‘Reminiscence,’ ‘Copshop’ And The Best Theatrical Movies You Missed In 2021

With the year winding down, it’s time to take stock in the various best, worst and underseen films of 2021. We’ll start with the under-loved. This first list charts ten films that (mostly) played in some semblance of theatrical release which didn’t quite find the audience they deserved. Yes, there were plenty of high-profile box office bombs in 2021, but these mostly didn’t even get the benefit of online handwringing over their theatrical fates. I wouldn’t say they are “underrated,” since most who saw them mostly liked them, and yes most of them are currently available on a streaming platform or on VOD. And now, in cowardly apathetical order… 

The Card Counter (Focus Features) 

Available to rent for $5.99 

Paul Schrader’s latest features an excellent star turn from Oscar Isaac as a quiet, unassuming man who makes his living as a card counter winning in amounts small enough to attract undue attention. We slowly learn that he spent eight years in prison for his role in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse, and a chance encounter with his former superior officer (Willem Dafoe) and a young man (Tye Sheridan) with thoughts of revenge against the man who ordered his father to torture prisoners but escaped accountability leads the card shark to something approaching a shared purpose. Tiffany Haddish does excellent against-type work as the film slowly becomes a grim odyssey dealing with the still-lingering wounds of post-9/11 military policy and the seeming criminal immunity of those who made it happen. $3.6 million worldwide is close to the $3.8 million earned by the far-more high-profile First Reformed

Copshop (Open Road Films) 

Available to rent for $5.99 

I don’t know if this action drama might have earned more than $6.7 million worldwide in non-Covid times, since Gerard Butler had become a B-movie butts-in-seats draw when the budget was small enough to celebrate a $15 million debut. Nonetheless, this Joe Carnahan-directed potboiler stars Alexis Louder as a young rookie cop who ends up holding down the fort when Butler’s grouchy assassin gets himself arrested in order to take out a mob fixer (Frank Grillo) sitting in the next cell. The film’s first hour is an excellent example of rubber-band tension before Toby Huss waltzes into the police station and things go from bad to worse. Grillo made headlines in the film’s opening weekend by arguing that the studio cut was not Carnahan’s preferred version. I’d watch a director’s cut in a heartbeat, but the version we got was a terrific little B-movie actioner.  

The Courier (Lionsgate) 

Available to rent for $5.99 or for “free” on Amazon 

By Covid standards, $26 million worldwide is a smash for this Benedict Cumberbatch-led spy drama. Cumberbatch may be as good as any modern actor today at mixing prestige star vehicles (like Netflix’s The Power of the Dog and Amazon’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) with franchise-specific work (his MCU Doctor Strange appearances). Directed by Dominic Cook, this true-life drama concerns an unassuming British businessman who gets roped into Cold War espionage. But that’s just the first third or so of this moving and somber look at under-the-radar espionage. It features an unusual number of (plausible) twists and turns and terrific performances both by Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze as his Russian contact. Beyond just being a very good movie, The Courier highlights how mundane informational transactions and unheralded sacrifices saved the world as often as front-and-center heroics while underlining the sheer absurdity of Cold War theatrics.  

A Journal For Jordan (Sony) 

In theaters only 

Denzel Washington’s fourth directorial effort is, like Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters and Fences, partially about the importance of fatherhood, for good or for ill, in the lives of Black men. The true-life drama is both a moving story of a young man growing up with only second-hand memories of his KIA father and a slow-burn romantic dramedy about an ambitious reporter (Chanté Adams) and a reserved but charming soldier (Michael B. Jordan). The time-hopping drama charts an entire romance from flirtatious courtship to overseas tragedy, giving its two actors the chance to dig into old-school star vehicle roles while offering up a romance that relishes the moments of our young couple getting to know each other and deciding that they like each other. There is a wonderful specificity to the story, and the inevitable climax gives away to not just heartbreak but surprising moments of decency and kindness.  

National Champions (Lionsgate) 

In theaters and available on PVOD for $19.99 

Released theatrically with barely a whisper on December 10, this thoughtful, nuanced and refreshingly topical drama is the kind of thing we all claim Hollywood never makes. Stephan James stars as a college quarterback who goes on strike and tries to get his team (and their opposition) to join them hours before the NCAA championship game to protest the lack of financial compensation for student athletes. The film doesn’t make any major points that will surprise anyone who has followed these issues for decades, but it’s still refreshing to see such a smart and compelling drama carrying the torch. Staged like a claustrophobic political thriller by director Ric Roman Waugh, National Champions features a terrific turn from J.K. Simmons as their head coach who comes to realize he may not be the hero of the story, as well as Uzo Aduba who gets the film’s best scene as she rather brutally dismantles the film’s core thesis without discounting the issues at play.  

