Another year in pandemic land down, eh? Another year where I'm grateful for movies as a means of escapism. I'm even more grateful for them now, as the film industry landscape continues to change and be impacted by ongoing uncertainty. There were a lot of releases this year that I've been eagerly anticipating for a very long time, and I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to see most of them in a theater. Some of my favorites were reflective of the process of creating and experiencing art in itself. Some of them were about learning to accept reality and live on with failures and hardships. But all of them transported me to another place, made me feel something different, and helped distract me from general pandemic malaise. Here's a list of my ten favorites that hit me the hardest.
Honorable mentions: Licorice Pizza, Zola, In the Earth, The Last Duel
10. Bad Trip
This was easily the hardest I’ve laughed at a movie all year. Probably the most I’ve laughed at a movie in many years. I’ve been a fan of Eric Andre’s style of crass, bonkers absurdist comedy for a long time, but the challenge of translating something that works at eleven minutes at a time to a feature-length movie is no joke. I think Andre and Kitao Sakurai pulled it off brilliantly with a blend of guerilla stunt work and traditional narrative that created something truly special. Part Jackass, part buddy movie, Bad Trip incorporates incidental real-life people into its story in a way that makes them naturally feel like core characters. There are moments here that are hard to believe happened without a script, but it’s heartwarming and funny to see regular everyday people step up when presented with the outlandish scenarios Andre puts them in. It’s also just a great comedy with fantastic chemistry between Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery, and Tiffany Haddish. In a year where it felt like good comedies were few and far between, Bad Trip really stood out.
9. Mad God
Phil Tippet’s Mad God has been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. The animation master’s personal project has been in development for 30 years, which is clearly evident by the sheer amount of detail on display. Tippet has created a rich tapestry of nightmare imagery dripping with atmosphere and malice. The story is told almost entirely visually, forgoing a traditional narrative in favor of an abstract and interpretive one. Tippet achieves a vision of a hellish landscape that reflects the darkest and most sadistic reflection of humanity. It’s incredibly impressive and novel to see so much creative and inspired hand animation used in a horror film. It feels more like an experience than a movie, one that I can’t wait to relive once it gets a wider release.
8. Drive My Car
Drive My Car was the most hauntingly beautiful and meditative movie I saw all year. Murakami is one of my favorite authors, and Drive My Car perfectly captures the most introspective and pensive aspects of his work. It’s a movie that requires a lot of patience, especially with its nearly three-hour run time, but is consequently so rewarding. Despite its impressive length, I felt completely immersed throughout. It’s the kind of film that I needed a long, quiet car journey home from the theater to reflect upon. Which ironically is what this movie is all about. Long drives are often my favorite place to think, and I connected with the way the film uses the automobile as a vessel for self-reflection. Drive My Car is impeccably shot and wonderfully written, and probably the most objectively well-crafted movie on this list.
It turns out that revenge might actually be a dish best served with love and an impeccable wine pairing. Nic Cage has been on somewhat of a roll lately, with Mandy taking the number one stop on my list of favorites from 2018. And while I think Cage is fantastic as a manic, drug-addled killer on a rampage for revenge, it’s so refreshing to see him get a chance to take on a more reserved and patient role with Pig. This film subverts the violence typically found on a quest for vengeance with a contemplative journey on what it means to be an artist and a creator. Cage is completely dialed in as a man who has completely retreated from the world of his former career but is dragged back in by events outside of his control. It’s almost like the anti-John Wick. It’s also probably the most I’ve cried during a movie this year, with a couple of stand-out scenes that were so melancholy and beautiful that I could barely keep it together in the theater.
6. Shiva Baby
Watching Shiva Baby is a lot like experiencing a second-hand panic attack in real-time. The tight spaces and close talking is reminiscent of the kind of deeply uncomfortable family gathering most people can probably relate to. It’s the kind of social horror that’s so effective in movies like Krisha or Uncut Gems. What made Shiva Baby stand out for me is that it combines this suffocating feeling with a dry sense of humor that prevents the sensation from becoming too overwhelming. Rachel Sennott is a standout lead here and feels instantly familiar as an aimless twenty-something crushed by the weight of her family's expectations. Her parents, played by Polly Draper and Fred Melamed, also deserve a shout-out as equally hilarious supporting characters. It's a movie that twists the knife of anxiety throughout but peppers in just enough comedy and sweetness to keep you hooked.
Sometimes in order to truly appreciate nice things we have to endure painful things. Such is the dynamic that makes Titane really stand out. It features some of the most wince-inducing ouchie moments I’ve seen in a while, and more tension than any other horror movie of 2021. But it counters those moments with a story about transformation and acceptance that is deeply warm and moving. Yes, it's infamously a movie about a woman who fucks a car, but it's also one of the most deeply human movies I've seen all year. I think horror is at its absolute best when it leverages unbelievable scenarios to convey complex emotion and strife. Titane is a shining example of that.
4. Riders of Justice
This was a latecomer to my list and a total surprise. Mads Mikkelsen always delivers, but I wasn’t expecting much more than a solid revenge thriller. I was delighted to find that it’s actually a heartfelt and genuinely funny movie about finding meaning in chaos and grief. Its cast of misfit characters are dynamically written and have great chemistry together. Each of their individual traumas and complexes adds up to a group that provides the support and kindness each needs to heal. It’s cosmic and grandiose while personal and intimate. It also features some great action that you might expect from a more traditional thriller, with an especially cathartic climax that left me hooting and hollering.
3. Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time
Goodbye, all of Evangelion. Hideaki Anno’s long-running anime series finally comes to a conclusion with the fourth and final rebuild movie, arriving almost fifteen years after the first rebuild and a full twenty-six years since the series began in 1996. Evangelion has always largely been a reflection of its creator’s mental state, often dwelling in dark, depressive, and cynical territory. But with this third and supposedly final ending, it feels like Anno has finally found peace. Thrice Upon a Time still features all the high octane mech fights and metaphysical technobabble that made the series unique and exciting, but what makes the finale so impactful is its willingness to slow down and linger in the quiet moments. This is a story about finally moving on and learning to live with hope in the after. Some of my favorite moments revolved around small pockets of humanity finding ways to sustain and thrive after apocalyptic events. Endings are difficult, especially with properties as huge and influential as Evangelion, but Thrice Upon a Time handles it with reverence and grace in a way that left me completely satisfied.
2. The Card Counter
Paul Schrader sure does love sad men writing in their diaries, doesn’t he? I guess it turns out I do too. The Card Counter is an outwardly angry, mean movie. It feels like Schrader is trying to reckon with the general public apathy towards war crimes the United States has committed and continues to commit at military “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture) sites, almost rubbing the viewer’s nose in it at times. But it’s also an understated character study with a sweet emotional core that makes the film balanced. I love the use of spaces in this movie: the way casinos are portrayed as flat, bleak places that Oscar Isaac’s character uses as a self-imposed extended prison sentence, “around and around until you work things out.” His relationship with the two supporting characters, Tye Sheridan’s Cirk and Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, offer him a glimpse of both redemption for his past sins and a sense of warmth and companionship. But the cycles of violence that these crimes perpetuate leave deep scars that span generations. It’s a deeply tragic movie that’s anchored by a fantastic central performance by Isaac. I was admittedly disappointed when Schrader’s last film, First Reformed, didn’t quite hit for me. The Card Counter, on the other hand, completely floored me and is a film I still think about often.
1. The Matrix Resurrections
This was inevitable. There’s just no scenario where a new Matrix movie comes out and it’s not one of my favorite movies of the year. What I didn’t expect, or at least was trying to be cautiously optimistic about, was just how good a Matrix sequel 17 years after the previous entry would be. Resurrections is so many things. It’s a reflection of the series through the distinct and clear voice of Lana Wachowski, and a deeply personal meditation on how her original vision has been co-opted and warped in so many ways. It’s a critique of modern filmmaking, and an impressively direct middle finger to parent company Warner Brothers. It’s a reboot that recaptures the mystery and allure of the original film. It’s a sequel that expands on the lore that’s been fleshed out by several multimedia projects. Most importantly, it’s a resolution of the emotional heart and soul of the series: Neo and Trinity’s romance. The Matrix has been a deeply impactful and influential series in my life, and this sequel was my most anticipated movie in years. I had no idea what to expect, but couldn’t wait to see where it went. The original Matrix was at the cutting edge of ideas in the early days of the internet. I couldn't wait to see what impact the last twenty years of technological advancement would have on its themes of identity, control, and choice. As a long-time and die-hard Matrix fan, Resurrections was more than I could have hoped for.
Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.