Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 Retrospective

2021 broke me. I mean, I think this year broke all of us, but I'm not talking existential quandaries, psychological breakdowns, or emotional issues. It probably left a mark in those areas, as well, but for now I'm talking about how I categorize media. In past years, I tried to differentiate between TV movies and "real" movies. This of course has become more and more difficult over time, as movies intended for theaters have been redirected to streaming and movies made for streaming have gotten bigger. I sort of went by instinct for the last few years, and I probably could have again this time, but...

Ultimately, I decided I didn't care enough about being fair. So this time, the list includes everything - every single movie I saw in 2021 that was released domestically this year. All of them.

Yes, that includes all the crappy Christmas movies I sat through for Mainlining Christmas.

As always, these are ranked from my least to most favorite, which won't always perfectly match my opinion as to which are better or worse. I know we're talking gradations of subjectivity, but I do genuinely believe there's a difference.

There are a lot of movies I didn't get to, either, particularly recent theatrical releases. I want to see Eternals and Far From Home, but between having a young kid and there being - you know - a goddamn pandemic, it's just not worth it. Everything below was streamed or watched on Blu-ray. There are a few places it probably made a difference, but who knows?

Before I get started with the list, there's one "movie" I need to revisit that - try as I might - I just can't rank. It's simply too unique an artifact, for both better and worse, to compare against anything that came out this year.

NOT RANKED: Zack Snyder's Justice League

I wrestled with whether to include this. It's somewhat unique among modern movies, to the point I hesitate to use the word at all. It almost feels more like a miniseries stitched together, which makes sense, since at one point it was literally going to be released as a miniseries.

There are aspects to this that are absolutely worthy of praise. Some of the effects are jaw-dropping: for all his faults, Zack Snyder knows how to deliver on spectacle. And some of the character beats are fantastic. But the pacing here was just awful, and the tonal shifts were in some ways worse than the theatrical version.

My main takeaway was that we got two versions of Justice League, and both were completely wrong. The 2017 movie was a studio-mandated mess devoid of vision, while the Snyder Cut was... well, it was entirely the vision of a guy who probably shouldn't have had full control of something like this. He's a good director who needs someone competent holding the reins, but the executives producing Justice League in 2017 were about as far from competent as you can get. 

What Warner Bros should have made in the first place is a version that looked like this but was cut to around 2.5 hours. I still don't think that would have been a great film, but it could have been fun, impressive, and had an impact. Neither version we got really worked, and yet both have merits.

The Snyder Cut is just too self-serious and bloated to be good. At the same time, there are too many great moments and incredible images for it to be bad. I really can't fairly rank this against conventional movies - it's an entirely different creature.

29. Love Hard

Usually, the subjective approach is mainly a factor on the other end of this list, where the top spot is won by something great that appeals to me personally and beats out other great movies. Love Hard, however, exists on the opposite side of the spectrum: it's being punished because I hate it. And while this isn't great or really even all that good (I think "fine" is a fair assessment), my hatred comes a few directions.

Put simply, this movie succeeds in doing things I hate and fails in areas I love. The former primarily refers to the style of awkward, uncomfortable humor it employs competently. The latter references its subject matter and choice of pop-culture references, none of which it displays a shred of comprehension about.

On top of that, the movie is (with apologies to those of you sick of the word) problematic. It comes disturbingly close to embracing a regressive misogynistic ideology that is all too real. If you can overlook that, you might find this enjoyable - again, it's not badly made. But all that was a deal breaker for me. I couldn't stand this thing.

28. Father Christmas is Back

Almost certainly the worst movie on this list, Father Christmas is Back is saved from the last spot by virtue of being forgettable. This thing just kind of landed with a thud, like a turd hitting a floor, an image I assure you is in this movie. The experience of watching is an empty experience I took virtually nothing away with. But in this case, that also means I didn't finish the movie with any real animosity. If ever there was damning with faint praise, that would be it: I didn't care about this enough to hate it, so it beats out a better movie. Take from that what you will.

27. A Castle for Christmas

Lacking even a basic understanding of cinematic language, A Castle for Christmas makes me reconsider both my ranking and my assertion that Father Christmas is Back is the worst movie on this list. But while Father Christmas was empty, this is a cinematic vacuum sucking in all feeling. It is, I think, less than empty, offering little indication a script was written before, during, or after production. It was a romance that couldn't manage to put its leads on screen together long enough to provide any sort of justification for a relationship, instead filling its runtime with numerous musical montages that did nothing to move the nonexistent story forward.

