Greetings, all, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! The 2020 movie lists are almost done, and with their end comes to announcement of the 5th Annual Fisher Award Nominees (those being my “Oscars”-style award I give out at the end of every year). For now, however, let’s all reminisce a little longer on the cinematic year that was by discussing some of the more unexpectedly great projects that were released last year – the ones that made us laugh, cry, cheer, cringe, and say “hey, that actually was pretty good.” These are the films that came out of nowhere, or that shouldn’t have worked, or that looked like potential dumpster fires, or all three, and yet, they managed to break through the slog of 2020 to become some of our most unexpected favorites and genuine recommendations. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the Top 10 Most Surprising Movies of 2020!
10. Palm Springs
Palm Springs was the largest buy at Sundance this past year, getting scooped up by Neon early on in the game; unfortunately, as with most movies in 2020, the arrival and subsequent mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis in the United States (something that, as of this writing, we’re just barely starting to come out the other side of) meant that the film had to be sent to streaming over the summer. Luckily, Neon has a pretty good relationship with Hulu, and so on July 10, the film was released to rapturous acclaim, and it’s not difficult to see why. Palm Springs is loads of fun, taking the tried-and-true time loop formula and adding a dash of clever rom-com sweetness to it that has a lot of interesting things to say about what relationships should be like, what things matter and what doesn’t, and why. Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg are excellent as the two leads of the film, and J.K. Simmons as a supporting character is absolute dynamite. The film also has quite a clever spin on how characters could escape the time loop, bringing science into the puzzle that previously hadn’t been discussed in something this lighthearted. It’s an intelligent movie, to say the least, but it never loses the fun of it all. It didn’t have to be as great as it is, and for that (plus the fact that it dropped the same weekend as The Old Guard and Greyhound and managed to be the most popular movie that weekend), it gets on the list.
I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest Sarah Paulson fan in the world. She’s an immensely talented actress, but too many of the projects she’s attached to, especially in the streaming world, have vastly underwritten scripts that always cast her as the same kind of character; she’s good at it, but it can get pretty boring given the sheer volume of mediocre material she ends up starring in. So, when Run hit Hulu and began making the rounds through streaming numbers, I was skeptical, to say the least. Was this truly a worthwhile endeavor or were we just so starved for movie star content by this point that people would praise just about anything that wasn’t total trash just for coming out and being watchable? Luckily, the former had the stronger bid. The film is noticeably imperfect (as many of this list’s entries are), and Paulson does somewhat play a version of the same character she always does, but it’s the whip-smart script, co-written by Searching scribe Aneesh Chaganty, and the performance of lead actress Kiera Allen that one sticks around for. It’s not particularly revolutionary as these sorts of films go, and you can see the twist coming from pretty much the start of it, but Run is nevertheless a thriller that didn’t have to be as good as it was, and was anyway. The eleven-minute sequence at the 40-minute mark still has me wringing my hands.
8. Promising Young Woman
When I first saw Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut, I considered it a success, though not quite a masterpiece, and thought some choices too odd for general audiences to latch onto in any meaningful way. Then I saw it a second time, and it began to grow on me significantly. Promising Young Woman is bold, audacious, daring, and every other synonym one can think of for a film of its type, of which this might well be the first to genuinely hit the mainstream and stay there. The awards attention it has received thus far has not been unwarranted in the slightest; the filmmaking itself is stylish, the production and costume design covered in pastels and pretty, candy-coated colors only for its pitch-black comedy narrative to rip to pieces everything underneath those surfaces. Carey Mulligan could very well win Best Actress at the Oscars for this, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised; her performance, as well as those of Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, and Laverne Cox, is note-perfect for the role she’s playing, and the film doesn’t let you forget for one second the range of emotional beats she can act through. The way the film is cast is no accident, and the ending (while not necessarily the most realistic) offers a catharsis rarely experienced by victims of the sexual violence – and subsequent consequences of it – taken to task by the film’s incredible script.
7. Love and Monsters
I talked enough about Dylan O’Brien’s Monster Hunter Lite project on my Top 10 Most Underrated Films of 2020 list, so I’ll just link to that here (as well as the Love and Monsters Review I wrote for Bitesize Breakdown) if you’d like to get more info on it. Suffice it to say, I had an unexpectedly nice time watching the film. O’Brien can easily carry a franchise of this size, and the creatures introduced in the film are wonderfully creative in both concept and execution. It’s no coincidence that the film is a Best Visual Effects shortlister at the Oscars this year, and if the marketing people do manage to sneak in a nomination then hey, good for them.
6. City Hall
It’s an absolute stunner of a miracle that documentarian Frederick Wiseman is able to make a 4 ½-hour documentary on the intricacies of the Boston city government feel as well-paced as it is. At its worst, it only feels as if around 3 hours have passed by the film’s end. That’s staggeringly great pacing, especially for a documentary, a film medium which typically has always felt longer to me than it actually is. Nevertheless, this a near-perfect, totally complete look at the city of Boston over the past few years as we could have ever gotten without ever having visited or lived there. The city feels like a character of its own, and the level of access to so many disparate parts of the city’s blood-and-bone makeup is a stunning thing to witness, no matter how long it takes to parse through it all.
