The 20 Best Comedies of 2021

Movies Lists Best of the Year
The 20 Best Comedies of 2021

The comedies of 2021 truly hit some all-time lows, with big franchises, reboots, remakes and pretty much everything given to our young cinemagoers seemingly vying for the top spot in a soullessness competition. But that left plenty of room for sneaky hybrids, unexpected indies and, yes, even a few big-budget studio films to claim a monopoly on the year’s laughs. It allowed rising stars like Jim Cummings, Patti Harrison, Natalie Morales, Janicza Bravo and Rachel Sennott to ascend while reaching a hand down to fallen himbo angel Simon Rex. It gave us new Wes Anderson and Quentin Dupieux films. It gave us dog-sized flies, human-sized weasels, and a prank film that’ll make your heart grow ten sizes. Slacker anime, werewolf horror-comedy, and Jewish socio-sexual terror are all represented. 2021, perhaps expectedly, wasn’t too forthcoming with its humorous movies, but if you know where to look, there are plenty of gems.

Here are our picks for the 20 best comedy movies of the year:

20. Happily

In writer/director BenDavid Grabinski’s Happily, the pricks are Karen (Natalie Zea), Val (Paul Scheer), Patricia (Natalie Morales), Donald (Jon Daly), Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Carla (Shannon Woodward), Richard (Breckin Meyer) and Gretel (Charlene Yi). The subjects of their animus are Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé), married for 14 years and incapable of not sneaking off to the bathroom at someone else’s house party for a quickie. They’re desperately in love and their friends can’t stand it. Sure, there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed regarding public displays of affection, but Tom and Janet have the good decency to play (most) of their grab-ass games just out of view. Still, they’re seen as weird, which means their pals are jealous, which is why they’re disinvited from a weekend getaway. Everybody hates them. Happily lives in the porous space between genres, where horror, thriller and several stripes of comedy—notably dark and romantic—commingle with one another. First-time feature helmer Grabinski firmly steers his script away from sticking in one mode or another: It’s neither purely scary, nor purely tense, nor purely hilarious, but instead most or all of these at once, producing a uniquely unnerving tone where shortness of breath in one moment instantaneously gives way to cackles in the next. Grabinski isn’t the first filmmaker to blend genres, but it’s not every day genres are blended so well that basic qualifiers for describing them all feel ill-suited for the picture they’re being applied to. “Horror-romantic-thriller-comedy-party movie” does Happily little justice. But that speaks to the specificity of Grabinski’s vision, and to the familiar, acrid social dynamic Tom and Janet share with their horrible friends. Happily is a hoot—sharply made, wonderfully acted, and clear proof of Grabinski’s present skill and future potential.—Andy Crump


19. Vicious Fun

The gritty, glowing neon textures of the ‘80s cover practically every frame of director Cody Calahan’s Vicious Fun, a horror-comedy caper that lovingly sends up the era’s genre tropes while never breaching egregious self-indulgence. The set and character design imbues a palpable adoration for the decade of acid wash jeans, glossy underground magazines and VHS tape fuzz, which conveys a genuine appreciation for the cult classics churned out during the ‘80s—even if it sometimes trips into the very tropes it wishes to unpack. In 1983 middle America, schlubby Joel (Evan Marsh) is the “deputy assistant editor” and film reviewer for horror magazine Vicious Fanatics who realizes that his long-time crush/roommate Sarah (Alexa Rose Steele) is dating an apparent scumbag. Joel tails Sarah’s suitor to a Chinese restaurant on the edge of town, intending to tape his inevitably douchey comments and present it to her as grounds for dumping. He strikes up an awkward conversation with the man over strong cocktails, who eventually introduces himself as Bob (Ari Millen), a local realtor who indeed has some scummy things to say about Sarah. Joel drunkenly stumbles into a broom closet and passes out until closing time. Upon waking, the only other people left in the joint compose an intimate gathering of self-professed serial killers—all of whom assume that he’s Phillip, their last anticipated attendee. The circle of sociopaths consists of emotionless clown killer Fritz (Julian Richings), cannibal sous chef Hideo (Sean Baek), mass-murderer Zachary (David Koechner) and a slasher who specializes in killing teens mid-coitus, aptly named Michael (Robert Maillet). Bob also joins the crowd, revealing himself to be an all-American psycho with a familiar obsession with business cards and vinyl raincoats. If the macabre members of that motley crew all seem like obvious allusions to some of the horror subculture’s most notorious killers, don’t fret: James Villeneuve’s script saves Vicious Fun from feeling lazy in execution. The solid pacing of the screenplay serves up equal doses of gory kills alongside quick comedy. Though the film will undoubtedly never achieve the culture-shifting magnitude of the franchises it draws from, it comes equipped with authentic heart and charm: Two assets that will take a flick far even when the competition is killer.—Natalia Keogan


