Well, we made it through another year. I think. It’s hard to tell. 2021 sure felt a lot like 2020. Maybe not quite the rotten asshole of a year that was 2020, but a lot of people sure tried hard to make it as bad.
The Covid pandemic has now entered the fourth major infection wave, unless it’s the twenty-fourth. There was a fun meme about this being the worst way to learn the Greek alphabet, except we really only learned letters one, two, four, and fifteen (alpha, beta, delta, and omicron, respectively), so we still don’t know the Greek alphabet. And, Greek people are wondering why we keep using their alphabet to name disasters, especially after thinking we stopped doing that when the World Meteorological Organization decided to stop using the Greek alphabet to name Atlantic Hurricanes after the normal twenty-one people-names list is exhausted (this only happened in 2005 and 2020). A trusted source tells me the Greeks are lobbying for future Covid strains to be named after Republican politicians and media personalities, especially those suggesting that people eat horse de-wormer and bleach rather than get one of the free, safe, effective Covid vaccines.
Speaking of hurricanes and climate change, nature is still trying to figure out what it will take to convince deniers that 7.7 billion people can, in fact, impact Earth’s climate in very significant and substantial ways. Denver’s 2021 fall and winter did not produce measurable snow until December 31. The entire western United States is experiencing a drought that has gone on for years, but became notably worse with reports of several major lakes at levels that have never been lower (here’s an eye-opening website that lets you choose different times throughout the year to see drought conditions across the country. Check out Dec. 28 and July 27). Even recent record snowfall for the month of December in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (17 feet!!) isn’t enough to ease concern about continuing drought conditions.
We also saw forest fires rage across much of the western U.S. (including grass fires in Boulder, Colorado in the dead of winter that destroyed an estimated one thousand homes and businesses), tornados rip through the central and southern U.S. in the middle of December, record ice-melt in Greenland, drought-induced famine in Madagascar, Hell…I mean, Texas…literally freeze over, and the Pacific Northwest, including parts of Canada, do its best impression of Death Valley. Even the coal miners union (United Mine Workers of America) seems to have gotten the message, urging Senator Joe Manchin to pull his head out of his ass and support the Build Back Better plan before nature gets any more ideas.
On the plus side, Democrats managed to pass bills pumping desperately needed money into infrastructure, rescuing the economy, and even families in poverty to help feed their kids. We have multiple vaccines for Covid that are among the most effective medicines developed in the history of mankind. The twenty-year Afghanistan War/Debacle is finally over. We even managed to fly a helicopter on Mars. Oh, and movies are back in theaters.
That last one may seem like a double-edged sword, but…come on! Dune is totally worth risking Covid to see it the way it was meant to be seen. You’re right, no movie is worth that. But, vaccinations and masks at least make it far less risky and my mental health is just as important as my physical health. With those protections in place, not to mention far fewer audience members, I got to see a new movie in a theater for the first time in more than a year. Several movies, in fact.
Before we get to those movies, there are a couple of movie related topics I want to bring up. The first is a minor thing, from an opinion piece in the Washington Post I ran across last month titled “Please stop asking film directors about Marvel movies,” by Sonny Bunch. In it, the article notes that several directors have recently been asked if they would direct a Marvel movie and those same directors responding by pooh-poohing the very existence of superhero movies. Bunch argues that this question is solely for the purpose of stoking controversy and asserts that it should stop being asked and, in some cases, he’s not wrong. But, in other cases he’s dead wrong. Telling people not to ask questions is, to put it mildly, fucking idiotic. The Marvel question is not bad for all sides if the answer acknowledges that ALL movie genres are inherently good. And, why shouldn’t Martin Scorsese or Jane Campion or Ridley Scott take the question seriously and give it some thought?
