Archive 5, Vol.5

I have a backlog of 427 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

Today, melancholic Frenchmen, screwball Americans, and royal Africans are followed by a superhero team-up and a lesson on the evils of social media.

This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • La Belle Époque (2019)
  • The Awful Truth (1937)
  • Coming to America (1988)
  • Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2018)
  • The Social Dilemma (2020)


    La Belle Époque

    (2019)

    Nicolas Bedos | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | France / French | 15 / R

    La Belle Époque

    Sixtysomething Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is officially a grumpy old man, and his marriage is on the rocks because of it. To cheer him up, his son buys him an experience with his friend’s company, who stage bespoke historical reenactments as a form of time travel. When Victor’s wife finally has enough and throws him out, he uses his experience to revisit 1974, when they first met and fell in love.

    To oversimplify things, it’s kind of like Groundhog Day by way of Charlie Kaufman: the immersive theatrical experience recalls Synechdoche, New York (in a superficial way, I guess), and Victor’s desire to live it over and over again is, well, obvious. Except he’s not stuck there, but choosing it. It’s a mix of nostalgia and melancholy, because, of course, he’s not actually reliving that day, however much he comes to believe in it.

    Advance reviews led me to believe La Belle Époque would be little more than a pleasant diversion, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It clearly has something to say as regards the power of nostalgia and the need to live in the present. But, deep thoughts aside, it’s also a charmingly romantic film — sharply witty, unexpectedly beautiful in places, and genuinely emotional by the end. It’s a shame that it seems to have had half-hearted distribution outside of France (perhaps the fault of it being acquired by Disney, I suspect with an English-language remake in mind, rather than a ‘proper’ distributor of foreign fare who would’ve shown it more love) because I think it deserves, and would reward, a wide audience.

    5 out of 5

    La Belle Époque was #140 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019. It placed 7th on my list of The 15 Best Films of 2019.


    The Awful Truth

    (1937)

    Leo McCarey | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | U

    The Awful Truth

    When Leo McCarey received his Best Director Oscar for this film, he said that he got it for the wrong film — a clear reference to his fondness for Make Way for Tomorrow, which he made the same year. I’m not wholly sure I agree with him, although Tomorrow’s is clearly the ‘worthier’ picture — but that doesn’t always mean better.

    The Awful Truth was the first of three screen pairings of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, and the film that refined the latter’s famous screen persona. Here, the duo play a married couple who begin to divorce, only to then interfere with each other’s further romances. When it’s on form, the film is up there with the best of its subgenre: a sparkling screwball comedy with glorious dialogue, a pair of splendid lead performances, and a magnificent dog. Unfortunately, it goes on a mite too long and begins to lose steam in the final act. While that might hold the film back from perfection (and so open the door to the idea that Make Way for Tomorrow is somehow superior), the magnificence of what comes before means it’s still a must-see for fans of this style of comedy.

    4 out of 5

    The Awful Truth was #95 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Coming to America

    (1988)

    John Landis | 117 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Coming to America

    Eddie Murphy plays a pampered but bored African prince, who dodges an arranged marriage to travel to America and find a bride. With that plot and the fact it was made a few decades ago, I was half expecting Coming to America to have aged badly. If nothing else, it seemed primed to base its humour around cringe-inducing culture-clash awkwardness — not necessarily an invalid kind of comedy, but not one I personally enjoy.

    As it turns out, it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s actually rather sweet and kind-hearted, with just enough lewdness to give it a kick rather than make it eye-rollingly vulgar (I’m sure it would only take a couple of minor trims to get that 15/R rating down to a 12/PG-13). Some have criticised it for being too slow — including director John Landis, who asked Paramount if he could re-edit it for the Blu-ray release (they refused) — but I thought it was quite well paced. It doesn’t move at whipcrack speed, but it doesn’t need to. All in all, it holds up well enough that I can see why they decided to produce a belated sequel (which is still on my watchlist).

    4 out of 5

    Coming to America was #28 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Scooby-Doo! & Batman:
    The Brave and the Bold

    (2018)

    Jake Castorena | 75 mins | digital (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG

    Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold

    There are an awful lot of Batman movies nowadays (58 and counting, according to my Letterboxd list), but I thought I was at least aware of them all. Turns out not, because I hadn’t even heard of this one until I happened to see someone log it on Letterboxd several years after its release. (It’s a direct-to-video production that they didn’t bother to release on Blu-ray, so that’ll be a big part of why it slipped under my radar.)

    A plot description is pretty unnecessary here: the title tells you all you need to know. The reason it’s a particularly unwieldy one is because Scooby-Doo and friends team-up with, specifically, the Batman from animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I watched a selection of episodes from that show a few years ago and, frankly, didn’t enjoy most of them (although a couple are excellent: Mayhem of the Music Meister is so good I watched it twice in as many days, which regular readers will know is very unlike me), so I didn’t have high hopes for this movie either.

    At least it’s an appropriate iteration of Batman to crossover with Scooby-Doo, because (a) the whole point of the show was team-ups, with every episode seeing Batman join forces with a different DC hero (the subtitle is derived from a classic DC team-up comic), and (b) the overall tone of the show was camp and comical, which chimes well with Scooby-Doo. In fact, despite Scooby-Doo getting top billing, the film is really a feature-length episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold guest starring Mystery Inc, rather than the other way round. I mean, it’s set in Gotham City, stuffed with appearances and cameos by other DC characters, and (most of all) it uses The Brave and the Bold’s animation style, even featuring a version of the series’ title sequence and theme music — with a Scooby makeover, of course. Nonetheless, it also adopts plenty of the tropes of a Scooby-Doo story, like the unmasking at the end.

    Thanks to all that, it’s everything you’d expect from “Scooby-Doo meets Batman” — they leave nothing on the table, right down to having Scooby actually say, “Holy Scooby-Dooby-Doo, Batman!” And would you have it any other way? It’s a daft concept, mashing these two cheesy franchises together — there’s no point trying to be above it. By embracing what it is, it delivers what you’d expect as well as could be imagined. For that, I quite enjoyed it on the whole. And so I would say that, if the basic idea of it doesn’t interest you, give it a miss; but if you think it sounds potentially appealing, you should definitely watch it.

    3 out of 5

    Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold was #105 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Social Dilemma

    (2020)

    Jeff Orlowski | 94 mins | digital (UHD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Social Dilemma

    One of those Netflix documentaries that everyone seems to be talking about for a while but then forgets just as quickly, The Social Dilemma is essentially about how dangerous social media is, as told to us by the people who created it. Not the Mark Zuckerberg of the world, obviously — they’re still raking in far too much cash to want to dissuade us from using their products — but various other developers and whatnot who’ve been involved over the years.

    Naturally, the main reaction to all this information is: “OMG, I totally need to change all my social media habits!” And do people? Not as far as I’ve seen. As one contributor in the doc comments, “knowing what was going on behind the curtain, I still wasn’t able to control my usage. So that’s a little scary.” Eesh. We’re doomed.

    4 out of 5

    The Social Dilemma was #20 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


  • Archive 5, Vol.4

    I have a backlog of 432 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: singing vicars, grumpy gamers, very nice Kazakhs, and deleted actors.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Going My Way (1944)
  • The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
  • Zero Charisma (2013)
  • Borat (2006)
  • The Thin Red Line (1998)


    Going My Way

    (1944)

    Leo McCarey | 126 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    Going My Way

    The Oscars, eh? Every year film fans pay them a load of attention, and every year we seem to be disappointed with the outcome. But this isn’t some new phenomenon: Going My Way hails from the 1940s, but is perhaps the definitive example of a film that managed to sweep the Oscars (it won seven awards from ten nominations) against a bunch of films that have endured to much greater acclaim (films it competed against included Double Indemnity, Laura, Lifeboat, Gaslight, and Meet Me in St. Louis. I think we can agree those are all better-remembered on the whole).

    None of which is to say it’s a bad film. It’s a gently-paced series of vignettes, almost like a collection of short stories, springing from young priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arriving to take charge of a struggling New York City parish. His modern ways clash with the old-fashioned values of the incumbent Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), but his worldly knowledge allows him to connect with some of the parish’s disaffected inhabitants. Despite the religious setting, it doesn’t lean too heavily on the wonders of Christianity (you know I’d be the first to rip into it if it did). Overall, it’s perfectly pleasant; an easy afternoon’s viewing.

    Incidentally (and here’s a good bit of trivia that might come in handy for a quiz someday), it was the first Oscar Best Picture winner to have a sequel: The Bells of St. Mary’s, released the very next year… and also the very next review in this roundup…

    3 out of 5

    Going My Way was #93 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The Bells of St. Mary’s

    (1945)

    Leo McCary | 126 mins | TV (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    The Bells of St. Mary's

    This followup to Going My Way was not only the first sequel to an Oscar Best Picture winner, but was also the first sequel to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

    Bing Crosby returns as Father O’Malley, sent to a new locale, ready to solve another series of subplots at a struggling religious institution, this time butting heads (sort of — it’s never as dramatic as that makes it sound) with Ingrid Bergman’s head nun. Like the first one, it’s really a bundle of subplots for Bing to ‘solve’. The low-stakes problems and amiable tone between the two leads, even when they’re disagreeing, makes for a gentle and relaxing kind of film. I’d give it the edge over its Oscar-winning predecessor, thanks primarily to Bergman’s performance, but neither film is likely to set anyone’s world alight.

    As well as their Oscar success, the films were the highest grossing at the US box office for 1945 and ’46, respectively, another first for a film ‘series’. And yet, with six decades distance, they’re little more than also-rans; nicely obscure trivia answers to “films that won/were nominated for Best Picture”. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for anyone obsessed with the current cultural zeitgeist.

    3 out of 5

    The Bells of St. Mary’s was #187 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Zero Charisma

    (2013)

    Katie Graham & Andrew Matthews | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Zero Charisma

    I’d nickname this Portrait of a Manbaby on Fire. The manbaby in question is Scott (Sam Eidson), a stereotypical alpha-nerd: he has a neckbeard; he wears black T-shirts that feature elaborate depictions of grim reapers and the like; he lives with his grandma; he paints miniature fantasy figurines; he’s the Game Master of a role-playing group, which he rules with an iron fist. But when into-geeky-stuff hipster Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the group and everyone really likes him, Scott finds his position threatened, and he’s not happy about it.