18. Slaxx

Did you know that pant zippers are the most common cause of adult penis injury? Thankfully, the fatality rate is pretty much nothing to worry about. Until now. In the vein of absurd inanimate antagonists ranging from Rubber’s killer tire to Killdozer!’s well…Killdozer, Shudder’s horror/comedy Slaxx is all about a pair of jeans out for blood. Director Elza Kephart (who co-wrote with Patricia Gomez) doesn’t hit below the belt with that particularly painful pinch, but her delightfully schlocky movie definitely ups the kill count contributable to denim—all stitched into a critique of the clothing industry, from the harvest to the high-end boutique. Now, when you hear “killer pants movie,” you might not really care about things like “plot” or “message.” You probably just want to know if it rules to see some empty jeans run, scoot and leap around murdering people. Well, if you’re looking for a movie that doesn’t sit around long enough to wear a hole in the seat of its extremely silly premise, with lots of gore and a few great deaths, Slaxx will fit like a glove. If the idea of killer jeans makes you crack a grin, and even if you’ve been disappointed by horror movies with similarly silly central conceits, it’s worth your time to try on Slaxx. You might be surprised how enjoyable this bootcut bloodbath feels.—Jacob Oller


17. Mandibles

A scenario of magical realism achieved as if through a scuzzy bong rip, French director Quentin Dupieux’s Mandibles follows two slacker friends (Grégoire Ludig, David Marsais) who scheme to make some quick cash to scrape by with the friendly assistance of an oversized housefly. Though Dupieux’s previous films such as Rubber and Deerskin never shy away bloodshed and suffering, his latest effort is overwhelmingly defined by a sense of joie de vivre despite a typically surreal plot and the undeniable disaster left in its protagonists’ wake. The filmmaker’s absurdist comedy leanings are on full display, rendering Mandibles his most surprisingly exuberant film to date. Bizarre but never confounding, Mandibles is a superbly executed tragicomedy. The pair’s idle reaction to their misfortune only adds another veneer of hilarity to the already farcical plotline. When a case of mistaken identity grants the friends a chance to crash at a bougie vacation house on the coast, their oblivious hosts’ ridiculous insistence on politeness and good manners makes them appear far more deranged than the wannabe grifters and their enormous pet fly. Particularly when it comes to Agnès (marvelously performed by Adèle Exarchopoulos, best known in the U.S. as the star of 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color)—a resident with a volume-control issue stemming from a ski-related incident that shouldn’t be funny, but certainly is—her insistence on adhering to textbook French civility despite a startling, brash tone indicates a certain commentary on an antiquated notion of politeness. Irreverent and heartfelt at once, Mandibles’ comedic duo is part Cookie and King Lu from First Cow, part Dante and Randall from Clerks. They treat the animal which promises them profit with reverence while simultaneously acting in selfish, boorish ways totally unfit for polite society. Though Dupieux’s films have never shied away from violence and destruction, Mandibles preserves the filmmaker’s penchant for perplexity while asserting that life is a glorious thing—even in its distasteful weirdness.—Natalia Keogan


16. Werewolves Withinwerewolves-within-inline.jpg

With the release of his feature film debut Scare Me last year, director Josh Ruben put himself on the horror-comedy map with his tale about horror writers telling scary stories. With Werewolves Within, Ruben further proves his skills as a director who knows how to walk that delicate line between horror and comedy, deftly moving between genres to create something that isn’t just scary, but genuinely hilarious. The cherry on top? This is a videogame adaptation. Werewolves Within is based on the Ubisoft game of the same name where players try to determine who is the werewolf; Mafia but with shapeshifting lycanthropes. Unlike the game, which takes place in a medieval town, Ruben’s film instead takes place in the present day in the small town of Beaverfield. Forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) moves to Beaverfield on assignment after a gas pipeline has been proposed to run through the town. But as the snow starts to fall and the sun sets behind the trees, something big and hairy begins hunting the townsfolk. Trapped in the local bed and breakfast, it’s up to Finn and postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) to try to find out who is picking people off one by one. But as red herrings fly across the screen like a dolphin show at the local aquarium, it feels almost impossible. Just when you think you’ve guessed the killer, something completely uproots your theories. Writer Mishna Wolff takes the core idea (a hidden werewolf in a small town where everyone knows each other), and places it in an even more outlandish and contemporary context to pack an even funnier punch. While the jokes never stop flowing in Werewolves Within, Ruben and Wolff never lose sight of the film’s horrific aspects through plenty of gore, tense scares and one hell of a climax. This film full of over-the-top characters, ridiculous hijinks and more red herrings than you can keep track of is a great entry in the woefully small werewolf subgenre.—Mary Beth McAndrews


15. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

There are many reasons why SpongeBob SquarePants has endured more than two decades of steadfast love and pop culture relevance. Part of it is the enduring positivity and ridiculousness of SpongeBob (Tom Kenny), Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and the entire populace of their world. The characters are self-referential, consistent to their defining traits and the writers have always created a duality of experience: Silliness for kids and a sly ascendance of wit that appeals directly to the older viewers. The mode in which the funny is served needs to have all of that present to work. Director/writer Tim Hill (who also wrote 2004’s original The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) understands that in this first, all-3D presentation. Hill and his team of artists—including Mikros Image, which is responsible for the CGI animation—play it smart by introducing a subtle transition for the view in the opening of Sponge on the Run. Gorgeous, photorealistic CGI of the underwater world transitions to the familiar color palette and stylized look of Hillenburg’s corner of the ocean, just with more presence and tactile flourishes. From Gary’s snail slime coming across as tangible goop to scratches in Sandy Cheeks’ breathing dome, the movie doesn’t aim to overwhelm audiences with overt tech bells and whistles. Instead, it presents the characters and world as an opportunity to experience the familiar in a new light, like appreciating the miniscule scale of a 3D-generated Plankton in comparison to his explosive rage—which makes him all the more hilarious. As another evolution in the ongoing SpongeBob universe, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is a graceful and well-executed dip of the yellow toe into 3D waters. There’s overall respect for the characters and tone, and artistic merit to how they integrate the medium into the show’s standards for presenting the surreal and strange. Does it push the sponge forward? Probably not, and that’s ok. There’s something timeless about Bikini Bottom remaining as it is, with spin-offs and new series serving as the appropriate playgrounds for new outlets of storytelling. Sponge on the Run lovingly splits the difference, but doesn’t take anything away from what many know and love.—Tara Bennett

14. El Planetael-planeta-inline.jpg

The frequently complicated relationship between mother and daughter has fostered plenty of cinematic investigation, but El Planeta easily distinguishes itself as a uniquely meta and universal addition to the canon. The film follows London-based fashion student Leo (Amalia Ulman) upon returning to her rainy hometown of Gijón, Spain, after the death of her father in order to comfort her mother, María (Ale Ulman), whose chronic joblessness leaves debts piling high. In order to stave off eviction and support their solidly middle-class lifestyle, the two begin a series of elaborate ploys to scam and scrape by. Leo poses as the girlfriend of a powerful Spanish politician, awarding her the convenient phrase: “Put that on his tab.” El Planeta finds charm and levity despite the encroaching anxiety of crumbling finances, a fact that has everything to do with the Ulmans’ beautiful on-screen chemistry and the strength of Amalia’s scriptwriting. Humor and misery mingle effortlessly, primarily through evoking the uniquely Spanish tradition of picaresque melodrama, perfectly encapsulated by luxurious fur coats and nonchalant comments of “Thanks, it’s Moschino” as the heat and electricity get shut off. El Planeta is able to remain self-aware where other films have faltered through Ulman’s peppering in her family’s own lived experiences throughout the film. A leg injury Leo sustains, the pair’s financial instability and even the heartache over their dear cat Holga (who is the namesake of Ulman’s production company) are all cemented in fact, allowing for the curtain between fiction and reality to blur in a way that fosters authenticity.—Natalia Keogan


