Leading up to my Top 10 Movies of 2021 that I will publish next week (still need to see a couple of movies – Drive My Car namely), I figured I’d go ahead and post this. A look at NOT the worst, but the most disappointing movies I saw this year. Stuff I thought had the potential to be great but really pooped the bed.
10. House of Gucci
The biggest problem with Ridley Scott‘s fashion icon murder epic is its identity crisis. It doesn’t know if it wants to be American Crime Story: Gucci or an episode of The Real Housewives of Milan. What we get is this clunky hodgepodge of high drama and low-brow camp, that’s way overlong at nearly three hours and features one of the biggest mixed bags of acting I’ve seen all year. Al Pacino and Lady Gaga succeed the most, giving us two wildly entertaining but maybe not excellent performances, while Adam Driver delivers a performance far too straight-laced for the material. Jeremy Irons delivers one of the shittiest, half-assed Italian accents I’ve ever heard in my life, including children’s community theater, and Salma Hayek is just there with almost nothing to do. Nothing can prepare you for how foul Jared Leto‘s work is though, a show-stoppingly obnoxious and squealy caricature of the infamous Gucci brother that would seem better suited as the villain in a Steve Martin Pink Panther threequel. It’s entertaining in spurts but it becomes very evident that Ridley Scott was not the right choice for the material.
How would I fix it? Two ways – either go full absurdist dark comedy satire and bring in Scorsese to direct these stars or pitch the project over to Italian director Luca Guadagnino, ditch the comedy and replace the stars with Italian actors speaking their native tongue. (Available for digital purchase on Amazon for $19.99)
9. The French Dispatch
The epitome of style over substance, in that it is inarguably one of the most gorgeous and meticulously designed films of the year about absolutely nothing. I’ve been feeling this way, in minor doses, about Wes Anderson‘s work ever since The Grand Budapest Hotel. At least that movie gave us an interesting lead character in Ralph Fiennes, this gives us no such figure to ground the random quirkiness. The first story in this analogy is the best, while never great it’s sporadically funny thanks to a wonderful against-type turn by Benicio Del Toro and a delightfully kookie narrator in Tilda Swinton. The second story involving a young revolutionary is film hipster posturing at its worst and the third story is downright incoherent. I remember sitting in the theater rolling my eyes while a gaggle of old white liberals chortled at the New Yorker-inspired faux-high brow buffoonery. Not for me. ($5.99 rental on Amazon)
While it was somewhat divisive amongst critics and incredibly divisive amongst audiences, I really loved Pablo Larrain‘s Jackie. Essentially a portrait of Jackie O’s mental breakdown after the assassination of her husband and POTUS, I found it to be riveting, thoughtful and a great showcase for the powerhouse acting chops of Natalie Portman. I had high hopes for Spencer, seemingly Larrain‘s similar portrait of a Princess Diana dealing with the stresses and mental imprisonment of being forced into being a figurehead for the world. The problem was it was too similar to Jackie (almost beat for beat with minor adjustments) and quite inferior around every turn. At its center, it had a performance by Kristen Stewart I found to be quite mechanical, awkward, and never once rising above the level of caricature. I don’t understand the high praise around it and it’s attached to a movie that never quite takes off. She’s aided by two great performances by Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall, whose subtler and more lived-in work make Stewart‘s shortcomings seem all the more evident. Far and away the most compelling aspect of the film is Jonny Greenwood‘s incredible score, blending jazz and Philip Glass-esque dramatics that really gets at the heart of Diana’s internal struggle. When your score is doing a better job communicating the emotional journey of your protagonist than the actor portraying her, you know you’re in trouble. ($2.99 rental on Amazon)
Lamb had one of the best trailers of any 2021 release so it’s all the more devastating that what we got was a mildly interesting meditation on nature vs. nurture with two of the least interesting human protagonists imaginable. Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Guanason play married couple farmers in Iceland with a bunch of sheep. One day, a lamb is born with the body of a little boy and the head of a lamb, so they decide to raise it as their own. This pisses off and threatens the rest of the herd and some weird stuff begins to happen, but mostly nothing happens because this movie is slower than molasses come January and we don’t even get interesting characters to share the dead air with. Some energy is sparked when the husband’s brother (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), a former pop star turned fuck-about, turns up on their doorstep, but not enough to forcefully drive the film to its ridiculous but somehow still predictable conclusion. The movie looks gorgeous, not a surprise seeing as though it was directed by a cinematographer, but when you begin to peel back its layers you realize just how hollow it is. ($5.99 rental on Amazon)