    As much as geek/nerd culture has transitioned into the mainstream over the past couple of decades, there’s still stuff that remains the preserve of the hardcore; the truly nerdy. That culture clash is part of what Zero Charisma is about, of course, with Scott’s true old-fashioned kind of nerdishness clashing with Miles’s new-school cool. But it’s also a character study of the former. Scott may seem a stereotype — like The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy rendered in live-action — but I’d wager anyone who’s moved in nerdish circles has known someone at least a bit like him. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. The film exposes and examines those to often amusing effect. Some have said it exaggerates these things, but I don’t think it’s particularly guilty of that. Maybe it generalises them, and lumps all the worst characteristics of the extremely nerdy together into one character, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate, just broad.

    My only real problem was the ending. There’s a scene where everything comes to a head — a climax, if you will — but, in the wake of that, I felt it lacked adequate resolution. Has Scott learnt anything from this experience? Is he a changed man? Maybe a little, but not completely. To be fair, that’s a realistic character arc, because whose personality changes overnight after a single revelation? And yet it also doesn’t feel like the filmmakers quite know how they want to leave things. If they’d been going for a “change takes time and is incremental, but Scott’s started on that road” kinda message, I would have approved. Instead, the film tries to have its cake and eat it by showing Scott as better on the surface, but then secretly GMing a game where he still behaves like an asshole. Maybe it’s trying to say we can never truly change, however much our flaws are highlighted to us, which would be a pretty glum way to end an otherwise likeable comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Zero Charisma was #109 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Borat

    (2006)

    aka Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

    Larry Charles | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Borat

    Ali G’s Sacha Baron Cohen adopts the persona of a Kazakh journalist to ostensibly interview Americans about their culture, but, unbeknownst to them, he’s of course really looking to expose their ludicrous views (you just know that, ten years later, a lot of these people voted for Trump) and take the piss out of them for our entertainment.

    As with most sketch-based comedy, the end result is a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s very funny; other times, it’s just being gross for the sake of it, like in a naked fight between Borat and his portly producer. A few bits don’t quite land — sometimes you can feel Baron Cohen’s not getting the response he wanted out of his target — and, even though he’s taking the piss out of people who deserve it, it sometimes gets a bit uncomfortable (though that might just be my English reserve/politeness kicking in and making me cringe). Most of the sketches are quite short, which is nice — they generally don’t outstay their welcome, and, if one isn’t working, you can be assured another will be along shortly.

    3 out of 5

    Borat was #220 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Thin Red Line

    (1998)

    Terrence Malick | 171 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Thin Red Line

    An extensive cast of famous actors and recognisable faces star as a battalion of soldiers who spend 2 hours and 51 minutes taking one (1) hill in Terrence Malick’s very Terrence-Malick-y World War 2 movie. I mean, this is a movie about a battle in which the first shots aren’t fired until past the 45 minute mark, but there are plenty of shots showing the minutiae of nature. And there’s a lot of discussion about how there isn’t enough water.

    None of which is necessarily a problem — indeed, there are plenty of people who think this is a great movie, and I’m glad for them. But for everyone who loves it, there’s someone who’d call it “pretentious and self-indulgent, despite gun battles and lush cinematography.” I find myself somewhat stuck in the middle. I mean, if you were expecting a normal combat movie from Terrence Malick, more fool you. And it’s unquestionably beautifully shot — so many gorgeous visuals, but also effective camerawork and editing to convey, say, the chaos of battle. But I also found it to be bitty and episodic. Well, calling them “episodes” might be kind — they’re scenes; sometimes less than scenes; just moments, or even shots. It’s like a really long deleted scenes package pretending to be a movie.

    Of course, the behind-the-scenes stories sort of support that reading. The first cut clocked in at five hours. It took two editors and thirteen months of post-production to get it to a manageable size. Hans Zimmer composed over four hours of music, but only for a few bits of his work made it into the final cut. Billy Bob Thornton recorded narration for the entire film; the released cut has eight different narrators, but none of Thornton’s work is in there. Many actors thought they had significant roles, but found their performances reduced to little more than cameos. Most famously, Adrien Brody thought he was playing the lead role, only to discover at the premiere that he’s in just a couple of shots, and doesn’t even speak until over halfway through (and then it’s just a brief voiceover). And then there are the actors whose work was left on the cutting room floor: Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke… This movie has more great actors whose performances were deleted entirely than most movies have in their entire cast!

    All of which suggests a movie that should be universally recognised as a disaster. That it isn’t — quite the opposite — is testament to something. Maybe someday I’ll rewatch it and find out what.

    3 out of 5

    The Thin Red Line was #77 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020. It was viewed as an additional film for Blindspot 2020 after I failed to watch it for WDYMYHS 2019.


  • Archive 5, Vol.3

    I have a backlog of 437 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today, everything from silent comedies to afterlife comedies to toy-licence-based adventure comedies (a burgeoning genre we’re sure to see more of in years to come). Plus a revisionist Arthurian legend for good measure.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Guinevere (1994)
  • The Kid (1921/1972)
  • Defending Your Life (1991)
  • The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924)


    Guinevere

    (1994)

    Jud Taylor | 91 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA & Lithuania / English

    Guinevere

    This Lifetime TV movie is like an American Renaissance faire cosplay version of Arthurian legend. Its attempt at a feminist take on the famed stories is interesting, but deserves better writing, filmmaking, and accents.

    Most of Guinevere’s flaws come from its low-rent made-for-US-TV-in-the-’90s roots (the mediocre direction; the tacky music score), but that’s also its biggest asset, because when and for whom it was made means it was shot on film, which gives it a certain gloss (even when downgraded to SD) that taped or digital productions simply lack.

    Story-wise, the love triangle stuff from legend is there, but given a YA spin — it’s practically Arthurian Twilight. Are you Team Arthur or Team Jacob? The feminist bent is not subtle either, which, given changes in attitudes over the past few decades, makes you wonder if it’s ripe for a re-adaptation (it’s based on a trilogy of novels with magnificently florid titles like Child of the Northern Spring and Queen of the Summer Stars).

    You see, despite everything, I didn’t hate it. Maybe I should — it’s not good, by any means — but I liked what it was trying to do, even while it didn’t do it well (at all). It’s a concept someone should definitely take another run at.

    2 out of 5

    Guinevere was #209 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Kid

    (1921/1972)

    Charlie Chaplin | 50 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent | U

    The Kid

    Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length work as star and director sees his Tramp character caring for an abandoned child (Jackie Coogan). I say “feature length”, but when you combine a re-edit Chaplin performed in 1972 with PAL speedup, it runs just 50 minutes. I’ve gotta say, I appreciated that. I’ve felt some of Chaplin’s other films have gone on a bit, whereas this didn’t outstay its welcome. That said, I did feel the Dreamland sequence near the end was filler. That aside, it’s quite a nice film. Coogan is particularly effective — he has just the right look for the role, and was obviously very good at imitation and/or taking direction.

    Regarding the length, the original 1921 release was 68 minutes, but for a 1972 reissue Chaplin cut some footage, appears to have sped up the frame rate of the rest, and added a score and some sound effects too. It’s only this cut that gets released on disc nowadays (often with the excised footage included as deleted scenes). The original cut clearly still exists, and yet everyone just seems to overlook it — it’s only if you bother to read up on the film that you discover what most people are watching and reviewing as “a 1921 film” is actually a 50-years-later director’s cut. Imagine if we all just ignored, say, Blade Runner’s original version and just treated The Final Cut as— oh, wait. Never mind.

    4 out of 5

    The Kid was #60 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Defending Your Life

    (1991)

    Albert Brooks | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Defending Your Life

    Writer-director Albert Brooks stars as a loner advertising exec who dies and finds himself in a bureaucratic afterlife where he has to prove that he overcame his fears. While he awaits his trial, he finally meets the love of his (after)life, Julia (Meryl Streep).

    For a film that’s literally about life and death, Defending Your Life is rather gentle. Like, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s often slightly amusing. And it’s unhurried, too: its 111 minutes aren’t tedious by any means, but it doesn’t rush anywhere. A fun side effect of this is how casual its world-building is. This is a very specific vision of the afterlife, an entire world with its own rules, and while that’s all explained, it’s not laid out in minute detail like a how-to guide. I feel like this is something movies used to happily do but has been eroded by the need for everything to be over-explained and -analysed.

    I liked Defending Your Life a good deal (I’ve picked up a couple more of Brooks’s films on Blu-ray off the back of it), and part of that is certainly its laidback style. Nonetheless, perhaps if it were snappier — quicker witted and paced — it might be a better-remembered film, comparable to something roughly contemporaneous like Groundhog Day.

    4 out of 5

    Defending Your Life was #113 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The LEGO Movie 2:
    The Second Part

    (2019)

    Mike Mitchell | 107 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA, Denmark, Norway & Australia / English | U / PG

    The LEGO Movie 2

    After the surprise success of The LEGO Movie, naturally a sequel had to follow. Unfortunately, it’s altogether less surprising, because it’s that old fashioned sequel thing: a less-good do-over of the first movie.

    The Second Part feels less focused than its predecessor. It still has a positive message (about not needing to grow up, and about playing together, or something), but it takes a while to get to it, rather than baking it into the entire experience. Maybe that’s intellectualising things a bit — this is a family-friendly adventure-comedy starring toys, after all. But still, the overall journey doesn’t feel as exciting or fun. There are fun little bits on the way, but, moment to moment, it lacks the spark of the first one.

    For a specific example, take the breakout hit of the first film, the irritating song Everything Is Awesome. That angle has been doubled down on, with multiple attempts at emulating the “irritating but kinda loveable” song formula; but while these numbers are annoying while they last, they don’t have the irrepressible catchiness of the first film’s signature achievement — a mixed blessing, to be sure (at least they won’t be stuck in your head afterwards). The end credits are accompanied by a song that jokes about the credits being the best part… but, in this case, the credits kinda are the best part.

    3 out of 5

    The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part was #33 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Sherlock Jr.

    (1924)

    Buster Keaton | 45 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent | U

    Sherlock Jr

    Apparently there are ever-raging arguments within the silent film fan community about who was the best comedian of the era. Charlie Chaplin’s got the most widespread recognition, but Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have their advocates, of course, and I guess there are probably people shouting in favour of smaller names too. I didn’t think I’d ever pick a ‘side’ in these debates — I’m certainly not about to go seeking them out and wading in — and, fundamentally, I do hold with the notion that the greats are all great and so why not appreciate them all? — but, from what I’ve seen thus far, I’m finding Keaton’s work more consistently enjoyable than Chaplin’s. Sherlock Jr. is my favourite of his that I’ve seen so far.