5. Happiest Season
Every year, a streaming movie comes out around Christmas time that a ton of people I know see and overhype to the point of me actually getting annoyed enough to not want to watch it. That could have been Happiest Season, a film which – apart from its plot – has a lot in common with Palm Springs in terms of fitting fairly snuggly into a streaming platform style. It’s full of movie and television stars who don’t typically headline larger projects giving charming performances, and though it’s somewhat imperfect, its lightheartedness makes it a breeze to watch. Luckily, that breeziness also comes from a genuinely funny, emotional, heartwarming script about self-acceptance and sacrificial love that’s far more nuanced than it ever needed to be. The specter of revealing one’s true self to those close to you is always going to be tough to work through, no matter how accepting or unaccepting they might be, and while we can all debate who Kristen Stewart’s character should have ended up with, the braver choice is to ask the harder questions, and I deeply respect the film for following through on the narrative it set out to tell.
Well, this thing really came out of nowhere. Having never seen a Miranda July film before, I had no idea what to expect from Kajillionaire, but the trailers for it – which initially began playing in July, ahead of an expected late-summer/early-fall release – were full of an energy I wanted to experience more of. The style captivated me, and that style is all over this film, which is one of the most creatively energized indie projects I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. I loved this movie from the second the credits rolled. Everything about it teeters on the edge of silliness, but it never loses the gravitas that keeps it grounded and bound to the power of its own story. Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, and especially Gina Rodriguez all give excellent performances in the film (Rodriguez in particular really goes for it here), but no one outsteps Evan Rachel Wood as Old Dolio, a performance so genuinely perfect, it might be one of the 10 best movie performances across all of 2020. The script is full of that same energy present in the film’s marketing, and the quirky specificity of the dialogue, as well as July’s command of filmmaking, make this one of the year’s most unforgettable viewing experiences.
3. The Half of It
Netflix rom-coms may be 90% shitty movie scripts that couldn’t find a home anywhere else (and 5% mediocre scripts that get overhype because there aren’t many produced for theaters anymore – looking at you, Always Be My Maybe), but occasionally, they actually hit the ball out of the park. Such is the case with The Half of It, a film that could have been an incredibly generic “ghostwriter” love story which actually turns out to be fairly nuanced and generous towards even its more insignificant characters. This is most notable in the way the film refuses to make any of its main players any less than three-dimensional, particularly Daniel Diemer’s, who gives a wonderful performance which endears the audience to him even as it initially wants to root against him. Leah Lewis leads the terrific ensemble cast, and while the script does make some missteps (such as with Aster’s boyfriend character being the most generic high school football boyfriend ever), the film rarely succumbs to what would be the expected route for it to take in its narrative. Alice Wu’s teen romcom might well be the best of the bunch for Netflix, despite its streaming numbers pulling in less than other, lesser films. This is definitely one worth checking out – I think you might be surprised by how much you like it.
A Gerard Butler-led disaster movie with what looks like a huge VFX budget and a trailer that mostly focuses on an end-of-the-world scenario wherein comet fragments crash to Earth, destroying life as we know it in the process? There’s no way this movie doesn’t end up being one of the worst of the year…right? Not so with Greenland, a film more focused on how its characters navigate an impending disaster than it is with the disaster itself. Butler and co-star Morena Baccarin turn in really solid performances, and the film itself addresses some elements of navigating a situation like this – elements which may be uncomfortable to witness – with a surprising level of sensitivity. The film won’t necessarily blow your mind or anything, but it’s far better than it was ever expected to be, and if you give it a shot, I have a feeling you’ll have a nice time.
1. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
The true surprise of all surprises came in September of 2020, when just a month before the film was due to release, Sacha Baron Cohen revealed that they had actually written and shot an entire sequel to 2006’s irreverent comedy Borat, and that it would be on Amazon Prime in October. No one saw this thing coming, and when critics were finally able to see it, one scene became so infamous it made nationwide, record-breaking headlines overnight (though I’m sure you already know what it is). It can be easy to underestimate just how big a deal Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was when it initially came out, but if it’s any indication, it’s been all over awards-season comedy lists, and even won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy/Musical), as well as Best Lead Actor for Sacha Baron Cohen. And it’s so celebrated because it genuinely is one of the best movies of 2020. A comedy like Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was the perfect vehicle to explore the ridiculousness of American life under the Trump administration, covering everything from how famous the character had become, the covert break-in of a CPAC at which former VP Mike Pence was giving an address, the emergence of Covid-19, and so many more elements of U.S. life in 2020, it’s incredible the film wasn’t also nominated for a special Pulitzer. And on top of all of that, it ended up being one of the most heartwarming secret feminist narratives of the past few years, perhaps the sneakiest since Mad Max: Fury Road. Though she did not win in her Globes category (she was in the wrong one anyway), Maria Bakalova’s breakout performances has garnered major awards attention – as it should – and has put her at the front of the line to win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars this year. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm may not be as zippy or blistering as its predecessor, but it has a much deeper story to tell, about women’s self-actualization and personal growth. It came out of nowhere. It shouldn’t have worked. And yet, it’s one of the best, most-celebrated movies of the year, which puts it at the top of the list of the Top 10 Most Surprising Movies of 2020.
And those are my picks for the Top 10 Most Surprising Movies of 2020! What are the movies that surprised you the most this year? Are you going to check out any of these? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.