While I may end up doing some sort of disappointments list, this is probably going to be the last top 10 list I do for last year. And this one is arguably one of the hardest. While with games and books I had a lot of pruning to do thanks to exposure and some decent stuff coming out, with movies, it’s not quite the same. For one thing, there weren’t a whole lot of great films. For another, I spent a huge chunk of the year rewatching the entire MCU, and “rewatching” means every movie is excluded from this list.
Same rules as previous lists apply: anything I watched in the medium for the first time throughout the calendar year counts. In this case, I’m fairly certain that almost every if not outright every movie came out in the past year. I’m stretching “movie” here to mean “any movie length production,” as things get a bit nebulous (like before, this list is primarily Netflix stuff with a few Disney thrown in and at least one surprise.
And this list is pretty much just “stuff I’d watch again” and/or “stuff that had something interesting to say.”
(Also I will be changing the Saturday format coming up: I’ll continue to focus on other media as well as games, though I’ll probably still do longer review).
10 America: the Motion Picture
The plot of this movie involves George Washington avenging the loss of his best friend Abraham Lincoln after Lincoln is assassinated by Benedict Arnold who just so happens to be a werewolf. After getting despondent, he hooks up with the beautiful Martha who ends up buoying his spirits and encouraging him to get together a “crack” team to fight off the British and their advanced tech.
It is as insane as that premise sounds and it’s objectively not a great film. It is full of stupid humor, toilet jokes, ideas that make no sense, and insanity. It’s also trying something new and daring and I ended up grinning at the sheer stupidity and creativity on display. Is it worthy of an Oscar nomination? No, not at all never just no please stop.
But it’s a wacky, wild ride and was worth viewing at least once.
(I did say my choices were slim)
9 Black Widow
Remember that bit earlier where I talked about how I rewatched the entire MCU? I capped that off by watching Black Widow for the first time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, way more than a lot of other recent Marvel movies (I DID NOT WATCH SHANG CHI PLEASE DO NOT COME AT ME MARVEL FANS). Yes, it kind of feels like a traditional spy movie, and the decision to release it as a sort of mid-quel kinda kills a lot of the stakes. There’s only so much that can happen here because we know Natasha has to make it to Endgame so she can be fridged.
But this movie does some things great. There’s a lot of bonding in this very weird found family sort of situation that feels very real. Everyone I’ve seen talking about the film has emphasized those aspects, and as I’m writing this months later it’s what sticks out to me. Those moments really show good acting and the humanization of the characters that keeps the MCU going.
I also love Yelena as a character. She is probably my new favorite MCU character, or at least up there with some of the Spider-Man characters and Dr. Strange. She’s engaging, and, yes, does feel a little bit like a Black Widow replacement in the power sort of section. But she’s got a very different vibe, and I found her genuinely enjoyable. Not just for her commentary, but for how the film shows that Natasha isn’t the only one who has human emotions despite everything.
But yeah, the villain sucks, the stakes aren’t great, and this does feel a little too much like a spy movie in parts.
You can pretty much tell from the trailer if this is going to be a film for you. It’s aggressively bright and colorful, doing a lot of fun things with the visuals and music that appeal. It’s often at its best when it’s essentially playing a music video. It probably helps that the songs are written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Moana, so much) who is consistently great at these things and a decent actor on top of it.
The plot isn’t amazing. It follows the journey of the titular Vivo, a kinkajou, who was a partner to a performer. Said performer’s old flame got famous and left him behind, but she extends an invitation to him to come perform. Yeah, he obviously dies, hence part of why I can’t remember his name. Vivo is picked up by Gabi, who is what Hollywood writers think an outcast girl looks like (they are about 40% right).
Again: not great. The saving grace in this film is its visuals and catchy music. People often complain about “My Own Drum,” but I love its energy. Any song with Miranda singing is just brilliant. And the visuals are just kinda fun. Is it great? Not at all. Like I said: most of these aren’t.
7 Raya and the Last Dragon
This movie is good. Like a lot of stuff I’ve talked about, it feels like it needed another draft to really get what it was trying to say, and it also feels about five years behind the curve to be truly amazing. The visuals are stunning, and the characters are genuinely engaging. Plus the story is moderately dark for a Disney film, which can be quite good.