    Keaton plays a film projectionist who’s studying to be a detective on the side. When he’s framed for the theft of a watch, his apparent guilt doesn’t give him much chance to put his skills to the test. But when he falls asleep during a movie, he steps inside it and becomes the world’s greatest detective. And when I say “steps inside”, I mean it in the most literal sense possible: the projectionist walks through the screen and into the movie, and is suddenly subject to its whims — for example, he’s confounded whenever it cuts to a new location. The sequence is both thoroughly entertaining and technically faultless — and I say that viewing it nearly 100 years after it was made, after all the advances in technique and effects we’ve had in that time. Reportedly, the film’s cameraman, Byron Houck, went as far as using surveying equipment to ensure the camera was positioned correctly so the transitions were seamless. The effort paid off.

    The same is true in several other incredible sequences, like a billiards game filled with trick shots, which Keaton rehearsed for four months with a pool expert and then took five days to film. Or a motorbike chase with more I-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that death-defying stunts than one of Tom Cruise’s impossible missions. The technical skill is faultless and, even if you’re not wowed by how they pulled it off, the sequences are immensely entertaining in their own right. Maybe it’s just personal taste, but this is why I have a preference for Keaton: his skits are more ingenious, better paced, and backed up with impressive stunt work. When you mix those daredevil antics with genuine movie magic, as he does here, you get a majestic, unforgettable farce.

    5 out of 5

    Sherlock Jr. was #102 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019. It placed 3rd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019.


  • Archive 5, Vol.2

    I have a backlog of 442 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: musical comedies from ’41 and ’51; murder mysteries from ’33 and ’73; and an animated film that changed the Oscars.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Royal Wedding (1951)
  • A Study in Scarlet (1933)
  • Chicken Run (2000)
  • The Last of Sheila (1973)
  • Road to Zanzibar (1941)


    Royal Wedding

    (1951)

    aka Wedding Bells

    Stanley Donen | 93 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Royal Wedding

    Cynically, I assumed this US production was designed as a cash-in to a news event, most likely the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (i.e. the Queen) and Philip. Although those are indeed the eponymous nuptials, they actually took place several years earlier, in 1947; and in the UK, for its initial release the film was retitled Wedding Bells so audiences wouldn’t think it was a documentary about the real event. So much for my modern cynicism.

    The actual plot is semi-biographical, inspired by the real-life dance partnership of the film’s star, Fred Astaire, and his sister Adele, and who she went on to marry. Here the sister is played by Jane Powell (almost 30 years Astaire’s younger) as the duo take their successful Broadway show across the ocean to London in time for the royal wedding. Such window dressing aside, the plot that unfurls is run-of-the-mill, with both siblings finding themselves in romantic entanglements, and the songs are unmemorable too. The object of Astaire’s affection is played by Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston Churchill, which adds a bit of fun trivia, at least.

    There is one noteworthy highlight: a set piece in which Astaire dances up the walls and across the ceiling of his hotel room, an effect that’s achieved seamlessly — there’s no wobble or what have you to give away the trickery, and Astaire’s choreography helps hide the behind-the-scenes technique too. There are one or two other neat bits if you’re a fan of dance-y musicals, but, on the whole, this is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road Astaire musical — not bad, just no more than adequate.

    3 out of 5

    Royal Wedding was #180 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    A Study in Scarlet

    (1933)

    Edwin L. Marin | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    A Study in Scarlet

    For some reason, cinema has a long history of taking the titles of original Sherlock Holmes stories but then producing an entirely new plot underneath. A Study in Scarlet — the very first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes works — seems to be a particularly afflicted tale. It features the first meeting of Holmes and his roommate / sidekick / chronicler, Dr Watson, but I think there are two adaptations that actually show this — and, ironically, neither of them are actually called A Study in Scarlet (one is the debut episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, and the other is the first episode of the Russian series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which is called Acquaintance). According to IMDb, “the Conan Doyle estate quoted the producers a price for the rights to the title and a considerably higher price to use the original story” — perhaps they did that all the time, hence my observed phenomena.

    Obviously, this ‘poverty row’ effort is one such example of title/story mismatch: this so-called adaptation stars Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson… and that’s where similarities to the novel end. The pair don’t even live at 221b Baker Street — for no apparent reason, it’s been changed to 221a. Did the filmmakers just misremember one of the most famous addresses in literature? Having only paid for the rights to the title, the producers hired director Robert Florey (the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts; Murders in the Rue Morgue) to write a new story, and actor Reginald Owen — who stars as Holmes — wrote the dialogue. Owen hoped this would be the first in a series of Holmes films starring himself. It wasn’t.

    Physically, Owen isn’t anyone’s ideal image of Holmes, but his actual performance is adequate. Much the same can be said of the whole film: it’s an entertaining-enough 70-minute crime romp, with enough incident to create a brisk pace, and a use of the rhyme Ten Little Indians that makes you wonder if Agatha Christie saw this movie before she published And Then There Were None six years later (or is it just a coincidence? The audio commentators spend a good deal of time chewing it over). Given second billing behind Owen is bona fide Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong, even though she has relatively little screen time. She makes her mark, though, with a role that doesn’t simply conform to racial stereotypes (possibly an unintended side effect of her late casting rather than genuine progressivism by the filmmakers, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get).

    This particular Study in Scarlet is a long way from being a definitive Sherlock Holmes movie, but for fans of ’30s detective flicks, it’s nonetheless a likeable little adventure.

    3 out of 5

    A Study in Scarlet was #206 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Chicken Run

    (2000)

    Peter Lord & Nick Park | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English | U / G

    Chicken Run

    I’ve always enjoyed Aardman’s work. I grew up watching the Wallace & Gromit shorts on TV, and have seen all of their feature output — except their first. I’m not sure why it’s taken me 20 years to get round to Chicken Run. I guess when it was originally released I had grown out of “kid’s movies” but not yet grown back into them; but since then, to be honest, something about it never particularly appealed to me. It certainly has its fans: it’s still the highest grossing stop motion film ever; there was a push to get it an Oscar Best Picture nomination, the failure of which led to the creation of a category it could’ve won, Best Animated Feature (trust the Academy to shut the door after the horse had bolted); and when Netflix recently announced a sequel, there was much pleasure on social media.

    So, finally getting round to it, would I discover what I’d been missing all along? Unfortunately, no. I thought it was fine. In no way did I dislike it, but nor did it charm me in the way of my favourite Aardman productions. It’s rather dark for U-rated film — it doesn’t mince its words or imagery about the fact the chickens are being killed — and that contributes to some particularly effective sequences, like when our heroes end up inside the pie machine, or a suitably exciting climactic action sequence. There are some reliably decent gags along the way, too.

    I’m sure I’ll watch the sequel. Maybe I’ll like it more. But, I confess, the fact they’ve now announced a new Wallace & Gromit movie for the year after does have me even more excited.

    3 out of 5

    Chicken Run was #148 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Last of Sheila

    (1973)

    Herbert Ross | 120 mins | digital (SD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    The Last of Sheila

    I’d never even heard of this before Rian Johnson mentioned it as an inspiration for Knives Out 2. Co-written by Anthony Perkins (yes, Norman Bates from Psycho) and Stephen Sondheim (yes, the famous musical composer), The Last of Sheila is a murder mystery firmly in the Agatha Christie mould — despite the writers’ pedigree, there are no significant horror elements (even the deaths are, at worst, on the PG/12 borderline) and certainly no song-and-dance numbers (excepting a magnificently inappropriate song over the end credits, sung by Bette Midler). Apparently Perkins and Sondheim used to host elaborate scavenger hunts for their friends in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they adapted them into a screenplay at the suggestion of a guest, Herbert Ross, who produced and directed the film (seems only fair).

    Further inspiration came from their professional lives and acquaintances, because the potential victims and suspects are all actresses, agents, and the like, gathered for a Mediterranean cruise aboard a producer’s yacht. He proposes they play a game about secrets and gossip — but clearly one of the secrets in play is too big, because someone winds up murdered. A well-constructed mystery is unfurled throughout the film, although its execution is a little variable: a fun, very Christie-esque first half gives way to long talky scenes in the second, as characters stand around and explain the plot to each other. But when that plot is as good as this — with some nice surprises, plus motives dark enough to give it a little edge — it feels churlish to object too strongly.

    4 out of 5

    The Last of Sheila was #186 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.

    * IMDb says it was given a 15 on video, but the BBFC say it hasn’t been rated since 1973, when it got an AA. The BBFC site is crap nowadays; IMDb will accept any old junk users submit. You decide. ^


    Road to Zanzibar

    (1941)

    Victor Schertzinger | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Road to Zanzibar

    The second in what became the Road To… series — though it was never intended as such. What ended up becoming Road to Zanzibar was initially an original feature, first offered to Fred MacMurray (this before his roles in the likes of Double Indemnity and The Apartment) and George Burns (an actor I’m not particularly familiar with). After they rejected it, apparently someone at Paramount remembered Road to Singapore had done relatively well, and that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed like a good pairing, and so they were offered it.

    As I wrote in my last review of a Road To film (which was over 11 years ago?! Jesus…), if you’ve seen one Road To film then you’ve a fair idea what to expect from any other — essentially, a suitably daft bit of fluff and fun. This one’s a bit thin — on plot, on gags, on everything — but it skates by on the charm of Bob and Bing, joined, as ever, by Dorothy Lamour. The only serious problem is the same as Singapore: dated depictions of African stereotypes. It kind of gets away with it by being a spoof of “African adventure”-type movies, but maybe that’s me being kind with hindsight. Either way, the bit where the tribe’s African dialogue is subtitled with contemporary American vernacular is one of the film’s more amusing gags.

    3 out of 5

    Road to Zanzibar was #110 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019.


  • Archive 5, Vol.1

    Part of the impetus behind this new era of 100 Films was to solve ‘problems’ like my repeated failure to post reviews. Hopefully my plan for regular groups of capsule-sized reviews will solve that going forward. But this has been an issue for a while, and that’s led to a huge backlog of unreviewed films from 2019 to 2021 — it totals a ridiculous 449 feature films (counting shorts too, it goes over 500). Rather than abandon those to the mists of time, I present a new weekly (more or less — let’s not overcommit myself) series: Archive 5.

    Essentially, it’s the same format as new viewing: each post is a collection of short reviews; but here they’re five titles plucked at random from my archive of unreviewed films (and I’ve used a random number generator, so it’s genuinely unmethodical). If I can keep this up weekly, it will take me just under two years to clear the backlog — which means I could still be reviewing stuff from 2019 in 2023. Hahaha… haha… ha… ugh.

