As timely as ever, it is time for me to wrap up the new releases I was able to watch in 2021. As always, while I obviously don’t mind praising the movies I enjoyed the most from the year, I do not like ragging on the movies I liked the least. Even if a movie didn’t work for me, the people who made it have more talent and drive than I can ever imagine having, so trashing it feels inappropriate. So, instead, I take all the new movies I watched that did not crack my Top 20 and say something nice about them.
That is what follows! Tomorrow, I’ll post my top 20(ish) if you want to come back and check that out! In the meantime, enjoy the Be Kind Rewind for 2021 films! See y’all tomorrow, maybe! Either way, love y’all!
A Quiet Place Part II
The first film was one of the more pleasant surprises when it came out. Although I did not vibe with this film nearly as much as I did the first, there is still a lot to like here. Millicent Simmonds and Emily Blunt still give incredible performances in their roles, and Cillian Murphy adds his own impressive work. The sound design is still done in such a way that it creates an incredibly stressful viewing experience. But my biggest praise actually goes to the man in my theater who, when the trailer shot of a monster crawling out of the front of an out of control bus was displayed, exclaimed “That motherfucker driving the bus?” It was my favorite part of the movie and a nice encapsulation of why I missed going to theaters in 2020.
Although this movie still feels many years too late, for a wide variety of reasons, it was able to impress me more than it disappointed. A lot of why that is the case is the always strong Florence Pugh. She injects a dry humor, along with a lot of heart. She is a performer who, along with Jonathan Majors, who made his MCU debut in Disney+’s Loki, I’m simultaneously bummed that they are going to be giving less awards caliber performances in other films, but also excited that people who might not otherwise hear of things like Midsommar or The Last Black Man In San Francisco can be exposed to their talents.
Army of the Dead
A film that combines the horror of zombie films and the fun tension of a heist film, with mixed results, Zack Snyder’s lesser effort in 2021 still has the bragging rights of including a zombie tiger. Hadn’t seen a zombie tiger before and now I have. That’s neat.
I did not really expect much from this movie, so I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it. It has fun, if somewhat uninspired needle drops, a great performance from the always game Emma Stone, and a truly funny running gag of one of Cruella’s henchmen (played by the very talented and very No Longer On Twitter Paul Walter Hauser) constantly trying to figure out the nefarious angle of Cruella’s journey into becoming a fashion designer. However, the true standout of this movie, and one of the reasons we can say the phrase “Oscar Nominated Cruella” is the awe-inspiring costumes by Jenny Beavan. Below is just one of many many examples of Beavan’s incredible work on this movie.
Derek Delgaudio’s In & Of Itself
I went into this anticipating to just be impressed by a variety of magic tricks over a couple of hours, but was pleasantly surprised by how deeply personal the experience was. Whether he is drawing on his own emotional experience to give his tricks (or, if you prefer, illusions) a personal flair, or, in a memorable and powerful experience where he guesses a word that individual audience members picked out at the start of the show, this magic show is surprisingly one of the most emotional viewing experiences I was able to have last year.
It’s hard to write about something that Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved in and not just kind of marvel at how skilled he is at basically everything he does. It’s to the point that there is some set of awards called the Cinemania World Awards where four of the five nominees for Best Musical Picture had significant involvement from Miranda (wrote the songs for this film, created In The Heights, directed Tick, Tick…Boom!, wrote music for and voiced a character for Vivo). He’s just an extremely talented man, and his songs here are no exception. The music is so popular that Disney has its first #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 in nearly 30 years and now every song on the film’s soundtrack is on that same chart. It also has the huge pleasure of being the only non-Cocomelon or Laurie Berkner song my two-year-old song will allow to be played in our home, which, to me, means it is the best music I could ever hear.
A man named Ikaris flies into the sun.
I cannot emphasize enough.
A man. Named Ikaris. Flies. Into THE SUN.
Godzilla vs Kong
Big monke dislocates shoulder and then slams it back into place with building. Big monke and big lizard team up to punch robot lizard in the head. TJ love big monke.
A significant portion of this film’s message is how childhood trauma can stay with us forever and, if we don’t work to control it and manage it, it can turn us into monsters just like the monsters from our past. It works with…very mixed results. At it’s worst, the movie lingers on a corpse of a man who, after having escaped a psychiatric facility and confused for Michael Myers (which, El Oh El, if this was Michael Myers, he’d be killing all of you , but whatever), would rather jump to his death than face the raging mob. At it’s best, the movie pulls off the neat trick of making you feel bad for Michael Myers as a mob extra-judicially attempts (and fails) to beat him to death. I’m not entirely sure if that was the intent of the filmmakers, but it feels like an impressive trick to pull off, so I’m going to give them credit for it.
