2021 In Review: Best and Most Disappointing Films of the Year

After a long year of almost no new theatrical releases, 2021 started off with the promise of a return to the movies. Current events and some misguided studio marketing strategies ended up derailing that promise just a little. While we didn’t get back to where we once were there were plenty of new releases to satisfy the hope of a revival of theatrical viewing experiences.

I saw approximately 35 new releases in 2021. I say approximately because due to the ever evolving technology around movie theater ticketing I no longer have all of my physical stubs to count up at the end of the year. There were some films I saw that only had the virtual ticket. This is something I sadly know I must get used to, and as such will need to figure out a better way of keeping track of things I see throughout the year. Perhaps this blog will suddenly start featuring more content as a result. Either way, of the films I saw there were plenty to choose from to determine a best of list, as well as a most disappointing list.

Since it is so much more fun to criticize than to praise, let us start with the more disappointing lot. Not all of these were bad films, they were simply underwhelming, especially after all of the expectation built from not having many new films to see in 2020.

Most Disappointing Films of 2021

6. No Time to Die

A Bond film on the “worst” list? How can it be? I would like to simply blame the hell that was 2020 for this mess of a film but unfortunately all of the blame must go to the filmmakers. This film struggled even before the issues of 2020. It lost its director halfway through shooting, Daniel Craig was injured, and there were rumors of terrible script choices from the beginning. What ended up in the final cut of the film was a meandering, saccharine story that featured one of the more pointless Bond villains of the franchise’s history, as well as the most unjust portrayals of some of the most beloved Bond characters and tropes. In trying to give Craig a worthy sendoff the creators overthrew by a mile. Instead, No Time to Die shall sit in the same ranks as The Last Jedi in disappointing fanbases with middling contributions to long loved franchises.

5. Last Night in SoHo

I had so much anticipation for this film, and had it not been for the last act it would have been on the other list in this post. I loved Edgar Wright’s stylization and his use of music but in the last part he fell into so many bad horror film tropes. There were character choices that made absolutely no sense except that they helped to move along the plot, and there were so many twists that it left me dizzy trying to keep track of everything. Perhaps upon future viewings I will be more forgiving of the lackluster ending but as of now this was my most disappointing film going experience of the year.

4. Nightmare Alley

This was another experience that was more on the disappointing side than being a terrible film. In fact, much of the film is well done. The cast is good, and the production styling is gorgeous. The film just moves at such a slow place and doesn’t feel like it has anything pushing it forward. Simply put, I found myself bored.

3. House of Gucci

Here was another film that had so much going for it and ended up being so slow and dull. Not to mention some of the performances were laughable despite being portrayed by Academy Award winning actors. I’m still marveling at the fact that such an interesting story, and a stellar cast could lead to such a boring film. The only explanation is that it is mishandled by the director’s choices. So for this I blame Ridley Scott.

2. Old

M. Night Shyamalan has been so inconsistent with his last few films. He either hits it out of the park or ends up fouling it drastically. There is an idea somewhere in this film that is interesting but its execution is a mess. So much of the film makes almost no sense and the weirdness of it detracts from any impact it might otherwise have in its performances and impressive visual effects.

1. Eternals

This film is what happens when you try to put what Marvel and Disney painstakingly crafted over ten years and 20 plus films into a single film. It is a hodgepodge of emotionless characters who have no real distinct identifying characteristics pushed into a plot that is world-ending in its scope, both in terms of the story within the film as well as potentially for the greater MCU as a whole. After so many years, and so many wonderful films from this universe, it was such a letdown to come away from this film feeling empty without any of that Marvel magic we have become so accustomed to experiencing.

With the disappointments of the year out of the way, let us turn to happier thoughts, and the best films I saw last year.

Best Films of 2021

10. West Side Story

Being a Steven Spielberg fan, and a fan of the original it was very likely going into the film that I would end up loving it. While it is by no means comparable to the 1961 film, it does have that Spielberg quality I love and the cast is incredible.

