The Best Movies of 2021

It’s been a long year. I’m referring, of course, to 2020, which is still going, some 800-plus days after it started. Oh, it’s 2022?! Ah, shit. That means this list is super-late. Sorry! But maybe we could all use some extra time to think about our choices, and how extremely correct they all are. I won’t waste any more time. Let’s get to the list for another year where everything was garbage but the movies. You can listen to us defend our choices here.
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The SportsAlcohol.dom Podcast Double Feature: Best Movies of 2021, and the Oscars

It’s been a quiet winter, podcasting-wise, at SportsAlcohol.com HQ, but now Marisa, Sara, Jeremy, and Jesse are back with two new retrospective episodes! In the first, we continue our annual tradition of counting down our collective top 15 movies of the year (that’s 2021, not 2022). The full list will be on the site soon, but you can get a preview with our discussion of group and personal faves. Then we convened to talk about some of the best-and-other movies of 2021, offering our predictions, preferences, and occasional complaints about the recent Oscar nominations. Sure, it’s March, but the Oscars still haven’t happened yet! So why not take a last listen to us talking about the highlights (and occasional Oscar-honored lowlights) of the 2021 movie year? It’s been a rollercoaster year-plus, but keep in mind: Heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

  • You can subscribe to our podcast using the rss feed.
  • I’m not sure why they allowed it, but we are on iTunes! If you enjoy what you hear, a positive comment and a rating would be great.
  • I don’t really know what Stitcher is, but we are also on Stitcher.
  • SportsAlcohol.com is a proud member of the Aha Radio Network. What is Aha? It’s kind of like Stitcher, but for your car.
  • You can download the mp3 of the episode directly here for the best movies of 2021 and here for the Oscars.
  • Our most recent episode or two will sometimes be available on our Soundcloud. We don’t always have it working right but there’s good stuff there regardless!
  • You can listen to the episodes in the players below.

THE BATMAN is a twelve-issue miniseries of a movie

The Batman is dark. It takes place largely at night, features multiple scenes of its costumed hero slowly emerging from the shadows, and its new build of the always-murky Gotham City seems to be located in a rainier climate than before, somewhere near the unnamed city from Seven. And yes, The Batman is that other kind of dark, too. Batman, still a little green a year or two into his self-appointed job as protector of Gotham, spends much of the movie chasing down a serial killer who leaves clues scrawled in a creepy-kid handwriting/font-in-waiting, alongside a series of prominent corpses. This is the handiwork of the Riddler, last glimpsed wearing a series of brightly colored, question-marked bodysuits, springing his child’s-garden-of-brainteasers material with the infinite elasticity of comedy superstar Jim Carrey. Now he is a masked, muffled weirdo played by Paul Dano, watching his victims from a distance, working himself into a messy froth to subdue them, leaving taunting messages for the flummoxed authorities via complicated ciphers.

The Riddler may be the most flagrantly antisocial Gothamite we meet in this movie, but the other characters dress up in their own costumes of discontent. Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), recognizable though not referred to as Catwoman, grimaces through her degrading server work at a criminal-friendly club, as she sets up cat-burglary scores, attempts to protect her friends, and plots various forms of revenge, while Batman (Robert Pattinson) stalks the streets and irritates any cops who aren’t his tentative, already-weary ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). The Bat and the Cat are matching his ‘n her skulkers with voids where their families should be. Only a scarred gangster known as the Penguin (Colin Farrell) seems to be having much fun.

Of course, Batman has a heavy burden to bear—thematically, sure (you ever hear about his parents?!?), but also practically, as the only mainstream superhero who allows rich swirls of darkness and shadow in their palette. (Plenty of superhero slogs get stuck in the gray zone of bad cinematography, falling short of inky blackness.) Certain fans believe that this confers a grown-up respectability upon this Bat-material, which, of course, is largely hogwash. This reputation does, however, give filmmakers more leeway to add textures and shading into the superhero universe. It’s been that way ever since Tim Burton and the stunning production design of Anton Furst brought Gotham to nightmarish life in the 1989 Batman.

