Like a scapegoat birthed from a bad bat burrito, the pandemic can be blamed for virtually everything. From relationships crumbling (thanks to both partners working from home) to that thing where people literally die, COVID’s icky-bad damage now includes cinema. 2021 was a dumb, ungood year for movies.
I don’t even have honorable mentions for this list. If you’re not on this list, consider your film at least marginally dishonorable. That isn’t to say the ones that did make the cut should be ashamed of themselves. They are the most sober drunk drivers. They are mass murderers with the lowest body count. They are the least expired milk. You get the idea. Jokes aside, I do stand by this list. In the same way that a disgraced politician’s wife stands by her adulterous husband.
I love them despite myself.
No one has ever said, “I wish this SNL sketch lasted another 90 minutes.” And yet, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s goofy, puckish parody is pretty much exactly that. It’s also a hoot and a half. The half a hoot is what really gets you. Inarguably the movie I’ve quoted and rewatched most from this list, rolling around in the fun kind of stupid feels pretty good when we’re surrounded by and dying due to the bad kind every damn day.
9 – Golden Arm
Would that it were so simple as to have a list filled with nothing but well-meaning “lady comedians on a road trip” movies … Melanie (Mary Holland) and Danny (Betsy Sodaro) go over the top of Over the Top in this affable pile of cliches made to look like an arm-wrestling film. Relentlessly pleasant, sporadically quite hilarious, and deceptively kind, this is the kind of pleasant diversion that would be hyped into a $100 million franchise if the leads were bro-medians.
8 – Saint Maud
Either you love to slowly sup on the 18-course meal that is slow-burn horror or you don’t consider it horror unless Cap’n Crunch delivers “Oops, It’s All Jump Scares.” Writer/director Rose Glass’ meticulous, methodical film explores the insidious and terrifying line between religious devotion and life-threatening faith-as-fanaticism. Not that it’s particularly resonant in an age of divine vaccination exemption … Morfydd Clark’s performance is so haunting, nuanced, and layered that it’s funny to think about how dudes like Jared Leto need to “method act.”
7 – Candyman
If the studio had allowed the remake of this ’90s horror cult classic to have the extra 30 minutes it needed to properly finish its story, many other critics would also have this one on their top 10 lists. Is it meta that studio interference likely prevented writer/director Nia DaCosta’s exploration of artistic exploitation from being pitch perfect? Candyman didn’t simply ride the wave of Jordan Peele’s reshaping of modern horror, it actively commented on the ethics of leveraging racial trauma for Hollywood profit. And it did so with bee-barfing terror and the best use of mirrors for spooky time in cinematic history.
6 – I Blame Society
Speaking of meta, writer/director/actress/mischievous malcontent Gillian Wallace Horvat’s mocumentary winks and nods so hard that heads roll. The maniacal satire is basically a look at how what it takes to make it in the film industry is the same skill set it takes to be a really successful serial killer. If the inside baseball of a film about films doesn’t do it for you, it’s still jam-packed with quotable lines and goofy killin’. Please let her do whatever she wants next.
The absolute, unmitigated chutzpah that it takes to make a reboot-sequel like this … To be clear, separate from everything else, an action movie in which the lead never uses a gun, filled with gorgeous cinematography is aces, my friends. But the fact that writer/director Lana Wachowski basically turned “I am so sick of you assholes misinterpreting The Matrix into a feature-length film is just a cinematic chef’s kiss. Retroactively pardoning the clunky romance stuff from the original trilogy, a series I adore with no reservations, this is just more fodder for my thesis: Give the Wachowskis enough money to do whatever they want, whenever they want.
What happens when you fill a boilerplate Western with a stacked cast of Black actors and let a stylish, up-and-coming director go to town on it? Why, you get one of the slickest, most-entertaining blockbusters of the year. Whether the genre is too tainted by its century-long celebration of Native slaughter to be redeemed by inverting racist expectations here is beyond my intellectual pay grade. What I know is that writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s film actually feels like what Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino think they’re still making.
What, was a Spider-Man movie not going to be in my top 10? You know who I am by now (I hope). The central purpose of Spidey, to hammer home personal responsibility, has never been more crucial and less present. Unapologetic in its nostalgic pandering, what No Way Home does best is reposition the character as our modern mythological mascot. The laughs are fun. The action is nifty. The multiverse is keen. But the restoration of Peter Parker as an economically downtrodden champion for the importance of community is what pushed the film onto this list. Well, that and Andrew Garfield’s delivery of “I love you guys.”
2 – The Green Knight
I remember my greasy adolescent fingers thumbing through pages of a King Arthur graphic novel. The potential in that world has never left my imagination, even if the grease has hopefully left my fingers as I learned that handwashing is supercool yo. The Green Knight is the first time that Camelotian potential felt realized to me. Writer/director David Lowery’s potent, symbolic film actually weaves a lesson quite similar to the web Spidey weaves: Personal sacrifice for the benefit of the whole gang is good. Lying is, you know, pretty bad. Look past the sword-wielding Swamp Thing and loads of pagan-colliding-with-Christianity imagery, and you’ll see a timeless morality play. The longer we go without playing with morality the more we play footsie with mortality. I’m just saying, wear a mask.
1 – Zola
I walked out of Zola thinking, “I bet that’s the best movie I see this year.” You know what? It was! Writer/director Janicza Bravo made the best film in cinematic history ever based on a Twitter thread about Floridian sex work, and I don’t care who hears me say that bold statement. What’s stunning about the film, and it is absolutely and totally stunning, is how it feels authentic and respectful while simultaneously being hilarious and thrilling. One of my all-time favorite films, Holy Motors, best replicates what it feels like to share in someone else’s actual dream. Zola best replicates what it feels like to sink into the craziest, most impossibly sounding story a friend ever told you. Sophisticated AF and almost impossibly smart, it has taken up permanent residence in my brain, which is what only the best films (and worst commercial jingles) could ever hope to do.
Whew! Tell me what your favorite films of 2021 were over on Twitter (twitter.com/thereaderfilm) and then let’s forget this whole damn year ever happened. Deal?