But, hey, some of the music was all right, and Cary Elwes played one of the leads (they even did his hair up like Westley when they wanted him to come off as likeable). So, I guess that's enough to edge out Father Christmas is Back on this ranking. Close call, though.

26. Home Sweet Home Alone

This was, of course, bad, but so were Home Alones 2 through 5. Hell, the original isn't all that good, either.

This iteration complicates the situation by fixing the underlying problems with the first movie (and all subsequent films), at the expense of everything that made any of them at all appealing to anyone. That sacrifice probably would have bothered me more if I'd actually found any of those appealing.

Even so, the improvements are entirely cerebral - I respect what the script sets out to do on a structural level. Unfortunately, it doesn't manage to be funny or endearing in the process, so I can't say I particularly enjoyed the experience beyond taking a little bit of pleasure out of deconstructing how the franchise was deconstructing itself.

25. Mortal Kombat

I liked this more than a lot of critics - probably more than half, honestly - but the best I can do is "mediocre." To be fair, there's some really good stuff in the movie. Most of that was also in the trailer, but it still counts. In addition, the first half flirts with crossing into "so bad it's good" territory, which isn't a bad goal for this type of movie. But it becomes less fun as it goes, which is unfortunate.

To its credit, it never takes itself too seriously, I like the opening, and a lot of the Sub-Zero sequences are great... but that just isn't enough.

24. Those Who Wish Me Dead

A lot of people have pointed out Those Who Wish Me Dead is basically Cliffhanger in a forest fire, which is accurate but oddly forgets Cliffhanger was Die Hard on a mountain, making this at minimum a second gen knock-off.

Rating the movie's quality is unusually tricky, because the question I keep running into is "compared to what?" It doesn't really hold its own against, well, the two movies I just mentioned, but... is it supposed to? This was clearly made on a lower budget and was aiming for less excitement and more of an emotional connection. And, in that regard, it sort of kind of works. Maybe?

In some ways, it's caught in a catch-22: Jolie is great in the lead role, but her very presence keeps raising expectations for both quality and spectacle. Fair or not, the movie can't keep up with its lead.

That said, there are a handful of impressive choices here. I like that the movie subverts your expectations regarding heroes and action clichés by having Medina Senghore basically come out of left field and turn out to be the actual badass. Sure, Angelina gets her moment, but everyone who underestimated the pregnant lady lived to regret it (albeit briefly).

But despite some decent swerves, the movie still feels a little too much like a generic '90s action/disaster mashup. Yes, it innovates a bit here and there, but the same can be said for basically any movie from that decade it's emulating. And it doesn't help that the effects frankly fall short of most memorable movies from that era.

This is certainly fine if it's what you're in the mood for - it's decent enough for what it is - but that's certainly not a ringing endorsement.

23. Reminiscence

Here's the thing: I'm honestly a sucker for this stuff. I mean, I like science fiction, and I like noir, and when you put them together, I almost always like the result.

And yet... I did not like this movie.

Okay, to be fair, I liked the setting. The post-apocalyptic coastal cities were fascinating; at once eerie and beautiful. I found that aspect compelling.

Unfortunately, the stuff going on in that setting was boring. There were some interesting ideas, but the dialogue was clunky and the voiceover distracting. On top of all that, the editing felt like it was drawing everything out to an agonizing degree. This was hard to sit through. And, again, I generally really like this stuff. Hell, I gave Mute a pass.

22. Flora & Ulysses

I feel like Disney has a long tradition of making movies that feel like they'd be better imagined as pilots to TV shows, and this falls firmly in that camp. The content comprising this was enjoyable - very enjoyable, in fact - but the overall movie lacked substance. I liked the characters and the jokes, but it felt like whatever story or theme drove the book was lost in adaptation. Every scene feels inspired and entertaining, but it didn't really add up to anything meaningful. You can get away with that in a television series, but movies need more payoff than this delivered.

Still, the cast and dialogue alone make this worth seeing. It was fun - shame it wasn't good.

21. Raya and the Last Dragon

There was a period in the late '90s/early '00s when Disney animation seemed intent on constantly sabotaging its own attempts to move in new and interesting directions. Remember Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire? Those were clearly the product of creators eagerly trying to push Disney out of its comfort zone, only to have their efforts watered down by executives demanding anything and everything be crammed into their movies. At least that's my impression based on the finished product - I'm not researching any of this. 