Here’s an easy way to answer without sounding like a conceited twat – “I love that the film business has expanded further into ever more genres to give more people content they love. Personally, I really enjoy writing/directing/producing character driven dramas/mafia/period pieces/etc. That’s what excites me as a writer/director/producer. And if one day Marvel calls, of course I would give it a lot of thought. I’d be a fool not to consider the possibility of contributing my own ideas and creativity to the Marvel world.” I, for one, am immensely interested to know if Bunch’s so-called auteurs (incidentally, Bunch reveals how far the stick is up his ass by referring to his favorite directors as auteurs while deriding audience members as fan-boys) have given any thought to how they would direct a movie outside of their comfort zone. It certainly isn’t a divisive question, but the answer sure can be, like this one from Ridley Scott. “Their scripts are not any [expletive] good,” he said, adding, “They’re mostly saved by special effects, and that’s becoming boring for everyone who works with special effects.” Hey Ridley – since you seem to hate movies with shitty scripts and big special effects, let’s talk about Prometheus for a minute.
The second topic is related to the first and is a question I’ve been pondering for a long time. How many people out there actually want to see movies outside of the heavily marketed blockbusters, big-name comedies, and horror flicks? There is a decent piece by Brian Lowry discussing how different films of 2021 mattered in different ways. I’ve spent several of my own reviews discussing the well-worn topic of people complaining about sequels, remakes, big special effects, etc. while those same people continue to pay to see those same movies in droves. Lowry’s article includes call-outs to several musicals and black-and-white films while also noting that they will be seen by almost no one. Unfortunately, the article contains almost zero analysis on why that is, but I think I know the answer.
Movies, by and large, are an escape for people. Most people don’t want to be reminded of real life when they go to a theater. That’s why documentaries usually have tiny audiences. That’s why a movie like Coda (two deaf parents dealing with a child that can hear) and Belfast (a story about a youth living through the violence of late 20th century Ireland) will quietly come and go. And that’s before we get to the part where most people aren’t interested in black-and-white films or musicals because it’s not 1946 and who wants to spend fifteen to twenty dollars per person to see a movie without color?
My question is far more relevant now than it was two years ago in the before times. Back then, going to a movie didn’t include wondering if the person sneezing next to you was about to send you and your entire family to the hospital and maybe ordering popcorn was a bad idea since you have to take your mask off to eat it and, oh god, what kind of ventilation do they have in these cash-strapped theaters, why-didn’t-we-just-stay-home-and-watch-Red–Notice-again!!!
The point is going to the theater to see a movie is a bigger decision with more potential consequences now. Is West Side Story or The Power of the Dog really worth the money plus the risk? Is Spider-Man: No Way Home? Is G.I. Joe: Snake Eyes ever worth even the risk of stepping on gum? That question about directing a Marvel movie doesn’t look so bad now, does it?
My Top 5, er..3
This category is temporarily (now two years running) reduced to three to keep it around ten percent of my movie total. Unlike last year, these were a pretty easy call.
- Dune – My immediate thought upon the conclusion of the movie was there damn well better be a part two. Denis Villeneuve definitely has a knack for making smart, epic, visually gorgeous, science fiction films (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049). Add to that the brilliant performances out of the cast and music that is every bit a character as the people and we get one of the easiest best picture and best director choices in years. The only problem with the film is that part two was not greenlit until after release of part one. Luckily, problem solved.
- Spider–Man: No Way Home – My wife audibly gasped in the theater when Andrew Garfield appeared on screen. It was awesome. So was the movie itself. It managed to deftly tie together all three Spider-Man franchises, move the overarching MCU narrative forward, and be exceedingly fun and harrowing, all at the same time.
- King Richard – A great look at the childhoods of Venus and Serena Williams, as well as their dad. As I said in my review, the humanization of athletes is an extremely important lesson we all need to remember. This film drives that point home, allowing us to sympathize with the Williams sisters (and dad) as people instead of only seeing them on a pedestal holding shiny plates.
You Almost Made It
The two sequels here were so much better than I expected that they had to go here. If not for the top three being exceptionally good, I could make a case for any of these four being higher. After these four though, there is a huge drop off to the rest of my list of films.
- A Quiet Place Part II – I was extremely skeptical that they could pull of a repeat of the first movie, but I will no longer underestimate John Krasinski (director/writer/producer). Krasinski understands that the best kind of sequel is often one that is literally just a continuation of the story. Plus, the film is just as intense, despite us going into it armed with memories of the first movie.