9. The King’s Man

Having loved the first two films in this franchise, to say I was highly anticipating this release is a bit of an understatement. I was a little surprised at the seriousness of the film’s tone but think it works quite well, especially considering this is a bit of an origin story. Plus, there’s plenty of highly choreographed fighting and over-the-top gore to appease those seeking the lighter heartedness of the previous two films.

8. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

This was such a pleasant surprise! I went in with absolutely no expectations and had a blast! I knew nothing of this character and loved how his origin story was told, not too traditionally but also not so extravagantly that you lose something of its heart in the execution. The leads were great and had excellent chemistry. Most importantly this was a Marvel film that understood it was time to get back to having fun at the movies.

7. Cruella

Yet another surprise! I was very skeptical having seen some of Emma Stone’s accent in the trailers but found that after a couple of minutes it fell right into place with the rest of the film’s aesthetic. I’m also not the biggest fan of villain reimagining stories but somehow this one worked. Perhaps it was the cast, who were great, or the fact that the entire film feels like a 70s timepiece, which is simply brilliant. Whatever it was, this worked for me.

6. Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Despite the fact that this should have been the film opening the Summer blockbuster season, this was one of my favorite filmgoing experiences of the year. I got to see it at my old hometown theater, and it was one of the first times seeing larger audiences venturing out to the movies. Add in that the film was the perfect blend of sweet, sentimental, and humorous, with a touch of new, and it easily reserved a spot in my favorites list upon its initial viewing.

5. Nobody

Early in the year releases are not always the most promising signs so this was yet another happily surprising experience. Back when a lot of things were still being held for release this was one of the few films brave enough to come exclusively to theaters first. It ended up being a lot of fun, with so much action and humor packed into it that you were able to believe this unlikely lead could actually kick some ass.

4. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Finally Marvel/Disney and Sony worked together to bring us the multiverse! I’ve been a big fan of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and was incredibly excited when rumors started swirling around this film. To say it lived up to the hype would be an understatement. Based on the audience reaction from my viewing alone, this went above and beyond expectations. Again, Marvel realized it could swing back (pun absolutely intended) to the fun side while still balancing that dark side we see so often in superhero stories.

3. American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story

The last film I saw in 2021 was one of the best. Yes, it is filled with everything you expect it would be, all that sentimentality and go-get-’em attitude that some might roll their eyes at. For me it all worked. Maybe I enjoyed the film so much because I love Zachary Levi as an actor. Maybe it is due to the fact that football is my favorite sport and I love a good underdog story. Or maybe it’s because this story is really the stuff sports films are made of and it’s just a truly inspiring piece of both personal and sports history.

2. Dune

This may have been my most anticipated film of 2021. I grew up in a household where the 1984 film, and the book it is based on were very much loved. I had never read the book but was able to get it in just under the wire (literally finished it the day before the film was released), so I don’t have the long standing history with the story that many fans do but I did have some hopes and expectations. I was blown away by how well the film matched them. I still maintain that this is one half of a whole that has yet to come but even on its own it is a masterpiece of cinematic artwork. The production, sound, special effects, and cinematography alone would argue for its place on any top of the year lists.

1. Belfast

This film really snuck up on me. I hadn’t heard anything about it until right before its release when I saw the trailer play before something else. I love Kenneth Branagh as an actor and think he has done a wonderful job of bringing his talents from in front of the camera to his work behind it. He really is an actor’s director, and Belfast is a film meant to highlight characters played by brilliant actors. The story itself has enough sentiment on its own to pull at the heartstrings but it takes a talented storyteller to know how hard to pull and when to step back and let things breathe. It presents itself as a simple film about a family trying to live their best during incredibly rough times but really does end up being a heartfelt monument to this time in Ireland’s history, and more so to the people who lived through it.

Hollywoodland (2006) Movie Review

Following up my reviews of Shopgirl and Chinatown for Movie Rob’s Genre Guestimation with a look at Hollywoodland. Hollywoodland is a pretty solid 2006 release that attempted to revive the Noir genre, and I don’t feel like it has gotten enough attention over the years, which is why I chose to highlight it today.

The film follows Louis Simo, played by Adrian Brody, as he is investigating the death of George Reeves, played by a pre-Batman Ben Affleck. As he digs deeper into the life of the television star, he is exposed to the ever-corrupt Hollywood movie scene and the greediness of people trying to make it big in the city of dreams. The film demonstrates that in Hollywood, not everyone’s dreams come true. George Reeves was given a starring role on a highly rated television show and yet he wanted more. He could not have more because once he was Superman that is who he would always be. He wanted to star in major motion pictures and he wanted to be a success. He could not have all of that though because the small success he had gained in the end turned into his ruined career.

As is true in Los Angeles and Hollywood, many people come to make it as big stars and few actually get the satisfaction of achieving this dream. Hollywoodland contrats the parties of movie stars and producers with darker sides of the city like police corruption. It suggests Hollywood is where dreamers come and more often than not they are severely disappointed. Reeves has found success but is then restricted by it, and in the end unhappy with the way his life has turned out. This is a true Hollywood story. It happens every day and it happened to Reeves.

The film pits Simo’s own stalling career and unhappy life against that of Reeves. He is a prime example of the classic jaded detective from a Noir film. He drinks too much, has a rough relationship with his loved ones, and struggles to find success. In the end though, Simo might actually have a more hopeful, if not happier ending than most detectives in the genre. It is the ending that makes this film feel very much like a “Hollywood film” in that it can’t quite commit to too harsh a finish for our main character. It has to leave a smidgen of hope for its audience to cling to, and in that respect it is very LA.

Chinatown (1974) Movie Review

I love stories about LA. It’s one of the reasons I chose LA Films as the genre for Movie Rob’s Genre Guesstimation. I just reviewed the film I recommended Rob watch (Shopgirl) so today I thought I’d check in on a classic LA Film, Chinatown.

In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is investigating the murder of an official from the Water Company. During his investigation, he discovers a hidden plot by the company to cheat thousands of farmers out of water that was promised to them (among other devious truths). The story shows that there is corruption and deception in everything. In the movie, Gittes is left dealing with betrayal and disappointment. He has come from a tragic loss in his former job to have the same thing happen all over again. He tries to prevent someone from getting hurt and ends up making sure that’s exactly what happens. Jake gets pushed around in a web of intricate lies and it really is a sign of how corrupt Hollywood and Los Angeles were in the 1930s. It shows the darker side of LA history.

The cinematography and production design of Chinatown allow the audience to view what Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California looked like in the 30s and 40s. The buildings, cars, clothes, shops, etc. are all made to look and feel like Los Angeles in the past. It is shot on actual locations all around Los Angeles County so it really feels like you’re right there with the characters. It even has the racial segregation and dried up river.

In keeping with Noir tradition, the film delves deeper into the idea of disappointed hopes through the use of shadow effects, a femme fatale, and a broken down detective who is weary and searching for something better in a city gone to crime. Chinatown uses this style to show the desperation of some people to find hope in the city after everything has gone wrong for them. Gittes loses in the end. He’s watched an innocent die and come face to face with pure evil and watched it win in the end. Chinatown shows that in Los Angeles dreams die and people lie. It isn’t a pretty side of the city but it might be a more truthful one. Chinatown is both a classic Noir, and a classic LA Film.

Shopgirl (2005) Movie Review

I was asked by Movie Rob to pick October’s theme for Genre Guesstimation and since it’s nearing the end of the month, I figured I’d better get a few reviews up.

I picked LA Films as my genre, which I thought was a fitting choice seeing as I’m an LA native, and love films based on, or set in Los Angeles. I also like that it can include films from other genres.

Rob also asked that I recommend a film from the genre. It was a bit tough thinking of something he hadn’t already seen, or reviewed but in the end I suggested Shopgirl. Based on a novel of the same name, written by Steve Martin, it is a romantic drama that tells the story of a young woman working and living in Los Angeles, and the relationships she develops with two very different men.

