All posts by maddwolf

Fright Club: Best Horror Movies of 2021

Big year! In fact, horror may have saved movies this year. That’s what lured people back to cinemas —A Quiet Place Part II, Candyman and other genre films. And even though we don’t entirely consider Last Night in Soho a horror film, Edgar Wright’s giddy take on giallo was a blast in the theater.

But horror also flooded streaming services, where you could find some of the most amazing bloody treasures in 2021: Jakob’s Wife and Fried Barry made you glad you had a Shudder subscription, and Double Walker proved true indie horror was alive and well.

It took some time to boil it down, but here are our 10 favorite horror films of 2021.

10. Titane

Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning Titane is alive with alternating color palettes, pulsating sounds and endless shocks of body horrific visuals. The sudden bursts of violence are downright pedestrian alongside the parade of boldly squirm-inducing clashes of flesh, bone and other.

But as she did with her first feature, Raw, Ducournau finds humanity clawing out from the inhumane. Truly unforgettable performances from Vincent Lindon and Agathe Russell provide intimate examples of the extremes that even the most damaged souls are capable of in the search to care and be cared for.

It may not be shy about homages and influences, but Titane is indeed its own ferocious animal. Open the cage look the F out.

9. Caveat

The room is dark, decrepit. A wild-eyed woman with a bloody nose holds a toy out in front of her like a demon slayer holds a crucifix. The toy – what is it, a rabbit? A jackalope? – beats a creepy little drum. Faster. Slower. Hotter. Colder.

This is how writer/director Damian Mc Carthy opens Caveat and I am in. An expertly woven tapestry of ambiguity, lies and misunderstanding sink the story into a fog of mystery that never lets up. McCarthy unveils a real knack for nightmarish visuals, images that effortlessly conjure primal fears and subconscious revulsion.

Mc Carthy does a lot with very little, as there are very few locations and a total of three cast members—all stellar. You won’t miss the budget. Mc Carthy casts a spook house spell, rattling chains and all, and tells a pithy little survival story while he’s at it.  

8. Psycho Goreman

Endlessly quotable and boasting inspired creature design and a twisted Saturday Morning Kidventure tone, Psycho Goreman is a blast

Fans of writer/director Steven Kostanski’s 2016 breakout The Void (a perfect blend of Lovecraft and Halloween 2) might not expect the childlike lunacy and gleeful brutality of Psycho Goreman (PG for short), but they should. His 2012 gem Father’s Day (not for the easily offended) and his 2011 Manborg define not only his tendencies but his commitment to tone and mastery of his material.

His ensemble here works wonders together, each hitting the comedic beats in Kostanski’s script hard enough that the goretastic conclusion feels downright cheery. This movie could not be more fun.

7. The Retreat

The Retreat shows how satisfying it can be when cabin-in-the-woods horror is done well.

Director Pat Mills builds an air of dread and tension minus the usual gimmickry. Writer Alyson Richards pens a lean, mean, bloody survival thriller that boasts some welcome surprises and a smart social conscience. Realized via strong performances from Tommie-Amber Pirie and Sarah Allen, heroes Renee and Val’s relationship feels perfectly authentic, with a sexuality that’s never exploited by a leering camera. And while you may be reminded of 2018’s What Keeps You Alive, there is a critical difference.

The couple in that film could have been heterosexual, and it still would have worked. But here, the fact that it is a same sex couple being hunted matters very much to the story at work. It enables Richards and Mills to anchor a revenge horror show with a satisfying metaphor for the violent threats LGBTQ folks continue to face every day.

6. A Quiet Place Part II

For a few well-placed and important seconds, there it is: the much-discussed nail from A Quiet Place. And like most everything else in writer/director John Krasinki’s thrilling sequel, the nail’s return carries weight, speaking visually and deepening our investment in these characters’ terrifying journey.

There is no shortage of exhilarating, squirm-inducing and downright scary moments, but Krasinski instills it all with an impressive level of humanity. He gives the enterprise a welcome retro feel and his flair for visual storytelling has only strengthened since the last film.Paragraph

AQPII is lean, moves at a quick clip, thrills with impressive outdoor carnage sequences and yet commands that same level of tension in its nerve- janglingly quiet moments. Krasinski had a tough task trying to follow his 2018 blockbuster, one made even tougher now having to prove the sequel was worth saving for a theaters-only release. On both counts, we’d say he nailed it.

5. Censor

It’s 1985, Thatcher’s England: an era when controversial films hoping to make their way to screens big and small found themselves more butchered than their characters. Writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher evoke such a timestamp with this film, not just in the look and style, but with the social preoccupation.

