I decided to leave Marvel movies off of my list this year. Unusual for me, I know, but this comes after having no superhero movies at all on my list last year and sleeping the sleep of the innocent after separating comic book movies from other films when compiling my respective top 100 movies of the 2010s list vs. the top 15 four superhero flicks of the 2010s. That said, there is a movie on this list that’s technically a comic book movie, although for me it’s mostly on the list because it’s a (gross) James Gunn picture. So, yeah, I’ve already spoiled it. That having been said, I saw both Black Widow and Spider-Man: No Way Home and enjoyed them both quite a lot, so feel free to read my reviews of those.
For Christmas 2021, my best friend also gave me this shirt, which is an in-joke from Jenny Nicholson’s THE Vampire Diaries Video, which would be my favorite film of 2021, measured by any metric that counted said content as cinema. Apparently, in her order, my best friend thanked Jenny for creating the best film of 2021, and Jenny responded “Thanks.” When this was divulged to me, I had a parasocial glee that I can’t describe. I don’t know why I’m even explaining this, since it’s currently sitting at 6.9 million views (up from 5.9 million at Christmas), which means that, statistically, you’ve already watched it (twice). I will not be answering follow up questions about my mathematical process, but this was the best long form video format thing that cannot technically be called a movie.
I also want to say that I really wanted to like Together Together. I absolutely adore Patti Harrison. Although we only know of one planet with sapient life on it, I think Patti would be in the top ten funniest beings from the five funniest orbs. I don’t know why her Funny or Die skits in which she reviewed animals have disappeared from the internet, but at least they were up long enough for me to make some GIFs, like this one. I wish I could have put this in the top list, but while this one would be worth watching for Patti alone (and with appearances from Julio Torres and Rosalind Chao, that should really push it over the top), if you, like me, can’t really get behind a film that has Ed Helms as the leading man, maybe just stick to Patti’s standup.
Ok, without further ado!
15. Things Heard and Seen
14. The Paper Tigers
The perfect movie to watch with your male relatives when you need something to fill the void between you! From my review: “The action here is nothing short of spectacular. It’s always a treat to see martial arts depicted with an emphasis on the arts over the martial, and this is a truly elegant film to behold. […] The comic elements are more grounded in character than we’re accustomed to [and] Paper Tigers doesn’t rely on old stereotypes and tiresome cliches to create a rhetorical space for joke-telling, and the comedy that does recall those dead horses is punching (and kicking, and breaking bricks) up, not down.”
13. We Need to Do Something
From my review: “We Need to Do Something proves that, even if one has to film under pandemic restrictions, some of our old stalwarts [like IFC Midnight] can still get something into the consumer’s home that mostly hits, all while doing more with less. […] I’ll grant that this could be because of some of my own psychological fears and damage contributing to the overall discomfort and anxiety that I felt during the runtime. Just as Unsane ended up as my number three film of 2018 by knowing where all of my fears live, so too does We Need to Do Something effectively and articulately seek out and find all of my weak points.”
12. The Toll
A movie that could easily have fallen into the trap of being kinda dumb, this one ends up being far more interesting than it has any right to be, as it counterposes images of memories with a truly deep, dark forest, within which dwells something truly inhuman. I feel like when I recommend this one to people, I’m like the older woman on the tractor who tells the main characters that it may seem like they’re in the same place but that they are really worlds apart, since it seems like no one else has been as impressed by this one as I have. Still, maybe you’ll like it, dear reader? Read my review here.
11. The French Dispatch
I have a friend who hates Wes Anderson. Like, really, really hates him. Seeing the trailer for The French Dispatch sent him into a rage, so much so that I sent this to him a while back:
I, however, am not a hater. In fact, when I learned from a friend who worked for Vulcan Video (North) that their DOS rental records went back so far that he could even take a look at what Anderson rented when he was a UT student developing the ideas and images that would go on to influence Bottle Rocket, I became obsessed with obtaining this information and possessing it for myself. If you’re reading this, Mr. Anderson, you can rest assured that this information never made its way into my hands, as the good people of Vulcan kept your privacy, and I couldn’t get my FOIA filed in time before that location closed. Even though the computer with that information sat at South Vulcan in order to merge the two databases, I still never managed to get my nerdy little talons on it. I do think that this is a more personal effort than others from the director’s oeuvre, and it’s as much a career inspection (I hesitate to use the term “retrospective,” as it has such a… finality) as it is a film, which means it doesn’t connect with me as a viewer with the same intimacy and immediacy as my favorites from that filmography (which, for the record, are Fantastic Mr. Fox, Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, and Grand Budapest Hotel). In those, the conceits of the story and framing form less of a barrier for me than they do here, as I didn’t really slide into the world of Dispatch as smoothly, but it’s still effervescent and fun, and I recommend it. Read Brandon’s review here.
