By Nolen Kelly
The summer of 2021, or “The Summer of Cena ” for the cultured scholars out there, was much different from any other summer before it due to the slight reopening of the world and the reopening of movie theaters. To that I say, “Yay” followed by an emphatic “Huzzah” ending with a botched backflip. Energetic little scamp, ain’t I? The point is, theaters are open again and now movie enjoyers and casually bored families can finally return to the place that makes a camera and some silly pretending into one of the most enjoyable experiences a human can be a part of. This summer, like any other, had a fair mix of great and terrible movies, so here is my list of the five best and five worst movies I saw in the summer of 2021. If you disagree with anything, please do not cry, because then I will cry. Also, I will be throwing up a spoiler warning for some movies just in case, so be prepared.
Number 5 Good: “Val” Val Kilmer is a good and passionate actor. “Top Gun,” “Batman Forever,” “Heat,” “Top Secret!,” “The Doors,” ”Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Tombstone” are all true testaments to the diverse talents Kilmer has always possessed. The best of Kilmer’s career and talent are included in this documentary, which was shot by Kilmer himself and narrated by his son, Jack Kilmer. I always liked Val Kilmer, so I knew I would be checking it out, but I did not expect to enjoy his story so much. I have never been the biggest documentary watcher, but I do love a good documentary about a hidden story, as you will see by my number two pick, ooh what a tease. I have seen a few good ones this year, and “Val” was a solid chronology of the life of one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated leading talents.
Number 4 Good: “Luca” On my first watch, I was not particularly crazy about “Luca.” I thought it was a little too simple of a plot to really get lost in but after a second watch I realized that is what is actually so great about it. Almost all of Disney’s film subdivisions, like Marvel Studios and Pixar Studios, tend to treat most of their stories as if the world will end if the protagonist fails, and while “Luca” has some dire stakes of revealing a monstrous secret, it never feels like this is the end of the world. The lower and more personal stakes, mixed with some charming and fun characters, animation that makes everyone look like dolls, water that looks incredible and Italian food animated so well it looks delicious make this movie more into a low-key summer story. Disney put out some good content this summer, but if there is anything that truly feels like a fun summer adventure story, it is without a doubt “Luca.”
Number 3 Good: “The Suicide Squad (2021)”
I really liked “The Suicide Squad.” Unlike “Jolt,” “The Suicide Squad” takes full advantage of the R rating and just shows you what the inside of Pete Davidson’s (“Saturday Night Live,” “King of Staten Island”) stupid skull looks like. I wanted to like the David Ayer version of “Suicide Squad (2016),” which I saw twice in theatres by the way — and that was not fun either time, but it was just a cacophony of terrible visuals and noises that made me sad. Even the soundtrack of the 2016 film was misplaced, unlike the stellar tracklist from the 2021 version. I did not want to hear “Without Me” by Eminem immediately followed by “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, but I got it anyway. James Gunn, the musical man that he is, again showcased his ability of putting together a killer soundtrack that compliments the story nicely. Opening with “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash was a most excellent choice. There were a lot of characters on this squad, so it seemed like a difficult task of making everyone appealing, but Gunn pulled it off, even making a big humanoid shark, King Shark, played by Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky,” “Rambo”), hilarious and violent at the same time. I know this is a negative comment on a positive movie, but as an aside, I am getting a little bored with James Gunn’s writing style of action and character drama undercut with jokes and flow-breaking moments of silliness. The gore is great without gratuity, the humor is fun enough to keep this from becoming a Zack Snyder movie (but it is not always overdone), John Cena is my favorite character as the ironically violent Peacemaker and “The Suicide Squad” is definitely a fun summer blockbuster you should see.
Number 2 Good: “The Summer of Soul”
Once again, I am not a big documentary watcher, but every now and then Nolen loves a good documentary, yes, he does. “Summer of Soul” is directed by the speaker of the Jawn tongue and fellow cheesesteak consumer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Questlove, legendary The Roots front man and drummer, directed a documentary about an untelevised concert in Harlem from the same summer Woodstock took place. Yes, please, I will have two helpings, thank you very much. The point is, even without watching this movie, the idea of it sounds so great and the end result is truly something that is more than just a couple of confessionals and old footage but rather an explosion of culture, music, representation, history and a good time. If documentaries or late 60s soul, poetry and funk are not your kind of thing, then I understand, but I think you may be wrong here and you should check this out. Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone and Moms Mabley are all present here and there’s not much else I can really do to try and sell you on this. It’s just incredible and a wonderful example of Black excellence.
Number 1 Good: “Annette”
I have no idea where to begin with this thing. I gave this a 4.5/5 on my Letterboxd page, but I honestly do not think a number can properly describe this movie. “Annette” is a musical starring Adam Driver (“Marriage Story,” “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”) as Henry McHenry and Marion Cotillard (“Inception,” “La Vie en Rose”) as Ann Defrasnoux, a married celebrity couple who are a comedian and opera singer, respectively. That is the only concrete thing I know about this movie. Everything from there is a complete mystery that you just have to experience. “Annette” is not at all a typical musical by any means. With an original story and songs from Ron and Russell Mael, otherwise known as the 1980s American Pop/Rock band Sparks, this was never designed to be a normal movie by any stretch. The music is gorgeous, the acting is phenomenal, the story is easily one of the most creative I’ve seen in a long time, and there is always something new to talk about when dissecting this strangely lovely movie.