    With that in mind, there’s no need for further ado. This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Never Too Young to Die (1986)
  • Bachelor Knight (1947)
  • Little Women (2019)
  • Aniara (2018)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

    (I Care a Lot was originally intended to be part of this post, but then the review turned out a little long, so I spun it off by itself. That’s the kind of thing I’ll probably keep doing, too.)


    Never Too Young to Die

    (1986)

    Gil Bettman | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Never Too Young to Die

    If you dropped A View to a Kill, Rocky Horror, WarGames, and Mad Max 2 into a blender, the end result might be Never Too Young to Die. And if that sounds like a ludicrous, unpalatable mash-up… yep, that’s Never Too Young to Die.

    This direct-to-video action-adventure stars a pre-Full House John Stamos as Lance Stargrove, a teenage gymnast whose dad is a secret agent (played by George Lazenby — aged 47 at the time, but looking at least 20 years older). When daddy is killed, Lance teams up with his partner (singer turned actress Vanity) to go after the culprit: gang leader and wannabe terrorist Velvet Von Ragnar (Gene Simmons (yes, from Kiss), chewing scenery as if he’s not been fed for months).

    If you’ve never heard of this film… well, neither had I, until a Cracked article suggesting comical substitutes for Covid-delayed blockbusters. But what really convinced me to watch it is that it has The Greatest Trailer Ever Made. If you set out to make a spoof ’80s trailer, I’m not convinced you’d be able to beat that. Unfortunately, neither can the film as a whole. It’s fun at times (the boob-biting final fight, or a scene where Stamos tries to distract himself from Vanity’s sexuality by… eating multiple apples), but it’s not quite camp or daft enough to really earn a place as a cult classic.

    I’ll say this for it, though: rewatching that trailer has made me really want to watch the film again…

    3 out of 5

    Never Too Young to Die was #70 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Bachelor Knight

    (1947)

    aka The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

    Irving Reis | 91 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Bachelor Knight

    If you ever need to name an obscure Oscar winner for some reason, you could do worse than Bachelor Knight — or, to give it its even-dumber-sounding original title, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Yes, this won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the other nominees aren’t the greatest field you’ve ever seen, but altogether they’re either better-remembered or were considered good enough to nominate for other gongs that evening, so quite how this took the prize, I don’t know).

    The plot also stretches credibility: after high schooler Susan (Shirley Temple) becomes infatuated with artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant), she sneaks into his place to model for him, much to the disapproval of her older sister Margaret (Myrna Loy), who also happens to be a judge; and when Nugent ends up in her court room, she sentences him to date Susan until her infatuation inevitably wears itself out. I know things are different in the US, and also in the past, but did/do judges there really have the power to hand out any crazy made-up sentences they like?

    On the bright side, the film moves sprightly through its plot. Perhaps that’s because it takes a whole 40 minutes to get through the basic setup, even while running at a pace, means there’s less screen time left to dwell on all that follows. Not that some individual bits don’t go on a tad, like a picnic sequence; but others work very well, like a scene in a nightclub that is a nicely-written bit of escalating farce.

    It’s not the best work of anyone involved, but Bachelor Knight belies its iffy title (both of them) to be a likeable-enough 90 minutes of screwball comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Bachelor Knight was #70 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Little Women

    (2019)

    Greta Gerwig | 135 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Little Women

    Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel was greeted in some quarters by questions of if it was necessary: it’s the sixth big-screen version of Alcott’s book, and came just two years after a major new BBC adaptation. Well, I don’t know if it was ‘necessary’ or not, but Gerwig’s version is definitely a very good film.

    A key point that marks it out from other adaptations is that Gerwig has restructured the story: instead of playing out in a straightforward chronological fashion, it flashes back and forth in the sisters’ lives, starting with them as young women in 1868, with Jo in New York and Amy in Paris, before mixing in events from their childhood, seven years earlier, when the four sisters lived together in Massachusetts. This might seem like a rejig for the sake of differentiation, but Gerwig uses it to create interesting juxtapositions or to reframe plot points. For one example (spoilers follow, if you’re not familiar with the story), I felt it made Laurie and Amy’s relationship less creepy. Told chronologically, they first meet when he’s a young man and she’s a child, and he only moves his affection to her after Jo’s rejected him and Amy’s grown up. In Gerwig’s version, we first meet them together in Paris, and they seem more destined for each other, with a genuine spark between them as individuals, rather than a nagging sense of “if I can’t have one sister, this other will do”. It’s only later we learn the full backstory of Laurie and Jo — and, for that matter, of Jo and Amy — which, yeah, is obviously still a bit creepy, when you think about it.

    Whichever way you cut it, Gerwig seems to really get to the heart of the meaning in the story and characters, as well as giving it a lightly feminist polish (misogynists would probably consider it Terribly Feminist and Evilly Revisionist, if they watched it, which I don’t imagine they would). A star-studded cast ensure the whole thing is well acted, and it’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Questions about ‘necessariness’ are particularly irrelevant when the work is this good.

    5 out of 5

    Little Women was #4 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Aniara

    (2018)

    Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Sweden & Denmark / Swedish & English | 18 / R

    Aniara

    A sci-fi movie based on, somewhat oddly, a 1950s Swedish poem, Aniara is about a spaceship transporting migrators from Earth to Mars that accidentally veers off course and heads irretrievably into deep space. Rather than the kind of action-adventure this might provoke if it were a Hollywood production, Aniara follows how the passengers and crew attempt to cope with their new lives.

    It’s a premise interesting enough that you feel it could fuel a TV series — how this mass of people, forced together by accident and terrible circumstance, comes to function (or not) as a society. Or maybe the remake of Battlestar Galactica already nailed that kinda thing. Either way, here it’s condensed into about 100 minutes; and because it has such a long-term view of what it wants to pack in, there are some surprisingly large time jumps (by the half-hour mark we’ve already reached Year 3). It takes some odd detours when it does that (society completely breaks down into weirdo cults… then a probe that might allow them to return home is discovered, at which point everything goes back to normal), but overall it has a pretty clear thesis about humanity and how we cope with things — “not well”, fundamentally.

    The final act kind of rushes a similar point, skipping ahead (several times) to how things are even worse without really tracking the descent. Maybe that’s why I liked the idea of a series version so much: to fill in all those blanks. But I don’t want to take this criticism too much to heart. If anything, the fact I wanted more detail is a compliment. It’s not the film bungling developments and me searching for justification, but rather that I’d be interested in seeing the themes and characters explored in even more detail. As it stands, Aniara is an epic-scale story told well in a somewhat condensed fashion.

    5 out of 5

    Aniara was #65 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020. It placed 21st on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.


    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    (1966)

    Mike Nichols | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    When a middle-aged college professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) have his new young colleague (George Segal) and wife (Sandy Dennis) around for drinks one evening, the occasion soon degenerates into a verbal slanging match between the elder couple, the younger inescapably caught in the middle.

    And as the film takes place in almost-real-time, in just a couple of locations, it feels like we’re trapped with them. With a running time north of two hours, the film’s drunken sardonicism almost becomes an endurance test, particularly when it goes on a bit too long in the middle. But it’s carried through by some magnificent performances. Everyone talks about Taylor — just 33 at the time, she wasn’t sure she could play the part of a bitter 52-year-old, but she’s excellent — or they talk about Taylor and Burton — similarly, he wasn’t sure he could play a beaten-down failure of a man, having been used to taking dashing heroic roles — but Sandy Dennis is great too, and deserved her Oscar. Of the four actors, its George Segal who draws the short straw, not really getting the material to truly stand toe-to-toe with the other three (he still got an Oscar nom, though).

    Director Mike Nichols insisted the film be shot in black & white, which helps it to pull off Taylor’s ageing makeup, but was also intended to stop it seeming too ‘literal’ and instead give an abstract quality. That fits the material, because the characters, events, and revelations are all pretty odd; the way it plays out pretty strange. Plus, the pitch-black darkness of the night fits the film’s themes. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler does a superb (indeed, Oscar-winning) job, the photography looking more striking than you might expect, or even need, for such an actor-focused character piece.

    A whole featurette on the film’s disc release discusses how it was “too shocking for its time”, mainly because of the language used (the fact the film was made relatively unedited set a ball rolling that, just a couple of years later, saw the Production Code replaced by the modern MPAA classification system). While such concerns are no longer really relevant (once-controversial terms like “screw” and “goddamn” are hardly “fuck”, are they?), that the film is still powerful shows it was never truly about what was said, but who said it and how they said it. I don’t mean to say that it would still be offensive today, but rather that it still packs an emotive punch.

    5 out of 5

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was #22 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


  • I Care a Lot (2020)

    J Blakeson | 119 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    I Care a Lot

    Marla (Rosamund Pike) is a professional legal guardian, someone appointed by the courts to arrange care and legal affairs for elderly people no longer capable of doing it themselves. But her real trade lies in pinpointing wealthy people with no family who she can trick the court into placing in her care, at which point she can drain their savings and assets for her own profit. Yes, she is a thoroughly unlikeable, evil bitch. But when she pulls this con on Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), it inadvertently brings Marla to the attention of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a powerful man who is not used to being messed with.

    Already I’m edging into spoiler territory there, and there’ll be more to come, because it’s hard to discuss what’s so fundamentally wrong with I Care a Lot without digging into what occurs past some of its twists — it starts as one thing (which works), quickly becomes something else (which also works), but after about the halfway mark, it ends up diving off the deep end into a mess of implausibility. It may be stylishly made and performed, but all of that is in service of a philosophically jumbled attitude to character.

    What makes the film fall apart is where it wants our loyalties to lie. I’ve often written that I’m fine with films that star unlikeable or unsupportable characters (the idea we need someone we can like/support at the centre of a work of fiction was recently described by someone as a childish impulse, and I agree to an extent), but that doesn’t give them carte blanche. As a commenter put it on iCheckMovies, “you can make a film about horrible, unredeemable characters, but you can’t also expect an audience to root for them when you put them in peril, especially when that peril is one of their own making.” This is the ‘trick’ I Care a Lot attempts to pull. It seems to think we’ll be aligned with Marla by a certain point, but we really aren’t — she absolutely deserves what’s coming to her.

