Let this be a lesson to anyone working on the Marvel Cinematic Universe: if you’re going to come out with a sequel to one of the strangest heroes in your universe, maybe don’t wait six years to release it. Because at that point, not only do you run the risk of it becoming obsolete — you also threaten to have the whole thing crumble under the weight of its own expectations.
Enter Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. In the span between its two movies, the MCU has debuted 18 new heroes, released six new TV shows, concluded the Avengers saga, and even released an entirely new Spider-Man trilogy to top it all off. So much has happened in the MCU that has affected so much already that it’s hard to release any sequel and have it stand alone as part of its own story. One might even argue that you can’t.
Sure enough, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness fails in this sequelitis litmus test, a messy, sloppy film that is all over the place and trying to do way too much all at once. To properly understand this movie, not only have you needed to watch Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War, andEndgame, but also “WandaVision,” “Loki,” Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and even a few Fox-owned movie properties on top of all that. This is a film with the buildup of an Avengers movie and the payoff of a botched “What If…?” episode.
After he wiped the world’s memory of Spider-Man’s true identity in Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is trying to adjust to a world with neither Avengers nor Infinity Stones. But just as he begins to experience some sense of normalcy, he encounters a girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is being chased by monsters through several dimensions. Now determined to help this young girl, Doctor Strange enlists in the help Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to defend her from the monsters of the multiverse.
Before I say anything else, I want to get one thing right out of the way: it was wonderful to see Sam Raimi return to the director’s chair. While most known for creating one of the best superhero movies ever with the likes of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, his filmography has taken him everywhere under the sun, from deeply disturbing horror movies like Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell to wildly entertaining B-movie blockbusters like Darkman and Army Of Darkness. But with his last feature-length film coming out in 2013 with Oz The Great And Powerful, it’s been nine years since Sam Raimi’s last movie, 13 years since his last horror movie, and 15 years since his last superhero movie. One has to wonder how his directing chops have held up despite being away for such a long time?
The good news is that Sam Raimi’s still got it. More importantly, he still carries his own unique signature that Marvel thankfully allowed him to carry over into one of their most popular franchises. Combining the campiness of his Spider-Man movies with the horrifying imagery of Evil Dead, Sam Raimi creates a dark and disturbing world with Multiverse Of Madness that feels cursed just by the look and feel of it. There were quite a few times where his imagery was so bold, bloody, and grotesque that it actually made me squirm in my seat. There were several moments where characters were getting straight-up dismembered, contorting into twisted, uncomfortable shapes, and even horrifically burned alive.
I was genuinely surprised that Marvel allowed Sam Raimi to go as far as he did with the violence, and even more surprised that this movie didn’t get an R rating. But Raimi teeters the line just enough to where the film never crosses the line of being over-the-top or gory, though I can’t help but wonder how different the film might have felt if Raimi was allowed to go even further.
I also really like the film’s visual creativity, especially in scenes where Strange is traveling through the multiverse. There was one really trippy sequence where Strange is falling through multiple realities, from the prehistoric era to an evergreen paradise to even an animated world flooded with watercolors. The whole sequence was so surreal and outlandish that I felt like I was on acid while watching it. If someone did happen to wander into the theater while under the influence, I pray for their sanity because it might be broken by the time this movie is over.
That said, some of the movie’s visuals don’t work quite as well, and you especially notice it with a lot of the film’s newer characters. America Chavez’s dimensional portals are one instance where they look like firework sprites coming from your laptop’s screensaver. One character in the mid-credits scene is so shiny and pristine that she looks like a scrapped character from Eternals. And one villain has a third eye appearing on his forehead that looks so photoshopped that I couldn’t help but laugh while looking at it.
However, the worst sequence hands-down comes from one fight scene where two sorcerers are casting spells at each other using… musical notes. I’m not even kidding. They literally lift musical notes off of a page of sheet music and cast them at each other like a game of darts. I remind you, this is coming from a franchise that was once a major contender for visual effects at the Academy Awards. And here, they’re just throwing in a fight scene so silly and cartoonish that it feels like it’s a deleted scene from Disney’s Fantasia.
But I can forgive inconsistent visuals. What I can’t forgive is poor writing, and this is unfortunately where the film falters the most. Not only does Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness have one of the worst screenplays out of the entire MCU: I would argue it is the worst screenplay, bar none. Dead serious.
Sure, there are other screenplays that are childish, silly, stupid, half-baked, or even underdeveloped. Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man, and Eternals are the immediate ones that come to mind. But even at their most basic levels, those movies demonstrate at least some understanding of their characters and what motivates them. Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness completely misunderstands the heart and souls of its characters, and it makes their actions in the film all the more unbelievable.
Imagine following Tom Holland throughout his six-movie arc, falling in love with his charm, his wit, his sense of humor, his intelligence, and his unwavering commitment to doing the right thing. Then all of a sudden in his seventh movie, he throws all of that out the window and starts going on a violent rampage across the city where he starts viciously murdering people in the most gruesome ways possible. That isn’t just a gross manipulation of his character: it’s a straight-up betrayal of his character, and it does a great disservice to him and the arc he’s built up over the course of the entire franchise.
There are multiple characters that are betrayed in a similar fashion in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. And it would be one thing if these were alternate versions of these characters in another universe. But they aren’t: they’re the original characters in the original MCU. That makes their mischaracterizations all the more worse, and it ruins the experience for anyone who has been passionately following their journeys for quite some time.
Oddly enough, there is another multiversal film in cinemas right now titled Everything Everywhere All At Once. Go and see it. Not only does it utilize its bizarre concept to its maximum potential, but it’s also one of the most creative and unique narratives to come out of cinemas in the past several years. The only way Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness even comes close to that potential is in another universe.
A blue speedster, a two-tailed fox, and a hot-tempered knucklehead.
There’s a general rule to film criticism, and that is to always remain objective. No matter what talent, studio, or subject matter is associated with your film, it’s the film critic’s job to separate all of that from the film and focus on the story it’s trying to tell. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an original idea or an adaptation of a 1990s video game. The quality is clear in either circumstance, and it’s the critic’s job to delineate what does and doesn’t work with the film they’re writing about.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is the kind of movie that makes you want to throw objectivity right out the window, the kind that makes you want to paint your face blue, put on your hedgehog ears, and throw your popcorn in excitement as your favorite speedster zooms through the theater. I must be honest, dear reader: I have no idea whether Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is, objectively speaking, good, bad, or brilliant. And more to the point, I don’t care. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is a pure joy to experience, and observing it too closely defeats the purpose of watching a movie like this.
Taking place after the first movie which, surprisingly, was the last box office hit we got before theaters shut down in 2020, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 picks up right where the last movie left off with everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog Sonic (Ben Schwartz) living with the Wachowskis in Green Hills, Montana. After being banished to a Mushroom Planet in the last movie, Doctor Eggman (Jim Carrey) returns to Earth with a new ally, a red echidna named Knuckles (Idris Elba) who has an ax to grind against Sonic. But Eggman isn’t the only one with a new friend: a two-tailed fox named Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey) has also shown up to help Sonic fend off his new foes. Now equipped with an ancient map and the discovery of a powerful artifact called the Master Emerald, Sonic and Tails must team up to get to the Master Emerald before Eggman and Knuckles do.
Does this plot sound a little insane? Maybe, but some films benefit from a little insanity every once in a while. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is definitely one of those movies. While the first movie was an enjoyable and adorable little introduction to the blue speedster, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 ups the ante by a thousand and asks fans to buckle up for the ride. It isn’t just that it’s more action-packed: it’s more everything. From the laughs to the drama to the excitement to the intrigue, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is just more of what makes Sonic The Hedgehog, well, Sonic The Hedgehog. For casual fans whose surface-level knowledge is limited to knowing that Sonic’s fur is blue, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is simply just more of what the first movie gave us. For longtime fans who have grown up with the franchise ever since his Sega Genesis days, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 gives dedicated fans everything they’ve ever wanted in a Sonic movie.
Oh I make no exaggeration when I say I was geeking out while watching this film. Nearly everything worked, from Sonic’s quick-witted comebacks to Tails’ ingenuity and invention to Knuckles’ hard-headedness and fisticuff-fueled rage. A few years ago, a movie about a talking hedgehog, two-tailed fox, and an overly-grumpy echidna might sound like a stupid idea to some studio execs. But thanks to the first movie’s success, Paramount saw how fans turned out for it, shrugged their shoulders, and said “Screw it, go for the nerdy nostalgia on this one Jeff!”
That was the best call the studio could have made for this movie, and director Jeff Fowler really leans in to these characters and what makes them so beloved in fans’ eyes. Here is a movie that, on every level, just gets why Sonic is adored by fans and succeeds in replicating that for the big screen. It isn’t just the fact that the creative team understands the in-game inspirations: it’s that they know the most essential foundations for these characters and leans into them all the way. Other recent video game adaptations like Uncharted or “Halo” misunderstand what made these franchises popular and adapts the wrong parts for their live-action outings. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 does not have that problem. In fact, one might argue that it perhaps relies too much on its source material. But if this movie’s biggest problem is being too faithful, then boy oh boy, is that a great problem to have.
My main gripe with this film is the same one I had with its predecessor, and that is the humans. They’re boring, they’re dumb, and they serve no purpose beyond adding some padding to the cast list. Thankfully most of the movie sidesteps the humans and focuses on the animals and their conflict with the robot mad scientist, but then the second act really focuses in on this stupid marriage subplot that dragged on for way too long and added nothing to the main story. I don’t know if the studio had some clause saying the humans needed a specific amount of screen time or if they thought a film couldn’t function without a more human presence, but either way it doesn’t work. Natasha Rothwell’s character in particular was the worst character in the first movie, and here she has a whole side arc dedicated to her that neither works nor is relevant for the movie she’s in.
Ultimately, my deep love for these characters and this franchise comes into direct conflict with my objectivity and my duty to appropriately critique this film. As a mere critic, I objectively believe this film is a fun time regardless of whether you’re a casual or a dedicated fan, and it’s definitely a shoo-in for families looking to distract their kids for an afternoon. But as a longtime fan who has followed this series ever since I was a child, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 gave me everything I ever wanted to see in a Sonic movie. So which inner voice do I listen to? Do I listen to the angel blue hedgehog on one shoulder, or the devilish film critic on the other?
Screw it. Objectivity or not, part of a film critic’s job is to also know what they like or don’t like: and I love this movie. Even with the forced human sideplots and gags, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 delivers on the action, the adventure, the humor, and the heart that has made this high-speed hedgehog so beloved in the first place.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is without a doubt the best video game movie ever released, and I am saying that with a straight face. Maybe that doesn’t mean much in a subgenre where there are more failures than there are successes, but hey, I’m celebrating the moment regardless. This is a year that has seen space marines, super soldiers, assassins, aliens, and treasure hunters take over the big screen, yet somehow the movie about a talking blue hedgehog, two-tailed fox, and red-hot echidna is the one that has taken off running. I hope it never slows down.
Puberty is a strange phenomenon to experience. When a caterpillar is born, it doesn’t imagine a life beyond its slimy little six-legged existence. But as it crystallizes and forms into a cocoon, its body begins to change, transform, and blossom into something new. It might have felt confusing, unnatural, maybe even a little frightening for that caterpillar at times. But when it emerges, it is something more fierce, beautiful, and free than it ever was before, and it is all the better because of it.
Turning Red portrays those same sensations and emotions of puberty through the eyes of a 13-year-old Chinese girl named Mei (Rosalie Chiang). Like all other teenage girls, Mei leads a very busy life. She’s a straight-A student who solves puzzles and mathematic equations just for fun. She has a group of girlfriends that love to fawn over high school boys and pop stars. And she has a strict and overprotective mother named Ming (Sandra Oh), who she works with after school in her family temple.
