs are large and lived-in. The small details all manage to add up, and small character moments still resonate, like one character’s constant loss of his shoes for greater sacrifices or a robot that feels seen for the first time as they are. It’s a supremely fun and imaginative setting, enough that I thought it would have sustained a whole series on Netflix. I highly advise fans of frothy, fun sci-fi like The Fifth Element to find this movie on Netflix.
4) Parallel Mothers
There is little else like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. Parallel Mothers is an unpredictable drama that also has a surprising heft to it when it comes to emotional substance. I loved watching the movie because I genuinely could not anticipate where things would go next, and each additional turn was organic, meaningful, and would compound the guilt or fears of the main characters. It might seem like a soap opera when you distill all these outrageous elements to their essence, but Almodóvar has always excelled at taking the outrageous and making it sincere. It’s a delicate drama, nourishing with empathy and also heart-rending in the dread of what Janis may choose to do next. Thank you, filmmakers of the world, for lifting the 2021 year in cinema for me. Parallel Mothers is one of the best films you’ll see this year and an affecting examination on reconciliation.
The framework of CODA is familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age story or family drama, but it’s the conviction and strength of character and sheer force of empathy that makes this movie a standout film. It’s familiar, but that doesn’t mean under the right set of hands that it cannot still be resonant and emotionally gratifying. There were several points that had me tearing up, and then fully crying, because I was so emotionally engaged with the family, their struggles, and their triumphs and outpouring of love. You might be able to see where the movie is headed because its template is formulaic, but it’s the execution, the attention to detail, and the level of observational attention that elevates CODA and makes it so winning and so heartwarming.
2) Nine Days
Nine Days is a tender and thoughtful movie that has much under the surface given its metaphysical context and probing questions about spirituality, identity, and existence, but it doesn’t simply rely upon the artistic weight of ambiguity. There’s a genuinely involving emotional drama here that’s accessible while offering greater depth to be unpacked by the viewer who enjoys metaphor and implication and debate. It’s a little movie with a lot on its mind but it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. There’s a sturdy foundation to begin with but enough ambiguous room for discussion and debate. It reminds me of 2003’s beguiling, divisive, and highly metaphorical indie Northfork. Both movies are poetic, understated, and deeply involved in human connection and spiritual meaning while providing room for interpretation. There’s plenty here to unpack but even on a literal level the movie works as an emotional experience. I found myself under the gentle sway of Nine Days and its mighty beating heart of humanism that extends even beyond the realm of flesh and blood.
And the best film of 2021 is…..
1) The Mitchells vs The Machines
It’s so colorful, so exuberant, so clever, while still being heartfelt on its own terms and packing more jokes into a minute than any studio comedy in years. This is also an explosively colorful movie with vibrant arrays popping off the screen. There were several visual sequences that took my breath away just at the arrangement of colors. It’s a longer animated movie at 110 minutes but it’s also so fast-paced and antic, filled with ideas and jokes and moments it feels like it cannot wait to share. In some ways it feels like talking with a hyper-literate, boundlessly excited little kid, and I don’t mean that as a negative. There’s a little of everything here comedy-wise and it all works. It’s a buffet of laughs. At this point, I’m willing to give producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the utmost benefit of the doubt when it comes to anything animated. After Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, Spider-Verse, and now this, they haven’t let me down yet. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is an eye-popping action movie and a superb comedy that the whole family can enjoy.
Honorable mention: Cyrano, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, Pig
The “can’t even” bizarre energy of this movie is off the charts and bounces back and forth between hilarious camp and head-scratching seriousness with several frustrating and absurd artistic decisions by M. Night Shyamalan. If you viewed this movie as a strange comedy, then you would be right. If you viewed it as an existential horror movie, then you would be right. If you viewed it as a heightened satire on high-concept Twilight Zone parables, then you would be right. I think Shyamalan doesn’t fully understand what tone he’s going for and how best to develop his crazy storyline in a way that makes it meaningful beyond the general WTF curiosity. Even when it goes off the rails, Old is entertaining but some of that is unintentional. It’s hard to say whether the movie’s weirdness will be appealing or revolting to the individual viewer.