Burton’s two movies about this character, especially his masterful Batman Returns, whimsically cross-faded gothic tragedy with circus-sideshowmanship. By comparison, it’s a little difficult to discern how seriously we’re supposed to take The Batman. Based on the past work of director and co-writer Matt Reeves—the dramatic clarity of his Planet of the Apes sequels; the ultimate doominess of his monster movie Cloverfield—it seems like he’s aiming for psychological realism, not too far removed from Christopher Nolan’s beloved Dark Knight trilogy. Those movies were pulpier than some of their most ardent fans gave them credit for, and The Batman is pulpier still, whether or not the filmmakers admit it.

Reeves must at least appreciate comic books; his compositions favor close-ups and shallow focus, and he extends this preference by occasionally affixing his camera to an unusual vantage point—the back wheel of a car, or Batman himself—as action shifts in the background, keeping his foregrounded image unnaturally steady. Here, those shots look especially like panels, without the ostentatious pose-and-crib styling of Zack Snyder, or even the experimental page-flipping of Ang Lee’s Hulk. It’s a more modest and (relatively speaking) subtle way of making the on-screen action resemble the dynamic action of comics. If his Warner Bros. stablemates the Wachowskis specialize in splash panels, Reeves seems to enjoy the smaller corners of the page, the way complicated action can be broken down into single images. He places these eerie moments of clarity within action-sequence tumult, most impressively in a scene where Batman’s muscle-car Batmobile relentlessly pursues the Farrell’s sputtering, wiseass Penguin, or in his longer shots of Batman in combative motion, deflecting bullets and bulldozing various stooges.

Batman does this a lot; he also keeps tromping, workmanlike, out of the shadows, and when he attempts a more majestic, fantastic escape flight, he wipes out spectacularly. I didn’t clock the screen time, but it feels like Robert Pattinson spends more time in that durable Batsuit than some of his predecessors. On the human side of things, he recalls the Keaton/Kilmer Batmen of the ’90s cycle—aloof, remote, and downright socially awkward as a Bruce Wayne who seems to be distractedly thinking of his superheroic tithing even (or especially) when he’s forced to appear unarmored in the harsh light of day. Reeves seems to want to give Bruce/Batman a worthy, knotty case to untangle, and remake his image as a sleepless, irritable private eye. Some of the movie’s zip derives from how unsuited Batman is to reclaiming that world’s-greatest-detective mantle: He clumsily interrogates the Penguin, tries to team up with Catwoman only to watch her repeatedly go rogue, and generally fails to make the friends or surrogate family that might sustain him. (How many Jokers have we gotten on-screen, and yet Chris O’Donnell is the only one allowed to play a proper Robin?!) The ever-loyal James Gordon brings around him to crime scenes and keeps referring to him, from a slight distance, as “man” (as in, “we really gotta go, man”).

Wright makes that line sound like his own, whether it is or not. He brings some actorly personality to his short scenes, as does Farrell. Pattinson and Kravitz rely more on their looks, but not in an empty-model sort of way. They cut the right figures in their various guises, which is half the battle in such a visually driven environment. Regrettably, Pattinson is denied the opportunity to masquerade as Bruce Wayne’s undercover identity as a low-level criminal named Matches Malone. Kravitz, however, has enough DIY for the both of them, sporting a cat-eared ski mask and fingernail claws. It’s fun to watch the Bat, the Cat, and the cop warily circle each other and attempt to chase down clues.

Where the clues ultimately lead, though, feels less lucid. Not so much because the movie is indecipherable (it’s not) or overplotted (it probably is that) but because it scans so much like a comic book, and not a great one. Like most past Batman movies, it pulls from and amalgamates a number of sources. Unlike those past movies, the dominant rhythm is that of a readably unspectacular twelve-issue miniseries—though the comics-world coinage of “maxiseries” makes particular sense for this three-hour movie that’s neither endless slog nor gripping epic. The story adds up, in a nominal sort of way, and has some unexpected twists and tweaks in the final stretch, meant to challenge Bruce Wayne’s obsessions and guide him toward the lessons he’s lost in the pursuit of, as he puts it and as Selina drolly echoes back to him, “vengeance.” What the movie doesn’t do is reach a true crescendo, either of tension (as in Nolan’s films) or grotesque beauty (as in Burton’s). It hits its notes early and often, like the insistently memorable Michael Giacchino theme that accompanies it.

