The best underrated movies of last year to finally watch


To describe 2020 as one of the most tumultuous and unconventional years in recent memory feels like a gross understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every sector of life, including the simple pleasure of watching. Theaters and multiplex chains across the world shuttered their doors and the result was a release schedule thrown into a tailspin and an industry scrambling to program streaming platforms. There were lofty attempts to return things to normal; in September 2020, Christopher Nolan bet big in the face of the pandemic and pushed ahead with the release of his science fiction action thriller Tenet, a decision which resulted in a deflated box office and the film’s subsequent release on home video just a few months later. The rollout looks quaint compared to the new normal, in which a movie like A Quiet Place Part II hits theaters in May then appears on Paramount Plus in July.

Tenet was far from the only film whose moment in the spotlight was undermined in the wake of the pandemic. With that in mind, and now halfway through 2021 proper, we’ve created a list of the films we felt warrant a much deserved reappraisal — the “lost” films of 2020. From Kitty Green’s The Assistant to David Prior’s The Empty Man, to Miranda July’s Kajillionaire and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, here are the newer movies that most deserve their due.


The Assistant

a woman on the phone

Photo: Bleecker Street

One of the first and best films to address the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Kitty Green’s The Assistant is incisive in its obliqueness. The film, which follows a Hollywood production company assistant over the course of a normal workday, never shows the producer that lords over his company with verbal abuse and leverages his power for sexual favors. Instead, the focus stays squarely on the mundanity of Jane (Julia Garner)’s workday, as she encounters all of the people who, as a matter of course, enable and perpetuate the monster who fills every corner of the screen, even if he never appears on it. —Joshua Rivera

The Assistant is streaming on Amazon.

Black Is King

Beyonce in Black Is King, holding up the moon in a desert

Image: Parkwood Entertainment/Disney Plus

It’s hard to imagine a Beyoncé visual album could qualify as “lost,” but such was the power of 2020. On the experimental, sumptuous wavelength of Lemonade, Beyoncé’s Black Is King is the best remake of The Lion King that Disney has ever made (mostly because the literal one stiiiinnnnnks). The music, choreography, and costuming would be enough to make the 85-minute film swirl, but as Jaelani Turner-Williams examined in her write-up at the time of release last summer, the film is filled with potent ideas about Black life and Beyoncé’s own art tucked into all the nooks and crannies if you know where to look. Here’s a snippet from our review at the time:

Having progressed into Black feminist activism since the release of BEYONCÉ, the singer makes room for female collaborators, friends, and family in Black Is King. Tierra Whack, Jessie Reyez, Tiwa Savage, and more segue from their work on The Lion King: The Gift into the new film. For “Brown Skin Girl,” Beyoncé revamps the visuals from intimate home videos to an African debutante ball with appearances from her eldest daughter, Blue Ivy, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and former Destiny’s Child groupmate Kelly Rowland. The statuesque posing of women throughout the film also frames them as an honorable, royal council upholding Black lineage. Along with vibrant wardrobes, the women of Black is King don elaborate natural hairstyles — in varying parts of the film, Beyoncé wears 30 feet of towering box braids as she stands atop a ladder, while in a later scene, Himba women have their hair covered with red clay.

Black Is King is streaming on Disney Plus.

Blow The Man Down

Saying something is inspired by the Coen Brothers is usually a backhanded compliment. The duo’s films are so specific and so tonally unique that their imitators often feel more like bad karaoke than clever reinvention. Blow the Man Down is the rare example when that’s not the case.

Set in a Maine fishing town called Easter Cove, Blow the Man Down follows two sisters (played by Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor) who accidentally commit a crime and discover the dark past of the town during the cover up. Co-writers and directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, craft a clever twist-filled plot around the crime and cover up, but the darker secrets of Easter Cove’s history, and the collection of old women who keep them, give the movie its darkest and most interesting subplot and folds it neatly in the canon of small-town Americana crime.