Her life stays relatively normal until one morning, she wakes up to discover that she has changed into a red panda. As her parents discover her transformation, she learns that her red panda form appears anytime she feels an intense emotion. Now faced with a solution to her red panda problem, Mei has to decide if she wants to get rid of her red panda forever or live with her new furry form for the rest of her life.
When it comes to its extensive filmography, Pixar is no stranger to telling stories about adolescence and growing up. Its most recent feature, Luca, was a literal fish-out-of-water story about a pair of sea monsters learning to feel comfortable with who they are, while Inside Out touched on the complexities of emotions and how all of them are equally relevant. Heck, the entire message surrounding the Toy Story series is all about growing up and how your childhood forms you into the person you become. So Pixar is not in unfamiliar or uncharted territory with Turning Red. In fact, one could argue that much of their success came from this very same subject and focus.
The biggest difference between all of those films and Turning Red, however, lies in its viewpoint. Most of the aforementioned films focused on childhood and adolescence through a general lens where both boys and girls could empathize and relate to it. Turning Red focuses specifically on the female perspective, and that makes it so, so unique in a sea of animated movies. It’s not often where you experience a movie where the main character is a 13-year-old girl, and even fewer where she’s struggling with issues revolving around puberty, growing up, and watching her body change in front of herself.
I also like how the movie touches on Mei’s complex relationship with her mother and her desire to constantly please her. Turning Red’s director, Domee Shi, is no stranger to developing intimate narratives surrounding children and their parents. Her Academy Award-winning short film, Bao, was a sweet and intimate little gem about a mother and her dumpling-shaped son, and Turning Red adopts many of the same emotional beats as that film did.
But again, the biggest differences lie in the emphasis on the female angle. In Bao, Domee focused on the strained relationship between a mother and her estranged son. Turning Red is about two generations of women going through the same issues and both offering a unique take on those issues. Like all wise parents, Ming offers a wealth of experience for Mei, a firsthand knowledge of what she is going through and how to get through it. Mei, however, offers a different viewpoint that the red panda isn’t a rabid beast or a monster to be tamed, but rather a part of herself that can be embraced instead of feared. Both perspectives are equally valid, but what I love is that the movie doesn’t provide a clear-cut right or wrong answer on the red panda dilemma and how Mei and Ming should respond to it. It only provides the right answer for them as individuals, and those answers are very different from each other.
Yet, the most touching part about all of this is that the red panda doesn’t affect Mei or Ming’s relationship with each other. Their paths may be different, but that doesn’t mean their love or feelings towards one another has to change. I find it incredibly moving that the film’s most powerful scene doesn’t involve red pandas or larger-than-life Chinese folklore, but instead simply revolves around a mother and her daughter sharing their life experiences with one another. They are, after all, both women. If anybody can understand what they have gone through, it’s themselves.
Turning Red is one of those rare little gems that challenges you not just as a viewer or as a movie fan, but as a person and as a constantly growing and evolving human being. Good movies keep audiences merely entertained or engaged throughout their run time, but genuinely great movies inspire new stories, emotions, characters, experiences, and thought-provoking ideas that stay with you long after you’ve left the theater. Turning Red does just that in a vibrant, colorful, and eye-popping anime art style that makes you want to get up, shake your tail feathers, and let out your inner red panda in a loud and triumphant roar.
Turning Red isn’t just a fun time at the movies: it’s a moving and monumental coming-of-age story that inspires growth, challenges your perspective, and transforms you into something bigger and better: just like its furry red heroine.
Umm… okay then. Guess we gotta talk about the Oscars.
Let’s start by saying that I had no idea what to expect going into this Oscar ceremony. Between the producers cutting eight categories from the live telecast to a couple of superfluous awards that served as half-hearted attempts to win over a mainstream audience to Amy “Joke Thief” Schumer being named one of the Oscar hosts, I was not expecting this to be a good ceremony at all. After all, the past few ceremonies have been struggling immensely with audience ratings and viewership. All of these ludicrous changes seemed like they were going to worsen the symptoms that were already there.
Well, I was half-right. While the technical categories were still minimized during the live telecast, they did have a small snippet play of the winners accepting their awards. So they weren’t so much “cut” from the ceremony as they were simply edited down for time, which still isn’t ideal, but I’ll take what I can get. The superfluous “fan-favorite” and “cheer moment” awards were also not highlighted as much as I feared they would be, briskly montaging through their winners and nominees before cutting straight to commercial. It was a surprisingly good use of time, didn’t take up too much space, and got to involve more movie fans in the voting process. Plus, Zack Snyder now gets to technically call himself a two-time Academy Award-winner, which he’s more than earned since the Academy shelved his cut of Justice League from any Oscar consideration for some arbitrary reason (God knows he deserves it more than The Power Of The Dog does).
Even the hosts were really good. Wanda Sykes’ wit and sassiness easily stole the show, with her tour through the Academy museum easily being the biggest highlight (the part where she pointed to an orc and called it “Harvey Weinstein” had me dying). Regina Hall was also really funny, pulling up all of the most attractive guys in the Dolby Theatre and saying she was going to administer a COVID test “with her tongue.” Even Amy Schumer had her charming moments, especially one hilarious bit where she dressed up as Spider-Man and shot silly string at the audience.
Dare I say it, this telecast was more fun than last year’s Academy Awards. That’s especially surprising considering how much behind-the-scenes drama was going on.
Let’s start with the good news: The Power Of The Dog lost 11 out of 12 of its nominations, including Best Picture. It more than deserved it too since it’s one of the most tepid and stale movies ever put in the running for Best Picture. How it got this far is beyond me, and I’m glad to see it bomb so precariously at the Oscars, even if my ballot suffered as a result of it.
Instead, the tender deaf family drama CODA took home the top prize at this year’s Academy Awards. This is surprising for a few reasons. For one thing, out of all 10 nominees, CODA was tied with Licorice Pizza for the least amount of nominations with three. This meant that in the grand scope of things, CODA had the most to overcome, especially with Dune and The Power Of The Dog sweeping across the nominations board.
For another thing, its director Sian Heder was not nominated for a Best Directing Oscar, and that hindered its chances even more. Sure, a Best Picture win wasn’t impossible (Green Book won Best Picture in 2018 despite also not receiving a Best Director nom), but considering eight out of the past 10 Best Picture winners were at least nominated for Best Director, it was nothing but an uphill battle for CODA. The fact that it persevered and pulled off a Best Picture win despite everything it was up against makes CODA’s victory all the more incredible.
Either way, congratulations to this amazing film and its heartfelt victory. I still feel like Dune was the most visionary out of all of the Best Picture nominees, and Tick, Tick… BOOM! and The Last Duel were still straight up robbed in this category. That doesn’t change how important CODA’s win was for the deaf community or how grateful I am to it for taking away the win from The Power Of The Dog. God, do I hate that film.
Best Director:Unfortunately, The Power Of The Dog did win one Oscar last night, and that was Jane Campion for Best Director. She didn’t deserve this award any more than Simon McQuoid deserved it for his Mortal Kombat remake, but like I already said, CODA’s director wasn’t nominated in this category anyway, so if The Power Of The Dog had to sneak in a win, I guess Best Director is most acceptable. I’m still infuriated over the fact that Denis Villeneuve wasn’t even nominated for Dune. He more than deserved to win, not to mention at the very least get nominated. A cinematic crime if there ever was one, and it unfortunately won’t be the last one the Academy ever commits.
Best Actor: This is where the ceremony gets really, really bizarre. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Will Smith won Best Actor for playing Venus and Serena Williams’ father in King Richard, a win he absolutely deserved due to his sincere and deeply moving performance in that film. Unfortunately, absolutely nobody was paying attention to that moment or his speech because they were still reeling from when Will Smith slapped the bejeezus outta Chris Rock minutes earlier for joking about his wife’s hair loss, calling Jada Pinkett Smith “G.I. Jane.” Then Will Smith just strutted off, sat back down, and yelled at Chris to “Keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth.”
Man. Talk about everybody hates Chris.
Now look, this is a very loaded moment, and I’m not going to even begin trying to unpack this because of all of the complex emotions tied into this. I will simply emphasize three truths. First of all, it was a bad joke on Chris’ part to make. A really, really, really bad joke. Jada had spoken publicly several times before about how much her hair loss has affected her and her well-being, so it was highly insensitive for him to make that remark without realizing how she or her husband might take it. Whether that joke was prewritten for the ceremony or if Chris made it up on the fly doesn’t matter. It was in poor taste, and Chris should have known better.
Second, Will Smith probably could have handled the moment a little better. Should he have? I admit I don’t know the answer to that. Or at the very least, I don’t know how I would have reacted if my wife and I were caught up in that same moment. Would any of us have? It was an idiotic comment to make, and in a flurry of rage, Will was blind to reason and self-control and acted solely based off of his instincts. His reaction was a very human one. Could he have potentially waited during a commercial break and confronted Chris then without involving the entire theater and the television audience? Again, I don’t know. It’s a difficult situation to get caught up in, and unfortunately, neither party is really free from blame.
Regardless of whether you see Smith or Rock primarily at fault, it doesn’t change the fact that this situation colored the rest of the ceremony in an awkward and uncomfortable way. After that very intense altercation, I couldn’t focus on Questlove’s moving speech about advocating for Harlem with Summer Of Soul. I couldn’t really tune in to Will Smith’s acceptance speech when he won his Oscar. I couldn’t even really celebrate CODA’s Best Picture win. All I could think about through the rest of the ceremony was that damn slap. It kind of took away from the rest of the evening and sadly kind of ruined the ceremony for me. That really, really sucks.
We’ll see in the coming days if the Academy decides to discipline Smith in some way for his actions. Regardless, I hope they don’t decide to revoke his Oscar. He’s worked way too long and too hard to have this honor taken from him now just because of one altercation. I hope the Academy can see past that and Will and Chris can come to some understanding afterward regardless.
Best Actress:As predicted, Jessica Chastain won Best Actress for her performance in The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. I’m happy she has finally earned an Oscar, especially after a long and illustrious career with credits including The Help, The Tree Of Life, Zero Dark Thirty, and more. But considering this is the same category where both Jodie Comer and Lady Gaga were robbed for their performances in The Last Duel and House Of Gucci, I’m too pissed about this category to properly celebrate her win. I guess I’m just grateful Nicole Kidman didn’t win for her half-hearted performance as Lucille Ball in Being The Ricardos. Still, what slim pickings we have for Best Actress this year guys.
Best Supporting Actor: This is easily my favorite win and moment out of the whole night. After playing the role of a loving father and husband in the drama film CODA, real-life deaf actor Troy Kotsur won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was a touching moment before Troy even stepped onto the stage to accept his award, with Youn Yuh-jung not only signing his name to himself but with the crowd also showing the “clapping” sign to show their support for Troy. Him dedicating his success to his father and to those who empowered him throughout his career was sincerely heartfelt and deeply touching to listen to. I’m not crying, I swear.
Best Supporting Actress:In the first acting Oscar of the night, Ariana DeBose won for her performance as Anita in West Side Story. She joins an elite club of actors winning Oscars for the same role, including Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and even Rita Moreno. Congratulations to Ariana for her much-deserved win. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Best Animated Feature: No surprise here either: Encanto won Best Animated Feature. Again, I would have preferred the Oscar go to The Mitchells v.s. The Machines, but in a year where Luca, Flee, and Raya And The Last Dragon were all nominated, this was a spectacular year where all of the nominees were deserving of the win. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: the real winner here is the Best Animated Feature category overall. Congratulations to all of these amazing nominated films and their achievements.