6. No Sudden Move
What the fuck is even going on in this? And why should I care? How many barely established character names are you gonna throw around in a single conversation? This is what watching No Sudden Move is like – “Oh man, Fats got Johnny by the old diner cause Vince just gave Chucky Tony’s permission to make a move on Old Salsbury at Mickey Lincoln’s place!” It’s convoluted and confusing, which would have been less of an issue if the characters had been well-drawn and interesting (see Inherent Vice). Soderbergh employs weird fisheye lens shots that don’t match the material and even more upsetting, he wastes an incredible, dynamic star-studded cast on instantly forgettable characters. Benicio Del Toro, 2021’s king of making meh movies work for him, fares the best but the rest of the cast flounder pretty hard. It’s very clear that Soderbergh is over making movies for audiences, but at least when I jerk off I don’t charge admission. (HBOMax)
5. The Many Saints of Newark
If there was ever an intellectual property that didn’t need a prequel or sequel or reboot or requel, it’s HBO’s beloved flagship family mob drama The Sopranos. Over the course of seven seasons (technically season six was two parts, but each felt like its own thing), creator David Chase and his superteam of writers, who each went on to create a variety of popular shows of their own (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Damages, Dexter, Blue Bloods), redefined the boundaries of modern television with subtle, multi-layered storytelling and complex, realistic characters you’d typically only see in films. All of that was missing in Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark, a dramatically inert and cloyingly nostalgic waltz down memory lane in the form of a prequel.
Narrated by Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti, a seemingly interesting choice that turns painfully on the nose quite quickly, it follows the story of Chris’ dad Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) and Tony’s dad Johnny (Joe Berenthal) and their involvement with the Watts Riots in the late 60s. A bunch of your favorite characters are back, in younger form, to gabagool at the camera for a good while. Real-life son of James Gandolfini, Michael Gandolfini is excellent in too small a role as young Tony. First Cow‘s John Magaro gives us a kiddie pool-deep sketch comedy performance as Silvio, while Ingrid Goes West‘s Billy Magnussen only goes a little bit deeper for Paulie Walnuts. Vera Farmiga is decent as Livia (though the way the character is presented betrays in many ways what was established during the show), but the real standout here is Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano. He’s the only one to give us an actual nuanced interpretation of a pre-established Sopranos character, and the film does a good job at adding to the layers of Junior Soprano without being at odds with what came before.
The biggest sin the movie commits is not feeling in any way like The Sopranos. The care, the depth, the subtlety – all gone to make way for a C+ crime thriller cash grab. ($5.99 rental on Amazon)
4. No Time to Die
“Ass numbingly long” and “frequently boring” are never terms you want to associate with Blockbuster action entertainment, but No Time to Die, Daniel Craig‘s swan song to Bond, is exactly that. Starting off promising with a riveting opening, but soon devolving into bland soap opera theatrics, this movie seems obsessed with adding gravitas to characters and plot points introduced in Spectre, the last Bond entry that was nearly as bad. Also, Bond was always a fairly two-dimensional character, no matter who played him, but it didn’t matter because the movies were fun and dumb escapist entertainment. Craig changed that somewhat with Casino Royale and Skyfall, the latter finding a way for the franchise to exist, even momentarily, as serious without seeming silly or self-important. He managed to make Bond his own thing more than any other post-Connery performer, and he brought it back from the terrible depths of Die Another Day, a much shittier movie than anything on this list. Christoph Waltz and Ana de Armas are terribly underused and Rami Malek is one of the most inert villains the franchise has ever seen, with acting that aims so subtle it could be mistaken for subliminal. However, Daniel Craig remains as solid as ever in the role, which makes it all the more upsetting his send-off is so bland. ($5.99 rental on Amazon)
Despite the critical acclaim and mounting Oscar buzz, when I first saw the trailer for Kenneth Branagh‘s Belfast I thought, “Fuck, this is Oscar bait it I’ve ever seen it.” Turns out I was 100% right. Are we as a society so starved for a movie that’s safe and non-challenging, that we’ll take the blandest, slowest, least specific, mediocre grandma schmaltz imaginable and crown it King Shit of Fuck Mountain? This is Green Book-level underhand pitching, absolutely insulting to the intelligence of any moviegoer. A movie that doesn’t have characters but archetypes, a movie that doesn’t have a POV but recycled generic Hallmark sentiments, a movie that wouldn’t know proper conflict if it climbed up a shillelagh and bit it on the puckered ass. Seriously, this is the softest movie ever made about a violent ethno-nationalist conflict that only manages to generate two solid minutes of suspense before disarming it completely. The fact it’s deliriously optimistic isn’t what really bothers me though, I love so many cute, low-stakes films (just see my glowing reviews of Barb & Star or Sister Act 2). What really bothers me is how disingenuous this all feels. Genuine, honest films are peppered in with specific details. (In Theaters; $19.99 digital rental)