That leaves The Batman most resembling, of all things, the follow-ups to Burton’s work, when Joel Schumacher took the reins for Batman Forever (the one with Carrey’s Riddler) and Batman & Robin. It’s a different tone, of course. Schumacher embraced live-action cartooniness—sets that look like sets; actors that act like chattering wind-up toys—and making kids laugh. If anything, Reeves’ comic relief carries the faintest echo of Burton’s mordant humor. Yet Reeves shares with Schumacher an inability to make the characters feel like they truly exist in between the plot points and set pieces. That’s why certain characters, like Bruce’s loyal butler-guardian Alfred (Andy Serkis), depend on the presumption that they’re arriving pre-endeared to the audience at large, and therefore in little need of character development.

The Batman isn’t completely devoid of feeling. Kravitz has a heat that short-circuits some of Pattinson’s more po-faced tendencies, and it lingers in the air between them even as they’re pulled apart. (Imagine, superheroes with the desire to kiss each other before their relationship is fully and clearly defined!) There are even moments, toward the end, when the movie turns hearteningly optimistic amidst the viscerally rendered gloom, evoking the muddling-through so many of us have found ourselves performing (albeit on a less dramatic scale). Yet much of the actual story consists of lateral piece-moving, dependent on a bunch of gradually revealed and remodified backstory. If the serial-killer trailing and cipher-decoding is supposed to evoke the historical unease of Zodiac (“This is the Riddler speaking,” Dano intones at one point), it lands closer to ’90s thrillers that slickly repackaged dread as flashy excitement–aimed at adults in quote marks, perhaps equally well-suited to fourteen-year-olds. Sound familiar, comics readers? The darkness of The Batman is somehow both richly textured and flimsy–a painting done up on newsprint.

TRACK MARKS 2021: “4Runner” by Rostam

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them around the turn of a new year, looking back at the previous year in music.

There was a brief, blink-and-you-missed-it period when it seemed like everything was going to be okay. That we’d pull through this whole COVID mess; the masks could be doffed, the social distance between us closed. It’s hard to believe now as Omicron continues to wreck its havoc on vacation planning and school reopenings, but during the weeks of June and July 2021 when it seemed like this great disaster was about to be in the rearview, Rostam’s swoony “4Runner” was my personal soundtrack.

This isn’t to say I was spending a lot of that period driving around; even two and a half years after moving back to the Midwest I still don’t have a car. But like the titular vehicle, “4Runner” is a track designed for the open road, even if it’s just one you’re riding in your mind. Rostam seemed to anticipate this by releasing the single way back in March of 2021, when most of us were still homebound, in advance of his second solo album Changephobia. Though he hasn’t collaborated with Vampire Weekend in several years now, the song recalls some of their breeziest work, though it’s much less indebted to Paul Simon’s multicultural melange than the self-consciously cinematic sweep of Roxy Music.

Employing a surging mix of 12-string acoustic guitar, drums, and a Moog bass, Rostam constructs a euphoric ode to queer love and the freedom that can be found as much in a lover’s arms as the wind in your hair. The lyrics paint a nostalgic portrait of a couple who could be on the road or on the run: the 4Runner they’re driving has stolen plates, after all. A sense of illicitness, even danger, hangs over the scene; at one point Rostam mentions the knife his partner keeps in the passenger door. The song never boils over into melodrama, though. This isn’t a Thelma & Louise story, doomed to end in tragedy. There are no cars careening into canyons here. Instead there’s an acknowledgment that uncertainty is part of the trade-off of partnership, and might even be one of the rewards. “I’m waiting down the street. Take all the time you want to come,” Rostam sings, the music fading beneath him like a sunset, a daily event that can still feel momentous despite its constancy. It was difficult to be spontaneous this past year, but “4Runner” reminds us what it feels like to throw caution to the wind and take off somewhere unmapped, if only for three-and-a-half minutes at a time.