It is so rare that a movie, or really any sort of media, has a story about a happily functioning relationship. This movie takes advantage of that by making us wonder if, because the central couple seems to have nothing wrong going on, if something is capital w Wrong with them. Throw in a mysterious, possibly supernatural government official played by Stephen Root, and this comedy has an uneasy edge to it that helps it stand out.
Making a movie about an amusement park ride that mostly exists to let tired dads hear dad jokes for around 10 minutes into a feature-length film starring The Rock feels like an…interesting decision, to say the least. The fact that it never reaches the highs of Pirates of the Caribbean shouldn’t be a surprise then, but that it never feels as bland as the movie based on the much more interesting ride The Haunted Mansion, should perhaps be, I don’t know, noted? Celebrated/lauded feels too strong, but it could have been much worse. Part of the reason it’s at least engaging is wildly accented performances from both Paul Giamatti and the always wonder Jesse Plemons. At one point Plemons pops out of a submarine, gives some kind of German greeting, and then unleashes hell with a gun that appears to be twice the size of him. It’s incredibly funny. Jesse Plemons rules. Plemons hive activate and try to figure out how a 3-for-1 deal can be profitable for Frito Lay.
Last Night In Soho
Although the message of this movie gets muddled to hell in its final act, there are enough fun Edgar Wright flourishes to still make this a worthy venture. The dance scene where Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy seamlessly switch places is an awe-inspiring feat of editing and performance that I could watch an extended making-of feature on that sequence alone.
Although the movie is never able to really fully reveal its hand about its subtext, the fact this movie is a version of a couple of gay kids struggling to reveal their truth to an unaccepting world is pretty cool. Disney’s relationship with queer relationships is a deeply frustrating one, when the news cycles making a fuss out of nothing, and then having that nothing excised out of markets that are less accepting than our own. Even though its never made explicit, this movie feels like a better display of a same sex relationship than any of the above linked films.
Despite being a Mortal Kombat that lacks the titular tournament (the movie’s plot is that the villain wants to stop Mortal Kombat from happening, which, sure?), we still get some fairly entertaining fights and deaths in this movie. In general, could they have been better and gorier? The answer to that question is unambiguously yes. Did I get to see a demon lady get graphically cut in half, length-wise, by a hat? Yes, yes I did. Also, this line of dialogue is delivered, and I am working on contact the American Film Institute so they can update their Top #100 Quotes accordingly.
This was my first movie back in a theater aside from what was about two people short of a private showing of Tenet in 2020. Seeing Bob Odenkirk get his own little John Wick moment was a nice welcome back to theaters, with a pretty electric fight scene on a bus. However, this film’s biggest surprise was getting to see an 80-year-old (!) Christopher Lloyd (!!) just blow dudes apart with a shotgun. I can’t confidently tell you the last time I saw Lloyd in something where it wasn’t a cameo based on a prior role in his career (a Clue-based episode of Psych, countless appearances as Doc Brown), so getting to see him have a major role in this, and then watch him fight along Odenkirk and RZA was such a damn treat.
Some early 2022 viewings of 2021 films pushed this out of a Top 20 spot, and let me tell you, it breaks me heart to not get to see this movie on that list, but I gotta keep it honest. That said, you just have to give it up to M. Night Shyamalan. My man was a punchline for years (I can still remember people laughing at his name showing up in trailers for Devil). Did he make some rough movies for a stretch, often bogged down by his twist endings he loved so much? Yes, he did. Did that deserve the animosity he ended up receiving? I don’t think so, no. That said he crawled back into folks good graces with the found-footage horror comedy of The Visit and then even got us back into his twisty good graces with the reveal that Split was a surprise sequel to Unbreakable. And then (Spoilers for Glass in italics) he drowned his unbreakable man in a puddle lol (Spoilers over). Then after that, he made Old, whose pitch of some folks go to a beach that make you old became a Twitter meme for a while. This movie is wild, and includes a scene where a recently pre-teen girl gets pregnant, delivers the baby and then the baby dies from a lack of attention all within like ten minutes. Later on, you see the implication that the baby’s bones are dust now. Dude just makes the movies he wants to make, and, considering his history, that rules.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Although I’m not sold on Disney’s (and, really, most current animated features) tendency to hire typical live action performers to voice cast animated films, getting to watch this movie knowing that it is Kelly Marie Tran voicing the lead character is something of a treat. It’s no secret that Kelly Marie Tran had to leave social media due to the way that Star Wars fans treated her, somehow made a bit more frustrating by her character being sidelined in The Rise Of Skywalker, the messy conclusion to the Skywalker saga. While I don’t confidently know that any of this is connected, it was nice to see Tran get to be in a Disney property that not only gave a shit about her character, but also allowed her to be received well among fans. I know this is all a stretch for what I liked about this movie, but also Kelly Marie Tran got done dirty for a while and I hope that this is a step in the right direction for the way people view her.