The Protégé (Lionsgate) 

Available to rent for $5.99 

Martin Campbell’s brutal action thriller is not what you’re expecting, not least because it’s the rare female-led assassin movie where the protagonist (Maggie Q.) isn’t tormented by her profession, longing to live a more normal life and/or entrusted with the care of a child who appeals to her maternal instincts. No, this twisty and unexpectedly complex action thriller is mostly unconcerned with #girlboss melodrama, while spending as much time on character relationships and interpersonal melodrama as with action and violence. Michael Keaton plays a handler who tries to consider himself above his employers. The sporting romance/rivalry between the two offers something different from the more conventional likes of Ava, Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake. It was probably a coin toss away from being a Lionsgate Premiere VOD title. But either way, it’s now worth your six bucks to see one of our better real-world action directors still strutting his stuff.   

Reminiscence (Warner Bros.) 

Available to rent for $5.99 

Again, this Warner Bros. box office whiff ($15.5 million on a $65 million budget) is exactly what we all claim to want in our theatrical offerings, yet we absolutely ignored it (both in theaters and apparently on HBO Max). Lisa Joy’s original, high-concept sci-fi noir stars Hugh Jackman as a private investigator who uses experimental technology which allows folks to revisit their memories. The tech, invented as an interrogation technique in a recent war, can also be used by folks wanting to wallow in a cherished memory or revisit a dead loved one. In walks Rebecca Ferguson as a classic femme fatale, who (understandably) sweeps Jackman off his feet. Set in a climate change-ravaged Miami and featuring unapologetic R-rated pulp and unglamorous movie star performances, Reminiscence is the very definition of what used to be a “big movie” before movie stars got replaced by IP and marquee characters.  

Ron Gone Wrong (20th Century Studios) 

Available on Disney+ and HBO Max 

This original animated feature is a surprisingly intelligent and nuanced look at social media and its impact on children. Sold as a loose reimagining of Big Hero 6 meets Child’s Play, this coming-of-age story sees a lonely young man (Jack Dylan Grazer) receiving a defective version of the current popular kids’ toy, in this case a robot that acts as a metaphorical wingman for helping kids make friends. However, this version comes raw sans most of the safety mechanisms, which causes it to grow its own personality. The picture paints a low-key authentic portrait of childhood anxiety and growing up poor amid rich friends, while eventually becoming an empathetic screed about how social media has not supplanted, rather than supplemented, conventional human relationships. Directed by Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine, this $60 million-grossing non-sequel/non-IP toon deserves to be rediscovered on Disney+ and/or HBO Max. 

Stillwater (Universal) 

Available to rent for $5.99 

One of two less-than-sympathetic and unglamorous star turns from Matt Damon in 2021, this Thomas McCarthy-directed drama is very loosely based on the Amanda Knox case, and the alleged similarities caused a media-friendly controversy when the real Knox understandably took issue with a film being sold as an exploitation of her wrongful conviction. The film is anything but exploitation, existing, as a deeply sympathetic and non-sensationalistic character study featuring Damon as a hard-and-scrabble burned-out oil worker who ends up staying in France while he tries to help his daughter (Abagail Breslin) beat a murder rap. The emphasis is on family melodrama and cross-cultural connections, with zero car chases, explosions or shootouts. Damon once again shows that he is one of our least vain movie stars, willing to play “uncool” protagonists and/or let his flashier co-stars steal the show.  

The Unholy (Sony) 

Available to rent for $5.99 

I am amused to see folks choosing to include David Prior’s (quite compelling) The Empty Man among the year’s unsung heroes just because they didn’t see it when it was in theaters in October of last year. As someone who saw Empty Man on opening day, I will merely “yes, and…” by noting another terrific under-the-radar (and decently-scaled) studio scare flick. Based on James Herbert’s novel Shrine, this Evan Spiliotopoulos-directed The Unholy stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a disgraced journalist who stumbles upon a young woman (Cricket Brown) who can apparently perform healing miracles. Spoiler: This isn’t Heaven is For Real. The picture is less concerned with conventional scares or even playing all the religious horror tropes (there is no climactic exorcism, at least not as you’d usually picture it) than with just telling an engrossing and empathetic horror story. It is scary because we care about its participants. 

The Tycoon Herald