2021 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

Hello!

The MN Movie Man is now 10 years young!

As quickly as 2021 began, it feels like I was gearing up to write another year-end recap – time truly does fly.  It was a busy year, though!  In addition to a renewed stream of movies released in theaters, there continued to be a nice supply of indie features and hidden gems that appeared in my inbox – an ongoing bounty from the pandemic that I am eternally grateful for.  While some studios that were so wonderful (and, frankly desperate) for support during those hard times sadly turned their backs on smaller reviewers – from the bottom of my screening soul I thank those that didn’t forget us when things began opening up again.

I also want to give a shout out to all of those studios that kept offering options to see films either at home or in theaters.  Some movies are just meant to see on the big screen while most are arguably able to get by with an at home link. Having the option, especially in an environment that continues to be in flux, shows signs of an industry that puts health and safety first.

Again, I saw far more movies at home than in theaters, but I tried to make the big screen showings count as much as possible.  I also found that I watched a number of movies more than once this year – something I rarely do in such short order.  Continuing on with reviews and screenings of smaller titles helps me stay grounded/rounded and even with a few setbacks that knocked me off my game for a few weeks (who needs a gallbladder anyway, right?) I kept on giving you more than just your regular blockbuster or reviews that paid lip service to popular entertainment.  I hope you continue to check out these titles that may be further off the radar than you are used to.

Festivals!  How could I forget!  A goal this year was to increase attendance at film festivals and wow did I luck out with invites to several key events that opened my eyes to a completely new side of the business.  Attending these (virtually) not only allowed me to widen my movie vocabulary exponentially but it helped me hone my writing as well, something I’m always looking to tweak.  It raised my numbers of overall movies watched and wound up giving me the excuse to add another category to my year end wrap up below…a Best of the Fest.  Check these out for movies to watch for in 2022 (or later!)

In closing, I’ll return to the challenge I give my fellow critics every year…“I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.” I’m going to triple down on this again in 2022 because I think more of you can take this on.  Keep seeking out these smaller films and give indie filmmakers some exposure.  At the same time, acknowledge your fellow critics as well who do good work, tip you off to certain films, and support you throughout the year.  Off the top of my head, I’m always looking to Brian Orndorf, Tim Lammers, and Jared Huzinga to see what they’ve been watching and The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance is worth a peek as well for another roster of critics doing their thing.  This year, I’m adding Peggy at the Movies and Guy at the Movies to my list of can’t stop/won’t stop reviewers that are dedicated to writing reviews almost daily and regularly stay flexible to seeing a wide range of film genres. Give credit where credit is due!  

This is the 10th year of this blog (wow!) and it goes without saying that I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence over time.  Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  The number of readers and subscribers grow, the followers increase, the likes go up — it’s great to see!

If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), follow me on Instagram, and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

5. The Night House – I’ll be honest, I was a little surprised myself to select this one for top tier status, but The Night House is a film that’s stuck with me longer than most movies I saw in 2021. It’s also a quality example of a screener I watched twice at home in the already short viewing window…which should only highlight how impactful this creepy tale of a wife coping with the sudden death of her husband at their lakeside home is. That it’s about something more than what you think it is makes it that much more fun to dissect on a second viewing, recognizing the intricate ways director David Bruckner, screenwriters Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski, and most especially star Rebecca Hall have built this fragile house.  Come for the scares but stay for the message that comes with them.

4. tick, tick…BOOM! – This die-hard RENT-head was way skeptical a film version of the late playwright Jonathan Larson’s lesser known work could make it as a Netflix musical under the direction of Lin-Manuel Miranda but sheesh, was I ever wrong! Cleverly re-orchestrated to tie the off-Broadway musical’s storyline even closer to Larson’s own life story, star Andrew Garfield delivered the single best film performance of the year in a role that should earn him an Oscar. The emotions this one raised were through the roof and while it had numerous surprises throughout (that diner scene!) the biggest one was how timeless the music feels even today. 

3. The Green Knight – I came so close to missing the boat on this one and I’m so glad I got it in under the buzzer because I surely would have had to add it to my best of the year list whenever I did get around to seeing director David Lowery’s gorgeous take on the Arthurian tale of Sir Gaiwan and his encounter with The Green Knight, conjured by his own mother as a test of bravery.  I was so taken with the way the story developed episodically yet maintained a smooth flow of energy throughout.  Performances were solid and from a technical standpoint few movies came even close to achieving the same caliber of execution in production design and costume.  It’s one of several movies from 2021 I would classify as not to be missed under any circumstances.