TRACK MARKS 2021: “Final Girl” by Chvrches

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them around the turn of a new year, looking back at the previous year in music.

The music of Chvrches has always had a widescreen quality: With its swooning synths and pealing guitars, it’s virtually engineered to soundtrack a Michael Mann epic. But on “Final Girl,” the Scottish synth-pop trio isn’t just making music fit for the movies; they’re placing themselves within the movies. The title, as those steeped in pop culture well know, refers to the sometimes-virginal victim of a horror film, the last woman standing (and screaming) after the killer has eviscerated her hapless friends. Is lead singer Lauren Mayberry equating the burdens of feminine fame to the terrors of haunted-house mayhem, with toxic internet trolls swarming her with the destructive zeal of an inexorable slasher? She certainly seems battered, if not broken; whereas in the past she “could drown it out by filling up the silence with an organ sound,” now she’s wondering if she should just quit and go get married.

Final girls can’t give up, though. They’re defined by their endurance, their pluck, their defiant survival. And if a decade of commercial success has sapped Mayberry of her artistic enthusiasm, that’s news to Chvrches’ listeners, because “Final Girl” represents a band at the peak of its musical powers. Structurally, there’s nothing fancy about the song; it’s just a couple of verses, along with the usual pre- and post-chorus. But the compact, muscular arrangement bristles with precision and verve, the steady repetition paradoxically creating kinetic momentum. All of the harmonizing instruments—the glittering keyboards, the sliding guitars, the punchy percussion—are perfectly synchronized, and appropriately subservient to the clarion beauty of Mayberry’s voice. (During the chorus, she muses whether she should have changed her accent to make herself sound more attractive, a wistful piece of self-reflection which ignores the fact that her accent totally rules.) This exactitude lends the imagery a chilling vividness; when Mayberry conjures the vision of someone finding their daughter in a body bag, you can practically see the coroner pulling up the zipper.

“Final Girl” deftly mingles the personal with the professional—it’s an introspective diary entry that’s been crafted with brash, boisterous confidence—but in the spirit of the best slasher flicks, it saves its biggest twist for the finale. Mayberry has already mentioned the track’s title on her initial run through the post-chorus, but the second time around she asks, “There’s a final girl / Does she look like me?” It’s a jolting question, one that ponders just how much of ourselves we see when we’re staring at a movie screen. “She should be screaming!” Mayberry sings, her voice cresting with urgency as the mix gradually dissolves into an extended hiss of reverb. It’s a fitting non-ending, one that primes you to anticipate a sequel. And why not? With music this rich and taut and assured, Chvrches deserve a whole damn cinematic universe.

TRACK MARKS 2021: “Faith Healer” by Julien Baker

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them around the turn of a new year, looking back at the previous year in music.

I cried a lot in 2021. I don’t think I’m alone in that. It was a uniquely dark time for many of us, when the continued isolation imposed by the pandemic began to feel less like a moral imperative and more like a congenital defect, particularly for those like me who live alone and already prone to depressive and defeatist thinking. We had hoped the year would go better. It had other plans. In times like this, sometimes it doesn’t really help to try and boost yourself up with positive and mindful self-talk that feels false or forced. Sometimes you just want to hear from someone who gets it. For me, that someone was Julien Baker.

In advance of the release of her third solo album Little Oblivions, Baker was remarkably candid about the personal struggles and demons that inspired it, from her evangelical upbringing to a series of addictions and relapses before she was even out of her teens. If there’s a self-flagellating aspect to her music, a punishing intensity not only to the lyrics but the musical compositions supporting them, there’s also a firsthand knowledge of unhealthy coping mechanisms that can make her seem like the gurus she’s questioning, a belief in herself that’s all the more compelling for how clearly fragile it is. No track embodies that better than “Faith Healer,” the record’s first single and its best song.