9) The Woman in the Window
The story behind The Woman in the Window is far more fascinating than the finished movie, based upon the 2018 best-selling debut novel by Dan Mallory under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, a hasty rehash of popular thrillers, notably Rear Window, mixed with recent unreliable narrator mystery/thrillers like The Girl on the Train. It’s actually somewhat shameless how derivative it comes across, so much so that you might be able to guess one of the movie’s Big Twists in the literal opening minutes. Amy Adams plays an agoraphobic psychiatrist who believes the new neighbor (Julianne Moore) across the street has been killed by her husband (Gary Oldman), and no one believes her because of her drinking and medication and general misogyny and obvious twists. I cannot tell if screenwriter Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) and director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) were going for camp or sincerity, as the movie veers chaotically until its final groan-worthy revelation, which is apparently taken right from the source material. There aren’t any significant moments of tension. I was more confused why and how everyone was constantly coming into this lady’s opulent New York brownstone. The most interesting aspect of this movie, by far, is the author being discovered as a fraud and fabulist.
You’d be forgiven if you thought you had watched Infinite before, perhaps in a past life, because it’s so highly derivative. The story runs on two very well-worn tracks of science fiction storytelling, the Chosen One plot and the Secret War plot. For a movie that takes so much time to spit out clunky exposition, Infinite is fairly incoherent and, occasionally, self-defeating. The high-concept premise is reduced to a lazy shortcut for superpowers for a group of know-it-alls trying to act cool and strut while delivering exposition by the truckload. The action is stifled, the characters are dull, and the world feels so sprawling but without needed definition. It closes on voice over by Mark Wahlberg that genuinely made me guffaw. Looking to the future, he says, literally, “Well the possibilities are… infinite.” For this hopeful film franchise, I strongly doubt that.
The premise peculates with such promise, and for it to become yet another end times road trip, hewing so closely to a solidifying formula, is like trapping everyone in a (bird) box. Awake should be an easy movie to plug right into and relate to the deterioration. However, it’s so unclear and clumsy in its depictions of the world. It’s unclear until the very very end how long the world has gone without sleep, and so we run into examples that seem to paint two different pictures of our apocalyptic environment: overplaying and underplaying. There’s an existential and more poetic, prosaic version of Awake where Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is trying to cram years and years of parenting into a precious couple of days, where she also tries to secure a fortified hiding place for her daughter to wait out the rest of humanity dying off before she can come out like a hibernating animal. Awake is an apocalyptic road trip that will bore more than excite and frustrate more than engage. Who knew sleeplessness was such a snooze?
6) Thunder Force
I feel like we were just here a matter of months ago, another aimless Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle written and directed by her husband and chief enabler, Ben Falcone. With Thunder Force, McCarthy becomes an accidental superhero and that premise should be enough with this star to power a silly and amusing 90 minutes of entertainment. Once again it’s a dispiriting comedy that feels like it’s just sitting around and waiting for the performers to find something funny in their scenes and family-friendly improv ramblings. The energy of this movie is completely slack, and scenes feel adrift, lacking proper direction or purpose. The comedy malpractice can be staggering. The chemistry between McCarthy and Octavia Spencer (The Witches) is lukewarm at best for these longtime friends. The buddy comedy doesn’t even seem like it was developed beyond its initial pitch. I wish that Thunder Force had more courage to chase its weird rather than settle, time and again, as an action comedy that is middling with its action and middling with its comedy. I think I had more fun with 2020’s Super Intelligence.
5) Willie’s Wonderland
It’s easy to see the pitch: Nicolas Cage in Five Nights at Freddy’s. That sounds like everything you would need for a gonzo movie experience with, hopefully, an unrestrained Cage. The problem with Willy’s Wonderland is that it seems to have peaked at its inception. Cage plays a janitor hoodwinked into working overnight at the abandoned pizza parlor and he doesn’t say a word for the entire movie. Toppling one robot after another feels too easy and the specific set pieces are unmemorable. My disappointment is that what you get with any ten-minute segment of the movie is generally the same thing you’ll get with any other portion. It’s a lot of the same. Is that consistency or a lack of development and imagination? The movie still presents some degree of fun because that premise is enough to at least hold your attention if you’re a fan of horror, Cageisms, and movie kitsch. However, Willy’s Wonderland could have used more drafts and variety to really tap into the sheer gonzo potential of its ridiculous pitch.
