2021 Leaman Awards - The Part-Time Critic

Friday, April 8, 2022

2021 Leaman Awards

*Last Updated 7/29/2022

2021 Films Seen: 86
Number of Films in the 'A' tier: 2
Notable Films Missed: Drive My Car, Flee, The Lost Daughter, The Most Reluctant Convert, Parallel Mothers, Red Rocket,  Riders of Justice, Summer of Soul

Brief Summary: Nicholas Cage in one of the best sequences from the film Pig mentions with sadness, "We don't get a lot of things to really care about." Is it blessing or curse that film be that which I care about? For as mature and rich as the medium has become, the burden to find the time and energy to consume the breadth of output has become unwieldy. It's years like this one where it feels a little more curse than blessing - not that the year was poor, just more business than pleasure. You'll note that only two films this year broke through to 'A' tier while the rest of the Top 25 are within the 'B' range. I think the films that really connected with me revolved most around parenting. Whether it's the burden and guilt of being good parents (Mass), the joy of the craziness of parenting (C'Mon C'Mon), or the moment you allow your children to take up the torch (A Quiet Place Part II) - exploring parenting was the biggest theme of the year. It's not surprising, it's essentially human and one of the fundamental experiences for all of these. I enjoyed many of the others in the top 25, admired them more for what they accomplished, but two of the greatest tests many of them didn't pass - thinking of them afterwards or wanting to see them again. Even moreso, many of the most lauded didn't really connect with me (CODA, Licorice Pizza, Green Knight) Still, I offer this overview of my favorites - for there is still much to commend from 2021 and I invite you to partake of their truth, beauty, and goodness.

Not a "best of" list or a "favorite" list - but a list of the films and sequences (action, drama, comedy, & musical) that I think represent the best the year had to offer. So think of it as a strange mixture of favorite, best, and defining. Once you get to the top ten films, it definitely becomes more defined as a Top Ten list of the year. The number one film is my favorite of the year. 

Honorable Mentions: CODA, Dune, Luca, Malignant, MLK/FBI, Nobody, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Tragedy of Macbeth

25. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (B-)
24. Encanto (B)
23. The Tomorrow War (B)
22. The Courier (B)
21. Nightmare Alley (B)
20. The War Below (B)
19. Pig (B)
18. No Sudden Move (B)
17. Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge on the Run (B)
16. Raya and the Last Dragon (B)
15. Zach Snyder's Justice League (B)
14. The Suicide Squad (B)
13. One Shot (B)
12. Get Back (B+)
11. The Card Counter (B+)

THE TOP TEN
10. The French Dispatch (B+): Another successful Wes Anderson film that builds its own unique little world, populated with quirky characters, his signature visual style and peccadilloes. It's not a story that connects with me on a gut level, but it's another one I enjoyed & admired

9. The Mitchells vs. the Machines (B+): My favorite animated film of the year is one of the most efficient, focused, and confident animated films I've seen in a while; though it isn't without some faults. It reminded me a lot of Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs, which isn't a surprise since the directors of that produced this. It's joyous and funny first then dramatic and moving without being too heavy handed.

8. West Side Story (B+): The idea of remaking Robert Wise’s West Side Story from 1961 made me apprehensive when I first heard it. To then hear that Steven Spielberg was taking it on actually made me even more apprehensive. You see, my general take on remaking iconic properties that are still beloved is that you only do it if you have a banger of an idea to update it and there’s some young up and comer who wants to show their creative chops by putting their spin on it. However, a living legend like Spielberg tackling a golden icon? Why? The grade gives away most of my feelings, but to read more, check out my review HERE

7. Being the Ricardos (B+)

6. Belfast (B+):  A beautiful film centered on family, love, and the wonder of growing up. It's one of those films you watch where you are always on the edge of crying. If you enjoyed films like Jim Sheridan's In America or John Crowley's Brooklyn, then give this one a watch. The soundtrack by Van Morrison is a lovely touch as well!