Like much of Baker’s music, it starts hushed, with a simple undulating guitar picking, her voice not entering the song so much as venturing into it. “Ooh I miss it high,” she croons, as if hesitant to invade its holy space with a confession of weakness. But, as with most confessions, once Baker starts it all begins flooding out: “What I wouldn’t give if it would take away the sting a minute. Everything I love, I’d trade it in to feel it rush into my chest.” If there’s anything an addict understands in her blood, it’s the seductive power of a quick fix. Whatever the vice might be, whether it’s a drug or a person or a belief system, there’s a relief in giving into it, blinding yourself to the delusion that maybe, this time, you can control the chaos being welcomed back in. The song itself mirrors this during the bridge as strings dart with increasing fervency, building to the cathartic invitation to connect, even, and perhaps especially, when it’s bad for you: “Come put your hands on me.” When she performed this live at one of the first shows I went to post-vaccine in September, the crowd lifted theirs as if the concert hall was a revival tent. And for the upteenth time that year, I cried. And I wasn’t alone in that.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: The Matrix Resurrections and the Wachowskis’ Career

We here at SportsAlcohol dot com were pretty excited about the recent release of The Matrix Resurrections, the 18-years-later legacy sequel to the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy, written and directed by Lana Wachowski sans her sister Lily. After watching the movie in IMAX theaters and/or HBO Max, Jesse, Marisa, Ben, Jeremy, and Nathaniel got together to talk about how the new movie fits in with the legendary original, the controversial trilogy, and the garden of delights that is the full Wachowski filmography. We start with The Matrix Resurrections and then get into our full collective ranking of the Wachowski movies, discussing the finer points of Cloud Atlas, Speed Racer, Bound, and more. So join us, won’t you, after all these years… to go back to where it all started. Back to The Matrix. (And also back to Jupiter Ascending.)

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

  • You can subscribe to our podcast using the rss feed.
  • I’m not sure why they allowed it, but we are on iTunes! If you enjoy what you hear, a positive comment and a rating would be great.
  • I don’t really know what Stitcher is, but we are also on Stitcher.
  • SportsAlcohol.com is a proud member of the Aha Radio Network. What is Aha? It’s kind of like Stitcher, but for your car.
  • You can download the mp3 of the episode directly here.
  • Our most recent episode or two will sometimes be available on our Soundcloud. We don’t always have it working right but there’s good stuff there regardless!
  • You can listen to the episode in the player below.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: The Films of Wes Anderson

How did it take us this long to get to a Wes Anderson podcast episode?! Though The Grand Budapest Hotel was our consensus choice for the best movie of 2014, our site’s very first best-movie-of-the-year pick, we hadn’t yet dedicated a full episode to Anderson’s full filmography. With the recent of release of The French Dispatch, we decided to change that, assembling Marisa, Jon, Sara, Jeremy, and Jesse to rank Anderson’s movies and discuss all ten of them. Which film edged out which other film for the number one spot? Which one was lowest on multiple lists? What do we think of his latest movie (now available to stream, rent, or buy on disc)? And where do the stop-motion animals fit in?! All of this information and more is contained in this podcast episode, our first in too long, but also one of our best. So switch off the Kinks for just a couple of hours and listen up!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

  • You can subscribe to our podcast using the rss feed.
  • I’m not sure why they allowed it, but we are on iTunes! If you enjoy what you hear, a positive comment and a rating would be great.
  • I don’t really know what Stitcher is, but we are also on Stitcher.
  • SportsAlcohol.com is a proud member of the Aha Radio Network. What is Aha? It’s kind of like Stitcher, but for your car.
  • You can download the mp3 of the episode directly here.
  • Our most recent episode or two will sometimes be available on our Soundcloud. We don’t always have it working right but there’s good stuff there regardless!
  • You can listen to the episode in the player below.

The Worst Movies of 2021

There are worse things going on in the world than these movies—than any of these movies. I mean, the fact that I got to actually go to the movies a hundred-plus times this year counts, unfortunately, as a triumph, and even the worst movies of 2021 didn’t inspire the same hopelessness as much of 2020. Instead, the worst movies of 2021 were back to something more like business as usual: overblown blockbuster chintz, self-conscious entries in genres the filmmakers thought they had down pat, bad horror shit, and even more attempts to do the Coens or Tarantino or whoever else. (Say this for Dear Evan Hansen: It’s bad in new and unfamiliar ways.) Many of them were streaming-only titles; others played in thousands of theaters nationwide. The worst movies of 2021, like the best ones, know no boundaries. Here I purge them from my ledger, with a mix of links to my past writing/ranting and some newly created sum-ups. Here’s to more regular old bad movies in 2022—that aren’t outshined by the bad movie unfolding all around us.