    Talk to the hand because I don't care a lot

    Similarly, when she accuses the villains of “not playing by the rules”, it feels like the film is, again, assuming that will get us on her side; like, “yeah, she’s bad, but at least she plays by the rules, whereas the crooks are just crooks”. But I did not think that, at all. If anything, it makes her even more disingenuous. Yes, technically she’s working within the system — but she’s cheating it and bending it (breaking it, even) to make it work for her. At least the criminals are unquestionably criminals — they’re not pretending to be legit. So while intellectually we know that Roman and his chums are Bad Guys (they’re drug smugglers who don’t care if their human mules die!), in this particular storyline we are much more likely to be on their side: they’ve been wronged by Marla, they deserve their recompense. Heck, they even attempt to do it legally first — that’s more than we can say about other wronged heroes, like, say, John Wick.

    Even while I Care a Lot is watchable thanks to its strong direction and highly talented cast, it’s an awkward viewing experience because it feels like we’re constantly at odds with the movie itself. That it eventually gives us what we need (via a small part for Macron Blair, which merits a metatextual “huh” in relation to the themes of his role in Blue Ruin) is scant compensation for the difficulties up to that point.

    3 out of 5

    I Care a Lot was the 101st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.

    The Best of 2021

    Finally, for the last time (not really the last time): what I consider to be the best (or, more accurately, my favourite) films I saw for the first time in 2021 (that bit’s correct).

    This year, I tried to make a start on my list early (I began pondering it and pruning my long-list back in November, whereas normally I don’t even start that until January 1st), all so I could post it fairly promptly once we reached the new year. Well, it’s now the 9th, which is one of the latest dates I’ve ever posted my ‘best of’ list, so that didn’t really work, did it?

    Anyway…



    The 21 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2021

    No, it’s not 21 for ’21 — it’s 10% of whatever my final total is (as it has been since 2016). This year that total was 207, of which the appropriate percentage is 20.7, but I can’t very well include seven-tenths of a film, can I, so it rounds up to 21. (If you think that’s too many for a list like this, feel free to scroll down and start wherever you like.)

    As always, all the movies I watched for the first time in 2021 are eligible, not just brand-new releases. However, I did watch 31 films that had their general UK release in 2021, and five of them made it into this list, so I’ve noted their ‘2021 rank’ too.

    21=
    Holiday Affair
    Happiest Season
    Anna and the Apocalypse

    Reader, I have cheated! After 15 years of sticking to (my own self-imposed set of) The Rules, I have caved and broken the proscribed number of films allowed on this list, and also allowed a tie (I don’t think I’ve allowed a tie before, although one year I did comment that the top 4 were all effectively in first place — but I still sorted them). Why has this happened? As I’ll talk more about in the Honourable Mentions, I got stuck at 32 films for the longest time. I managed to whittle it down to 23, but after days of being stuck there I just gave in. If I could have decided which of these were #22 and #23, they could’ve been taken off the list; but as I can’t, here are all three, tied. At least they’re connected, by being overtly Christmassy films, which is kinda why they’ve all got stuck together — “which of the many Christmassy films I watched this year did I like the most?” Turns out, that’s a three-way tie (unless you also include the one that’s at #9…)

    20 Carol

    Okay, this one’s quite Christmassy too. Indeed, it’s practically “Holiday Affair but with lesbians”, a comparison I’m sure would’ve come up more if Holiday Affair was better known.

    19 Spontaneous
    High schoolers begin mysteriously exploding in this sort-of-horror cum comedy cum teen romance, which I found both hilarious and surprisingly emotional.

    18 Daughters of Darkness

    An erotic horror movie — sounds like schlocky trash, but mixed through a European arthouse sensibility it comes out the other side as a dreamy, surreal experience.

    17 Who?
    This is a pretty obscure sci-fi spy flick: it has under 700 ratings on IMDb; I hadn’t heard of it before Indicator’s Blu-ray release — but it deserves more. It’s almost like a Le Carré thriller in its slow-burn intellectual depiction of Cold War plotting, but with a dose of just-beyond-the-possible SF mixed in.

    16 Futureworld

    Another ’70s sci-fi thriller that I think deserves better. This widely disparaged sequel to Westworld is very in keeping with other films of its era: it’s a paranoid thriller about a pair of journalists investigating a corporate conspiracy — in this case, Delos’ attempt to rehabilitate their robot theme park after the disaster in the last film.

    15 Love Affair
    A prototypically romantic melodrama (it’s been explicitly remade twice, not to mention the other films that have borrowed from it), I was expecting a bit of fluff but ended up finding it surprisingly affecting. It dodges the clichés I thought it was bound for, in addition to being beautifully shot.

    14 Strictly Ballroom

    Another one that confounded my expectations. As Baz Luhrmann’s debut feature, I expected a dry run for where he’d go stylistically in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! But to regard Strictly Ballroom as anything less than a fully-fledged member of the Red Curtain Trilogy is to do it a disservice. Its ludicrous, over-the-top treatment of a ludicrous, over-the-top world is both absurdly hilarious and totally captivating.

    13 Godzilla vs. Kong
    2021 #5 Big monkey punch giant lizard! No one’s going to call this movie high art, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining pulp-SF gubbins with giant-size fights thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I don’t know what some people expect from movies like this when they go about criticising them. If giant animals having a brawl isn’t to your taste, fair enough, but if you were expecting a meditative character-driven insight into the human condition or something, more fool you.

    12 The Invisible Man

    The fourth feature from Universal’s genre- and studio-defining run of horror films in the early 1930s. Dracula and Frankenstein may have become more iconic, but, for my money, this is the best movie from the bunch (and I’d rank The Mummy second). The special effects are more extensive than you might expect for the era, and even hold up pretty well today, while Claude Rains is superb as the cackling villain, James Whale’s direction is highly effective, and there’s a nice vein of humour to balance the darkness.

    11 Captain Phillips
    That Tom Hanks wasn’t even nominated for most major awards for his performance here is a crime against cinema. He’s extraordinary as the eponymous captain of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates. Paul Greengrass brings his usual edgy tension to proceedings, but its Hanks’s humanity that ultimately elevates the piece. The final scene is one of the greatest single pieces of acting we will ever see.

    10
    The Hound of the Baskervilles

    Hammer does Holmes. Peter Cushing is a note-perfect incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective in what was, sadly, the famed horror studio’s only attempt at filming Sherlock. Personally, I’ve never thought The Hound of the Baskervilles was a particularly good detective mystery novel — but it is quite a good gothic adventure, which makes Hammer the perfect studio to have brought it to the screen. As that, this version doesn’t disappoint, with Terence Fisher’s direction leaning hard into the appropriate atmosphere, plus a superb cast — alongside Cushing, André Morell is a superb Watson. I wish they’d done a whole series with the pair.

    9
    The Green Knight

    2021 #4 Some people seemed surprised when this film delivered exactly what its trailers had promised: an arty-yet-fantastical interpretation of the Arthurian myth. It’s a moody, earthy take on the material, but one that also has room for magical realism, fairytale-esque fantasy, and flights of inexplicable oddness. The measured pace and off-kilter tone (plus the pitch-dark cinematography) was never going to be to everyone’s taste, but for those on its level, it’s intoxicating. And if you think Die Hard counts as a ‘different’ Christmas movie…

    2021 #3 I was worried that I’d find Nomadland a bit boring and “not my kind of thing”. It seemed like the kind of film where you hang out with the characters and their landscapes, rather than a piece of clear narrative storytelling. And it is that — but, for once, it worked for me. It’s almost like a TV travelogue, visiting places worth seeing and unusual people worth meeting. You watch to appreciate the scenery, to understand the people, to experience a different way of life. It’s a film to escape with — to get away from ordinary life and spend time in these captivating places. Within and alongside that, it creates a beautiful, deeply humane, quite powerful experience. [Full review.]

    7
    Star Trek: The Motion Picture

    Having grown up reading sci-fi magazines, I’m very aware that, when it comes to Star Trek movies, “even ones good, odd ones bad”. And this first one has a particularly poor rep — “slow” and “boring” seem to be commonly-attached adjectives (which I can’t help but feel stems back to expectations on its original release, which came in the wake of the success of Star Wars, so presumably people expected a fast-paced action-adventure). But as I settled down to begin watching all the Trek movies from the beginning, I found myself in for a very pleasant surprise. It’s not even trying to be a Star Wars-style adventure, but something different entirely; almost more akin to 2001 in its sense of wonder and exploration, digging into an imagining of a genuinely alien lifeform rather than running about blasting rubber suits with laser guns. Engaged with on the right terms, I enjoyed every minute of it.

    6
    WolfWalkers

    The third film in Irish animation outfit Cartoon Saloon’s Folklore Trilogy — and Wolfwalkers really does feel like an authentically-told folktale, not a Disneyfied modern reimagining. A big part of that is the animation style. Even if you think you’re becoming inured to it from the studio’s previous work, it has surprises in store; moments of additional innovation or beauty. It’s constantly impressive and regularly breathtaking. Combined with the magical story, the result is a simply gorgeous film.

    5
    Dune: Part One

    2021 #2 Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably one of my favourite novels, and previous attempts to film it have either been interesting but fundamentally flawed (the 1984 film) or faithful but limited by format (the 2000 miniseries), so when it was announced a new version would be masterminded by Denis Villeneuve — one of only two directors to top my year-end best-of list twice, once with another tricky-to-pull-off re-envisioning of a sci-fi masterpiece — well, my hopes were high. Suffice to say, he delivered, albeit in a film that is ‘very Villeneuve’. That is to say, it’s a rather brutalist take on the material, lacking the fanciful, weird interpretations of Lynch, Jodorowsky, or even (to a lesser extent) the TV version. In some ways that’s a shame, but it’s also true to the filmmaker. That the film has to abandon the story halfway through, forced into a rather low-key cliffhanger, is merely a factor of the length of the material rather than a fault of the filmmaker — some have taken serious issue with it, but, personally, the film ended where I always expected it to. And, as a fan, I’d rather this two-part adaptation, giving the story the necessary screentime, even if that means a limp end to Part One, rather than have the whole book in a rushed three-hour single shot. That said, this might be why it’s at #5 on my list rather than becoming Villeneuve’s third #1. I’m optimistic that, once we get Part Two (and, possibly, a Part Three adapting Herbert’s first sequel), the whole will be even greater.