13. Coming 2 America

Coming 2 America effectively uses the legacy of Zamunda to expand the narrative space not only of the classic original, but for Black diasporic affinity at large. At the end of the 1988 romantic comedy, the royal marriage of Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy) and Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) further symbolically enmeshed the interconnected experience between African-Americans and Black Africans. In this sequel, the legacy of that union is explored through the gendered opportunities of Prince Akeem’s lineage and the pressure he faces to determine his royal successor—all while appeasing the tyrannical leader of Zamunda’s neighboring country Nextdoria, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes). Coming 2 America is an exciting follow-up that’s ensemble cast and increasingly complex musings mostly outweigh its shortcomings. In present-day Zamunda, Prince Akeem enjoys the company of his wife, his three badass warrior daughters and his dear albeit mischievous dude-in-waiting Semmi (Arsenio Hall). But when dying, nearly expired King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) reiterates that Akeem’s eldest daughter, Princess Meeka (KiKi Layne, Beale Street! Beale Street!) will not be eligible to inherit the throne because she is a woman, Akeem and Semmi return to Queens to find Akeem’s long-lost bastard son, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler). Of course, hijinks ensue along the way. Semmi and Akeem must fumble around a new New York stuffed less with mustard-colored cabs and more with rideshares. They become acquainted with an increasingly gentrified Queens, visit some familiar friends and meet new members of Akeem’s extended family as they court Lavelle. This film’s greater comedic elements come from these familiar moments of cross-cultural tension and new intergenerational differences. Coming 2 America is a deeply fun, goofy, incredibly cast Blackity-Black movie. Viewers be warned of the emotional whiplash they might receive from the returning likes of James Earl Jones and John Amos, as well as the steady stream of Black artists and icons from across the diaspora who make surprise appearances in the film. Coming 2 America achieves exactly what an effective sequel should: It reinforces themes from the original film while offering new, intriguing points of tension, nodding to old gags in a way that rewards fluent fans without alienating newbies.—Adesola Thomas


12. The Suicide Squad

How is James Gunn one of the only people that actually seems to know how to make a comic book movie feel like it was built out of a comic book? Sure, the excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did it, but it took making one of the most impressive animated movies in years. Writer/director Gunn, who’s hopped over to DC after making a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel, achieves some of the same delirious multimedia fidelity in live-action with The Suicide Squad, his bombastic, silly and self-aware revisionist take on the super-group of screw-ups coerced into jobs too tough, dangerous and/or undesirable for the conventional wetworkers of our humble government. Gunn’s action has such a clear and confident tone that it can pepper in filmmaking winks—like quick Bourne-like zooms when Task Force X director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plays God with the lives of costumed crooks from the safety of her command center—to add a little more visual flavor to its already over-the-top, R-rated, downright enjoyable adaptation. Part of the joke is the sheer quantity of goofball Legion of Doom rejects shoved into the mix. Sure, you’ve got the familiarly chaotic clown-about-town Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who’s by now thoroughly made the role her own), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and straight-laced military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) alongside the new A-listers (John Cena’s Captain America pastiche, Peacemaker; Idris Elba’s gruff sharpshooter Bloodsport). But there’s a Golden Corral buffet of questionable riffraff introduced as well, including but not limited to: King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, channeling a dumber and hungrier Groot), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Blackguard (Pete Davidson) and a human-sized weasel (Sean Gunn). They’re all distinct and most of them are distinctly, joyfully hateable. And over the course of The Suicide Squad’s solid tropical island action movie—one that’s politics are almost as sharply cynical as its true-to-source treatment of its protagonistic supervillains—Gunn isn’t afraid to dole out the kind of consequences that have mostly been relegated to the fun-poking, franchise-flouting realms of TV superhero meta-critiques like The Boys and Invincible. These aren’t unfamiliar to Suicide Squad readers, but they’re increasingly shocking, strange and bracing (not to mention fun!) to find in AAA studio movies. As the team moves from FUBAR beach operations on Corto Maltese to sabotaging its local lab’s super-science, actual tension develops—a rarity among The Suicide Squad’s contemporaries. Whatever power its additional The gave it couldn’t completely divorce it from some expected genre limitations, but it’s helped continue and solidify the way Warner Bros. is responding to Marvel’s utter dominance of the form: Not by getting more serious, but by seriously investing in the idiosyncrasies of its comics.—Jacob Oller