- Ghostbusters: Afterlife – The trailer alone assured us the embarrassment that was the 2016 Paul Feig-helmed reboot would not be repeated. The movie itself confirmed it, cleverly bringing back elements of the original Ghostbusters to make a sequel that moves the story forward. You can finally rest in peace, Harold Ramis.
- Free Guy – Featuring the best cameo in a movie ever. And that’s the cherry on top of this delectable dessert of a movie. Ryan Reynolds at his best. Taika Waititi embodying everything gross about tech CEOs. Jodie Comer and Joe Keery continuing to impress. A story that speaks to every type of gamer. Even Channing Tatum pulling out a great performance. Delicious.
- The Mitchells vs. the Machines – This is one of those movies that comes out of nowhere. When I received the screener for awards consideration, I thought it was a movie being released around Christmas, but it was released in April. I wish I had known about it earlier because it is one of those animated films that is appealing to both kids and adults.
Honestly, I didn’t see any movies that truly made me squirm, so I grabbed the one war movie I saw this year so I wouldn’t have to fill it with “not applicable” or links to video of the U.S. Capitol being ransacked by domestic terrorists.
- Greyhound – When a movie can make you feel like you are standing on board a WWII destroyer in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, you are going to be uncomfortable. But, much like how we need to rewatch video of the 9/11 attacks and the 1/6 insurrection, we need to keep watching films like Greyhound to remind us of how horrifying war really is.
It is almost impossible to go into a movie without some sort of expectations. Usually, it’s from something you saw in a trailer, actors who are in the movie, or what you already know about the director. Other times, it’s because they are based on sixty-year old Disney rides your parents insisted would be fun.
- The Protege – Why haven’t we seen more of Maggie Q in action thrillers? She was fantastic in this film, especially since she had to match up next to Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton. And, no, the Divergent series does not count.
- Jungle Cruise – Admit it. There is no scenario where you thought Jungle Cruise wasn’t going to be another Disney live-action misfire. I wouldn’t put it up on the same level as Pirates of the Caribbean, but I would put it above all of the Pirates sequels.
- Encanto – A magic house? A main character whose only super-power, in a family of super powered members, is she has no super-power? I was fully expecting Encanto to be average at best, but it was convincingly charming and likeable. I even liked the songs (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda), since usually there is at least one in a Disney film that makes you want to push the Q-Tip in too far.
- Vivo – Speaking of Miranda, he also wrote the songs for Vivo. I actually enjoyed Vivo more than Encanto, including the music. “My Drum” is my favorite movie song of the year and is definitely one that will stick in your head.
Movies for Me
Movies for Me are my guilty pleasures. Whether or not they’re objectively good doesn’t matter. All that matters is they did the thing I wanted them to do – entertain me.
- The Suicide Squad – I wanted to put this one in surprisingly decent because it really was surprisingly decent. Especially considering its predecessor was a poopy-flavored lollipop.
- Red Notice – Red Notice came dangerously close to landing in a different, less forgiving category here. The actors were clearly having fun, they had pretty solid chemistry, and the story was like playing through a fun video game. But, the story was also like playing through a fun video game.
- Godzilla vs. Kong – Ape punch lizard. Lizard punch ape. Ape and lizard punch building. Lizard and ape punch aircraft carrier. Robot lizard punch mountain. Lizard and ape punch robot lizard. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.
- Gunpowder Milkshake – The title alone screams “we aren’t serious here, folks. Please enjoy.” I did enjoy. Even while Angela Bassett’s performance was making me cringe.
Meh…(or Movies Not for Me)
Flip a coin on these films. These movies were okay and also were movies. None of them spoke to me in any way, but maybe they spoke to you.
- The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Good performances don’t outweigh how bland and somewhat whitewashed was the telling of the story of the Bakkers. They were not good people, though Jim was far more despicable than Tammy Faye, and this movie seems almost apologetic of the fact that it had to show any of it.
- Wrath of Man – I’m not sure a movie with Jason Statham can ever be considered clever, but it happens from time to time. You have to go back a couple of decades to The Transporter or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but if you squint, you can see it. And clever is Guy Ritchie’s thing. Just not so much here.
