Episode #151 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Top Films of 2021

Welcome to Episode #151 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss their favorite films of 2021.

00:00 Welcome

06:00 Gaia
13:13 Summer of Soul
14:04 Ema
17:40 The Green Knight
23:03 Zola
29:25 The Woman in the Window
38:10 Benedetta
42:43 Pvt Chat
46:55 Swan Song
54:48 Beast Beast
1:00:45 Lapsis
1:05:10 Bo Burnham: Inside
1:10:00 The Killing of Two Lovers
1:15:05 The Night House
1:20:30 Malignant
1:24:40 The French Dispatch
1:31:10 French Exit
1:34:30 I Blame Society
1:38:40 Willy’s Wonderland

1:43:55 Licorice Pizza
1:53:22 Riders of Justice
2:00:55 Saint Maud
2:07:10 Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

2:13:10 The Power of the Dog
2:27:00 Pig
2:40:55 Titane

James’s Top 20 Films of 2021

  1. Pig
  2. Titane
  3. Riders of Justice
  4. The Power of the Dog
  5. The Killing of Two Lovers
  6. Saint Maud
  7. Licorice Pizza
  8. Benedetta
  9. The Green Knight
  10. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  11. Red Rocket
  12. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
  13. The Father
  14. The Night House
  15. Some Kind of Heaven
  16. Summer of Soul
  17. Shadow in the Cloud
  18. Malignant
  19. Dune
  20. Till Death

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

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

Pig (2021)

I thought I knew what to expect out of a Nicolas Cage revenge thriller about a disgruntled chef’s John Wick-style fight to recover his stolen truffle pig.  Even now, I can picture exactly what that movie should look & feel like from start to end.  Pig is not that film.  It defies all expectations of its over-the-top genre premise & Cage’s late-career casting in its violence, performances, purpose, and tone.  Just about the last thing I expected was that I would be struggling to see the screen for the final third of its runtime because crying into my mask was fogging up my glasses.  It’s not any showier in its emotional beats than it is in its revenge-genre payoffs, but it still choked me up in ways I’m finding difficult to articulate.  It’s a quietly powerful, surprisingly thoughtful film about Nic Cage’s stolen truffle pig.

Nicolas Cage makes dozens of movies every year—most of which are rightfully ignored straight-to-VOD action thrillers—but there are only two kinds that typically get any wider attention: muted actor-showcase dramas like Joe and mindfuck genre-flicks like MandyPig can’t comfortably be sorted into either of those categories, since it continually flirts with being both.  Cage plays his unwashed Oregonian wildman with a quiet dignity & deeply felt sense of hurt – both for loss of his pig and for a greater loss suffered in his mysterious past as a big-city hipster chef in Portland.  His journey to recover the pig is an exaggerated, absurd caricature of the Portland culinary scene, though, complete with underground BOH fight clubs & violent mafioso food distributors.  It’s 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 Nic Cage’s screen presence.

Like in the high-fashion revenge Western The Dressmaker, the violence & cruelty suffered by our battered antihero in Pig is not avenged with more violence & cruelty; it is avenged with art.  Nic Cage ends the film caked in blood, as he does in Mandy, but his weapon of choice in seeking revenge are his skills as a chef.  His carefully-worded criticism of another chef’s menu choices or his own perfectly balanced, deliberately unpretentious cooking are delivered as skull-crushing blows to his enemies, undercutting the typical hyperviolence of the genre with food-culture commentary.  Pig covers a lot of ground in its food-scene philosophizing, from the cutthroat competition of food trucks to the self-aggrandized pageantry of fine dining.  I specifically got choked up by its focus on the ways passionate, authentic food preparation can trigger powerful sensory memories in us, an emotional effect deployed here like the detonation of a well-placed bomb.  I started to sorely miss sharing luxuriant meals with people I care about, an experience that’s been in short supply over the past 17 months, and one I never expected to be weaponized in Nic Cage’s pig-themed John Wick knockoff.

Nic Cage is my favorite working actor.  I know that bias makes me sound like an irony-poisoned hipster, but I genuinely find his choices in roles & performance ticks to be thrilling in a way few better-respected actors allow themselves to indugle.  Even so, I admire how Pig breaks through the expectations and boundaries typical to the modern Nic Cage Film.  At the very least, it’s his best work since Mandy, which Swampflix highlighted as our collective favorite film of the 2010s.  It’s especially worth seeing for anyone who’s ever worked a BOH position in a commercial kitchen, since its draw as restaurant-culture commentary often overpowers Cage’s consciously muted performance.  There’s a chance it’s both too restrained and too absurd to earn its place in the Nic Cage Hall of Fame, but it deserves that kind of recognition.

-Brandon Ledet