Censor is a descent into madness film, but its deep love and understanding of the genre play a central role in this madness. Niamh Algar’s performance as the video nasty censor in question is prim and sympathetic, deliberate and brittle. It’s clear from the opening frame that Enid will break. But between Algar’s skill and Bailey-Bond’s cinematic vision, the journey toward that break is a wild ride.

4. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

Making an unnervingly assured feature film debut, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas commingles The Transfiguration’s image of lonely, awkward adolescence with Relic’s horror of familial obligation to create a heartbreaking new vampire tale.

Many things are left unsaid (including the word “vampire’), and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To confines itself to the daily drudgery of three siblings. Dwight (Patrick Fugit) longs to break these family chains, but sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) holds him tight with shame, love, and obligation to little brother, the afflicted Thomas (Owen Campbell).

What could easily have become its own figurative image of the masculine longing for freedom mines far deeper concerns. Cuartas weaves loneliness into that freedom, tainting the concept of independence with a terrifying, even dangerous isolation that leaves you with no one to talk to and no way to get away from yourself.

3. Lamb

Among the many remarkable elements buoying the horror fable Lamb is filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson’s ability to tell a complete and riveting tale without a single word of exposition. Rather than devoting dialog to explaining to us what it is we are seeing, Jóhannsson relies on impressive visual storytelling instincts.

His cast of three – well, four, I guess — sells the fairy tale. A childless couple working a sheep farm in Iceland find an unusual newborn lamb and take her in as their own child. As is always the way in old school fables, though, there is much magical happiness but a dire recompense soon to come. It is an absolutely gorgeous, entirely unusual and expertly crafted gem of a film. You should see it.

2. Candyman

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta and producer/co-writer Jordan Peele, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

1. Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma.

Ehle’s performance strikes a perfect image of casual cruelty, her scenes with the clearly delicate Maud a dance of curiosity and unkindness. Clark’s searching, desperate performance is chilling. Writer/director Rose Glass routinely frames her in ways to evoke the images of saints and martyrs, giving the film an eerie beauty, one that haunts rather than comforts.

Glass’s film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

Screening Room: Matrix Resurrections, Licorice Pizza, Macbeth, Lost Daughter, Sing 2, Tender Bar, Red Rocket, American Underdog

Glass Half Empty

The Tender Bar

by George Wolf

Look past the tabloid fodder and you’ll see that onscreen, Ben Affleck is having a fine second act. Last year’s impressive turn in The Way Back showed him more than comfortable in his older skin, and his standout support in The Last Duel is generating some Oscar buzz for this year’s best supporting actor race.

This focus on substance over leading man style is a smart one, but while Affleck digs into his pivotal role in The Tender Bar, the film itself struggles to find anything truly relevant to say.

Based on J.R. Moehringer best-selling memoir, it’s an account of his journey from a poor, dysfunctional household to a Yale education and a career in writing. Guided by voiceover narration from adult JR (Ron Livingston), we’re introduced to little JR (Daniel Ranieri) when he and his mother (Lily Rabe) are moving back into the Manhasset, New York home of Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), Grandma (Sondra James) and Uncle Charlie (Affleck).

JR’s violent, alcoholic father (Max Martini) is a radio deejay who’s rarely around, so 11 year-old JR looks to Uncle Charlie as a role model, often soaking up life lessons found at “The Dickens,” the Long Island bar where Charlie works. Young adult JR (Tye Sheridan) continues the barstool education until it’s time for the Ivy League, new friends, and a hard-to-really-get new girlfriend (Briana Middleton).

Director George Clooney and screenwriter William Monahan craft a respectful and well-meaning adaptation, but it’s sadly lacking any hint of why they found the source material so moving. From Charlie’s advice to JR’s awakenings, the messages are broadly drawn, well worn and self-satisfied, too generic for even the Oscar-winning Monahan (The Departed) to polish into inspirational shape.

And where is the eye for vibrant period detail that helped bring Clooney that well-deserved directing nomination for Good Night and Good Luck? Here, soundtrack choices and costume design blur the stated timeline, while the young actor playing JR at 11 looks closer to 8 and shockingly unlike Sheridan. Even the “golden voice” we’re told that JR’s deejay dad possesses never materializes when he finally speaks.

A film such as this needs authenticity to resonate, but this true story never feels like one, and the chance for us to really connect with JR is derailed at multiple turns. While Affleck adds another fine showing to his current winning streak, there’s not much else in The Tender Bar to convince you the book was worth a big screen adaptation at all.

