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?
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.
It’s amazing how universal the language of loneliness can be. When COVID-19 came to our front door last year and forced all of us to socially distance from one another, a lot of us found ourselves staying indoors isolated from any human connection whatsoever. This has led to many of us being trapped not just inside our homes, but inside our thoughts, our emotions, our insecurities, and ultimately everything about our very being. I got to know David Dunn very well during my time quarantined with him last year, and I can tell you with utmost confidence that I don’t like him very much. I still don’t.
In Inside, Bo Burnham also finds himself locked in with himself (or at the very least, a caricature of himself) and struggling with the same emotions many of us experienced last year. In this new Netflix special, Bo writes, shoots, edits, directs, and performs everything all by himself inside of his apartment for a whole year to stop himself from “putting a bullet” into his head. Creating is no longer merely a source of enjoyment or fulfillment for him. Instead, it has become a literal means of survival, or at the very least, an attempt at some semblance of sanity or well-being.
I’m taking a break from my self-imposed hiatus to talk about Inside for a number of reasons. One is because I relate closely with the subject matter Bo explores here, and another is because I know Bo is a funny and introspective entertainer that evaluates deep and complex ideas and enjoys savagely deconstructing them for his viewers. But perhaps most simply, I genuinely felt inspired to talk about Inside. It’s funny how for the past year, I felt my reviews contributed nothing of significance to the general public during a pandemic, an election, and a racial and cultural reckoning that’s been long overdue. I still don’t, but I at least understand a lot of what is being explored in this film, and I think that’s worth talking about.
When Inside opens up, we see Bo’s younger self walk into his apartment, which is surprisingly a seamless transition from the ending of his last comedy special Make Happy five years ago. After the title screen, we see a gradual progression from the pale, baby-faced Bo we’re used to seeing into his older, bearded, lethargic self that sings about how exhausting menial tasks such as getting up and sitting down have become for him. Then in his first musical number “Comedy,” he reflects on how pointless joking seems in a time like this to the sounds of artificial laughter echoing in the background. His first words feel the most helpless: “I wanna help to leave this world better than I found it, and I fear that comedy won’t help, and the fear is not unfounded.”
It’s not even five minutes into the special, and we’re already fully immersed into the sentiment of what it was like living through 2020. The rest of the film is like that, observing deep social issues through the personalized lens of one guy locked inside his room for a full year. I think it’s funny how many films released last year tried to cheaply cash in on the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it was unbearable romantic comedies like Locked Down or the grossly manipulative horror film Songbird. Yet with Inside, Bo beautifully portrays what it was like living through 2020 better than any other film has so far.
It’s hard to know where to start with Inside, because so much of it is just so clever, ingenious, and original. Obviously, one of Bo’s most distinguishable elements as an artist is his music, which has always been equal parts funny, catchy, memorable, insightful, and incredibly entertaining. But while his quirky piano melodies and clever lyrics have always been his strongest suit as a performer, Bo is operating on a whole other level with Inside. He experiments and toys with multiple musical styles and genres throughout the film, whether it’s with the jazzy pizzaz of “Unpaid Intern,” the ’80s workout tunes of “Problematic,” or the folksy guitar strums of “That Funny Feeling.” Musically speaking, Bo is at his most versatile here and has never been better.
But it isn’t just his musical styles that stand out: his lyrics are equally mature, oddballish, and incredibly thought-provoking. In the innocent, adolescent sounds of “How The World Works,” Bo dispels of societal misconceptions with the help of a sock puppet facing an existential crisis, while in “30” he laments on growing older and becoming the quote-unquote “boomer” that he used to make fun of. One of the very best songs in the film is “Welcome To The Internet,” where he parodies the internet in a performance that can only be described as a millennial James Bond villain and monologues how he aims to take over every intimate, personal, chaotic moment of your whole life. The most eerie and sinister line comes in the chorus, where Bo asks “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?”
Surprisingly one of the most standout elements of this special is the visuals. I know, I know, a film shot entirely in one room over the course of a year doesn’t sound like it would be that eye-catching. But Bo makes excellent use of the space he’s confined to, composing captivating, sharp, and visually stimulating shots more so than even some filmmakers do on big-budget movie sets. During “FaceTiming With My Mom,” the dark blue hues of his room nicely complement the isolated feeling of being locked inside as the framing shrinks to the 16:9 ratio resembling a smartphone. Meanwhile in “Problematic,” the saturated oranges and reds shine vibrantly like a workout video, with a sweaty Bo riding on an exercise bike asking his viewers to “hold him accountable.”
The most visually impressive sequence lies in “White Woman’s Instagram,” where he hilariously parodies social media tropes inside of the 360:360 squares you’d normally see on Instagram. Not only is the song funny enough on its own, but the images and shots you see here accurately recreate some of the same photos you might see on Instagram. I’m not even kidding. Whether it’s latte foam art, an avocado, or a stunning light display, every image he captures could be pulled from the film and published on Instagram, and nobody would question it. It is that distinct and on-point.
All of these elements make Inside an entertaining comedy special, but not necessarily a unique one. What truly makes Inside stand out is its tone and emotional complexity. Throughout the picture, Bo visibly struggles with his isolation, anxiety, and depression, and this is further emphasized in the mood between cuts. During the musical numbers, the room is brightly lit up, the colors and their hues are shimmering and shining, and Bo seems genuinely happy, or at least entertained, while playing his piano and singing. But in between the music and skits, Bo is noticeably more solemn, somber, and sluggish: like it’s a challenge for him to even breathe sometimes.
I’ve seen this type of behavior before in myself last year. Whenever I was on Zoom calls, hopping onto daily FaceTime sessions, talking on the phone, or filming in front of my camera, my room and face was lit up with the same vibrancy and life that was on Bo’s. But whenever the cameras were shut off and I sat in my dark room scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, I felt a tightening around my chest like the world was closing in around me and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I feel like many people experienced this sensation last year, and Bo brilliantly recaptures the essence of that emotion with stunning detail… quite possibly because he went through that too.
The film’s most powerful moments come in the lead up to his second to last single “All Eyes On Me,” where Bo collapses into tears as he experiences a full-on mental and emotional meltdown. During the song, Bo asks us to pray for him in a mesmerizing symphony of sorrow, where he reveals he had struggled with panic attacks his whole life and was just getting better right before the pandemic hit last year. Again, I relate way too closely with this. Not only have I suffered from my own panic attacks as well, but I was just getting serious about seeking professional help last year before the pandemic shut everything down. The last verse most captures my emotional state last year: “You say the whole world’s ending? Honey, it already did.”
Finally in his last single “Goodbye,” Bo reflects on how much he’s changed over the last year and how he can never go back to who he once was. As I saw his younger, friendlier, familiar face fade into the grimy, unkempt appearance of a man as emotionally drained as he was exhausted, I cried as if I was saying goodbye to a dearly beloved friend I had known my entire life. I feel like in a way, Bo was saying goodbye to his old self in the song as he comes to realize he’s now a different person at the end of it all. Truthfully, the same thing happened to me last year too. I doubt any of us came out of 2020 being the same person we were at the beginning of it.
And throughout the whole special, you’re rooting for Bo to step outside, just once: to have the sun shining on his face, free from that crummy, dark, claustrophobic room, just trying to live his life one day — one breath — at a time. I am going to spoil it for you by saying he never does go outside. Instead, there’s a filmed bit where he steps outside to a spotlight shining on him and the sounds of applause cheering for him, but when he tries to go back inside, he panics when he discovers that he’s locked out while the audience laughs at him and his misery. The final shot is him watching this scene from his projector, and while the audience is laughing, he lets out a small smile from the corner of his mouth.
For some reason, I find this ending to be a much more fitting, much more powerful ending for the film rather than some melodramatic conclusion where he epically flings the door open and leaves his room forever. And the reason why is because it completely fits his character and where he is at by the end of the film. Throughout the picture, Bo struggles with his identity, his self-worth, and how he sees himself. After all, when the world is on literal fire outside of your home, how small and insignificant must you and your struggles feel compared to all of the misery and suffering going on outside of the world? But by the end of the film, Bo has come closer to a place of acceptance and self-realization. While there are things about himself he may never like and he may never get over, he has grown to be more comfortable — more aware — of himself, so much so that he can even utter out a small laugh at himself and not feel insecure for doing so.
To me, that’s more encouraging and sincere than a theatrical, over-the-top Hollywood ending ever could be. That shows growth. That shows progress. That shows hope that not only one day Bo may be truly comfortable with himself, but that he can one day maybe live his life free of the anxiety and panic that has plagued him for so long. Hope that one day, he may be able to step outside and not be afraid of doing so.