It’s listing time again! In today’s entertainment consumption sphere, all experiences must be pitted against each other and assigned numeric values that are ultimately arbitrary to anyone except the writer themselves. It’s just this fun thing some of us love doing even though the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
I saw 22 films in theaters in 2021, a 450% increase over 2020’s pandemic-damaged mini-roster but far short of 2019’s record-setting 32. Two of those 22 were officially 2020 releases I didn’t catch till after New Year’s, which therefore disqualified them from this list, because I’m an unreasonable stickler about dates. Ranking those two from Best to Worst isn’t hard:
Of the remaining 20 contenders that I saw in theaters and were 2021 releases, we had six super-hero films, four non-superhero sequels, three remakes of previous films or new covers of previously filmed sources, two non-preceded adaptations, two biopics, one documentary, one animated film (man, what a comedown), and one original horror film. Once again this was a year filled with distractions that kept me from spending gas money on every film that caught my attention. None of this includes my home viewing of 2021 releases, which is a separate list for another time.
Here’s the rundown of what I didn’t miss in theaters in 2021, for better or worse. By and large I dodged cinematic catastrophes at the theater, so the full standings comprise a lot of pretty solid works punching each other for supremacy in my head. The least of these rates a C, which is better than I can say about my home video choices. Links to past excessively wordy reviews and sometimes bizarrely construed thoughts are provided for historical reference. And now, on with the bottom half of the countdown:
20. Spider-Man: No Way Home. No other film this year or decade required me to undergo a 5000-word therapy session to process my reaction. The box-office juggernaut rewarded Sony execs and their now-requited lust for a Sinister Six supergroup movie by adapting one of the two worst stories in Spider-comics history into a pint-sized Into the Spider-Verse knockoff with CG stunts photocopied from other Marvel films. Director/enabler Jon Watts gave us a round of admittedly entertaining fan-service which culminated in Andrew Garfield, the Jan Brady of Movie Spideys, delivering the best performance in any 2021 superhero film. All it took was trapping Tom Holland’s otherwise upstanding Peter Parker into a cruelly crafted escape room from which the only way to unlock its narrow plot exit was to beg his fairy godfather to wish all his problems away for him — the source of the central conflict and, maddeningly, its ultimate resolution — while expecting us to accept that asking a friend to solve all your problems is what it looks like to take “Great Responsibility”. It was the most disappointing warping of a classic hero’s moral core since Man of Steel.
19. Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Turning Spider-Man’s de facto evil twin into a pair of mismatched roommates starring in The Murder Odd Couple wasn’t the worst idea. Cranking the comedy gearshift all the way to Batman and Robin camp level, not so much. Tom Hardy remains one of his own best costars, but as Spider-Man’s de facto evil twin’s de facto even eviler twin, a maniacal Woody Harrelson goes beyond all-out in overplaying Carnage as a parody of Natural Born Killers, whose lessons we as a society have willfully forgotten. Superhero films could desperately use more tonal and emotional variance, but this one is too busy throwing handfuls of Rocky Horror trash at its antihero to keep him in focus.
18. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. No, I don’t suddenly hate all superhero films now. Half of Simu Liu’s superstar debut is a rockin’ street-level adventure with grade-A stunt choreography and deft BFF chemistry between Shaun the Valet and Awkwafina, who’s an absolutely perfect recruit to maintain mandatory MCU banter levels. Then halfway through the screenplay, someone in charge decided those misguided Narnia films had the right idea and suddenly Our Hero is caught between Lord of the Rings armies, and then someone else in charge decided Middle-Earth would’ve been ten times cooler if it had dueling kaiju. Tony Leung lifts every scene he’s in like he’s taking the entire film’s reins, but he can’t quite escape the vortex of recycled CG clutter. Liu barely emerges, not entirely unscathed, as just another hero-guy convinced magic space weaponry will make him stand out in the crowded field. Mostly it makes him Marvel’s Green Lantern.
17. Being the Ricardos. Lucille Ball led a life that could fill entire seasons of a biopic series, but Aaron Sorkin was only afford a two-hour highlight reel that pits her against her own Sinister Six supergroup. Adultery! Tabloids! Pregnancy! Studio execs! Commie accusations! A lousy director! Annoying costars! Even more annoying writers! Wait, that’s more than six. Sorkin overcomplicates his multiple plot threads like he overcomplicates his dialogue, though at least the latter is my jam when it’s on point. Under all that weight comes a lot of creaking and buckling from the two A-listers assigned to symbolize Lucy and Desi rather than embodying them, going through the motions with none of the original duo’s legendary comedy magic, looking all the more egregious when they’re sitting next to J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, both at the same table proving it can be done, and done exceedingly well. I’d raise this a full letter grade if it were re-centered as Being the Mertzes with Ball as the lead antagonist.
16. Godzilla vs. Kong. Adam Wingard zookeeps Warner Brothers’ would-be kaiju supergroup to its oddly sudden grand finale with maybe one-tenth the total monsters I’d expected in this series. The year’s tallest crossover lacks the catastrophic grandeur of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and falls short of the so-bad-it-was-TOTALLY-AWESOME Kong: Skull Island, two films that proved the human scenes in monster flicks don’t have to be disposable time-wasters. HBO Max subscribers with tiny screens were even less impressed, but for a few of us foolhardy rascals who were only partially vaccinated at the time of GvK‘s spring release, its king-sized three-round wrestling match was irresistible bait that lured us to the nearest upscale mega-screen where we hoped the volume-27 sound waves might bludgeon our worries and any menacing viruses away.