11. Bad Trip

What’s most distinguishable about Bad Trip is the way that it depicts the public which it interacts with. The film never aims to humiliate or dehumanize its subjects—instead of being disparaged or mocked in the name of comedy, bystanders are portrayed as more of a righteous tribunal than mere crabs in a barrel. The reprehensible behavior showcased always stems from Andre, Haddish or Howery, with spectators taking it upon themselves to moralize and attempt to salvage any remaining shred of the incognito actors’ perceived dignity—perhaps all too perfectly exemplified in a scene with a parking lot Army recruiter who civilly declines Andre’s offer of a blowjob in exchange for execution during a profound period of hopelessness. This ability to invoke public reaction—with no rubric for hardline emotions that the actors must elicit—is what allows the fabric of Bad Trip’s humor to shine through. With the professional actors shouldering the burden of both maintaining character for the benefit of the film’s overarching narrative as well as ensuring that the orchestrated gags play perfectly, the public’s only obligation is reacting genuinely, whether that be expressing anger, frustration, disdain or bewilderment. It’s this spectrum of varied emotion that is woven into the very fabric of the film, giving it an overtly genuine tone. At times it is even surprisingly heartwarming, with good samaritans stepping in to talk characters off of ledges and break up public quarrels.—Natalia Keogan


10. The Paper Tigers

When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather. That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s. It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin. Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.—Andy Crump


9. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Animated generational divides have never been more like a sci-fi carnival than in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Writer/director Mike Rianda’s feature debut (he and co-writer/director Jeff Rowe made their bones on the excellently spooky, silly show Gravity Falls) is equal parts absurd, endearing and terrifying. It’s easy to feel as lost or overwhelmed by the flashing lights and exhilarating sights as the central family fighting on one side of the title’s grudge match, but it’s equally easy to come away with the exhausted glee of a long, weary theme park outing’s aftermath. Its genre-embedded family bursts through every messy, jam-packed frame like they’re trying to escape (they often are), and in the process create the most energetic, endearing animated comedy so far this year. And its premise begins so humbly. Filmmaker and animator Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is leaving home for college and, to get there, has to go on a road trip with her family: Rick (Danny McBride), her Luddite outdoorsy dad; Linda (Maya Rudolph), her peacemaking mom; and Aaron (Rianda), her dino-freak little brother. You might be able to guess that Katie and her dad don’t always see eye-to-eye, even when Katie’s eyes aren’t glued to her phone or laptop. That technocriticism, where “screen time” is a dirty phrase and the stick-shifting, cabin-building father figure wants his family to experience the real world, could be as hacky as the twelfth season of a Tim Allen sitcom. The Mitchells vs. the Machines escapes that danger not only through some intentional nuance in its writing, but also some big ol’ anti-nuance: Partway through the trip, the evil tech companies screw up and phone-grown robots decide to shoot all the humans into space. This movie needed something this narratively large to support its gloriously kitchen-sink visuals. The Sony film uses some of the same tech that made Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse look so crisp and unique, adding comicky shading to its expressive CG. In fact, once some of the more freaky setpieces take off, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Miles Morales swing in to save the day. The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ spin on the Spidey aesthetic comes from meme and movie-obsessed Katie, whose imagination often breaks through into the real world and whose bizarre, neon and filter-ridden sketchbook doodles ornament the film’s already exciting palette with explosive oddity. This unique and savvy style meshes well with The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ wonderfully timed slapstick, crashing and smashing with an unexpected violence, balanced out with one truly dorky pug and plenty of visual asides poking fun at whatever happens to be going on.—Jacob Oller


8. Plan B

The meeting of past and present is on full display in Plan B which puts a new spin on one of the tried and true plots of the genre—the road trip. Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) is a responsible student trying to do everything right. Her best friend Lupe (Victoria Moroles) seems to walk more on the wild side, but it’s really just bravado hiding some inner insecurity. When Sunny’s mom Rosie (Jolly Abraham) goes out of town for a real estate convention, Lupe convinces Sunny to throw a party to get the attention of Hunter (Michael Provost). “Who plays hockey in a cardigan? He’s like an athletic librarian,” Sunny sighs. But after one too many shots of some very questionable alcoholic punch (pickle juice is involved), Sunny has sex for the first time with the super religious and super geeky Kyle (Mason Cook from the late, great TV series Speechless). The next morning, to her horror, Sunny discovers the condom and its contents have been inside her all night long. The quest for the Plan B pill begins. All films require a willing suspension of disbelief and Plan B does need its viewers to not ask too many questions. Suffice to say a lot of Sunny and Lupe’s problems could have been solved by a simple Google search on their phones. But once you set aside any lingering doubts, the movie is a delight. That’s in large part due to first-time director Natalie Morales. Morales, known for her roles on Parks & Recreation, The Middleman and Dead to Me, clearly understands these characters and the emotional angst of high school. Perhaps because Morales is an actress herself, she’s even more conscious of ensuring that the female leads are treated with the respect they deserve.—Amy Amatangelo