Now, I may be cheating a little but I wrote an essay on this story back in college, and I found it on my computer, so I thought I’d share an edited version of that as my review.

As I watched Shopgirl, a thought kept running through my mind. People have detached themselves from others in their attempts to get ahead and keep up with the demands of a rushed life. They bury themselves in finding material success and when it comes to emotional satisfaction they are at a loss at what to do. They get so caught up with the thought of making a name for themselves that they can no longer function efficiently in any sort of non-business relationship. The idea is greater magnified in large cities where people are surrounded by the pressure to be successful. Shopgirl is a perfect representation of this idea of loneliness in the big city. The main character, Mirabelle, is a symbol of those who come to Los Angeles to find great success and happiness and end up finding only marginal success and loneliness.

Mirabelle has come to California to be an artist but works at the glove counter in a high-end department store. She makes just better than minimum wage and she has close to no social life. She is surrounded by people and does not know how to reach out to anyone. Her friends are hardly worth keeping; they leave her stranded most of the time and her love life is almost as non-eventful. She begins a rocky relationship with Jeremy who is about her age but very immature. They have some odd interactions that usually end with Jeremy making a complete fool of himself. Mirabelle then begins a relationship with the much older Mr. Ray Porter. However, they both expect different things from the relationship and communication is not always perfect which hurts them both in the end.

These interactions that Mirabelle has with others demonstrate how, even though situations may be awkward, people will still put themselves in that position just to feel close to someone. Even within a large city that is full of life and people, sometimes there are those who are unable to connect with others. They have detached themselves so much that they have to create “accidents” or awkward situations just to be acknowledged and responded to. Loneliness is a major theme in Shopgirl and there is a perfect example of this idea when Mirabelle calls Jeremy at one point for the sole reason of going to bed with him in order to have him hold her afterwards. They go through with the act because they are both social outcasts who are so desperate for human touch that they will do almost anything.

Martin’s ability to capture the true thoughts and feelings of his characters is amazing. I think what makes this film so worthwhile is the complicity of the characters and their own epiphanies about their actions. After their relationship has ended Ray comes to realize what he did wrong with Mirabelle. He only wanted a part of her. She wanted more. She wanted to be loved and cared for and he only wanted what would satisfy him physically. Their relationship could only end in the way that it did because neither of them was truly honest with what they were searching for. Only after the fact do they realize how they have inevitably set themselves up for disappointment. In the same fashion as this discovery, Jeremy makes his own discovery about himself. He goes through a change while he is on the road. When he comes back, he has matured to the level that Mirabelle is at. He has reached a point where he and she want the same thing. Jeremy is finally able to give Mirabelle what she needs and in return he gets the companionship he is searching for. They are both able to give some of themselves in return for some part of each other. This adds a nice touch to the end of the story. Mirabelle has found someone to love who will love her back and Ray has realized that what he is searching for cannot be satisfied with meaningless physical relationships.

Shopgirl shows LA in an interesting light. It makes casual references to the sites and restaurants and streets that everyday LA inhabitants visit and it seems to praise them. Yet, at the same time it criticizes the materialism of the city and its people. It shows Mirabelle’s ease at going through her daily routine but contrasts that with her deep depression. It is contrasts Mirabelle, who is a shy wallflower with her coworker Lisa, who has completely taken advantage of the material side of LA.

Shopgirl is the story of finding yourself in a place that takes the opportunity for identity away. It is the story of finding connection when it seemed impossible. It is the story of learning and growing in a city that restricts and limits people to a certain lifestyle. Mirabelle has found happiness in the end because she has learned from her mistakes and Jeremy has grown up. Both have come to understand the need for human touch in a big city where the opportunity to connect with someone does not happen often. So often people forget that there are others who go through the same transitions and pains that they go through. There is always someone who knows what it is like to feel lost and lonely in such a foreign place.