Number 5 Bad: “Sweet Girl”
Jason Mamoa (“Game of Thrones,” “Aquaman,”) seems like a super chill dude to hang out with… that being said, this movie is not very good. “Sweet Girl” is about a family who is impacted after the death of Cooper’s (Mamoa) wife, Amanda (Adriana Arjona), due to cancer. From there Cooper and his daughter, Rachel (Isabela Merced), go on a quest to find the ones responsible for failing to save Amanda. There are several moments here that should have had a bigger impact, but I came out of this one feeling pretty empty and wishing it was better. I went into this movie with low expectations and was still disappointed. I would not completely encourage avoiding this movie, but there really is not much to rave about. Even with a plot twist three quarters of the way through, this movie had very little to talk about afterwards. That is really all I have on this movie. There was not a lot to take away. I wish I could have liked this but, nah, pretty disappointing.
Number 4 Bad: “The Tomorrow War.”
“The Tomorrow War” stars Chris Pratt (“Moneyball,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”). “The Tomorrow War” is about a former soldier and current family man who is chosen to fight a war in the future for the fate of all of humanity. There was never any moment in this film that I felt even slightly interested in Pratt or his family, which was supposed to be an essential part of his character. His children were bland and annoying and, as Former UFC Heavyweight Champion and WWE Champion Brock Lesnar once said on an episode of “Monday Night Raw,” “I Don’t give a s**t about your kids.” There were some cool moments, shots and monster designs in “Tomorrow War,” that I thought helped salvage some moments of this movie. Some of the sci-fi elements were horrifying and interesting and there was some dumb fun action scenes, but besides that, there was nothing too interesting about the movie.. The dialogue is hilariously bad at points, the comedy is unnecessary, the side characters are weak and the main character is kind of weak too. One trope I pray disappears soon is the “Father who has a random nickname for his daughter” trope. Pratt calls his daughter Chickpea in this movie. Gross.
Number 3 Bad: “Jolt.”
Most of the entries on the ‘Bad’ list are going to be here because there wasn’t much to enjoy throughout the runtime. But, in “Jolt’s” case, it started off with something that could become awesome, but quickly turned into a below average action flick. The first chunk of the movie was actually pretty cool. There was a decent backstory, some fun dialogue, cute actor chemistry and good-looking violence, but after around the twenty-minute mark, the good of the movie gets ripped out and we are left with a very plain, very predictable and very unsatisfying story. The plot of the film is that when the protagonist, Lindy, gets angry; she loses control of herself through violence but she can control herself by shocking her entire nervous system back to stability with electricity. I understand that this is not an action movie, but not seeing Lindy go on a “John Wick” style murderous or hyper violent rampage, especially when the film is rated R, seems like a wasted opportunity. Not every movie needs violence to be good, but this one certainly could have used some.
Number 2 Bad: “Beckett”
You probably have not even heard of this movie, and that is okay. I think John David Washington (“Tenet,” “BlaKkKlansman”), son of Denzel Washington, has all the potential in the world to be the new face of Hollywood any day now. He is pretty recognizable for someone who is relatively fresh in his acting career, but with a movie like “Beckett,” with little advertising and not much plot to summarize, JDW should still stand out here, right? I honestly forgot I was watching Washington because he just kind of sinks into this movie. The movie itself is not good or memorable, either. A tourist in a foreign country amidst a major event is not the most creative idea, but there can still be some interesting possibilities with it. Writing this now, I cannot remember anything of substance from this movie. JDW is an American tourist on a vacation in Greece with his girlfriend, but then, after her death, he is caught in the middle of a political uprising (or something). It really is not clear what the whole plot was. All I knew was John ran from everyone the whole time, and not even in a cool way like “Catch Me If You Can” or “The Fugitive.” My enjoyment of this movie stayed at a steady level of minimal the entire hour and 48-minute runtime. There is not much else I have to say about this movie. Forgettable, boring, unoriginal and not worth spending any more time talking about.
Number 1 Bad: “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse”
Michael B. Jordan was amazing in “The Wire,” the most endearing in “Fruitvale Station,” and a new generation of badass in both “Creed” movies. I said “Beckett” wasn’t memorable, but I actually have no memory of anything from this movie. I think MBJ shot a gun in the movie. He is an army man, and this is a Tom Clancy movie so that means he had to have shot someone at some point. Maybe? I cannot remember for the life of me. I wrote notes as I was watching and I still have no recollection. There was a lot of generic army phrases being said every few minutes, annoying placement of Russian soldiers as the generic villain, the action was less than stellar, Guy Pierce was in this movie for some reason, about halfway through I have a note saying “I have no idea what is happening and I do not care,” and my least favorite thing about the movie was that the plot started 45 minutes into the film. “Without Remorse” is one hour and 49 minutes and it takes them almost half of that time to get the movie started. The film is full of dreadfully bland and forgettable stuff, and although it was terrible, at least it was not “Cinderella (2021).”
That is all that I have to say about all of that. The summer of Cena was a mixed bag of entertainment, like any other summer typically is, and luckily the good stuff was great and the worst of it was boring and forgettable. Thankfully, it seems that now more people are able to make it back to doing what they loved the most, and for me that means seeing more movies in theaters. If anything here was even remotely interesting, then follow me on Letterboxd (@Nolesy) and see what movies I’m watching.