It’s that hallowed time of the year where I make a list documenting my top 5 favorite and least favorite movies from the year. Of course, I’ve made a rule where Super Hero films unless they are The Dark Knight levels of transcendent won’t make it on the best list. This of course means I’m now excluding 75% of the fucking media made today, so it’s less narrowing things down to 5 best films and laboriously strangling 5 out of this year. Meanwhile populating the worst list was about as hard as finding somebody about to ironically die of Covid in a few weeks at an Anti-Vax rally. 2021 was a mistake and so was the invention of cinema. This is the top 5 best and worst films of 2021.
5th Best- Last Night in Soho
There are a lot of things I don’t like about this film, let’s get that out of the way first. I think the overarching plot is really generic and the psychological horror elements are elementary at best. In addition, the 3rd act and resolution are really sloppy, but despite all these tremendous flaws, I actually really enjoyed this film. From a visual and sound design standpoint, this film is incredible, and how it transitions between the two eras in such a unique and distinct way was really cleverly done. While the basic plot is a bit rudimentary, the commentary on nostalgia and how we romanticize the past because we only think of what was better is so well done. The performances really carry the film though. Anya Taylor-Joy is a legitimate star, and Thomasin McKenzie almost matches her performance level. This movie was far, far from perfect, but I applaud Edgar Wright for making a film that essentially casts aside his own signature style to try something new without losing the unique voice that he always brings to his movies.
5th Worst- The Matrix: Resurrections
This film was so baffling on so many levels. There’s plenty of room in the concept of “The Matrix” for clever meta commentary, and for the first act of this film, it kind of fulfills that potential, being a decent deconstruction of cash grab reboots and later day sequels. Then for the rest of the movie, it just becomes the exact thing they were making fun of in the first 3rd. Maybe that was just by design, but the writing is really up its own ass about being ironic and in on the joke. There’s a cynicism and unsubtly to the whole thing that just comes off as insanely obnoxious, to the point that it literally name drops Warner Brothers in a derogatory way. It got so bad, I was fully expecting one of the characters to look directly at the camera and say “The Matrix sequels are actually brilliant, but people don’t want to think, they just want dumb action movies.” I could excuse the eye-rolling level of self-awareness and thinly-veiled industry bashing if the visuals and fight scenes were decent but they are shot and edited worse than the ones from over 2 decades ago. The only thing more annoying than how this film treats its own audience is the Right Wingers who are super convinced that a film made by an outspokenly liberal trans woman is totally agreeing with their agenda.
4th Best- The Last Duel
I’ve said before that Ridley Scott either makes amazing classics or really ambitious flops and nothing in between. Well, unfortunately in terms of money made, this is an ambitious flop, but the quality is closer to that of a classic than not. The story, visuals and editing are all great in this retelling of the last trial by combat event ever in France. The characters are what really drive this period piece, and Adam Driver and Jody Comer were standouts amongst the performances. This is his first film in a long time that has felt like a “Ridley Scott” movie. The slow burning, almost claustrophobic way the characters interact leading up to the titular events had me on the edge of my seat, and seeing the different character’s perspectives really added a nuance and depth to the entire story. The script just isn’t quite as sharp as I wanted it to be, as some of the storytelling comes off as rather cold and trying to be overly intellectual, but the performances are so good, I ultimately didn’t care. This is legitimately one of Ridley Scott’s best films.
4th Worst- The Tomorrow War
I’m convinced that streaming services will just give any script hundreds of millions of dollars if they can attach a household name to it as the lead. Of course, this movie released on Amazon Prime, so we know for a fact that Jeff Bezos wipes his stray cum with handfuls of millions of dollars. Even on a basic level, this movie doesn’t have the substance or ideas to be anything other than mediocre. “Why are you sending people from the past to fight in a future war if you have time travel tech, why don’t you just send people back to deal with the threat before it happens?” Is just one of the questions I asked almost immediately in this horribly thought out plot. The climax is literally kicked off with a kid googling climate change, and I’m not joking. Horribly bland script, generic characters, bad CGI, poorly shot action, there’s just nothing remotely likable about this movie, even the lead. Chris Pratt is to cinema what a piece of burnt, dry toast is to a meal. This film wasn’t egregiously bad, but it typifies the type of generic garbage that gets approved on to streaming platforms at a rate that seems like nanoseconds.
3rd Best- The Green Knight
The Green Knight is a wonderful retelling of the Arthurian legend of the Green Knight. This film succeeds so well at engrossing you in the world of the story. This is in no small part due to the absolutely stunning cinematography, with every single frame looking like a medieval painting. But it’s not just the cinematography that stands out visually, it’s the sets, the lighting and the visual effects that have a lot of bold stylistic choices which give the movie such a unique look. The cast, especially Dev Patel as Gawain were exceptional, and the editing gives it such a surreal, dreamlike quality to it all, which really fits the narrative’s mediation on mortality and death. The script does suffer from the shallow emotional depth that plagues a lot of A24’s films, but The Green Knight overall was something that I’m really glad I experienced in theaters.