Nor am I interested in researching the behind-the-scenes situation with Raya and the Last Dragon, a similarly beautiful setting and intriguing premise undercut with... well... everything. And I do mean just about everything.

The core is really neat. There's some wonderful fantasy, along with some exhilarating action. But then there's also a bunch of fandom-referencing anachronistic dialogue. And some comic relief. And the dragons are basically designed to look like the main characters of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (also, the story and theme appear to be lifted from an episode of that show, but let's ignore that for now). And then there's a quartet of side characters who are basically imported from Looney Tunes.

None of these ideas are inherently bad. The fandom stuff is jarring, but had it been sustained or gone somewhere, it could have potentially made an interesting statement on our assumptions around fantasy tropes and clichés. But they don't sustain it: most of the dialogue is stylized to mimic standard fantasy conventions, so when they start chatting like teens chatting online, it's just confusing. Likewise, the ridiculous comic relief gang consisting of three magic monkeys and a super-powered baby are actually kind of funny if you look at them in isolation, but in the midst of an already overcrowded movie, they're mostly just confusing.

Like I said before, I haven't taken the time to research whether there's evidence this movie was the result of studio interference, but that's certainly the impression I got watching it. It's a mess of random ideas, conflicting tones, and mismatched styles that has enough genuinely good moments to somewhat redeem itself, but not enough to be more than - or even equal to - the sum of its parts.

20. 8-Bit Christmas

This is one of those movies that manages to be "good enough." It's funny and engaging enough, but it doesn't leave much of an impression. That's not entirely a bad thing - this was made in an attempt to duplicate the inexplicable and unearned success A Christmas Story has enjoyed, so it shouldn't be too surprising it sticks with a similar formula. The goal is to make a movie that's always amusing but never compelling, something you can leave on in the background to entertain the kids.

19. Jungle Cruise

I'm not really sure what to say about Jungle Cruise, a movie that was much better than it probably should have been but still was basically just fine. Conceptually, it was clearly an attempt to mashup The Mummy and the first Pirates of the Caribbean film - rarely have movies been more upfront as to their influences. To a degree, it was successful, or rather successful enough: it manages to repackage more of the magic from those than I'd have expected. But at the same time, there's a sense of artificiality about the whole thing, like it's being assembled competently, but there's barely an ounce of inspiration in the whole ordeal. It's not just that the movie lacks any real originality, but that's certainly a factor.

And yet the characters are fun, the world is interesting, and the adventure distracting enough. The movie never really feels good, but it manages to stay entertaining enough not to outstay its welcome. Hardly high praise, but - again - I'm honestly shocked it didn't turn out significantly worse. "Fine" is probably more than we should have hoped for. 

18. Black Widow

In some ways, Black Widow reminded me of Thor: The Dark World, and I don't entirely mean that in a bad way. A lot of people remember The Dark World as the worst entry in the MCU, and... okay, there's a case to be made. But for all its faults, it's also got a lot of great stuff. Hero Loki basically got his start there, and the third act was delightfully absurd.

Like The Dark World, Black Widow is a tonal mess with an underdeveloped villain, but it also gave us some fantastic new characters, with David Harbour's Red Guardian being the prime example. The opening was a great spy story, and that middle section with the "family" together was an absolute joy.

But for everything it got right, it stumbled in its attempt to maintain a tone or bring its themes together. I had fun - this is still Marvel, after all - but it's one of the series weaker entries.

17. Retfærdighedens Ryttere [Riders of Justice]

More an exercise in existentialism than an action flick, Riders of Justice is thoughtful and surprisingly poignant. It takes an archetype who'd be worshipped in a conventional genre flick and instead makes him genuinely uncomfortable to be around. It's a smart, compelling movie that challenges how we look at action heroes.

That said, the ending feels off to me. Like, really off. It's not exactly that I dislike it, it just that it doesn't quite align with what came before. And I can't help but think that may be because it was a last-minute addition. 

16. My Little Pony: A New Generation

The smartest thing A New Generation does is not compete with Friendship is Magic. Tonally, it settles for "conventional CG animated movie", as opposed to "epic fantasy/comedy/superhero cartoon." While this is - in my opinion, at least - less interesting a target, I don't think there was any chance it could instantly match (or even approach) Friendship is Magic on its own turf.