The Worst Movies of 2021

15. The Tomorrow War

“That’s where The Tomorrow War’s whiff of Christian-movie piety comes in: The filmmakers are careful to characterize Dan as a good husband, attentive and loving father, tough soldier, capable leader, and near-genius scientist, leaving any personal failings as abstract, offscreen concepts that can only be explained, never dramatized, before they’re heroically overcome. Pratt gets in a few of his trademark regular-guy semi-witticisms, but mostly the movie extends the option on Hollywood’s baffling collective decision to employ him as an all-American can-do adventurer rather than an underachieving goofball.”

14. South of Heaven

I believe in Jason Sudeikis’s capacity to go serious… but not like this… not like this. A grave and tone-deaf mix of reflective indie redemption drama, blackly comic Coen Brothers-esque crime caper, South of Heaven made me nostalgic for the days when SNL alumni made terrible feature-length shtick out of their comic personas, rather than po-faced junk.

13. Dear Evan Hansen

“In a weird way, Dear Evan Hansen does achieve the effect it’s going for, in that the whole movie feels like an out-of-control lie: Its phoniness, starting from Platt’s masquerade and building from there, compounds and compounds, and no one involved, especially not director Stephen Chbosky, is willing to call the bluff. Platt gives the worst performance, in the sense that it feels like you’re watching a police sketch of Jason Biggs go through psychotherapy against its will. But there’s a different sort of badness in watching Amy Adams and Julianne Moore (as Evan’s mom) flounder through material so ill-considered.”

12. The Fear Street Trilogy

I have rarely felt crazier than I did watching Twitter reactions and even Rotten Tomatoes scores on this Netflix botch get ever more enthusiastic as it dropped each weekly entry, as if the contact high from an efficient knockoff-Scream opening sequence somehow got into everyone’s bloodstream and kept them peaking for weeks. Guys, this is the bad stuff: archly written without any proper laughs or scares; clumsily plotted and seemingly convinced of its own cynical relevance; saturated with lazy anachronisms disguised as pop-culture signifiers (hint: American kids in 1978 were not saying “shagadelic,” a word coined by Austin Powers in 1997); and ruthlessly extended in the manner of a bad streaming TV show, suggesting a genuine interest in smearing all forms of visual art into generic content paste. The creepiest thing about this trilogy is the way it evokes the feeling that no one involved with this teen horror movie has ever been a teenager or even watched one in a horror movie;

11. Breaking News in Yuba County

“You can probably tell what kind of bad movie this is: Affected. Smugly “satirical” without really satirizing anything. One of many Fargo knockoffs, full of zany quirks and sticky ends, that makes Fargo seem better and richer than ever.”

10. Cherry

Joe and Anthony Russo seem like fairly mild-mannered and pragmatic fellows, having made a name for themselves as go-to network comedy directors throughout the 2000s, then unexpectedly becoming MCU mainstays starting with their work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yet Cherry, their first movie following the unfathomable global success of their Avengers sequels, feels like the Russos have worked themselves into a rage binge over any perceived lack of seriousness to making multibillion-dollar superhero movies. So, they kick up a bunch of aggro grit, with their Avengers co-star Tom Holland playing a vet turned addict turned criminal. This is a movie that has nothing to say about war, addiction, or anything else that it’s supposed to be about, instead focusing on providing the Russos plenty of opportunities to dick around with camera tricks and show-off shots. The striving for gravitas starts to feel like auteur hubris minus any personality: Just pure movie-director ego. Good on them, though, for finally making the incompetent “serious” movie Michael Bay keeps smirking his way out of making.

