This was also a weird year for movies. For some regions such as the state in which I live (New Mexico), we didn't even have an opportunity to start going to theaters again until around June, as I recall. For much of this year theater-going actually felt safe enough, as hardly anyone was actually going to the movies. If you wanted to watch new films at home, many streaming platforms did simultaneous releases; HBO Max has been a very good deal, for example.
So what movies earned a top five place on my list? This was a tough year, because you not only had to watch films that had often been delayed a lot, this year saw a slew of late arrivals in the theaters that were heavily immersed in pig-slop-wallowing levels of nostalgia that were at times almost embarrassing. Not a good year (for the most part) for creative effort in blockbusters! Still, I can think of five movies I quite enjoyed:
#5 Free Guy
Ryan Reynolds has an affable comedic charm about him that translates really well into certain films. Free Guy was the surprise movie of this year, a film I figured would be a relatively benign, no-punches-pulled comedy with lots of sappy moments. I wasn't entirely wrong....but wrapped up in a story of a non-player-character trapped in a persistent online video game world who attains sentience is a pretty good movie about what it means to be an AI, what a prospective realistic future online world might look like (with some caveats for the story), and a film that is surprisingly relevant and entertaining. Taika Waititi as the tech mogul bad guy was hysterical, and Free Guy quickly made my list of one of the most enjoyable and generally feel-good movies I had seen this year....and this is from a guy who normally shuns "feel-good" films like the plague!
#4 Spider-Man No Way Home
Okay so this one is pretty egregious on not only the nostalgia factor but also the "let's mix up our universe of franchise IP content into a big pot and see what comes out" approaches to film. Unlike many other movies that fell into the category of appealing to nostalgia and IP-smelting pots of content this third Tom Holland entry did a decent job of leaning hard into the tropes so common in comic book lore, and ended up making not only a decent third movie for the Holland Spider-Man, but gave some closure to the two prior Sony Spider-Man film series as well. It would have been very easy for this to have gone bad, quickly, but an exceptional cast and approach made it fresh and interesting, which is impressive. Ultimately, this movie, along with The Suicide Squad earlier in the year, both boldly drew their plots and focus from the weirder spectrum of comic book stories and pulled it off big time.
I'll admit, I am a total sucker for indie horror, and Censor is an amazing movie. Starring Niamh Algar as Enid Banes, who works for the British film industry censorship dept. during the mid eighties, a time when this was actually a thing and the British government was concerned about the enormous number of exploitation flicks and horror movies with the substantial gore that rose in the late sixties and seventies. Enid's job is to clinically analyze the films and indicate what must be cut to allow a British release, when she sees a video which reminds her suspiciously of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of her sister in her youth. Beyond that, I will say no more, but this was a great movie.
#2 The Suicide Squad
I don't know how James Gunn's take on DC's Suicide Squad ever got greenlit the way it did, or how it avoided studio meddling, but it's like watching an actual Suicide Squad comic book brought to disturbing life. It manages to hold to the story beats of a blockbuster summer film while also completely violating the core conceits of blockbusters with a disturbingly entertaining yet unlikeable cast of vile misfits, deliberately sets up audience expectations for sympathetic characters only to kill them off the second they get a payoff to their story arcs, and then grabs one of the zaniest villains of DC's long history (Starro the Conqueror) and makes it a genuinely interesting existential threat. Amazing film, but I feel like it was made specifically for me and other fans of the comic, and somehow people thought it would also be well received by general audiences....which it sort of was? And of course Margo Robbie was amazing in this movie, which is essentially part 3 in a trilogy of Harley Quinn tales.
#1 Dune Part I
This movie broke the spell on Hollywood that you cannot take Frank Herbert's novel and make a good movie out of it. Although the film takes a few liberties, it does a dramatically better job of setting the mood, ambiance, and smart story telling of "show, don't tell" to recreate the first halfish of the novel and is well worth experiencing, especially on the big screen if possible. It is sufficiently amazing that it retroactively generated interest in the Lynch version of the movie from the 80's and the later SciFi Channel editions, just so people could analyze what about prior attempts fell short where this one excelled. Thankfully Part II has been greenlit, although I am shocked that they didn't have the chutzpah to just film both parts at once.
Honorable Mention: The second Venom movie was a short (1 1/2 hour) and entertaining film that could have overstayed its welcome but did not, and in many ways improved on the formula of the first movie, with Woody Harrelson and Naomie Harris getting an opportunity to really ham up their villain roles while Tom Hardy did his thing. Fun! I can't say I'd recommend it to anyone other than comic fans or Venom fans (or fans of these actors) but I didn't leave the theater feeling regret (unlike some other recent movies).
I might also mention Eternals, but while this was a good movie, I think if asked to watch it or Venom II again I'd have to stick to Venom II, just because it was shorter and more amusing.
The Movie Walk of Shame: Lots of films disappointed this year. I talked about a few of them, including Ghostbusters: Afterlife (shameless pillaging of a comedy franchise corpse to appeal to Stranger Things contemporary nostalgia feels); Resident Evil Welcome to Raccoon City (by-the-numbers pandering attempt to make a video game franchise by people who forgot that you need to also care about what you are making); Matrix Resurrections (I, and everyone I have talked to, agree the movie was "just fine" but really didn't need to exist; I think the first thirty minutes were great and wish the film had gone hard into a subversive deconstruction of the original trilogy rather than tease us with the concept then veer away to a confusing medley of traditional beats); and both Black Widow and Shang Chi were perfectly serviceable Marvel movies that show that the standard formula is getting stale.
I can't say that any particular movie I saw this year was terrible, though, which doesn't mean there weren't any...I just got lucky at dodging them. Even Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a perfectly watchable movie with some good moments, it was just tonally off from its franchise origins and too busy emulating a brand of nostalgia I was entirely out of tune with.
A lot of the good stuff that did come out this year was actually on TV....perhaps a future column on that later!