As a fairly conventional animated movie, this is pretty good. And it retains enough of the whimsy, humor, and fun of its predecessor to be worth watching. On top of all that, the villains are basically Trump supporters, so bonus points for that.

Also, having Ken Jeong reprise his role as Chang (using virtually the same arc as season 3, no less) was a nice surprise. Not bad for a non-Pixar CG movie.

15. In the Heights

I mean, it's great. Quite a bit better than its placement on this list would imply, but even if I were aiming for objectivity rather than personal preference, I'd still be at a loss how to rate something like this. Do you consider the musical on its own merits, or just try and judge how well it was adapted for the screen? Do you penalize your rating for areas the two mediums can't possibly bridge?

I'd be at a disadvantage, anyway, since I never actually saw In the Heights performed. But I can still make out some of the spots where decisions were made to transform the show into a movie. It's always a tough call - which conventions stay, which go, which are treated diegetically, which are imaginary, what should be treated seriously, what's a joke... Err too much towards realism, and you lose the spirit of the material (looking at you, Sweeney Todd); too far the other way, and you're left with something that feels cartoonish (I don't hate Disney's Into the Woods, but I think it falls into this trap).

In the Heights walks that tightrope, and it makes it look easy. It delivers a world that feels larger than life but still somehow grounded and believable. It's not my favorite movie musical by a longshot, but honestly I think it's one of the best, particularly as an example for how you actually make these work.

That said, I think there's a limit to what it can do with the material. That's not a slight against the material, mind you - I think this material is great as a stage musical. But stage musicals don't need a strong, central protagonist, while movies do. There's a bit of awkwardness around the show's desire to be about a community and the movie's desire to be about a character. I don't think they made a mistake here - more that they got caught in a catch-22 that came with adapting the play.

Regardless, the movie's great. Amazing cast, amazing design, amazing direction from [checks notes] the guy who made GI Joe: Retaliation (Jon M. Chu honestly has had one of the weirdest career paths in Hollywood). This one really, really works.

14. A Boy Called Christmas

Despite numerous flaws, this won me over with a core that was impressively sweet and honest. On top of that, this featured some genuinely beautiful images and effects (the shadow story in particular stuck with me). I really enjoyed this, despite a weak narrative and some major tonal issues.

13. Godzilla vs. Kong

Compared to most showdowns of this kind, Godzilla vs. Kong is fairly streamlined. It's less interested in why the title monsters are fighting than in the sheer spectacle of the showdown. This is neither a good nor bad strategy on its own: it just means the movie will sink or swim on the quality of that spectacle. And fortunately this one delivers. It looks awesome, so it doesn't really matter that Godzilla blasting a hole to the center of the Earth makes, for countless reasons, absolutely no goddamn sense. Nor does it matter that the villains are able to upload an energy signature that instantly grants them unlimited power.

You can nitpick this to your heart's content, but it won't change the fact the experience of watching this was a ton of fun.

12. Encanto

There's a lot to love here, but I really want to highlight just how not Disney this Disney animated flick is. First, it's a fantasy where the stakes are essentially limited to one family. Not even their lives: this is really about whether or not they lose their home. I mean, really the stakes have more to do with their emotional health and relationships, but still: no kingdoms hinged on the outcome, the fate of the world isn't being decided, the balance of nature isn't at risk... just a family drama. How refreshing.

Likewise, I think this was the first Disney animated movie with a female protagonist in decades which wasn't about the fact it wasn't about her being a princess who falls in love. This wasn't following the Disney formula, but it wasn't subverting it, either. It was its own thing. What an incredible concept.

And its own thing was pretty damn good. It's sweet, with a great soundtrack and lovely animation. So. Why isn't this higher?

Well, first of all, this is pretty high on the list as it is. But what I feel is missing is a bit more surprise. The movie establishes its premise pretty fast, and the rest of the film plays out more or less as expected. The themes, in particular, are pretty clear in the first fifteen minutes, and the movie doesn't throw many curveballs at us.

Still, a really good movie, just not as memorable as I'd have liked.

11. Luca

Luca is lovely, both visually and as a story. It isn't a grand epic or even a small story told with the weight of a grand epic (Pixar loves those). Instead, it's a simple coming of age story with hints of romance. It's funny, sweet, and effective. I liked this one a lot. 