Blow the Man Down is both a dark and cynical story of small-town Americana crime, but with a warmth and humor at the center that keeps it from sliding too far into darkness. —Austen Goslin

Blow the Man Down is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Boys State

A teenage boy stands at a lectern pointing as he delivers a speech in Boys State

Image: Apple TV Plus

Political documentaries these days tend to be grim polemics with massive stakes, but Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State is the exact opposite — it’s a lively, funny, but fascinating look at a process that technically doesn’t matter at all. An inside look at an annual political-training event where a thousand teenage boys create their own government from scratch, Boys State captures the wheeling, dealing, and endless political discoveries and compromises as the participants unwittingly re-create all the flaws of modern politics. The access is unbeatable, as Moss and McBaine get up close with one year’s leadership and follows their campaigns and clashes. It’s a hilarious and mesmerizing movie, but it’s insightful and revealing, too. If you missed it because you had enough politics in 2020, now’s the time to go back. —Tasha Robinson

Boys State is streaming on Apple TV Plus.

Children of the Sea

a girl swims in the sea

Image: GKIDS

Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea is a feast for the senses. Adapted from Daisuke Igarashi’s manga of the same name, Watanabe’s film follows Ruka, a young girl who befriends two boys who possess a strange and otherworldly power over the ocean. As Ruka grows to acknowledge and understand the same power within herself, she’s drawn into a mystery that will thrust her into the most beautiful and harrowing depths of the sea.

Children of the Sea was originally slated for a limited U.S. theatrical release in April 2020, just as theaters around the country began to shutter in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The release was later rescheduled, and cancelled again, before eventually popping up on Netflix. Take some time out of your day for one of the most gorgeous anime spectacles of last year. —Toussaint Egan

Children of the Sea is streaming on Netflix.

Crip Camp

A photo taken at Camp Jened in a scene from “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.”

Photo: Steve Honigsbaum/Netflix

Nicole Newnham and James Lebercht’s wonderful documentary shines a spotlight on Camp Jened, a New York summer camp for teens with disabilities. Starting in 1971, Crip Camp follows Camp Jened alumni as they become activists in the disability rights movement pushing lawmakers to pass accessibility legislation. Crip Camp is a vital film that fervently reminds its viewers of an oft-neglected party in the fight for equal rights, and how the work of democracy is never done. —JR

Crip Camp is streaming on Netflix.

The Empty Man

Greg (Evan Jonigkeit) discovers a giant transmogrified skeleton in The Empty Man

Photo: Ilze Kitshoff

Director David Prior’s feature debut is the scariest movie of 2020 and one of its best. The movie’s main story follows a man named James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) as he searches for a missing girl. While on the case, he hears about a legend of a shadowy figure called “the empty man” who stalks anyone who’s seen him for three days before he strikes. While this premise alone might be enough for a creepy-enough movie, Prior blows the concept up into something truly special, spanning the globe — in an outstanding 15 minute prologue — and finally bringing in a cult whose leader might actually have supernatural powers. Despite the fact that none of these make sense together on paper, Prior makes all three feel like part of one cohesive, terrifying story. —AG

The Empty Man is available to rent on Apple.

Freaky

Lit entirely in red, Freaky star Kathryn Newton brandishes a chainsaw

Photo: Universal Pictures

This slasher-comedy from director Christopher Landon, who also directed both highly entertaining Happy Death Day movies, is a hilarious and gruesome time that could have easily been one of 2020’s biggest hits if anyone had bothered to see it. Freaky’s premise is charmingly simple: a serial killer called the Blissfield Butcher swaps bodies with a high school student and they have 24 hours to reverse it before they’re stuck like that forever. This twist on a body-swap comedy is gold, but it needs exactly the right actors to pull it off and Freaky found them in Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) and Kathyrn Newton (Detective Pikachu). Vaugn revives his comedic chops after a few off-years, but it’s Newton’s murderous monster that really steals the movie. —AG

Freaky is available to buy on Amazon and Apple.

Gretel and Hansel

The Witch in Gretel and Hansel, an elderly woman dressed in a black robe and head-wrap, dips her blackened fingers into a brass pot full of goo.

Photo: Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House director Oz Perkins’ retelling of this classic fairy tale is as gorgeous as it is creepy. Of course, the story still follows two siblings who run away from home and are found by a deceptively kind witch, but Perkins’ turns it into a dark coming of age story for Gretel, played fantastically here by It’s Sophia Lillis. The movie is set almost entirely in the deep woods, near a geometrically impossible looking cottage — as any good Hansel and Gretel movie should be — and both are equally entrancing and scary. Perkins fills the movie’s slow first half with beautiful shots of ominous trees towering over the siblings, while shadows seem to creep on their own in the background. But all of this is just careful mood-building set up for a final 20 minutes that explodes into a terrifying sequence of scares that will stick with you long after the movie. —AG

Gretel and Hansel is streaming on Paramount Plus.