4) Space Jam: A New Legacy
This movie is clearly not intended for adults but at the same time it feels engineered from their references. Are children going to understand William Shatner impressions? Parodies of The Matrix, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or Casablanca? I strongly doubt that the majority of the movie’s stated target audience, children, have any emotional investment or recognition for the old Looney Tunes characters. Feeling like the unholy IP orgies that were Ready Player One and The Emoji Movie, the Space Jam sequel (or reboot) feels more like a catalogue launch or a streaming channel opening its vast archives for ready-made consumer consumption. There are several moments where I just shrugged and said to myself, “Well, that happened,” like Granny doing her fancy Matrix moves or Porky Pig battle rapping. For whatever reason, the studio execs insisted to the six credited screenwriters (pity them all, and the sixty un-credited) that this serve not as a franchise relaunch but as a corporate portfolio branding showcase. The movie gets lost in the shuffle from all the haphazard and contradictory impulses to see this through, turning from the game of basketball into decades-past-their-prime Austin Powers jokes. Regardless, Space Jam: A New Legacy is less new and more everything Warner Bros. owns the rights to in the past that they would like to remind you about.
3) Dear Evan Hansen
As I kept watching Dear Evan Hansen, I kept feeling like someone had attempted to make World’s Greatest Dad but played straight and absent the satire, and that was a very bad decision. This was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, and I don’t quite understand how fans of the theater show were so moved and uplifted and, frankly, entertained. Maybe all this drama plays better on the stage, though I think many of the same issues I would have with the story would be evidently present for the stage productions as well. Evan Hansen is, quite simply, a monster of a human being. In the awkward attempts to make Ben Platt more youthful, they have made him look like a shifty undercover cop at a school (“Are you a cop, dear Evan Hansen? You have to tell me if you’re a cop.”). Evan Hansen looks like he’s wearing a bad hair piece. If you’re among the fandom for Dear Evan Hansen, I’m sure you’ll find enough to enjoy here as you’ve likely already built the excuses for the characters and the story and made peace with whatever ethical foibles persist. Sorry Evan, and sorry Dear Evan Hansen, but you can stay waving behind a window for all that I care.
2) Ride or Die
My one-a-year slot for an Ohio-made indie could support a hasty drinking game because scene-to-scene you have no idea what to expect. Ride or Die is unlikely to win over any fans who aren’t already personally connected with the indie production. There are definite technical limitations given the budget was only $16,000. The sets never seem to feel lived in. The dialogue often sounds like it was dubbed over. The music drones on and on and at a volume that needs to be dialed back. The acting is flat across the board. Scrolling through the end credits, I noticed the same names appearing over and over. Most everyone on this crew worked four or five jobs to see Ride or Die get made. That’s commendable, but I have to ask what about this story deserved all their hard work and dedication? It’s the script that sinks this movie. The movie needs clarity but it really needs a driving plot to tie things together. The confusing fantasies, the wildly fluctuating characters and tone, the meandering plot, the overwrought dramatic elements, it all starts to coalesce into a sporadically baffling example of modern camp. I hope everyone involved enjoyed working on this. I don’t think many others will find much to enjoy on the merits of its storytelling and execution. Unfortunately, it’s best left in the rear view.
And the worst film of 2021 is….
1) He’s All That
This movie feels every bit the dismal corporate-sponsored, cash-grabbing, star vehicle that it is. Nobody in Generation Z cared about She’s All That, and now very few will really care about He’s All That. The movie refuses to go very deep or hard-hitting with this topic because it’s also meant to be a vehicle for fame to launch the feature acting career of Tik Tok star Addison Rae. Rae might be an overall pleasant presence but she’s not quite there in the acting department yet. Her limited range really dampers many of the dramatic moments. There are moments where I thought she was just going to smile her way through a scene. If I was overly cynical, I would estimate that the producers of He’s All That sought an older IP that might still have some pull with an older audience that could be stripped down to its parts and slapped together with a formula that could platform its young stars while also barely hitting that 80-minute feature running time requirement. Except that sounds exactly like what’s happened with He’s All That as well as the preponderance of product placement. This entire movie is a cynical enterprise. It’s not funny at all. It feels completely inauthentic with its portrayal of modern teenagers and social media lifestyles and even the appeal provided by a social media following of fans giving instant validation to every coordinated effort to be your phony best self. While watching He’s All That, you’re left with the strong impression that everyone should know better, and you should know better than spending 80 tepid minutes of your time watching this cynical exercise.