Full Frontal and Funny

Red Rocket

by Christie Robb

Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is like an ill-trained golden retriever—all smiles and charm until he starts humping your leg and pissing all over the furniture.

In Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, Mikey makes a hangdog reappearance in his hometown of Texas City, Texas. He left 20 years before with hopes of making it big out in Los Angeles—as a porn star. That didn’t exactly turn out well for him and now he finds himself broke and on the doorstep of his ex Lexi (Bree Elrod), begging to be let back inside.

He’s a fast talker who makes a good elevator pitch, and despite a history that you can just tell is littered with drama and bad vibes, Lexi lets Mikey move in—provided he contributes to the rent and does some chores around the house.

From here, Mikey tries to pick up the pieces of his life and start over. Unfortunately, the stigma against sex workers limits his employment prospects. So he hooks up with an old boss and starts peddling weed to make ends meet.

Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project) has made a comedy this time out, albeit a black one. Once Mikey catches a glimpse of the pert 17-year-old server Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the local Doughnut Hole, he embarks on a mission to pimp her out to the porn industry.

She’s smart, sex-positive, and down to be filmed, but Mikey is full of lies, promoting unrealistic expectations that give the comedy a touch of a tragic undertone.

All of this is set against 2016 DNC and RNC convention speeches that make reoccurring cameos on the TVs in the background, underscoring the hogwash that Mikey is spouting.

Quotable and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Red Rocket finally answered a question I had floating around the back of my mind for years—exactly how much bouncing would be involved when a well-endowed naked man runs full-out on a city street.  

Hail Mary

American Underdog

by Rachel Willis

Directed by the Erwin Brothers, the life story of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner is filled with the kind of inspirational messaging that is sure to hit all the right plays for a certain segment of the movie-going population.

That’s not to say American Underdog doesn’t have appeal for a wider audience, but the studio knew what it was doing with a Christmas day release. There’s football, an underdog dreamer, and a smidge of Christian faith, all bundled together in a surprisingly funny, if familiar, package.

Zachary Levi is the perfect embodiment of a quarterback with a dream delayed. From an early age, Warner has hopes of an NFL future. The movie starts with the unreality of Kurt’s goal—a short narration outlining the long odds of making it to the pros. But Kurt has genetics on his side, plus genuine talent. Unfortunately, nobody wants him.

Exactly why he’s unwanted isn’t always clear. We learn Warner spent most of his college career on the bench, only getting his chance to play as a fifth-year senior. Something about discipline is the reason behind this, but it’s never fully laid out. He isn’t part of the NFL draft upon finishing college, but he does get a chance with the Green Bay Packers. However, a misstep ends his career in Green Bay.

The film trains its focus more on the hardships Warner faced off the field alongside his girlfriend, single-mother Brenda (Anna Paquin), and his perseverance to work through them.

This is the more interesting part of Kurt’s story, and the screenwriting team of David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn and Jon Erwin (also co-director) know how to engage the audience. It’s not the victories on the field that matter most – though they are impressive – but the sheer determination to make the dream happen.

Of course, it’s easy to root for a man who pursues his goals with such dogged persistence and nary a negative thought. He faces hardships but with such grace, it borders on unrealistic. Even while working as a stock boy at a local grocery store, living in an apartment with no heat in the middle of winter, Brenda and Kurt radiate the kind of positivity that you typically find in a film with a faith-based anchor.

There is some cringe-worthy dialogue, and you can’t expect a movie like this to skip the inspirational speeches, but American Underdog wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s not too hard to ignore the schmaltz.

Two for One

The King’s Man

by Cat McAlpine

When Orlando Oxford’s (Ralph Fiennes) wife dies in front of him and his young son Conrad, his life is irrevocably changed. No longer is he a brave action taker. His life revolves around protecting his young son and respecting his wife’s dying wish. Naturally, this leaves an older Conrad (Harris Dickinson) desperate to prove himself as a man and meet danger at the front lines of WWI.

That’s the first five or so minutes of The King’s Man.

Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn returns for his third entry in the franchise with something darker and sillier, plagued with tonal whiplash.

What made his first two Kingsman films so successful was their absurd violence, over-the-top villains, and classic spy premise. This prequel goes without those key elements for almost an hour. Instead, we get a tense father-son drama about how war calls to all young men.

The narrative of the first half of the film is punctuated with plot, plot, and more plot to explain the growing tensions leading to the world’s most gruesome war.

When the Oxfords decide their only hope is to assassinate Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), I laughed out loud. It’s the same absurdity that made the rest of the series so enjoyable, but the ensuing hijinks were at odds with the movie I’d been watching.