Kajillionaire

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood slip past their landlord in Kajillionaire

Photo: Focus Features

Kajillionaire is easily Miranda July’s most accessible, approachable, and funny film — but it’s still weird and idiosyncratic as heck. Evan Rachel Wood stars as the adult daughter of two petty con artists (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) who live via tiny scams like stealing other people’s mail. They’re all equal partners in crime, until she meets a woman (Gina Rodriguez) who wants in on their scams, and accidentally upends their practiced but ridiculous lifestyle. The director of Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future is all about high levels of quirk, but Kajillionaire adds on a lot of big, relatable, colorful emotions and a pretty hilarious heist plot. —Tasha Robinson

Kajillionaire is streaming on HBO Max.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

two young women sit together

Photo: Focus Features

Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old girl living in rural Pennsylvania who discovers she is pregnant. Unable to get an abortion in her home state without parental consent, Autumn and her best friend steal the money they need to buy bus tickets to New York City in an attempt to have an abortion. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a work of extreme empathy and compassion, the kind of story that addresses an urgent problem by simply depicting a person in need of help and all the ways we have made it casually impossible to get that help. Infuriating yet also tender, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is among 2020’s best film that not enough people brought themselves to see. —JR

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to rent on Amazon and Apple.

The New Mutants

Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyana Rasputin in 20th Century Studios’ The New Mutants.

Image: 20th Century Studios

The New Mutants was doomed from the start, trapped in production hell following planned reshoots that never happened and Disney’s purchase of original studio 20th Century Fox. Nothing less of a disaster was expected, especially given its release in August 2020, well into a pandemic when few theaters were actually open and most big releases were put on hold. Most critics hated it, but I’m here to tell you that the movie is actually fine! It’s a 90-minute long superhero movie that is quite unlike any other we’ve gotten and likely will get again; a thriller with some fun creature designs and an interesting spin on the source material. It’s got plenty of shortcomings, dealing in dated tropes of psychiatric facilities and whitewashing a central character of color. It’s mostly interesting as an off-kilter experiment from a time way back (2017, when The New Mutants was actually filmed) when it seemed like superhero blockbusters were about to get weirder than they actually would. —JR

The New Mutants is streaming on HBO Max.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel as David Copperfield in The Personal History of David Copperfield

Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Armando Ianucci, the mind behind Veep and The Death of Stalin, casts Dev Patel as David Copperfield in an adaptation of David Copperfield. That is, essentially, the pitch: No clever twist, just a clever recasting and an inspired director assembling a terrific cast. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a two-hour dose of cinematic joy that arrived in a dark time, which was unfortunately also the best time for it to be buried in a bevy of haphazard on-demand releases. —JR

The Personal History of David Copperfield is streaming on HBO Max.

Possessor

Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) bathed in red light in Possessor

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance

Brandon Cronenberg may never escape the shadow of his father David, but only because his horror films are inching toward the greatness of films like Videodrome, The Brood, and The Fly. His latest — released right off the bat with an “uncut” version in order to set the tone — centers on Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin who implants her consciousness inside her victims’ heads to perpetrate contract kills under the guise of murder-suicides. It’s a living! When we pick up with Tasya, the gig is taking its toll on her mental health, so she prepares for “one final job.” But Colin (Christopher Abbott) isn’t a pushover for possession, and the results of their psychic tango is bloody mayhem. Cronenberg constructs his story like the anti-Inception, leaving most of the rules and world-building unspoken, and replacing them with gory, retro surrealism. Themes of gender, class, and economic warfare are all on the table in Possessor, but so are the nightmares. It’s techno-exploitation horror at its finest. —MP

Possessor is streaming on Hulu.

She Dies Tomorrow

Kate Lyn Sheil in close-up purple light in She Dies Tomorrow

Photo: Neon

She Dies Tomorrow missed its bigger, normal-life moment while arguably being the most timely release in a year plagued by a worldwide pandemic and awash in a resulting wave of existential dread. In Amy Seimetz’s psychological thriller, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a young and otherwise healthy woman who inexplicably begins to harbor an obsessive paranoid fixation that she is going to die tomorrow. Amy’s fear and anxiety spreads like a pathogen, literally infecting her close circle of friends and acquaintances that send each of them spiraling into journeys of fatalistic self-reflection as this sentiment ripples outward into the population and the apparent end of everything that we know and love grows steadily more plausible. It’s a manifestly unnerving work, one made all the more so for the fact that it released well into the summer when cities and moviegoers around the world began their respective lockdowns. It’s fascinating to ponder what the reception to Seimetz’s film might have been had the COVID-19 pandemic never happened. As it stands now however, it remains one of the year’s most crucial and inadvertently prescient films of 2020. —TE

She Dies Tomorrow is streaming on Hulu.

