LIFESTYLE - CULTURE

2021 in review

The year in 12 movies



I watched some great movies in 2021… you won’t find many of them in this article, however. Here’s a picture of me looking off to the side. Photo: Maison Moderne

I watched some great movies in 2021… you won’t find many of them in this article, however. Here’s a picture of me looking off to the side. Photo: Maison Moderne

Every year I aim to watch more movies than I did the year before. Why? I don’t know. Movies are good for you. So… how did 2021 stand up to previous years? Which movies made me the angriest? What reflections can I make?

January

Back in January I was young, eager, hopeful. The sweat hadn’t yet dried from a record-shattering 2020, during which my partner and I watched 110 movies. That had largely been down to lockdown evenings, of course, but I still had sky-high hopes for 2021.

Despite my enthusiasm, however, in January we managed just seven films. One of these was Death to 2020 (2020), my thoughts on which we can revisit directly via my movie journal:

A cringy, overhyped mockumentary that purports to satirize all the Trump nonsense, police brutality, Brexit blunders, and various maelstroms of coronavirus-related clusterfucking around of 2020 ends up weirdly, nearly impressively, apolitical. You sense that it thinks itself political because it makes fun of Trump, but in fact it was so derivative, existing as a kind of dramatization of a series of Twitter jokes, that it was utterly without the intelligence necessary to make even the blandest of statements about life or reality, let alone the complex set of news events littering a very bizarre year.

You can tell that I pull no punches in my movie journal. I don’t remember being so angry about Death to 2020 but we can certainly trust that I was. It’s worthwhile to get upset about bad movies. In this case, the cringiness is probably indicative of the crossroads that satire, as an entire genre, is currently at. How do you satirise people and actions that don’t meet a minimum standard of sense? Without turning to the truly absurd, it seems that you can’t, really.

February

I’ll be honest: I miss the first days of the 2020 lockdown. Scary times, sure, but everybody respected the rules, and family Zoom calls had taken on a weird sense of historical importance. My partner and I spent those weeks watching every James Bond movie ever made, plus the Alien movies, the Matrix trilogy, and a bunch more besides.

We sought to recreate some of that magic in February of 2021 (ten movies), but the series of movies we landed on was, sadly, Twilight. I’m 34 years old, so demographically irrelevant to Twilight—but I’d never seen these things and I decided: I’m joining the world. Let’s binge all five of them.

The stupidly named Bella, I complained to my movie journal, is meant to be an archetypally moody seventeen-year-old misfit whose life knows misery after misery, from divorced parents to having to move to a new state with a rainy climate to simply not being understood by anybody except other outcasts. And yet the character itself has what I can only call a charmed, incredible life, with caring parents and—from day one at the new school—an entire horde of attractive, wonderful friends who care about her; to boot, despite her having the personality of a shoelace, every hot boy in town (and there are tons) is constantly asking her out or professing their love for her in increasingly dire and absurd terms. This would irk a real emo kid but Bella, who isn’t a real anything, accepts it all expressionlessly. So right away she betrays her character by having no contextual right to her own attitude, which is literally the only thing we’re given that defines her personality. Couldn’t she at least have had dead parents?

I’m not sure if I follow what I was trying to say, but we can all sense how furious I was with Stephenie [sic] Meyer’s storytelling. It was eventually suggested to me that the Twilight books are accessing a fantasy where popular hot boys fight for your affection while you revel in a sort of passivity that (granted) is relatable for any powerless, gauche teenager. Still, though. Did it have to be so stupid?

March

In March (four movies), we made the grave mistake of watching Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood from 2010. It took me 20 whole minutes to realise that I’d actually seen it before, which is never a good sign.

They tried to cram the story of the Magna Carta into an adventure tale about an archer who cheated his way back to England, and neither thing came off. Robin’s politics are famous—the entire legend is built around his rob-the-rich schtick, isn’t it???—but that didn’t shine or even cohere in this telling; the entire movie just pivots bizarrely (and yet blandly) into a feast of baseless anglo-patriotism as the eponymous archer-cum-kinglike-manwarrior nearly singlehandedly spanks an invading French fleet at the coast, saving his damsel in the process…? Hard pass.