3rd Worst- Cruella
One of the most annoying trends in media is trying to give (especially retroactively) villains sympathetic backstories. Cruella is not only this type of lame story, it’s a live action Disney film, so you know what that means. Ironic jokes about the source material that grind the film to a halt, stupid, gaudy set and costume design, bad CGI and bland direction. So, what exactly was that sympathetic backstory that was so well thought out that it just had to have a prequel movie told about it? Oh, her mom gets drop kicked off a cliff by dalmatians. I guess that’s as good a reason as any to hate one specific breed of dogs with that much fervor. I do have to admit that the pseudo-punk yass queen shit in this movie was goddamn hilarious, but having any sort of anti-establishment message in a fucking Disney movie takes a lack of self-awareness mostly reserved for Star Wars fans. Overall, this movie was really dumb and its only point was to continue Disney’s trend of wringing as much money as humanly possible out of every IP that even a stone being squeezed for blood would tell them to give it a rest.
2nd Best- Dune
Dennis Villeneuve brings his ambitious vision of the world of Dune to the big screen. I can see why it’s been said that Dune is unfilmable, because this is such a dense story with tons of world building, politics, factions and exposition, but Villeneuve pulls it off admirably. This movie is so gorgeous from a visual standpoint, and both the practical sets and CGI are well done. There is a lot of set up and background exposition here, but it balances itself well with actually getting you to care about the world and characters. The ability to take abstract concepts from the book like the voice, spice hallucinations, or the shields and turn them into something that actually looks and sounds cool is a very impressive feat. The cast is excellent, and the narrative does a really good job translating the novel’s deconstruction of the destined hero myth to the silver screen. My only complaint with this film is that it literally is half a story, and I just wish that we didn’t have to wait so long to see it concluded. That being said, it’s impossible to call yourself a fan of cinema and not respect the level of craftsmanship on display by Villeneuve and his team here.
2nd Worst- Free Guy
Movies like the Lego Movie and Ready Player One have set a trend of mainstream films devolving into major plot points just being references to other IP that people like, and Free Guy really has an issue with this, but a climax that revolves around him using a lightsaber and Captain America’s shield for no reason other than because it’s a thing people know is the least of its problems. The story is predictable and lame, and I was in no way surprised to learn this film has been trying to get made since about 2013, since that was the last time about 90% of the jokes would have been considered remotely funny. Taika Waititi and Ryan Reynolds both give completely obnoxious performances and the movie is convinced it knows a lot about video games and gaming culture while continuously proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that it really doesn’t. “Satirical, this movie was fun and harmless, stop being so harsh and cynical and just enjoy things.” How about this reader, I will lower my standards for cinema when Ryan Reynolds plays someone other than himself in a movie. Something tells me he can hold out a lot longer than I can.
Best Movie of 2021- The Power of the Dog
What an unsettling and inspiring piece of cinema. Benedict Cumberbatch gives an incredible performance in this western drama (Even if his accent is a bit goofy,) but that shouldn’t overshadow Kirsten Dunst’s equally brilliant performance. Director and screenwriter Jane Campion returns for her first film in over a decade and she reminds us how to make a truly powerful film about desire. A beautiful and dark romance story set in the dying days of the old west; this movie is one of the best looking of 2021, with tons of gorgeous landscape shots. I’m not surprised to learn that this film was adapted from a book, because it was on such a wonderful slow burn and I was so gripped by it that it felt like reading a captivating book where you couldn’t wait to turn the page. The ending might be a little confusing and divisive, but I love how it ended, and how it left me craving more. I will be shocked if this movie isn’t winning big come awards season. Easily my favorite film of the year.
Worst film of 2021- Space Jam: The New Legacy
I don’t have any emotional attachment to the original Space Jam, which might be heresy to say as somebody who grew up when that movie was huge. I think I was in the room when it was on once, but that’s all I remember. Bringing this movie back for a sequel when everyone who was young enough to derive nostalgic feelings for a mediocre Looney Toons/Michael Jordan mashup is now a cynical 20 something year old who can’t afford a house of their own because all the boomers think you can still make a living off of 8 dollars an hour seems kind of pointless. But this movie fucking sucked unless you wanted to watch a 2-hour long ad for various Warner Brother’s properties. Mainstream cinema is slowly but surely beginning to devolve into having entire film plots revolve around references to other IP that people know and like, and Space Jam 2 is somehow even worse about this than Ready Player One was. I didn’t even derive any enjoyment from the Looney Toons either because the animation is sub-par CG and the jokes just weren’t there. It baffles me how something like this and Power of the Dog share the same medium when Space Jam is the cinematic equivalent of an A.D.D. riddled child smashing all his toys together. It might not be the objectively worse film of the year, but it’s the one that bothered me the most, which is saying a lot since Free Guy also came out this year. The only positive I have to say about this movie is that Lebron James is a slightly less horrible actor than Michael Jordan is.