7. Together Together

Together Together is an amiable, successfully awkward surrogacy dramedy that also has the respectable distinction of being a TERF’s worst nightmare. That’s only one of the tiny aspects of writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature, but the gentle tapestry of intimacy among strangers who, for a short time, desperately need each other certainly benefits from the meta-text of comedian and internet terror Patti Harrison’s multi-layered starring performance. Stuffed with bombastic bit parts from a roster of recent television’s greatest comedic talents and casually incisive dialogue that lays waste to media empires and preconceptions of women’s autonomy alike, the film is an unexpected, welcome antidote to emotional isolation and toxic masculinity that meanders in and out of life lessons at a pleasingly inefficient clip. That the tale of fatherhood and friendship is told through the sparkling chemistry of a rising trans star and her entrenched, anxious straight man (an endearing Ed Helms) only adds to Together Together’s slight magic.—Shayna Maci Warner


6. The Beta Testthe-beta-test-inline.jpg

Jim Cummings tends to play men who refuse to lose control. His characters feel similar, but then so do many white, cisgender, heterosexual, elder millennial men—unable to wield power over their domain, they flail belligerently through these, their End Times. They find closure in slapping around a corpse (Thunder Road), or they turn to folklore and cryptozoology to explain a world they no longer understand at all (The Wolf of Snow Hollow). Everything is terrifying, everyone is watching, and the least noble thing any of them can do as the teeth rot from their mouths is rage against a universe that no longer wants them. So that’s what they do. In The Beta Test, his first feature with co-director/-writer PJ McCabe, Cummings is Jordan Hines, a Hollywood agent facing extinction. As talent agencies battle the Writers Guild of America over “packaging deals” and his whole career’s culture shifts out from under him, Jordan receives a handsome purple invitation in the mail promising a “no-strings attached sexual encounter with an admirer at The Royal Hotel.” His marriage to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) looms—as do all things in the white millennial man’s life—and, as he’s fit and attractive and not uncommonly met by temptation in public, he can’t help but fantasize about whatever validation the purple letter offers. Are his fantasies even “OK” anymore? Why does no one seem to care when Raymond (Wilky Lau), a potential big international client, aggressively grabs Jordan’s crotch at a party? A white millennial man cornered by obsolescence—or worse, an obsolescence no one gives much of a shit about—will scratch and whine for scraps of satisfaction. Just any iota that someone gives about what he wants—that he matters. As an excoriation of masculinity, there isn’t much to The Beta Test that Cummings hasn’t explored before, and the long takes and bravura monologues that initially defined his voice as a filmmaker appear here, though more sublimated into the fabric of the film than in any previous feature. And his handle on genre remains deft but slippery. The Beta Test is an erotic thriller as devotedly as it’s a satire and an upsetting glimpse of a very specific dying breed of tinseltown phony. Which is much funnier than it sounds. Because everyone is watching and everything is terrifying. The Beta Test never attempts to refute how lame Jordan is, how ineffectually he inhabits this plane of existence, how much of a baby he is, how unhelpful he will be as the planet devolves into the kind of chaos where violence and oblivion just occur in the background. The film just celebrates Jordan’s delusions as exactly what they are: The only way to cope with a universe that no longer wants people like him around anymore.—Dom Sinacola


5. On-Gaku: Our Soundon-gaku-our-sound-inline.jpg

Being a teenager in a suburban town can be excruciatingly boring. With no variety in routine, everything feels useless. But then, sometimes, something appears that banishes that monotony and breathes excitement into an otherwise dull existence. That discovery can be revelatory; life can suddenly have purpose. In the case of the trio of delinquents in Kenji Iwaisawa’s incredible debut feature, the animated On-Gaku: Our Sound, they discover the catharsis and power of music. On-Gaku: Our Sound is writer/director Iwaisawa’s love letter both to the power of music and to the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. As the film progresses through its musical numbers, Iwaisawa experiments with form (like expressive rotoscoping) as certain songs evoke different emotions from his characters, whether it is a kindly folk song or a primitive-feeling rocker that reverberates in a listener’s chest. In contrast to the visual style, the phenomenal deadpan comedic delivery is reminiscent of American animated comedies of the ‘90s like Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Kenji in particular embodies that tone, through both line delivery by Japanese rock legend Shintarô Sakamoto and a design that includes an unrelenting stare, thin mustache that zigzags across his upper lip and shiny, bald head. Despite being a high school student, Sakamoto’s grizzled voice gives Kenji the vibe of a tired old man who has seen everything, when really he’s just a bored teenager who smokes too many cigarettes and watches too much TV. Iwaisawa’s own passion fills the chilled-out slacker comedy with a lot of heart and a gorgeous variety of animation styles.—Mary Beth McAndrews