Shang-Chi And The Legend of the Ten Rings
This might have been the biggest MCU surprise of the year (at least in terms of films, the fact that the Disney+ shows were more often good than not is, itself, kind of a pleasant surprise). I think there is a lot to praise here, but I think what helps it really stand out amongst other MCU films is it’s villain performance. The MCU can struggle when it comes to creating engaging villains that have motivations that feel worthwhile to engage with, but that is not an issue here, with Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu striking a balance between feeling like a genuine threat, while still having a lot of emotion built around it. Every action he takes in this movie feels so deeply rooted in the love that he feels for his late wife, the movie also pulls off the first truly convincing love story in the MCU (I did not really check this against my memory of the other movies, but also it feels more likely to be true than it doesn’t so I’m sticking to it. Fight me, but, also, don’t, I’m very weak). It’s a shame that, like Erik Stevens before him, the MCU pretty much immediately offs its most engaging villain, I’m still happy for the time that we got to spend with him.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
This is such a strange movie. Early on, LeBron James visits Warner Brothers, who pitches him on a new technology (created by an algorithm, played by Don Cheadle [sure]) where they can upload his presence into The WB’s vast film library. James says it’s a bad idea. Anyways, the movie then puts him into The WB’s vast film library so that he can find all the Looney Tunes who are somehow spread around these properties? I don’t know. But throughout all this nonsense, we get at least one gag that made me laugh (Casablanca’s “play it again, Sam” line cutting to Yosemite Sam at the piano) and then an actually novel sequence where Lola Bunny is competing in some Amazonian trials with a blessedly not Gal Gadot-voiced Wonder Woman. It’s the only time that the movie uses any real creativity with the way that it engages with a WB property, and it’s one of the few times that movie truly feels to have a life of its own.
Spiral From The Book Of Saw
I spent a portion of 2021 watching all of the Saw movies, and, y’all let me tell you: I do not care much for those movies. It’s to the point that outside of the genuinely fun and chilling first film, the only thing I actively found myself liking was when a Jigsaw trap house inexplicably included a moment where a human-sized bird cage shatters through a window, only to include the Jigsaw puppet giving a new clue. What a weird way to rig a message being delivered! It’s very funny! That said, this movie is somehow my second favorite Saw film? It has basically nothing to do with the other films, and its death traps seem genuinely more interested in why the person is in the trap, instead of the torture the person goes through to get out of it. The fact that the killer’s motive (killing corrupt cops) actually makes sense, as opposed to most of what John Kramer was doing which was *checks notes* making people appreciate their lives? (??)
Yeah I don’t know, movie was cool though.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
The first two Conjuring movies are two horror movies fairly recently released by a major film company (Warner Brothers) that I actually hold with a pretty high regard, and a lot of that is because of James Wan’s direction. The way he uses long-takes to slowly build dread, and then pulling the trigger on something resembling a jump scare makes these horror movies truly stand out. Losing his touch on this third film doesn’t do it any favors (and having another Wan horror film come out later in the year showed why, more on that tomorrow). That said, this movie did have some tricks up its sleeves, including its most striking image, Vera Farmiga’s Loraine Warren kneeling in the woods and having it quickly shift from day to night, being done entirely in camera!
The Harder They Fall
A prime example of how even if I don’t necessarily vibe with the story around the movie, a captivating cast can keep my interest, even for over 135 minutes. The Western drama at heart of this film is fine enough, but when you have it being acted out by folks like Idris Elba, Academy Award winner Regina King, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield and the above-mentioned Jonathan Majors, you’ll find yourself being willing to put up with some less engaging story.
The Little Things
I saw this movie over a year ago, and even then I was like “huh, might be hard to talk about something I really vibed with in this movie.” I wouldn’t say that it is actively bad, it just feels out of place and time. But, to follow the rules of this post, I will now say something nice about it, and that nice thing is that Jared Leto gives a real weird performance. Which is basically just a way of saying that Jared Leto is in this movie? I don’t know, he’s an annoying man, but his performance feels alien enough that it feels fun.
