Over the past year, The Playlist has covered hundreds of prestige films and TV series. We’ve even gone ahead and broke them down and ranked them in our various Best of 2021 lists. This year, we’ve absolutely adored the works of filmmakers like Jane Campion, Pedro Almodovar, Rebecca Hall, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many, many more. But, let’s be real, in our second pandemic-filled year, sometimes you have to watch some garbage from time to time. “The Power of the Dog” is a fantastic film, but it’s not necessarily the thing you unwind with on a Tuesday night, right?
So, in honor of those nights where you’re tired of the world and its people and all you can do is muster up the energy to watch something that might put a smile on your face, we present The Playlist’s Guilty Pleasures of 2021.
No, this isn’t a list purely filled with garbage. (But as a warning, some of these picks love to hang out at the bottom of the barrel.) Guilty pleasures are things that make a viewer happy without the need to always stimulate some sort of internal dialogue where you question your own existence and your place in society. This is a list of escapes. A collection of enjoyable pitstops in our never-ending pursuit of the best cinema and TV have to offer. And you know what? These things deserve recognition, as the TV shows and films that carried The Playlist on their collective back and put a damn smile on our faces.
Maybe, just maybe, this list can serve as a list of suggestions for those out there, like us, who can only watch heartwrenching, though-provoking cinema six days a week and need to decompress on the seventh day.
Horror and comedy are like peanut butter and tuna fish. Two things that really shouldn’t work. But somehow, there are filmmakers out there that can blend together this peanut butter tuna fish into something pretty damn good. In 2021, I was introduced to “Psycho Goreman,” and it was quickly apparent that filmmaker Steven Kostanski has cracked the horror-comedy code. On paper, “Psycho Goreman” (or “PG” for short) shouldn’t be great. In fact, it proudly wears all the B-movie tropes on its sleeve, telling the story of a young girl and her brother, who find themselves in control of an alien who has a penchant for destroying worlds. What do they use him for instead? A friend. Yep, this interstellar, genocidal maniac is reduced to a toy used by human children. What follows is a film that doesn’t hold back on gore or comedy, led by a cast of largely unknown actors who fully buy into the madness in Kostanski’s brain. The result is a film that immediately became a movie I would go to people and preach, “You MUST watch ‘Psycho Goreman!’” If this doesn’t sell you, how about the fact that the film has two earworm original pop songs (they even made a music video), probably making it a better musical than “Dear Evan Hansen.” –Charles Barfield
“Wrath Of Man”
Apart from a handful of silly nicknames (hello, Hollow Bob and Boy Sweat Dave), “Wrath of Man,” far and away the best Guy Ritchie movie since the diamond world caper “Snatch,” has more in common with the original “Get Carter” than it does with the average yarn from the bloke who gave the world “RocknRolla”. Gone is the grating laddish-ness of “The Gentlemen,” in its place is something more in the stone-faced vein of a Clint Eastwood revenge classic. With its comically overblown score and the scowling, poker-faced cool with which star Jason Statham delivers every ludicrous line reading, Ritchie seems to have finally struck narrative paydirt: turns out, his movies are more enjoyable when they’re not actually trying to be funny, but rather when they’re so over-the-top serious that they end up being funny by accident (speaking of funny by accident, Scott Eastwood’s supporting turn here belongs in the meathead-lowlife hall of fame). All of this is another way of saying if you’re tickled by the notion of Statham shooting rapper Post Malone between the eyes before telling him to perform fellatio on himself, then “Wrath of Man” is very much your movie. –Nicholas Laskin
“The Morning Show”
Comedian Matt Rogers has done a bit throughout the fall on the podcast Las Culturistas where he’s compared the writers’ room of “The Morning Show” to a classroom full of third graders. It’s an apt description of what this pile of Tim Cook’s cash has become, but to give the show some credit, there’s absolutely a method behind the madness. The show has somehow discovered a way to make the most chaotic, the most obvious, and the most self-serious artistic choice all at once. This starry show may well be the nadir of the post-“Big Little Lies” celebrity migration to television, and I truly could not look away from it going wildly off the rails each week. Yet amidst this clownery, it’s a weirdly reaffirming and hopeful feeling to watch the traumatic events of the last few years warped through the funhouse mirror of self-serious prestige TV. To watch these things rendered risible and ridiculous means we survived them. “The Morning Show” meets the craziness of the moment, both culturally and narratively, in a way that makes it an oddly perfect time capsule for all our outsized anxieties. It’s a sinfully delicious release valve. –Marshall Shaffer
