Brandon’s Top 20 Films of 2021

1. Titane A surreally macho, thematically elusive nightmare from Julia Ducournau, the director of Raw.  As with the perpetually underseen & underappreciated The Wild Boys (the very best movie of the 2010s), it’s a nuclear gender meltdown with no clear sense to be made in its burnt-to-the-ground wreckage.  A thrilling experience in both cases, both of which find unlikely refuge in the violence of pure-masc camaraderie & social ritual.

2. I Blame Society An incredibly dark comedy about a struggling filmmaker who realizes her skills behind the camera resemble the skills needed to pull off The Perfect Murder, then quickly turns into a serial killer.  Feels like it was aimed directly at my tastes, from the no-budget D.I.Y. aesthetic to the transgressive joy of Difficult Women to the flippant meta commentary on movies as an artform.  Love to be pandered to bb.

3. French Exit Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  I loved Michelle Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing in mother! and I feel like I’ve been waiting for this exact career resurgence vehicle for her ever since.  Just deliciously vicious camp from start to end; easily one of her career best.

4. The French Dispatch Maybe my favorite Wes Anderson since The Royal Tenenbaums, or at least a perfect encapsulation of everything he’s been playing with since then.  People often complain about how visually lazy studio comedies are, so here’s a film packed with Hollywood Celebrities where every scene is overloaded with gorgeous visuals and hilarious jokes.  

5. Pig “A John Wick knockoff about Nic Cage fighting to recover his stolen truffle pig?  Sounds like a hoot and a half.” Cut to me struggling to see the screen because crying into my mask is fogging up glasses.  An understated execution of a preposterous premise, refusing to behave either as a sober return-to-form showcase for the often-mocked actor or as fodder for his infinite supply of so-bad-its-good YouTube highlight reels.  It’s its own uniquely beautiful, tenderly macho thing, with more to say about culinary arts than the peculiar flavors of Cage’s screen presence.

6. Lapsis A high-concept, low-budget satire about our near-future gig economy dystopia.  It doesn’t aim for the laugh-a-minute absurdism of Sorry to Bother You, but it’s maybe even more successful in pinpointing exactly how empty and draining it feels to live & work right now.

7. Beast Beast Tubi’s bold foray into prestigious festival acquisitions: a very Sundancey teen drama about gun violence, one that’s both horrified by and in reverent awe of the Internet as a creative or destructive tool, depending on who’s wielding it. The ultimate example of the dictum “It’s not what happens but how it happens,” as its hyperkinetic, youthful style entirely overpowers its afternoon-special PSA plotting. Think of it as the Gen-Z version of Elephant.

8. Pvt Chat A grim internet-age romance starring Uncut Gems‘s Julia Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client.  Late-night NYC mania & grime de-fanged by the cold isolation of life online.  No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s. Small & intimate, but explicitly about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy.

9. Zola Genius in its costuming & dark humor, but what really struck me is how unbearably tense it is as soon as it embarks on its road trip to Floridian Hell. I hadn’t read its infamous online source material, so I had no idea where it was going (except that @zolamoon lived to tweet about it).  Scarier than any horror movie I watched this year.

10. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar A delightful throwback to a very specific type of absurdist buddy comedy that rarely gets made anymore (Romy & Michelle, Zoolander, Dude Where’s My Car?, etc). Also an underdog contender for the year’s most crowd-pleasing musical.

11. Annette Leos Carax’s entertainment-industry rock opera, originally composed as a concept album by the avant-garde pop group Sparks.  The nagging question of whether it’s Good Weird or just Weird Weird never fades at any point during its unwieldy runtime, but I’m cool with it either way.  It has a sense of humor about itself, and there’s nothing else like it: two qualities that can’t be undervalued.

12. The Matrix Resurrections Lana Wachowski’s New Nightmare: a platform for her to reflect on the core philosophy & romance of her most iconic work while lashing out at a movie industry that seeks to dilute & pervert it for an easy cash-in. I most loved being trolled by the opening fifteen minutes; just the absolute worst-nightmare version of what it could be before it reveals what it’s actually doing. It’s an A+ prank, both on the audience and on the higher-ups at Warner Brothers.

