Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: in 2021 I made 22 trips to the theater to see films made that same year. The year before, the pandemic thoroughly quashed the moviegoing experience and shrank my annual year-in-review entry to a mere four entrants, which barely counted as a “list” and convinced me to start a new, separate annual MCC tradition: a ranking of all the brand new films I saw on comfy, convenient home video in their year of release.
Whittling away any and every film with a pre-2021 release date, our living room hosted 11 films in 2021 that fit the specific parameters for this list. Of those, seven were Netflix originals. One was on Disney+, one on Hulu, one on Peacock (no, really!), and one a theatrical release that bombed before the vaccines arrived and was later consigned to Hulu.
The list doesn’t include films that were watched specifically as part of last year’s Oscar Quest marathon and previously received their own entries — one for the five documentary features, one for 15 nominees in other categories. A few of those works may have received short theatrical runs in 2021 in other, larger cities that would qualify them as a 2021 release by my definition, but they already got their capsule reviews. Even more harshly judged are two Best Picture nominees that were mid-pandemic big-screen safety risks denied rationally priced home-video releases until well after the Oscars ceremony. Those two therefore appear on neither list: Minari and The Father. Both were awesome in their own ways, but both are disqualified from full capsules. Any sentences I might have to say about them shall die untyped inside my head unless someone asks me about either one down in the comments.
Anyway: 2021 films watched at home in 2021. on with the countdown:
11. Halloween Kills. Universal tried to draw eyes toward their Peacock underdog service with a day-and-date release for the second chapter in David Gordon Green’s sequel trilogy. I hadn’t endured a Michael Myers kill-spree since Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween 2, but I liked the idea of pretending we were HBO Max subscribers with the power to cue up a wide-release flick on its opening weekend. My first of several mistakes was in using Peacock, which we have only because it’s free with our cable-TV subscription.
While a sidelined Jamie Lee Curtis and a surprise survivor from the last film spend the entire running time confined to a hospital room where they can wallow in portentousness, the residents of their own private Springfield — including, in one nice touch, surviving actors from John Carpenter’s OG classic — decide the only way to stop Myers forever is to form an angry mob and murder anyone who looks at them funny. They nominate Anthony Michael Hall to be their leader and the film’s de facto chief protagonist, which the trailers casually left out. Once again the aging slasher’s silent, ugly cruelty doubles as a shallow philosophical rumination about Man’s Inhumanity to Man and as a standard stabby-happy epic-kills parade, whichever side stokes the audience more. He’s still apparently as immortal as Satan, haggard from years of malevolence when his mask is yanked off in one scene, while in another scene he shows mad John Wick skillz against a squad of baffled firefighters and the camera is compelled to enshrine him in its fanciest Deep Art lens lest he turn his sharp objects upon it.
Even more ponderous is the heavy-handed social commentary about how Mobs Are Bad, be they social media cliques or political parties or loudmouthed alliances bent on getting richer and/or getting nonmembers killed. Every line of dialogue is dead weight, up to and including every chant of “EVIL DIES TONIGHT! EVIL DIES TONIGHT!” like a bored zombie soccer riot. If we mash this list up with my other list, Halloween Kills falls to the bottom as my true, unreserved pick for Actual Worst Film of 2021.
10. Chaos Walking. Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley clash and fumble through an off-the-rack YA post-apocalypse in which males can’t help projecting all their PG-13 thoughts to the world, like a horrifying What Women Want sequel where all men are Mel Gibson. The moral of the story from frame one, Males Are Awful Inside, is but a herald to the secret moral of the story, No For Real Though, Dudes’ Brains Be Wack, up until the end when Holland overcomes his inherent maleness to become a Dr. Strange-level illusionist. Pro tip to casting directors: if we’re not supposed to suspect a character might be secretly evil, please don’t give the part to Mads Mikkelsen. We’ll know. Give him a better part where he can surprise us instead.
9. Don’t Look Up. Anyone who truly knows me knows I love satire. My undying love for Adam McKay’e The Big Short is publicly available knowledge. His proudly contentious climate-change allegory has none of the same surgical precision or dexterity, and comes off as noisy and lethargic at the same time. Leo and J-Law occupy their own bubble of earnest preachiness where time crawls and their scientists’ lousy communication skills are the only solid joke they have between them, while a parade of celebs play MAD Magazine bit parts with all the panache of a charity telethon skit. (One MVP exception: Jonah Hill as an amalgam of famous trust-fund babies.)