The Tomorrow War
I’ve been at this project for a while now, having filled it out from A to Z, and as I near the end, I get to movies I watched a while back and didn’t vibe with in a significant way. Although I liked this one more than the film last is listed above it, even a science fiction action film that finds people like Chris Pratt (whatever!) and Sam Richardson (rad as hell!) fighting weird aliens, can eventually wear on me. That said, there is a part where Chris Pratt, in an effort to save his father from one of the aliens, launches himself off a snowmobile! I remember feeling a glimmer of joy in that moment, so yeah, that’s the moment that gets a shoutout here. Oh, also when there’s a sixty sequence where the only dialogue is Sam Richardson quietly cursing to himself as he runs from an alien. Sam Richadson rules.
Those Who Wish Me Dead
Taylor Sheridan has been making something resembling modern westerns for a little over five years now, writing some truly haunting classics like Sicario and the Oscar-nominated Hell Or High Water. Last year he wrote and directed this film, about a former forest firefighter who has to protect a son whose father was murdered for the government secrets that he knew. Eventually, they find themselves contending with the government officials seeking to kill the boy, as well as a massive forest fire. Although not nearly striking as some of his previous work, there’s still a lot to like here, including a strong performance from Angelina Jolie. The best sequence, though, finds Jolie and the boy crossing an open field during a lightning storm. It’s incredible tense and includes a shot where Jolie takes a hit and then brushes it off. Even without the staying power of Sicario, this film shows that Sheridan is worth keeping an eye on.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Like Old, it broke my heart to have some late in the game viewings stop this movie from making the final ranking, but here we are. The first Venom was at its best when it let Hardy be kind of nuts, and the more detached it was from whatever the “story” of that movie was. That’s mostly the case here, too, but it has a higher percentage of time away from the Venom vs Carnage “story.” Woody Harrelson is a much better villainous foil for Hardy than Riz Ahmed was in the first film, but even he somehow isn’t fully ready to go toe to toe with whatever the hell Hardy is doing here. Throw in that this movie seemed to make Venom and Eddie’s romatnic relationship canonical, to the point that Venom goes to a very neon club and announces that he is “coming out of the Eddie closet.” It’s now clear that Hardy will not be participating in the MCU, which is a bummer, because it would be a joy to see his lunacy deal with anyone in that universe, but I’m happy to see whatever else we’ll get from these bonkers movies.
A movie where Nicolas Cage goes against what is basically a Five Nights At Freddy’s situation should have been more nuts, but with other (very boring!) characters added to get the body count up, it leaves a lot to be desired. That said, you still get to see Nicolas Cage just full on murder some possessed animatronics, which is a lot of fun. I think my favorite part of the whole thing though is that Cage’s character seems to live by some kind of code where, no matter what the situation is, he will take a break to drink beer and play pinball. It’s such a weird character thing that never gets explained and adds this weird level of personality to the movie, which, in a movie that already has a lot of personality thanks to the always nuts Cage, helps it feel even more noteworthy.
Zack Snyder’s The Justice League
I feel very torn on this movie’s existence. On one hand, I don’t like that it feels like a bunch of fans strong-armed a company into making a different version of a movie that they didn’t like, and that could set up a very unfortunate precedent for other fans to keep trying to keep this kind of behavior up in the future. That said, you can’t help but feel for Snyder, who had to leave the production of the original movie after the tragic loss of his daughter, only to have Joss Whedon (who, uh, well, who sucks) take over the film and change the heart of the story. So, I hope this doesn’t become a trend but I’m glad Snyder got a chance to tell his story, even if his story is *checks notes* four hours long. But it’s a substantial improvement over the original version we saw, and gives a lot more life and emotion to Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, which, considering he was the one to bring voice to Whedon’s buffonery, feels particularly satisfying.
Making a movie about a Twitter thread is kind of hard to fathom, especially when the thread is about an at times hard to believe true story about sex work. Add in that the film is intended to be a pitch black comedy, and there is a lot that could go terribly wrong with this movie. Luckily, director Janicza Bravo is able to handle the story and tone with deft skill, anchored by a wide range of stellar performances from its four principal cast members. From the terrifying Colman Domingo, to the gloriously whiny and ignorant Nicholas Braun, to the walking microaggressions of Riley Keough, to the confident but terrified audience surrogate Taylour Paige as the title character, the movie relies on its core cast to keep this film afloat. It’s honestly a miracle this movie works, and everyone involved deserves more credit than this film has received.