10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The family drama stuff was fine but kind of by-the-numbers. The epic fantasy sequences are solid - I enjoyed them quite a bit, largely thanks to how weird they were allowed to get - but they always felt a bit CG heavy. The action in general was really good.

In short, no major complaints, but nothing to justify placing this anywhere near this high on  the list. Until, that is...

It's the stuff with Shang-Chi and Katy. Particularly them at the end. It was just an absolute joy seeing how little becoming superheroes really changes them. Give me a damn Disney+ show that's just Simu Liu and Awkwafina hanging out at karaoke bars when they should be preparing for battles where the fate of the multiverse hangs in the balance. I'd watch the hell out of that.

9. The Green Knight

There's a lot that I could say about The Green Knight (hell, there's a lot I've already said), but the truth is it's less the thematic complexity than the visual style that appeals to me most. This movie is just gorgeous to look at.

And on top of that, yeah, it's Arthurian. God I love those legends. And despite countless tries, it's been four decades since the last good adaptation came out. Bonus points there, as well.

The reason it's not higher is mainly because I find aspects frustrating. To be fair, I'm pretty certain those aspects are intended to be frustrating. I get the ending, appreciate why it's clever, and I respect the choice. It works for me intellectually but not emotionally, if that makes sense.

Well, honestly, it still works for me emotionally, just not enough to bump it into the top tier. I have a feeling I might find myself regretting that in the future. This feels like one of those movies I might wind up revisiting a lot, particularly because it's a Christmas story.

8. The Matrix Resurrections

Easily my favorite installment in the franchise, Resurrections approaches its subject and world with a playful sense of glee missing from the originals. It's weird, funny, and experimental in ways you'd never expect from a film of this scale. It's not at all unusual for nostalgic reboots to be about the relationship between the originals and the fans (the Disney Star Wars, for example, goes this route), but I don't think I've ever seen a movie be this honest about where it comes from and where it wants to go.

More than that, this movie is wish fulfillment. It's the cinematic equivalent of its creator playing with her toys and daring audiences to whine about it. I know that's upsetting some people, but I found the experience refreshing and genuinely joyful.

7. Cruella

Yeah. I think it is this high.

Some of this might be expectations - I really didn't expect much out of this - and some it is that this particular blend of stylized, self-aware quirky character study just works for me. The movie definitely has problems, starting with the much-maligned death of Cruella's mother and continuing through to the unwelcome post-credit sequence.

But for all its faults, this was also an unapologetic supervillain period story. In short, this is a Disnified spin on Joker, which it turns out would have been a lot better that way. What Cruella understands that Joker doesn't is that supervillains should be, well, fun. And this is ridiculously fun. A lot of the credit goes to Stone, who sells the lead and carries the movie. But it's also worth noting the dialogue is actually solid for its genre.

The real surprise, though, is that the movie isn't interested in moralizing. Sure, it's got lines it won't cross, but despite ostensibly being a kid's movie, it never tries to tell the audience it's wrong to steal or seek revenge or torment one's enemies. Cruella is a criminal, and the movie celebrates that, freeing the movie up to have fun with her schemes. I could have done without the obligatory "learn the true meaning of family and friendship" stuff, but why quibble?

This is easily my second favorite Disney live-action remake after Jungle Book. I'm glad I gave it a chance.

6. The Mitchells Vs. The Machines

I'd say this one caught me off guard, but the truth is by the time I got around to watching it, I'd heard it was pretty damn awesome. Fortunately, knowing it was going to be great spoiled absolutely nothing, and I still had a blast. The jokes were hilarious, the drama was touching, and the animation was delightfully bonkers. This was great.

In fact, it was so great, it almost made a run for the top of my list. What holds it back a bit are a few sequences (mainly action beats) where the movie went for slapstick when I wanted something else. This is, of course, a minor quibble, and a subjective one at that. But as I keep pointing out, this is a subjective list.

Overall, I loved this movie. The characters were completely ridiculous and utterly absurd, and I still cared about them and - in a weird way - they felt real to me. That's a hell of an accomplishment.

5. The Suicide Squad

This was a weird, convoluted movie. Structurally, it was far more similar to the first Suicide Squad movie than I was expecting, between the flashbacks, cutaways, and use of music. Obviously, though, it was far superior. The humor, emotion, and thematic core were among the best we've seen in the genre.