15. The Matrix Resurrections. Of all the 2021 sequels no one asked for, none was more asked-against than this compromised unraveling of a closed-loop trilogy that only had a 40% quality success rate the first time around. For the first hour Lana Wachowski’s sly satire of her real-world corporate overlords and of fandom’s incurable addiction to nostalgic anesthesia signals hope for a full-on meta-Matrix in the same mode as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, complete with fourth-wall-piercing snipes at the once-innovative “bullet-time” film-tech. Then Our Heroes are trudged back to the “real world”, the trilogy’s most derivative environment, where the rebel alliance never grew personalities and their visual effects have been surpassed by the 22 years’ worth of blockbusters they influenced. A clever inversion in the Neo/Trinity relationship in the eleventh hour doesn’t quite make up for too many lackluster chases, claustrophobic team fights in broom closets, blender-edited martial arts with 90% more stunt doubles than the original, and armies of copied-‘n’-pasted faceless minions. It’s A.D. 2021 and there are visual effects teams who still don’t know that flooding a scene with hundreds of low-res character image files bumping into each other like slightly more fidgety Space Invaders does not make a film “cool”.
Housekeeping note: I’d recommend all films from this point up the list even as the reasons for favoring one over the other may seem pettier as we go. But 6-way ties are not allowed in the movie ranking game. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Well, okay, I do make a few of my own rules, but not that rule.
14. Nightmare Alley. Even without the monsters or supernatural forces that have been front and center of all his previous films, Guillermo del Toro’s fanciful suspense throwback, with Bradley Cooper as an aspirationally devious mentalist who just can’t stop using people and Cate Blanchett as the smartest schemer to step into his path, will seem a worthy addition to his library if you’ve never seen its 1947 predecessor. If you saw the Tyrone Power version first like I did, you can appreciate the original’s black-and-white seediness, Power’s more nakedly desperate hunger for control, and the creative workarounds to get thrills ‘n’ chills in the Hays Code era, as opposed to del Toro’s less subtle Fangoria-subscriber proclivities. Just because you can totally show all the gore ‘n’ grue you want, because “progress” or whatever, doesn’t make it the most artistically impressive option.
13. A Quiet Place Part II. Except for a flashback prologue to life in the Before Times, the sequel picks up seconds after the original and will someday be seamlessly stitched to it for marathon viewing purposes. The sound-sensitive killer aliens lose the subtlety that made them special as director John Krasinski exchanges the novelty of their off-screen terror for the chance to turn them into mutated velociraptors and the seen-it-before sameness that entails. But a few set pieces teach those old dogs new tricks, and even the family evolves as Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe have to step up and become Our Heroes, thus reassuring Emily Blunt that she and their dad taught them well. In some ways “more of the same” was a welcome encore for this popcorn flick that represented my first theatrical event after getting my two shots. It also never hurts to add Cillian Murphy to your party’s guest list.
12. Final Account. Today’s documentarians have a good 20-30 years left to interview every last survivor of World War II before we lose them all. Thankfully most contributors to that particularly voluminous cinematic library find an angle worth exploring for reminders to the world that there’s a reason we have to keep going over this. In this case, the late filmmaker Luke Holland interviewed Germans who lived through WWII at varying levels of contact, responsibility, and moral response to the atrocities that in some cases were literally happening at the giant, noxious murder factory next door. Holocaust denial isn’t just for American high school dropouts or our homegrown thugs we carelessly label “Nazis”, thereby devaluing the term’s full meaning and maximum impact, but when you hear testimonies from actual Germans who think all the atrocities were happening Not In My Back Yard — or worse, whose lifelong anti-Semitism has yet to fade in the slightest — it fills you with dread to wonder how many years we have till next time humanity has to learn the hard way all over again that Genocide Is Evil, You Evil Idiots. I should rank this higher on supportive principle, but I’ve been spoiled by watching more docs in recent years where they’ve had more cash to spend on production values. There’s a place for old-fashioned camera work that’s stationary and pragmatic even when turned away from all the talking heads, but I’m not convinced that place is in a theater where masks are required for our safety and the A/C is on the fritz, as it was at our screening.
11. Encanto. My first cartoon in theaters since Pixar’s Onward is Disney’s latest overture to lands beyond our borders and the inspiring tales they can host. Emboldened by music and lyrics from the Lin-Manuel Miranda, Stephanie Beatriz leads an engaging singing ensemble as Mirabel Madrigal, the powerless teen oddball in an otherwise super-powered Colombian family. She leads the investigation when the magical candle that fuels their talents and their stately manor flickers and threatens to burn out. John Leguizamo steals his every scene — and is the topic of the best song — as the Genie-rhythmic Uncle Bruno, the black sheep whose exile may hold the secret to their impending group calamity. Encanto was lively in the moment but its central lesson (real family = good) felt a bit slight after the fact. I was also puzzled by other viewers raving about its eye-popping colors, which seemed…okay, I guess? I honestly don’t recall anything particularly kaleidoscopic, especially compared to Disney’s other 2021 entries Luca and Raya and the Last Dragon, both of which I watched on our home’s recently upgraded viewing setup and which visually blew me away. In hindsight I’m not sure if my head was in the clouds during Encanto even though it was taking up my entire field of vision at the time, or if our local theater is somehow mishandling its projectors and/or lighting wattage, and unwittingly ruining what they used to do best.
…next time: my Top Ten list!