My favourite genre films of 2021

JANUARY 1 — Film lists won’t be complete without making one dedicated exclusively to genre films. 

It’s a veritable gold mine for film fans looking for something a wee bit outside of the mainstream or left of the dial, as the majority of genre films are indeed low budget and independent productions, with quite a lot of them seeking to shock audiences with their usually shameless approach when it comes to gore, violence and sex.

As is the case with most lineups for genre/fantasy film festivals, a majority of these are horror films, but there is also plenty of room for sci-fi and action flicks as well, which I think is reflected in my list. 

So, without wasting any more time, let’s dive in, shall we?

Nobody

Ever since John Wick became such an unexpected smash hit that not only is it now a bona fide Hollywood franchise, it has also spawned a pretty respectable legion of imitators (we’ve even got female versions of John Wick nowadays). 

Nobody is quite clearly one of these, with the only difference being that the protagonist here is one of those average suburban dad types, brilliantly played by Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkerk. 

That slight difference is exactly what makes this one such a hoot to watch, as director Ilya Naishuller (of Hardcore Henry fame) slyly plays on the comic potential of that set-up and totally runs with it, resulting in a film that’s not only laugh out loud funny in a lot of places, but also stupendously choreographed action-wise.

Synchronic

Being a huge fan of the writing-directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (whose previous films like Spring and The Endless have ended up on my lists before this), naturally I’m more than a little bit excited to see their latest offering, Synchronic. With a film headlined by a star as big as Anthony Mackie (aka The Falcon), I was also prepared for a more mainstream-friendly experience, as in something a bit less heady than their previous films. 

But even though things are much easier to understand here, this tale of two paramedics encountering scenes of bizarre, unexplained deaths, all related to a new designer drug, which eventually welcomes in elements of time travel, will still require your full concentration in order to understand the science part. 

And as they’ve always proven capable of before this, Synchronic is also a touching emotional experience, which, when coupled with its mind-bending sci-fi elements, makes it another home run for the pair. 

Censor

Set during the “video nasties” moral panic drummed up by the British press in the 1980s, Censor is quite simply a brilliant and hypnotic debut feature from writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond. 

Focusing on Enid, a film censor at the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC), her formerly ice-cold approach to censoring films finally starts to derail once she encounters a film by a fictional director named Frederick North, which reminds her of a private trauma — her missing sister Nina — and she becomes convinced that the woman in the film might just be her long-lost sister. 

In pursuit of this obsession, the film impressively starts to put us inside Enid’s head, playing with the kind of visuals and gore that pay wonderful homage to the video nasties of that era, and leaving us to question whether it’s all real, or are they just a product of her imagination.

A screen capture of the trailer for 'The Medium'. — Screen capture via YouTube/GSC Movies
A screen capture of the trailer for 'The Medium'. — Screen capture via YouTube/GSC Movies

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The Medium

Let me begin by saying that while this may be a found footage/faux documentary film, purportedly conceived from footage gathered by a team of documentary filmmakers following a shaman claiming to be the chosen vessel for an ancestral spirit, the conceit just didn’t work here. 

Too many times in the film, the audience will be wondering how they’ve managed to capture that footage, which is one of the biggest sins in found footage films. 

Still, that in no way stopped me from enjoying the heck out of this Thai horror flick, which throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, as we get to witness possessions, exorcisms and even zombie-like attacks. 

In short, this is a truly exciting and entertaining horror flick, which would’ve been an even better one had the director Banjong Pisanthanakun just gone with a normal/traditional narrative approach.

Malignant

Talking about kitchen sinks and horror entertainment, who would’ve thought that something as gleefully insane as Malignant could’ve come from James Wan, one of the biggest names in mainstream horror out there for the last decade or so. 

A love letter to cheesy, low budget B-grade horror flicks of the 80s and 90s, filtered through the style and aesthetics of giallo movies, Malignant is, presumably a “one for me” exercise for Wan, granted full freedom to the candy store after making more than a billion dollars for Warner Bros with Aquaman

Like Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento making a movie together with Frank Henenlotter (or early Peter Jackson for that matter, during his splatter phase), this is cult entertainment of the highest order.