13. Bo Burnham: Inside When it pretends to be a sketch comedy revue, it’s very hit or miss joke-by-joke, song-by-song.  By the time it mutates into full-on video art about Internet Age despair it feels like something substantial, though, meaning it works better as a movie than it does as a comedy special.

14. In the Earth The exact psychedelic folk horror it’s advertised to be, except with an entire slasher about an axe-wielding maniac piled on top just to push it into full-on excess.  As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.  A rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something intangible and indescribable, something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.

15. Benedetta Part erotic thriller, part body possession horror, part courtroom & political drama, pure Paul Verhoeven.  I was fully prepared for its sexual theatrics & religious torments, but completely blindsided by its visions of Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior from a romance novel.  My only disappointment is that it backs off from illustrating Benedetta’s visions in the second half in a ludicrous nod to “playing both sides”; would’ve loved to see more fantasies of Jesus as a hunky heavy-metal badass.

16. Saint Maud Speaks both to my unquenchable thirst for the grotesque as a horror nerd and my unending guilt-horniness-guilt cycle as a lapsed Catholic.  I appreciate it more each rewatch for what it actually is (an intensely weird character study) instead of what I wanted it to be (a menacingly erotic sparring match between a religious-zealot nurse and her atheist patient).

17. Lucky A high-concept home invasion horror about a woman who’s cyclically attacked by the same masked killer night after night after night.  Works best as a darkly funny act of audience gaslighting and a surprisingly flexible metaphor about gender politics.  Recalls the matter-of-fact absurdism of time-loop thrillers like Timecrimes & Triangle, with a lot of potential to build the same gradual cult following if it finds the right audience.  

18. Red Rocket Another bleak poverty-line comedy from Sean Baker, except this time it’s more of a feel-bad hangout vibe than a nonstop plummet into chaos, and the protagonist is deeply unlikeable instead of charmingly vulgar.  It’s like a goofier, laidback version of Good Time, where you feel terrible laughing while a desperate scumbag exploits every poor soul in their path just to keep their own head slightly above water.  Really slows down to make you squirm between the punchlines.

19. Mandibles Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist comedy about bumbling criminals who adopt & corrupt a gigantic housefly so it can join them in acts of petty theft.  Last year’s Deerskin felt like a career high for Dupieux, especially in its sharp self-satirical humor about the macho narcissism of filmmaking as an artform.  This finds him backsliding into his more typical comedies about Nothing, just two dumb buds being dumb buds who now have a weird pet.  He totally gets away with it, though, solely on the virtue of the jokes being very funny. 

20. Cryptozoo Dash Shaw’s mildly psychedelic fantasy comedy about a futuristic zoo for cryptids.  Like My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, it’s a bizarre clash of far-out visual play & laidback aloofness, calling into question how much its internal ethical conflicts are intended to be taken seriously vs how much they’re an ironic joke about the film’s own sprawling, convoluted mythology.  Shaw’s work is never boring to look at, though, even if his characters appear to be bored within them.  His visual playfulness is a quality that’s increasingly difficult to find in modern animation, questions of sincerity be damned.

-Brandon Ledet

Benedetta (2021)