9. Joe Bell

Plenty of writers focused on the questionable taste of Mark Wahlberg, who committed a hate crime as a young man, playing a father embarking on a cross-country anti-bullying campaign on behalf of his gay son. That’s probably because they weren’t sure how or if they could discuss either the mid-movie twist, or the real-life twist the movie conveys in its final on-screen text, an attempted gut punch that misses and falls on its face. I think enough time has passed to issue a spoiler alert: This movie ends with a serious-minded equivalent of “Poochie died on the way back his home planet,” offering incontrovertible proof that sometimes real-life tragedies are better left unadapted.

8. Here Today

Here Today has some—well, a few—well, a handful of—graceful moments, focusing on the unlikely, ambiguous, surprisingly supportive relationship these characters. It is also singularly, fascinatingly, appallingly, confusingly unfunny… The writing, and the writing-within-the-writing that supplies the movie’s fake comedy, feels restless and rushed, as if Crystal and Zweibel affixed their every “yes and” with the words “…then we’re done.” There’s rich material to be mined from the quirks and foibles of a professional comedy lifer. Instead, Charlie Burnz just sounds like someone opened an expired jar of Billy Crystal and left it out on a counter for several decades.” – my newsletter entry on Billy Crystal. Subscribe to it, maybe I’ll do more in the new year!

7. Demonic

Seeking an M. Night Shyamalan-style low-budget rebirth, Neill Blomkamp returns with an amateurish shocker—that is, a movie that is shockingly amateurish, especially given that he’s been involved with some of the best lower-budget visual effects I’ve ever seen. No such luck in the haunted virtual world of Demonic. Then again, maybe this movie is a miracle: Using a sliding scale based on the fact that District 9 and Chappie cost under $50 million apiece, it would be fair to assume that Demonic cost no more than $600 cash. None of that would matter if the movie were scary or engaging, but its best ideas—involving a woman who uses new technology to venture into her comatose mother’s mind and winds up unleashing a terrible evil—languish with bargain-basement production, and not just in the area of visual effects. It’s one of those movies where I’m shocked to discover afterward that the lead is a professional working actor; whatever she learned in her literal years as a well-liked and successful television performer, Blomkamp managed to wipe the slate clean.

6. Space Jam: A New Legacy

“This is the least funny Looney Tunes endeavor since Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. It is worse than the original Space Jam, because the original Space Jam had Bill Murray. Imagine a movie that replaces Bill Murray with 30 minutes. That Justin Lin and Ryan Coogler, filmmakers I would prefer to continue liking, were not frightened away from putting their names on this shit either speaks to their bravery, or their unexpected kinship with Ivan Reitman.”

5. Hero Mode

“It’s tempting to call Hero Mode harmless. It’s a low-budget indie, and the fact that the lead actor, screenwriter, and group of people given a story credit all share a surname suggests that this may be a family project taken too far. Yet in addition to the latent sexism, unmitigated by Mira Sorvino’s nothing of a mom role, there’s something insidious about the movie’s incompetence, and the accompanying belief that it’s good enough to entertain audiences of any age. It aspires to harmlessness, and fails. Even its version of a valuable family-film lesson is bizarre and off-key. Remember, kids: If you happen to become the head of a company before you’ve learned anything about employee management or leadership, be sure to embrace teamwork.”

4. Dating & New York

”Some credit must be awarded to the actors: First, based on the available evidence, they did not flee the movie mid-shoot. (Although if they did, the movie wouldn’t look much different; some of their scenes may well have been completed from the comfort of home.) Second, Young-White is a successful stand-up comic in real life, playing an aspiring stand-up comic in this movie, and he is extremely convincing as someone who will never, ever succeed at stand-up, or possibly anything else besides the wearing of turtlenecks. Even that, I’d call more of a qualified success. They do go around his neck, but at what cost in terms of indicating what season it’s supposed to be? Further to that concern, another scene has Reale wearing a turtleneck of her own, with overalls, while Young-White wears a half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt. Finally, a movie that asks the haunting question: Does New York have weather?”

