Hello, all, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! The cinematic year of 2020 officially closed at the end of last week with the close of submission eligibility for the 2021 Academy Awards (more on that soon), thus rendering all films released before Feb. 26 as belonging to the previous calendar year. For myself, I have only been counting releases in January and February as 2020 films if they were, in fact, originally intended to be released in the normal calendar year and were released before the submissions deadline. In light of this, it’s time to begin The Friendly Film Fan’s end-of-year coverage, starting with the Most Underrated films released last year.
Movies in 2020 could be difficult to find a method for watching if they weren’t already on streaming or didn’t have big promotional campaigns. To that end, the more underrated movies, the true small-time greats of 2020 were even harder to find for most people, whereas in previous years, they would have appeared as part of the regular theatrical rotation. But fear not! I have come to put your minds at ease, and perhaps even give you a little bit of hope that not all the hidden gems of 2020 have been lost to time or an altered release schedule. These are my picks for the Top 10 Most Underrated Movies of 2020!
10. Love and Monsters
Not everything in the YA-esque adventure Love and Monsters works, but Dylan O’Brien travelling cross-country with a dog to go see a girl he loves is a lot more fun and less teen-movie-cringey than it sounds. The monster concepts introduced are beautifully creative, and the film moves at a surprisingly solid clip so you’re never bored. There’s frankly not a whole lot else to say about a movie this small or a story this simply, but this could be a really good start to a new franchise for the Maze Runner star, and for once, I’d actually encourage the series to continue.
9. Yellow Rose
Yellow Rose, perhaps the most underseen indie of 2020, came and went with nary a whimper, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have a lot worth recommending. A killer lead performance from Eva Noblezada and a near scene-stealing supporting turn by Dale Watson make this tale of an immigrant’s American dream not just worth watching, but emotionally effective in a surprising way. The songs, though not hits, are very well-written, channeling the A Star Is Born energy through a much smaller tale. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make a big splash, but it’s one of the more beautifully-shot films of 2020 as well, with some shots that may have competed for Oscars if the rest of the movie were like them. Check this one out if you get the chance.
Gunda is imperfect, slow, and frankly, the tiniest bit boring. There are long stretches of this animal rights doc where one may assume not much is happening as the audience watches farm animals go about their day. One would assume incorrectly. Of course, this sort of filmmaking style and deliberately observational patience will not be for everyone, but for those who would like to give it a shot, I would highly recommend at least taking the time to experience its flood of empathetic observation, which is accompanied by unbelievably gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. As much as there is plain, no-nonsense camerawork (largely sticking to a pig pen), and very little else going on, there is also life happening before your eyes – life that can be genuinely moving if you allow yourself to accept what the movie is trying to offer. It is definitely a slow-burn in terms of pacing, but the value it can add to your movie-watching experience is undeniable by film’s end.
7. Let Him Go
Diane Lane and Kevin Costner play a married couple in this movie about them rescuing their grandson and daughter-in-law from a domestic abuse situation, and it mostly works. With a tone somewhere between domestic drama and neo-noir Western, Thomas Bezucha’s film can feel like it’s just doing the bare minimum at many points, but when you have this caliber of performer at your disposal, even bare minimum can get the job done. Guy Godfree’s cinematography is sweeping and beautiful, elevating what might have otherwise been something “okay” into a film that’s worth both your time and your attention, if you’re looking for something simple.
6. The Lodge
Neon’s first major foray into the horror genre, The Lodge contains one of the most unsettling endings of any 2020 movie. It can be quite slow at points, and doesn’t always use the hiding of its central plot very well, but Riley Keough owns this movie from start to finish. Before she’s even on screen, we feel the effects of what her presence does to the kids at the movie’s center, and see it first hand when [redacted]. The film also has an oppressive tone that’s hard to shake, and once again, that ending shot is perhaps the most unsettling I’ve seen this cinematic entire year.
5. The Life Ahead
While it did not make the shortlist for Best International Feature (or my own Best of 2020 list, to be fair), Italy’s submission to the Oscars this year is nonetheless a wonderfully underrated film about a young hustler and a Holocaust survivor that takes him in forming a unique and unbreakable bond. Sophia Loren is excellent in the film, as are Abril Zamora and Babak Karimi, but it’s the young Ibrahima Gueye who manages to keep his lead character firmly above the rest with an outstanding performance. The film itself never really reaches the levels of profundity or wisdom necessary to elevate it above many other films of its type (think The Intouchables), but it’s quite an enjoyable watch nonetheless, and I think if you give this one a shot, you won’t be too disappointed.
4. His House
Remi Weekes’ Netflix horror film about a pair of refugees being relocated to a sketchy house in London might not always have everything in the right balance, but it’s a stunning example of how to weave a refugee narrative into horror. As Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku slowly settle into their home, the ghosts of their past can’t let them go, and this is made evident through their stellar lead performances. The horror, too, is genuinely frightening, unfolding slowly within the background of many frames until the viewer is almost invited to notice it creeping into the foreground, despite the knowledge that what lies there won’t be in any way inviting.
3. The Broken Hearts Gallery
One of the first films to open only in theaters once some of them re-opened, The Broken Hearts Gallery does nothing to re-write or alter the rom-com genre in basically any way, but man, was it so good to see one of these again that seemed to genuinely enjoy itself. Geraldine Viswanathan is really great in this, and Dacre Montgomery manages to underplay his character just enough to make him appropriate for the script, despite the myriad of genre cliches and predictable beats the film has. It doesn’t hurt either that Molly Gordon, goddess of comedy, also lends her talents to the picture with a genuinely funny recurring bit centered around her boyfriend, played by Nathan Dales. If you’re looking for a good date night movie, look no further.
2. On the Rocks
Sofia Coppola always seems to end up in the “underrated” conversation in terms of directors, despite creating some true masterworks, particularly in the early and mid-2000’s. Perhaps this is because her films don’t exactly try to be profound or groundbreaking, but rather because they find themselves becoming so almost by accident or invitation even if they’re not really made for that purpose. On the Rocks may not be her best work, but it’s the film of hers that feels closest to a warm hug as dad Bill Murray whisks off on an adventure with a top-of-her-game Rashida Jones to find out if her husband is cheating on her. The ending of it leaves a little to be desired, but this sort of low-key, mid-budget drama from AppleTV+ starring movie stars is the sort of thing Hollywood just doesn’t give much thought to anymore, and it’s refreshing to see that both Coppola and Apple recognize how important these kinds of films can still be.
1. The Way Back (2020)
Ben Affleck gets both a lot of praise and a lot of shit for putting his struggle with alcoholism so publicly on screen, but his reckoning with it fuels his performance in Gavin O’Connor’s saga of triumph over the self, resulting in a career-best performance for the screenwriter turned actor turned A-list director. That much is undeniable. The film doesn’t give quite the time or devotion to the actual game of basketball that it needs to in order for the games to be as exciting as something like Ford v Ferrari’s racing sequences, but it’s got a ton of hidden layers that are simultaneously heartbreaking and cathartic to unpack. This is easily the most underrated film of the year, and if you’re in the mood for a good, positive cry, it’s absolutely worth your time.
And that’s it! Those are my Top 10 Most Underrated Films of 2020. How many of these have you seen? Are there any movies from 2020 you feel are particularly underrated? Let me know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan