1. Titane – My favorite film of 2021! I’m sure it will end up on everyone’s list in the Swampflix crew because it’s very “Swampy”; it just fits the mold of movies we love. What initially seems to be a wacky film about a homicidal woman who was impregnated by a car turns out to be a movie about gender identity and unconditional love.
2. Willy’s Wonderland– My favorite version of Nic Cage is the silent and violent Nic Cage that gave us Mandy, which I wholeheartedly believe is one of the best films of all time. He does it again in Willy’s Wonderland, but this time, he’s fighting against a crew of Chuck E. Cheese style animatronic characters possessed with the souls of satanic cannibals. It is a high energy ride from beginning to end, and I really dug it.
3. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar – This was one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a very long time. It felt like a throwback to those late 90s/early 2000s comedies that were just pure stupid fun. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are my new comedy queens, and I hope that they get to make a ton of sequels. I am forever grateful for having this movie come into my life during this god-awful pandemic.
4. Malignant – A new horror icon is born! This felt like a b-horror movie from the 70s or 80s with a dash of nu metal horror from the aughts. The nightmare that the film opens with morphs into a completely unexpected plot twist that literally made me scream. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
5. The Night House – This is one of the most unique horror films that I’ve ever seen. There are subtle hints dropped here and there that are enough to give you some explanation of all the spooky stuff happening, but nothing prepares you for the ending. It’s so damn smart.
6. Pig– The second Nic Cage movie on my list, but it’s miles away from being in the same bucket as Willy’s Wonderland. He’s such a complex actor! Pig is a very quiet “revenge” film that tugged at all my heart strings and reminded me how beautiful a perfect meal could be.
7. Swan Song – There aren’t many LGBTQ+ films with elderly main characters, which is a pity considering these individuals have been through hell and back in their experiences. Swan Song is a film that focuses strictly on its main character, an elderly gay hairdresser portrayed by Udo Kier. Kier is best known for playing supporting roles, but he is a force to be reckoned with in this lead performance.
8. The Woman in the Window – Yes, the reviews are terrible, but I just couldn’t stop watching this trashy Hitchcockian thriller. It’s a total blast! I had so much fun and found so much comfort watching this movie. It reminds me so much of silly thrillers from the 90s; it’s just missing Michael Douglas.
9. Saint Maud– The ending of Saint Maud had everyone talking, and it was indeed worthy of the attention. However, what really stuck with me was the relationship between Maud and Amanda. I still go back and forth in my mind trying to figure out what it really meant. Such a haunting film for so many reasons.
10. Gaia– The only eco horror film that I watched in 2021. Gaia was so good that I felt satisfied with keeping it that way. It’s an atmospheric masterpiece. Plus, there’s spooky mushroom people!
11. The Power of the Dog – What a wonderful yet unnerving film. I went into this not expecting much, and I was completely blown away. I guess I’m into Westerns now?
12. False Positive – The second-best pregnancy horror of 2021 (the first being Titane). It has a very interesting way of exploring how scary it is to be pregnant with no control over your body. Also, I can’t believe how amazing Pierce Brosnan is at playing a villain.
13. Old– I love trying to figure out the puzzles in M. Night Shyamalan movies, and I wish the world could be blessed with a few of these every year. Old delivers exactly what you’d expect from a Shyamalan movie, and that is 100% a good thing.
14. The Green Knight – My new favorite Christmas movie! It’s a medieval tale with A24 horror stylings that make for a unique work of art.
15. Mandibles– This goofy French buddy comedy about a really cute giant fly is just as fun as it sounds. It’s a total gem of a movie that offers some big laugh out loud moments.
1. TheFrenchDispatch — 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.
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.
Honorable mentions for what almost made the list: Rare Beasts (which ended up ranked at 16th), What Lies Below (discussed briefly here shortly after the 18-minute mark), and A Classic Horror Story.
Ok, without further ado!