Best Documentary: In the midst of all of the awkward Will Smith and Chris Rock drama, Questlove won his much-deserved Oscar for his restoration and revival of the Harlem Cultural Festival in Summer Of Soul. His film was the most deserving winner, especially when Val wasn’t even nominated in the first place.
Best International Feature:Drive My Car won this year’s international feature Oscar, and props to Ryusuke Hamaguchi for not letting the orchestra play him off stage. If the Academy can give Will Smith 10 minutes for his acceptance speech after clocking Chris square in the mouth, they can give Ryusuke Hamaguchi two minutes to thank his cast and crew.
Best Original Screenplay:I’m a little flabbergasted that Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast won Best Original Screenplay over Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, especially when his body of work has been more consistent and creative than Branaugh’s. Still, Belfast is some of his most genuine work yet, and I hope he writes more screenplays like it in the future. Congratulations to him and his upset win.
Best Adapted Screenplay:Just like how it stole The Power Of The Dog’s chances at winning Best Picture, so too did CODA seal its fate by winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. I’m still stunned that Sian Heder wasn’t nominated for Best Director, but at least she didn’t go home empty-handed and won an Oscar for her writing. Other Best Picture-winning directors aren’t so lucky (see Driving Miss Daisy, Gladiator, Chicago, etc.).
Best Cinematography:The first of many awards to not be televised live, Greig Fraser won for his stunning and captivating work on the science-fiction epic Dune. It’s criminal to imagine that we couldn’t see him accept his award live. If you want to support more of his work, check out The Batman in theaters. You’ll see more of Greig Fraser’s mesmerizing technique on display and you’ll get to see a hauntingly great superhero flick at the same time.
Best Film Editing:Joe Walker followed up Dune’s next technical feat by winning Best Film Editing. With credits that include Shame, 12 Years A Slave, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to imagine it taking so long for him to win his first Oscar. But clearly his patience paid off for him. I can’t wait to see his work on Dune 2.
Best Makeup And Hairstyling: The Eyes Of Tammy Faye won best makeup. Is anybody legitimately surprised? Let’s just be grateful Coming 2 America didn’t win instead.
Best Production Design:Dune once again wins for its brilliant realization of Arrakis and its many warring factions. At this point in the ceremony, I’m losing my mind a little bit that Dune has won half of its technical awards and has yet to get a full spotlight moment during the main telecast. I’m grateful they weren’t outright cut from the ceremony, but I really can’t understate how stupid it was to edit these awards down from the main telecast. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Best Costume Design:It was split down the middle on this one between Cruella and Dune, and I’m glad I went with the popular vote on this one, because Cruella barely snagged it from Dune. Personally, I felt Dune had a stronger showcase of its outfits and costumes, but if Cruella were to shine in any category, costume design was its best chance to do so. At least Cruella’s outfits weren’t made out of puppies… yet.
Best Musical Score:While he couldn’t be there in person to accept his award, Hans Zimmer won his second Oscar for his hypnotizing score on Dune. His work on that film displays the very best of his talents. He couldn’t have won for a better score: not even Inception or The Dark Knight trilogy.
Best Original Song:It was a close call between Billie Eilish’s “No Time To Die” and Encanto’s “Dos Oruguitas”: and “No Time To Die” clinched it, in no small part thanks to Billie Eilish’s breathtaking performance. I’m just grateful that Billie Eilish can now cement herself among the all-time definitive James Bond singles. Imagine how maddening it would have been if Billie Eilish lost while Sam Smith won for their dry, drab, melodramatic single “The Writing’s On The Wall.” Thank God that didn’t happen and Billie Eilish can now call herself an Oscar winner. She more than deserves it.
On another note, Lin Manuel-Miranda had to unfortunately skip out on the Oscar ceremony due to an untimely positive COVID test from his wife. Pray for them as COVID hits a little closer to home for their family this week.
Best Sound:Dune again, obviously. This is the fifth Oscar the star-studded saga has won and the fifth one to get edited down from the ceremony. At this point, the eight category snubs are gradually becoming the Dune snubs and it’s royally pissing me off.
Best Visual Effects: FINALLY. After snubbing the picture all blasted night, Dune FINALLY got its moment to shine by winning in the Best Visual Effects category. It’s incredibly frustrating that it takes SIX Oscar wins to get TWO MINUTES of recognition for its hard-working artists and animators, but better late than never I guess.
With that, we come to the dreaded short categories. As with any other year, I’ve gotten most of these wrong save for Best Live-Action short for The Long Goodbye, which I didn’t realize until the ceremony that it was actually produced by Sound Of Metal actor Riz Ahmed, which now makes him an official Oscar winner. Good for him. I thought I’d have to wait much longer to see him win an Oscar, and here he is a year later proving me wrong just like that. Man, do I love it when a pleasant surprise comes my way.
With that, my final tally for this year’s Academy Awards is 17, which is a slight improvement over last year’s ceremony. Where will the Oscars go from here? Hopefully back to a regular telecast with all of the award categories included this time, and ideally with less slapping involved.
Is it just me, or are the Oscars feeling much less relevant than they used to be? I’m not talking about them being out-of-touch or frustrating. Good golly, if we had to stop the presses every year the Oscars got something wrong, they wouldn’t be running long enough to produce a single envelope. I’m talking about the Oscars themselves feeling like they don’t matter anymore. In the past, the Oscars felt like a monumental event, almost as epic and cinematic in scope as the movies themselves they were honoring. Nowadays, they feel arbitrary, complacent — even unimportant. No longer the pinnacle celebration of the movies like they once were, now… just another awards show. Is this what the Oscars have become? Is this what they are destined to be?
Every year, the Oscars have made one dumb decision after another that has confounded and confused audiences at the same time. This year, those dumb decisions come in two regarding what to cut and what to include in the telecast. For the first time in Oscar history, eight categories will not be announced live and will instead be pre-taped an hour ahead of the telecast, including film editing, makeup, original score, production design, sound, and the short categories.
I understand cutting the short categories: they’re lesser known than their feature-length competitors are and don’t have a widespread audience outside of Academy voters, so recognizing them through other avenues like the governor’s awards makes more sense. But what’s the excuse behind cutting the five technical awards? You’re shelving recognizing these pretty important artistic elements… just to save time? Are you kidding me?
And it would be one thing to scrap these technical awards if it meant dedicating that time to something more worthwhile, like either a larger presentation for the other awards or the In Memoriam segment. But nooooooo, instead, those awards are getting scrapped for more musical numbers, cringey comedy segments, and two new superlative awards: the Fan-Favorite Oscar and the Cheer Moment Oscar, which is basically the equivalent of the failed “Popular Film” category the Oscars have tried to introduce for several years now.
Which, by introducing these new categories, the Oscars create a new problem by trying to solve an old one. The issue viewers like myself have had with previous ceremonies is NOT the fact that there wasn’t a “Popular Film” category: it was that you didn’t include the most popular or most notable films of the year in the Best Picture lineup. You do not need to create a whole other category for movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars, Skyfall, or The Dark Knight trilogy. You JUST need to include them in consideration for larger awards like Best Picture. THAT IS IT. We are not asking for separate recognition. We are asking for equal recognition alongside the rest of the under-the-radar movies that are considered some of the best pictures of the year: because they ARE. This new move solves nothing and instead just creates more issues for the Academy Awards. Because you know, that’s something we need more of.
But like with any other Oscar ceremony, the biggest issues are not just with how they choose to present these awards on the small screen — it’s also with the individual winners they choose. Let’s hop into my predictions for the 94th Academy Awards and the biggest problems I have with this upcoming ceremony:
Best Picture:At this point, it’s pretty much a given that The Power Of The Dog will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Not only has it been nominated the most out of the past five ceremonies with 12 nominations total, but it has also won nearly every Best Picture award this season from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs. It’s rare that a film sweeps the entire awards season before losing the Best Picture Oscar at the 11th hour. In fact, the last time that happened was in 2019 when 1917 lost Best Picture to Parasite, and that instance was very much the exception and not the norm. I don’t expect that to happen again this year as The Power Of The Dog will inevitably win the highest honor of the night, just like it has been for the past two months.
Now, does it deserve to win Best Picture? Absolutely freaking not, and it’s very rare that I speak so definitively on a Best Picture nominee. With most other Oscar ceremonies, I usually try to see the Best Picture winner from the Academy’s angle and try to understand the value they see with a particular film. Even in ceremonies where I’ve blatantly disagreed with the Academy, I can at least appreciate certain aspects of the eventual winner. For instance, I find The Shape Of Water to be a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to forbidden love even if it is equally strange and bizarre in the same sentence. Green Book was your basic, by-the-books, feel-good anti-racist movie that succeeded in making its point, even if other movies made that same point better like with BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther. Even Nomadland, which I still profess is a bland and uneventful film, at least possessed some beauty between its sweeping score, cinematography, and subject matter.
The point is, I can find redeeming qualities in each of the Best Picture winners from the past few years if I try hard enough. I can’t find any such redeeming qualities in The Power Of The Dog, a film that is so comatose, boring, and painfully lifeless that to keep it on life support for this long can be considered cruelty. I make no exaggeration when I say I hate this movie and how little it rewards you for suffering through its two-hour runtime. I quite literally would prefer any other nominee win Best Picture over The Power Of The Dog. That includes Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, West Side Story, and Being The Ricardos, a movie that isn’t even nominated for Best Picture but deserves it more than The Power Of The Dog does anyway.
But none of my animosity changes the fact that The Power Of The Dog is most poised to win Best Picture regardless. I’m praying that I’m wrong and some other more deserving film sweeps it under the rug. But until that actually happens, my skepticism has the better of me.
Best Director:Jane Campion won the Director’s Guild Award for The Power of the Dog, which inevitably means she will also win the Oscar for best film direction. Again, I quite literally would prefer any other nominee win in this category over her, including Steven Spielberg for West Side Story. But the DGAs have nevertheless spoken, which by extension means the Academy has also spoken. I’m still livid that Denis Villeneuve was not nominated for his captivating and stunning realization of Frank Herbert’s vision in Dune regardless. That snub alone speaks more to how out-of-touch the Academy Awards have become than Jane Campion’s eventual Best Director win ever will.
Best Actor: I’m split for Best Actor, perhaps more than any other category, because two of my most favorite performances of the year are in the running here: Will Smith for King Richard and Andrew Garfield for Tick, Tick… BOOM! They both have so much going for them. First of all, both of them have been nominated for best acting Oscars before, with Will Smith being nominated for Ali and The Pursuit Of Happyness and Andrew Garfield being nominated for Hacksaw Ridge. Second of all, both of them are playing real-life figures, with Smith playing Venus and Serena Williams’ father Richard and Garfield playing Rent musical legend Jonathan Larson.
But on a much more simple level, both really deserve the Oscar because their performances are just that dang good. Smith brings a vulnerability, a deep-rooted love, passion, and father’s heart to Richard Williams dying to see his little girls succeed, while Garfield plays the aspiring musician eager for more yet feeling like time is running out for him. This is a tough, tough race this year, but I’m going with the math on this one. Will Smith has so far won the Golden Globe, the Screen Actor, and the NAACP Image Award for his performance as King Richard. That makes him the safest bet to win Best Actor, and that’s the one I’m going with.
Your day will come soon, Andrew. In the meantime, be grateful that it literally took a Hollywood titan like Will Smith to stop you from winning Best Actor. It’s a privilege to lose to the best, and you definitely have that situation here with Will Smith and Andrew Garfield for this year’s Best Actor race.
