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

Saint Maud (2021)

Around this time in 2020, I was eagerly anticipating watching the A24 Horror creeper Saint Maud in a dark, loud movie theater. Instead, it was released an entire year later, free with a week-trial subscription to some obscure, dire streaming platform called Epix (first I’ve ever heard of it). This never-ending pandemic has been an absolute motherfucker. I suspect the full immersive, communal movie theater experience would’ve greatly amplified the small moments & eerie tension that make Saint Maud great. I can only confirm that even at home, watching from my couch, underscored by the hum of traffic outside, the movie is still a recognizably substantial work. I still naively hope to see it projected in a proper movie theater someday.

Saint Maud‘s internal struggle between hedonism & religious zealotry speaks both to my unquenchable thirst for the grotesque as a horror nerd and my unending guilt-horniness-guilt cycle as a lapsed Catholic. The Catholicism angle is somewhat abstracted, though, as the title character (played by Morfydd Clark) subscribes to a unique religious doctrine of her own manic making one adorned by spirals, beetles, and holy acetone. Maud is an at-home caretaker to a retired, famous dancer (Jennifer Ehle) who is dying of lymphoma. Her internal voiceover track is a direct conversation with God, as she makes it her personal mission to save the lesbian, drunkard artist’s soul before she perishes. Bored, the dancer plays along with this religious conversion to pass the time, cheekily referring to Maud as a living saint and her “Saviour”. She doesn’t realize she’s playing with fire, but the audience is fully aware that the charade can only end disastrously once Maud catches on that she’s being mocked.

If Saint Maud were purely an intergenerational struggle between a godless artist & her religious-nut nurse, it might have been an all-timer. In its best moments, it works like a psychobiddy thriller in reverse, with a deranged younger woman threatening to destroy the vulnerable employer in her care, and it could have generated a lot more throat-hold tension if it dwelled for longer on that relationship. Instead, the film is more of a fucked-up character study of a very specific, very broken mind. The erotic intimacy of the two women’s physical therapy sessions is just a fraction of the complex sexual mania swimming around in Maud’s head, which she often mistakes for religious ecstasy & divine bodily possession. When she kneels on rice or steps on nails as repentance for her “fallen” lapses into hedonism, it reads almost as a solitary act of BDSM as much as it is religious ritual. Her brain is on fire, and the longer it’s allowed to burn the further the movie escalates into spectacular, supernatural horror.

I might’ve liked Saint Maud even more if it weren’t so immersed in its main character’s psyche, since there was so much delicious tension brewing with her potential, captive victim. I also might’ve liked it more if I were further immersed in my own head while watching it, better isolated from the distractions of the world outside. As is, it’s still a solidly effective creep-out, a portrait of a sinister modern saint taking it upon herself to execute God’s will on Earth (often as a means of self-punishment for Impure desires). Despite the circumstances, it was well worth the wait.

-Brandon Ledet