- Old – While we’re on the subject of people who think they are clever, M. Night Shyamalan made another movie. You can always see what Shyamalan is going for in a movie and he almost always comes up really short. Old isn’t a bad movie, but neither is it a good movie. The thing that interested me was the reveal – scientists testing experimental cures on unwitting people. The thing that didn’t interest me was the dull and melodramatic 85 minutes it took to get to the payoff.
- Raya and the Last Dragon – There were plenty of moments of comedy and adventure to keep me interested, but not enough to leave a lasting memory of this film in my head. It is a great example of a film churned out by the machine Disney uses to make animated movies that tend to all feel the same.
- Luca – There were plenty of moments of comedy and adventure to keep me interested, but not enough to leave a lasting memory of this film in my head. It is a great example of a film churned out by the machine Disney uses to make animated movies that tend to all feel the same. Wait, what just happened?
Why do I not have movies like House of Gucci or Last Night in Soho on my list? Because there are other things that demand my attention besides movies, like…
- Hawkeye – There was a lot to like about Hawkeye. The banter between Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld. The pacing. The fact that it never takes itself too seriously. Yelena. Yeah, definitely Yelena. Please Marvel, can we get more Yelena in our films? She’s just so much fun.
- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – The chemistry between Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie is amazing. They fight liked a married couple, then fight like superhero partners. While the story in the first season didn’t blow me away, the two of them more than made up for any shortcomings in the writing.
- Loki – For my money, Loki is the best Marvel series of the four (including WandaVision). Watching the growth of Loki as he has to learn how to navigate actual relationships and deal with people on a personal level was extremely satisfying. And, like Yelena, Sophie is another character we definitely need to see more of in future MCU installments. Please, make this happen Marvel. In fact, can you find a way to put Sophie and Yelena in the same room together?
- Lost – My son is really into Lost. I don’t remember how we introduced him to it, but he loves it. The best part about it is the cliffhangers at the end of each episode drive him crazy, then we blow his mind by explaining to him that we had to wait an entire week, month, or summer to find out what happens next.
- Youth Baseball – My son is also really into baseball. He played over forty games this year and I got to watch all of it. And it’s just as good as any TV show or movie. It has ups and downs, cliffhangers, human beings acting like complete dicks to sixteen-year old umpires and other human beings acting like dicks to nine-year olds. Ok, so some parts of it are really fun to watch (the kids) and other parts are like watching Real Housewives. Good times.
- Various Favorite Movies We’ve Introduced Our Son To – Aliens, Back to the Future, The Matrix, Men in Black, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Major League, and Ace Ventura. Rewatching these films, especially to see my son’s reactions, is far more appealing than finding out if The Last Duel is as bad as I’ve heard.
- Second Viewings – There were several movies I watched a second time – Dune, The Matrix: Resurrections, No Time to Die, Shang-Chi, and King Richard – since I usually can’t take my family to advanced screenings or I wanted to watch them a second time to make sure I didn’t miss anything or they were just that good. Four out of five of those I would watch a third time.
- The Year 2021 – Just, fuck.
We’re Really Only in it for the Money
Even Covid couldn’t stop these money grabs from being released (I can’t believe that line still applies).
- The King’s Man – If this film had remembered its roots and given us a more coherent origin story, it would be in the next category. But it did have a really creepy scene featuring Ralph Fiennes legs that you won’t be able to unsee.
- James Bond: No Time to Die – I talked to a friend about this film who wanted to know what I thought of it before he went and saw it. He came back and cursed my name because, during his viewing of the film, he recognized and agreed what I described: A movie that was pretty solid, but with a bland villain and an ending that felt tacked on in order to truly end the Daniel Craig era. Sorry, not sorry.
- The Addams Family 2 – This movie acts as a public service announcement advising us all against family road trips. Unfortunately, it wasn’t funny enough or good enough for the message to sink in.
We Decided We Weren’t Just in it for the Money
Only one of these entries is a no-doubt, solid movie. The other three had to charm me a bit to stay out of the previous category.
- James Bond: No Time to Die – Yes, you did just see this movie in the previous category. Upon a second viewing, I found it much better than my original impression. My original criticisms still stand, but I respect the filmmakers really trying to give a proper send off to Daniel Craig, arguably the best James Bond in the franchise.