I rewatched this several times, and the characters keep growing on me. The movie is a lot of fun, and also surprisingly thoughtful. At times, it can become downright poetic: the flashback with Ratcatcher almost feels like a fairytale.

I really like this one.

4. Hilda and the Mountain King

Okay, this one is cheating. I don't I'm cheating by putting it here - I mean the movie is cheating by using unfair tactics to climb its way this high, despite being significantly less expensive. Hilda and the Mountain King is a Netflix movie that concludes a storyline running through the animated series, Hilda. The movie is done in the same animation style with the same voice cast.

Which... okay, first of all, none of that's a bad thing. The animation in the series, while simplistic compared to big budget movies, is gorgeous and evocative. The cast is great, and the writing is on par with the best in the medium. The show is just amazing.

The "cheating" part comes from the fact the movie requires the series to work. It's a direct continuation to a cliffhanger at the end of season 2, and the character arcs all build on established storylines. This isn't a standalone movie in any sense - it's the next chapter. Possibly the final chapter: I'm a little unclear on whether they're making more or not.

Basically, this movie is standing on the shoulders of the series, and I'm effectively reacting to it as if it's all one emotional journey. Is that fair? Who gives a crap? Hilda is amazing, and this movie is a satisfying finale. Go watch it all immediately. 

3. The Harder They Fall

This is probably the closest thing to a flawless film I saw this year. Every element, every choice, every shot, and every edit just felt perfect, resulting in one of the most fun pieces of entertainment I've encountered in a long time.

The only reason this isn't higher is that - by necessity - the movie's intellectual themes and emotional themes don't entirely work together. As I said in my review, I don't consider this a flaw: on the contrary, it's a major part of the reason I think this movie is brilliant. But it does hold back my enjoyment a hair. If this were a less impressive year, I don't think that would be enough, but honestly 2021 was about as close to a 4 or 5 way tie as this gets.

2. Dune, Part 1

Should this be a spot higher? Maybe. It was so close. I loved every minute of this movie. It was one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, and I don't doubt for a second it would be my #1 pick for the year if I'd seen it in an IMAX theater, as it was intended.

But I didn't see it that way, and - honestly - I kind of resent the implication that I should have to. Even without the pandemic, I'm busy. I've got a young kid, and free time is a rare luxury. I'd have loved to see this on a big screen, but it wasn't going to happen this year.

If I was rating this on a best to worst scale... honestly, I think that would have been harder, because I'd have to consider whether cutting a narrative in half at a fairly arbitrary point is an objective flaw. I didn't mind that - I just wanted so see some sandworms and space ships in a movie where the dialogue and direction didn't distract from the beauty. And damn did this overdeliver on that promise. It was just a joy to watch.

But was it my favorite movie of the year? Not quite. It might have been my favorite cinematic experience, but it's not the one I look back on with the widest grin. Close call, though. Really damn close. 

1. Shadow in the Cloud

This movie shouldn't work.

It doesn't have the budget to pull of its effects, the premise is significantly more complex than it has to be, there are multiple major tonal shifts... I have no idea how this got made.

But I'm so glad it did. The sheer audacity of Roseanne Liang's directing, coupled with some phenomenal acting from Chloë Grace Moretz, just sell the hell out of its outlandish, gonzo ideas and set-pieces. The movie's main action sequence looks completely unrealistic - they clearly didn't have the money to match their ambitions - and I almost think that helps it. Modern big-budget productions would have relied on visual effects instead of acting and editing. Because this couldn't trust its effects to wow audiences, it had to find other solutions. Or maybe Liang and Moretz are just that good.

Shadow in the Cloud isn't afraid to be weird. It's audacious and bizarre on a level you don't see often enough. I've seen the whole thing at least four times already, and I've lost track of the number of times I've rewatched the last act. It's a movie with something to say - something important to say, no less - but honestly what keeps pulling me back is how much fun the ending is. The energy is just off the charts, and I find the resolution about as satisfying as any I've ever encountered in this genre. I know a lot of more hardcore horror fans disagree, but I just love it.


I honestly think this was a pretty good year for movies and TV shows. Also, literally nothing else. Entertainment was good, the world has just been abysmal. Between the seemingly endless line of nightmare variants consistently popping up the minute it feels like things might be improving, the barrage of environmental disasters, and the ongoing concern for the stability of US democracy, things kind of suck.

But, hey, WandaVision was pretty rad, and I really liked a bunch of those movies. So... I guess we should take the rare win where we can get it. Here's hoping we continue seeing good movies in 2022.