2. C’mon C’mon – Admittedly, while I found Joaquin Phoenix’s actual performance in 2019’s Joker to be worthy of the Best Actor that he won, the film itself left a terrible taste in my mouth I wasn’t sure I’d ever be rid of.  Following up that dark journey with this tender movie by Mike Mills, Phoenix delivers an even better showcase of what he is capable of doing.  I wish we were living in a time when more people were venturing out to the movies because I think a film as simple and heartfelt as C’mon C’mon would speak to a lot of viewers out there that feel overwhelmed at life, underwhelmed at how they are valued, and anyone seeking to matter to someone else in a small way.  Featuring a fabulous turn by former child star Gaby Hoffman as mother to the brilliant newcomer Woody Norman, I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this film unchanged.

1. West Side Story – You only need to do a quick search of the films I saw in the theater to get an idea of why this might have topped my list.  I don’t even remember the last time I saw a movie four times in its initial run but Steven Spielberg’s remake of the Best Picture from 1961 is about as fantastic a reason as any…and I’d see it more if I could.  The big screen is honestly what this version calls for, with Tony Kushner’s carefully rethought screenplay giving more voice to the minority characters and fleshing out what had been in the past perhaps less obvious or too thin.  It doesn’t alter anything drastically, nor does it set out to.  Composer Leonard Bernstein’s music soars through the theater and hits the right nerves, while Spielberg and cinematographer Januz Kaminski provide extraordinary visuals, the likes of which musicals haven’t been afforded in years.  It blew me away as much the fourth time as it did the first time.  Many tears have been shed by me watching it and I expect it to be that way each time I watch it in the future.  It’s not just my favorite movie of 2021, it’s a new all-time favorite that I would count among one of the highest accomplishments in the careers of all involved.  Yes, it’s a remake, but it’s so stupendously entertaining that by the end it won’t matter what came before or after.  This is singular.

Honorable Mentions: 8-Bit Christmas, Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar, Belfast, Blood Red Sky, Boss Level, Candyman (2021), CODA, Derek DelGaudio’s in & of Itself, I’m Your Man, In the Heights, Initiation (2021), No Time to Die, Our Friend, Ride the Eagle, The Harder They Fall, Together Together

5. Red Notice / SAS: Red Notice – With movies as bland and forgettable as these two, having them boast similar titles made combining them for recognition as worst of the year that much easier.  Maybe Red Notice is the worse of the two because it has three A-list stars, charming by all accounts, barely awake through a routine heist thriller which isn’t ever compelled to color outside the lines. Or perhaps it’s SAS: Red Notice, a badly made and overly long chunk of cheese with mediocre stars that shows occasional signs of life but ultimately can’t drum up enough interest for anyone, least of all viewers, to care. Either way, early on in both movies I was ready to wave the white flag.

4. Cinderella (2021) / Dear Evan Hansen – In large part, musicals did well this past year (see the Best of above) but when they hit the wrong notes, oh were they ever sour! Take these two ill-advised ones from the class of 2021, both earning more laughs than applause. If you didn’t know Camila Cabello could sing before watching her as the title character in Cinderella, you might be wondering what the big deal was because the pop star is all over the vocal map warbling out a number of oddly chosen contemporary songs roughly shoehorned into the plot. Highly advertised Billy Porter as the Fabulous Godmother is barely in the film while there’s too much of people we don’t want to hear sing, like Pierce Brosnan and James Corden. If there’s one thing positive to say about Dear Evan Hansen, it’s that there are more decent singers in it, but the core plot is so flawed to begin with that it was always going to face an uphill climb.  While star Ben Platt has already been skewered enough by commentators far better than I (like this brilliant and fair deconstruction), it must be said that the total cluelessness of the actor and filmmakers to how ridiculous the performance would be is a sign that no one was tending the shop.  At least Julianne Moore’s speak-singing works better than it could have. 

3. Midnight in the Switchgrass – With an astounding NINE movies released in 2021, several critics have filled almost their entire “Worst of” list with Bruce Willis movies this year but thankfully I only endured one of them…and it easily made my list. Willis barely registers as alert in this dreadful serial killer “thriller” that also features Megan Fox (who otherwise had a nice year flying solo in Till Death). Several odious storylines are brought together in director Randall Emmett’s bargain-basement production and if you wondered what it would be like to see Fox and Machine Gun Kelly in a sleazy hotel room together, look no further.  Notable for Willis being sedentary for most of his scenes and for one big ‘ole slice of turd pie where he and Fox sit across from each other in a diner and trade F-bombs for several minutes.  David Mamet, this ain’t.