Oh, that we had opted for Men in Tights instead.

April

In April we finally put up some decent numbers (17 movies), one of which was Titanic (1997)—worth a mention because I’d never seen it before. Yup, it took me a quarter of a century. (Love epic? Disaster porn? Oh yes and oh yes.)

But let’s bring things back to 2021 with Stowaway (2021), a near-future mission-to-Mars movie. It had promising sources of tension, following the model (as all these films do) of Apollo 13: Will mission control find a solution to the dire problem? Will the crew? Will someone need to be sacrificed? Will the unrelenting perils of space ever be tamed? But then it really shat on all of that, choosing only to jerk tears and to treat outer space as nothing more than a novel type of ocean (when its political and philosophical implications were handily available to complicate things…)

Another film where the American astronaut martyrs herself for absolutely no reason other than (I suppose) to become a favourite for a sobbing audience. Where the dramatic arc is planned irrespective of the plot. Ugh.

Americans sacrificing themselves to save others? How is this zombified narrative still with us? Do better!

May

In May (four movies) we ventured out to the cinema for the first time in a hundred billion years, only to be—no hyperbole—the only ones in the entire hall. It was nice to be out. I guess.

It was Nomadland (2021) that we saw, a documentary dressed up in cinematic clothes that turned out to be really, really depressing. As I noted in my journal, it bypassed both story and politics in pursuit of existential philosophy, which, fine—except I’m not convinced that it bit off enough material to justify the choice. I mean, Amazon’s disgusting exploitation of seasonal workers was right there, staring me in the face (and I mean me… nobody else was in the theatre). I emphatically do not think that stories need an exposed political stance to be relevant, but Nomadland made an effort to dodge what was conspicuously present, didn’t say why, and didn’t manage to replace it with anything.

Could have been clearer and stronger in its politics. Didn’t really question the systems that put these people into the nomad life, or what drove them to choose the nomad life, or what the context of the movement is or could be.

But by all means, tell me I missed the point.

June

We must have been distracted with some TV series or other in June, given the pitiful tally (three movies). Notable was Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), the opportunistically timed silver-screen follow-up to the famous Ted Bundy documentary.

Notable, in a bad way.

The movie amounts to a poorly scripted fictionalized version of the selfsame docuseries, down to the dialogue and practically the storyboarding. Is the space of fiction nothing other than the dramatization of a Wikipedia page? Is there no regard for story, plot, character, to say nothing of actors, atmosphere, music? What do they think people want to watch? Recreations of the news? This movie was extremely wicked, shockingly etc.

Safe to say my sensibilities of genre were touched and offended by this “movie”, enough to induce these mad pontifications. My fault, I’m sure, for getting sucked into the Bundy hype.

July

My backlog of unwritten movie journal entries currently stretches all the way back to July (four movies), which is really a crime, because the whole point of the journal is to jot down my reactions while the thing is still fresh in my mind. Plus, when will I get the time to write twenty or thirty movie journal entries? Never, that’s when.

Still, I have the record—so from here on we’ll just have to work through the hazes of my cruddy memory. In July we watched Dream House (2011): Daniel Craig quits his job to spend time writing in his big suburban New York house (we’ve all been there) but a bunch of weird stuff goes down and then, in a way that is clumsy yet also convoluted, we find out that we’ve been misfed the premise. So it’s a movie built on a twist and when you attempt that you’d better be Shyamalaning hard—because without character growth as a raison d’être all you’re left with is a “gotcha!” moment that is all but meaningless.

August

Summer months are for classic films. Not sure why. Something about the weather, maybe? Thus in August (15 movies) I finally put a face to Cary Grant, a name that had hitherto been an abstract designation of some famous woman from olden times.