5. A Quiet Place Part II (B+): An effective horror film built around a strong and moving family drama. The opening and closing sequences are worth the price of admission here. Despite some padding and logical blunders in the lengthy second act, the film is fairly engaging and impactful.

4. The Power of the Dog (B+): The Power of the Dog is a challenging viewing, but this slow, atmospheric, and layered Western tale bears a lot of fruit upon inspection. The story is about a small restaurant owner named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who has a son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), marrying a mild-mannered rancher named George (Jesse Plemens) and moving into his home and lifestyle. The major conflict of the film arrives with George's brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) who represents a stereotypical herd-driving, men-leading, hard-working Cowboy sees Rose as a gold digger and her son Peter as a nancy boy. The catch is that Phil is a complicated man, as it is heavily implied that Phil's great manly cowboy mentor was likely as a lover to him. A lesser film would have stopped there and just made Phil an oppressed and closeted homosexual living in times he couldn't express it. Thankfully, there's more here to the film than that. Phil isn't just an old hat struggling with his feelings - he's skillful, intelligent, can play instruments, lead men, and driven by a pride in his work and tradition. Phil wants his brother to converse with him, join him in leading the men, and be an open ear to talk. I think many miss this aspect - George struggles to be that kind of male companion for Phil and this leads Phil to many of his frustrations. George is quieter, desirous of more white collar work, and wants to settle into domestic bliss - all of this George never communicates to his brother in a healthy way. In the end, there's a lot more here to the relational layers, especially Phil's relationship to Peter, and a lot more to the plot but I won't spoil it here. It's a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a man and how society, our relationships, and experiences can push us into healthy or unhealthy expressions of it. I'm not sure I think the film takes a strong stance in the end on what exactly a healthy expression would look like, or that I agree with every aspect of it it explores, but I do think the main goal here is to explore and reflect. In that sense - I could talk about this film with others for hours. For more on the best Western films of all time - click HERE

3. The Last Duel (B+): While the testosterone fueled fisticuffs get the title of the film, the centerpiece is devoted to how easily our perspective of the events of our lives can differ from others. It is the medieval era and a rape has taken place. The film is structured so that we get to see the same basic events play out from the husband, the victim, the and alleged perpetrator's viewpoints. It's an insightful structure that pays off dramatically. The production design is one of the best for a medieval film I've ever seen and the titular duel is also a compelling action sequence. 

2. C'mon C'mon (A-)

1. Mass (A): When I heard about the premise (the parents of a school shooter meet with the parents of a victim for discussion and healing) for the movie Mass my heart sank, the number of ways a traumatic experience like a school shooting could be exploited for cheap dramatic or political thrills is innumerable. I was prepared for the political hand-wringing and the finger pointing and shaming (which played an almost non-existent role) - but I wasn't prepared for the delicate handling of the issue, the mature weaving of several deep themes (forgiveness, responsibility, guilt, suffering, parenting, & sacrifice), and the largely subtle and restrained performances. Most of all, I wasn't prepared for the movie to challenge the viewer with the call to suffering, with a call to seeing suffering as a way to goodness and love. By the end, I couldn't believe I had just witnessed a story slowly point the way to love through Christ-likeness. As a teacher, I get to see kids growing and struggling every year - trying to make sense of their place in life . It was a greatly moving experience for me. A beautiful film - a deep work of art I'm grateful to have experienced.