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – If this movie were only the fight scene on the bus and the fight scene on the side of the building, it would have been well worth it. But, it also featured a villain whose motivation was well thought out and understandable and two main characters (Shang-Chi and Katy) who were extremely likeable. Movies like this are why people keep going back for more Marvel.
- Black Widow – As much as I enjoy Scarlett Johansson, the sneaky star of this movie was Florence Pugh as Natasha’s sister, Yelena. She is a fantastic addition to the MCU and I love her mix of sarcasm and sincere love of simple things like a pocketed vest and boxed macaroni and cheese. She is a woman after my own heart.
- Cruella – I definitely could have put Cruella into the surprisingly decent category, but making a Cruella origin story is a pretty naked cash grab. I’m just glad they took the casting seriously, rather than spin a wheel where the only choices were all Angelina Jolie.
The second category where expectations are key. Lazy screenplays and disappointing films will always exist.
- The Tomorrow War – My expectations weren’t terribly high for this movie. The premise didn’t make any sense. Going back in time to bring people forward in time to fight a war against invading aliens? Where I had hope was in someone coming up with a really good explanation for the premise…and Chris Pratt. Chris Pratt was fine, but the explanation was a little bit like a four-year old trying to explain what happened in the bathroom.
- Eternals – Every once in a while, Marvel drops the ball. The last time was with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and is best described as a minor speed bump in an otherwise smooth car ride. Eternals was like a double-blowout, but if you drove on it for another two hundred miles.
- The Matrix: Resurrections – My expectations for this film were admittedly low, but like me, I’m sure you were expecting really cool visuals at the very least. Instead, we got a misrepresentation of bullet-time cinematography and Neo force-pushing his way out of fight scenes like a Sith who dropped out after getting his green belt.
- Nightmare Alley – If ever a movie could have benefitted from something supernatural occurring, it’s a remake of movie called Nightmare Alley, about a sideshow carnival, directed by Guillermo del Toro. Come on, man. This was a lay-up and you forgot to tie your shoes. Rookie mistake.
A Waste of Time
At least ‘The Letdowns’ contained some entertainment value. These next films were all very boring, not the least bit entertaining, and lacked any plot beyond the initial premise. They are the very definition of “two hours of your life you will never get back.”
- Red Rocket – The blurb on the front cover of the sleeve of this movie called the film “Shrewd, gritty, and unfailingly hilarious.” – Tomris Laffly, Roger Ebert.com. There was nothing remotely approaching funny or shrewd or gritty in this film, about a washed up porn actor crashing at his ex-wife’s house in his podunk hometown in west Texas while selling weed to oil workers and fucking an underage high school girl he’s trying to convince to go into the porn movie business so he can get back in the game. Even worse, it just ends with no real conclusion. I want my two hours back, Tomris.
- The Green Knight – A very weird movie, with possibly the most shoulder-shrugging ending I’ve ever seen. And not weird in an intriguing way, but weird in that same shoulder-shrugging way.
- In the Heights – Not only was the movie a colossal waste of time, but it was also a pretty massive letdown in the music department considering Lin-Manuel Miranda was behind it. Its complete lack of story and nonsensical singing reminded me a bit of Cats, but without having the decency of also being terrible in every way possible.
Not the Worst, But You Sure Tried Hard
The challenge with this category is convincing you of the one redeeming quality for each of these films that kept them out of the cellar. Good luck to me, right?
- Tom and Jerry – Another piece of my childhood trampled on by Hollywood muckity-mucks trying to cash in on anything and everything. Episodes of Tom and Jerry cartoons were just thirty minutes long, with commercials, and featuring three different mini-episodes. There is no way to translate that into a feature length movie and believe you did a good job. Redeeming quality – a running of time of just eighty-four minutes.
- The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard – The first film was moderately fun, with some good gags and action coming from Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, but it was clearly the type of movie that got made because Hollywood found some extra cash in the couch cushions. The sequel was a case-study in Hollywood trying to milk a bull. Redeeming quality – a cast of actors clearly not giving a shit about a terrible script and hamming it up to the point that it almost worked.
