We knew when the coronavirus pandemic brought Hollywood to a grinding halt in 2020 that the following year was going to be a pretty unusual one in terms of movie releases. With social restrictions still in place across the United States and around the world, studios were forced to rethink their strategies as 2021 drew near, with many opting to send tentpole pictures that were made for the big screen directly to streaming platforms instead.
Warner Bros. led the charge when it announced that all of its 2021 movies would get a limited theatrical run alongside a digital release on HBO Max. Then, to one degree or another, studios like Disney and Paramount followed suit. With this new way of doing business, most film fans predicted that there would be a period of adjustment as the studios attempted to make sense of Tinseltown’s drastically altered landscape. But what we didn’t see coming was the deluge of bad movies they had lined up for us. From long-awaited blockbusters that were met with widespread disappointment to hastily shot pandemic pictures that should’ve never seen the light of day, these are the worst movies of 2021.
A decade after his film Another Earth became the talk of Sundance, writer-director Mike Cahill added another reality-bending sci-fi romance to his resume. Released in February 2021, Amazon’s Bliss stars Owen Wilson as a man who suffers a breakdown when his marriage and job implode in quick succession. Greg then gets sucked into a world of powerful hallucinogens after falling in with a homeless woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek), who almost convinces him that the place they’re escaping to — a place where she’s a genius scientist running a simulation and the world’s problems have largely been solved — is the one true reality. Those with the required patience will eventually discover that Greg has actually become a homeless addict, or so it seems.
Bliss was made available to stream at a time when audiences desperately needed an escape from reality, but the film only succeeds in dumbfounding viewers. "Even the worst simulation would have more clarity than this," said IndieWire in its review, and Chicago’s Daily Herald agreed, blaming the "convoluted, minutia-obsessed ‘Matrix-Lite’ screenplay." Cahill’s biggest error is spending way too much time explaining the mechanics of his universe, though exposition overload is far from the only issue here. The truth is, co-stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek lack the onscreen spark that Bliss sorely needs. Neither seems totally committed, and it becomes increasingly harder to root for them when the only thing that appears genuine is Wilson’s look of bewilderment.
A handful of movies have been created and set within the coronavirus pandemic, but for every Host (a Zoom-set thrill ride that was among the best horror films of 2020), there’s a total disaster like Locked Down. Part heist caper, part romantic drama, the film follows Linda and Paxton (Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor), a struggling couple whose planned separation has to be put on hold due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in London. Holed up together, they decide to plan an audacious jewelry heist that will make them millionaires. Using Paxton’s delivery driver job and Linda’s access to the Harrods vaults, they’ll steal a diamond worth over $4 million and — after giving half the proceeds to the National Health Service — go their separate ways.
Of course, things don’t pan out that way — the heist just brings them closer together. Writer Steven Knight (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) and director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) imply that Paxton and Linda are going to use the rest of lockdown to fall in love all over again, but unless you’re a superfan of either Hathaway or Ejiofor, there’s very little to admire here. Both leads put in an admirable effort, but Locked Down is too concerned with winks and nods to lockdown life, often ignoring the whole heist plot for long stretches of time. "The entire film, in short, is an abominable mistake," said The Times, and we can’t help but agree.
The second Doug Liman movie released in as many months during the early part of 2021,the long-awaited adaptation Chaos Walking (based on the first book in the YA novel series of the same name) was another bust for the talented director. The property was lauded as the "next Twilight" by Reuters when it revealed that Lionsgate had acquired the movie rights way back in 2011. Liman boarded the project in 2016, and by the end of the year, both Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland had signed on to star. Filming went ahead, but early reactions to the movie were so bad (execs at Lionsgate reportedly called it "unreleasable" after seeing the first cut) that major reshoots were ordered.
Unfortunately, Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland were too busy becoming huge names via the Star Wars and Marvel movies. The brief obsession with dystopian YA films had long since passed by the time Chaos Walking made it to the big screen in March 2021, but even if this intended franchise starter had been released alongside the likes of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, it would have struggled. The British co-stars "have all the rapport of two tree trunks," as London’s Daily Telegraph put it, while The Guardian quipped that "Chaos Lumbering" would’ve been a more suitable title. Nobody really expected Chaos Walking to be a game-changer after it spent so long in development hell, but it still managed to disappoint.
Breaking News in Yuba County
On paper, Breaking News in Yuba County was a surefire hit, but this black comedy about a suburban housewife who strings the news media along with a lie about her cheating husband missed its mark by a considerable distance. With Oscar winner Allison Janney leading the line and a supporting cast that includes Awkwafina, Mila Kunis, Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes, and Juliette Lewis, director Tate Taylor (The Help) had a chance to do something special. But sadly, Breaking News in Yuba County comes off as a derivative version of the films it aspires to rub shoulders with. Unfavorable comparisons to Coen brothers classic Fargo were popular among the critics, unlike the film itself, which was panned hard when it was released digitally and in theaters in February 2021.