    4
    The Kid Detective

    This is one of those high concepts you wonder why someone hasn’t though of sooner: what would a ‘kid detective’ (you know, like the Hardy Boys or the Famous Five or whatever) be like grown up? One answer to that would likely fuel a CW-esque YA series, but here we get a more real-world treatment: the detective who was exalted as a kid, a quirky story for the local paper and whatnot, is now a washed-up has-been as he tries to follow the same career as an adult. Like several other films on this year’s list, here was a film that looked like it would tickle a particular itch of mine, and delivered — it was everything I expected it to be and more. It’s both an amusing extrapolation of its central premise and a solid mystery in its own right, with a surprisingly moving conclusion. One part in particular gave me goosebumps, and you’ve got to love anything that can elicit such a physical reaction.

    3
    Joint Security Area

    Before Oldboy or The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook gained international attention for this 2000 military thriller about a shooting in the DMZ between North and South Korea. After a South Korean border guard apparently kills two North Korean soldiers and wounds a third on their side of the border before fleeing back to the South, heightened tensions between the nations rest on an investigation by a neutral investigator. As the Swiss Army major tries to find the truth of what happened amidst conflicting accounts, the obvious point of comparison is A Few Good Men, but JSA also made me think of Paths of Glory in its ultimately-tragic message about the wasteful futility of war. But although these point towards its tone and effect on the viewer, it outshines simple comparisons to be its own magnificent thing.

    2
    David Byrne’s American Utopia

    I’m not a music critic — heck, I don’t even listen to all that much music on a regular basis, if I’m honest — and yet what is essentially a concert film has made it almost to the top of my favourite movies this year. What gives? I wish I could explain it properly, but, I confess, I don’t quite understand why I loved American Utopia, all I can say is that I did. It had an almost profound impact on me that I can’t quite account for. Of course that’s mostly down to the music and staging by Byrne and his fellow performers, but Spike Lee’s direction and editing transform the theatrical show into a near-perfect cinema version. My only unfulfilled wish is that this had been made during the world’s 3D phase, because movement in a three-dimensional space is a key part of the show’s staging, and I’d love to be able to watch that in 3D.

    1
    The Matrix Resurrections

    2021 #1 This belated return to and continuation of the Matrix trilogy has divided critics and audiences alike. You’ll find plenty of people online prepared to slag it off at the slightest prompt. But for others of us, it’s a borderline masterpiece. Personally, it’s not just a film I enjoyed, but something I’ve almost been waiting for — and by “almost” I mean that I never expected to actually get it. This isn’t a by-the-numbers attempt to recreate the adrenaline highs of an enduringly popular action movie. Instead, it’s the kind of wild-swing hyper-meta self-deconstructing take on a popular franchise that I’ve always longed for a legacy sequel to attempt, but no one has been bold enough to try (or, possibly, no one’s ever been able to convince the suits to allow it). Sure, if all you want from a Matrix movie is people looking cool in sunglasses while they engage in precisely-designed epic action sequences, then Resurrections will leave you disappointed. If you appreciate a film that has something pertinent and meaningful to say about our current entertainment culture, there’s a lot to like.


    As usual, I’d just like to highlight a few other films.

    Normally I’m loathe to mention any films that just missed out on the top list — it is what it is, and if I wanted it to be longer I should just find an excuse to make it longer. That said, this year my “top 21” was stuck at 32 films for the longest time — as I mentioned back at #21, you may remember. So, it feels like those 11 almost-rans deserve a mention; except it’s nine almost-rans, because I couldn’t even get it all the way down to 21. I’m not sure these are truly #24–32 (for that distinction, I’d have to properly reconsider some others from my 89-film long list that I’d eliminated earlier), but, nonetheless, there were (in alphabetical order) The Father, Festen, The Mummy (1932), My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, Psycho Goreman, and The Quatermass Xperiment. In other years, maybe they would’ve been luckier.

    That said, they’re not the only films that might feel aggrieved to have missed out (if films had feelings), because, while there are 4-star films in my top 21 (even in my top ten), there are 5-star films that didn’t make the cut. I awarded 25 films full marks in 2021, and 13 of them made it into my top list — namely Captain Phillips, Carol, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Dune: Part One, The Green Knight, Joint Security Area, The Kid Detective, Love Affair, The Matrix Resurrections, Nomadland, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Strictly Ballroom, and WolfWalkers. The less fortunate (but still great) ones were The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Cinema Paradiso, The Father, Festen, Kind Hearts and Coronets, My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, Sansho Dayu, A Single Man, When the Wind Blows, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There were also full marks for the original King Kong when I gave it the Guide To treatment.

    Additionally, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, some of which have already been mentioned in this post and some of which haven’t. In chronological order (with links to the relevant awards): WolfWalkers, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Captain Phillips, Official Secrets, The Invisible Man (1933), Strictly Ballroom, The Kid Detective, The Green Knight, Dune: Part One, Nobody, and The Matrix Resurrections.


    This year I watched 31 movies that had their general UK release in 2021, but that means there were a considerable number I missed. So, here’s my annual alphabetical list of 50 films from last year that I’ve not yet seen. In the past I’ve used IMDb’s dating to settle what was eligible for inclusion as “a 2021 film”, but nowadays I’ll allow in something that’s listed as 2020 if it’s only due to festival screenings or (as was the case with one film this year) its own premiere.

    The main downside to watching so few big new movies is that there’s not much room here for the stuff that’s smaller but still significant, which is a shame. And where I did make space for those films, some of the year’s big-but-not-huge movies lost out. That said, in some ways it made selection easier: normally I begin with a long-list of something like 120 titles, in which I typically find 20 to 30 ‘must includes’, then I weed through the rest to choose the remainder. This year, the ‘must includes’ numbered 46. I could easily have doubled this list and still been featuring films everyone’s heard about, not least because I did leave out some multiplex fillers in favour of artier-but-acclaimed films. Maybe next year I’ll finally go all-out and make this a list of 100. That would fit the site’s name, after all.

    For now, it’s 50 once again. As ever, the included films were chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety, and designed to include a spread of styles and genres, successes and failures.

    Army of the Dead
    Free Guy
    The Last Duel
    Luca
    Shiva Baby
    The Tragedy of Macbeth
    Candyman
    Ghostbusters: Afterlife
    Last Night in Soho
    Old
    Spencer
    Venom: Let There Be Carnage
    Army of the Dead
    Belfast
    Candyman
    Censor
    CODA
    Cruella
    Dear Evan Hansen
    Don’t Look Up
    Drive My Car
    Encanto
    Eternals
    Fast & Furious 9
    Finch
    Free Guy
    The French Dispatch
    Ghostbusters: Afterlife
    House of Gucci
    In the Heights
    Judas and the Black Messiah
    King Richard
    The King’s Man
    The Last Duel
    Last Night in Soho
    Licorice Pizza
    The Lost Daughter
    Luca
    Malignant
    The Many Saints of Newark
    The Mitchells vs the Machines
    Mortal Kombat
    Nightmare Alley
    Old
    Petite Maman
    Pig
    The Power of the Dog
    A Quiet Place Part II
    Raya and the Last Dragon
    Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
    Shiva Baby
    The Sparks Brothers
    Spencer
    Spider-Man: No Way Home
    The Suicide Squad
    tick, tick…BOOM!
    Titane
    The Tragedy of Macbeth
    Venom: Let There Be Carnage
    West Side Story
    The Worst Person in the World
    Wrath of Man


    And that, ladies and gents, is officially the end of 100 Films in a Year — not just for 2021, but for ever.

    Well, you already know that’s not exactly true. But it’s the end of the challenge as I’ve been attempting it for 15 years, replaced by a new take. In 12 months’ time, when a new “best of year” list is due, it won’t be drawing from ‘the challenge’ in the same way… though, that technicality aside, I rather suspect it won’t be too different from this post. And if, once again, I’m so spoilt for choice that I struggle to get it down to whatever number I decide the list should include, well, is that actually such a bad thing?

    The Worst of 2021

    ‘Worst of’ lists have become widely unpopular in the film-viewing community in recent years. “Celebrate what you liked, don’t bash what you didn’t,” is the prevailing argument. Well, yes… but also, film watching inevitably involves taking the rough with the smooth. (Hopefully unintentionally: if you’re watching something you’re certain you’ll dislike, why? (Says the guy who intentionally watched all five Twilight movies, so, yeah, sometimes there might be a reason.)) Also, I’ve done this list for 14 of 100 Films in a Year’s 15 years, so now would be an odd time to stop (next year, after the first year of the new-style site, I’ll think again).

    Before we begin, a reminder that my best and worst lists are selected from all 207 films I saw for the first time in the past year, not just 2021’s new releases.



    The 5 Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2021

    In alphabetical order…

    The Birth of a Nation
    D.W. Griffith gets a lot of credit for being a great innovator of the silent era — mainly because he was fond of blowing his own trumpet, and I guess a lot of people unquestioningly bought it (plus ça change). Whether innovative or derivative, his work as director is sometimes striking, and Birth of a Nation would be a pretty entertaining… were it not horrendously racist and brazenly pro-KKK. There’s no half measures here; no “well, I suppose you could interpret it that way”: the film is explicitly and undeniably in favour of the KKK and what they did in the wake of the American Civil War, to the extent the Klan used it (and I guess probably still do) as a propaganda tool. Any other merits it has a film are not strong enough to outweigh that side of it.

    Cats
    This is every bit as bad as you’ve heard. It’s littered with bizarre production decisions — things that would be a bad idea even if they hadn’t then been poorly realised in a rushed post-production. But it’s not just the freaky cat/human hybrid characters or inconsistent sense of scale that let this down: the underlying musical is mediocre, with mostly forgettable songs and an incredibly thin narrative. Why this was such a long-running hit on stage, I’ll never understand.

    Dumb and Dumber
    A film that lives up to its title. At no point since its release in 1994 has Dumb and Dumber ever appealed to me, but it has its fans (it even generated a prequel and belated sequel, remember?) and, crucially, was on iCheckMovies’ Most Checked list, which I’ve almost completed (just four to go, thanks to this). Were it not for that, I wouldn’t have watched it. I don’t think I would’ve been any worse off if I never had.

    Mortal Kombat
    Not the new one, but the one from the mid-’90s, an era when various attempts to transfer popular video game franchises to the big screen gave such unwaveringly poor results they tarnished the genre for decades (in fairness, it’s not like there have been many/any that deserved to dodge the bad rep). Plus, it’s by Paul W.S. Anderson — a double whammy of reasons to expect something awful. And it is indeed a cheap-looking, semi-incoherent, unexciting load of tosh.