4. The French Dispatchthe-french-dispatch-inline.jpg

As was the case with 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch is a story within a story—or, in this case, multiple stories within a story, and there are stories within those stories as well. Wes Anderson remains a creative force to be reckoned with. Frequently rebuked by naysayers for his commitment to his finely-tuned, “quirky” filmmaking style, The French Dispatch proves he is more interested than anything in how to play around with the medium of film and find new ways to tell his stories. Here, he challenges himself to a far more intricate means of storytelling, which is occasionally convoluted but fosters an eagerness to return to the film—to revisit and discover something new. Additionally, he trades previous forays in stop-motion animation for an extended 2D animated chase scene, and even briefly swaps his prototypically stationary, symmetrical camerawork for a dinner table sequence in which the camera slowly revolves around the seated characters, creating a novel and striking dimensionality to his cinematography. Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright and Benicio del Toro, in their respective first collaborations with the director, could not have been more perfectly attuned to Anderson’s highly specified wavelength. Even minor roles from new Anderson inductees like Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Christoph Waltz and Rupert Friend are, as could be expected from a perfectionist like Anderson, a snug fit. The precision with which Anderson once effortlessly deployed anguish, familial strife, love, insecurity and, perhaps above all, loss, within his carefully constructed signature filmmaking is largely absent from his newest endeavor. The various storytelling gimmicks take center stage, while the characters are forced into the back seat. The film becomes a wry showcase for the director’s evolution as a creative who has been refining an unparalleled style for over two decades, with a sharper humor but without the more deeply felt pulse of films like The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox or most recently, and most effectively, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Still, it’s not to say that The French Dispatch’s bones are absent of any meat at all. “What happens next?” ends up a proportional sentiment to that of the film’s titular publication, the disappearing town it’s set in and the overall theme within Wes Anderson’s tenth feature: The eternal battle between art and capital. The question of “What happens next?” is less an inquiry as to the future of a shuttered, fictitious publication than a worrying, real-life prophecy, and The French Dispatch acts as a dialogue with this fear of the future of art. In this respect, it’s hard to argue that this latent dissolution of character depth is a net negative, when Anderson is clearly interested in, more than anything, growing and evolving as an artist.—Brianna Zigler


3. Zola

A’Ziah “Zola” King’s ultra-viral Tweet thread—AKA The Story AKA The Thotessy AKA Dante’s Infern-ho—about stripping, sex trafficking and the dangers of braving the surreal and nearly mythological land of Florida with a white girl you barely know, has it all. It’s hilarious and disturbing, with characters noble, treacherous and pathetic, damning voyeurism while encouraging our participation and spectatorship. The social media saga is also a treatise on storytelling. It’s been embellished, deleted and reposted after the dark comedy inherent in the compelling truth was honed for an audience—an evolving epic poem, technologically modernized. Naturally, writer/director Janicza Bravo had her work cut out for her when turning its garish and nightmarish weekend into a film. But she responds in kind, adding in her own tweaks and retellings to heighten the fable. Zola maintains its source’s compelling magic, transforming us from rubberneckers to spellbound participants along for the wildest cinematic road trip of the year. In less capable hands, Zola could’ve been a movie of morbid fascination. But Bravo, who adapted her sophomore feature alongside Jeremy O. Harris, embraces the secondhand spontaneity of the vibe while immersing us in the humanity of its participants. We’re rarely looking at them, as can happen during the sleazy Floridian spectacle of Spring Breakers, but going through it with them. Sometimes that means empathizing with Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) when they’re feeling themselves, taking selfies in the strip club dressing room. Sometimes that means chuckling sadly when Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun, whose clueless giant schtick gets a Malibu’s Most Wanted coat of paint) brags to a stranger in an empty liquor store that they’re in town “making shmoney.” But the shmoney ain’t for nothin’ and these chicks ain’t free, as the next days spiral from a simple strip trip to a messy collision between culture vultures, warring sex traffickers and an ever-increasing desire to get the hell home. Zola continues the fairy tale evolution of King’s story, passing the rich text on with the same outrageous spirit—a level of respect most adaptations only aspire to.—Jacob Oller