FAVORITE ACTION SEQUENCES OF THE YEAR
The Very Good:
  • "Kingsmen vs. Rasputin" -The King's Men
  • "Bus Brawl: Hutch Takes Out Anger on Russian Thugs" -Nobody
  • "Prison Camp Ambush: Shootout Leads to Fallback Position" -One Shot
  • "Finale: Shang-Chi vs. Mandarin & his Monster Mash" -Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • "Three Stage Fight: Blind Swordsman vs. Qing Officials, Gunsmen, & Ninjas" -The Swordsmen
  • "Finale: The League vs. Steppenwolf in Chernobyl" -Zach Snyder's Justice League
The Great:
  • "Apartment & Scaffolding Mayhem" -The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn't Kill
  • "Finale Fight & Shootout: Rescuing Mansur" -One Shot
  • "Three Phase Finale: Downtown Chase, Shootout, and Yen vs. Tse" -Raging Fire
The Best: "Finale: Le Gris vs. Carrouges" -The Last Duel
Commentary: It is not often that we get a lengthy medieval duel as the finale of a film. The entirety of the film has been leading to this point – an all-out duel for honor in front of the French nobility. The costuming and art direction is second to none – you legitimately feel like if cameras existed in this time that this is what it would have looked like. The fight begins with your classic jousting match. Two knights on horses charging at each other with lances. The first go is inconclusive and they re-arm and go back at each other. This round is inconclusive as well. They rearm again and go back at another. This time Carrouges, played by Matt Damon, seems to have gotten the worse and his horse slides up against the wall as he yells out for his axe. The way this is all depicted is for maximum impact. The run at each other again, Le Gris beats off the axe with his shield and stabs Carrouges horse with the lance. They both fall down and Le Gris is trapped under his horse which Carrouges takes advantage of with his axe. Le Gris fights him off and we are now down to hand to hand fighting. Back and forth with, as far as I can tell, is a great mix of genuine weapon usage of the time with cinematic fighting. It’s engaging stuff with each man seeming to give as good as he gets – making you wonder just who will win out. The final phase of the fight winds down to knives and Le Gris scores first with a knife in the thigh. They end up wrestling on the ground – back and forth – until Carrouges gets the killing blow with his knife into Le Gris’s mouth. As far as I can tell, this is the best “knight vs. knight” sequence in cinema history.


FAVORITE DRAMATIC SEQUENCES OF THE YEAR
The Very Good:
  • “Finale: Dez Opens the Audience & Luci Accepts the Fantasy” -Being the Ricardos
  • "Getting to Know His Son at the End of the World" -Boss Level
  • “Café Conversation: Describing the Military Prisons” -The Card Counter
  • “A Proposition: A Positive Interrogation” -The Card Counter
  • "Jesse Recounts the Details He Remembers About Mom" -C'mon C'mon
  • "Will You Sing it For Me Now?" -CODA
  • “A Final Meeting & Revelation Between Two Spies” -The Courier
  • “Rescuing a Harvester Crew from a Sand Worm” -Dune
  • “Bank Escape” -Escape Room: Tournament of Champions
  • “Nat Learns His Past” -The Harder They Fall
  • “Stan Works His Powers on the Local Sherriff” -Nightmare Alley
  • “Story: The Dirtier the Player, the Better” -Mass
  • "Phil & Peter Share a Smoke & a Story About Bronco" -The Power of the Dog
  • “Finale: A Group That Trusts” -Raya and the Last Dragon
  • “The Flash Saves a Woman in a Car Wreck” -Zack Snyder’s Justice League
The Great:
  • “Writing Staff Creativity: Pregnancy, Grapes, & Lies” -Being the Ricardos
  • “Opening: Childhood Games Interrupted by a Protestant Riot” -Belfast
  • “The Love We Had…It Was Real” -Mass
  • “Restaurant Revelation: Do You Like Cooking this Food?” -Pig
  • “Opening: Life is Interrupted by the Arrival” -A Quiet Place Part II
  • “Finale: Children Take Up the Call” -A Quiet Place Part II
  • “Drama & Romance at the Gym Dance” -West Side Story
The Best: “Finale: I Have a Story I Want You to Hear” -Mass
Commentary: No dramatic sequence from 2021 utterly destroyed me like the final dramatic beat of Mass. After the main discussion ended and the group said there goodbyes, it felt like an awkward and largely unresolved ending - which would have been fine. The church manager brings one of the couples down to the basement to get a gift boxed and then they see Ann Dowd's character in the doorway - it's a gut turner, you know something big is going to happen. When she says, "I have a story I want you to hear..." I knew I wasn't really prepared for the secret she was keeping. As her story unfolded, organically weaving several themes from the film together, I was undone. I'm not sure I've heard a more difficult, yet more Christ-like, story shared in a movie this powerfully before. Even thinking about this sequence brings tears to my eyes. 


