The 3 Most Disappointing Movies of 2021 Are Best Picture Nominees!
Great filmmakers make not-so-great movies and get nominated anyway.
Somebody has to say it. This year has been massively disappointing for movie fans. Not that there haven’t been some wonderfully entertaining movies such as Spider-Man: No Way Home, Encanto, West Side Story, and Licorice Pizza. But there haven’t been the shining gems that balance insightful perception, depth of character, and sheer enjoyment. None that belong in the same movie canon as Nomadland, Parasite, or No Country for Old Men.
Three of the year’s most celebrated movies are, for me, three of the most disappointing movies. You’ll notice that I didn’t say “worst” of the year because they certainly aren’t. Don’t Look Up, Nightmare Alley, and The Power of the Dog are made with great skill, artistic integrity, and professionalism. That’s why there are so disappointing. They were created by some of my favorite directors, writers, and actors whose past work I’ve loved. But these strained efforts were bloated or pretentious or obvious—or all three. Each felt inflated by the filmmakers’ past successes, a magnificent mansion bounce house that quickly deflated into a plastic puddle after a couple jumps.
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The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog received 12 Academy Award nominations this year, more than any other film. Based on 321 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 93% Fresh rating. Critics loved it. Which means I’m in the minority opinion here.
On the positive side, the movie’s Old West setting looks artistic and authentic. It is flawlessly acted by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, and skillfully directed by Jane Champion. I’m a big fan of her previous film, The Piano, as well as her gritty, compelling TV series Top of the Lake.
But this film, which explores the themes of toxic masculinity, suppressed homosexuality, and the nuances of violence seems like a film that’s ten years too late. There is nothing being shown us here that hasn’t been shown in many other movies and TV shows over the last decade. Not that we as a society have arrived at place of enlightenment (as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation proves), it’s just that we need to approach it in fresh ways that invigorate the discussion, not repeat the ideas like Grandpa telling us for the umpteenth time how he got a great deal on his car. The film’s heart and mind is in the right place, but the story is tired and familiar. Nominating this movie as Best Picture seems more like the Academy virtue signaling than sticking to their mandate to reward exceptional and innovative films.
Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay is very funny. He wrote and directed The Other Guys, maybe the best send up of buddy-cop films. But he can also be politically insightful while being highly entertaining, as he was when he wrote and directed The Big Short and Vice, two exceptional films. But Don’t Look Up, a satire about the catastrophic dangers of climate change is so obvious and delighted with itself that it’s like watching drunk friends laughing at everything they say while we just wait for them to pass out.
Satire is a tough genre to pull off. In general, satire attempts to wildly exaggerate an issue to the point where the audience is scared or shocked into wanting the situation to change. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, which recommended the impoverished Irish sell their children as food to the rich to alleviate the famine in Ireland, wanted to motivate fixing the problem. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove wanted to frighten us into doing something about the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Perhaps social media proliferation has blunted the edge of satire because we are inundated with so much information about climate change that this attempt to exaggerate is neither informative, funny, or even scary. It comes across as a too-long Saturday Night Live skit (which McKay used to write) starring a bunch of former celebrity guest hosts.
How could this movie go wrong? The cast includes Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, and Willem Dafoe and is directed by the master of creepy suspense Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Hellboy). Set in a 1939 seedy carnival, the movie explores the darkest impulses of humanity and how they can corrupt us. This falls into the genre of the rise and fall of sleezy protagonists as in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.
The problem is simple: Who cares? Cooper’s character is so heinous that we aren’t invested in what he wants or does. We may have mild curiosity about how far he’ll sink, but otherwise everything he does is predictable. His lusty relationship with equally amoral Blanchett is unintentionally comical in its attempt to be both sensuous and menacing. The ending is telegraphed early in the film so then it becomes a matter of impatiently tapping our feet waiting for the inevitable, which is neither satisfying nor insightful.
This Sunday the Oscars will be awarded. Whether any of these films win Best Picture is beside the point. The fact that they were nominated already reveals a major fault line in the process that rewards show over substance. Yes, it is called show business, but awards should look deeper than budget or past successes.