2. Red Rocket

A wave of early aughts nostalgia immediately saturates Red Rocket, Sean Baker’s latest exploration of echt-Americana, by way of NSYNC’s eternal hit “Bye Bye Bye,” which blares as Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) disembarks a bus arriving in his Texas hometown. Unfortunately for Mikey, this wave is the same one that washes him up here. Having left his small Gulf Coast town to pursue adult film acting in Los Angeles 20 years prior, his return is essentially admitting defeat. But Mikey appears anything but embittered, a spring in his step as he walks through the desolate streets despite his precarious position. Portrayed with beguiling (though at times disagreeable) levity by Rex, Mikey is the center of Baker’s most complex character study to date—all while maintaining the director’s focus on power dynamics, American disillusionment and those on the margins of society (albeit with an added air of compelling moral ambiguity). With no means to secure honest work or cash unemployment checks as an out-of-state resident, Mikey falls back into his old gig of selling weed for local supplier Leondria (Judy Hill), who is equally baffled by his return. Nearly entrenched in a period of regression, Mikey becomes deeply enamored with a 17-year-old cashier at The Donut Hole named Strawberry (Suzanna Son)—pulling him out of his plan to rekindle his relationship with his wife, vying instead to utilize the young girl as his ticket back into the sex industry. While this description makes it easy to write Mikey off as an irredeemably slimy creep, Rex brings an impenetrable air of endearing himboism to the role that makes it absolutely impossible to hate Mikey—a performance indicative of Rex’s indelible talent. The actor’s vulnerability when it comes to revealing a shameless showbiz sensibility while bearing (fore)skin is inextricably tethered to Rex’s own adult film past and integration into VJ-stardom and Scary Movie sequel stints. It imbues the film with the sort of docu-style realism Baker perpetually strives for, only this time choosing to depict an individual who straddles, crosses and distorts his own position of power. By way of candid humor, a magnetic performance from Rex and Baker’s careful attention for authenticity, Red Rocket is a sympathetic profile of a porn star past his prime. In spite of his sleazy nature, Mikey Saber is an enchanting character whose pride (and relative privilege) shields him from the relative shambles of his surroundings, both on hyperlocal and national planes. Yet Mikey is hilarious and heartfelt by way of his shortcomings: Sometimes, disreputable people are the funniest, sweetest and sexiest ones out there—and isn’t that just wonderful?—Natalia Keogan


1. Shiva Baby

Marvelously uncomfortable and cringe-inducingly hilarious, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby rides a fine line between comedy and horror that perfectly suits its premise—and feels immediately in step with its protagonist, the college-aged Danielle. Played by actress/comedian Rachel Sennott, already messy-millennial royalty by virtue of her extremely online comic sensibility, Danielle is first glimpsed mid-tryst, an unconvincing orgasm closing out her perfunctory dirty talk (“Yeah, daddy”) before she dismounts and collects a wad of cash from the older Max (Danny Deferrari). Though it’s transactional, as any sugar relationship tends to be, Danielle seems open to discussing her nebulous career aspirations with Max, and he gives her an expensive bracelet—suggesting a quasi-intimate familiarity to their dynamic, even if the encounter’s underlying awkwardness keeps either from getting too comfortable. As such, it’s a smart tease of what’s to come, as Danielle schleps from Max’s apartment to meet up with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed, naturally), and sit shiva in the home of a family friend or relative. That Danielle’s unclear on who exactly died is a recurring joke, and a consistently good one, but there’s little time to figure out the details before she’s plunged into the event: A disorienting minefield of small talk, thin smiles and self-serve schmear. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the high anxiety and mortifying comedy of Seligman’s film, though it helps. Underneath all the best Jewish punchlines lies a weary acknowledgement of inevitable suffering; the Coen Brothers knew this in crafting A Serious Man, their riotous retelling of the Book of Job, and Seligman knows it in Shiva Baby. That the climax involves shattered glass, helpless tears and a few humiliations more marks this as one of the most confidently, winningly Jewish comedies in years.—Isaac Feldberg

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