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The Worst Movies of 2021

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

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. 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 actor, 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!!!

Tribeca 2018, Part 1: Forbidden Love and Forbidden Sex, Too

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

I’ve been attending the Tribeca Film Festival since (checks notes) 2013, and when I file dispatches during the festival, I usually have to wait a few days for at least a couple of thematic links to form between seemingly disparate features. Not so in 2018, as my first day at the festival took me from a movie about forbidden love (and lust) between adult women to a movie about forbidden lust (and love) between gay teenagers to a movie about self-forbidden lust (or love) between mostly hetero teenagers. The first two movies, with their narratives about boundaries on homosexuality imposed by various parts of society, should have made the third feel like a privileged trifle, but as it happens, the progressively less intense playing order made the final film feel like a blessed relief.

I started with Disobedience (Grade: B-), which opens commercially next weekend and is the most serious of the batch—not in terms of what happens in it, which is not especially disturbing or upsetting, but in terms of its tone, which might be what a writer’s group I’ve been in might call an imitative fallacy. Because the movie is set in an Orthodox Jewish community and that community is located in London, and because the two leading women are not especially happy to be in this restrictive setting, Disobedience is drab and dour, capturing barely more than a minute or two of sunlight over the course of its two hours.

What it lacks in color, humor, or liveliness, it does make up for in Rachels: Rachel Weisz plays the estranged daughter of a recently deceased rabbi who returns home after his passing, and reconnects with childhood friends played by Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola. They’re still in the Orthodox community—and they’re now married. But the Rachels have been holding torches for one another this whole time, and reignite their relationship with alternating caution and recklessness. Weisz and Adams are very good here, and do a hell of a lot to make this movie watchably rather than oppressively downcast. McAdams in particular offers a potent reminder of what a smart, subtle, no-frills actress she is in the right role.

These characters don’t entirely acquiesce to their oppression, but despite the judgmental people around them, their struggles are mostly internal as they are, after all, more or less free to make their own decisions. There’s plenty of internal struggle in The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Grade: B), but whatever self-loathing can come from realizing your sexuality in adolescence is terrifyingly externalized when Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is sent to a school that specializes in straightening out gay teens—sort of half Bible camp, half cult. Director/cowriter Desiree Akhavan makes a major leap from her promising debut Inappropriate Behavior, and it happens within minutes of Miseducation’s opening. She moves the action from Cameron’s rendezvous with her secret girlfriend, to prom night, to exposure as a lesbian, to enrollment in the school with terrific fluidity and lack of exposition. It’s all quickly engineered yet perfectly observed, right down to its 1993 period details (The Breeders on cassette, what what!).

The action slows a bit once Cameron reaches the school; the movie introduces a lot of new characters but their importance as individuals comes more from inferences than big scenes, especially Jane (Sasha Lane), who sometimes feels like an attitude in search of an individual. But Akhavan is able to elicit sardonic laughter from the material without sacrificing the sense of psychological pain that is being inflicted on these kids. And the movie ends with a couple of scenes so unhurried and plainspoken in their loveliness and sadness that they start to recall David Gordon Green or Lane’s American Honey director Andrea Arnold. Akhavan isn’t quite on that level yet, but she bookends her film with virtuoso displays of talent.

The French-Canadian teens of Slut in a Good Way (Grade: B+) have no such worries on their minds. The movie’s central trio of teenage girls all get jobs at a big-box toy store on a whim, because there are cute, somewhat older guys there (college-aged, to their Grade 11), and one of the girls is nursing a broken heart (the gay guy she thought wanted to be with her anyway turns out to be, yeah, actually gay). First they want to goof off and sleep with their new coworkers; then they decide to impose a moratorium on interoffice sex for, well, 24 hours later the reason is escaping me. If I recall correctly, it’s because the guys start to just expect that they’ll be able to fool or fuck around with any of the girls, and also they decide to raise some money for charity. I’d be happy to watch the movie again to clarify, because Slut in a Good Way (whose actual French title translates to either Charlotte Has Fun or Charlotte Having Fun; I’m not sure) is a delight.

It’s sort of a one-crazy-summer movie, except it takes place over the fall, and its characters aren’t especially outsized or caricatured. There are also bits of Clerks (besides the workplace shenanigans, it’s shot in a halo’d, soft black and white), American Pie (a little smutty but sex-positive), and workplace sitcoms. Those influences are all enjoyable, but it isn’t particular a gender-flipped version of any of them (it also resembles a more antic companion piece to the sleepier Canadian delight Tu Dors, Nicole). What’s most magical about the movie is how director Sophie Lorain choreographs her camera and her actors. She’s very aware of where the characters are within (or outside of) the frame, and pans her camera around the Toy Depot aisles to capture the musicality of their movements, even though none of the actors play the material with much theatricality. When she executes a funny extended sight gag based on characters playing a dance video game, you think: of course.

Lorain, a movie and TV actress from Quebec who has made some Canadian TV and one movie, unseen by me, nearly a decade ago, is a find (which is to say, Americans may find her after this movie; clearly she’s been around in relatively plain sight for our Canadian neighbors). Instead of coming across like a carefree irritant, Slut in a Good Way, showing up at the end of my triple feature, felt aspirational. Here’s hoping more gay teenagers can grow up (and fuck up) with this kind of near-musical ebullience.

East Coast vs. West Coast: On Straight Outta Compton and Fort Tilden

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Straight Outta Compton doesn’t exactly qualify as a nontraditional biopic; in terms of structure, it mostly adheres to the rise/fall narrative with the option for an additional rise. Earlier this summer, the Brian Wilson movie Love and Mercy toyed with those boundaries with far more innovation. But even set half in the ’80s, Love and Mercy, like so many movies about popular music, was rooted in baby boomer music of the ’60s; Straight Outta Compton, in telling the mostly sanctioned story of N.W.A., actually starts in the 1986, which still counts as a novelty. True to its title, the movie roots itself in the streets of Los Angeles and surrounding environs; an early scene catching Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) in a drug raid looks positively apocalyptic. But the imagery doesn’t just come from gang violence; it’s the police battering ram tearing apart a house that makes the scene look so untenable.

As the movie skips from Eazy to a young Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his dad), police harassment is a common theme, along with the recurring image of black men being slammed against car hoods for no reason. Cube and Dre are more interested in lyric-writing and DJing, respectively, than the drug trade, and E wants out, too. But even when they’ve signed up with a manager (Paul Giamatti) who looks shadier as the movie progresses but downright friendly in the context of Compton, the cops won’t leave them alone: putting them on the ground, asking what they’re doing outside a recording studio, daring them to fight back. Some of this is broad (“rap is not an art!” one cop – a middle-aged black man – spits contemptuously); it’s also feels undeniably and depressingly relevant. Pop biopics often traffic in simplistic song origins, but when Straight Outta Compton cuts hard from N.W.A. getting harassed on the streets into them performing “Fuck Tha Police,” it’s not just a pat explanation of a famous and controversial song. It makes audiences (some of whom will not have experienced racism firsthand) feel the song’s righteous frustration. To put it in my dorky white terms: it feels fucking punk rock.
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