- G.I. Joe: Snake Eyes – If ever there was a movie franchise designed to sell more toys, it’s G.I. Joe. If ever there was a franchise that takes itself too seriously, it’s G.I. Joe. If ever there was a franchise that needs to stop it, just stop it, it’s The Fast and the Furious, then G.I. Joe. Redeeming quality – so obviously a two-hour commercial that few people spent actual money to see it ($40 million box office on a $110 million budget).
Pooping on the Silver Screen
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for – the five worst movies of the year. You might have already noticed there are only three films listed in this section. The dearth of films this year means I had to get creative and the shitty sequels are a great way to round out the sewer. But first…
- Without Remorse – I’m getting very close to giving up on Michael B. Jordan. I was not impressed by him in Creed, he annoyed me in Black Panther, and he was eye-poppingly bad in Fantastic Four. But, I wanted to give him another chance in a Tom Clancy story, so I watched Without Remorse. While the script did him no favors, he was utterly unconvincing as a Navy Seal and made me root against him the entire film. And he was the best component of this dreadful movie.
- Cosmic Sin – A movie with Bruce Willis that was so obviously bad the studio decided to release it way back in March when everyone was looking for vaccine appointments (well, almost everyone) instead of movie show times. It made $301 thousand at the box office. Total. Worldwide. Bruce Willis. I happened across it on a flight to Hawaii this summer, right after watching another Willis-helmed, absolute shitfest called Breach (released right at the end of 2020). Oh how the mighty have fallen.
- Voyagers – Worst movie of the year. It was close because this year also featured F9 and Mortal Kombat, but any movie trading on Lord of the Flies and managing to make it worse wins running away.
Pooping on the Silver Screen: The Sequel
This is the bonus category for movies that were made as sheer money grabs, but were also terrible movies in general. They are the shitty sequels, prequels, remakes, and franchise entries that keep getting made because you won’t stop watching them.
- Venom: Let There Be Carnage – I cut the first Venom a lot of slack, but this sequel deserves no such consideration. It was a mess from beginning to end and it wasn’t even the kind of mess that is fun. And that’s really all we’re asking for; to make it fun.
- F9 – It’s time we replaced the phrase “jumped the shark” with “pulled a Toretto.” It’s cleaner than “shot a Fiero into space” and sounds just as ridiculous.
- Mortal Kombat – Yep. My childhood is officially ash.
So that was 2021. 2022 is off to almost as dumb a start as 2021, though at least we haven’t had any more attempted insurrections. Covid still isn’t going away as new Covid cases in the U.S. are more than one million per day. PER DAY!! Despite having four different vaccines that all work exceptionally well. FOUR!! Inexplicably, even some members of the armed forces and healthcare workers – people who already are required to get a pile of other vaccinations that they never complained about and whose jobs are literally to protect others – have been so gaslit by conmen that they are complaining about getting arguably the safest and most effective vaccine ever invented. More movies have been delayed and delayed again (including Top Gun: Maverick, The Batman, and Mission: Impossible 7). Marvel has pushed back their entire slate of films due to production delays.
Put all of this together and we can look forward to another year of fewer movies being released, and us deciding whether or not to see any of the ones that will be released, because Typhoid ‘Murica thinks he’s sticking it to the Libs by playing chicken with a virus. The only thing that does is make this situation last longer, which means a much higher chance we don’t get to experience movies the way they were meant to be seen (and that’s the least of the consequences). I promise that Dune and No Time to Die were absolutely better on the big screen than on my living room TV. I know because I watched both on both – one of the benefits of being movie press. So get vaccinated. I don’t care about your politics and neither does Covid. If there is one thing I still miss about movies it’s experiencing it with family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers and resting assured that a sneeze is just a sneeze.
The last thing I want to say is go watch more movies. Doesn’t matter if it’s super-hero movies or boring Oscar-bait. Doesn’t matter if it’s at a theater or at home. Doesn’t matter if it only has two colors or all the colors. The only way we get more movies is to watch more movies. And don’t be a snob about it…in either direction. There are plenty of movies for everyone. For now.