But I’d rather talk about Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which was up for rewatching since we hadn’t seen it since 2019. Yes, we watch it every two years. My partner finds the film extremely uplifting, a fact that deserves some analysis in its own right (in some venue other than this one), while we both enjoy the absurdities of its antiquated gender politics and feel very good about ourselves as we call out its antisemitisms. But its use of domestic space as a vector for horror, and the way Rosemary exists in that space, is just brilliant.

September

We had our first child on 6 September, which meant that we anticipated spending several days in the hospital. We knew we’d be sleeping in odd patterns, disrupted in our rhythms, imploding with emotions, etc., so what did we bring with us? All eight Harry Potter movies. It seemed like a good idea to bring something easy and familiar. We couldn’t decide how many of these we were likely to get through and, being nervous people, couldn’t really settle down until we’d packed them all. Yes, we knew we were being stupid.

Still, we did watch the entire first one and half the second. “Sleep when the baby sleeps!” everyone says. OK. But sometimes you want to watch some crap instead?

(The rest we finished over the next three weeks, bringing September’s total to eight.)

I’m certain that nobody wants to hear anybody’s take on HP, so I’ll limit my review to Daniel Radcliffe’s haircut: not good.

October

It’s basically unprecedented, but in October we watched just one movie. You’ll want to put that down to the newborn, which, fair. But it was also the start of North American hockey season.

Anyway, the movie was BlacKKKlansman (2018) and it was surprisingly mediocre. I’m happy to see healthy numbers of “trouble” movies coming out of the USA, but many of them—this one included—lean too much on antiracism as (merely) an anthem. By that I mean that the viewer is invited only to cheer against the racists, easily pick-out-able in this movie because of the white cloaks, but not to engage at all with the systems informing the situation. (And yes, I fear very much that this makes me look like an apologist, when all I wanted was a smarter script.) But, so, in other words, it’s: Look at these uneducated, backwards, racist morons! Look at them commit murderous and disgusting deeds! We hate them! We hate them! And we do hate them. We really do. And yet one feels that these zeitgeisty sentiments are being deployed mostly as emotional wind blowing the movie into relevance, which is just fine, except I’m not sure if it makes for durably interesting cinema.

November

This is definitely unprecedented: no movies at all in November. What were we doing? I have no idea. For anyone keeping tally, you’ll know that the final two months of 2021 had to be stellar, moviewise, to even threaten 2020’s record of 110. A no-movie November was as devastating a rebuttal to that imperative as there could possibly be.

So November’s movie is the absence of all movies. Maybe it’s good, once a year, to consider absence as an entity all its own, a void, a null condition, complete with teeth and a personality.

December

At the time of writing, we’re looking at about ten movies in December, which puts us at just over 80 for the year. A good performance? I guess so, considering. Or not. I don’t know.

What I do know is that an otherwise palatable Sense and Sensibility (1995) suffered from a casting fiasco in which a 36-year-old Emma Thompson plays a 19-year-old Elinor Dashwood, leading to all kinds of unintended non-sequiturs where people treat her like a silly teenager even though she looks like a spinster (you know, for the times), and that puts a lot of pressure on the audience to continually forgive her for her own appearance, which I found awkward. To be clear, ageism is by all means on our list of societal wrongs to right—and deserving of much more limelight—and I’m not complaining about the casting for any reason other than the plot confusions it caused for little old me.

But the movie certainly brought me back to Jane Austen times, when to meet a man all you really needed to do was to fall down in a field on a rainy day, and to meet a woman the best tactic was to ride your horse through rainy fields and look for one on the ground, and there’s a monstrously seductive feeling of simplicity-by-epochal-juxtaposition that we can all enjoy in that. Makes me wonder about this “simpler” life we’re constantly being sold by the same four or five tech companies that control every facet of our lives and, to boot, the future of the planet.

But, anyway, that’s another rabbit hole—let me leave you with good and Jane-Austenesque wishes for 2022: as we are all bound to fall down in a muddy field (again) next year, may it be the start of a wonderful new character arc for you.