15. Things Heard and Seen
This slow-burn thriller is the third annual winner of the unofficial “film with the most Shining vibes,” joining 2019’s champ Doctor Sleep and 2020’s winner The Lodge. Read my review here.
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 asUnsane 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 Maudalso 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.
1. Titane— Wow. Just wow. This movie has so much to say, and it just shouts it in your face. The explorations of gender performance are grotesque and brutal. The body horror is absolutely disgusting. Julia Ducournau made a greasy, Cronenbergian nightmare that I didn’t want to wake up from. At times it is overwhelmingly explicit and unflinchingly focused on its gory violence, but it leaves enough open to interpretation that it’s not just dumbed down brutality.
2. In the Earth — It’s easy at the beginning to think this movie is just going to be a basic slasher. During a pandemic, a scientist and a park ranger venture into the woods to figure out why no one has heard from a researcher who has isolated herself to study a vast mycorrhizal network. Then, a crazed man obsessed with a photography project gone wrong chases after them with an axe. Yet there’s nothing basic here. This movie dips into psychedelic sci-fi and odd character studies at times, eventually introducing a lady who plays keyboards to trees alone in the woods. A vision of isolation making us crazy; Brandon best described this movie as people taking their COVID hobbies too far. I think I chose the wrong hobbies and should have picked up playing synths in the forest to talk to trees.
3. I Blame Society — To make movies you kind of have to be a horrible person. You have to obsessively craft a story and a vision and believe in it enough to see it through. Also, you have to convince a whole team of people to back you up and let you boss them around. It takes a special kind of self-absorption and narcissism that just gets written off for men who we consider geniuses. What if you’re a woman just starting out?
Gillian Wallace Horvat plays herself as an independent filmmaker that can’t get any support for her films. Instead of giving up she doubles down on a project inspired by a couple of her real-life friends saying that she would make a great serial killer. It quickly spirals out of control, and she becomes an actual serial killer. It’s hilarious. There’s a moment in this movie that will stick with me forever where she’s in the home of a future victim, drinking wine in her underwear, and she says, “I’m living my best life.” This movie is so angry and bratty, and I loved every second of it.
4. Pig— It’s satisfying to watch a movie based in the town where you live and have it get the setting exactly right, especially when it’s in subtle ways. There’s a scene in this movie where Nic Cage’s character sneaks into the backyard of his old house and has an amazing conversation with a child playing a weird instrument, and it’s an absolutely accurate and genuinely Portland moment. The conversation he has with a chef at a pretentious restaurant where the man cannot give a straight answer about his craft is 100% Portland. (Why can no one here deliver unpleasant answers directly?) Forsaking city life and fame to harvest truffles in a rustic cabin in the woods is exactly what someone from Portland would do. It’s not the only thing I liked about this movie, but it’s a special feeling to have my adopted hometown portrayed so accurately and even lovingly for all its many flaws.
Nic Cage gives a heartbreaking performance. Remembering the importance of food—especially a good meal prepared by a talented chef—is something many of us are holding onto right now while we wait for safe time outside the house. The heart of this movie is big, genuine, and forgiving, which is why it’s so beautiful and moving. I cried. A lot.
5. The Medium — This year, I liked a lot of very combative movies. This one is no exception.
A mockumentary/found footage horror about a spiritual medium’s niece becoming possessed is not a hard sell for me. This started out as a sequel to The Wailing, which is a movie I liked enough to do an entire Lagniappe Podcast episode about it. Obviously and thankfully, it became its own thing. A chipper woman becomes possessed, gradually wastes away, and becomes a wraith; her devout shaman aunt starts to question her own belief system and place in the world; and the whole family tries to hold itself together despite decades of cultural and spiritual differences. Ultimately, everyone gets ripped apart, even the film crew.
