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.”
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!
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.
“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!!!