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

Zola (2021)

As a terminally online movie nerd who has been relying on borrowed public-library DVDs instead of theatrical distribution to keep up with new releases all pandemic, it’s a minor miracle when I can enter a movie unbiased & unspoiled.  By the time I get to most buzzy releases, I’ve already heard every possible take on its faults & merits, with plenty of plot & stylistic details filled in as supporting evidence.  I was fortunate, then, to watch Janicza Bravo’s Zola without any clear roadmap to where it was headed.  As it was adapted from one of the most notorious Twitter threads of all time (with the co-writing help of its real-life subject & Tweeter, @zolamoon), I should likely be embarrassed that I had no idea where the film’s road-trip-to-Hell story would lead me, but instead I’m grateful.  While the hype around @zolamoon’s tweets was sensational, the conversation surrounding their movie adaptation has been much more subdued, which means the film-obsessed corners of the internet where I lurk left me mostly blind to where it was going.  All I really knew is that Zola lived to tweet about the journey, which did little to lighten the tension of the distinctly Floridian nightmare she survived.

This is not the first movie I’ve seen that was directly adapted from a series of tweets.  2013’s Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylonely.  It’s a playfully experimental work that allows the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom-to-top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims.  Zola is the darksided mirrorworld version of that much lighter, kinder film – finding a chaotic terror & humor in life’s sequential randomness.  By definition, Zola is a purely episodic journey, following each “And then this happened, and then this happened” anecdote of its online source material like the twisty tracks on a rollercoaster – with no hopes of the deranged carnies in charge letting you off.  A part-time waitress & dancer in Detroit, Zola is seduced into a road trip to working a few Florida strip clubs with the promise of easy money & friendship.  The second she becomes a backseat passenger in her obnoxious, shady “friend’s” SUV, she realizes she’s in the hands of unhinged strangers with no choice but to see the journey through, hoping they return her to Detroit in one piece.  Each new strip club & hotel room she’s dragged through along the way springs horrific funhouses surprises at her, and she does her best to remain visibly calm, unphased by their sinister absurdism.  It was the scariest movie experience I had in the entirety of October, when I was mostly watching movies about supernatural ghouls & goblins.

Speaking of funhouses, Janicza Bravo has fun adding a layer of fairy tale artifice to this darkly funny nightmare, setting its pre-strip show dress-up sequences in a fantastic mirror realm scored by angelic harp strings.  We’re swept off our feet by Zola’s new, chaotic stripper friend right alongside her, intoxicated by the promise of wealth & adventure.  There’s a music video sheen to the pop art setting & fast-fashion costuming that can put you under the Wicked Stephanie’s spell if you’re not careful.  Once that spell is broken, you’re forever tied to her, cursed to stare at blank hotel room walls while listening to her turn tricks you didn’t consent to witnessing in an endless parade of gnarled Floridian dicks.  Mica Levi’s usual tension-generator scoring is made even more upsettingly arrhythmic with the intrusion of gum-chewing & Twitter notifications, making sure the vibes remain just as poisonous as they are sickly sweet.  The movie is only 85 minutes long, including its end credits, but by the time it’s over you feel as if you’ve been trapped in its hellish mirrorworld for a thousand eternities – in desperate need of a scalding-hot shower. 

I’m not sure why Zola was so breezily discussed & forgotten among online movie nerds when it was released this summer.  Maybe its social media source material or its episodic nature made it appear unsubstantial by default.  Maybe its online discourse cycle had already exhausted itself before the movie was even announced, back when the original Twitter thread was a must-read.  Whatever the reason, I’m grateful that I got to engage with the movie as a fresh, volatile cultural object months after its initial run – a rare treat these days.

-Brandon Ledet