Dishonorable mention: Tom and Jerry, Titane, Halloween Kills, Music
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: The Worst Person in the World, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Shiva Baby, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Tomorrow War, The Spine of Night
Worst titles of the year: To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Cosmic Sin, 12 Mighty Orphans, Gunpowder Milkshake, Needle in a Timestack, Licorice Pizza
Titles that could be confused with porn: The Voyeurs, John and the Hole
Biggest Disappointment of 2021: The Matrix Resurrections. Who wants meta humor and arguments that Lily Wachowski might be purposely making a bad movie? Having re-watched both Reloaded and Revolutions again, I can affirmatively declare Resurrections to be the weakest Matrix entry yet. We were all a bit too harsh on the prior two Matrix movies, which fall short of capturing the original’s magic alchemy but bring the goods when it comes to memorable set pieces, eye-popping visuals, and narrative zigs instead of zags (It was undercutting audience expectations before it was cool). They are still a bit too stuffy and talk in circles, but there are definite Major Ideas percolating underneath. Resurrections feels more powered by resentment, by Wachowski coming back to this world against her better wishes and judgements. We would have been better off with literally nothing if this is what another Matrix was going to offer.
Runners-up: The Many Saints of Newark adding little to nothing for Sopranos fans after 15 years
The Best 10 Minutes of 2021: The big reveal in Malignant and when the movie officially embraces its wonderful absurdity. When I saw those tiny little arms, I burst out laughing and in awe that James Wan used his billion-dollar director cache to make a movie this weird. I’m so happy a movie like this exists (and yes, the big twist isn’t novel), and I’m deliriously happy that an artist like Wan was able to go all-in on crazy. My girlfriend and I were simultaneously grossed out and laughing hysterically.
Runners-up: Ana de Armas’ section in No Time to Die; the pool sequence, In the Heights; “Wherever I Fall” sequence in Cyrano and wow is that a powerful song out of nowhere; the blistering bus sequence in Nobody
Titles That Lied to You: No Time to Die
Titles That Were Exact: Chaos Walking, Things Heard and Seen
Where Did My Movie Go? Award: Titane, The Humans, The Matrix Resurrections, Last Night in Soho
The 2021 Billy Elliot Award: Belfast
One Joke But Still a Good One Award: Don’t Look Up
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2021: Ghostbusters: Afterlife. As a Ghostbusters kid growing up, coming back into this world with such care and reverence felt like coming home again, and the emotional pull during the final act had me fighting back tears. It might not be a perfect movie but as a Ghostbusters fan it was a near perfect experience. Bonus points: another year in a row where my best time was shared with my girlfriend.
Movie Musicals: The big screen song-and-dance spectacles were all the rage in 2021, despite their anemic box-office. Some films were delayed because of COVID, like In the Heights and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, and there were two other Lin-Manuel Miranda animated movie musicals (Encanto, Vivo), as well as adaptations of stage musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen, tick, tick… BOOM!, Cyrano, family-friendly jukebox musicals like Cinderella and Sing 2, a Sparks Brothers documentary and their big screen musical Annette, Sia’s misguided Music, the filmed performance of Come From Away, the uplifting Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, and movies so heavy with performance that they might as well be musicals, like Respect and CODA. I even watched a Christian summer camp musical (A Week Away) on Netflix because I thought it might be one of the worst films of the year. In short, 2021 is the Year of the Musical.
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2021: There is a point in The King’s Man where Ralph Fiennes is pretending to be near orgasm while Rasputin, who still has crumbs of pie in his beard after devouring it as a whole in highly suggestive consumption, is licking the other man’s scars on his leg, and it just keeps going, and I had to say to myself, “What are we even doing here?” Sadly, this is actually the high point of the movie as well. Sigh.
Runners-up: Jared Leto’s peculiar acting choices and tics in The Little Things AND House of Gucci, both of which garnered him a SAG nomination
Ohio Indies Reviewed in 2021: Black Mamba, DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition, Double Walker, Escape From Death Block 13, A Father’s Fight, The Female Hustler, Holler, Immortal Combat, Ride or Die, Straitjacket, The Turn Out, Youngstown
The Condemning Exploitation While Trading in Exploitation Award: The feminist advocacy of the HBO Max documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage is muddled by prurient editing decisions. The interview subjects, and by extension the perspective of the filmmaker, admonishes the pay-per-view cameras for seeking out as many exposed breasts as possible to satiate its young male audience. This included scenes of women flashing their breasts but also women having their clothes ripped from their bodies. This exploitation is echoed in the problematic editing. There are dozens and dozens of topless women intertwined throughout the movie and, most troubling, scenes of women being molested, women desperately trying to pull their tops back into place while grabby hands reach for their exposed bodies. I can understand not wanting to dull the disturbing reality of what these women endured but how many visual examples do we need to make the point stick? How many examples of literal molestation, groping, and assault should the audience endure? Is this onslaught of visual examples not further exploiting these same young women and their trauma? They could have even obscured the identities of the victims or blurred out their nudity, something that would have felt more in keeping with the righteous indignation and consideration to the victims. Even if you could argue seeing this is necessary, do we need to see dozens of victims?
The Good Nicolas Cage Not as Advertised Award: Pig
The Bad Nicolas Cage Exactly as Advertised Award: Willie’s Wonderland
Best Movie I Saw in 2021 (That Wasn’t Released in 2021): Wolf Walkers
Worst Reshaping of History for a Feel-Good Biopic: King Richard. We finally get a movie about the Williams sisters and their dominant rise through the world of tennis, and the movie is almost entirely centered upon their demanding father and his vigilant bordering on abusive training regimen? It’s a movie that fully relies on every viewer’s implicit understanding of the great success of the Williams sisters, so the entire movie serves as a two-hour-plus “I told you so” to Richard’s doubters. Silly neighbor, questioning whether forcing his daughters to perform for hours in the pouring rain constitutes child endangerment. Silly wife, questioning why Richard has insisted his family move into the neighborhood of Compton to better raise his children through adversity and still complain about the dangers that Compton presents and that his daughters must rise above to leave and make something of themselves. Silly sports agents, for being skeptical about this man who says he had a 70-page “plan” for athletic success before his kids were even born and preaching that his unorthodox methods, including paying neighborhood kids to harass and intimidate his girls while they played, would be proven correct. It’s less because Venus and Serena have talent and skills and more that their dad worked really really hard and suffered. Richard hid his wife’s birth control pills in order to back her into a pregnancy and begin his master plan. That’s real. Same with intentionally keeping his children in Compton so they would learn adversity (tragic side note: one of his older daughters, Yetunde, died in 2003 near a gang house in Compton). And also the fact that Richard walked out on his previous family before Brandy, leaving behind five children all under the age of eight. When he speaks in the movie about always being there for his girls, unlike his father who ran out on him, it rings hollow with the full unflattering context. This is not a good person.
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2021: You would think that Chaos Walking was setting itself up for some sharp, uncomfortable, and relevant social commentary about the plight of being a woman in a modern society. Think about the premise, with every woman subjected to a society of men that cannot hide their unconscious objectification, their leering harassment, their distressing ulterior motives, where every man’s uncontrollable thoughts will be broadcast. It’s an empathetic and horrifying glimpse into the daily dismissal, exploitation, and condescension that woman experience. You add the extra element that women are immune and now they also become the subject of projected male resentment. Being “the last woman” also presents an obvious threat of sexual violence as well. It’s all right there, and yet Chaos Walking barely even toys with its explosive gender commentary. Why even bother having a premise that features a gender disparity if you’re not going to really say something about the treatment of women? If you think about those old movies where it’s one man on a planet entirely of women, or some similar dynamic where there is a giant gender upheaval, and they always say something about it. What would be the point of making an exception for one kind of person and then ignoring the larger implications? Well, I’ll never truly know, because Chaos Walking doesn’t seem to know either.