Verhoeven is back, baby.  I was less than amused by the Dutch prankster’s outrageous rape comedy Elle—despite its broad critical consensus as a sharply observed satire—so it feels nice to rejoin the cheerleading squad for its nunsploitation follow-up.  Benedetta is part erotic thriller, part body-possession horror, part courtroom & political drama, and pure Paul Verhoeven.  It’s great! It’s a shame that the master provocateur has been relegated to scrappy indie budgets in his late career, though. It’d be a lot more fun to watch a mainstream audience squirm under his thumb instead of the self-selecting freaks who are already on-board with his blasphemy against good sense & good taste.  Even at 83 years old, Verhoeven is still raising neck hairs & eyebrows; he just used to be able to rile up an even wider audience with flashier budgets & celebrity stunt casting.  I mourn for a world where Benedetta would’ve been a controversial water cooler movie instead of an obscure reference that makes your coworkers think you’re a pretentious snob.  Even the small Catholic protests that have followed around the movie’s premieres in cities like Chicago & NYC like The Grateful Dead are living in a fantasy world where it will have any cultural impact beyond plumping up a few sicko film critics’ Best of the Year lists.  I enjoyed joining them in that fantasy for a couple hours during its brief theatrical run in New Orleans, but I do question the usefulness of a provocation that no one shows up to be offended by.

Like with all nunsploitation movies, whatever hoopla & headlines Benedetta will be able to generate will likely focus on its onscreen depictions of lesbian sex.  Verhoeven shamelessly indulges in that salacious aspect of his historical source material, but it’s not the main thrust of the film’s blasphemy.  The kinkiest his young nuns in love get is in fashioning a dildo out of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which seems more like a circumstance of convenience than anything; sometimes you just have to make do with what’s lying around.  The real button-pusher here is the political rise-to-power story of the titular Italian blasphemer: a 17th Century nun who claimed to experience miraculous visions of Jesus Christ, resulting in a powergrab takeover of her small-village convent.  Benedetta’s political rivals are other local higher-ups in the Catholic Church who are both fearful of the power she wields among the villagers (claiming to protect them from encroachment of the Bubonic Plague) and willing to humor her blasphemy as long as it brings money & attention from the religious tourism industry.  The blasphemy is in how openly the movie takes Benedetta’s side in the battle, even while questioning whether her miraculous visions are genuine.  The second she arrives at the convent as a young child, she’s taught that bodily pleasure is an affront to God, that she should live in constant agony on Earth to honor Him.  Watching her claim to have an even more intimate relationship with God than her superiors, and that He said she should be allowed as many orgasms & daily comforts as she desires is delightfully transgressive, even if she’s flat-out lying about it.  Speaking as a lapsed Catholic with long-lingering issues with guilt & self-hatred thanks to the Church’s fucked up views on pleasure & morality, Benedetta is essentially a superhero to me.  I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess who the supervillain is.

As much fun as I had with Benedetta as political theatre, I still missed the slicker Hollywood budgets Verhoeven used to be afforded in his heyday.  The closest the film gets to recalling his 80s & 90s crowdteasers is in its illustrations of Benedetta’s religious visions, in which she fantasizes in-the-flesh erotic encounters as Jesus’s bride.  I was fully prepared for the film’s sexual theatrics & religious torments, but I was blindsided by its visions of Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior from a romance novel, riding into the frame on horseback to sweep his young nun-bride off her feet.  Unfortunately, the film backs off from illustrating those visions in its second half in a ludicrous effort to “play both sides,” questioning whether Benedetta was a shameless blasphemer or a true believer.  It’s fun to root for her even when you believe her to be a liar, but I still would’ve loved to see more fantasies of Jesus as a hunky heavy-metal badass with Fabio hair & glistening abs.  No one has depicted “religious ecstasy” so erotically since Ken Russell was still kicking around, so it’s hard not to feel a little let down when Verhoeven eases off that indulgence.  It’s also just a welcome return to the high-style genre filmmaking of his Greatest Hits, while the rest of the film is shot more like a muted costume drama despite the sensationalist story it tells.

There are parts of Benedetta that outraged me, from Catholicism’s reverence for Earthly anguish to the film’s own preoccupations with sexual assault & torture.  It’s also a movie that opens with several shit & fart jokes, just so you know it’s okay to have a good time despite its many discomforts.  Verhoeven’s been incredibly adept at that exact clash between cruelty & camp for longer than I’ve been alive, so it’s honestly just nice to see that he’s still got it.  I just find it shameful that we’re not throwing more money at him to offend & titillate on a larger scale.

-Brandon Ledet