FAVORITE COMEDIC SEQUENCES OF THE YEAR
*Work in progress
The Very Good:
  • n/a 
The Great:
  • n/a 
The Best: n/a


FAVORITE MUSICAL SEQUENCES OF THE YEAR
*Work in progress
The Very Good:
  • n/a
The Great:
  • n/a
The Best: n/a

BEST DIRECTOR
Nominees:
  • Jane Campion The Power of the Dog
  • Fran Kranz Mass
  • Mike Mills C'mon C'mon
  • John Krasinski A Quiet Place Part II
  • Ridley Scott The Last Duel
Commentary: Most of the time this recognition goes to a director who brings some kind of new and unique vision/style to a movie or is able to rein in all the aspects of a massive blockbuster into something not only crowd-pleasing but deep and rich at the same time. I think Fran Kranz deserves this award for largely setting aside any kind of obvious style or flash or framing device (that shows off the directors choices) and letting the rich screenplay play out as authentically and grounded as possible. Having the courage to let the first ten to fifteen minutes or so of the setup be so mundane, even annoying at how pleasing the host church wants to be, is a courageous decision because it's the first impression for an audience. It's a sophisticated and quiet directing job that works like salt on the real meat of the film: the screenplay and the performances.


FAVORITE FILM ENSEMBLE
Nominees:
  • Being the Ricardos
  • Belfast
  • C'mon C'mon
  • The French Dispatch
  • Mass
  • The Power of the Dog
Commentary: The core four actors all do amazing work here - running through a spectrum of emotions: anticipation, frustration, anger, confusion, desperation, and vulnerability. I appreciate that Reed Birney gets his big moments, but always feels like he is confidently holding something back because he doesn't have to prove anything. I love how you can see Martha Plimpton's chip on her shoulder the entire first third and you know when she explodes it will be a big moment - but then she subverts that. I love how Jason Isaacs plays the most open, but also simultaneously controlled. I love Ann Dowd's ability to listen gets across deep emotions and when she is allowed to go deep, becomes the moral center of the film. No other cast worked together better for the better of their film than this one. 


FAVORITE MALE PERFORMANCES
Nominees:
  • Javier Bardem Being the Ricardos
  • Reed Birney Mass
  • Benedict Cumberbatch The Power of the Dog
  • Andrew Garfield tick, tick...BOOM!
  • Oscar Isaac The Card Counter
  • Jason Isaacs Mass
  • Kodi Smit McPhee The Power of the Dog
  • Dev Patel The Green Knight
  • Joaquin Phoenix C'mon C'mon
  • Denzel Washington The Tragedy of Macbeth
Commentary: The Power of the Dog is a challenging viewing. However, this slow, atmospheric, and layered Western tale bears a lot of fruit upon inspection and it's Benedict Cumberbatch's character Phil Burbank at the center of it. The story is about a small restaurant owner named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who has a son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), marrying a mild-mannered rancher named George (Jesse Plemens) and moving into his home and lifestyle. The major conflict of the film arrives with George's brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) who represents a stereotypical herd-driving, men-leading, hard-working Cowboy sees Rose as a gold digger and her son Peter as a nancy boy. The catch is that Phil is a complicated man, as it is heavily implied that Phil's great manly cowboy mentor was likely as a lover to him. A lesser film would have stopped there and just made Phil an oppressed and closeted homosexual living in times he couldn't express it. Thankfully, there's more here to the film than that. Phil isn't just an old hat struggling with his feelings - he's skillful, intelligent, can play instruments, lead men, and driven by a pride in his work and tradition. Phil wants his brother to converse with him, join him in leading the men, and be an open ear to talk. I think many miss this aspect - George struggles to be that kind of male companion for Phil and this leads Phil to many of his frustrations. George is quieter, desirous of more white collar work, and wants to settle into domestic bliss - all of this George never communicates to his brother in a healthy way. In the end, there's a lot more here to the relational layers, especially Phil's relationship to Peter, and a lot more to the plot but I won't spoil it here. This movie succeeds because Benedict's Phil is strong enough to withstand hours of reflection. Benedict can play him as a leader, as a friendly brother, or as a mentor, and then can flip a switch instantly to be subtly frightening or outwardly cruel. It's a commanding performance that's my favorite of 2021 and of Benedict's entire career.  