Runners-up: “Dalmatians killed my mom” back-story for Cruella; the super gun to kill immortals that the immortals who want to die create but don’t use on themselves, Infinite; take your pick with Kong vs. Godzilla
Best Onscreen Death: A special group effort this year with the opening fake-out sequence for The Suicide Squad. From the sudden drowning of a rat creature, to Nathan Fillion’s pointlessly detachable floating arms, it was bloody and bloody hilarious.
Runner’s-up: The jail cell massacre, Malignant; the conclusion of the duel, The Last Duel; Duncan Idaho’s last stand in Dune.
Curious Space Jam Spectators: Why is the grotesque Danny DeVito version of the Penguin there? Why is the Night King from Game of Thrones there? Why is Pennywise the Clown, a vicious and frightening character, there? Why are the droogs from A Clockwork Orange there? Who is that supposed to appeal to? Why would anyone in their right mind include a gang best known for wanton violence and rape to be faces in the crowd to cheer on a basketball game? It would be akin to taking the hillbillies who rape Ned Beatty in Deliverance and placing them side-by-side with cartoons for a movie intended for children. If the droogs and Pennywise made the cut, what inappropriate characters from the vaults of Warner Bros. were denied? This fascinates me.
Welp, There Is the Line: When the really good street racers-turned-super spies went into space in F9 is when I said, “Welp, I guess that’s it for me.”
Please Change Your Focus Depth: Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead
Please Change Your Aspect Ratio and Color Grading: Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Best Villain of 2021: Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He found a person who made him want to reform, to put his old ways of violence behind, and it’s her death that spurs him back to his views of power absolving all conflicts, so the most powerful is the one who can have the most say and protect the people close to him or her. If he had the full power of those ten rings, ordinary gangsters wouldn’t have dared to threaten or harm his loved ones. He is moving forward to return his beloved back to the land of the living. Being motivated by grief and wanting to see a departed loved one no matter the cost is a relatable struggle and one that brings degrees of nuance that Tony Leung can imbue with his great pained, hangdog expressions. Having a father be the villain but still love his children and be primarily motivated by bringing back his dead wife and honestly assessing how she made him a better person is a breath of fresh-ish air.
Runner’s-up: Peacemaker (John Cena) in The Suicide Squad; Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) in The Last Duel; and of course, Gabriel in Malignant.
Favorite Line From a Review in 2021: From King Richard: “A feel-good biopic that made me feel bad the more facts I uncovered, and its hero worship of a, at best, complicated man without adequate hesitation made me feel like this was a gift from the Williams sisters for their dear old dad’s ego and legacy.”
Runner’s-up: From My Octopus Teacher: “Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon at heart but I kept thinking that this man was projecting a lot of emotions onto this octopus.”
From Awake: “Who knew sleeplessness was such a snooze?”
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies listed below.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
In the Heights
The Power of the Dog
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Don’t Look Up
Everyone’s Talking About Jamie
Judas and the Black Messiah
The Last Duel
No Time to Die
A Quiet Place Part II
Raya and the Last Dragon
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Suicide Squad
West Side Story
Army of the Dead
DeRosa: Life & Art in Transition
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
The Green Knight
House of Gucci
Last Night in Soho
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
No Sudden Move
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
tick tick… BOOM!
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage
The Worst Person in the World
Wrath of Man
Being the Ricardos
Come From Away
Drive My Car
A Father’s Fight
The Forever Purge
The French Dispatch
Good on Paper
The Hand of God
The Lost Daughter
Misha and the Wolves
The Tomorrow War
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
Godzilla vs. Kong
The Tender Bar
Army of Thieves
Clifford the Big Red Dog
Escape from Death Block 13
F9: The Fast Saga
The Female Hustler
The King’s Man
The Little Things
The Many Saints of Newark
The Matrix Resurrections
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City
Those Who Wish Me Dead
The U.S. vs. Billie Holliday
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
A Week Away
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Space Jam: A New Legacy
Tom and Jerry
The Woman in the Window
Dear Evan Hanson
He’s All That
Ride or Die
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