I don’t love sand planet: Best/worst films of 2021

Another year, another awards season that has passed this blog by. Oh well. I doubt there was anything particularly important to comment on that happened. Even if there was, you likely wouldn’t want to hear my thoughts on it, tonstant weader. Let’s get slapping.

I think this blog did both better and worse than expected on movies the last year. There are some holes both as a general moviegoer (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”; “The French Dispatch”; “Godzilla vs. Kong”) and a thriller fan (“In the Earth”; The Night House”; “The Little Things”; “Antlers”). I haven’t seen “Nobody,” a film that would complete a triptych of alternative views on the John Wick narrative this year (the other two are obviously below). I also started but did not finish – due to unforeseen circumstances – the Danish black comedy “Another Round.” So far, it seemed to be a very indie affair, from the delightfully inappropriate sense of humor and hints at emotional complexity, to the earnest performances (including Mads Mikkelsen) and crappy handheld camerawork. Ya get whatcha pay for.

Still, in reviewing my list, I was surprised by how much and what I’d watched. Find that list below. As always, the better films are at the top, and the order was gauged by both perceived quality, narrative and visual, and whether I’d watch them again:

Dune – Two quick caveats: I did not see this on a big screen, and I watched it in two rounds, so make of that what you will. And yet, absurdly well photographed, engagingly scored, sumptuously costumed, wondrously designed, smartly written and smoothly acted, “Dune” is likely my favorite film of the year. Is it half an hour too long? Possibly. But even its moments of downtime usually felt important and typically had some kind of payoff. The film does not shy away from the heady themes of the franchise: destiny, duty, identity, the role of mysticism in society, the paradox of the sacred the violent. Even small flourishes, like House Atreides bull imagery, felt organic and world building. Denis Villeneuve’s theatrical, sprawling sci fi epic of space intrigue, monochrome lighting and sand worms feels very worthy, and I am looking forward to its baked in sequel.

A Quiet Place Part II – “A Quiet Place” was an unexpected horror hit about monsters that hunted by sound and the family that had to silently sneak around them, and the sequel is little different. That’s a good thing, since it picks up its predecessor’s gorgeous photography, excellent score and earthy acting. It also picks up a few of its narrative conveniences – the film goes a little nutty with parallelisms sometimes, particularly in the climax – but it’s a small price to pay. The CGI critters look pretty good, and there’s some solid tension and genuine shocks. Plus, can you believe that’s Cillian Murphy as a survivalist? I couldn’t at first.

Riders of Justice – This is a fairly successful action dark comedy flick about an off-the-clock soldier on the hunt in modern Denmark for the radicals who blew up his wife, the nerds that are helping him, and his traumatized daughter who is trying to make sense of it all. The humor is cottonmouth dry, but it works well for those who don’t mind. The film is also surprisingly thoughtful, although it never forgets to have some cool explosions along with its musing about loss, culpability and comprehension. Performances are strong across the board, with Mads Mikkelsen taking the lead (the man could elevate a KFC commercial to art).

Coming Home in the Dark – You know the drill: Drifters come out of the New Zealand brush and take a family of school teachers hostage. They go for a road trip. They’re not going anywhere good. The constantly bleak mood will no doubt be called gritty and real by some, and a chore to watch by others; still, you can’t ignore how uncompromising it all is. If you can stomach it, you’ll find sensitive photography, some great acting, thoughtful editing and pacing, and a literate script.

Pig – This is listed as an unconventional thriller, which is accurate, although it’s more unconventional than thrilling. Nevertheless, the story of angry backwoods truffle hunter stalking modern Portland to find his prized pig has some moment that will likely leave you thinking about purpose, possession and what it means to let go. It’s grittily shot, and not always easy on the eyes or narratively sensible, but it’s sensitively performed, particularly by lead Nicolas Cage.

The Delivered – Imagine a movie that’s one half home invasion thriller and one half conversation about the role of religion, particularly regarding homelife and gender politics. Now imagine it’s set in the aftermath of the English Civil War. “The Delivered” (original title “Fanny Lye Deliver’d”) sports intriguing camerawork, an always appropriate soundtrack and a dream-like atmosphere (the solid presence of Charles Dance don’t hurt neither). It feels a bit long at nearly two hours and finishes with a slightly unearned ending, but whatever. Maybe a brisker pace would have helped.

Willy’s Wonderland – I made my review, and I’m sticking to it. This pulp horror comedy featuring Nic Cage duking it out with animatronic pizza parlor creatures is pretty much what it says on the tin. If you want a thoughtful narrative, you’d be far better off looking somewhere yonder. If you want goofball action, all in a stylish somewhat 1980s sheen, it’ll get the job done. Cage is great, obvs, as is the supporting cast. Just don’t expect too much from the script, slasher-ready teens or photography in general.