Best Actress: On the other hand, Best Actress this year is a complete and utter crapshoot. Kristen Stewart, who was once considered a leading contender for her portrayal of Princess Diana in Spencer, has now faded into the background as she failed to earn both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor nomination. Penelope Cruz doesn’t fare much better considering her nomination for Parallel Mothers was a shock in and of itself. And don’t even get me started on Nicole Kidman being nominated as Lucille Ball for Being The Ricardos. She shouldn’t even be nominated in this category, let alone potentially win.
That leaves Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter and Jessica Chastain for The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. I haven’t seen either film, so my prediction in this category is intrinsically worthless either way. I’m going with Jessica Chastain simply because Colman has already won an Oscar for The Favourite while Chastain hasn’t won yet despite being nominated twice before. I’m still frustrated that Lady Gaga and Jody Comer were snubbed in this category regardless for their stellar performances in House of Gucci and The Last Duel. Both of them not being included here automatically makes this category less credible in my eye. Next.
Best Supporting Actor: Out of all of the races this awards season, few have been as interesting to watch take shape as Best Supporting Actor. First Kodi Smit-McPhee won Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes for his role as a soft-spoken son with a darker side to him in The Power Of The Dog. Then real-life deaf actor Troy Kotsur won the Screen Actor for playing a loving father and husband in the family drama CODA. Which of these actors will take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor? My money is on Troy Kotsur for CODA. Authenticity usually gives you a competitive edge in the acting categories. In the case of Troy Kotsur, not only was he one of the most charismatic and heartfelt additions to CODA, but he’s also been a lifelong advocate for the deaf community throughout his 30-year acting career. Kodi Smit-McPhee might pull off a surprise upset win, but God, I don’t want him to. Give Troy Kotsur his Oscar, Academy. He deserves his moment to shine.
Best Supporting Actress: The one thing that seems to be universal about Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story is that people LOVE Ariana DeBose as Anita. She deserves the affection, because not only did she take an iconic role that was once inhabited by Rita Moreno, but she somehow managed to bring her own life and passion to it and made it her own. She was a clear standout in the movie, and she definitely deserves all of the acclaim she has been getting for reviving this beloved character for a new age on the big screen.
Would it be a little redundant to give two different actresses an Oscar for the same role twice? Sure, but Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix both won Oscars for playing the Joker, so I’m not mad if Ariana wins an Oscar for the same role that made Rita Moreno an Academy Award winner as well. Go for Ariana DeBose on Best Supporting Actress, she’s a lock in this category.
Best Animated Feature: First of all, what a packed category this year. With any other given ceremony, the Oscar for Best Animated Feature is usually pretty straightforward to predict with one obvious standout clearing out the rest of the nominee pool (Toy Story 3, Frozen, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, etc.). That isn’t the case this year with an incredible lineup of nominees including Encanto, Flee, Luca, Raya and the Last Dragon, and The Mitchells V.S. The Machines. For all intents and purposes, any one of these amazing films could win Best Animated Feature on Oscar night, and all of them are equally deserving. I can’t really say that about any other year for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, and that alone is an achievement worth celebrating this year.
That being said, I think Encanto is going to end up winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature this year. Not only is the animation beautiful, the characters lovable, and the music catchy and clever, but it is arguably the most popular and most talked-about film out of all of the animated nominees. That’s never a bad thing going into the Oscar race, especially when Disney and Pixar are involved.
While I personally would love to see either The Mitchells V.S. The Machines or Luca take home the Oscar this year, Encanto is not a bad pick by any means and arguably deserves the Oscar even more than other winners from the past few years. We’ll see what happens on awards night, but regardless of which film wins, the Best Animated Film category is the biggest winner at this year’s Oscars.
Best Documentary Feature: Looking past the Academy’s disrespectful snub of Val, there is one clear standout in the Best Documentary category this year, and that is Summer Of Soul. Beautifully restored in vivid picture and sound quality, Questlove brilliantly brings the Harlem Cultural Festival experience to the big screen in a way that no other film can. Were Val nominated this year, I would have been more split in this category. But since Summer Of Soul is the only true contender, that makes my choice for Best Documentary easy.
Best International Feature:Drive My Car. Not only is it also nominated in the Best Picture category, but its director Ryusuke Hamaguchi also received two other nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. No other international feature nominee can say the same, so Drive My Car is a lock for this win.
Best Original Screenplay: More than any other nominee in the Best Original Screenplay category, the one thing you can say about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is how original it is. From its dreamy, euphoric sense of 70s nostalgia to its off-brand and awkward style of comedy, Licorice Pizza is quintessentially Paul Thomas Anderson and he succeeded in making it his own. Whether you like it or not is another thing entirely. Still, I find how personal and profound it is to be endearing in its own way. Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast might pull an upset win, but considering it hasn’t won much since its original Best Screenplay win at the Golden Globes, I have to go with Licorice Pizza on this one.
Best Adapted Screenplay:The Power Of The Dog is probably going to win Best Adapted Screenplay as well, because why not? Sure, it wasn’t nominated at the WGAs this year. But then again, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm won adapted screenplay last year while The Father won at the Oscars, so maybe the WGAs mean diddly-squat nowadays. Either way, I’ll be actively rooting for any other nominee to win in this category besides The Power Of The Dog. Denis Villeneuve deserves to win for Dune solely because he was snubbed in the Best Director category anyway.
Best Cinematography:The first of many sweeps to come on Oscar night, Dune is the favorite to win Best Cinematography and easily deserves to win the most out of all of the nominees. Sure, Best Cinematography is a stacked category this year with Dan Laustsen, Bruno Delbonnel, and Janusz Kaminski offering stiff competition for their work on Nightmare Alley, The Tragedy Of Macbeth, and West Side Story respectively. But Greig Fraser made too good of use of his gorgeous, massive sceneries and masterfully immersed you in the death, destruction, and desolation of Arrakis. No other film this year came even close to reaching the visual achievement that Dune did, and Greig Fraser had a big hand in that and deserves the Oscar for it. If for some obscene reason Ari Wegner snabs Best Cinematography from him for The Power Of The Dog, I will lose my mind.
Best Film Editing:Dune again by a very, very, very long mile. While I questioned for a second if The Power Of The Dog bias would blind Academy Award voters to make the wrong choice, I think Dune is going to come out on top for a few reasons. For one thing, it has racked up the most best film editing honors so far this awards season (including Best Edited Feature Film from the American Cinema Editors). For another, Joe Walker has amazingly enough not won a Best Editing Oscar yet despite being nominated twice for 12 Years A Slave and Arrival. Tenure usually gives you a competitive edge at the Oscars, so it’s best to root for Joe Walker and Dune for Best Film Editing.
Best Makeup And Hairstyling: First of all, why on God’s green Earth is Coming 2 America nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling? The only film whose makeup looked sillier than that film was Norbit in 2007. What is it with Eddie Murphy and his movies constantly being nominated for best makeup year after year? Is he for some reason considered Meryl Streep in the makeup category? Is there a specific clause in his films that his producers need to pour a crapton of campaign dollars into the Oscars to score a makeup nomination? WHY IS COMING 2 AMERICA NOMINATED FOR BEST MAKEUP? WHY? WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY?!?!
Moving past that obscene and ridiculous nomination, the one film whose makeup job truly impressed me this year was The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. With Cruella, Dune, and House Of Gucci, you can still clearly identify each actor and tell them apart despite the makeup they’re wearing (including even Jared Leto’s turn as Paolo Gucci). But in The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, I couldn’t even tell that Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield were even in the film. Honest to God, when I saw Tammy Faye first appear on screen, I thought Bryce Dallas Howard was playing her, not Jessica Chastain. That type of makeup job is transformational, and that usually earns its makeup artists the Oscar.
Best Production Design: From its massive sets and sceneries to the intricate detailing on the ornithopters and carryalls, Dune builds an ingenious and imaginative world through its masterful production and set design. If we’re picking the leader in this category, Dune wins by a huge, huge margin, even alongside fellow competitors Nightmare Alley and West Side Story.
Could either one of those titles pick up an upset win in production design? It’s possible but unlikely, especially when you consider how much world-building Dune really did in that film. When it comes to production design, creating a world as immersive and immaculate as Arrakis usually brings home the gold (see Avatar’s Best Production win in 2010, Mad Max: Fury Road’s win in 2016, Black Panther’s win in 2019). I think Dune’s stunning production design will yield the same result for the science-fiction film on Oscar night.
Best Costume Design: It comes down to Cruella and Dune for this year’s Best Costume Design race. Considering fashion is one of the key elements behind Disney’s live-action remake/prequel to 101 Dalmatians, it’s no surprise that Cruella’s incredible and exotic outfits make it one of the biggest contenders for best costume design this year. Then again though, Dune’s wardrobe is arguably just as masterful with all of the variety and culture between all of the different outfits that the film’s many factions wore. It’s a tough one, but I have to go with Cruella solely because the costume design is literally baked into the film’s plot. Don’t be surprised if Dune ends up stealing this one too though.
Best Musical Score:I know Hans Zimmer previously won an Oscar for The Lion King in 1994, but few of his scores are as captivating and imaginative as Dune’s exotic chants and drum beats are. It’s been five months now since I’ve seen the film, and its haunting and beautiful melodies are still stuck in my mind. That makes Dune the frontrunner for the Best Original Score Oscar. I don’t see any other nominees winning this award, and frankly, none of them deserve it over Hans Zimmer anyway.
Best Original Song: First of all, props to all of the incredibly competitive nominees in this year’s Best Original Song category. With most other Oscar ceremonies, there is usually a clear frontrunner that takes home the Oscar gold. That isn’t the case this year, with this year’s nominees including Billie Eilish, Van Morrison, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Diane Warren, and freaking Beyonce. When BEYONCE is nominated for an Oscar and she’s considered the underdog, you know you have a competitive category in your hands. It honestly makes picking a winner so, so difficult, and the fact that Best Original Song is so unpredictable this year is honestly the best compliment I can give to all of its nominees.
That being said, we still need to predict a winner, and this year’s race comes down to Billie Eilish for “No Time To Die” and Lin-Manuel Miranda for Encanto’s “Dos Orugitas.” While I love the eerie, haunting, and tragic piano notes of Billie Eilish’s monumental James Bond overture, “Dos Orugitas” is a beautiful and heartbreaking melody about love, loss, growth, and moving on. I mean, have you even read the translated lyrics? The song alone is wonderful to listen to, but it’s the deeper meaning behind it that really shatters your heart while slowly mending it back together piece by piece.
I dunno. Either one has a really good shot at winning on Oscar night, but I’m going with my gut on this one and predicting that Lin-Manuel Miranda wins for Encanto. Feel free to flip a coin if you’re having a hard time choosing one or the other.
Best Sound:Dune, 100%, no questions asked. I know No Time To Die and West Side Story put up solid efforts, but there is no other film this year that carries the unique sounds and ambiances that Dune does. Even if this award was split into best sound editing and mixing, I would still advocate for Dune in both categories. That makes it a solid lock in my book, especially when it comes to the Best Sound Oscar.
Post-script: What the crap is The Power Of The Dog doing being nominated here? What did its impressive sound work entail? Benedict Cumberbatch playing the banjo?
Best Visual Effects: As visually spectacular as Shang-Chi and Spider-Man: No Way Home is, Marvel has not won a Best Visual Effects Oscar since 2004 for Spider-Man 2. It’s unreasonable to think that’ll suddenly change now, especially with the snubs of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame from the Oscars’ most recent ceremonies.
Now Dune, on the other hand, has delivered a visual epic and odyssey unmatched by any other sci-fi blockbuster in the past few years, including even Avengers: Endgame. It may be considered sacrilegious by the comic book community to say that better visual effects exist outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s okay to say that in Dune’s case because it happens to be true. From the endless desert seas of Arrakis to the massive sandworms that burrow beneath them, every single frame of Dune immerses you in this dry, desolate, and desperate landscape that nobody can escape from. You never feel like you’re merely watching it: you always feel like you’re experiencing it.
