Madison’s Top 13 Films of 2021

Arts Coverage, Blog, Film and Television

You still have time to catch up on the best films of 2021, and you should start with these.

(Keep in mind, as of this writing I haven’t yet seen Nightmare Alley, The Matrix Resurrections, The Spine of Night, and a number of horror flicks that have been on my list).

Honourable Mentions:

Well-acted and beautifully shot (that art gallery murder was a masterpiece), Nia DaCosta’s Candyman was a satirical and thrilling update to the mythology of the series; its final scenes are perfect.

Kevin and Matthew McManus’s The Block Island Sound is a creepy coastal horror flick with one of the cleverest conclusions I’ve seen in a long time.

A nurse’s trauma makes her a perfect vessel for a vengeful ghost in Corinna Faith’s The Power, set in a darkened hospital during Britain’s 1972 blackout.

Debates about resource extraction in an Indigenous community fuel an unsettling ghost story in Cree filmmaker Rueben Martell’s Don’t Say Its Name.

It falters at its climax, but Scott Cooper’s Antlers is an grim, grisly creature feature that serves as an effective metaphor for the addiction crisis in rural America.

And Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street Trilogy adapts R.L. Stine’s YA horror series into an ambitious slasher/folk horror saga, each installment delving deeper into the dark history of a cursed town.

13. Werewolves Within (dir. Josh Ruben)

Josh Ruben movies tend to feel like stage plays, with quirky characters, rapid-fire dialogue, and fun twists. His follow up to Scare Me is a small-town locked-room mystery, in which one person may be not just a killer, but a werewolf. 

Everyone here’s a caricature, but it’s a lot of fun; Ruben deftly handles the zany madness and Mishna Wolff’s screenplay is rife with intrigue and red herrings. Veep favourite Sam Richardson is great as an overwhelmed forest ranger struggling to make sense of local drama and figure out who’s responsible for the bloodletting.

12. The Night House (dir. David Bruckner)

David Bruckner’s The Night House is an eerily effective cosmic ghost story anchored by a magnetic performance by Rebecca Hall.

Sharp-tongued teacher Beth is tormented by the recent loss of her husband, who left a cryptic note before committing suicide outside the home he built for them. As she struggles to understand his motives, she finds evidence of other secrets: occult books, strange notes in their floorplan, photographs of strange women, and a partial replica of their house on the other side of the lake.

Known for The Ritual and the creepiest segment of Southbound (seriously, watch it right now), Bruckner is a master of atmosphere and settings that feel unnervingly off-kilter. Here, he does freaky things with shadows and angles, as the contours of the house give shape to a spectral presence with evil intent.

11. Titane (dir. Julie Ducournau)

A female serial killer gets impregnated by a car, goes into hiding, and disguises herself as the missing son of a steroid-addicted fire chief. This movie won the Palme d’Or.

Titane at first feels like a riff on David Cronenberg’s Crash, before evolving into something even wilder. The body horror is extremely visceral, including vicious slayings, self-mutilation, and an unnatural pregnancy that causes the protagonist’s breasts to lactate oil. I thought Julia Ducournau’s first movie, the coming of age cannibal flick Raw, was grisly, but Titane is physically painful to watch. But it’s also incredibly stylish, and Agathe Rousselle’s chameleonic performance is spellbinding. I’ve never seen anything like this and I can’t wait to see what Ducournau does next.

10. Prisoners of the Ghostland (dir. Sion Sono)

This was the crazy Nic Cage movie we were expecting this year. Prisoners of the Ghostland is like Escape from New York meets Mandy meets Army of Darkness on acid, set in a samurai-guarded, Wild West-styled Japan where a lecherous governor (a scenery-chewing Bill Mosely) rules with an iron fist.

The breadths and depths of Nic Cage’s powers are on full display here (see the precise and controlled way he lets loose in a wild monologue that’s one-part manic rant, one-part pep talk) and he’s in some ways the straight man. A cult classic in the making, best viewed with a game audience. 

9. Psycho Goreman (dir. Steven Kostanski)

You know that classic movie where a group of kids find an alien and protect it from a hostile world, learning valuable lessons about family and friendship in the process? Psycho Goreman is like that, except the friendly alien is a genocidal tyrant and the kids are almost worse. 

P.G., as the alien warlord is re-named, makes it clear that he would slaughter his new friends, if young Mimi didn’t possess the jewel that imprisons him. Mimi, for her part, is less of a brat than a sociopath (when her crush rebuffs her advances, she has P.G. transform him into a giant sentient brain; she never turns him back).

If you can roll with its sadistic sense of humour, this Canadian horror-comedy is a lot of fun. Like Kostanski’s previous film The Void, it’s also an impressive showcase of practical effects, with a motley crew of monsters and aliens that might have been designed by a deranged Jim Henson. 

8. Censor (dir. Prano Bailey-Bond)

Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut is a hallucinogenic horror trip set during the Video Nasty panic.

Working for the British Board of Film Classification, Enid’s job is to watch violent movies and determine which parts (if any) are appropriate for the viewing public. Her process is precise and efficient, prescriptive rather than moralistic, often involving negotiation; she’ll leave in a decapitation, for instance, if the filmmaker agrees to cut something worse. Reality and fiction begin to blur when she’s assigned a film with a murder scene that bears an uncanny resemblance to the kidnapping of her sister.

Bailey-Bond effectively brings together movie magic, repressed memories, and hallucinations to portray a woman’s descent into madness. The film condemns censorship without being strident or using its protagonist as a strawman, and the political subplot (in which Enid is blamed when a slasher she approved inspires a real-life killing) is an interesting counterpoint to the central mystery.

7. Dune (dir. Denis Villenauve)

Denis Villenauve’s take on Dune is a refreshingly serious science fiction movie that succeeds on every level. The story: granted control over a resource-rich desert planet, the Atreides family faces treachery from all sides, while young heir Paul Atreides learns he may have been bred for an unwanted destiny. 

The world Villenauve’s team conjures is awe-inspiring, as are the costumes and alien creature design (not to mention Hans Zimmer’s Middle Eastern-inspired score). The cast is also impressive, an eclectic mix of A-listers and colourful character actors. But Dune is more than bombast and spectacle; it’s a methodical and complex story about politics, where everyone has divided loyalties and empires are built upon shifting sand.

6. Last Night in Soho (dir. Edgar Wright)

With a vintage soundtrack, stylish costumes, and spectacle to spare, Edgar Wright’s time travel murder mystery is by far the most delightful movie of the year. 

Ellie is an old soul, in no small part because she sees ghosts wherever she goes – an affliction that becomes acute when she settles into an apartment with a tragic history. Ellie doesn’t fit in in modern London, but enjoys the immersive visions that whisk her into the swinging sixties – until she witnesses the long-ago murder of an aspiring singer. Pursued by ghosts and haunted by visions of violence, Ellie goes about solving the murder herself, attracting the attention of a still-living killer. Soho is pure movie magic, with Wright’s stylistic flair matched by a clever (and surprisingly scary) script.

5. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)

A bitter cowboy terrorizes his brother’s fragile wife while growing obsessed with her son in this sinister western from Jane Campion. Beautifully shot with an unsettling score, The Power of the Dog is a first-rate acting showcase.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays a real mean bastard in this one, but he’s not a one-note villain; his Phil is a highly intelligent man with little self-awareness, whose understanding of human nature is limited to what he can use to manipulate others, but whose own weaknesses would be plain to see if anyone cared to look. Cumberbatch nails the duality of the character, alongside excellent turns by Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

4. Night Raiders (dir. Danis Goulet)

The debut from Cree-Metis filmmaker Danis Goulet, Night Raiders is a disturbing science fiction film that subverts the expectations of dystopian cinema. In a totalitarian future, the losing side of a civil war are controlled through their children, who are shipped off to boarding schools to be re-educated and trained as soldiers for the government. Drawing from the appalling history of Indian Residential Schools, the film incorporates Indigenous culture in interesting ways, merging mysticism and technology for a climax that is truly revolutionary.

3. Pig (dir. Michael Sarnoski)

Everybody thought this flick – which stars Nicolas Cage as a grizzled hermit searching for his kidnapped truffle pig – was going to be a jokey knock-off of John Wick. But Pig turned out to be an odd, downbeat story about losing yourself and picking up the pieces. 

Cage delivers a sensitive and incisive performance as a reclusive chef-turned-forager, complemented by Alex Wolff’s sleazy but wounded turn as a wholesaler who aids him on his quest. Sarnoski takes Rob and Amir on a strange odyssey through the Portland food scene, slowly peeling off layers of their characters while Cage’s Rob eviscerates (verbally) anyone who gets in his way. Pig doesn’t deliver what you expect or even what you want, and that’s for the best.

2. Saint Maud (dir. Rose Glass)

Rose Glass’s debut is a disturbing religious horror movie about a devout nurse obsessed with converting her dying patient. Maud has ecstatic experiences and communes with the divine; her atheistic patient, a headstrong former dancer, plays along mockingly. 

Saint Maud is a slippery movie whose meaning shifts with multiple watches; at times it’s hard to tell what’s F/X and what’s acting, nor is it obvious whether the supernatural occurrences are real or in Maud’s head. It’s a grueling watch, and its brutal ending leaves open for interpretation whether its heroine is a madwoman or a saint.

1. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)

Visually spectacular and rich in symbolism, David Lowery’s The Green Knight complicates the already-enigmatic Arthurian poem that inspired it.

The story begins when an immortal knight, who bares more than a passing resemblance to the legendary Green Man, interrupts King Arthur’s Christmas party and challenges the knights to a game: he will submit to a blow from one of Arthur’s men, on the condition that the knight travel to his chapel and accept the same injury in a year’s time. Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts the challenge and unwisely chops off the Green Knight’s head. The Green Knight, however, can survive decapitation, whereas Gawain likely cannot. 

Lowery re-writes Gawain from a devout knight into a brothel-frequenting rogue, re-making him into a modern figure ill at ease with the courtly rules that inform his actions. Gawain’s journey to meet the Knight is surreal and populated with inscrutable figures who alternately guide him and tempt him from his path; the film ultimately leaves many questions unanswered, including its central one of whether it’s better to die with honour or live in disgrace.

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