There’s a lot of questions here about whether filming this family drama is exploitative. The crew is constantly asked, “Do you have to film everything?” Like I said before, to be a filmmaker you kind of have to be awful, so yes, they do continue to film it all, until it’s way too late. The filmmaking itself is even weaponized and used by the demon to up its body count, at one point even beating a woman with a camera. What is more important: family privacy and safety or artistic integrity? Is documenting this event worth it?
Saint Maud — Religious devotion gone way too far. Feels like how the actual stories of saints would play out if we looked at them through a modern, critical lens.
Bo Burnham: Inside — I didn’t expect to like this, but for something that starts out as ye olde times YouTube humor, it truly hooks you. By the end, you feel like something vital has been ripped out and put on display for everyone to see.
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 chewinginmother!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.
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.
1. Deerskin– Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist thriller about a man’s obsession with a fringed deerskin jacket is consistently funny, but also incredibly vicious when it wants to be. Despite indulging in the ridiculous, high-concept genre of Killer Objects horror (think Death Bed, In Fabric, Christine, or the director’s own Rubber), it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film about the inadequacy that mediocre men face at middle age, and their psychotic efforts to overcome that deficiency. Jean Dujardin previously charmed American audiences in Best Picture-winner The Artist, but here he’s a sad, pathetic grifter who has to scam people just to hang out with him. It’s a hilarious joke at the expense of male vanity (including the vanity of making an entire movie about a deerskin jacket in the first place).
2. Color Out of Space – Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair after decades of mysterious exile to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft short story about a meteor crash and a malignant color. Most criticism has fixated on Nic Cage’s over-the-top lead performance, but those antics aside this is a harrowing film about loss & cancer, fearing not just the disease but also its emotional erosion of familial relationships, interpreted through the powerful medium of cosmic horror.
3. The Invisible Man– A genuinely scary film that operates in a realm of traditional horror tropes. For a lot of its audience, it’s doubly scary because of its domestic violence aspect, capturing the feeling of the ground being pulled from under you when you realize your abusive relationship is not the loving one you initially pictured it to be. That realization happens before the film even opens, but we’re made to live through its terrifying aftermath.
4. The Twentieth Century – This pseudo-biography of a real-life Canadian politician is a gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another.” History says its events are set in Canada, but what’s onscreen is some nowhere nether-reality of dry ice and matte paintings, populated by caricatures rather than characters. It’s like Guy Maddin directing an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch, stumbling out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.
5. The Wolf House– A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s got all the trappings of a pre-Brothers Grimm folktale: the sour ending, the moralistic behavioral warnings, the magic that is both beautiful and cruel. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history.
6. Possessor– This techno body horror from Brandon Cronenberg feels like the cursed love child between his father’s eXistenZand his own Antiviral. It’s a compelling psychological battle between its characters to gain possession of the corporeal vessel they share (a battle powerfully performed by Christopher Abbott & Andrea Riseborough). A truly shocking film, both beautiful and disgusting.
7. Birds of Prey – A wonderfully stylized, deliriously hyperactive superhero movie that doesn’t drag or feel laboriously obligated to comic book backstory or pathos. It steps on other superheroes’ capes, soaring in its own unique, chaotic way (a power seemingly fueled by Vodka-Red Bulls).
8. Bacurau– A Brazilian film that mutates familiar details inspired by “The Most Dangerous Game” into a surreal sci-fi-horror-western genre meltdown. It uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.
9. Swallow– An eerie, darkly humorous descendent of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects, much to the frustration of her overly-controlling family & doctors. It’s a subtle but highly stylized psychological horror about bodily autonomy, class warfare, and trauma, illustrating the complete lack of control you have over your own body & destiny if you’re born on the wrong end of class & gender dynamics.
10. His House– Reinvigorates haunted house genre tropes with the same tactics that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Giftsused on the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, and cultural disconnection – all framed within the traditional scares of the haunted house horror film.
Welcome to Episode #126 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee continue our discussion of the Top Films of 2020 with some honorable mentions, starting with the quasi-local quasi-documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Enjoy!