Shirley

michael stuhlbarg and elisabeth moss as shirley

Photo: Neon

Instead of explaining the life of Shirley Jackson in a flatly lit, soft-string-scored biopic, director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) burrows into the author’s life through the entranced perspective of outsiders. Odessa Young and Logan Lerman star as a young couple who find themselves caught in the maelstrom that is Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, literati snob Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Embittered but impassioned, intoxicated but stone-cold furious, the two war like titans over the dinner table, then retreat to their corners to put pen to paper. The decision to live with such a couple — meant to be a few weeks, and lasting what feels like a lifetime — nearly destroys Lerman’s young scholar, but seduces his wife in ways that unlock her deepest thoughts.

At times, Shirley feels like a horror movie. It feels like one of Guillermo del Toro ’s fantasies. There are moments straight out of the John Cassavetes playbook. It’s also wickedly funny. The tonal swirl makes all the sense in the world as Decker keeps her dreamy camerawork locked on Moss’ Jackson, who feels more like the culmination of the author’s work than any kind of mirror reflection. Her volatile actions trigger the senses, and in another feat of casting, Young becomes the perfect ingenue to have it all wash over. It’s a movie to feel — and it’s a movie very few people did in 2020. —MP

Shirley is streaming on Hulu.

The Small Axe Series

A large group of Black protestors carry a Black Panther banner in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series movie Mangrove

Photo: Amazon Studios

Though generally overlooked by mainstream audiences due to a confusing release schedule, the five Small Axe installments, directed by 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen, launched a debate in critical circles over whether they should be classified as movies or TV episodes. Just to throw a wrench in the works, here’s a different take: they work best when taken as one long feature. Mangrove, Alex Wheatle, Lovers Rock, Education, and Red, White and Blue are set in London over the course of decades, among a thriving subculture of West Indian immigrants navigating work, romance, community-building, and especially the racism of the white establishment. The individual installments (which range from about an hour long to over two hours) each leave something to be desired, whether it’s a more complete story or tighter editing in the case of the ramblier segments. But taken as a whole, they feel like one staggeringly ambitious narrative, a generational look at a community striving for peace, equality, self-determination, and freedom in what for some is a hostile new home, and for others is a native land that still insists on treating them like foreigners. —TR

Small Axe is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

To the Stars

Kara Hayward as a young girl in the 1950s standing in a dusty road in To the Stars

Image: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Martha Stephens’ old-souled, dust bowl tale of two young women kicking the shins of the establishment in hyper-conservative 1960s Oklahoma would be every 18-year-old’s favorite movie if old-souled, dust bowl stories were all the rage. Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom), as an ostracised bookworm dubbed “Stinky Drawers” by the worst of her class, and Liana Liberato (Light As a Feather), playing a midwestern firebrand whose urges don’t align with her god-fearing family’s beliefs, form a symbiotic relationship as they ramble towards the absolute worst teenage gauntlet: prom. What they discover on their terms is genuine, and Stephens dustbowl compositions steer To the Stars clear of cliché or period-piece artifice. You’ll never be as mad at modern politicians who want to take us back to the “good ol’ days” as you will watching this adept coming-of-age tale.

To the Stars is streaming on Hulu.

The Vast of Night

Sierra McCormick listens intently to the phone in The Vast of Night

Photo: Amazon Studios

Andrew Patterson styles his directorial debut, The Vast of Night, as a late-night episode of a Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-esque science-fiction TV show, but his film is both more expansive and more character-intensive than those shows ever were. As leads Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick investigate a mysterious signal striking their small, rural 1950s town, Patterson treats the material more like a campfire ghost story than an SF story, lulling viewers into a hypnotic wonder with long, quiet storytelling segments. It’s unconventional and idiosyncratic, but the terrific sound design is immersive, and the leads are charismatic and sparky enough to carry the story directly from playful banter to awed fear. —TR

The Vast of Night is included on Amazon Prime Video.



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