    Plan 9 from Outer Space
    Sometimes you watch a “bad movie” cult classic and, even though it is technically a terrible movie, you have a great time — I’m thinking of The Room or Love on a Leash here. Theoretically, Ed Wood’s famed Z-movie should fall into that camp. If anything, I think it’s the originator of “so bad it’s good”. For some people, that is how it plays. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for me — I just thought it was poorly-made rubbish.


    The 21 best films I saw for the first time in 2021.

    2021 Statistics

    Enough about my shiny new look (although, if you missed all that, you can read about it here) — let’s go back to digging through the remains of 2021. And we begin (or, rather, resume) with one of my personal highlights of the entire year: the statistics. Regular readers will know what this is all about, but if you’re new to these parts and enjoy things like percentages and graphs… oh boy, you’re in for a treat!

    Before we begin, a quick word that, because I’m a Letterboxd Pro member, I also get a yearly stats page over there. My 2021 stats can be found here. I don’t only log new watches on Letterboxd, so any overlapping statistics will be slightly different, but they mainly have different categories (like repeat cast & crew members — so you can, for example, find out which actor appeared in the most films I watched last year).

    And now…


    I watched 207 new feature films in 2021. That means it ranks 3rd all-time, passing 2015’s 200 by a solid seven films, but coming far shy of the top two: 2018’s 261 and last year’s 264.

    I also ran my Rewatchathon for the fifth year in 2021. I’ve spent all of that time thinking I ought to include it in the statistics properly, and all of that time not getting round to deciding how exactly to incorporate it, and now it’s over — I’m doing something slightly different next year. Well, maybe that will finally compel me to square the circle. Anyway, I rewatched 33 films — short of my target of 50, but not that bad else wise. That makes a combined total of 240 films, which is another distant 3rd place finish, behind last year’s 310 and 2018’s 311.


    NB: I have no rewatch data for 2007 and only incomplete numbers for 2008.

    I also watched four short films last year, which is my lowest total for those since 2016. A shame after the past two years saw me set new records each year, but then I’ve never made a concerted effort to watch shorts. Maybe I should. As always, the only stat they count towards is the total running time, and they barely make a dent there. To wit: the total running time of new features was 357 hours and 12 minutes, while adding the shorts bumps it to 357 hours and 58 minutes — just a 46-minute increase. That’s my smallest “others” total ever, barely even visible on the graph below (it’s 1 pixel high).

    Here’s how that viewing played out across the year, month by month. The dark blue line is new feature films and the pale blue line is my Rewatchathon. Last year I included a pale green line for shorts, but that seemed a bit pointless this year. Last year I noted that, while the precise values of the graph changed each year I’d been running it (since 2018), the rough shape stayed the same: quickly climbing to a peak in April or May, then lower and bumpier to the end of the year. 2021 bucks that trend entirely, with the high point coming in February, before it almost tapers off, but spikes up dramatically in August and December, traditionally two of my weaker months. What does this tell us? Maybe not to rely too much on precedent.

    Next up, the formats on which I watched those films. Despite my continued advocacy (and purchasing of) physical media, it’s digital that once again romps away with the crown here, accounting for 150 films, or 72.46% of my viewing. That’s down slightly from last year’s 73.9%, but is still above the 2015–2021 average, which is 58.5%. I’d definitely like to get it down closer to 50%; or, even better, to see Blu-ray beating it, considering I buy so many of the darn things.

    Of course, a lot of individual formats and services contribute to that digital total. The top spot therein is a tie between Amazon, topping the list for the fourth time in five years, and downloads, each with 35 films (23.3% of digital). Downloading was second last year, so that isn’t actually a huge change. The same could be said of the next few places on the chart: last year Netflix and Now tied for third, while this year Netflix is there by itself, with 26 films (17.3%), and Now is just behind, on 22 (14.7%); and iPlayer comes fifth, with 16 (10.7%). Last year there were three other services to mention: AMPLIFY!, which didn’t occur this year; YouTube, which I didn’t watch anything on this year; and Disney+, which retains that position kinda by default, with seven films (4.7%). Rounding out the digital services were MUBI on five (3.3%), All 4 on three (2%), and Apple TV+ managing a solitary one (0.7%). Most of their original content seems to be TV, although they did have a couple of other films that interested me, so that really should’ve been higher — but then I could say that about all the streamers (I mean, just look at my failures list each month).

    A very distant second place in the format war goes to Blu-ray with 51 films (24.6%) — just a third of digital’s tally, I’m ashamed to point out. It’s the format’s 14th year on this list and its 4th highest total, which doesn’t sound too bad, but as a percentage it pales besides the 40% I was hitting a decade ago.

    Between them, digital and Blu-ray accounted for a staggering 97.1% of my viewing in 2021, up on the 95.5% they represented last year. To be precise, that’s 201 out of 207 films. The remaining six were split equally between three other formats — again, to be precise, that means DVD, TV, and cinema each clocked just two films (0.97% each). Here’s a graph showing how much DVD has fallen — something that should improve next year, at least a bit. (If you want an idea of how much it might grow, 2018 had exactly 12 DVD watches.)

    A similar “once mighty, now not” slump has befallen TV across the decades, its place in my viewing schedule now definitively overtaken by streaming.

    And finally, the cinema, brought low by Covid for the second year in a row. More films that I was interested in were screening, but is it worth the risk? And we’re all hoping 2022 will be better, but how much is still a question mark. We’ll see in a year’s time…

    In amongst all that, I watched 24 films in 4K — a drop from last year’s 40, but still above any year before that (2019’s total was 15, for example). On the other hand, I watched just three in 3D, my lowest total there since I got my 3D TV back in 2017. New releases on the format are dwindling (even Disney, who were previously reliable with Marvel and Pixar titles, now only release the former on 3D BD in Japan, with no sign of the latter), but I’ve still got a not-insignificant pile of 3D discs I’ve bought and not watched yet. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that all of my 2021 3D watches were films I don’t own or can’t get on disc, so were downloaded by other means (wink wink, nudge nudge).

    Topping both of those this year was the number of films I watched in SD. Yep, really. Between some downloads, some streams, and those couple of DVDs, I watched 25 films in SD in 2021. At 12.1% of my total viewing, that’s actually the second highest percentage since 2016. What’s more interesting is that, although it means the percentage fluctuates somewhat, the actual number of SD titles I’ve watched has been pretty consistent for years: the average for the past six years is 23.6, most falling in the 23–25 range. While it’s nice to watch as much in HD (or even UHD) as possible, there are some titles that are just so hard-to-come-by that one has to settle for lower quality. While “SD” might make many of us think of DVD-level quality, several of this year’s SD titles were more “recorded off TV to VHS then ripped to digital”-level. Yeah, they looked and sounded awful, but when that’s the only way to see the film at all…

    Of course, it tends to be older films that only exist in such low quality, and my viewing on the whole skews newer (though don’t get me started on the fact some brand-new productions still receive DVD-only releases). But as the new decade continues to get underway, the question is: how new? It took the 2010s until 2012 to usurp the 2000s at the top of my decade chart. Could the 2020s manage it a year earlier? In short, no — but it’s close! The 2010s are still in first place, but with only 46 films — that’s their lowest since 2012, coincidentally. It represents 22.2% of my viewing this year, the lowest-ever percentage for a top decade (at the same point, i.e. in 2011, the 2000s still had 35.2%). And the 2020s are snapping at their heels, just three films behind on 43 (20.8%). The margin between these two decades was 33% last year, but this year it’s just 1.45%.

    In third place comes the ’90s with 22 films (10.6% — exactly double their percentage in the last two years). That’s their best total ever, their highest placing since 2017, and their best percentage since 2010. Why did they do so well? Oh, don’t ask silly questions (i.e. I have no idea. Chance, I guess). There’s an even bigger surprise in fourth place, though: the 1930s with 18 films (8.7%). Their previous best showing was last year, with just six films (2.3%), and their previous best percentage was way back in 2008, at 3.8%. And with the 1940s coming in fifth with 16 films (7.7%), also their best-ever result, could this be a preview of years to come? Well, I have set myself the task of watching at least 12 films noir next year…

    Things continue to ping back and forth in time as we move down the chart. Next is the ’80s on 15 (7.2%), followed closely by the 2000s on 13 (6.3%), followed even more closely by the ’70s on 12 (5.8%), and right behind them are the the ’50s on 11 (5.3%) — far down the chart though it may be, it’s still their highest ever total. Indeed, never before have so many decades reached double-figure tallies in a single year.

    Rounding out the list, the ’60s have an uncommonly low five (2.4%), while bringing up the rear are the 1920s on four (1.9%) and the 1910s on two (0.97%) — not their best result (2007 and 2010 were both higher), but only the sixth time they’ve featured at all in 15 years. Finally, no features for the 1900s & earlier, but they were represented by a single short film, for only the third time ever (the previous occasions being 2013 and 2020).

    There’s somewhat less variety in where films came from, with the USA once again dominating countries of production, having a hand in producing 140 films. However, at just 67.6% of my total viewing, it’s their lowest percentage ever (down from last year’s 68.6%, the first time it had been below 70%). There’s nothing wrong with US movies, but there’s a whole world out there and it’s nice to spread one’s viewing around a bit. To wit: there were a total of 35 production countries represented in my viewing this year, the second best ever (behind last year’s 40, when there were almost 28% more films, so, y’know, fair enough). Some of the more unusual ones (in terms of my own viewing) included Latvia, Estonia, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Peru, and Romania.

    Back at the top end of the chart, the UK took its usual second place, with 54 films (26.1%). France returned to third place, a position it’s held for six of the ten years I’ve been monitoring this stat, with 18 films (8.7%). Hot on their tail was Japan on 17 (8.2%). Also in double figures were Canada (15, 7.2%) and Germany (12, 5.8%), and coming seventh with seven was Australia (3.4%). China, Denmark, and India were tied on four (1.9%) each, while four countries each had three, eight countries had two apiece, and the remaining 13 had one film each.

    All those US and UK films mean that English was the most dominant language, as always. It was spoken to at least some degree in 183 films, or 88.4% of my viewing, a percentage that’s up from the last three years. As I say, this count includes all films where it was spoken enough to merit listing, even if it wasn’t the primary language. Perhaps I should start making a note of just the main spoken tongue for the sake of the statistic… Also as usual, the language in second was a long way off. This year it was Japanese in just 11 films (5.3%). No others made double figures. But overall there were 27 spoken languages (plus five silent films), which isn’t bad. Some more rarely-heard languages this year included Amharic, Estonian, Kiowa, Somali, Tupi… and Klingon.