Not only do I believe that Dune has a real shot at winning the visual effects Oscar — I even believe it deserves to win over the other nominees, including Shang-Chi and Spider-Man. If it doesn’t win, well then the Academy has truly lost all of its marbles. Luckily, I don’t think that’s happened to them… yet.
And as always, I’m completely clueless when it comes to the short categories since I’ve never watched any of the nominees. This year, I’m predicting Boxballet for Best Animated Short, When We Were Bullies for Best Documentary Short, and The Long Goodbye for Best Live-Action Short. Don’t ask my metrics for why I picked those. I literally just like their titles.
Do I even bother predicting the Oscars’ Fan-Favorite and Cheer Moment categories? Both of those “awards” are painfully bad efforts at connecting with mainstream movie audiences, and they both backfired in really awkward ways. When Camilla Cabello’s Cinderella has the potential to win an Academy Award, that category has officially lost any and all credibility whatsoever.
Regardless, I guess they are both still technically award categories anyway. So I’m going to predict Spider-Man: No Way Home wins the Fan-Favorite Award while Avengers: Endgame wins the Best Cheer Moment. They bloody well better win them too, especially since neither of them had a fair shot at winning an Oscar in their respective categories anyway.
Okay, I’m done with my predictions folks. I’ll see you on Oscar night… or maybe not. It is, after all, a school night.
In the genre of comic book movies, few characters have been done and redone as many times as Batman has. In the past 10 years, we have seen five different iterations of the caped crusader on the big screen. This year alone, we’re going to see three different big-screen Batmans, two of which will be in live-action. In this day and age, the greatest challenge that comes with the dark knight is redoing and rebooting the character over and over again and making him feel different every time.
Thankfully, Matt Reeves’ The Batman achieves this in spades, reintroducing the world’s greatest detective not as this mythical entity criminals fear late at night, but as one man at his wits ending fighting one city and the entirety of its corruption. Never before has Batman felt so grounded in a film. Yes, that even includes Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Taking place two years after he first donned the cowl, The Batman follows Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) at the start of his crime-fighting career as he hunts down Gotham’s worst. But as he begins to strike fear and vengeance into Gotham’s heart, a new serial killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) enters the fray, claiming responsibility for a string of murders happening throughout the city. Now determined to track down this killer, the Batman scours the criminal underworld looking for clues connecting him to Gotham’s newest criminal mastermind.
One of the most essential elements of any big-screen Batman adaptation is how the city of Gotham is portrayed. In Tim Burton’s Batman movies, Gotham is portrayed like a bleak slum reminiscent of a graveyard, shrouded in shades of charcoal and dark blue. In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Gotham mimics the look and feel of a modern-day Chicago. And in Batman V. Superman, Gotham is… apparently across the bay from Metropolis. But we don’t need to talk about that film.
So how does Matt Reeves handle his iteration of Gotham city? Pretty amazingly, actually. In fact, The Batman has quite possibly the best realization of Gotham yet. While previous films have shown Gotham as a dreadful, decrepit city that desperately needed saving, The Batman illustrates Gotham as a swamp of greed, crime, and corruption, sharing more in common with a diseased leper than a highly populated metropolitan city. In previous films, there was a glimmer of hope that Gotham could change and be saved. The Batman illustrates Gotham as a truly desolate, hopeless place that we honestly question if it’s even worth saving. In many ways, Gotham is a character in and of itself, and it really informs why Bruce constantly feels the need to suit up at night as the Batman.
But it isn’t just Gotham city that Matt Reeves nails so well here: its also the dark, eerie, unsettling tone that persists throughout the whole film. The opening sequence alone brilliantly sets the stage, with Robert Pattinson delivering a haunting voiceover about being a predator on the hunt at night while criminals cower in fear as they see the Bat Signal light up the sky. Most other Batman films have great introductions to their characters, but The Batman is the first to show the full scope of it and how everyone in this world reacts and responds to a prowler stalking the city late at night. It sets the tone so, so wonderfully. Out of all of the films that have been previously released, The Batman feels the most atmospheric and stays with you long after you’ve left the theater.
I also really like the ultra-realism that Matt Reeves aims for when adapting this big-screen Batman. While most Batman films feel implausible or far-fetched at one point or another, The Batman always feels completely realistic, sometimes nearly to its detriment. Instead of having countless bat gadgets and weapons at his disposal, this Batman carries only one bat-blade and a grappling gun, and that limits how much he’s able to do alone as one man. Instead of having a heavily-armored vehicle like the Tumbler or the Batwing, the Batmobile instead feels like a suped-up muscle car, yet equally capable in its speed and destruction. And instead of being able to fly with his cape, here he has to literally suit up in a flight suit just to be able to glide through the air. More than any other Batman film, The Batman feels the most like it could actually happen. That gives it a level of authenticity and believability that few Batman films have, and even fewer superhero films on top of that.
The cast is exceptional in every way imaginable. Zoe Kravitz brings us the best version of Catwoman to date, playing her not like a whiskers-twirling supervillain, but as a morally-conflicted cat burglar who sees the world through the shades of gray that she grew up in. Colin Farrell is straight-up unrecognizable as the Penguin, playing him as this cartoonish wannabe mob boss that wants to be taken more seriously than he actually is. And without giving too much away, Paul Dano’s Riddler serves as the perfect foil to Pattinson’s Batman, offering a chilling, disturbed performance of a twisted man who wants vengeance from the city that wronged him. I honestly think Dano’s Riddler might be my favorite supervillain performance in a Batman film. That is, after Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
This begs the question of how well does Robert Pattinson do in playing the caped crusader? Well, he’s a mixed bag. On one hand, his performance as Batman alone is mesmerizing and powerful, beautifully illustrating a man tortured and haunted by his demons and who is guided by his grief and trauma. His sheer presence inspires fear and tension, and that is exactly what you need in an actor to play Batman. His voice is also the darkest and most grim Batman voice in the past 10 years. I’d even go so far as to say his voice is my favorite out of all the Batman actors. It’s definitely an improvement over Christian Bale’s growly snarls and Ben Affleck’s garbled autotune.
In terms of playing Batman, Pattinson’s portrayal is perfect — maybe even the best on-screen Batman we’ve ever gotten. The problem is, he isn’t expected to just play Batman: he’s also expected to play Bruce Wayne, and this is where Pattinson’s performance begins to falter. While Pattinson’s Batman is dark, intimidating, and brooding, Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is… the exact same. There’s no indication that he is the billionaire playboy that the press loves to flaunt on their front pages, or that he’s even capable of playing that part. While at night Pattinson is great at playing the shrouded predator that makes criminals shake in their boots, his performance as Bruce Wayne is the exact same and offers zero nuance beyond his scowls and eye-piercing glares.
Sure, you could make the argument that this is Bruce early on in his crime-fighting career and that he just doesn’t know how to delineate between his public and his private personas. But that implies that this version of Bruce is not smart enough, or at least aware enough, to know that he may need a public persona to fend off wavering eyes. I don’t buy that for a second. This is a guy who can solve riddles, find far-reaching clues, and piece together mind-boggling mysteries like a master detective, and he doesn’t even have the self-awareness to think “Hey, maybe I should B.S. the public so nobody suspects I’m secretly a vigilante?” Give me a break. There’s even a moment in the film where Bruce fears that somebody quietly suspects that he may be Batman. I mean, duh. What else do you think all of that eye shadow is for? A Panic! At The Disco concert?
All in all, The Batman is a bold and brilliant retelling of the dark knight, even if it falters with some creative decisions here or there. I find it fascinating that nine years after Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy ended, The Batman doesn’t feel tired, redundant, or exhausted in its execution. Instead, it feels fresh, exciting, and deeply challenging to the caped crusader and his mythos. Yet, the biggest surprise I found with the film wasn’t how dark, how bleak, how hopeless Gotham really felt. The biggest surprise was after leaving Gotham when the movie was over, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to go back.
There’s a metaphor hiding behind the mountains of The Power Of The Dog. Some people can see a dog hiding within the curves, crevices, and shadows of the canyonside. Others can only see the mountain. Regardless of whether or not you can see the dog, it doesn’t change the fact that two people are just staring aimlessly at a mountain like madmen, searching for something that might not even be there.
Ironically enough, this plot point is the perfect metaphor for The Power Of The Dog itself. Like the old west, The Power Of The Dog possesses a lot of beauty, a lot of darkness, and a lot of danger burrowing beneath the sands of Montana. Just like the countryside, there’s a lot to appreciate with the sheer scale and scenery that we witness here. But stick around for too long, and it’ll eventually swallow you whole. That’s pretty much what happens with The Power Of The Dog: the main characters stare at the mountains for far too long, looking for deeper meaning in a place where there is none.
Based on a 1967 western novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog follows two rancher brothers as they toil day and night taking care of their cattle and farm. The elder brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still mourning the loss of his mentor, Henry Bronco. His brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and adopts her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil is a sordid, distrusting person who thinks Rose is only after George’s money. Rose is still grieving her former husband’s demise while battling an alcohol addiction. Things simmer like a soft boil until the tensions rise to the point of no return for the Burbank household.
Well, “tension” may not be the right word to use here. More like melodramatically prolonged stares and pauses that are so drawn out and overbearing that it makes after-school detention seem more interesting. When The Power Of The Dog opens up, it promises a dark, complex narrative filled with depth and deception — one where long-hidden secrets remained buried until one curious teenager brings them to light. This film… is not that. What we get instead is a long, dull, boring, flavorless experience that’s so bland and uninteresting that it makes unsalted crackers look exciting.
Oh sure, the film is perfectly functional. From a purely technical standpoint, I have no grievances with the film whatsoever. The costuming and production design is accurate and on-point to the era the film is portraying. The cinematography by Ari Wegner is lush and vivid and evokes a sense of loneliness and isolation. And while it is simple and bare-bones, the acoustic score by Jonny Greenwood carries on with an uneasy progression, with its strings plucking in an agitated manner as if Phil Burbank were playing them himself.
The actors also do a really good job with the roles they are given and are convincing in their portrayals of an unnerved family losing its sense of tranquility. Kirsten Dunst has a mesmerizing return to form after leaving the film industry for four years, playing a tortured, anguished character who is torn by her motherhood, her alcoholism, and her trauma she’s experienced since moving in with the Burbanks. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an equally layered character with several shades, feeling warm and inviting in one beat and cold and calculating in another. And Benedict Cumberbatch masterfully plays the meanest bastard you’ve ever met, a man who will inflict great suffering on a family without hesitation but whose actions are contextualized through a great tragedy he experienced. Individually these characters are very interesting, and the cast realizes all of these roles to the best of their abilities.
The problem is the story they’re in is just not there. On paper, there’s an intricate and layered narrative hiding deep beneath The Power of the Dog’s muddy surface. But in execution, there’s no story at all — only characters that meander aimlessly from one point to another without any rhyme or reason, without any point or purpose, really without any sense of direction or destination. It isn’t merely the fact that The Power of the Dog is difficult to read. Quite the contrary — it is impossible to read. There is so much sleight of hand, so much implication, and so much interpretation that is required to understand this film that you would need to read the script while watching just to be able to follow what is even going on.