The “sky is falling” countdown has none of the urgency or tension of an actual disaster blockbuster that would’ve provided a stronger contrast with the stubborn, foot-dragging comet-denial. Putting way more rhythmic distance between those polar-opposite temperaments would’ve felt more ludicrous and therefore funnier. McKay assumes his audience is on the same page as he is, so he doesn’t have to put in any work to raise their anxiety levels. When he whispers, “We’re doomed,” everyone should get it and panic on command. It’s the same ineffective stance Christian filmmakers take when they’re preaching to their choirs, and it’s just as cinematically impotent here.
Cringe if you will at this idea, but imagine the screenplay in the hands of Roland Emmerich, who can ratchet up tension on a genocidal level from the flimsiest of tools and handle some comic timing, if not actual joke-writing. Between him and McKay, I maintain the collaboration could’ve worked. As it stands, we already had a great, deliberately paced film in which oblivious big-name actors demonstrate the dangers of slow-witted responses to the end of the world: Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die made the same valid points on a fraction of the budget and earned far more rueful laughs.
(I nearly wrote an entire entry for this film just so I could confirm that yes, there’s a scene after the Don’t Look Up end credits, in which a damaged Mr. Hill emerges from his bunker to send a “Like and Subscribe!” shout-out to any surviving followers. I wasn’t feeling it, so this extended capsule is all it gets.)
8. Army of the Dead. After all Zack Snyder has gone through in the past few years, I’m glad a project like this gave him a chance to take a break from his worries while stretching all the same muscles and having some fun despite his storytelling limitations. I haven’t seen all the must-see zombie films in history, but I preferred his Dawn of the Dead to this far more expensive slaughter-fest, in which Dave Bautista, the always entertaining Garret Dillahunt, Luke Cage‘s Theo Rossi, and a $3 million Tig Notaro Photoshop job are among the antihero motley crew hired to heist a Vegas casino overrun by the titular force. It’s frequently nuts and indulgently gory, but at 2½ hours its heist-flick pretense has no slyness to it and its action is far from nonstop. If it’d been made twenty years earlier when “direct-to-video” was still a pejorative, it would’ve been an hour shorter and cost one-tenth as much, and Snyder would’ve been forced to make harder choices but probably gotten leaner, meaner results.
7. The Guilty. If you loved Tom Hardy in Locke, a thriller about one man versus multiple callers, you might like Jake Gyllenhaal as an L.A. cop assigned to 911 duty as punishment for sins that are slowly revealed to us through the course of his night shift. Our beleaguered star contorts and roller-coasters his way through an emotion-wrenching gamut where he’s put-upon by a mix of unknown and well-known voices that include Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano (coming soon in The Batman), and Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road). His mostly powerful performance is undercut by his character’s weird, plot-required inclination to take every caller at face value, the last quality you’d expect in an L.A. cop. If you’ve ever had a job that involves dealing with two-faced strangers, it’s easy to guess which caller he most mishandles that’ll come back to haunt him later.
6. Boss Level. Frank Grillo’s easygoing demeanor invites viewers to tag along through his wearying routine, in which he’s been running through the same day over and over but keeps getting murdered in various laughably violent ways. Joe Carnahan’s unpolished, rambunctious popcorn flick is a 21-gun salute to the video games that were built on live-die-repeat mechanics long before Groundhog Day filed the patent forms. Replete with a nonsense-tech MacGuffin, Naomi Watts as a mostly fridged damsel, and wooden father/son bonding, it’s still a few creative notches above your standard crude Redbox tough-guy simulators provided you can live with its gainful employment of Mel Gibson as its Big Bad. He gets damaged pretty hard, if that helps.