FAVORITE FEMALE PERFORMANCES
Nominees:
  • Jessica Chastain The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • Ann Dowd Mass
  • Kirsten Dunst The Power of the Dog
  • Tiffany Haddish The Card Counter (*this is a real fun performance)
  • Emilia Jones CODA
  • Nicole Kidman Being the Ricardos
  • Martha Plimpton Mass
  • Millicent Simmonds A Quiet Place Part II
  • Kristen Stewart Spencer
  • Breeda Wool Mass
Commentary: You know, it was really difficult for me to initially get past the previous role Ann played really effectively, that of a secretive witch in the troubling film Hereditary. It took a while, but her character's initial desire to be so pleasant and pleasing and positive began to wash away my former feelings I carried into this film. When the initial awkwardness of the conversation gives way to vulnerability and Ann's character gains more freedom of feeling, then she really begins to shine - showing strength without being aggressive, a hard thing to do. Still, there's something Ann always seems to be holding back. Yes, it's in the screenplay, but you can see it in the little ticks of her character as well - the way she looks at her husband or doesn't answer something he says that she might not fully agree with. By the time the final scene of the movie arrives and Ann tells a story (I won't ruin here), I was in the palm of her hand. I felt I had grown to understand her through her suffering - a direct goal of not just the characters of the film, but the film itself. 


FAVORITE SCREENPLAY
Nominees:
  • Being the Ricardos
  • The Card Counter
  • C'mon C'mon
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Last Duel
  • Mass
  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines
  • Pig
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Suicide Squad
Commentary: A simple premise with great potential to mine rich themes and also great potential for condescension, politicization, and Hollywoodizing a very sensitive topic. That it hits on the former and almost none of the latter, is due to the sensitive, intelligent, and layered writing. Just look at how this acknowledgement of the damage done by her son can also become a rich vein that exposes not just the suffering of the victims, but the experience the parents of the shooter went through as well. "Jay: He destroyed your lives. All of our lives. Linda: He did…but the love we had…it was real. And the truth is we believed we were good parents. And in some awful, confusing way we still do. Isn’t it worse that I thought I was a good mother? I love my children. Other parents, I wasn’t so different. How did I do things so differently? It makes it…it’s very hard to trust anything anymore. I raised a murder. And sometimes I…I don’t know if I’m still grieving or if I ever really have.”


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Commentary: Peter Jackson is no stranger to making a great documentary as his World War One documentary We Shall Never Grow Old also topped my awards (and that's not even counting the numerous LOTR behind the scenes documentaries he was part of). Using unreleased footage from the "Get Back" recording sessions of what was supposed to be the Beatles next album, Peter Jackson has put together something that everyone can get something out of. If you are a huge fan of the Beatles, the documentary catches plenty of insight into their relationships and idiosyncrasies of their personalities. If you are a fan of music, you'll enjoy the prolonged fly on the wall observation we get as several famous songs are creatively born and nuanced through take after take. If you just enjoy a good story, you'll appreciate how the narrative culminates in the infamous rooftop concert. It's a bit long (I think a more commercial friendly 2 hr. version should have been released), but many of the best and most interesting bits just come from the extended down times so I can't blame them for that. It's a definitive document that will likely be revisited for decades to come.


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Nominees:
  • Encanto
  • Luca
  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines
  • Raya and the Last Dragon
  • Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge on the Run
Commentary: I think all of these films are good, but lack something in particular to make the very good to great. The animated film that was the best overall though was The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It isn't w/o some faults, but it's one of the most efficient, focused, and confident animated films I've seen in a while. Reminded me a lot of Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs, which isn't a surprise since the directors of that produced this. It's joyous and funny first then dramatic and moving without being too heavy handed.