10. The Suicide Squad
You know, I just love Starro. I think about every iteration of Starro that I’ve seen over the years and how they’re always kind of … cute. Blue and purple starfish guy; he’s only got one eye but it’s a big Bambi of a peeper, and he’s threatening but not very … gross. I’m a simple man and I like my James Gunn like I like my Cronenberg: again, gross. What The Suicide Squad has going for it in terms of sheer entertainment value is that it’s loud, slippery, fun, bloody, and full of bilge and bile. We all know seastars are gross, right? They have eyes at the ends of their limbs and they move around on gross little tentacles and there are over 2000 species of them in almost every kind of aquatic environment you can name. Here, Starro isn’t an adorable cartoon seastar but a massive, disgusting monster with nauseatingly realistic flesh, and then sometimes it opens up little trypophobia-triggering pores and shoots out more gross little dudes. I know I’m stuck on that point and there’s a lot more going on here than that, but I was very pleased with this one. Read Brandon’s review here.
I’ve been working on this list for a while, and this past week, the internet gifted us with this performatively sneering tweet about people watching “baby food culture” on airplanes, which of course set off a great deal of discourse about what constitutes said baby food, whether an airplane was really the proper space in which to engage with (presumably) richer texts like Schindler’s List or Hereditary. Others raised the point that some people opt for these as they are reasonably certain that they will be free of things that they might be embarrassed for watching in public (although I was plenty embarrassed to watch Ready Player One in 2018 but was reasonably certain that I would never see anyone on that flight again; now that’s baby food culture). There have been times for me when watching a movie on a plane actually contributed to the film, if that can be believed; there’s nothing like being forced to make yourself small as 6’2’’ guy with a shoulder width of 24+ inches sitting in a middle seat and subjecting yourself to Unsane. What I will say is that I watched Pig on an airplane, mostly, and I was still moved by it. Well, I watched the first 70 minutes on the flight from Raleigh to Atlanta, and then watched the rest of it on Hulu at home, and it was still one of the best films (and viewing experiences) I had last year, just as much as the Very Cinematic film that’s next on this list. Read Brandon’s review here.
8. The Green Knight
In what I advised in what I correctly characterized as “more of a summary than a review” of The Green Knight, I recognized that it was “an exercise for myself as much as it is a recommendation.” When talking about Alicia Vikander’s big speech, I asked and answered a question that applies as much to the film as a whole as it does to that scene: “Is it ‘good’? I’m not sure, but it sure was huge.”
7. Saint Maud
Last year during the introductory segment for our podcast about Ginger Snaps, we briefly discussed the film Ghost Stories, and specifically how it does “that thing I like.” We didn’t get into specifics since the specific thing that I like (henceforth TTIL) is always a spoiler, but for a longer discussion of that, feel free to check out our early Lagniappe episode about Housebound, which also does TTIL. All of this is to say that Saint Maud also does TTIL, and it does so with style and aplomb aplenty. The trailer for this one played before the last film I saw in theaters before the first quarantine, and I had already seen it several times before then, but this was a film that was definitely worth the wait. The relationship between people of fundamentalist faith and those without is a constant source of interest for me, as demonstrated pretty extensively here over the years, not least of all with my Planet Mirth series. Here, our protagonist is a woman of a newfound faith, a belief born more of trauma and recrimination than one with which she was endowed by her parents or arrived at via a winding road of theological research. As such, it’s very personal and fervent while also being wild and piecemeal; despite its fragmentary and uninformed nature, the title character is nonetheless devoted and holds others to the strictures of her ideology, despite the fact that no one on earth could possibly know what’s going on inside her mind. And what’s in there is fantastical: visions of God and the devil, heaven and hell, and all of it finally coming to a head in an attempted act of self-canonization that’s almost too harrowing. Read Brandon’s review here.