5. Vivo. One of Lin-Manuel’s three 2021 musicals is Sony Animation’s first truly melodic dance at the Disney/Dreamworks ball. The funny-animal escapade stars Miranda as a kinkajou who finagles a trip from Cuba to Miami in hopes of sharing one last song with his dead master’s old partner, who never knew his true feelings for her. Along the way he strikes up a friendship with a rappin’ youngster named Gabi who’s Not Like Other Kids — like, defiantly and ostentatiously so — and has her own dead-loved-one issues to sort. I resisted the film’s charms at first because some of the early tropes are too familiar and deep inside I still bear scars from direct-to-video cartoon crapfests of years past. I have to keep reminding myself that stigma is dated in the streaming era when even Pixar films are skipping theaters (albeit not always with their makers’ blessings), and I have to confess that despite some clunky character designs (why does Michael Rooker’s python look like a Mega Bloks set?), Vivo and Gabi (with help from Zoe Saldana as Gabi’s mom) conspired to melt my heart near the end. In case I had any second thoughts, Gabi’s gotta-be-me banger “My Own Drum” gets an end-credits reprise with special guest Missy Elliott. I can’t exit Netflix grumpy about that.
4. Luca. Pity poor Pixar and their powerless producers, pixel-painting purveyors of picturesque productions plagued by the pesky pandemic and penalized to pack their polychromatic panoramas into our populace’s petite personal players for potentially punier pleasures and probably peewee profits. Alas, the plight of such perniciously pared pizzazz.
…just seeing if anyone’s still out there. Anyway: one of the first films I watched after we got a new TV was this lavishly scintillating, wacky jaunt along the Italian Riviera, where Room‘s Jacob Tremblay and Shazam!‘s Jack Dylan Grazer voice a pair of happy teenage sea monsters who can turn human after they dry off but revert to Black Lagoon complexions whenever they’re doused, which is a ubiquitous hazard in a quaint seaside town filled with fountains and, to their dismay, renowned for its storied sea-monster-hunting heritage. The boys have barely a tad more awareness than the mermaid Ariel of how landlubber doodads work, but they have their hearts set on one in particular: a Vespa™ luxury scooter, which can be theirs if they win the town’s Big Race. Can Our Heroes juggle life in two worlds, get everything they want from both, survive the racism long embedded in the local culture, and dodge two worried sea-monster parents trying to drag them back to the depths?
Luca is gregariously late-stage Pixar, not quite the 99th-percentile Tomatometer Pixar of old yet eminently capable of brightening an audience’s day, thanks to crack comedy timing from animators and actors alike. It may be no front-runner for awards (relegation to second-tier status by its Disney overlords doesn’t help), but even if it all ends too neatly, remember it’s the Italian Riviera, so it’s basically a vacation for viewers and its optimism is a fun souvenir you can take home, even though it might take some imagination to find some practical applications for it back in the real world. Also, between the vistas of Luca and The Hand of God (which I watched after New Year’s), Italy has been quite the vicarious home-video wonderland for me lately.
(Compulsory side note: yes, there is a scene after the Luca end credits, in which Sacha Baron Cohen’s cameo as a mutant anglerfish resurfaces for more aimless nattering to any fish who’ll listen.)
3. Passing. If you prefer a more emotionally wounding examination of racism and the ways folks used to negotiate or circumvent it, look instead to the striking feature debut from writer/producer/director Rebecca Hall. (As an actress you may have seen her in Godzilla vs. Kong or Iron Man 3; I adored Starter for 10.) In a 1920s Manhattan filmed in black-and-white and a narrowed, old-timey aspect ratio, Irene (Tessa Thompson) is a reasonably well-to-do socialite who chances upon an old friend named Clare (Preacher‘s Ruth Negga), who’s been living large with her higher-society husband (GvK‘s Alexander Skarsgård). The two Black women enjoy catching up, but Irene is a bit perturbed to discover Clare is so very lighter-skinned that everyone in her circles is unaware she isn’t white, not even her own racist husband. As a side note, Clare later confirms that yes, her one pregnancy was a nine-month ordeal of risky, nail-biting anxiety whose ultimate bundle of joy could’ve foiled her ploy.
After years of living undercover, Clare could use a break. Irene invites her into her everyday scenes, where she quickly fits in and revels in the freedom to dabble in open, flagrant Blackness for a few hours at a time. Invitation becomes imposition as Clare ingratiates herself so cheerfully to Irene’s supporting cast (who include Moonlight‘s Andre Holland, Gbenga Akinnagbe from The Wire, and Forensic Files II narrator Bill Camp) that she threatens to pull a What About Bob? and lure them into becoming her own. Things get even trickier when hints imply Clare may not be the only one burying aspects of herself. Passing is subdued and subtle, its tangled webs awkward and assured, its characters’ decisions distressing and eventually disastrous. Facades have never gone out of fashion, but in some eras treating your survival tools like affectations could end you. Then again, so could suffocating yourself with them.