Most odd of all, The King’s Man’s two most disparate scenes are its best.

One features Ifans — fantastic as Rasputin, both horrifying and hilarious and perfectly suited to the series. In stark contrast is a night-time knife fight in no man’s land. Conrad’s experience at the war front is heart-wrenching and filled with equal parts hope and horror. Then Vaughn rips us right back into plot, plot, and more plot. Emotional arcs are completed with single, short scenes and we are finally delivered into the nonsensical action we expect, well into the film’s second hour.

With The King‘s Man, Vaughn has made two films. The first, a period war drama. The second, a Kingsman prequel. Both films are well done and enjoyable but squashed together they become difficult to keep up with.

American Pie

Licorice Pizza

by Hope Madden

Each new Paul Thomas Anderson film defies expectations. Few fans of the lunatic frenzy of Boogie Nights or Punch Drunk Love would have expected the somber period dramas of The Master or There Will Be Blood. And I don’t know that anybody saw Phantom Thread coming.

Why not follow that meticulously crafted, deliberately paced tale of love and poison with a coming-of-age comedy? Well, Anderson’s latest, Licorice Pizza, is just that, and it’s a slice of Hollywood life awash in squeamish adolescent truth, politics, and waterbeds.

Anderson returns again to the 1970s, an era where few are as at home. In his 1997 breakout Boogie Nights, he used the porn industry to showcase the changing politics of the end of the decade while exploring alienation, family, and merkins. He journeyed back to the decade in 2015 with his underappreciated private dick flick Inherent Vice, again looking at individuals on the fringes and the choices that put them there.

While Licorice Pizza is far sunnier than those, it again examines choices and consequences against a vividly articulated 1970s LA.

Anderson’s film manages to be simultaneously familiar and entirely authentic. What does it feel like? If Robert Altman had attempted a coming of age flick, maybe? Or if Linklater made a screwball romantic comedy? Among Licorice Pizza’s many triumphs, the film nails its time period, not only in visual detail but in cinematic tone.

It is loose, forgiving, and along for the ride as 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) woos life, Hollywood and, in particular, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), his much older paramour.

Both stars charm and disarm. Cooper’s sweet-natured confidence masks an adolescent tenderness that, when it shows itself, is almost crushing in its honesty. And Haim’s funny, awkward naivete mirrors the film’s own giddy feel.

Danger edges but never fully punctures the sunshine of youth that brightens every scene of the movie. But that darkness is there, looming like the creepy guy staring at your office window, or the cops who arrest you mistakenly, or the volatile Hollywood producer who may or may not smash your window (or your head) in with a crowbar. (Thank you, Bradley Cooper, by the way, for that brief but unforgettable performance.)

Cooper is not the only Hollywood big wig gracing a few minutes of screen time. Sean Penn drops in as a well-known action star and has not been this entertaining since Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Don’t ask him about Kuala Lumpur!

The massive ensemble, evocative soundtrack and party atmosphere conjure Boogie Nights, the comfortable family dysfunction recalls Punch Drunk Love, the lumbering walk and surprising charm from the lead is reminiscent of PTA alum and dearly missed Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cooper’s dad.

It’s nostalgic. It’s uproarious, dangerous, just-this-side-of-innocent fun. It’s a near-masterpiece.

It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

A Day at the Beach

The Lost Daughter

by Hope Madden

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director, The Lost Daughter.

The veteran actor moves behind the camera to capture a weeklong holiday in Greece. Leda (Olivia Colman) lounges seaside and scribbles notes for another book. Little work gets done, though, thanks to the very large, very wealthy, very rowdy family that crowds the beach each day, but one member of that family sends Leda’s mind reeling back to her own youth.

Jessie Buckley’s young Leda captures the rich and volatile version of the woman Colman delivers on the beaches of Greece. The two performances never mirror or mimic each other. Rather, Buckley’s frustration and passion inform the reflective but still impetuous middle-aged woman taking stock of her life.

An actor whose unerring talent feels effortless, though no doubt it is not, Gyllenhaal draws that same kind of vulnerable, raw performance from her leads. Both versions of Leda surprise with a balance of moments, both ugly and dear. Anger lies behind their eyes, as well as longing and the regrettable loneliness of an outsider.

Colman conveys enormous emotional weight with her physical performance. The way she holds herself, the expressions that linger on her face, the changes in her gait—all of it articulates the particular suffering of this human in a way dialog never could.

Gyllenhaal frames the film as if to point out that the story is there, and is important, but of equal value is the way Leda sees the life unfolding around her. The approach is genius but unforgiving. A lesser cast could peter out with this level of attention. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast (which includes Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris, both marvels) meets the challenge.

The deliberate camerawork in The Lost Daughter crafts a disquieting spell. Whether so close to an embrace you can almost smell the baby shampoo, or holding a distant glance at a stranger long enough to ensure its discomfort, Hélène Louvart’s cinematography disconcerts — as it did in Eliza Hittman’s 2020 treasure Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.

Hearing Voices

Sing 2

by Hope Madden

Are you ever absolutely slain by the voice talent in a cartoon? I find this especially true of a middling animation like Sing, or more to the point, writer/director Garth Jennings’s sequel, Sing 2.

Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Edgerton, Bono, Nick Kroll, Bobby Cannavale, Pharrell Williams, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Eric Andre and Chelsea Paretti round out the set of vocal stylists bringing this animated animal talent show to the big screen. Was there any budget left for animators?

Well, sure. This is an Illumination animation—the good people behind the Minions and all that—and its visual style is bright, colorful and well suited to the animal antics afoot.

What antics, you ask? Well, big dreamer Buster Moon (a koala voiced by McConaughey) wants to take his enormously popular smalltown song and dance troupe to the big time! But are they ready? Will the man in charge of their destiny (a nasty wolf named Jimmy Crystal voiced by Cannavale) choose to murder Buster? And can they find the famous singer Clay Calloway (Bono) in time for the big show?

Who’s to say? What they won’t do is sing originals. Unlike your typical Disney musical, Sing 2 puts recognizable pop songs into characters’ mouths, so it plays a bit like one of those TV talent shows, except less annoying.

Halsey is memorable as spoiled Porsha, and Jennings himself shines voicing the character of theater assistant Miss Crawly.

Still, there’s not a lot new to see here—I think we’re all familiar with “the show must go on” stories. There’s even less new to hear. Characters are likable enough (aside from that wolf), and very solid lessons are learned and themes encouraged.

Plus, some fun song choices keep scenes lively and it is very hard to go wrong with this talent pool.

Not one memorable thing happens. Not one. But Sing 2 is light-hearted, good-natured fun while it lasts.  

Metapocalypse

The Matrix Resurrections

by Hope Madden

December is the month for outrage on the big screen. Whether Adam McKay’s latest blistering comedy Don’t Look Up, Radu Jude’s audacious indictment Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, or Lana Wachowski’s return to the power grid that made her famous, movies this December are really, really angry.

And who can blame them?

As the filmmaker resurrects her Matrix series, Wachowski makes sure to point out just how prescient her pleather & action groundbreakers really were.

Back in ’99, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) had to make a choice. He woke up to the fact that reality itself was harsh and inconvenient and you couldn’t just say what you wanted to hear and convince others that was reality. In 2021, Thomas Anderson is a rich video game designer living in a reality where people insist that their own narratives are the truth regardless of the facts.

Anderson’s story involves, once again, waking up to harsh truth and finding true love. There are battles, action sequences, grudges and nostalgia aplenty—more than enough to delight fans of the trilogy looking for a little pandering.

But that plot, slight as it is, creates a frame on which Wachowski can hang a lot of indignation. The strange synergy between the logical evolution of Anderson/Neo’s story and Wachowski’s rage is what makes The Matrix Resurrection strangely satisfying.

Take Act 1’s monologue from Anderson’s video game business partner (Hamilton‘s Jonathan Groff, priceless) as to why they have to make another Matrix video game: Warner Brothers wants a sequel to the trilogy and they own the rights and will make it with or without us.

That’s not an explanation about Wachowski’s return to the cinematic franchise she thought she put to bed in 2003, it’s dialog. Well, it’s both.

Her film goes on to reiterate the danger in a false world. “If we don’t know what’s real, how do we resist?”

Most often she uses a diabolically smug Neil Patrick Harris to voice her wrath, but again, the context she created about living in two realities could not possibly lend itself better to this treatment.

The film looks good. It’s too long, but all of them are. (All of the Matrix films, or all films in general? Both.) The action doesn’t entirely live up to the originals, but how could it? Carrie-Anne Moss is still a force of nature, Reeves is better at being confused than any actor working today, and the balance of new faces, old faces, and younger replacements for familiar faces works.

Resurrections hits a level of meta that risks alienating core Matrix fans, but whether Wachowski wins on her own terms with a box office success or she sinks her franchise into obscurity with a bomb, there’s little doubt she’s the one making the choices here.