6. Psycho Goreman
Brandon was less-than-sold on this one when he reviewed it last year, and I think that his review is fair and reflective of his taste. His opinions aren’t my own (although I would also compare it to Turbo Kid, which was my number three film of 2015), however, and although we align in a lot of ways, this one sat at the top of my list for most of the year, until a few late-in-the-year surprises managed to dethrone it. Although I used “smorgasbord” when describing Turbo Kid in the above-linked 2015 list, it’s been six years, so I feel comfortable using it again. This is a movie about a truly horrible and unlikable little girl, a bully who through nothing more powerful than coincidence comes into possession of a totem that allows her to control an otherwise unstoppable killing machine. Of course, Psycho “PG” Goreman (as she dubs him) isn’t a machine, he’s a living being, albeit one who defies “life” in much the same way as the monsters on the covers of 1980s metal album covers. Against his will, PG undergoes a journey of self-discovery, of a kind at least, as he learns that he has a fondness for hunky boys as well as dealing death. My favorite bits are when he is forced to become the drummer in his young friend(?)’s band, as well as the conversion of poor Alasdair into a big ol’ brain monster, which is never reversed. I got a kick out of this one.
When we recently discussed Titane on the Lagniappe podcast, I confessed to my intense jealousy about the fact that Brandon got to see (and review) the film before I did, especially after I got to see Raw in limited release and got copy on it to editorial within a day, beating a lot of actual media outlets to the punch, which is rare for our Little Swamp Engine that Can. There were many delays, caused first by COVID, then a friend’s school schedule, then COVID again, before I finally got the film through legitimate means (wink) and watched it at home. When I told the friend with whom I shared that viewing experience about how high the film would likely end up ranking on my list, she was shocked, and noted that she thought the film was pretentious. I could hardly agree less, to be honest, as I don’t think that this film is putting on any airs at all. It’s a body horror dark comedy about a serial killer who gets pregnant with a Cadillac’s baby and finds herself hiding out with an aging French firefighter and trying to disguise herself amongst a bunch of his macho employees. That it might be saying something about gender as performance is there, but I think it’s communicating less of a capital-M “Message” than something like Videodrome, which is the film it most reminded me of. It’s a long, strange journey, and I loved it.
4. Plan B
From my review: “[Plan B]’s not just funny, it’s funny in a very intimate way, which matches the subject matter, appropriately interspersed with emotional reminders of the potency of teenage emotion. […] And it does it all with humor that verges-upon-but-does-not-quite-become gross-out comedy, vignetted character portraits of outlandish but somehow instantly familiar personalities, and the warmth of basking in the effortless conversational volley between two best friends who know each other better than anyone else in the world.”
As I summed it up in my review of the film (slash jeremiad about the state of online film discourse and criticism, as is my wont), “Dune is good. See it.”
The end of the opening pre-title sequence of Cryptozoo may as well have been written by the Magical Realism bot on Twitter: In 1967, a woman wearing a unicorn’s horn around her neck finds a sign warning of dangerous cryptids; the paint is wet. And at that point, we’re only getting started. I was surprised to see only a single director listed on IMDb and Wikipedia for Cryptozoo, because I distinctly remembered seeing a woman’s name in the “A Film By” credit, which is usually reserved for the director(s), and marveling that I had accidentally managed to watch four films directed by women in a row without any intent to do so (following Rare Beasts, Plan B, and Matrix: Resurrections). The film does conclude with “A Film by Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw,” but Shaw is the writer and director, while Samborski is later credited as the film’s Animation Director, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense, as the animation here is completely integral to the storytelling in a way that advancing animation technology has unintentionally driven creativity to the margins. As digital animation (or more specifically vector-asset based animation) becomes more the norm, a lot has been lost over the years. This can be found everywhere but the particular longevity of The Simpsons allows for an easy reference point: take for instance the way that Marge’s hair moves with character in this GIF of her in the opening credits that The Simpsons had for decades, and compare it to her hair’s stiff, lifeless lack of movement as she turns her head at the same moment in the HD credits which are now 10+ years old at this point. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that there’s now a lower barrier to entry for potential animators, but corporate interests mean that corners are going to be cut when it comes to animation and as a result, we now have stuff like that Red Ape Family cartoon thing that I’m not going to link to. The animation here is stunning, truly one of the most novel things I’ve seen in years, and I was captivated by every moment of this movie. This was released by Magnolia Pictures, and you know you wouldn’t see a film that would be so undisguised in its criticism of neoliberalism’s tendency to act capitalism apologia or attempt to correct social problems by invoking the free market in a wider release from a bigger studio; Disney Studios might let the Red Guardian in Black Widow have “Karl Marx” tattooed across his knuckles, but a monopoly of that size is never going to engage with leftist ideas in a meaningful way. Within Cryptozoo, capitalism will clearly not create a path for social acceptance of The Other. Simply gathering beings into a single location like a