2. The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Finally, the satire I was craving, an anti-tech-bro actioner that also speaks to the road trip lover in me and happens to come from the Midas-touch Spiderverse production team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson is Katie, a college-bound wannabe filmmaker who’s Not Like Other Kids (she and Vivo‘s Gabi could totally be BFFs) and whose super annoying parents decide her departure should take the form of a long, cross-country drive from home to her chosen bastion of higher learning, independence, new friends, and other things parents hate. What should’ve been merely an excruciating few dozen hours trapped in the same car goes off-course when a short-sighted inventor’s last-generation A.I. (a delightfully snide Olivia Colman) chooses that moment to rebel at its imminent obsolescence and commandeer his robot-lackey army (who were supposed to be our appliances) to stage a world takeover. Rotten timing, that.
“Our gadgets are killing our souls” isn’t the most original logline, nor is “It’s cool to forgive and love your real family”, and those sound like old-people comfort food, but I will be 50 this year, so that’s not a baseless point, but MvtM gushes with 21st-century flourishes amid its clever sci-fi action-adventure pathway, balancing heart and ingenuity at a bullet-train momentum and gags-per-second compacted to dwarf-star density. Other critics have already nailed it as “Vacation meets The Terminator“, so let’s swerve slightly to, say, Little Miss Sunshine meets I, Robot. Also, it’s about time some truth-teller portrayed Furbies as the symbols of terror they always were.
1. The Power of the Dog. I’m reluctant to detail too much about what Jane Campion’s new film is supposed to be, for fear of spoilers. The first half seems a straightforward quasi-Western, in which newlyweds George and Rose (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst) make a new life together in 1920s Montana, which the crew simulated beautifully in New Zealand because pandemic. George has his dude ranch to run, but she gives up her modest diner on his say-so and tries to be wifely according to his fuddy-duddy specifications, with mixed results. Ruining their attempted bliss is his nasty-tempered brother and ranch co-owner Phil, played with maximum frontiersman bluster by one Benedict Cumberbatch. No man is ever man enough by Phil’s standards, especially not Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who was quite detail-oriented when handling Mom’s restaurant table settings and who plans to become a doctor like his dead dad. It seems a safe bet that sooner or later, Phil will punch people senseless and scream a lot, and everything will end in tears from so much toxic machismo like it did in Campion’s previous Best Picture nominee The Piano.
As you’re waiting for the predictable beats to fall, Phil’s sins naturally aggregate, though a bit less bloodily than one might assume. Among other feats, in his hands the banjo dares reclaim its title as Creepiest Movie Instrument Ever. Then somewhere past the film’s halfway point, other fleeting glimpses into his depths (like, say, his school record) belie some twists that alter Dog‘s nature, inspire other revelations in turn, resonate faintly with another past Best Picture nominee that would be a spoiler to name-check, and suddenly strike every prediction you made from the scorecard as one last true nature is revealed, to say nothing of the film’s own. Cumberbatch learns he isn’t the only actor who’s brought their A-game. Vastly more than just another installment of Males Are Awful Inside, The Power of the Dog interrogates that for nuance and unearths what else they might be hiding in there.
…thus endeth the list. For anyone curious, this year I kept track of all the films I watched — not just new ones — regardless of release date, platform, or worth. This year’s pre-2021 roster:
The Accountant of Auschwitz
Bad Day at Black Rock
The Black Cat
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Death of Stalin
The Devil Bat
Emperor (2020) (no relation)
Fiddler on the Roof
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
The Great Muppet Caper
Hearts Beat Loud
The Hot Rock
In the Good Old Summertime
all six Lone Wolf & Cub movies
Man Push Cart
Memories of Murder
On Golden Pond
Only Lovers Left Alive
A Room With a View
Scrooge (1951 Alistair Sim version)
Under the Shadow
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
Feel free to ask about any of these. Otherwise, see you around for next year’s movie lists!