That’s right. Re-adaptations, not remakes.

Yeah. I added that specifically for Nightmare Alley. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Like I found with the previous list, even during a pandemic there was an abundance of riches when it came to quality viewing. There are truly wonderful, moving, or just plain entertaining works that didn’t make this list.

Honorable mentions: Tina, The Beatles: Get Back, In the Earth, Nobody, Wrath of Man

#10. A Glitch in the Matrix

Rodney Ascher’s third feature-length documentary explores simulation theory through the cultural lens of The Matrix. Alternatively funny, illuminating, and flat-out terrifying, the climax of the film ensured that I never want to see it again and I can’t stop thinking about it. Not for the overly sensitive or easily disturbed.

#9. The Deep House

From the creators of the New French Extremity classic Inside, and the underrated Texas Chain Saw Massacre prequel, Leatherface, a film that answers the question I never knew I had: what if we did a found-footage haunted house movie underwater?

Sure, Ben. Take Tina into the house. I’m sure your YouTube channel will blow TF up and nothing awful will happen.

Impressive from a technical standpoint and an unrelenting, claustrophobic experience. I would’ve loved to have seen it in a theater.

#8. Zola

“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out?”

Absolutely, I do.

Based on the viral Twitter thread from 2015, the subsequent Rolling Stone article, and true events, Zola is the story of A’Ziah “Zola” King, an unsuspecting exotic dancer pulled into a surreal comic nightmare by an almost perfect stranger. Director Janicza Bravo brings hilarious, absurdist details, impeccable editing, and performances out of her leads that effortlessly bridge the gap between farce and drama. The less you know before going in, the better. Think After Hours by way of Showgirls, Spring Breakers, and a dash of David Lynch.

#7. The Night House

A meditation on grief, self-destruction and the ultimately unknowable other that is our loved one. The Night House is a strange modernist take on a kind of folk horror powered by Rebecca Hall’s heartbreaking performance. This mystery and its imaginative art direction and production design psyched me up for director David Bruckner’s upcoming Hellraiser adaptation.

#6. Silent Night

The debut feature from writer/director Camille Griffin, Silent Night is both the blackest of comedies and serious as a heart attack. Also, a Christmas movie. The uneven tone threw some critics, as did the so-called unlikeable characters, but if (like me) you believe that we’ve all been the unlikeable character in someone else’s story at one point or another you’ll get over that pretty quickly. The ensemble cast is stellar across the board, particularly Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Roman Griffin (star of Jojo Rabbit and the director’s son.) A warning, though, if you’re grieving in any way you should consider avoiding this one like the plague. I expressed that sentiment on Twitter and the director liked it, so it’s probably sound advice.

#5. The Nowhere Inn

Grammy award-winning musician Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, made her feature film debut co-writing (with Roxanne Benjamin) and directing the darkly comic segment The Birthday Party in the horror anthology XX. Here, she teams up with long-time friend and fellow musician/filmmaker Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia) to co-write and co-star in this rock doc parody. Integrating true details of the stars’ lives with a whole lot of fiction, The Nowhere Inn is primarily interested in questioning the boundaries between identity and artifice. Is artifice identity? Mullholland Drive meets Madonna: Truth or Dare, True Stories, and Performance.

#4. Malignant

Divisive among the horror faithful (who whipped themselves into a froth arguing about whether or not the movie is a “giallo.” It is, with an asterisk) James Wan takes all the “Fuck You” money he made Warner Brothers with The Conjuring universe and Aquaman and unleashes an utterly insane “mainstream” horror movie that pulls from 90s Italian horror flicks (Wax Mask came to mind) Frank Hennelotter, Brian DePalma and a bit of Voldo from the Soul Calibur video game series. Gabriel has the potential to be the first recurring horror franchise character of the 2020s. Wan brings everything he’s learned since Dead Silence and unleashes it in a kaleidoscope of crazy. A slow burn until the third act, when Wan shoves a lit road flare inside a gas can. I caught myself unknowingly smiling a few times, then grinning through the entire finale. A throwback that captures the essence of its influences. The difference between dressing up as a painter and being able to paint.

#3. Seance

Writer Simon Barrett, known primarily for his collaborations with director Adam Wingard, makes his feature-length directorial debut with this whodunit set at a girls’ boarding school. Drawing from some of the same Italian influences as Malignant as well as teen coming-of-age films, Seance is a confident, witty, film that’s more thoughtful and romantic than many of its contemporaries. It’s a big return for the Dark Castle production banner, remembered fondly for their Willam Castle remakes House on Haunted Hill and Thir13en Ghosts. My favorite horror movie of 2021.

#2. Judas and the Black Messiah

Shaka King’s epic film about the life and death of Fred Hampton is the most important American film of the year and the most electrifying. Comparable to the best of Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese, the tale of FBI informant William O’ Neal infiltrating the Chicago branch of the Black Panther party is all the more harrowing because it happened. A masterclass in acting from dual leads LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, this is a complex story well-told. A story that could have easily descended into hero-worship or simplistic moralizing dynamics is a mesmerizing (almost procedural) crime drama highlighting the tragedies inflicted upon everyone involved. A sobering dose of truth.

The best movie I saw in 2021.

#1. Nightmare Alley

I teased it at the beginning and here we are. How does Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s previously filmed novel beat out what I already said was the best movie I saw in 2021?

Let me put it this way:
I’ve been profoundly moved by Beethoven’s sonatas, but it’s not the rush of adrenaline and joy that hits me when I hear Poison Ivy Rorschach’s hollow-body guitar building up to the end of The Cramps’ “(Hot Pool of) Womanneed.”

I am who I am. At least, today.

Damnation. Carnivals. Mentalism. Femme Fatales. Father/son issues.

Film noir soaked in blood, alcohol, and irony.

Like Judas and the Black Messiah, Nightmare Alley is also a descent into the dark heart of man, but here we’re in the realm of parables. It’s Guillermo del Toro, so I don’t even really need to tell you that it’s beautiful, the cast is chock full of personal favorites of mine: Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchette, Richard Jenkins, and Ron Perlman. Bradley Cooper is as good as everyone else always thought he was. I’m a little behind on his development, having skipped a fair amount of his work, and tending to still think of him as his moderately annoying character from Alias. I know. Twenty-ish years ago. I did like him in The Midnight Meat Train. Anyhow, he’s great here. My advice is to save the 1947 original until after you see this one if you can. I’d seen it earlier because it was one of director Tobe Hooper’s favorite films, and also artist Joe Coleman. Seeing it doesn’t take away from the beauty and commitment of del Toro’s cast and crew, but the film packs much more of a punch if you don’t know the lay of the land.

Nightmare Alley is another straight shot of truth about human nature, but the fable-like feel of the project moves it further from the crushing true-life sadness of Shaka King’s film and leaves it more in line with a Richard Matheson story, Twilight Zone episode, or EC Comic. Not that it doesn’t have those sudden bursts of ultraviolence that punctuate even del Toro’s most lyrical works. Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors, and this counts among his best films with Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and Crimson Peak.

I still think he got the Academy Award for The Shape of Water because of his cumulative GPA, not for that specific film, so, there you are.

As we head into 2022, remember, as William S. Burroughs once said, “There is one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside.”

And, if you still decide to work the marks, don’t do the spookshows. You’re liable to get shut-eye.

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