If HR can make employees suffer through a mid-year review, I can do the same to cinema, right? Lots of surprises among the best of the best for the first half of an odd year. Photo credit: I Blame Society, produced by Nowhere.

All years are weird, but few years make people do the pandemic hokey pokey. “You put your right foot in … oh God, take your right foot out! Unless it’s vaccinated. And even then, you have to wear a sock.”

With public safety guidelines evolving, theaters are filling up again, and studios are once again asking for your money. That means the back half of 2021 is gonna be jam-packed and chock-full. The films that are packing jams and filling chocks may well displace the weird, quirky films released early in this plague year by the time “best of” lists are due.

With that in mind, here’s a fun experiment: With only six months gone since I wrapped up my top 10 of 2020’s movies, let’s look at what would make this year’s list if I made it today. If nothing else, this will hopefully give you some overlooked gems to stream if/when pandemic restrictions pull a Jesus Christ.

10 – Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art

The most feel-good of feel-good movies are documentaries where rich people get fleeced, right? I can think of no more victimless crime than wealthy white folks getting tricked into buying art forgeries. It’s the rarest of true crime docs: one that features 0% Ted Bundy.

9 – The Dark and the Wicked

This farmland-friendly fright flick is part meditation on the burdens of family and part blatant creepy jeepering. Complete with face spiders and slowly severed fingers, writer/director Bryan Bertino understands the storytelling power and spectacular spookiness inherent in agro-horror. A must-see if you like cows but also fear them.

8 – Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar 

In the kindest way, this feels like an overlong SNL sketch from the early 2000s. At a time when real-life morons are endangering us in new and exciting ways, Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig) are the type of idiots I miss. A simple vacation movie laced with a bit of Austin Powers and a lot of culottes, it’s the kind of cult comedy we don’t seem to get anymore.

7 – Golden Arm 

If you blended a smoothie made of Cobra Kai, Over the Top and GLOW and chugged it while a mulletted trainer named Big Sexy threw random objects at you, you’d have Golden Arm. It’s basically every underdog sports cliché standing on top of one another, wearing a trench coat and saying in a fake-deep voice “Yes, I am an original movie film please?” It’s also a goddamned delight.

6 – No Sudden Move 

Nobody does breezy crime movies (or laid-back, jazzy Oscar ceremonies apparently) quite like Steven Soderbergh. His latest features a deft turn from Don Cheadle, David Harbour as total maroon, an upsettingly perfect cameo, and the rarest of all Benecio del Toro performances: one where he doesn’t do any weird, goofy shit to his voice. It’s not Ocean’s 14, but who can count that high?

5 – Saint Maud 

Religious delusions have not so quietly had a real strong 2021. Writer/director Rose Glass’s tale of demented piety is what can be lovingly referred to as an “uh oh” movie. It quietly and relentlessly churns towards the “uh oh” waiting at the end of the story. This film is also a stark warning about those who actually walk among us doggedly convinced that only they are on the same wavelength as an invisible almighty creator.

4 – Fear Street: 1994 

Do we need the impending Scream remake when this slasher jam already spurted and sprayed nostalgic blood everywhere? The first 20 minutes is basically just magnificently 90s needle drops, blowing through tunes faster than someone looking for PJ Harvey on a playlist. With a same-sex central love story and savvy casting, the first adaptation in this RL Stine-based trilogy should make Ryan Murphy feel very, very bad about himself.  

3 – About Endlessness

Writer/director Roy Andersson’s collection of vignettes feels like power walking through a museum or speed reading a book of poetry. The very loosely linked stories — which can only very loosely be called stories — are mini-meditations that vary from absurdism to profundity. Equally as upsetting as enthralling, this is the sort of film that would make a perfect date movie, provided both parties really like Swedish existentialism. Which, I mean, who doesn’t?

2 – I Blame Society

Writer/director/actress/mischievous malcontent Gillian Wallace Horvat’s I Blame Society is a wry, anarchic mockumentary. It is a nonchalantly, lackadaisically unhinged satire that draws intersecting and parallel lines between what it takes to make it in the film industry and what it takes to be just a really successful serial killer. Don’t care about inside Hollywood bullshit? No worries! Set that meta-conceit aside, and you’ve still got a subtly hilarious, effortlessly droll comic gem crammed with quotable lines and goofy killin’. If Tiny Furniture got Lena Dunham an HBO show, I Blame Society should get Horvat her own damn network.

1 – Zola

Sinisterly (almost sneakily) hilarious and meaningfully stylish, Zola is the single best piece of evidence to suggest that the creation of Twitter wasn’t a profound mistake. It is Spring Breakers without the baggage of Harmony Korine. It is satirically Scorsese-ish, were he to ever cast Black actors. Above all else, it is writer/director Janicza Bravo writing her name on the “must-watch filmmakers” list in fluorescent permanent ink.

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