1. The French Dispatch — A delightful, elaborate brunch of a film, offering a little taste of all your favorite flavors: something sweet, something savory, and a well-balanced cocktail to top it all off. The anthology format affords Wes Anderson carte blanche to cram even more visual detail into the frame than usual, making for a texturally rich text. Every chapter has a different approach to costume & set design, sifting through 1950s black & white crime pictures to colorful 1930s New Yorker cartoons to laidback 1960s talk shows. Anderson’s previous films are beautifully decorated cakes; this one is a full banquet.
2. French Exit — Michelle Pfeiffer was my favorite part of mother!, and it’s great to see her playing a similar role in this gem. I was surprised to see so many people turn their nose up at it. I could watch Pfeiffer chew scenery for all eternity, and here she goes as far as chewing up her martini glass, tossing the olive aside. I was also surprised to discover that it was adapted from a novel and not a stage play, although I’m not surprised that it started a literary text. The dialogue is not at all naturalistic, but it is extremely satisfying, like a good Albee or Pinter play. I’ve never experienced the life of the idle rich, but this movie allows you to indulge in their wicked, self-amused humor through a fictional remove. At the very least, it’s comforting to know that they apparently despise cops as much as us commoners, which is something you can’t say about the wealth & property-obsessed capitalists among them.
3. Mandibles — The stupidest comedy of the year, and my favorite. Sometimes I fear that I’m the least intelligent person alive and people are just flattering me by not calling me out on it. It’s reassuring to see two actual idiots on the screen for comparison, then, especially in a comedy that doesn’t have to go overly scatological or sexual to land its jokes the way similar Farrelly Brothers movies would’ve in the 90s. It’s somehow smarter and more imaginative than past examples of its genre like Dumb and Dumber or There’s Something About Mary—building its absurd story around a freakishly gigantic housefly—and yet it’s just as hopelessly stupid.
4. Lapsis — The most impressive sci-fi film of the year, especially in the skillful way it achieves wide-scale worldbuilding on a tiny budget. Its setting is not exactly our current reality, but it does closely mirror what’s happening right now, particularly in modern labor exploitation. It’s also smart about how it combats that exploitation, choosing to radicalize an unremarkable, politically mainstream worker instead of pretending a useful labor movement can be achieved with only leftist academics. It’s rare to see labor movements depicted as they actually are: democratic and beneficial to the common worker.
5. Zola — A “just vibes” movie that somehow has a plot. The vibes are mostly bad, but its mirrorworld fantasy sequences where dancers try on different outfits & personae achieve a kind of high-art serenity you won’t find in many madcap road trip comedies. It’s also an excellent adaptation of its online source material, capturing the breakneck pace of each new update steering its infamous Twitter thread into new, thrilling directions. There aren’t any major examples of how to translate that modern storytelling style to the screen, so this feels like it’s exploring entirely new territory – to the point where the tweet notifications on its soundtrack were instantly iconic.
6. Bo Burnham: Inside — I wanted to not like this for the very same reasons that Burnham mocks himself in it; his admissions that he’s a rich white guy with nothing substantial to contribute to society all ring true. I enjoyed all the songs, though, and his self-criticism ultimately ended up being what won me over. The more he focuses on his own shortcomings, the more this “comedy special” devolves into a relatable madness. It perfectly captures the feeling of reality itself crumbling around us as we remain in isolation, unable to tell what’s real and what’s not in our increasingly fake modern world.
7. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar — This was almost the stupidest comedy of the year, losing that prestigious contest to Mandibles. It’s a type of mainstream comedy that you don’t often see anymore: something that’s incredibly idiotic but still has the grandeur of big musical numbers and expensive set pieces. I especially love that its heroines are unremarkable middle-aged women, a demographic who don’t often get to be the heroines of anything – even goofy comedies.
8. Wojnarowicz — This documentary about artist and political activist David Wojnarovicz made me seethingly, white-hot angry. I was angry at past injustices, but also the injustices of the present: the governmental cruelty that led to Wojnarovicz’s death and the fact that not a lot has changed since. It made me want to ACT UP.
9. The World to Come — Most costume dramas about doomed lesbian romances contain their affairs to fleeting moments and wistful memories. This one pushes the practical impacts of its romance much further, not shying away from the tragic, real-world consequences of expressing queer love in a brutal, patriarchal past.
10. Titane — I don’t feel as strongly about this film as the rest of the Swamplix crew seems to, but I can’t deny that it was one of the best-made films of the year. I watched about fifty movies released in 2021, and this was easily among the most memorable. It takes big swings at issues most movies don’t dare explore, especially in the way male socialization rituals that are often perceived as markers of toxic masculinity are actually important bonding experiences that connect people in a meaningful way, affording them a shared sense of humanity.