Call this feature “overlooked films” if you liked, and if you saw them, and yes, there’s some crossover with some of our other Best of 2020 features, like the 25 Best Films Of 2020, the 20 Best Performances Of 2020, etc. but that’s ok!
2020 was a year where movie-lovers learned how to watch movies in an entirely different way. Since theaters were shut down across much of America for most of the year and many of the year’s more anticipated offerings were either shuffled off the annual slate until 2021, or relegated to streaming services a la “Wonder Woman 1984,” our regular routine of watching, analyzing, and obsessing over films was more or less completely upended.
This means, naturally, that a great many of 2020’s more alluring cinematic offerings were under-seen by many people. And hey, if we’re being honest, since 2021 is off to a bumpy start, some of us would love nothing more than to curl up on the couch and catch up with the greatest movies of last year that we didn’t manage to see. Truthfully, films like Kitty Green’s excellent #MeToo drama “The Assistant” and the tremendous “First Cow” would be perfect for a list like this, but since both those films ended up on our Best Films Of 2020 list, we thought we would make time to discuss some more obscure, under-the-radar picks that managed to slip by audiences last year (though again, some small crossover here and there when we really feel like bending our own rules in the name of something that just deserves more love).
The good news is that almost all of the films we discuss are available to rent digitally, and some have even started to land on various streaming outlets. Those of you with the requisite time and curiosity on your hands will have your work cut out for you as far as viewing is concerned. Without further ado, here it is… the 25 Best Films of 2020 that you may or may not have seen. Enjoy! – Nicholas Laskin
Would you believe us if we told you that Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” exists a droll funhouse-mirror version of the 2003 frat comedy “Old School?” Hear us out. Both films are essentially character studies that purport to examine a group of middle-aged male friends whose collective solution to the drab, soul-killing midlife crisis they’re all living through is to regress into the self-destructive patterns that defined them when they were young. In both cases, that means drinking. A lot of drinking. Of course, Vinterberg’s film goes deeper and uglier in its examination of male codependency and chemical abuse, making it one of the more clear-eyed, unsentimental depictions of alcoholism we’ve seen in some time. Like Vinterberg’s great 2012 film “The Hunt,” “Another Round” is a film about what happens when social niceties are repeatedly violated. Mads Mikkelsen returns from “The Hunt” to play yet another teacher for Vinterberg, this time a charming history professor named Martin. At a birthday dinner, Martin and his friends make a pact: all four will maintain a baseline blood alcohol content of .05 throughout the working day, and stop drinking after 8 PM. To say it doesn’t go well would be an understatement, but Vinterberg clearly understands the myriad reasons unsatisfied grown-up boys are drawn to binge-drinking and its messy aftermath, and “Another Round” itself masterfully walks a tricky tightrope walk over the gulf that separates realist drama from bracing, dark-as-night comedy. – NL
In the spiky, wrenching Australian tragicomedy “Babyteeth,” oft-sidelined actress Eliza Scanlen is finally, blessedly, front and center. Turns out she was a leading lady this whole time. “Babyteeth” is the toughest kind of movie to pull off: a cancer movie that avoids maudlin theatrics, a family comedy that doesn’t subscribe to saccharine tropes about forgiveness, and a depiction of an unconventional, potentially problematic romance that attempts a high-wire act before miraculously sticking the landing. “Babyteeth” is the kind of movie that sounds like it might not work on paper; what makes it work is how committed director Shannon Murphy is to telling this familiar story in this very unfamiliar way. The first-time filmmaker refuses to rely on any narrative gimmickry; it certainly doesn’t hurt that “Babyteeth” was easily one of the best-acted pictures of 2020. Essie Davis continues to be a powerhouse, and she has a breakdown scene near the end of this film that’s as harrowing as anything in “The Babadook.” The normally more brooding Ben Mendelsohn, meanwhile, was a comedic revelation as a gawky middle-aged intellectual who only wants his daughter to enjoy her last remaining days, even if it means bribing her degenerate boyfriend with prescription medication. And at the center of it all, there is Scanlen: a luminous beacon of hope, who completely brings it, all the way until the movie’s shattering final scene. – NL