Also, let's hope some of that other shit gets better, because I am really, really tired.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Movie Review: The Matrix Resurrections

In March of 1999, I was just wrapping up my first year at college. I went to a school that didn't have majors, but for all intents and purposes I was studying philosophy. I was also a huge fan of genre, including science-fiction. With all that background, you'd probably assume I loved The Matrix. Well... no, not really.

I saw it at a packed midnight showing, and when the movie ended, I remember thinking, "That's it?" I'd thought the action was good (though it didn't leave me in awe, the way it did so many in my generation). And I thought the characters were fine and all, but the underlying ideas kind of struck me as simplistic. Fair or not, the basic story boils down to a rehash of Plato's Cave Allegory, an idea that struck me as an interesting place to start, but a bit cliché for a central twist.

Basically, The Matrix wasn't weird or imaginative enough for me. It was a solid adventure flick, but - at least as far as my brain could discern - not much more. I honestly couldn't understand at the time why it was considered as groundbreaking as it was.

I'll admit I was a bit snobbish. And if I could go back in time and inform myself that the philosophy 101 stuff wasn't everything going on, I'd do so.

The point is, I never really loved The Matrix, and I thought less of the sequels. The second and third movies actually checked off the boxes I wanted in terms of philosophical depth and a more developed world, but the pacing just didn't work for me. My opinion of those was always that they were really good as a philosophy dissertation and really bad as movies.

In short, I never loved any movie in this series.

Until now.

Resurrections, the fourth installment in the series, is a delight. I know it's divisive as hell, and it's easy to see why (more on that in a moment), but it finally gives me what I've always wanted out of the series: real, honest-to-god weirdness delivered in an intelligent manner.

I feel like I should drop a spoiler warning here. I'm not exactly going to go into the plot of this thing, but I think any discussion about the experience of seeing Resurrections is going to require some details and aspects that aren't apparent from the marketing. There's a real chance you'll be better off learning about these things before watching, though I'm really glad I went in blind.

Last chance if anyone wants to jump ship, pay for a month of HBO Max, and watch it now.

All right then. Let's discuss this batshit crazy ode to joy and love. Because, first and foremost, that's what it is. The original was a sort of dark, modern folktale that ended on an ambiguously hopeful note. The sequels went even darker, trying to show that sacrifice was necessary to enact change. This one...

It's a fairytale. When I say that word, I don't mean it in a dark sense, either. This is literally, unapologetically, completely a fairytale set in the world of the Matrix. It's closer to Jupiter Ascending than to the other Matrix films.

It looks back on the original films honestly, celebrating what made them meaningful to many, while at the same time critiquing elements that inadvertently empowered hate groups. It also rejects the cynicism that lay at the heart of the originals, choosing instead to embrace hope, love, and forgiveness.

To appreciate the degree to which Lana Wachowski has transformed the franchise, I think it helps to look at the number of named characters killed over the course of the movie. I don't mean characters who died between Revolutions and Resurrections (of which there are several) but the number who actually die in this installment.

The number is zero. No one dies. Not one major character - or minor one, for that matter - is killed (unless I'm forgetting something). Some almost die, but the importance of protecting each other is given a higher priority this time around. Meanwhile, vengeance isn't. This is a rejection of grim, bleak storytelling.

This movie has a sense of humor and a love for the bizarre. The fourth wall becomes a running joke, and the movie delights in playing with the audience's relationship and understanding of the franchise. I'm sure some viewers will interpret all this as a joke at the expense of the franchise. And, to be fair, it kind of is - the movie doesn't take itself all that seriously. This is, at its core, a self-referential film exploring the very nature of returning to a franchise decades later. It essentially shrugs off concerns of fan service by refusing to be anything but. Only in this case, the fan being catered to is the co-creator of the franchise.

This is the story Lana wants to tell for the sheer joy of telling it. These are her toys, and she's going to play with them the way she wants to. And it's a genuine pleasure to watch her having so much fun.

The movie is far from perfect, of course. The second act drags a bit, and there really weren't any action beats delivering iconic, awesome moments like we got in the original (though the movie kind of addresses that by poking fun at the assumption there should be).

But those are minor complaints. I had a lot of fun watching this, and - as long as you set aside any expectation this will or even should try and recreate the feel or flavor of the original - I think you might, as well.