2. Home Sweet Home Alone – it’s one thing to have the cojones to use the tagline “Holiday classics were meant to be broken” because you’re drawing a line in the sand which I respect even though I hate it at the same time.  At least the screenwriters got the finished film somewhere in the ballpark because this, I don’t even know what you’d call it, “reboquel?”, is a broken-down pile of reindeer droppings masquerading as holiday entertainment.  More about the married dunderheads trying to break into the mansion where a young boy has been left behind by his family, it’s like everyone involved forgot what made the original Home Alone so charming.  No one wants to watch a movie about the burglars. Especially one that’s so very badly made as this one.  It’s total rubbish.

1. Vanquish – As bad as all of the movies I’ve mentioned above and as moderately disappointing as the Dis(Honorable) Mentions below, nothing came close to how bad Vanquish was. Defying belief, I may have seen “worse” movies over the course of this past year but considering the studio that released this trash and the fact that it had a modicum of talented individuals involved…it turning out so insufferably stupid is almost a miracle in a way.  Morgan Freeman (THE Morgan Freeman) is the Chief Stink-a-roo in this mess, followed by Ruby Rose as a woman dragged back into a life of violence in order to save her daughter. It’s morally vacuous, technically banal, and the minutes you spend watching it are ones you’ll never EVER get back…just remember that I warned you.

Dis(Honorable) Mentions: Apache Junction, Body Brokers, Boogie, Great White (2021), Halloween Kills, Lady of the Manor, Music (2020), Needle in a Timestack, PVT Chat, Queen Bees

6. Hit the Road / Great Freedom (57th Chicago International Film Festival) – My first festival from 2020, it was fun to return to the CIFF in 2021 and catch another round of well-curated selections. My favorites were this family road dramedy and a film about a man serving time in a German prison over a number of years for being gay.  Hit the Road was from Iran and featured a terrific multi-generational cast that was alternately hysterical and moving as they headed toward a destination that will change all of their lives forever.  Great Freedom is one I think we’ll hear more about as the Oscars come up. It’s hard to watch (as most movies depicting violent prison life are) and has genuinely transformative performance from Franz Rogowski.

5. Porcupine (Nashville Film Festival 2021) – I’ve sort of grown up watching Jena Malone and felt that she never truly got her due as a lead in movies.  Don’t get me wrong, she routinely knocks it out of the park any time she shows up and any film she’s in is the better for it…but I wanted to see her get the recognition of a lead. That comes with Porcupine, a bittersweet film about a woman without ties who seeks out a family she can be a part of.  It’s a film that is as surprising as Malone’s sensitive performance.

4. The Daphne Project (2021 Bentonville Film Festival) – As a lifelong theater nerd and semi-retired stage actor, I know people like the character Zora Iman Crews is playing in The Daphne Project. Styled like a mockumentary around a self-obsessed actress as she takes over a very off-Broadway production of a Greek tragedy, Crews and her co-director/co-writer Alec Tibaldi sustain the laughs long enough to make you want to see more Daphne adventures in the future. True laugh-out-loud moments were hard to come by in 2021 but Crews and Tibaldi gave lucky festival views a huge supply.

3. Nr. 10 / She Will / The Execution (Fantastic Fest 2021) – Three excellent films that I can barely talk about because the more you know going in, the less surprises you’ll get to experience on your own.  Just know that with Nr. 10, you’ll never in a million years (maybe a billion) guess where the film is headed based on how it begins.  That it’s so entertaining on both ends says something about the writing and directing.  Alice Krige has been a long-time favorite of mine and she gets a dandy lead in She Will as an actress recovering from cancer-surgery at a secluded retreat.  While there, she begins to experience a strange new power in her dreams, a power that gives her control over those that have wronged her. Already vengeful in nature while awake, what will she do with this new power in her sleep?  The Execution may be slightly overlong, but it takes its time with its story of a police detective tracking a serial killer in multiple timelines.  It’s one you have to pay attention to visually, made slightly more cumbersome with the subtitles, because the pieces fit together perfectly…but miss one and it may become a head-scratcher.

2. All the Moons / Hellbender (2021 Fantasia International Film Festival) – Two beautifully made films about young women coming into their gifts.  All the Moons is just a dandy treat and one that will definitely get a red-carpet rollout befitting this vampire tale set in the 19th century. Often more concerned with human emotion instead of violence and death, it doesn’t skimp on the scares either.  Made by an entire family of talented filmmakers, Hellbender finds a mother-daughter duo living off the grid and sustained by the forest who run into trouble after the daughter taps into her primal instincts after getting a taste for meat.  Not the first film from the Adams family but certainly a new high bar, especially from Toby Poser as the “cool mom” harboring a dark secret.