Besides wasting a talented cast, Breaking News in Yuba County‘s biggest sin is overindulging in gratuitous violence. "The bursts of brutality, explicit and suggested, land somewhere on a spectrum between Tarantino and Looney Tunes, and not in a good way," said The Hollywood Reporter. Meanwhile, in a no-holds barred review, The New York Times questioned how a filmmaker like Taylor "came to direct this amoral, repellent bag of sick, a movie whose biggest ambition in life is to start a bidding war at a late 1990s Sundance Film Festival and then bomb at the box office." Writer Amanda Idoko (The Goldbergs) clearly had something to say about tabloid culture, but her message gets bungled badly.
A sci-fi misfire that lives up to its name, Cosmic Sin stars a lethargic Bruce Willis as a disgraced general who comes out of retirement to fight a hostile extraterrestrial race. The action takes place in a far-off future (the year 2524, to be exact) where humankind has long since colonized planets outside our solar system. War seems inevitable when one such planet is attacked by a hitherto undiscovered civilization, and the odds are, of course, stacked against humanity. Knowing it’s their only shot, Willis and Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Frank Grillo lead a preemptive strike on the alien army’s home planet.
The film continued a dreadful run of form for Willis, who came under heavy fire in the reviews. "To suggest that Bruce Willis is phoning in his performance in Cosmic Sin would be an insult to telephone communication, which can be an effective means of conveying important information and genuine emotion," wrote Christy Lemire, while the Los Angeles Times noted that the faded action star was "somehow more lackluster than usual." Could a different, more interested lead have saved this film? In short, no. The criticism leveled at Willis was indeed valid, but co-writers Edward Drake (who also directed) and Corey Large are equally guilty — they neglected to flesh-out the supporting characters and lifted a little too liberally from the likes of Battlestar Galactica. It even fails as a straight-up action film, with choppy editing and uninspired battle sequences.
Tom and Jerry
The relative success of 2019’s Detective Pikachu and 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog proved that there’s an appetite for light-hearted live-action/CGI crossovers right now, but 2021’s Tom and Jerry failed to strike the same chord. While it was just about passable as a mindless kids movie, unlike the aforementioned film, it gave teens and childless adults no real reason to stick around until the credits. History’s most famous cat and mouse duo get up to all the usual hijinks as they collide in New York City, and the animation (delivered entirely by London-based VFX house Framestore) looks fantastic, but the plot is paper thin, and the film’s talented actors struggle to get anything from it.
The story unfolds in an upscale Manhattan hotel where Jerry has taken up residence. When his presence puts a planned wedding reception at risk, new employee Kayla Forester (Chloë Grace Moretz) suggests hiring Tom to help capture him, which the boss, of course, thinks is a great idea. They fight, ruin the wedding, and then make up to save it in predictable fashion, all to the backdrop of a jarring hip-hop soundtrack. "The film opens on three rapping pigeons who perform A Tribe Called Quest’s "Can I Kick It?" in its entirety, and somehow goes downhill from there," The Telegraph said in its one-star review. Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, and Ken Jeong all feature in supporting roles, but none of them can save this misfire.
Released in April 2021, action thriller "Vanquish" has plenty of style, though no amount of neon-hued shootouts can cover for the complete lack of substance here. Ruby Rose stars as single mother Victoria, a former drug mule who managed to turn her life around. She got a job as a caretaker for Damon Hickey (Morgan Freeman), a retired hero cop who lives a secret double life as a crime lord. Victoria discovers this too late, as Hickey kidnaps her daughter and demands that she collect some debts for him.
"Vanquish" is essentially a handful of forgettable gunfights, each followed by an equally dull chase sequence. Victoria has to pick up cash at five different locations, and the same thing happens every time. She meets resistance, resorts to force, and then takes off on her motorcycle to deal with the next corny gangster on her list. Ruby Rose does her best to make us care about what she’s doing, but the sheer lack of character development makes that a big ask of audiences, who hated the film almost as much as the critics did (a 13% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes vs. a 5% critics’ score).
This was the third time that writer-director George Gallo had worked with Freeman in as many years, yet he still hasn’t figured out how to write for him. Gallo "burdens Morgan Freeman with stupid lines" said Richard Roeper (via the Chicago Sun-Times), while Peter Travers (via ABC) called Freeman’s participation in the project "a form of actor abuse."
The Woman in the Window
After numerous setbacks, Joe Wright (the Golden Globe-nominated director of "Atonement" and "Darkest Hour") finally got to see the release of his psychological thriller "The Woman in the Window" in 2021. The Amy Adams vehicle was originally supposed to drop in theaters in 2019, but the date was moved to 2020 when test audiences were left baffled by the complex plot. Disney (which acquired the film during the Fox takeover) pushed the release back once again when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and eventually sold the film to Netflix, where it debuted to less than enthusiastic reviews.
Adams stars as agoraphobic psychologist Dr. Anna Fox, who lives alone in her New York townhouse following her divorce. She passes the time by drinking, popping pills, and spying on her neighbors, which leads to her witnessing a murder one night. At least, she thinks she witnessed a murder. "The Woman in the Window" quickly establishes Fox as an unreliable narrator, and while that worked in A.J. Finn’s hit novel of the same name, it hampered the movie adaptation, eliminating a certain element of mystery too early. What follows is a poor Alfred Hitchcock imitation that’s not engaging enough to warrant the required mental energy (despite the extensive reshoots, the film remains a muddled mess).
While Adams is as committed as ever, poor pacing from Wright coupled with a clunky script from Tracy Letts makes "The Woman in the Window" a real chore.