James Wan‘s “Malignant” had me from its opening shot: at night, a massive hospital looms above a seaside cliff, half-engulfed by fog. It’s Wan’s take on the horror genre’s spooky castle motif, done expertly by James Whale in his Universal Horror films, domestically by Hitchcock with Norman Bates’ house in “Psycho,” and other ways elsewhere. It’s a knowingly absurd way for Wan to start things off. Simian Research Facility is a little too large, too isolated, too close to the cliff’s edge—as if it, and the film, are about to tumble over and plunge into camp’s murky waters of gleefully poor taste. And oh boy, does Wan dive into the deep end of excess here. What starts off as an inert melodrama mutates into something so unruly and risible that it bursts beyond camp’s most outer limits. “Malignant” lives up to its title as it metastasizes its genre from the inside out. First, it morphs into a haunted house picture, then twists into a goofy Giallo procedural before it writhes into its final form: an action-packed splatter-fest with something to say about developmental trauma, bodily autonomy, and family ties. Not convinced yet? A brief, spoiler-free synopsis: after the suspicious death of her abusive husband, Madison begins to experience visions of murders in a fugue state. The deaths have something to do with her history of miscarriages and childhood trauma she can’t remember. The truth, revealed in a third-act twist so audaciously stupid, has such a bonkers payoff it must be seen to be believed. Imagine if The Wachowskis directed a mash-up of “Basket Case” and “The Eyes Of Laura Mars,” and you’re not even halfway there. Yes, “Malignant” is that wacky, and I am 100% here for it. You should be, too. –Ned Booth
“Venom: Let There Be Carnage”
There’s no guilt to be found in the pleasure of watching Tom Hardy’s bonkers, fully-committed performance as both itinerant journalist Eddie Brock and his bloodthirsty symbiote Venom. By leaning more into their offbeat romance and abject silliness over excessive action sequences, director Andy Serkis’ “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” proved that there can still be originality – and downright weirdness – in comic book cinema. Along with the thrilling queerness of Eddie and Venom and Anne (Michelle Williams) and Dan (Reid Scott), the film also provided a deeply romantic villainous plot to boot. Woody Harrelson and Naomie Harris had such sizzling chemistry as Cletus/Carnage and Frances/Shriek, you almost wish they could just be free to be their anti-establishment selves. If we’re only allowed to root for one brain-eating symbiote, at least the demise of Carnage wasn’t at the expense of Cletus and Frances’s passionate connection. And Serkis gave us the wonderfully queer moment during the denouement where Venom slides from Dan to Anne to Eddie, making this throuple a full-blown foursome. I am an unabashed Symbrock shipper, so this film had my favorite ending all year: while watching the sunset on an island beach, Venom tells Eddie, “when you love someone, you accept them as a whole person. Nobody’s perfect.” Nobody might be perfect, but some scenes sure are. –Marya E. Gates
“The Woman in the Window”
There’s no one like Joe Wright when he dismantles the guardrails deciding taste and entertainment. While his other film, the musical “Cyrano,” contends for awards love, it’s the film he released earlier this year that grabbed my attention. “The Woman in the Window” isn’t a mere guilty pleasure. It is, as film critic Kyle Turner rightly proclaimed in GQ, this year’s camp masterpiece. Based on A. J. Finn’s same-titled novel, the film follows the agoraphobic Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams) in her pursuit to prove her next-door neighbor Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman) murdered his wife Jane (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s a deep ensemble, each taking bigger and bigger swings, wearing daffy wigs, ignoring the basic tenets of nuance. Wright doesn’t just take clear cues from Alfred Hitchcock classics like “Rear Window,” he distorts, refashions, and rubs them in the dirt of excess to create a metatextual delight: A woman so consumed by film, her altered reality becomes a film. If you recoil in distaste, you’re meant to. If you believe it’s a pastiche, you’re meant to. If you believe it a formalistic disaster, without coherency, full of discordant, overbearing beats, you’re absolutely meant to. That’s how Anna Fox sees the world. And what a bloody, tense, giddy, shlock-smeared world it is. –Robert Daniels