The overall story follows Raya as she journeys to find the Last Dragon, Sisu. Raya was raised in a family that’s supposed to guard the magic McGuffin stone, but they try to make piece with other tribes that feel like weird stereotypes. Stone is stolen, is broken in the escape, and the Dark Force is released unto the world. What follows is a kinda engaging action piece.
Honestly this felt like Avatar the Last Airbender, but Disney’s version. Thing is, that show’s 16 years old, which shows how dated the movie’s overall plot feels. They do this kinda interesting thing where they pretty much soft give Raya a female love interest in her rival. In any other Disney movie, the rival would be male and they’d be a done deal afterwards. But Disney has to play in China, and that won’t play in China, so welcome to more coding!
But it all feels a little underdeveloped. Characters sometimes lose their traits depending on the scene. Some of the secondary characters don’t quite stand out. Sisu is a genuinely enjoyable character, but she doesn’t feel quite like a standout type in the vein of Genie. I heard one reviewer say that Awkwafina, Sisu’s VA, is quite funny with good material but doesn’t come off like a good improv artist. That kinda feels like what we’re seeing here.
Still, it’s an engaging fantasy epic, and, again, something I’d enjoy watching again.
I watched this movie with my family, and to my delighted surprise, my mother was the first to comment when it was done. She told me it was a “cute little movie” and I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing. I may have hyperbolically said that 2020’s Soul was a nearly transcendent experience, and I do think it’s an amazing film from top to bottom with something cool to say.
But sometimes films with smaller narratives are equally worthwhile.
This follows the titular Luca, a fish boy who lives a pastoral life under the sea with his family. The animation is brilliant in his world, but the world itself feels almost underdeveloped, particularly that underwater bit. But Luca has a fascination with the human world. He wants to go up there and be where they walk, where they run, where they play all day in the sun (don’t worry, it’s not a direct ripoff). He journeys there, where he finds another boy who also likes the surface world. They pal around and discover each other, and eventually opt to enter a contest for a Vespa, because neither of them understand what a Vespa is.
There’s a possible queer reading there that I’ve seen developed, and I could probably flesh it out. I will say that I didn’t see it the first time around, but after it was pointed out to me, I definitely see it and kinda want to write about it. But honestly, the film’s more about this cute little story about boys growing up and discovering themselves. It almost feels like a classic Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film, where the stakes are small and the focus is on idyllic life that we’ve left behind.
5 My Little Pony: the New Generation
This might have been my most anticipated movie of this year. I was hugely into the previous series, Friendship is Magic, and so I was really hoping that the New Generation would be interesting. It feels like an introduction movie to a new cast, and it does a pretty good job developing the characters and some of the potential relationships (I also appreciate that there’s a male pony character).
The plot follows Sunny, an Earth Pony (pony without magic or wings) who has been raised on stories of the Friendship is Magic cast. So she’s been told about the literal magic of friendship and magic, particularly between the various ponies. However, her world is now segregated: she lives among the Earth Ponies, who have been taught that the other two ponies, particularly unicorns, are evil and want to do bad things to them. But Sunny believes in friendship, so she sends letters out. A cheerful unicorn (voiced by Kimiko Glenn, who’s becoming a favorite of mine.
The film does lean a bit more toward modern animation tropes and ideas than the last show did. This shows clearest in the songs, which have a more pop bend than the already fairly poppy show did. On top of that, modern technology has worked its way into Equestria (the pony world). But I’d argue the show does some moderately clever things with that (Earth ponies have tech to fight against magic; the pegasi have turned their royalty into social media stars).
It’s not a classic film, and the FiM official movie is much better. But this is a fun introduction to new characters, and I’m eagerly anticipating a series with these chars (that it has great characters helps).
Oh, and almost every fan agrees that the “Angry Mob” is the best. They’re right. “Millions can’t be wrong, especially when they’re screaming loudly” (that’s a line in a MLP movie, folks)
4 Love Hard
Netflix produces Christmas movies now, and yes, they do feel like Lifetime movies from time to time. But there’s something delightfully cheesy about them, something full of warmth that does kinda feel like how I want the holidays to feel. There’s obviously tilt here, as I watch these every holiday with my families. They feel like those movies.
Oh, except Love Hard, which also wants to subvert nearly everything about them.
To be sure, it’s still got a lot of the classic Christmas movie cheese here. It’s a rom-com between an unlikely male lead and a pretty female, which kinda feels very much like something from years ago. However, there’s a slight added level here. The film plays with standard tropes, even the ones it leans into. The guy is actually willing to help the attractive girl get with another guy. There’s trickery, but the characters are often weirdly honest about it. Plus it seems to poke fun at a lot of movie tropes.
Honestly I probably put it up here for the whole moment where the two leads sing a variation of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” I’m like a lot of my generation in that I see the creepiness of it (not helped by South Park having Bill Cosby sing it once). So it’s cute how they manage to play with it in unexpected ways here. The film is clever like that, playing with tropes when it wants and subverting them when it can. If you’re relatively smart and like these films, or think that sounds appealing, I’d recommend this one.
3 Mortal Kombat: Battle for the Realms
Oh hey, turns out this movie did come out this year, so all the movies on the list did.
But yeah, this movie is insane. It’s sort of like the first entry on this list in that way. I’m mostly going to copy a text chain I sent to my best friend while watching this film, because it encapsulates my experience in a lot of ways:
It’s a siege. Demon monsters hurl fire at a castle where monks hold them off with arrows. Battle. The scene shifts to the courtyard. Troll breaks in. Monks fight. They got a guy who throws a hat. Cuts troll’s eye out with his hat. So far, so dark gory fantasy. Then, a black military guy with metal arms shows up using his machine gun to mow down demons.
He also brought a cop. Cop has no powers and was not told about demons. He has a handgun.
They win. Scene shifts to bad guys planning. They are overheard by the guy the good guys sent to negotiate: action movie star Johnny Cage. He demands they surrender; he gets surrounded. It’s okay, his girlfriend (who insists she’s not his girlfriend) is a sniper. She snipes the martial arts guys.
…I am not editing this; this is the order of events.
I look up: they’re in hell well. No, I don’t know why.
I loved this movie for every inch of its unapologetic insanity and I now get why people like Mortal Kombat. Also the animation is impressive. I have nothing more to say.
2 Mitchells Vs. The Machines
This movie had some hype behind it. It’s done by the Spider-Verse people, and a lot of people have called that movie perfect (that’s not entirely hyperbole?). In many ways, this film feels like a throwback to the nineties and the like. It really feels like it’s done by someone who was a possibly queer film geek who grew up in the early oughts and has since become quite creative. It’s stylish as heck, though some of its style leans a little on “lol random” humor that went out of style about a decade ago.
The core of the movie is about a father and daughter who don’t understand each other. It’s basically the Goofy Movie. Father arranges a long term car trip for the daughter so they can bond. they drag the rest of the family along. Somewhere along the way the robot apocalypse happens.
I didn’t say it was exactly the Goofy Movie.
But this film seems to acknowledge the whole nuclear family, or at least what it has developed and become. It feels like it’s both clinging to the old ideas of that concept but also tweaking them for a modern audience. On top of that, we’re getting some great animation and engaging jokes. It’s really worth watching, even if you’re not into this sort of thing normally.
I… I feel like I should have more of these. I watched so many films where I went “yeah, that was good, but I don’t think I’d watch it again.” Live action Mortal Kombat wasn’t quite cheesy enough (Kano steals the show), and I find it hilarious that Hat Guy™ has died in every appearance I’ve seen him in. Venom’s goofy fun. The Batman: Long Halloween animated duology is incredibly stylish and well done, but feels too try hard and everything I don’t like about the comics. The Croods: New Age and Boss Baby 2 are better than their prequels. If you count the Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist Christmas special it might have made this list.
1 Bo Burnham’s Inside
I have long been a fan of Burnham’s work. Admittedly I came into a bit late to be some sort of hipster, die hard fan: he was putting out his third special or so. But Burnham always felt like he was hitting a lot that effects my generation, for better or for worse. His songs are often quite catchy, and his insights are piercing.
Inside is Burnham’s response to the Pandemic. It’s technically a comedy show, but also feels like an introspective look at what was going on with not just Burnham, but a lot of a generation that has become burned out by a world that isn’t matching what we were promised. I’m not trying to rail here or make a political statement, but to express that there’s a strong emotional connection to be made here. Part of me tears up not only with laughter, but with sympathy as I watch this, even in pleasant moments like the song about facetiming your mother (I projected and wrote “skyping”).
It’s engaging, it’s thoughtprovoking, it’s emotional, it’s a sort of visual diary meets comedy experience that speaks to me and to several others. Most of this list is just goofy stuff, but this, this feels meaningful. It had meaning to me, and that’s what matters.