reservation zoo and grafting them onto the larger apparatus of capitalism will not forge freedom. Yes, it may possibly save them from greater harm in the outside world, but it also forces them to exist alongside of and engage with an economic system that allows them to subsist but not excel; cryptid keeper Lauren specifically notes that her business partner Joan’s inheritance will not last forever and that there is a profit motive to making Cryptozoo an enterprise and not merely a cryptid sanctuary because it is otherwise unsustainable. This is the best original animated feature I’ve seen in a very long time. Read Brandon’s review here.
1. Promising Young Woman
I kinda do this thing almost every year where I do a whole song and dance about how I feel that films released on or after Christmas don’t really count for that year’s list and should count for the following year’s. In 2016, this was my logic for including Anomalisa; in 2019, I did a whole round-up of films that I missed in 2018 because of my accident. This film, which released as a nasty little present on Christmas Day in 2020, is my holdover for this year, and ended up being my favorite movie of the year. And before you start flogging me for this choice: I understand that this is a Problematic Fave. I’ve read the thinkpieces about how this piece of media is Bad, Actually, and I don’t think any of them are incorrect. This one in particular is often pointed to as a source of the reasons why this movie is bad and you should feel bad for liking it, and I have to say that I don’t disagree with a single one of its points. I’ll try to avoid spoilers about it, but this is a movie about a woman getting revenge “on behalf” of her now-dead friend in a method that ultimately costs her everything and makes her a victim as well. That’s a totally acceptable thing to find objectionable, frankly. In fact, the backlash against this one was so bad that on three separate occasions, I withheld telling people this was my favorite movie of 2021 until pressed, and in each instance, my companion had pretty similar feedback about the ongoing problems with contemporary film discourse revolving around the apparent need for the objet d’art to perfectly align with their personal morals and ethics. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never fallen into this trap myself (looking back, a one-star review for 4 mosche di veluto grigio is a little harsh, especially since my biggest problem with the film was just how shitty and unlikable the protagonist was), but I don’t think that this is the best way to discuss a piece of art, and certainly shouldn’t be the only way through which we explore the text. There’s a lot going on with our lead Cassandra’s self-destructive behavior and her self-sacrifice, and although the sheer volume of critical writing that takes aim solely or primarily at this aspect of the narrative is demonstrative that it can’t be just a few people for whom this is their primary critical lens, but a large portion of it. For some people, self-sacrifice is noble; for others, it isn’t. For me, something that aligns with my values, or professes to, does not make it a good work of art, and a piece of art does not necessarily become objectionable because it does not share my values. The SNL of the Trump years wasn’t funny just because they (professed to) hate him as much as I did. In fact, that was frequently the least funny satire they ever did; I spent a lot of my youth rewatching SNL in syndication with references to political events that were before my time or outside of my frame of reference, and they could still be funny even without knowledge of the specifics. The lip-service, inoffensively topical social statements in There’s Someone Inside Your House made the film worse, in my opinion, than it would have if it were simply a straightforward slasher. As I write this at this very moment, I have a poster from the Guggenheim’s 2014 Italian Futurism exhibit behind me; most of the participants in that movement were fascists, but Dinamismo di un Ciclista and Lampada ad arco don’t become bad paintings just because Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla were bad people. To me, this was a fascinating piece of art, regardless of whether I thought its morals and values were aligned with my own. I felt its highs and its lows, the dread and the hope and the guilt and the exhilaration, and ultimately the vindication, in spite of itself. Read Brandon’s review here.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond