M.R.S. Recommends: 2021 Discoveries!
We asked our columnists to list their favorite film discoveries of 2021.
If you end up watching any, please let us know what you thought on social media or by dropping us a message on our contact page!
Jenny From the Grave
Santa Sangre (1989)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Psycho Goreman (2020)
Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Children of the Corn (1984)
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
WNUF Halloween Special (2013)
Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)
The Green Knight (2021, David Lowery)
Do you ever see a movie that makes you think, “This is what cinema is”? Because that’s this movie. It had some gorgeous gothic tones to it and didn’t fall into a common “Arthurian” movie trap of relying solely on action to make it move forward—it allowed itself the ambling of the quest without feeling the need to pack itself with more sword fights to make itself fit in with popular movies.
Zola (2020, Janicza Bravo)
Obviously, the story of this movie is wild (otherwise we wouldn’t have the thread turned into a film in the first place), but there are some really wonderful disorienting shots that capture the chaos of the plot. With some stylizing that feels like the 70s in the same way Tarantino films sometimes do, this movie is jarring, funny, and tense.
The Gauntlet (1977, Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood plays a Clint Eastwood parody character who thinks he’s the best cop on the force but is absolutely not, which is, of course, very good. There are a few scenes that probably require a trigger warning. Overall, though, it’s one of the few late-night movie picks that I was able to stay awake during the whole thing.
Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)
AH! It’s embarrassing that I hadn’t seen this movie before (all my picks are movies that were new-to-me in 2021) because it’s so good. Tarantino’s movies are typically trope-heavy, but I find that I don’t really object to it. My one complaint (like most Tarantino movies) is that I could do without the foot closeups.
The Harder They Fall (2021, The Bullitts)
This revisionist western was something I watched because I showed up to a friend’s house and they decided to put it on; there hadn’t been any marketing for it that I saw, so I got to experience it without having any idea what it was going to be about. (This is how I consume most movies these days.) This movie has a solid soundtrack, is incredibly enjoyable, has a strong cast. A few moments in the film push the boundaries of my suspension of disbelief, but given how good the rest of it is, I ended up not caring that much.
During this past year, I have probably watched the smallest amount of films in as long as I can remember. Part of this might be because theaters were closed and I was in no way ready to go back to them once they were opened. Less stuff that would have been rolled out, that I would have felt obligated to see, just didn’t happen. I also watched and discovered a lot of content via YouTube or Twitch that wasn’t really films. The rest is likely because of the ever increasing addiction to pro wrestling. That being said, my list of 2021 discoveries is sort of sparse, and, as usual, tells a tale of whatever I was focusing on at the time.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) First off we have Meet Me in St. Louis a 1944 musical set in 1904 about a family in the aforementioned city getting ready for some big life changes while the excitement of the World’s Fair amps everything up. Judy Garland is the star, singing, among other things, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. This is, in fact, the origin of that song, sung to her youngest sister after the kid beheads a bunch of snowmen in the backyard and cries. But the depiction of olde tyme Halloween is my favorite part of the film, where kids burn the stolen doors of fences in a huge bonfire and egg each other on to “kill” the neighbors. Ah, the memories. Because, yes, this was a nostalgia piece set forty years before it was released. It would be as if someone today made a movie about 1982. There’s even jokes about old phone technology in it.
Johnny Eager (1944)
Next we have Johnny Eager, a noir from 1944 about an ex-con pretending to be on the straight and narrow while actually operating a powerful gambling syndicate. Johnny’s trying to get a dog track open and is thwarted by the authorities at every turn. This film has glamor, sleaze, and a captivating supporting character in Jeff Hartnett, philosopher, drunk, and Johnny’s best friend. California Split (1974)
California Split is another movie about gambling, because this is where I had apparently found myself. This 1974 film has the sleaze amped up, as Bill, who wears sweaters and has a nice job working for a magazine, spirals into the addictions of gambling and the free-wheeling lifestyle of his new pal Charlie. I had so much anxiety watching them gamble. It was awesome.
Time for a swerve with the 1982 sci-fi horror film Xtro. I’d never even heard of this film before stumbling upon the trailer or something and, dang, why don’t more people speak of it? This insane British film has a horrific birth scene, a giant toy solider murdering people, clowns, a kid drenched in blood for no reason, and even more body horror than that.
Psycho Goreman (2020)
So, yeah, I guess that leads to Psycho Goreman, which I will assume my associates will also mention. We did a podcast on it. That’s how much we loved it. Purple Hellraiser for kids, but not really.
Other films released in 2021 I want to mention are both Dune and Spider-Man: No Way Home. These were the two films that got me back into a movie theater because I needed to see Dune at the IMAX and if I didn’t see Spider-Man, the internet would tell me things. I really missed going out to see a movie. While Dune had a lot of awe and atmosphere that hit best when everything was projected on a wall the height of a tractor trailer truck standing up and the width of a brachiosaurus lying down, Spider-Man was enhanced by the hype of the audience, cheering at every cameo and piece of fanservice.
A few more mentions: Delivery Boys (1985), The Barbarians (1987), National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon I (1993), Christmas Evil aka You Better Watch Out (1980), and Lady on a Train (1945)
Nightmare Alley (2021)
Guillermo Del Toro takes his time between films, and they are so worth the wait. Four years after The Shape of Water (one of my top five favorite dramas) he has returned with this gem, a mesmerizing carnival noire based on the 1946 novel and 1947 film (which I had not known about prior). As usual, the picture draws you in right away and holds you close with a perfectly paced unveiling of information, delicious dialogue and gorgeous sets with rich color. I very much appreciate the obvious research that Del Toro puts into his work, and as a result I learned quite a bit about carnie life as well as how the other half lived in the forties, because this is certainly a story of two lifestyles, and the tightrope in between. Just writing this I want to go watch it again. It’s beautiful, brilliant, and I am intentionally avoiding plot points so it can be seen as purely as possible. And that cast! Willem Dafoe, Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette and a whole bunch more light up the screen like the stars they are.
It’s got to be a lot of pressure to make a modern day continuation of a beloved film from almost thirty years ago, especially one as socially relevant as Candyman. Director/co-writer Nia DaCosta absolutely stood up to the challenge and gave us a movie that is intense, atmospheric, gorgeously filmed (that shot across from the apartment window is to die for), and succeeds in making the original even more important while connecting the mythos and sensibly updating it for the present day. This, like the original, is a socially important film, and like its parent is satisfying no matter the depth you choose to explore. The “oh!” moments are plentiful, be they callbacks, emotional depth, cinematography, unexpected surprises, or good, old fashioned horror movie moments. And the credits are absolutely beautiful to watch.
Three cheers for Sarah French, who has been killing it on the indie scene over the past few years. Her continued growth has been most noticeable in the creepy slow burn of Blind, where she plays Faye, a blind actress stalked by a killer. Writer Joe Knetter and director Marcel Walz keep the pace methodical to match their killer, giving a 70s vibe to the proceedings as the tension builds and the suspects multiply. I certainly won’t spoil anything, but I will say that I did not expect the ending, and very much look forward to the next project from this crew. Bonus recommendation: also check out Sarah in the horror comedy Bearry, a silly yet savage bit of indie cinema!
Even though I was late to this one I heard nothing but praise, and despite the reviews I still avoided spoilers, which is pretty important for any film but especially one with as much depth as this Ari Aster dark beauty. When I did decide to watch it took me three tries to successfully view all the way through. It’s a heavy movie, friends. Worth your time, absolutely, and it is massively engrossing, but wow it’s got a darkness to all the gorgeous scenery. The first try I only made it fifteen minutes! The second was an hour, and the third I was in for the whole journey. But despite the aborted attempts I was still rewarded, as the more you watch the more you see. This one is beautiful and grisly, and whenever I see an interview with the positive and funny Florence Pugh I respect her even more as an actress for playing a character thrust into so much darkness.
Psycho Goreman (2020)
Oh, PG, how I love thee. The MRS gang covered this gem in depth on an episode of the Midnite Cast, but I can’t make a list of favorites from the year without including this glorious gem of humor, horror, powers, and plasma. And Alastair. Poor, poor, Alastair.
Deep Cover (1992) A character study rooted in Blaxploitation, we see an undercover cop (played by Laurence Fishburne) realize his own potential as a drug lord. Rising among the ranks to create an epic bromance with Jeff Goldblum, he lives a dual life and loses himself in the process. The accompanying soundtrack, featuring Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, hammers in the gritty vibe as well as complements an already unique '90s masterpiece.
A far cry from the psychedelic journey that Jodorowsky had desired, instead Villeneuve takes us into a very grounded yet still hypnotizing world. Everything about this film's execution is measured and mindful, going so far as to put the initial digital intermediate onto film stock and then scan it back in a digital format to achieve more organic visual feel. This level of precise storytelling is remarkable (especially in the age of Marvel) and makes me excited for the next installment.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2021)
The deliberate act to love someone, not dream of them but think of them, is often rot with consequences. What's on fire in this movie is more than just affection, however, but the destruction of objectifying someone; burning a failed, superficial portrait and daring to achieve a more intimate rendering. This film expertly crafts high emotional stakes in the most subtle and quiet moments, so much so that I was constantly amazed at what I was feeling as well as seeing.
Danger: Diabolik (1968) If I were horny enough to wear an all black latex suite while robbing Europe's richest, you better believe I would also own a spinning bed to place all my stolen cash and then have copious amounts of sex on it. Also, this is film is directed by Mario Bava which is more than enough reason to watch it.
The Switchblade Sisters (1975)
What makes this film unique amongst the plethora of teen angst movies is the relationships it establishes. Where most youthful characters lack motivation nor even names, here we're given Maggie, Lace, Patch, Dominic, and others, fully defined and ready to explode against a society that doesn't care they exist. As bombastic as it is heartwarming, this film is the punk rock Shakespeare that we all want.