A postscript to this review: Here and in my A.V. Club preview item about this movie, I mentioned that it was an obviously green-screened New York experience that looked as if it had largely been shot elsewhere. Apparently the writer-director took issue with this, claiming that nothing in the movie was green-screened. This speaks to both the false authority with which we critics sometimes speak, and what a strange, uncanny experience this anonymous-looking New York Movie is, full of generic interiors and obscured backgrounds. If green-screen wasn’t involved, certainly some cheap digital effects make an appearance. I mean, take a look at the header image for this piece again.

3. First Date

A crime comedy that emerges as if from a gruesome accident at a late ‘90s video store, this movie somehow played the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, which would be a source of intense bitterness for the next two decades’ worth of Sundance rejections, if anyone bothers to seek it out. A teenager buys an old car so he can take out his crush, and everything goes wrong—not just with the car and the cops/criminals on its tail, but with the movie, which introduces two likable young characters, contrives idiotic reasons to keep them apart, and drowns everyone in imitation-Tarantino banter.

2. Separation

“It’s this sad-sack divorced idiot, who by all we can tell is a terrible provider, a bad husband, and a mediocre dad… there’s a fascinating convergence of bad directing, bad writing, and bad acting to make this character both terribly unlikable and at the same time, intended to be likable. It’s a feature-length apologia for deadbeat dads everywhere. If we’re OK to get into spoilers, I’ll eventually talk about how the movie even fucks up its weird attempts to mitigate how toxic and poisonous this thing is.” – selections from my sputtering disgust expressed in a discussion on the New Flesh podcast

1. He’s All That

“I do believe fans of That Type of Stuff (a group that I obviously, albeit somewhat torturously, belong to) deserve movies starring people who actually like movies, rather than seeing them as a subsidiary of their TikTok empire. Addison Rae doesn’t look especially excited or moved by anything happening in the movie that she’s starring in. She’s just there, photographed as prominently and helplessly as those plastic-looking slices of Pizza Hut-brand pizza product.” – Also from my newsletter! Like and subscribe!!!

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER at 25: To Break Things and Be Forgiven

Mel Coplin cannot name his child. This is the inciting plot point of writer-director David O. Russell’s second and, in my opinion, best film: 1996’s Flirting with Disaster, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. It belongs in the same upper echelon of satirical road trip comedies as Albert Brooks’ Lost in America and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels but is rarely granted that level of recognition, perhaps overshadowed in the popular imagination by Russell’s flashier but less soulful later efforts. Watching it now, there’s something quaint, even wholesome, about Disaster’s more pint-sized focus and ambitions; its entire budget could probably match the cost of one of American Hustle’s needle drops. It’s a portrait of a distinctly dysfunctional family, released during the height of the Clinton years, picking up on the ambient anxieties of the you-can-have-it-all era and mining it for painful laughs. But, like pretty much every character in the film, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Let’s get back to Mel, who is played with exquisitely calibrated neuroticism by Ben Stiller. Mel cannot name his child because he doesn’t understand where he came from. Mel was adopted as a baby by Pearl and Ed Coplin, played by an uncharacteristically ribald Mary Tyler Moore and perpetually harried George Segal, respectively. Though they are not his birth parents, it’s easy to see how they’ve rubbed off on Mel once they’re introduced in the sort of madcap multilayered “everyone talking at once and about different things” dinner sequence that will become this film’s recurring set piece. For someone like me, who grew up in a household that insisted on sedate nightly meals together that often unfolded with the television on in the background, these scenes hit the same pleasure centers as Moonstruck or Raising Arizona. It’s not that I recognize my own family in them, but the particularities of the arguments and the tangled affection informing them invite me, if only briefly, into a new, more emphatic one. Pearl and Ed are upset with Mel because, deep down, they fear they haven’t been enough for him. Because this is a David O. Russell comedy, that’s expressed by Moore boasting about the defiant buoyancy of her late-middle-aged breasts and Segal cautioning about the carjacking problem in San Diego, where Mel has just announced he’s heading with his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette, expertly capturing the heightened-stakes sensuality of new motherhood) and his hapless caseworker Tina (Tea Leoni, never sexier), who is recently divorced and feeling pressed for time, biologically speaking. Tina has identified San Diego as the residence of Mel’s birth mother, Valerie Swaney.
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