The cinematic equivalent of holding a lit firecracker for two hours, Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ genre-bending “Bacurau” should have been the zeitgeist-capturing film of 2020. A film that borrows from genre heavyweights like John Carpenter – even using one of the horror maverick’s scores during a key sequence – while still feeling utterly original throughout, “Bacurau” rewrites the American western by infusing it with a subversive dose of sci-fi dystopia and grindhouse carnage. In the wake of their village matriarch passing away, the fictional town of Bacurau is thrown into a tailspin when they discover that they’ve quite literally been wiped off the map. Soon enough, strange flying saucers are hovering over the village and their communication lines are down, causing the locals to band together to fend off the encroaching threat of western colonialists. While many understandably compared the film to this year’s “controversy magnet” “The Hunt” due to the films thematic gestures towards “The Most Dangerous Game,” at times “Bacurau” feels as if it has more in common with Alex Cox’s forgotten western colonialist satire, “Walker.” In fact, “Bacurau” feels like a harbinger of the Hollywood of the 1980s when an ultra-violent genre flick with political undertones could still get made on a decent budget and didn’t need to wear its socially conscious message on its sleeve. Especially to come during a year when the entire world shut down – or at least, sort of attempted to, maybe? – and our taxpayer-funded politicians argued for months over how much of our own money to give back to us, “Bacurau” feels ever prescient, if not a downright call to arms. Though a film like “Bacurau” will continue to remain relevant, pandemic or not, because while the town itself might be fictional, the threats it faces are very real and never-ending. – Max Roux
“Beastie Boys Story”
The Beastie Boys are as integral to both 20th-century Jewish-American pop (and hip-hop culture) as Rodney Dangerfield, and the evolution of the wisenheimer wordsmiths known individually as Mike D, Ad-Rock, and the late, great Adam “MCA” Yauch is one of the most fascinating trajectories in all of 20th-century rap music. “Beastie Boys Story,” filmed at King’s Theater in Brooklyn, is a sort of real-time concert documentary featuring Mike D and Ad-Rock reminiscing about touring with Madonna and writing songs called “Cookie Puss.” Spike Jonze, who directs, goes back with the Beasties: he was behind their immortal video for “Sabotage” and was a fixture at their ramshackle Atwater Village studio, where they recorded “Check Your Head.” Jonze is an inherently playful storyteller, and he brings that same “let’s-just-go-for-it” energy to “Beastie Boys Story,” which turns out to be a poignant examination of friendship and hard-won personal reconciliation. It helps that both Diamond and Horovitz possess vivid personalities, coming across as your cool Jewish uncles reminiscing about the times they used to hang with Rick Rubin in the pre-Giuliani East Village. “Beastie Boys Story” is a testament to the power of personal growth, perfectly crystallized when Horovitz is asked to reconcile his modern-day feminism with the regressive raps of his youth: “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person for the rest of my life.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.– NL
As we age, most of us start to wrestle with the paradox that we are not necessarily the main character in our own stories. Oftentimes, we are the supporting character that thinks they are the main character. Sometimes we’re the director, orchestrating calamities for our own petty amusement. Other times, we’re little more than a hapless crew member. This is the enigma at the core of Laurence Michael Greene’s nightmarish and ambitious “Black Bear,” which is, among other things, an exploration of the malleability of the human psyche, and how fragile the human ego truly is. “Black Bear” offers a disquieting showcase for three incredibly gifted actors, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Abbott, and Sarah Gadon, all of whom do career-best work here. The early passages of “Black Bear” offer scene after scene of excruciating discomfort, and the saw-toothed bite of the movie’s first chapter is indebted to the similarly chatty, misanthropic works of Alex Ross Perry, whose “Queen of Earth” was another arthouse bad-vibe wallow that happened to unfold at a swanky lake house. “Black Bear” provides a thrillingly abrupt gear-shift before transitioning into its more confrontational second half, which is impressively indebted to John Cassavetes’ great, under-heralded “Opening Night.” If nothing else, the film is worth seeing for Plaza’s exceptional, boozy Gena Rowlands riff, plus Abbott providing one of the most frighteningly recognizable examples of an on-set meltdown that we’ve ever seen. – NL