This past weekend, I spent three-and-a-half hours watching movies in Iowa City. I also spent three-and-a-half hours reading movies in Iowa City.

The short version is that it's a queasy morality fable about a fallen woman who, due to the love of a faultless man, ultimately discovers the grace of God and mends her wicked ways. The longer version is that this earnest, tacky, largely offensive trifle is – thanks to a handful of unexpectedly resonant performances – a lot less icky than it should have been. Damned actors. The good ones can make almost anything bearable.

While this latest, incessantly meta sequel is frequently clever and easily watchable, it also kept reminding me, unfortunately, that there's a fine line between smart and smarty-pants.

There's nothing much wrong with the action thriller The 355 that couldn't have been fixed with a better director and a better script.

If you spend nearly two years working on your company's debut show, and it not only gets successfully produced but enjoys several sold-out performances during its run, what do you do for an encore? If you're the Haus of Ruckus' TJ Green and Calvin Vo, and your comedy “Jacques”alope turned into a hit for the Davenport venue the Mockingbird on Main, you return to the site of your previous triumph – and give yourself all of one day to stage something new.

Welcome to my 21 for '21 – a list of 21 cinematic favorites from 2021 (even if they were technically 2020 releases, and even if they didn't literally play at cinemas), along with 21 runners-up, and, because I'm only in half-bitchy critic mode these days, 10-and-a-half citations for the most egregious offenders of the past 12 months.

From its opening Meet Cute to its inspired roster of satiric figures to its rapturous finale in which two youths literally fall for each other (and into each other), Licorice Pizza all but bubbles over with euphoric high jinks, platonic-rom-com wit, and an unmissable desire to give audiences a great time. It's like the movie version of a chocolate-covered pretzel: salty and sweet, and something that, once consumed, makes you instantly crave more.

“Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” This is a piece of advice Morpheus gives Neo in the latest Matrix installment, and over the decades, Hollywood has certainly taken that truism to heart. This week saw no fewer than three franchise continuations – The Matrix Resurrections, Sing 2, and The King's Man (a prequel to the Kingsmen series) – debut on the same day. And while the films vary in quality between utterly delightful and mostly terrible, all three at least offer pleasures of the familiar: soothing presences, and recognizable flourishes, for anxious times.

What follows are opinions, rhetorical questions, and tangents inspired by Spider-Man: No Way Home - director Jon Watts' initially dreary, ultimately exhilarating love letter to Marvel fans - more or less in order of occurrence.

Happily, and gratefully, this is a film clearly made by people who both adore its 60-year-old predecessor and still saw 21st-century room for improvement.

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