2020 has been a difficult year for film. With the pandemic out in full force, cinemas have been shut down, movies delayed, and studios experimented with releasing films on PVOD, or selling their films to various streaming platforms like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon.
Then there’s Disney, who struggled between choosing to delay films or release them on Disney Plus. Film festivals decided to move online, and this change has been met with a fair bit of success, since some might have been deterred by geographical reasons when it comes to film festivals, and now get to take greater ownership of their experience from the comfort of our own homes.
Given all the confusion present in 2020, there are some movie gems that you might have totally missed out on. So here are some of the most underrated movies of 2020 so far, films that you might not have heard of but would totally enjoy.
10. The Broken Hearts Gallery
Director: Natalie Krinsky
This list needed one rom-com, and this my underrated choice for 2020. Sony released the film in September, and I think because everyone is now getting their latest dose of rom-com on Netflix, this film kind of flew under the radar. This is a crying shame, because The Broken Hearts Gallery is truly a testament to what the genre can do when the filmmaking is smart, and the characters well-developed.
The movie stars Geraldine Viswanathan, who plays Lucy, a fiery, optimistic woman who loves passionately and wholeheartedly. But despite her always putting herself out there, she hasn’t been able to have a relationship that can stand the test of time.
After each breakup, she finds herself keeping souvenirs that will remind her of that relationship, and it has become an obsession over the years, where she has amassed quite the collection. On a fateful night, Lucy coincidentally runs into Nick (Dacre Montgomery), as is always the case in rom-coms. During her interactions with Nick, she is inspired to start the broken heart gallery, and it just takes off from there.
The lead actors have natural chemistry with each other, and the supporting cast do good work in propping up the narrative, with their humour and appropriate levels of charm. The worse thing you can have on a rom-com is an actor phoning it in for a check, but this isn’t the case here, where it seems that everyone had such a blast working together. It made New York come alive to me in a different way, kind of like When Harry Met Sally did all those years ago. I also like how art becomes something so relatable, reminding us that heartbreak is universal, but then again, so is love.
Director: John Hyam
John Hyams’ Alone has a premise that is rather familiar: a lone female traveler attracts the eye of a serial killer, who then decides to hunt and kill her. So she goes on the run, and we watch, hoping she does enough to evade him and survive at the end of the movie.
Julia Wilcox, who plays Jessica in the movie, does a great job in creating personality and substance for her character, which sometimes gets thrown at the wayside when it comes to thriller films like this.
Marc Menchaca’s villain is equally convincing, delivering a subtle performance seething with menace. This characterisation is all the more chilling when we find out that he has a family, who is most likely oblivious to his extracurricular activities. Hyams’ movie is a discomforting watch, but the payout will be more than worth it after all that squirming in your seat.
8. Scare Me
Director: Josh Ruben
If you can’t get enough of Aya Cash aka Stormfront after watching The Boys, well, look no further. Scare Me follows Fred (Josh Ruben, who also wrote and directed the film), who has come to a cabin in the winter to write. He isn’t a writer, but he hopes some time away will give him the inspiration he so badly desires. He runs into Fanny (Cash), who is a best-selling author, and she’s doing the same thing he’s doing, except she’s better at it, a fact she never lets him forget.
When the power suddenly goes out, Fanny visits Fred in his cabin and proposes they start telling scary stories, each trying to one up the other. Both Ruben and Cash are immensely talented, and hold our attention with their storytelling capabilities. The film gives us just enough to fuel our imagination, through sounds, innovative camera angles — there’s even a spotlight at one point.
It is a truly entertaining film, reminiscent of times spent at camp fires telling ghoulish tales, hoping to tell the scariest story that no one will forget. As it always is with horror, sometimes reality can be much more horrifying, as the story takes a dark but satisfying turn.
7. To the Stars
Director: Martha Stephens
The coming of age film for young girls has gained much agency in recent years. Movies like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades are some recent wonderful examples, and while director Martha Stephens isn’t as experimental with her style — instead pushing forward with more conventional storytelling — the sensitivity to characterization and nuanced portrayal of the people of Wakita makes this film a stand-out.
Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is an outsider in school as well as in her own home. Along comes Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), who is new to town, who holds a secret within her. While Maggie lies convincingly to everyone, Iris is much too sharp to buy into her deception, and the two start to become close friends.
In her friendship with Maggie, Iris begins to gain agency over her body and self. The film is also a keen foray into female identity and sexuality, and despite the fact that we are a far cry from the 1960s setting that Iris and Maggie find themselves in, it still isn’t an easy thing to be young girl in this world, and To the Stars does a good job in adding something compelling to the coming-of-age space.
Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Swallow is a portrait of a woman in isolation, living a placid life with barely any ripples on the surface.