I say all this knowing that interpretation in and of itself is not a bad thing. Several films released from the past few years have required audiences to do the heavy lifting and were uniquely rewarding in their own way, whether it was Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman and The Revenant. Even David Lowery’s recent The Green Knight, which I still profess was an extremely polarizing film, at least had an intriguing point and a purpose that the film was driving toward. The Power of the Dog doesn’t even have that. It drops its 304-page novel right onto audiences’ backs, shrugs its shoulders, says “make of that whatever you will” and then leaves. That’s not good filmmaking. That isn’t even storytelling. That’s a cinematic Rorschach test it’s forcing audiences to take without even doing the decency of providing them with a clear picture.
This is why the mountains are the perfect metaphor for the public’s reaction to The Power of the Dog. Some will see the point that The Power of the Dog is trying to make and fall in love with it. Others won’t see anything at all and will be flabbergasted as to how so many people can be drooling all over it. So, which is it? Is there a dog or isn’t there? I have a better question: who cares?
I’m starting to think that the Oscars are no longer meant for me. Every year, the Academy Awards makes one confounding decision after another that shocks audiences and makes them flare up at their nostrils. Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Film Editing. Green Book winning Best Picture. Even during last year’s ceremony, the late Chadwick Boseman lost Best Actor for his amazing performance as an overzealous jazz musician in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to Anthony Hopkins’ heart-wrenching performance in TheFather. Don’t get me wrong, both performances were amazing, but come on guys.
Even the nominations get stranger with each passing year. Last year, the overbearingly long black-and-white drama Mank received 10 nominations despite how dull, boring, and lifeless that film was. This year is keeping with the trend by awarding The Power Of The Dog with 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and a whole slew of technical nominations and way too many acting nominations. Out of all 12 nominations, The Power Of The Dog deserves maybe four: Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Acting nominations for Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi-Smit McPhee. It definitely does not deserve Best Sound. Its Hollywood couple Jesse Plemons and Kristen Dunst definitely do not deserve Best Supporting Actor nominations. And there is no way in HELL that the movie deserves Best Film Editing for refusing to shave even 15 minutes off of its exasperating 2-hour runtime. But sure, let’s just give it as many nominations as Lincoln and The Revenant because the studio paid enough money to Academy board voters. Whatever.
Now the second most-nominated Best Picture nominee, Dune, is a vastly better picture and actually earns the majority of its nominations. From visual effects to cinematography to film editing to music to costume, makeup, sound, and set design, Dune is an audio-visual odyssey unmatched not only by any other film the past year, but by several films from the past several years. To say it is a science-fiction masterpiece is a massive, massive understatement. It has earned every nomination it has amassed and deserved to sweep away the competition on Oscar night.
The biggest frustration behind Dune isn’t what it is nominated for, but rather what it isn’t nominated for. Despite how many nominations it has racked up, Dune’s director Denis Villeneuve is noticeably absent in the Best Director category, which is especially bewildering given how many recent blockbuster movie directors were recognized for their outstanding technical achievement in previous years (see Sam Mendes for 1917, George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road, Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity). What on Earth was the Academy thinking? Here is one of the most unique, creative, and immersive cinematic experiences of the last decade, and instead of giving director Denis Villeneuve his due, they instead decided that it was more important to give Steven Spielberg his 19th nomination despite already winning Best Director twice. Give me a break.
Speaking of Steven Spielberg, his remake of the classic musical West Side Story earned seven nominations right alongside Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast, including Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song, and a slew of Best Acting nominations, including one for supporting actress Ariana DeBose. I have no problems with these individual nominations themselves, and it is nice to see Kenneth Branagh get a Best Directing nomination after not receiving one for over 30 years since his director debut Henry V. I just really, really, REALLY hate that Spielberg is nominated in the same category. Even if you gave West Side Story one less nomination, it still would have tied for the fourth most nominations out of all the Best Picture nominees. Did Spielberg really have to take the Best Director nom away from Denis Villeneuve? Really?
At six nominations, King Richard is the second Best Picture nominee to miss out on a Best Director nomination, but it more than makes up for it in other categories. Besides Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song, and Best Film Editing, co-stars Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis both locked in nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Both actors gave some of the best performances of the year and are more than deserving of their respective nominations, though I can’t help but feel Will Smith has a better chance of winning due to his sheer star power.
The next three surprises come in Nightmare Alley, Drive My Car, and Don’t Look Up. The big surprise with these isn’t just the fact that they secured four nominations a piece: it’s the fact that all three secured Best Picture nominations despite the fact that they were all considered dark horses before even entering the Oscar race. I wouldn’t expect too many wins though. With most of its nominations stacking up in the technical categories, that inevitably means Nightmare Alley and Don’t Look Up will be going head to head against Dune, and I just don’t see them winning that matchup (although Drive My Car does have solid chances winning in the Best Foreign Language film category).
The last two Best Picture nominees are underdogs that stand really good chances at winning in either of their categories. With Licorice Pizza and CODA securing Best Original Screenplay nominations and respective Best Director and Supporting Actor nominations, these two films’ windows are limited, but they’re hard-hitting contenders in their categories. It would not be much of a stretch to imagine Licorice Pizza winning in all three of its categories next month, especially when you remember Spotlight’s Best Picture win from 2015.
And in other ways, there were actually many small wins in this years Oscar nominations. For one thing, all 10 of its Best Picture slots were filled up this year, and that hasn’t happened at the Academy Awards since a full decade ago. Tick, Tick… BOOM! was nominated twice for film editing and Best Actor for Andrew Garfield, and that’s two more nominations that I wasn’t even expecting, so I was pleased about that. And of course, the biggest movie of the year Spider-Man: No Way Home earned a much-deserved visual effects nomination, which is more than you can say about other movies like Captain America: Civil War, The Dark Knight Rises, Thor: Ragnarok, etc.
But don’t get it twisted: there were still way more snubs this year than there were supposed to be. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights got a resounding zero nominations, which is especially surprising given all of its incredible costumes and set design. House of Gucci got snubbed in the acting categories, even Lady Gaga for her amazing turn as one of the most coldly calculated villains in recent memory. But the most maddening snub comes with Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which got a resounding zero nominations across all the categories. That includes best adapted writing, cinematography, set design, costume design, editing, music: even its star Jody Comer got completely overlooked in both of the acting categories. The fact that The Last Duel and House of Gucci received Razzie nominations for Ben Affleck and Jared Leto’s performances only add insult to injury.
We’ll see how everything pans out on Oscar night, but at the moment I am feeling very unenthused about this year’s ceremony. As I say year after year, the Oscars should be about recognizing the biggest achievements in film: about honoring the best movies of the year and how they moved and changed us. This year’s ceremony seems to be about taking those nominations away from those deserving films and giving them to The Power Of The Dog instead.
It’s funny how differently people can experience the same thing. When 2021 ended, thousands of people swarmed the internet as they celebrated the end to yet another quote-unquote “horrible year.” “Good riddance 2021!” some online commentators quipped. “Thank God that’s over with,” others remarked. My favorite comment had to be one person saying that 2021 was “2020 Part 2.” Geez, tell me you hated a year without telling me you hated a year.
And you know, as bad as 2021 was, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was as awful as everybody was saying it was. Don’t get me wrong: it was still insufferable, with various morons still pushing conspiracy theories about masks, COVID-19, the vaccine, the 2020 election, and everything else in between. But when you compare it alongside how arduous, painful, and mind-boggingly stupid the past five years have been, 2021 felt relatively… normal? At least when compared to the likes of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and of course, the accursed year of 2020.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that compared to the last decade, 2021 felt like a step in the right direction, if ever so slightly. And the biggest step of improvement we’ve seen this past year was easily with the movies. While 2020 saw many movie releases get canceled, rescheduled, or removed from theaters left and right, 2021 saw a steady release of fantastic movies throughout the whole year, including many that were originally supposed to come out in 2020.
That’s why for the first time on this website, I won’t be doing a top 10, a top 15, or even a top 20 list for the year. For one time and one time only, I will be ranking my Top 21 Movies of 2021.
I’m expanding my best-of list this year from 10 movies to 21 for a few reasons. One is because, as you might remember, I obviously didn’t do a top 10 list last year, so doubling my list this year only seemed fair given how many more movies came out in 2021. Another reason is that as I started building out my list, I noticed that a lot of my favorite movies were getting knocked out of my top 10, and I still wanted to recognize them in some way.
But more to the point, I just feel like 2021 deserved the extra love. It had the difficult task of rebounding from the trash year we got in 2020, and even with big box-office successes in No Time To Die and F9, the film industry still hasn’t quite recovered financially from 2020. Nevertheless, these filmmakers, actors, and artists have given us great films to admire over the past year, and I want to give them their fair due despite the challenging time we’re living through.
Few disclaimers to go through as per usual. First of all, this list is obviously my opinion, and some of the opinions I have will frustrate you. I know critics have said The Power Of The Dog and The Green Knight were mesmerizing cinematic masterpieces that deserve to be lavishly praised until the end of time, but I’m sorry to say that both of those movies sucked and neither one will be appearing on my list.
Simultaneously, despite how many more movies I’ve seen this past year, many still slipped past my radar. You won’t find Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story here, especially since it had the gall to come out during the same month as Spider-Man: No Way Home. You will also not find Belfast on this list either despite the amazing things I’ve heard about it. Perhaps most disappointingly is the fact that I didn’t get to see Licorice Pizza before the year ended, and that’s especially ironic given how many Paul Thomas Anderson films I’ve brushed up on this year, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood.
And lastly, this will also be the first of my best-of list that will not have any honorable mentions, mostly because it’s 21 FREAKING MOVIES. There doesn’t need to be any honorable mentions this year. All of these movies were amazing.
Okay, enough with the intro. Time to hop into my favorite 21 films of 2021, starting with…
A sleek, sexy, and stylish account of the Gucci family and the wealth and power that drives them to do horrible things. Ridley Scott directs a stunning all-star cast in this thrilling crime-drama including Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, and who my girlfriend calls Adam “Daddy” Driver himself. The standout performances belong to Jared Leto, who disappears into the biggest Italian idiot alive in Paulo Gucci, and Lady Gaga, whose ice-cold demeanor gives her an edge so chilling that she could be mistaken for a mob boss. As someone who couldn’t give two rips about the Gucci brand name and family, House Of Gucci kept me engaged and interested in a way that few films have this year. That alone is an accomplishment in of itself. Three and a half stars.
A lively and joyous celebration of family, love, and Latin America. This Walt Disney fantasy tells the story of the Madrigals, an incredible family endowed with supernatural abilities and a sentient home they affectionately refer to as their “Encanto.” But when their abilities and their home begin to collapse, the Madrigals need to rely on their powerless granddaughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) to save them. This endearing little delight warms both heart and soul, bursting with personality and a deep appreciation of Colombian culture. Disney’s animation is as lush and beautiful as ever, and Mirabel is an endearing little underdog that’s easy to love and root for. Like its main hero, Encanto shows how powerful we can be, even in the moments where we feel powerless. Three and a half stars.
A stunning, spectacular showstopper of a film that leaves just as much an impact as its real-life singer did. Jennifer Hudson commands the screen as Aretha Franklin in this rousing biopic about her life. First-time director Liesl Tommy tells a provocative story about Aretha and how she changed the course of the music industry forever. But the movie isn’t just about her hit singles and chart-breaking records: Respect also shows the darker, more grim sides of Aretha’s life that she had to persevere through. And Hudson gives one of the best performances of her career, shining with as much life and vibrancy as she did in her Oscar-winning role in Dreamgirls. A powerful testament to the Queen of Soul and the millions that she inspired. Three and a half stars.
There’s absolutely no reason why Zack Snyder’s Justice League should work as well as it does, let alone even exist in the first place. Yet despite studio interference from Warner Bros. and the general stigma surrounding remakes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a comprehensive and fully realized vision of these characters that comic book fans have come to love. This four-hour epic brings weight to these character’s arcs and decisions, and every moment the film builds up to feels earned and intentional. Yeah the movie does feel a little bloated, but I’d rather a longer, denser narrative that fully believes in itself rather than a shorter, more diminished experience for everybody. If Warner Bros. has any sense, they’ll announce a sequel as soon as possible. Three and a half stars.
Pixar knocks it out of the park yet again with this sweet and sincere little gem of a movie that shows people to not be afraid of what makes them different. Director Enrico Casarosa pulls from his childhood experiences to tell a literal fish-out-of-water story about a pair of sea monsters trying to fit in to a small town on the edge of the Riviera. The animation is colorful, vibrant, and beautiful, feeing like a luscious blend of Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid’s art styles. Dan Romer’s blissful soundtrack shines with serenity, with its melodies moving you to the tunes of its sweet strings and accordions. A beautiful and simple little story that serves as a heartfelt love letter to Italian culture and childhood. Three and a half stars.
A biting satire on the current state of politics and how all of the division can do nothing but harm us. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as a pair of astronomers that sound the alarm on a comet hurdling toward the Earth. But instead of unifying the public to divert the comet’s trajectory, America’s leaders instead trivialize the threat and pretend it doesn’t even exist. Writer-director Adam McKay uses the comet as an allegory for climate change, but the metaphor is so flexible that it can apply to several issues, including COVID-19. The all-star cast is equally impressive, with Leonardo DiCaprio in particular shining during a rant akin to Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell” speech in Network. A highly critical look at our nation’s political discourse that feels less and less like fiction the more it goes on. Three and a half stars.
An eerie, captivating, and unsettling psychological thriller that dives deeply into the lust and greed that drives men to commit heinous, sinful acts. Bradley Cooper stars as an ambitious carnie who wants to take his act across the world. But as he gets involved more and more with the wrong people, his life turns into a downward spiral that spins out of control. Guillermo Del Toro crafts a brilliant and ingenious world fueled by tricks, deceptions, and theatricality. The production design by Tamara Deverell is mesmerizing, and Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is straight-up hypnotic with its expansive, wide photography. But it’s Del Toro’s vision that makes Nightmare Alley sizzle with its own intrigue and implication. An atmospheric neo-noir drama that reveals the monsters that live in men. Three and a half stars.
A wicked, wacky, and wildly entertaining redemption for both The Suicide Squad and James Gunn. In this standalone sequel to the 2016 supervillain film, The Suicide Squad follows Amanda Waller as she assembles a new crew of misfit villains for a dangerous mission, including Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). This violent, over-the-top action flick subverts your expectations at every imaginable turn, with unique, funny, and endearing characters stealing your heart in between all of the hot-blooded action. Newcomer Daniela Melchior in particular shines as the pure-hearted thief Ratcatcher, and casting Sylvester Stallone as the talking King Shark was a stroke of pure genius. The Suicide Squad is James Gunn and DC at their best. Four stars.
An imaginative and awe-inspiring animated fantasy that moves and flows with the feel of a live-action epic. Chronicling the legend of five clans from the ancient land of Kumandra, the film follows a warrior princess named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and the water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) on their quest to banish the evil Druun spirits and save their home. The animation is Disney at its best, with characters’ lightning-quick action and reflexes driving the plot forward with vigor and enthusiasm. The caliber of the voice cast is equally talented, with Kelly Marie Tran shining the most as a young adventurer torn between her grief, guilt, and her desire to trust others. An exciting, funny, and heartfelt adventure that shows that it’s never too late to do the right thing. Four stars.
A bold deconstruction of the James Bond mythos that portrays him not as a generic action hero, but as a tragic character trapped in a cycle of violence and self-ruinous choices. Daniel Craig plays Bond one last time in his rawest and most human portrayal yet, showing who the man behind the license to kill is when he isn’t 007. Director Cary Joji Fukanaga makes every action sequence feel fast-paced and impactful, raising the stakes and the tension every minute that passes. Yet the most incredible thing about No Time To Die is how it shows Bond reacting to a world shifting and changing all around him. It’s funny how the movie is called No Time To Die, because by the time the end credits rolled, all we can think about is how James Bond lived. Four stars.
An electrifying musical experience that breathes with its own heartbeat and life. In his feature-length directorial debut, Questlove assembles never-before-seen archival footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and masterfully restores it with a crisp and clear picture quality that makes you feel like you were really there, with featured artists including Sly Stone, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. But it isn’t just a simple concert film: Questlove contextualizes a lot of the concert-going experiences through the lens of racial unrest in the late ’60s. For many, the Harlem Cultural Festival wasn’t just a musical event: it was a powerful statement for freedom, civil rights, and equality, one that The Summer Of Soul embodies proudly. Four stars.
A vibrant, colorful, and beautiful love letter to immigrants, Puerto Rico, and America itself. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu team up to bring Lin-Manuel’s musical debut to the big screen, and it’s bursting with so much soul and energy that at times it makes your heart stop. The music is infectious upon first listen, with the actors singing and rapping with such articulation that it rivals the intricate lyricism of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very own Hamilton. The film is lined with an impressive all-star cast, with Anthony Ramos in particular shining in the lead as Usnavi. But the cultural statement the film makes is the most powerful, telling audiences to not be ashamed of where you come from, who you are, and what dreams you are pursuing. You’ll fall in love with In The Heights so much that you’ll never want to leave. Four stars.
One of the most inventive, funny, charismatic, and heartfelt animated films of the year, and it isn’t even by Disney or Pixar. Sony Pictures knocks it out of the park yet again with this witty and wacky science-fiction comedy about a dysfunctional family fighting a robotic takeover. Developed by the same creative team behind Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, The Mitchells V.S. The Machines’ animation style is razor-sharp with stunning watercolor quality, flawlessly replicating a visual aesthetic similar to a children’s storybook. But the animation is only half of the puzzle. The other half lies in writer-director duo Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, who craft an incredibly sweet and sincere story about family, fatherhood, and following your dreams. The Mitchells V.S. The Machines is an animated smash hit that pops with its own style, pizzazz and personality. Four stars.
A wonderful and moving tribute to the biggest legends in tennis history and the family that rooted for them all the way there. Will Smith stars as Venus and Serena Williams’ father in this dramatic retelling of their journey to becoming tennis champions. I initially thought it was weird that a movie about Venus and Serena would focus on their father rather than themselves. But to my surprise, the movie isn’t about Venus, Serena, or Richard — it’s about the Williams family and how their love and dedication to each other propelled their daughters to unimaginable success. Everyone was amazing in this picture, from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena to Aunjanue Ellis as their mother. But Will Smith steals the show in one of his most passionate performances to date — maybe even his best ever. The best family drama of the year that hits you right in the feels and in the heart. Four stars.
A gritty, bleak, and violent recount of a rivalry between two knights and the woman caught up in the middle of it all. In one of his best historical epics since Gladiator, Ridley Scott directs an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Ben Affleck as he tells a true story about two men’s cold-blooded conflict that eventually leads into one of the last duels in human history. Ridley Scott guides his viewers through the plot’s many perspectives, masterfully building up the stakes so you understand where every character is coming from. But the real surprise is newcomer Jodie Comer, who delivers a performance so firm and immovable that she steals the spotlight from the film’s bigger stars. A layered and intricate narrative that keeps its viewers engaged until it arrives at its pulse-pounding, heart-racing conclusion. Four stars.
A hard, harrowing, and haunting portrayal of black America and the man who tried to lead his people to liberation. Daniel Kaluuya plays Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton in his final years leading up to his eventual betrayal by FBI informant Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who infiltrated the Black Panthers to gain Fred Hampton’s trust. Director Shaka King crafts a compelling, mesmerizing thriller from the pages of the Lucas Brothers’ intricate screenplay, eerily recounting the events of late 1960s Chicago and the racial and political divisions that laid deep within. But it’s Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield who steal the show, with Stanfield playing a tortured, conflicted character torn between two different worlds while Kaluyya embodies the fierce revolutionary fighting for his future. An intense and layered narrative that leaves you feeling hollow, yet hopeful by the end. Four stars.
Yeah, the marketing was horrible, the trailers were released way too late into the year, and this film was plagued with more leaks than the R.M.S. Titanic. Still, despite all of its promotional pitfalls, Spider-Man: No Way Home lives up to every single impossible expectation fans had for it. Tom Holland is the best that he’s ever been as Spider-Man, offering a gripping, mature, and emotional performance in a role filled with depth and complexion. Spider-Man’s all-star villains also make a triumphant return, with Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin being the most chilling and unnerving out of all of them. Trading the jokes and the quippy one-liners for compelling human drama, No Way Home is the most realized version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man to date. A beautiful and heartfelt celebration of Spider-Man’s cinematic legacy. Four stars.
A heartfelt love letter to Jonathan Larson and the amazing legacy that he left behind. Andrew Garfield plays the Tony Award-winning playwright long before “Rent” became the Broadway hit that it is known as today. In his feature directorial debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda make an impact as he flawlessly replicates Larson’s style in this emotional and hard-hitting rock musical about the life of a struggling artist aspiring to be more. All of the songs in this smash hit were posthumously written by Larson himself, giving the movie a layer of authenticity that few films possess. Garfield especially shines in arguably one of his best performances ever, portraying a musician filled with love and passion even as everything crumbles all around him. In a world full of derivative, soulless musicals, Tick, Tick… BOOM! explodes with its own personality and life. The last melody will leave you in tears. Four stars.
The grandest, rawest, most epic cinematic event of the year. Based on Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction saga, Dune tells a galactic story about warring factions fighting over the desert planet of Arrakis, which carries the most valuable asset in the universe: the spice. Director Denis Villenueve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) creates an engrossing and absorbing experience that immerses you in a way no other film has to date. This is a film that makes you feel the harsh sun beating down on you, the dry desert air as it parches your mouth, the heat from explosions radiating off of your body. The cinematography, the editing, the music, the visual effects: even the sound design helps create a flawless experience unmatched in its presentation. But the characters and the setting are just as fleshed out as the rest of the production is, weaving a dense and complex narrative that guides you through every twist and turn. The best blockbuster we’ve seen this decade, and we haven’t even gotten to the sequel yet. Four stars.
A deeply personal and profound dedication to cinema and the powerful emotions that they make us feel. Using camcorder footage recorded by Val Kilmer and stored away in his personal achives for several years, Val stunningly captures Val Kilmer’s entire life from his early childhood to his later years long after his blockbuster career. The film feels surprisingly vulnerable, showing sensitive and intimate moments from Val’s life that are very hard to show on camera. But that’s the life that Val and directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo wanted to show — not the celebrity in front of the movie cameras and red carpets, but rather the father, husband, and son resting at home watching as his life passes him by. On the surface level, Val is a simple film about the life and career of the star behind Top Gun, The Doors, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Heat, Tombstone, and many more. But on a much deeper level, Val is about loving unconditionally, sharing our stories passionately, and expressing our truths fearlessly. A brilliant, brilliant little gem of a picture that you owe yourself to experience at least once. Four stars.