2. Halloween Kills
Halloween Kills is hands down the most violent Halloween movie outside of the absolutely grotesque Rob Zombie entries, but that doesn’t make it a good movie, that doesn’t even make it a movie. This installment is so convoluted and scattered, without a satisfying beginning, middle, or end (and I get it’s the middle part of a trilogy, but let’s be real, The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight absolutely have a beginning, middle, and end) it kind of just spouts off for an hour and forty-five minutes before just stopping. Some of the kills are good, a lot of the comedy falls flat and even feels like unfunny, deleted scenes from Eastbound & Down (especially with the neck brace guy from The Righteous Gemstones and his lover, Michael McDonald), but I felt constantly disengaged by this one. Just ask the healthy young man sitting next to me who slept through most of it. The cold open is easily the best part of the film, a flashback to when Myers was captured by police back in ’78, after disappearing from that balcony he was shot off at the end of the original. It’s fun, suspenseful, and feels a little different. We then cut back to present day with Jamie Lee Curtis in a medically-induced coma, more random homeowners getting killed and Anthony Michael Hall as Tommy Doyle, who is some sort of truther leading an angry mob to capture and kill Michael Myers a la Halloween 4. There’s also a bunch of mask references to Halloween III and of course, references to Halloween I & II including the return of Tommy Doyle, Nurse Chambers, Sheriff Brackett, and even little Lindsey Wallis. It seems like this movie exists mostly to try to contextualize why we love the Halloween franchise, and 80s horror franchises in general, and compulsively re-watch even the shittiest entries. It’s convinced there’s something deeper there than mere nostalgia, but there’s really not. The original Halloween was a (perfectly executed) bare-bones genre exercise that had no concern with character development besides the most one-dimensional basic shit they had to do to establish the teens as realistic. It also didn’t mean or try to mean anything in the context of current socio-political issues (which is almost surprising given Carpenter’s strong political streak through his filmography). The movie was just about a random psycho chasing you. If these filmmakers love these movies so much and want to pay homage to what Carpenter did, why don’t they just make their own bare-bones genre exercise instead of dump-trucking elaborate mythos nobody asked for into a derivative slasher sequel template. It’s shot really well though. ($5.99 rental on Amazon)
1. (tie) Don’t Look Up
I’m really through writing or thinking about this turd, so here’s my original review:
I didn’t like this movie at all but that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with its message. No, I’m not a climate change denier or closet MAGA, I’m simply an Adam McKay denier, meaning I don’t think he’s made a decent movie since The Big Short and I don’t think he ever will. He’s been trying and spectacularly failing to capture Big Short’s lightning in a bottle ever since, with both this and Vice. To Don’t Look Up’s credit, Vice was a much shittier film with absolutely no idea of what it wanted to accomplish or say. Don’t Look Up’s message, on the other hand, is pretty obvious – WE’RE STUPID FUCKING IDIOTS COMPLETELY FUCKING THE PLANET WHILE IN COMPLETE FUCKING DENIAL ABOUT IT, MOST OF ALL, THE FUCKING PEOPLE WITH THE MOST FUCKING POWER AND MONEY, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO FUCKING DIE BECAUSE OF IT! FUCKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!! That’s about the extent of the subtlety and nuance McKay applies to this shouty “satire”. He’s not interested in mining greater, less obvious truths about human behavior or why we approach crisis like this, he just wants to vent like we all do. That’s fine but why would you think that constitutes an almost 2.5-hour film? In order for a satire to work it needs to pick at an insight that we maybe haven’t considered before entering the theater or expand upon a pre-conceived insight in a new way. This just rain gutter catches all the wettest sharts from your red-pilled Uncle’s Facebook page, hoses them down, and turns them into a one-dimensional character that yells. It’s like a marathon of barely funny SNL sketches featuring your favorite celebs, complete with cringe-y meme jokes and bad slapstick. I’d say it’s going after low-hanging fruit (that’s been hammered out to death by comedians and comedy groups EVERYWHERE since 2015) but it’s not even hanging on the tree at this point. It’s rotten, deformed, pigeon-munched bosque pears McKay swept up off the ground near the tree.