Nightmare Alley – I should honestly love this movie, but I don’t. It’s a gritty period crime drama, perfectly cast and wonderful to look upon. Guillermo del Toro is a great choice for a noir director, since he so effectively captures the grotesque that lurks under much genre. He doesn’t shy away from carnivals, mind readers and all manner of the strange that lurks just outside of normal society. Still, it definitely feels like it’s based on a novel, with a certain meandering nature that would be more comfortable in a episodic format. Perhaps that length and pacing combined with characters that are hard to root for and a classic plot make this feel less than rewarding.

Censor – A sorta meta media mystery about a woman who cuts horror flicks for a living and thinks she sees clues to her sister’s disappearance in the latest project. Cleverly lit and shot, it’s fine for genre fans. Performances are smooth across the board, with Niamh Algar believable as the lead and Michael Smiley having fun as a sleazy producer. The film is not shy about asking whether horror flicks make us crazy or moral guardians keep us safe – it could be a little shier, honestly – but it’s an organic vehicle for that conversation. I’m not actually English, so I can’t speak as to how well the film captures the video nasty era, but titles like “Don’t Go in the Church” sound right. The gore gets a little goofy at the end. Maybe that was the point.

Boss Level- You could do worse with a pulpy sci fi action thriller, but you could do better as well. It’s actually pretty fun when it focuses on the crazy killers stalking a downtrodden ex-solider who’s caught in a “Groundhog Day” loop. It’s violent and eccentric and has a dark sense of humor, exciting in its pacing and making good use of a bright cast. Then it slows down and tries to get serious with some bits about making time for family. A lower key film probably could have pulled it off, but the mood whiplash is a bit too much for this blog.

The Vault – A pretty boilerplate heist thriller about cracking into the secret illuminati vault of the Bank of Spain. You’ve got your Sir Francis Drake treasure, your putting-the-team-together montage, your old-dude-young-dude dynamic, a third act betrayal. The very capable cast is likely the film’s strongest element, with the presumed highlight Freddie Highmore playing the same quasi-intellectual weirdo he’s been playing since at least “Bates Motel.” I mean, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City- It’s been established that this blog was quietly a fan of the loud Milla Jovovich led/Paul W. S. Anderson helmed Resident Evil films, so it was with both concern and intrigue that we watched the reboot. The plot is trying to splice together the first two games: Special forces types investigate a haunted house while the Umbrella Corporation’s microwavable zombies stalk the city nearby. There’s an interesting moment at the start of this film where it looks like it might be taking more cues from psychological horror than body horror, but that’s out pretty quick. Despite shades of John Carpenter in the photography and pacing, the film betrays the atmosphere it builds with a cartoonish script, unfocused direction and odd stylistic flourishes. I don’t mind the video game Easter eggs scattered around, but the speech that tries to cram as many 90s references as possible? Jennifer Paige? It’s an odd mix. The cast is mostly dull, although Donal Logue seems to be having fun as Chief Irons and Neal McDonough was almost sympathetic before he turned into hamburger. Focus on Mark Korven’s punching-above-its-weight score rather than the inconsistent sound mixing.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw – I had high hopes for this film, although I don’t know why. It was a sort of soft reboot of the series, a not quite but still distinct cutting off from the source material. I’m not the biggest Saw fan, but if you’re gonna reboot, the way I see it is this: Either lean into the pulp detective stuff, and make it gritty and low-key, or lean into the murder traps and make them over-the-top. This film tried to have both ways and backwards: low-key traps and over-the-top detective action. The traps are all acceptable, if not particularly creative, and will sometimes satisfy the gore hounds. The detective stuff comes courtesy of a script that relies on cliches and conveniences, and is delivered by a cast that need a little reeling in (Rock in particular, who is enthusiastic to an alarming degree). I understand that franchise fans conclude this film is not good but at least better than what came immediately before; for my own part, I’m still looking for the right scratch to satisfy my horror/detective itch.

The Deep House – It’s an interesting concept – YouTuber haunted house explorers investigate a property that’s completely underwater – but there’s a little too much going on for its own good. Lovecraft, found footage, Nosferatu, plague doctors. Make up your mind, movie. Too bad. The result is a muddled narrative and an unsatisfying conclusion. Some pretty water and landscape shots, and a few moments of claustrophobia, but I don’t care enough about the characters on screen to feel any real dread.

A House on the Bayou – Urban family undergoing a crisis of marriage takes a week at a swamp mansion to unwind, cos that makes sense, where they encounter a boy and his pappy who are more than they seem. A perfectly fine murder thriller with supernatural suggestions that leans pretty hard on the supernatural, then tries to backtrack and have it both ways. It can’t. The film blows its credibility on its premise and remains unfocused throughout, leading up to its unsatisfying ending. The cast is pretty meh, but Angela Sarafyan is always watchable and I’d like to see more thrillers with her.