1. The Novice / Catch the Fair One (Tribeca Film Festival) – Either one of these movies could have been on my Top 5 of the year list and it’s largely because of that I had to create this special category.  Both certainly have the two best female performances of the year and if there were any justice, Isabelle Fuhrman would land and Oscar nomination for her Black Swan-ish work in The Novice as a college rowing student obsessed with being the best at all costs.  Her acting, along with Lauren Hadaway’s skilled direction, are unforgettable.  Champion boxer Kali Reis makes a lighting strike debut providing the story for Josef Kubota Wladyka’s dangerous thriller Catch the Fair One, finding Reis seeking out her missing sister and punishing anyone along the way that has had a hand in her disappearance.  Both roles are soul-bearing spectacles, delivered with sincerity…and in films that back them up wonderfully.

Most Misunderstood: Last Night in Soho – director Edgar Wright’s trippy horror film found its way onto a surprising amount of Top 10 lists, especially considering how many reviewers commented at how slack the third act was.  This barely missed the cutoff for my favorite films as well but thought it worked better here, only because I was shocked at the hate directed toward it for something so trivial as a commercially minded dénouement that made perfect sense within the world Wright created.  It looked great, was spooky, and has decent replay value.  I have a feeling this is one that will gain in popularity over the years and even those that picked it apart will come around to its accomplished creative energy.
Honorable Mention: Prisoners of the Ghostland– For star Nicolas Cage to call this this “The wildest movie I’ve ever made” has to say something about this post-apocalyptic fantasy that’s ultra-violent and campy (with several performances that are legit terrible) but which works far more than it fails. It only gains steam as it chugs along and builds to a climax that it earns. Not for the faint of heart or spirit but fully in line with Cage and his fan club.

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2021 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Pig – The number of ways this could have gone wrong…I just can’t even tell you.  Yet Pig was an example of why it’s so good to go into a movie with as little knowledge and expectation as possible.  Even those thinking they knew what would develop halfway through the film would be surprised at how it turns out and who would have predicted the performance Nicolas Cage would give?  When it was released, I was convinced Cage was on his way back to the Academy Awards to surely pick up his prize. Unless a miracle happens, that won’t be the case but it doesn’t diminish the phenomenal work being done here or the overall impact of the movie, which sticks with you long after you’ve finished it.
Honorable Mention: Wrong Turn (2021) – updates/remakes/reboots are just so hit or miss, I had no reason to believe that Mike P. Nelson’s fresh take on the long-running Wrong Turn franchise would be anything but a dry rehash of the numerous sequels that had diluted the mythology. Well, turns out Nelson had a solid film ready to go with its own set of rules that effectively added energy back to title that was gasping for life.  Pay attention to this director and what’s coming next.

Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Golden Arm and The Empty Man – The two movies I’m mentioning here couldn’t be more different but I am cheating here so I can talk about them both briefly.  Golden Arm is a female buddy movie about arm wrestling that got the briefest of releases and is bound to (hopefully) be discovered on streaming services down the line as the hidden gem we all slept on.  I didn’t – I knew it was a winner when I first saw it!  When the thriller The Empty Man debuted in theaters, no one was interested in seeing an overlong horror film that asked people to think as well as scream…but they missed the opportunity for a severely scary tale that manages to be a rare example of a fright flick that gets more terrifying as it goes on.  Great cinematography and a solid lead performance from James Badge Dale only gives greater street cred to this one that’s routinely buried deep in the horror queues of your favorite service.

Others to Consider:  Some of these are titles released in 2021, some are films I saw for the first time in 2021, some are titles I revisited in 2021 — all are worth a look but didn’t quite fit into any other category above!

All that Jazz
Broadway Danny Rose
Class of 1984
Dead of Night (1945)
Doc Hollywood
Dog Day Afternoon
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead
Dragonslayer
Green Card
Imitation of Life (1959)
Knight Moves
Magnificent Obsession (1954)
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Mystic Pizza
On Golden Pond
Ordinary People
Pollyanna (1955)
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Razorback
Rolling Thunder
Room for One More
The American President
The Family Stone
The Father (2021)
The Joy Luck Club
The Mole Agent

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2021
Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 29
Total Movies Seen at Home: 627
Grand Total for 2021 (not counting films seen multiple times): 656
Where I Saw the Most Movies – At home!

Movie Review ~ 8-Bit Christmas

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In suburban Chicago during the late 1980s, ten-year-old Jake Doyle embarks on a herculean quest to get the latest and greatest video game system for Christmas.