BEST FILM EDITING
Nominees:
  • C'mon C'mon
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Last Duel
  • Mass
  • A Quiet Place Part II
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
Commentary: Part of me wanted to give this to A Quiet Place Part II simply for the interweaving of between the son and daughter during the finale, but it's not best edited sequence, it's best edited film. For me, that honor this year belongs to The Last Duel. On a macro-editing level (the three different perspectives being told chronologically) and a micro-editing level (the finale action sequence is perfectly cut) this is a solid piece of work worthy of distinction.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Nominees:
  • The Card Counter
  • Dune
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Green Knight
  • The Last Duel
  • Nightmare Alley
  • One Shot
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • West Side Story
Commentary: Always one of the most difficult categories as cinematography has gotten so good in nearly every film - thus the bloated amount of nominees. Being honest, multiple films could have won this, but I think the work done in The Power of the Dog stood out to me the most this past year. The camera captures the beauty, isolation, and hostility of the west (by way of New Zealand) throughout the film - and sometimes even in the same shot.


BEST ART DIRECTION
Nominees:
  • Dune
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Last Duel
  • Nightmare Alley
  • The Power of the Dog
Commentary: I tend to look at this category (my favorite technical one after cinematography) as the "transport me" category. How well does the art direction of the film draw me into the time and setting of the story? How distinctive and memorable is the work? I'm not sure there's a film about the general medieval period that has made me feel I was there and present like this one has done. 


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Nominees:
  • Dune
  • Free Guy
  • Godzilla vs. Kong
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
Commentary: We are getting to a point in visual effects where major advancements aren't as easy to notice or celebrate - everything looks pretty good now. Picking a a "Best" becomes much more subjective in this environment. I feel like Dune's effects, while great, are used sparingly in there's nothing (besides the sand scrawlers and hummingbird helicopters) that really stand out in big ways from films over the last decade. I think in the end, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, especially in its finale, wowed me with a wave of not just rather simple effects (the fight over the rings or an army of CGI henchmen), but with a surprisingly well animated Chinese style dragon replete with insanely difficult water effects in tow. Just outstanding work. For my tastes, the most memorable and enjoyable of the year.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nominees:
  • Belfast (*Yes, I know, I'm counting Van Morrison's songs as original score!)
  • C'mon C'mon
  • The Courier
  • Dune
  • The Green Knight
  • The Last Duel
  • No Sudden Move
  • A Quiet Place Part II
  • Raya and the Last Dragon
  • Wrath of Man
Commentary: An incredibly tough year for original score because as great as all of these scores are, they just aren't the kind that immediately speak to my preferences. I love scores that are instantly memorable, often hummable, and with clear themes (think the best of John Williams, Hanz Zimmer, and James Horner). This year's crop is more of the "good refeee" kind - they keep the flow of the movie and just blend into the background. I'd like to be cheeky and pick Belfast, but as great as Van Morrison's tunes were, I'm picking Harry Gregson Williams' work for The Last Duel as an extension of the art direction/costume/makeup - it just transported me to the time and period in a way no other film did this year. The score combined with the art direction felt (important word there because I'm not an expert on the time period) like being in that place.


BEST SOUND DESIGN
Nominees:
  • C'mon C'mon
  • Dune
  • The Green Knight
  • The Last Duel
  • A Quiet Place Part II
Commentary: No amazing standouts this year, but I think Dune created the most interesting and engaging soundscape this year.


BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Nominees:
  • Dune
  • Cruella
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Green Knight
  • House of Gucci
  • The Last Duel
Commentary: It honestly feels like the movie was greenlit just for the sake of seeing their costuming ambitions come to life. This is essentially, "Costuming: The Movie" - and they are all pretty good too!