So one fine day, Hunter (played with aplomb by Haley Bennett) decides to swallow something she shouldn’t. It starts with a marble and it escalates to a thumbtack, which definitely causes harm and hurts her body – there is the pain in swallowing it, and the pain that inevitably comes when she has to pass the object.
She is in a marriage and situation beyond her own control, and she attempts to regain some measure of that self control through these dalliances she puts her body through. Swallow is definitely a horror film, in the vein of The Invisible Man, but with a keener focus on Hunter’s interior world rather than the external environment.
5. Banana Split
Director: Benjamin Kasulke
Co-writer and star of Banana Split Hannah Marks is definitely one of the people to watch in the coming years. She was named one of Rolling Stone’s 25 Under 25 Artists Changing the World in 2017, and her next film that’s coming in 2021, Mark, Mary & Some Other People, is already one of the films I am looking forward to seeing before 2021 is even here.
April (Marks) and Nick (Dylan Sprouse) have spent their high school years together, tied together in a high school romance they never thought would end. But the cracks between them are made evident, and push comes to shove when both of them realise that they applied for colleges that will take them further away from each other. So, they break up. However, this break-up isn’t easy, because April still finds herself obsessing over Nick, especially since it seems he has a new girl in his life.
April goes to a party so she can check out this girl, but somehow, she and Clara (Liana Liberato) just hit it off. Things are complicated though, since Clara is dating Nick, and April is still in love with Nick, so things get messy. What I liked about the film is how unconventional it is, where instead of female pitted against female, what we get instead is a story of friendship, on all sides of the equation.
4. The Planters
Directors: Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder
The Planters stars Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder, who also take on directing, scriptwriting, as well as production duties. Its whimsical and offbeat tone is reminscent of Wes Anderson and Taika Watiti, but the pair forge a space that is very much their own.
The Planters follows Martha Plant (Kotcheff), who has a job selling Clear Breeze air conditioners (though she isn’t too good at it). What she seems to have more of a passion for is her side hustle, which involves her shoplifting items and then planting them in the ground. Having lost her parents, Martha is alone, and while she seems okay, her life feels rather isolated and lonely.
This all changes when she meets Sadie (Leder), who is now homeless because the mental institution that she was living at has closed down. Though Martha and Sadie are as different as night and day, they get along well and accept all sides of each other. It is a story about lonely individuals moving past that state of loneliness, to find comfort and friendship in each other, and is truly the kind of unique storytelling we could use more of.
3. End Of Sentence
Director: Elfar Adalsteins
End of Sentence is a beautiful movie, and much of its beauty comes from the way it fleshes out the unfinished nature that is our lives. Real life isn’t neat and tidy, and things aren’t always how we want them to be, and End of Sentence recognises that and presents relationships in such an authentic way.
Before her passing, Anna’s (Andrea Irvine) last wish was for her husband Frank (John Hawkes) and her son Sean (Logan Lerman) to make a trip to Ireland together to scatter her ashes. Problem is, father and son share an estranged relationship. However, in the end, Frank manages to get Sean to come with him by dangling a financial incentive, and so the pair travel together to fulfil Anna’s last wish.
Fawkes and Lerman do incredible work together, and while we know that things will never be completely healed between father and son, at least they are both at peace with their relationship, and this is wonderfully cathartic to watch.
Director: Josephine Decker
Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, is an adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name. Odessa Young plays a young pregnant woman named Rose, and she and her husband Fred (Lerman) move in with famed suspense author Shirley Jackson (Moss) and her husband Stanley (Stuhlbarg). Gradually, she finds herself entangled in the complicated drama that is Shirley’s life.
The gothic and otherworldly elements of the film are quite compelling, as is the acting. Moss delivers such snarl and bite to Shirley’s characterisation, and the best moments of the film are her conversations with Odessa’s Rose, who finds herself enthralled by Shirley and her mind.
Oftentimes when it comes to the depiction of women in film spaces, they seem to embody two distinct spaces – they are either destructive and disorderly, or nurturing and domestic. The two female characters in the film flesh out the duality present in women, that we can be both, with Moss and Young delivering powerhouse performances.
Director: Brian Duffield
Spontaneous is Brian Duffield’s directorial debut, and he completely swings it out of the park with this one. The film begins with a student spontaneously combusting, with no clue or explanation as to how this occurred. She’s not the only one that suffers this fate.
As the senior class float in a state of uncertainty with regard to their future and survival, Mara (Katherine Langford) and Dylan (Charlie Plummer) instead decide to fall in love. Their love story is gradually built up, in an authentic and genuine way, with none of those insta-love nonsense that sometimes inundates these young adult romances.
When they are together, nothing else matters, and the world feels like a hopeful and bright place. But there is still so much volatility surrounding them, and not everything can remain untouched forever. We never get an explanation on what the spontaneous combustion is a metaphor for, and for Duffield, that is the beauty of it, for each of us can make what we want of it.
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