The cast here is criminally underused for the most part, despite their near Earth-shattering (NPI) abilities. DiCaprio is solid but seems like he’s in a far more serious movie than everybody else and while Jennifer Lawrence hits the tone better, it seems the film would have benefitted from more grounded protagonists to juxtapose the infantile madmen (and women) they encounter. Meryl Streep adds far less than you’d expect, Tyler Perry and an almost unrecognizable Cate Blanchett do well enough with two one-dimensional characters and Timothee Chalamet seems completely unneeded. The incredible Mark Rylance is quite funny as a vain tech guru but this comedy well has been pretty drained over the years, not least of all by Matt Ross‘ Gavin Belson in HBO’s Silicon Valley. Ron Perelman plays an old racist and is responsible for one of the only laugh-out-loud comedic bits of the film but Jonah Hill is the only one that seems to fully embrace what this ultimately seems to be aiming for with his inspired mama’s boy secretary of state character. I’d love to see that character in something more deserving of its chutzpah. I’d also like to mention that character actor Rob Morgan gives us a typically wonderful dramatic performance as Dr. Ogelthorpe, a performance that is, unfortunately, completely lost among his hammy co-stars.
The writing in this is pretty flat and never gives us the peaks and valleys something this long needs to. It’s one-note, all the time, cranked up to 11. Don’t Look Up also features some of the most bizarre editing choices of any film in the past decade or so. Whether it’s that dumb dinner table scene or just the way it, in general, seems to awkwardly jump cut from one scene to the next without letting the previous scene finish. It’s like trying to have a coherent conversation with someone coked out of their mind. You tell me if I’m wrong, but where I’m sitting this doesn’t add anything to the overall movie or the overall message of the movie. In fact, it really just feels like being caught in the crossfire of signature McKay temper tantrum, one that is wholly justified but unpleasant to have directed at you, nonetheless. It’s like “I agree with you dude, please stop shouting at me!” Everything is so face value in this and it points to McKay having what is maybe the worst trait a filmmaker can have – trusting your audience’s intelligence so little that you underhand pitch all your ideas. The only silver lining of this movie I can see is the general public taking climate change more seriously, but if we’re all as stupid and predictable as McKay seems to think, we might as well plan our funeral right now. (Netflix)
1. (tie) The Green Knight
This was one of the films I was looking forward the most to in 2021 and based on the glowing critics’ reviews I thought I was in for a real treat. Imagine my dismay when I bit into my cinematic burger and the goddamn meat was missing. David Lowery’s The Green Knight completely wastes amazing visuals on a supremely undercooked and emotionally vacant adaptation of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I appreciate a good slow burn more than most people and I love when movies trust the audience enough not to spoon-feed them its message or even trust them enough to have key plot elements remain ambiguous. This is usually done by having a central character we can relate to and while certain narrative elements may not be confirmed one way or another, you fully understand the emotional journey of that character. The Green Knight is so obtuse it’s almost impossible to follow, and since we don’t understand any of the characters, we end up not caring. It’s not even obtuse in an organic way, it’s forcefully obtuse, like the filmmaker panicked at the thought of the film being too narratively straightforward and the characters/motivations skewing too modern, so we end up with a big pretty pile of nothing. ($4.99 rental on Amazon)