    A total of 178 directors and eight directing partnerships were responsible for the films on 2021’s main list. 16 of them helmed multiple films, led by Leo McCarey with five. Second place is shared, with three apiece from David Hare (the Worricker trilogy) and Reginald Le Borg (all among the Inner Sanctum Mysteries series), while Ishirô Honda helmed two plus one film in a ‘partnership’ (that would be the US cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla, where Honda’s original work was supplemented with US material by Thomas Montgomery). The remaining 12 had two films each, and they were: Jack Bernhard, Bob Clark, Cameron Crowe, George Cukor, Joe Dante, Paul Greengrass, Tom Hooper, Ben Lewin, Anthony Minghella, Mike Nichols, George Stevens, and James Whale.

    For a few years now I’ve specifically charted the number of female directors whose work I’ve watched. 2020 saw a new high reached, but sadly 2021 sees it slip back again — although it’s still above 2019, just, so there’s that. My viewing this year included 13 films with a female director (12 solo; one as part of a trio with two men), which comes out as a measly 5.94% of my viewing. As I put it last year, it’s debatable whether the onus should be on me to seek out more films directed by women or on the industry to give more directing gigs to women, but ultimately it’s a bit of both — though I’d argue with more weight on the latter, because I just watch the films I watch; I neither avoid nor seek out female directors especially. Anyway, I do hope this graph will continue to improve in the future, though I’m not sure it will ever approach 50/50 (considering all the older films I watch, which are predominantly directed by men to a farcical degree).

    We’re approaching the end now — broadly speaking, because before I dig into 2021’s star ratings, it’s time for an update on a couple of viewing projects I vaguely have on the go. First, the IMDb Top 250: at the time of writing, seven films from my 2021 viewing appear on that famed list. However, because that list is ever-changing, the number I have left to see has only gone down by two, to 28. That’s my poorest showing since 2012. I feel so close to the end now (just 11.2% to go) that I really would like to get it finished off. Of course, new releases ping on all the time (there are currently four 2021 releases on there), but that’s life — if I finish the rest of the list, I can bop them on the head as and when they pop up. Anyway, the current positions of the seven I saw this year range from 52nd (Cinema Paradiso) to 222nd (La Haine).

    My next viewing project is the one I call my “50 Unseen”. As regular readers will know, at the end of my annual “top ten” post I always include a list of 50 notable films I missed from that year’s releases. I’ve continued to track my progress at watching those ‘misses’ down the years — which is how I know that 2021 was a particularly poor year for this particular mission. Where previously I would watch at least one film from every list, this year I only managed to hit eight of the 14; and from most I only watched one film, leaving my with a total of 21 films across all 14 lists. That’s the lowest since 2010 (when I only had three lists to work from!) In fact, the last time I watched that few films from even just the newest list was in 2014. And speaking of the newest list, in the first year of watching 2020’s 50, I watched 12 of them — the lowest ‘first year’ since 2010 (again), when I only watched eight films from 2009’s list. You might think this is because 2020 was a poor year for new films, thanks to the pandemic, but there are plenty in that 50 I very much want to see, I just… haven’t. Maybe I’ll finally catch up on them in 2022.

    For what it’s worth, the other nine I watched came from 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2019 (all one film each), and 2015 (three films — why so many more, I don’t know).

    All of which means that, in total, I’ve now seen 497 out of 700 of those ‘missed’ movies. That’s exactly 71%, the first time this percentage has dropped year-on-year since 2009 (it was 73.2% last year). On the bright side, that’s still above where it was the year before last (70.3%), so it’s not a total disaster. (As usual, my new list of 50 misses from 2021 will be in my “top ten” post, sometime soon.)

    And so, to conclude the statistics for 2021, it’s the climax of every review: the scores.

    Now, I need to provide a similar caveat to last year: this stat factors in every new film I watched in 2021, even those for which I’ve yet to publish a review — which, this year, is 98% of them. That means there are some where I’m still flexible on my precise score — those films I’d award, say, 3.5 or 4.5 on Letterboxd, but which I insist on rounding to a whole star on here. For the sake of completing these stats, I’ve assigned a whole-star rating to every film, but it’s possible I’ll change my mind when I eventually post a review (it’s happened before). Still, this section should remain broadly accurate.

    Starting at the top end, then, in 2021 I awarded 25 five-star ratings, which means 12.1% of the films I watched got full marks. That’s at the lower end of my range, which historically spans from 11.9% to 21.2%. I’d put that down to harsher marking rather than poor quality: there were quite a few 4.5-type films where I eventually erred towards the lower score.

    As usual, the most prolific rating was four stars, which I gave to 88 films. At 42.5%, that’s a sliver up on last year’s percentage (which was 42.1%), which rather suggests the lower number of five-star films wasn’t all that much due to those 4.5s after all… unless a lot of 3.5s got the rounded-down treatment too, of course.

    Well, there were 63 three-star films, which is the third highest tally ever, behind 2018 and 2020 — both years in which I watched more films. So, really, that’s only appropriate. The historic range of my three-star ratings spans all the way from 19.6% up to 38.0%, so 2021 coming in at 30.4% actually puts it somewhere in the middle.

    Indeed, the real gains are to be found among the two-star films, which number 29 — the highest-ever for one year, and the first time there I’ve given out more two-stars than five-stars (although they did draw back in 2012). It comes to 14.01%, which isn’t actually the highest ever… but it is close, because 2008 reached 14.4%. Again, this brings up the usual debate: was this a weak year, or is my scoring getting harsher? I think, at this point in my life, the latter is definitely a factor.

    Last, and most definitely least, I handed out just two one-star ratings, which is only 0.97% of my viewing. That’s very typical: I’ve awarded two or fewer single-star scores in 10 out of 15 years, and only three years have pushed its percentage above 1.5%

    Finally, the average score for the year — a single figure with which to judge 2021 against other years, for good or ill. The short version is 3.5 out of 5 — that’s the first time it’s dropped below 3.6 since 2012, when it was an anomalous 3.4. Indeed, that’s the first 3.5 score in 15 years (there are five 3.6s, six 3.7s, and two 3.8s). To go to a few more decimal places, it’s 3.507 — still my second-lowest scoring year ever, but it doesn’t stick out quite as egregiously as 2012’s 3.352. Still, it’s only the third time the score’s been below 3.600 (2019 was the other, on 3.589), so it is a low one, whichever way you cut it. Again we ask: was it a weak year, or is my scoring getting harsher? As I said before, I am beginning to feel it’s the latter.

    All of which said, let’s not forget: it’s still a pretty good average overall. I mean, it’s well above 3.0, and 3 is a positive score. A ‘true average’ might be 2.5, but then I’d have to watch a lot more bad movies, and who wants to do that? Maybe I could try to watch even more very good / great films, and then maybe the average would rise again… or maybe I’d just worry I was being too lenient. No, at this point I feel I’ve demonstrated a degree of consistency in my marking — so long as the average is in the 3.5–3.7 range, I feel like I’m getting things about right.

    And so, I’m sorry to say, the stats are over for another year. I know I’m changing things up from 2022, so will this post look significantly different next year? Y’know, probably not: I love this stuff too much to stop working it all out.


    My picks for the best and worst films I saw in 2021. And then my review of 2021 will be over, and you’ll have seen these blue-ish stripey mid-post graphics for the last time!

    My Most-Read Posts of 2021

    2021 was a relatively quiet year for me, review-wise — I made just 55 posts, vs. over 120 in each of 2019 and 2020, and over 200 in 2018 and 2017. Nonetheless, that’s still enough from which to draw a Top 5, right?

    Normally I do a “TV Top 5” and “Film Top 5”, but, as I only posted three TV columns last year, that seems a little pointless. Instead, here’s an overall Top 8 — because of course all the TV posts made the very top of the list, and this means you can deduce the film-only Top 5 if you want to.

    Also, the graph in the header image was made with accurate figures, if you want an idea of the posts’ success relative to one another. (A less balloon-obscured version is available here. If you think the two on the left, 7th and 8th, look the same height, they’re not — but they are very, very close: the difference between them has come out as just 1 pixel.)

    My Top 8 Most-Viewed New Posts in 2021

    8) Psycho Goreman
    One of just four reviews I posted in 2021 of new films I watched in 2021. Two of the other three are also in this top eight, while the fourth (Muse: Simulation Theory) came 12th overall. Also worth mentioning (as much as any of this is): Psycho Goreman beat the post in 9th place by just one hit. That was the 100-Week Roundup XXII, for what it’s worth.

    7) The Man Who Reviewed Some Films
    A four-film compilation, including The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Man Who Sleeps. Was one of those responsible for its popularity? Or is it a unique combo of four fairly-popular films? Who can say. Maybe people were just intrigued by the title.

    6) Nomadland
    The 2020 Oscar Best Picture winner finally made it to a wide UK release in April 2021, occasioning my review. The mix of awards season success and “new release” status likely explains its success here.

    5) The Past Christmas on TV
    The 2020 edition of my Christmas TV overview, including Cinderella: A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas, Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks, Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse; a roundup of comedy specials, including Ghosts, The Goes Wrong Show, Not Going Out, and Upstart Crow; plus brief words on Blankety Blank and Have I Got 30 Years for You.

    4) No Time to Die
    A new James Bond film was too significant to miss — especially one as long-awaited as this — and so it broke my (inadvertent) long run of not posting reviews, and proved unsurprisingly popular with readers, too.

    3) Death to 2020
    Now, normally this wouldn’t count, because I posted it last year. But I posted it at 11pm on December 31st, and in that first hour it only gained 11 hits, so — under those unique circumstances — it seemed unfair to leave it out entirely. More than unfair, it would be inaccurate: a highly successful post, that could’ve been missed off both the 2020 and 2021 lists due to a technicality of posting time. Anyway, I expect it did well because reviews of Netflix content often do… and because it’s probably more a TV special than a true film, and, as we know, TV reviews usually do best of all. To wit:

    2) The Past Month on TV #67
    including Dial M for Middlesbrough, It’s a Sin, more of The Twilight Zone, WandaVision episodes 5–8, and A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote. I expect the combo of It’s a Sin (one of the best-received TV series of the year) and WandaVision (the much discussed debut Marvel Disney+ series) is responsible for this.

    1) The Past Month on TV #66
    including Cobra Kai season 2, Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema series 3, Staged series 2, more of The Twilight Zone, and WandaVision episodes 1–4. All very popular shows, so it figures they would add up to the #1 spot.