And finally, my number one movie of the year. A lot of people are not going to understand my favorite film of 2021. A lot of people are going to be shocked. A lot of people are going to be surprised. A lot of people are going to be very, very confused. Quite honestly, there will be many people who will strongly disagree not just with this title placing at the top of my list, but this title placing on my list at all. All I can say is that this is hands-down the best experience I had at the movies this year and it isn’t even particularly close. And that is…
Where do I even begin with this one? After taking a five-year hiatus, Bo Burnham returns to comedy in this feature-length project that he wrote, shot, directed, performed, and edited while we were in the middle of one of the most unprecedented events in human history. The film is brilliant in Bo Burnham’s traditionally dark comedic style, breaking down complex issues into clever and witty lyrics that remain poignant and thoughtful, yet equally self-deprecating and entertaining. My favorite of his songs are “How The World Works” where he debunks social misconceptions with the help of a sock puppet, “All Eyes On Me” where he portrays mental illness in a heart-wrenching symphony of sorrow, and “Welcome To The Internet” which portrays the internet like a millennial supervillain that aims to take over every intimate, personal, and chaotic moment out of your whole life. The visuals are equally striking, with Bo playing with color and lighting in a unique way that makes each sequence pop with its own stylistic appeal. I especially liked the visual sequences of “FaceTime With My Mom” and “White Woman’s Instagram,” both of which mimic the shapes of a smartphone and Instagram posts.
But these elements alone make Inside merely an amusing experience. What makes it special is its emotional complexity, looking at deeper issues such as anxiety, depression, and suicide and how the pandemic worsened the symptoms that were already there. More than any other film released last year, Bo Burnham’s Inside made me feel seen, heard, and validated for the emotions that I experienced in 2020. Fear. Frustration. Loss. Loneliness. Regret. The soft-spoken sympathy that Bo Burnham provides here is quietly empowering — a sort of silent solidarity that reminds us all that it is okay to not feel okay.
Inside moved me and changed me in ways no other film has — not just from this past year, but from the past several years. It broke through my writer’s block, inspired me to stay creative, and encouraged me to keep doing what I love just because it makes me happy. I really can’t understate how significant of an accomplishment that is. I’ve never experienced something as deep and powerful as Inside before, and I doubt I will experience anything like it ever again. Thank you, Bo Burnham, for bringing us this mesmerizing masterpiece. You’ve given us all something to believe in. Four stars.
Thank you to all of the amazing filmmakers, actors, and studios that brought us these amazing movies in 2021. Here’s to 2022 and hoping that we continue to look toward the future.
It’s always easier to focus on the negatives, especially during a decade as dismal and pathetic as the 2020s. While 2021 generally feels like an improvement over the previous year, that’s only because it didn’t have as many unprecedented events as 2020 did. But don’t get it twisted — most of the things that were wrong in 2020 continued into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage on, misinformation kept spreading on the internet like wildfire, and millions of Americans still refuse to admit that the 2020 election was not stolen. That doesn’t even include all of the celebrities that we have been losing left and right, including Betty White, Sidney Poitier, and Bob Saget. I thought this was 2021, not 2016.
Even the movies suffered. While there were generally more movies released this year compared to 2020, that by extension does also means that we have seen more bad movies come out than usual. That’s why for the first time on this website, I will be covering my 10 least favorite films of 2021.
I’ve never published a worst-of list before for several reasons. One reason is because I usually don’t see that many bad movies in a given year, and definitely not enough to make a bottom 10. Another reason is because I generally don’t like spending more energy on a film that has already wasted enough of my time. But perhaps more simply, I just like focusing on the positive more. Even during a year as catastrophic as 2020, I love looking back and reflecting on the movies that made me feel the most throughout the year. After all, year-end lists should be about celebrating the year’s biggest accomplishments — not beating down its biggest failures one last time.
But I’m doing a worst-of list this year for many different reasons. One reason is that, unlike most other years, I actually have seen a lot of bad movies, which made filling out a bottom 10 list much easier. But more importantly, these abysmal films should serve as a call of action to all filmmakers out there — a general guideline on what not to do when making a movie. After all, the pandemic is still going strong, and the box office still hasn’t fully recovered from 2020. If there is ever a time for movies to justify their existence, it’s now. The movies on this list just simply didn’t do that.
So without further adieu, here are my 10 least favorite films of 2021, starting with…
Just as soon as the quality of video game movies was beginning to pick up with the likes of Detective Pikachu and Sonic The Hedgehog, here comes the newest reboot of Mortal Kombat to remind us all that at the end of the day, video game movies just suck. Mortal Kombat is lined with a massive all-star cast, with Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion, Joe Taslim’s Sub-Zero, and Josh Lawson’s Kano being among the most memorable characters. And when the action is fast and free-flowing, the movie is at its most fun and exciting. Unfortunately, its script is straight-up nonsense, with one character after another dropping into the plot to offer their trademark fatalities before being violently removed from the story. It also doesn’t help that the film rests squarely on Lewis Tan’s shoulders, because he’s so bland and unappealing in the lead that he makes Jean Claude-Van Damme look like a good actor. Hopefully the sequel will be better, because until then, Mortal Kombat’s mediocrity is its biggest fatality. Two stars.
A failed fusion of genres if I’ve ever seen one. The Harder They Fall starts with a disclaimer saying that while all of the characters are real, the story that they’re in is fictional. Glad they clarified that, because the story is absolutely unbelievable in every sense of the word. This revisionist hip-hop western blatantly rips off Quentin Tarantino in a desperate bid to mimic the success of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. But what those movies had in wickedly clever dialogue, humor, and character is everything that The Harder They Fall lacks. The characters are dumber than a sack of potatoes, throwing themselves into needlessly dangerous situations just because the screenplay calls for it. At two hours and 19 minutes, the movie drags on at a glacial pace and does not pick up until the third act. And the movie predictably leads exactly where you thought it was going to go: into a larger-than-life shootout that they could have just jumped into an hour earlier. The Harder They Fall could be considered a misfire if the gun was ever loaded in the first place. One and a half stars.
A dull, boring, and lifeless film that thinks filling a movie with an overabundance of gunfights and sharp snapshots of the hero’s jawline can replace a clear and coherent story. In this prequel to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Michael B. Jordan plays John Kelly, a Navy SEAL who seeks vengeance after his pregnant wife is murdered by Russian mercenaries. Michael B. Jordan is as intense as always, but the premise is so shamelessly generic that you could copy and paste the screenplay from other and better movies. It doesn’t help that the editing is so choppy that it leaves you dizzy while watching it, with characters coming into and out of the narrative so frequently that you forget who’s who by the time you arrive at the film’s confused and incomprehensible ending. Without Remorse is the third time Hollywood has tried to reboot Tom Clancy’s characters for the big screen, and it’s such a disappointment that I’m okay with never seeing another Tom Clancy production ever again. That includes the Splinter Cell movie that’s currently stuck in development hell. One and a half stars.
Contrived, convoluted, and unbearably cliche, The Little Things commits the most cardinal sin the movies should never do: it wasted our time. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek star as a pair of detectives tracking down a serial killer that’s rampaging through Las Vegas, and they uncover secrets that will haunt the rest of their lives forever. Washington and Malek are fine in the movie, and Jared Leto offers a chilling portrayal as one of the movie’s bigger suspects. But by and large, this is a movie that collapses under the weight of its own ambitions, with the plot having absolutely zero idea where it wants to go or how it wants to get there. The final straw comes with the movie’s conclusion, which ends on a note so flat and disappointing that it renders the whole film completely pointless. The Little Things just reinforces that you can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script. One and a half stars.
An unbelievably moronic and insipid film that throws logic right out the window in exchange for mindless action sequences and poorly-rendered CGI. Chris Pratt plays a high school biology teacher who gets wrapped up into a futuristic war between aliens and mankind as he becomes humanity’s last hope to yadda yadda yadda, blabitty, blabitty, blah. This time travel plotline is so cliche and has been done and redone several times over to the point where it just feels stale. Chris Pratt is likable enough, but when the action kicks in, all of his charisma is forgotten as the messy visual effects take over. This could have been an interesting movie about family, fate, and the inevitability of time. Instead we get yet another silly action movie that ends with the hero literally punching aliens that could eat him in two seconds. One and a half stars.
The worst superhero movie of the year by a long, long mile. Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson go head-to-head in this symbiotic matchup between two of Spider-Man’s biggest supervillains, Venom and Carnage. But what could have been a dark and exciting exploration into both of these characters’ psyches just turns into yet another generic actionfest. Tom Hardy is great as both Eddie Brock and Venom, but the movie throws its strongest asset right out the window by splitting them up for most of its runtime. Woody Harrelson doesn’t fare much better, pathetically whining about how not being loved enough as a child drove him to become a mass murderer. The action is fine and the post-credit scene was exciting at the time, but after it led to nothing in Spider-Man: No Way Home, the post-credit scene became just like the movie itself: utterly pointless. One and a half stars.
A film that thinks it is way, way, WAY smarter than it actually is. Anthony Mackie produces and stars in this film about an android lieutenant leading his new pupil through the front lines of war, but in the process, they both get wrapped up in this nuclear conspiracy that could destroy the world. Mackie is fine in this film, but unfortunately, he is not playing the lead. That role is fulfilled by “Snowfall” actor Damson Idris, and he’s so sickeningly flat and generic that I would rather Steven Seagal play his part. The movie flip-flops between themes relating to violence, drone warfare, and technology, but it’s way too distracted and doesn’t know how to focus up and make an impact with one central message. A spastic, haphazard, brainless mess that blew up in its own face. One star.
A bizarre, off-putting, and deranged experience that has no point, no identity, and no sense of self. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard co-star in this musical about a comedian and opera singer starting a family together when they have a daughter who is made entirely out of… wood? Driver and Cotillard’s talents are completely wasted as their characters dance aimlessly from one scene to the other. The music, meanwhile, is just straight-up garbage. I’ve watched multiple musicals this past year, and I could not recall a single note or lyric from this picture. The plot is straight-up nonsense as director Leos Carax drags you through one pointless scene after another. And by the time you reach its strange and confusing ending, I wanted nothing more but to wipe this film from my memory as soon as possible. A wasteful, mindless picture that I wish I never heard of. Half a star.
Yet another sequel/reboot that nobody asked for nor wanted. Space Jam: A New Cashgrab comes 25 years after Michael Jordan teamed up with the Looney Tunes in the original movie. LeBron James is taking the lead this time around, and man oh man is he going for the Razzie on this one. This is an awful, soulless, lifeless husk of a film that has not one original thought or idea in it. LeBron has zero heart in his performance beyond the paycheck and it shows in his delivery that feels like he’s line reading. The Looney Tunes have no point or reason for being in this story beyond the fact that this is supposed to be a Space Jam sequel. The cameos and Easter eggs are obviously manipulative and the costuming and production design is worse than a YouTube video. There were two scenes that were funny. The rest of the movie deserves to be blown up by Acme dynamite. Half a star.
And finally, my most hated film of the year. This film was so awful that I quite literally could not watch it all in a single sitting. I had to divide it up into 15-minute increments, and it was still the least pleasurable experience I had at the movies this year. This movie was cringey. This movie was torturous. This movie was…
Never again. Don’t ever let this sh*t happen again. Even when Home Alone stopped releasing movies in 1997, none of its sequels ever measured up to the original, with each new installment becoming sequentially worse one after the other. Now here comes Home Sweet Home Alone, and it’s so rotten to the core that it makes the rest of the franchise look enjoyable by comparison. Archie Yates, who previously played the lovable Yorki in Jojo Rabbit, is straight-up unbearable as this spoiled little brat whose biggest hangup is that his family isn’t paying him enough attention. Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney play the couple trying to break into his home, and these two are so stupid they could mistake dog poop for chocolate fudge. Not a single character in this movie is either remotely appealing or intelligent, and they all get caught up in slip-ups so silly and slapstick that even Adam Sandler would think it’s too much. Home Sweet Home Alone embodies everything wrong and exploitative with modern-day Hollywood, and for that reason it is the worst film of 2021. This film deserves its zero stars, and I would give it less if I could.
And that’s it for my first (and hopefully last) worst movies list of the year, folks. Tune in next week as I break down my favorite films of 2021, my first yearly best-of list in… two years? God, 2020 sucked.