BEST MAKE-UP & HAIR DESIGN
Nominees:
  • Cruella
  • Dune
  • The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Green Knight
  • The Last Duel
  • The Power of the Dog
Commentary: Like Cruella in the costuming category, The Eyes of Tammy Faye seems an obvious choice for make-up and hairstyling. Yes, it's obvious, but it's also really well done. I can think of no other film with as memorable or powerfully contributing make-up work that feels more than just supporting the story - it's a major theme in the story.

BIGGEST GUILTY PLEASURE
Nominees:
  • Bad Trip
  • Escape Room: Tournament of Champions
  • Free Guy
  • Old
  • The Suicide Squad
Commentary: The original film from 2016 reminded me of the latter Saw films in that although it was a bad "film" - there's a few interesting characters mixed with a story I'm genuinely curious to see where the writers will take it next. James Gunn's 2021 "sequel/reboot" is still a guilty pleasure (there's too much vulgarity and celebration of things I don't value to believe otherwise), but is infinitely smarter and more sophisticated than it's predecessor. Gunn does a great job here of taking the core subversive idea and translating that into cinema with a wonderful opening fakeouts, clever trick editing, and richer characters than ever. There's not a single other film I felt bad for enjoying more than this one.


MOST SURPRISING FILM
Nominees:
  • Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  • One Shot
  • Raya and the Last Dragon
  • The Suicide Squad
  • Zach Snyder's Justice League
Commentary: I can't believe I'm saying this but Zach Snyder's Justice League is a massive improvement over Joss Whedon's theatrical release from 2017. The four hour film has time to breathe, with many action sequences that came off as rushed mediocrity becoming memorable set pieces. Flash and Cyborg benefitted most with extended backstories and roles within the action sequences. The finale here feels nearly completely re-worked with a logic and drama that the original completely lacked. Bringing in Darkseid and that false ending allowed for two of my favorite moments in this new cut: the extended battle between Darkseid & earth's original heroes and Flash's awesome time bending save. It's not perfect, but this is an epic comic book story that feels finally like it was intended to work. I would actually watch it again and look forward to more.


MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM
Nominees:
  • The Eternals
  • In the Heights
  • The Matrix Resurrections
  • No Time to Die
  • Stillwater
Commentary: Knowing the capable Cary Fukunaga was taking over directing duties after Sam Mendes' huge letdown with 2015's Spectre and due to the pandemic the creatives had plenty of time to edit and adjust to their hearts content, I was pretty excited for this one. What we got is smartly structured, filled with intelligent call backs, clearly well thought out themes, and yet is about as boring as watching paint dry for large sections of its unjustified runtime. The entire thing feels bloated & weighed down by history, plot, & theme. In trying to justify a sophisticated ending for Daniel Craig's Bond the creatives have turned it into a pretentious affair - as if the other Bonds didn't also already deal with moral exhaustion, is this worth it, and whose side am I on quandaries. It's like they doubled down on the ignorance of Spectre in treating its audience like we needed everything to matter and connect at every level - in plot, lore, and theme. The film never really feels like it enjoys being a "Bond" film except for a nice stretch from Jamaica to Cuba. There's a single moment in the finale action sequence where Bond ascends a staircase where the director seems to have conceded a 3-4 minute stretch to his stunt team that loves John Wick - but outside of that - why does the film seem so afraid to just let go on the action side? Everything is so serious, so heavy on exposition, and posturing for later themes/connections, that I just wanted it all to end. Sadly, it was the destination arc for Craig's Bond which began as a gritty/Bourne esque reboot & slowly morphed into a pompous postmodern graduate course with stunts. This really is a good time for Craig's Bond to die. I'd love to see this franchise return to a film that doesn't carry this filmverse's baggage. Perhaps a small run of films set back in the cold war would be nice for now. I don't know - just a Bond that's enjoyable would be nice.