Titane

Having loved writer-director Julia Ducournau’s feature debut Raw, I’ve been wondering what her new film Titane would be like, seeing that it won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes. 

Has she gone all arthouse on us now? Or did the unthinkable just happen, a bona fide genre film winning the big prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival? I’m happy to report that it’s very clearly the latter. 

Despite the big prize and the critical acclaim, this is just as much a genre film as Raw was, with Ducournau exploring even further her interest in body horror, with protagonist Alexia (an absolutely fearless Agatha Rousselle) not only having a titanium plate in her skull (as a result of a childhood car accident), but also carrying a child after having sex with a car, who then has to disguise herself as a man, pretending to be the long lost son of a fireman in order to hide from the police. 

The crazy plot description is basically just a premise for what is a very tender exploration of the issues of identity and image, beautifully realised through the aching looks from Rousselle and Vincent Lindon (who plays the fireman). Moving and outrageous, I can’t wait to see what Ducournau does next.

For the Sake of Vicious

When it comes to genre films, I have a very soft spot for tight, taut, efficient and very well shot pieces of ultraviolence. In short, any low budget tributes to directors like John Carpenter and Walter Hill will be something I’m more than willing to check out. 

For the Sake of Vicious, the latest film from directors Gabriel Carrer (who did the outstanding The Demolisher) and Reese Eveneshen (Defective), totally lives up to its name, and then some. 

The film’s first half may test some viewers’ patience, as we’re put in the shoes of an overworked nurse named Romina, who comes home to find a stranger, Chris, holding another man, Alan (her landlord) captive, intending to punish the landlord for allegedly raping his child, but when the expected twist in the tale does come, in which scores of killers/gangsters/hitmen storm Romina’s house for reasons that will slowly be revealed later, it’s up to the three main characters to fight back and save themselves. And what a beautiful and brutal fight back it all is.

The Swordsman

Basically a period/martial arts version of John Wick or Nobody, set in Korea during the transition from Ming to Qing dynasty, our hero is Tae-Yul, a royal guard who failed to protect his king and now lives a secluded life with his daughter Tae-Ok. 

Now half-blind, this being a martial arts film, of course Tae-Yul will have to resort to the ways of the sword again to save his daughter, and debuting director Choi Jae-Hoon proves to be extremely adept at staging one amazing action set-piece after another, delivering what looks and feels like a great, golden-era Hong Kong martial arts flick.

The Old Ways

There were plenty of exorcism movies released this year (with the hilariously eccentric Agnes being a particular highlight), but this mainly one-location wonder is quite clearly one of the year’s very best. 

Telling the story of Cristina, a reporter for a Vice-like publication coming back to her hometown to do a story on La Boca, a sort of forbidden cave near the village she grew up in, The Old Ways is set almost entirely (barring a few location flashbacks) within a room in a ramshackle house she wakes up in after being kidnapped. 

The house belongs to a bruja (Mexican witch doctor), who wants to purge a demon from inside Cristina, and the movie excitingly proceeds from one exorcism scene to another with great enthusiasm, making this one of the most entertaining exorcism movies in recent memory.

Hydra

A 2019 Japanese film that finally found its way to the USA courtesy of the martial arts streaming channel Hi-Yah, Hydra is a ruthlessly efficient (77 minutes long with a wordless 10-minute opening scene) fight flick with only two or three major fight scenes, which probably makes this sound like something too slight for consideration. 

Heck, even the story is nothing new, as it’s more or less another spin on the John Wick formula, but once you’ve laid your eyes on the close contact hand to hand battles, you’ll find yourself mesmerised by the absolute majesty of it all, the sheer speed of the grappling between the two fighters, and the meticulous intricacy of the action choreography. 

It’s the Japanese action movie scene trying to find their own unique voice, differentiating themselves from the fight flicks we’ve seen before from Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia, and judging from this outing, I think they’ve found theirs as well.

Honourable Mentions: Fried Barry, Saint Maud, The Night, The Innocents, The Vigil, Bloody Hell, A Ghost Waits, Last Night In Soho, Jakob’s Wife, Prisoners Of The Ghostland

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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