Stars: Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, June Diane Raphael, Steve Zahn, Bellaluna Resnick, Sophia Reid-Gantzert, Che Tafari, Santino Barnard, Max Malas, Brielle Rankins, Braelyn Rankins, Cyrus Arnold, Jacob Laval, Chandler Dean

Director: Michael Dowse

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  The golden goose for any Christmas related film is to obtain classic status; to make it into a yearly rotation in someone’s watchlist or be that particular title to which the season “can’t really start” until it has been seen.  Only a select few can be in that top tier (think It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and A Christmas Story) but there are increasingly a nice batch of below the line selections making up a variety grab bag which can also signal the season is upon us.  Elf, The Holiday, Love, Actually, Home Alone, The Best Man Holiday, Krampus, and Scrooged are movies that may not be on every Christmas wish list but are popular enough to serve as primer or follow-up to the feature presentation of the genuine classics.

Each year more contenders attempt to add their name as another option and while there’s no chance for some (hello Fred Claus!), others fare better (Klaus, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey).  2021 is no different and while we can very politely disqualify the Hallmark/Lifetime options for their machine-like churn of creation, I think Thanksgiving brought a solid selection not just for audiences this season but for many to come.  Checking a number of Christmas movie boxes with ease and possessing a nostalgic charm that works with its unabashed warm sincerity, 8-Bit Christmas fills the viewers cup right to the brim and then adds in an unexpected emotional punch which sends it overflowing with holiday spirit.

As they wait in his suburban Chicago childhood home for the rest of the family to arrive for Christmas dinner, Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris, Gone Girl) needs to find a way to keep his young daughter distracted so he fires up his old Nintendo Entertainment System.  His daughter thinks it looks like Tupperware and isn’t sure what it is meant to do.  Shaking off that sting, he sits her down and, after properly cleaning the game cartridge by blowing on it (why?  “Because it just works.”), shows her how to play Paperboy while telling her the story of the Christmas he and his friends conspired to get a Nintendo of their own.

It’s 1988 and young Jake (Winslow Fegley, Come Play) is a typical youngster suffering through adolescence in grade school along with a group of close friends, all with their own identifiable (and movie ready) personalities.  There’s a set of twins who have to share everything, down to their birthdays being almost on Christmas.  One bud constantly quotes (G-rated) lines from the R-rated movies he’s allowed to see and another is a pathological liar who most recently claimed to have been Tom Cruise’s stunt double.  Everyone is united on one thing though, they all are obsessed with the recently released Nintendo and after the one system available to them from an ultra-elite classmate gets taken away, they have to come up with their own plan to gather their money and purchase one during a field trip into the city.

Standing in their way are PTA members who think video games rot the brains of impressionable youth, a massive class bully (Cyrus Arnold, Zoolander 2) who looks to have been held back about seven grades, and Jake’s parents (June Diane Raphael, The High Note, and Steve Zahn, Uncle Frank) neither of which seem to be keen on the idea of Jake getting the Nintendo. If he can’t pick up the dog poop in their yard (“the backyard looked like a vanilla cake that had chocolate chips dumped in it”…yuck) why should he be rewarded with something that will keep him further disinterested in doing his chores?  Over time, screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski (who wrote the book the movie is based on) shows that perhaps the dad’s motivations are more about an unspoken desire for more connection with his son but that isn’t as fully developed as it could be…though it does circle back nicely near the end.

Dotted throughout with wonderful references to the era without turning it into this caustic time capsule that make the ‘80s feel like some alien planet, director Michael Dowse (What If) and the production designer have an obvious affinity for the material and the decade the story takes place.  There are great references which are easy to find while some you have to work to pick up and these Easter Eggs are where the fun of a future re-watch will enter in. 

I couldn’t help, as many I’m sure will, but be reminded of A Christmas Story when watching this because the parallels between the two films are clear.  Boy wants a popular toy for Christmas that his parents don’t want him to have so he goes to great lengths and madcap adventures to obtain it.  I don’t quite connect to that earlier film, often because it turns to a nostalgia for a time that I don’t have a pull toward while the moments we revisit in 8-Bit Christmas are strikingly familiar to me.  So often during the film I could picture myself right there along with Jake and his friends being a part of their caper – so perhaps this film is to me what A Christmas Story was to my parents.

The film flows so nicely and lightly that a rather emotional ending hit me harder than I ever expected it would – and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s a credit to the performances and screenplay that whatever feelings we feel are real and not cheaply wrung as a ploy to send us back to our family gatherings with red eyes.  It may not be for the very young kids in a family but the big kids and adults that used to be the big kids will love 8-Bit Christmas for the comedy (even with some gross humor that I admit I laughed heartily at) and want to return to it again.  It may not be an annual event but as one to return to every few years as a way of reminding you the ‘80s were fairly rad?  Totally.