MOST UNDERRATED FILM
Nominees:
  • C'mon C'mon
  • The Courier
  • One Shot
  • Red Notice
  • The Tomorrow War
Commentary: While The Courier is is a solid spy film that feels like it is missing one or two big things from becoming a really really good one, One Shot was quietly a fantastic little action film that flew under everyone's mainstream radar. The gimmick behind the film is that it is one continuous shot from beginning to end (at least made to look that way) – there’s also a terrorist who knows where a dirty bomb might go off and he’s the one shot a government agent has to find out where it is. A Seal Team along with a CIA officer have come to a black site prison to take a terrorist suspect named Mansur to the U.S. to figure out where the bomb is. While Scott Adkins, the head of the Seal team, and Ashley Greene are discussing the intel outside a troubling truck drives up to the entrance of the camp. The film lets the slow suspense sink in and really rope in the viewer. It turns out the truck is filled with a terrorist group, being led by Jess Laudin, and hellbent on finding Mansur before he is taken away. They attack and force the Seal team, Greene, and Mansur to hunker down in one of the buildings. It's a decent premise, but the plot that plays out and its exploration of terrorism is a bit thin and regrettably the weakest part of the story. The shootouts and fights that ensue to repel the terrorists? That's the strength here - by my count we get at least two (A-) level sequences, a (B+) one, and two (B-) ones. That's incredible for any action. If you enjoyed the action in films like Extraction, 13 Hours, and John Wick, then you should give this one a watch. Scott Adkins shines here as does the direction by James Nunn.


MOST OVERRATED FILM
Nominees:
  • CODA
  • Don't Look Up
  • Dune
  • House of Gucci
  • King Richard
Commentary: A lavishly produced & beautifully shot sc-fi epic with a lot of potential going forward. For my tastes though, I found it dreary, boring, and lacking any characters or themes that engaged me. The only two people who seemed to be enjoying themselves were Momoa & Skarsgard - each only minor characters. The action is a bit of a disappointment for me as the goal here was to emphasize spectacle/mood over actual visceral/kinetic work. It all just fed into the dreary spiral of a 2.5 hour film centered on a moody teen who isn't all that interesting or given a reason to cheer other than...he's got some dreams of Zendaya and he's the son of a Duke! Not enough to justify the lavish reviews, praise, and awards heaped upon this production.


WORST FILM
Nominees:
  • Army of the Dead
  • Halloween Kills
  • Hell Hath No Fury
  • Mortal Kombat
  • Spiral
Commentary: The latest entry in the SAW franchise is a miserable film that's miscast, poorly produced, filled with vile & unlikeable characters, some of the worst cinematography of the series (which is saying A LOT), and fails to justify its violence. It's easily the second worst (if not the worst) in the franchise and the worst film I saw from 2021.

BEST COMPILATION OF WORK
Winner: Benedict Cumberbatch (Andrew Garfield in a close second)
Performances (that I saw anyways):
  • The Courier
  • Power of the Dog
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
Commentary: A banner year for Benedict Cumberbatch! You know who would be proud of this accomplishment? Bronco Henry, that's who! Not only did he get to reprise his most commercial role as Doctor Strange in the years most successful film, but he turned in an all-time performance in Power of the Dog and another strong one in The Courier. I never got around to seeing the 2-3 other performances of the year (I do have to say 'No' to some films you know), but I'm certain they would only serve to round out his peak year. 

ERIC BANA AWARD
*Given for the best performance in a bad film (See 2004's Troy)
Nominees:
  • David Harbour Black Widow
  • Tom Hardy Venom: Let There Be Blood
  • Kristen Stewart Spencer
  • Emma Stone Cruella
Commentary: Venom: Let There Be Blood is a bit of a convoluted mess, with little action, what seems like endless bickering, a resolution that doesn't address Venom's key frustration, and yet...by the end Tom Hardy strikes just the right balance that I kinda want to see him give it another try. I can't imagine how hard these movies would have failed if it wasn't for the charisma and "all-in" performances of Hardy.


THE END!


"Jesse: Have you ever thought about the future? Ahh yeah, whatever you plan on happening never happens. Stuff you would never think of happens. So you just have to c'mon c'mon, c'mon c'mon c'mon." -C'mon C'mon

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