H. P. Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones – “Shadow Over Innsmouth” by way of “Rosemary’s Baby,” this is certainly an intriguing setup. It’s too bad the result is illogical and unattractive. I’m not even blaming the budget. The film gets away with a couple of interesting effects – the sequence at the end with the expectant mother is fine, even if the atmosphere is spoiled by the appearance of the father. To call the acting over-the-top would be assuming that was intentional. To say the script lacks subtlety would be generous. There’s a cool fire dancer scene in the center of the film. Focus on that instead.

Chaos Walking – Based on a novel, and boy does it feel it, since there are a ton of questions I never felt were satisfactorily answered. It’s a story of man-can-hear-man’s-thoughts-on-hostile-colony-world, but few of those components ever feel particularly necessary. Maybe the ever-present CGI effects and sprawling forest locations are meant to impress, but they kind of blurred together around a lackluster coming of age story at the center. At least we have Mads, again, riding around in a sweet hat and furry jacket. Maybe not the worst film of the year, but I always like circular framing. Start with an overproduced sci fi flick, end with… well, you get the idea.

Did the games begin?: Best/worst games of 2021

I think this blog did OK on games of last year. Not great, but better than I expected, given that there was nothing debuting I was particularly excited about. Looking over some of the “best of” lists from more reputable sources didn’t help, although I did notice that “Groundhog Day”-style time mechanics were pretty popular. As of this posting, this blog only has “The Forgotten City” to meet that requirement, and since I haven’t actually started playing it yet, it will not appear on this list.

The new incarnation of “Doki Doki Literature Club!” won’t be on this list either, but I have my reasons, which you can no doubt divine if you read my review.

Anyway, here’s what is on the list:

Hades – This is technically a 2020 release, but I’m playing the Xbox physical release version, so I’ll count it as 2021. Because it’s been out for a while, you might know all the praise already, and this blog is happy to report it’s all well placed. There is so much to recommend about “Hades” for anyone who likes roguelikes: the setup is easy to learn but interesting to master; the per-arena risks and rewards are interesting to play with; the enemies are varied and just the right amount of irritating. In fact, “Hades” is more challenging than punishing, so even non-roguelike fans can approach it. Those that do will find smooth controls, excellent presentation, stylish in-game graphics and stylish portrait art, with a script that is smart and lucid. It’s really hard not to recommend.

Blasphemous – Technically a 2019 game this time, but again, I’m playing a new physical release. You know what that means? The physical release came with all these cute little extras, like maps and stickers. The same thing with “Hades,” actually. Indie games. They got heart (and stuff). In case you haven’t heard, “Blasphemous” is one of those metroidvania titles, very Dark Souls – downbeat atmosphere, high difficulty, an obscure story, a parry mechanic, a gradually expanding map made navigable by shortcuts. It’s also a 2D platformer with a retro look, which is fine, I guess. I typically like the retro look to have a purpose. The game definitely has visual style. Everything is very medieval Spain, so perhaps the pixel art gives it an Old World feel? Either way, combat is intricate, exploring is rewarding and, while it doesn’t quite seem to be asking any big questions, it is a novel presentation that’s taken seriously by the developers. The game has that operatic feel nailed down, and that’s all I ask for.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite – Calling it underrated is probably an overstep, but I thought this Alien franchise third-person shooter was nice. The music is strong, the visuals less so. The story is pretty boilerplate for the franchise, and the game’s efforts at humorous dialogue are, um, admirable? There are a few different dressings for the corridors. The game tries to build atmosphere, and it does work from time to time, since a fight doesn’t break out every minute (sometimes the drip-drip-driping is just a leak; other times, not so much). It’s just that when the fights do start, they tend to boil down to the same thing: sprinty cover shooting. For the most part, that shooting looked and felt good, even if the strategy rarely evolved beyond point and pull the trigger. Playing with people is usually a quicker affair, so you get through the routine faster at the cost of atmosphere. Feel free to kick this down a space if you’re not a fan of the franchise.

Curse of the Dead Gods – Maybe this is the best game of the year… or maybe I just never realized how much I like roguelikes. It must be because I learned how to game on the Xbox Ninja Gaiden franchise, which is what masochists played before Dark Souls. I digress. “Curse” is one of them procedurally generated dungeon crawlers, this time set in the subterranean ruins of an Aztec temple. It has an atmosphere rather than a plot, but it’s decently executed and fitting for something that’s Lovecraftian in flavor – more Mike Mignola-style graphics; gloomy and crumbling environments; a decent light/dark mechanic. There’s a kind of “greed corrupts” theme too. It all gels. Rewards from the hack and slash combat are offset by an in-game curse mechanic that ensures each run is a little different. Controls felt a little sticky, but overall things were manageable. It probably won’t convert anyone to roguelikes – that’d still be “Hades” – but it’s a stylish distraction for the choir.

Halo Infinite – Look, did you want this to be the game of the year? It’s a new Halo game, and I abandoned the franchise around “Halo 3,” if memory serves, so I guess I lot of stuff I had no idea about happened in the meantime. I get the feeling that even if I did know what was going on, the story would still be as weak as gas station coffee. It was always “go to the next waypoint location and stomp on some more aliens,” all set in a samey-looking and somewhat empty open world. The combat itself is undeniably fun though. Can’t argue with a grappling hook – I never used any of the other tools, outside of an elite fight or two where I tried the cloaking one – and there is something beautiful about being able to hurl explosive barrels of plasma at yelping enemies. That said, it never felt particularly challenging, and even when it did I never felt like I was doing anything different. I played through most the campaign to figure out less what was going on and more whether it had been worth it. I also sunk about an hour into multiplayer, which is still frantic, frustrating and full occasionally angry people.

Scarlet Nexus – This blog is hardly an expert on these relationship driven JRPGs (I’ve really only also played “Code Vein”) and probably didn’t play enough of this to get the full picture (aren’t games in this genre infamously long?), but we feel it’s safe to stick this comfortably in the middle. Ya done OK, game. The plot seemed pretty generic anime: a maybe shady government organization uses pretty people to fight weird monsters. Perhaps it was an accurate translation, but couldn’t we have found a more colorful name than “Others” for said monsters? The visuals are pretty generic anime too, quite safe and unremarkable (some of the monster designs recalled “Madoka” witches, so that was appreciated). The cutscenes are pretty flat. They looked fine when they were comic book-style static; they looked less fine when the characters’ mouths were doing a chewing motion in an attempt to sync with the dialogue. Gameplay was fun and featured a little bit of strategy. I played the waifu, natch, and found her controls to be a little slippery, like I was playing on roller skates. No word on whether the husbando feels the same. I do like the new game screen though, with the two of them looking moodily into the distance. Too bad that wasn’t quite the feel of the rest of the game.

Back 4 Blood – This is considered a spiritual sequel to “Left 4 Dead,” right down to the numeral in the title, but I’ve never played “Left 4 Dead.” I have played “Vermintide”a lot – and that’s considered “Left 4 Dead” with rats; I can safely say that “Back 4 Blood” does seem like “Vermintide” with zombies. Everything looks OK, all “Fortnite” smooth, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that the pacing of a game was its most punishing quality. It’s also hard to build an atmosphere when nothing ever shuts off. The zombie designs are cool and all – pustule popping elite zombies swimming with arms and teeth bound around as their flesh drips off their bodies – but I can’t appreciate any of it when everything moves at a million miles a second. Playing with bots slowed things down, but then it felt like there wasn’t much to engage with outside of the brutal pacing. Everything from ambiance to dialogue to feedback from shootin’ things felt forced at best and murky at worst. This feels like a very safe Halloween third-person shooter. Play at your own desire for another one of those.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse Earthblood – Depending on where you look online, the title of this game is punctuated in all sorts of novel ways. I picked the one that looks best on this list, but that alone should tell you something. There’s obviously some expansive lore behind “Earthblood,” and the developers likely appreciate that lore, but there is so much missing from this as a game. It’s a third-person action/stealth game with mild RPG elements, but all of it feels underwhelming. The stealth is poorly developed, with bad feedback from enemies and few mechanics, ultimately feeling unnecessary. Everything turns into a fistfight, which is a little better – at least it can almost function like a werewolf power fantasy – but that also lacks smoothness, and frustrating attempts at using the combat options typically devolve into button mashing. Outside of combat, exploring the hub world is what this blog found the most satisfying. It’s bigger than expected, which is still not that big. In fact, everything about this game feels unwieldy. Not just the mechanics, but the presentation too. The story is cartoonish and, presumably if you’re as unfamiliar with the lore as I am, convoluted. The voice acting is stiff. The animation is awkward; no one knows what to do with their arms. The main character’s biceps look like rubber. I like how his tiny wolf form leaps like a thrown rag doll, but I doubt that was the developer’s intention.

So that’s it, tonstant weader. What did I miss? Also, should I do a month-or-so of Halo franchise reviews? It might be smart for traffic, given that Paramount Plus series that recently debuted. Whatever. I’m not good at this. Tell me what to do in the comments below, &c.