Some Hidden Gems of 2020

And so the lists begin. In a year like this, I feel like these lists are actually more important than they usually are (even though some of them will be made incredibly more difficult without having the theatrical experience and audience reaction to draw on), especially this one. Given that for the majority of this year, all the films that mattered essentially came out on VOD, a streaming service or PVOD, I’m guessing most people didn’t do a whole lot of movie watching. Maybe you watched some stuff here and there, but I’m thinking most people, if they could overcome the general dread and anger from the social and political events of 2020 and bring themselves to actually watch things, probably spent the majority of the year catching up on stuff they’d been meaning to watch from previous years and a lot of TV. Which means that you can use a list like this to tell you about all the cool stuff you probably missed.

Normally this list comes before my month wrap-up lists, so if you actually read those (doubtful, but possible), you’ll be aware of my feelings on most of these. But it’s still nice to have them out there. The next few lists (Films That Surprised Me/Disappointed Me and the Overrated and Underrated lists) are trickier, since they are more based on a shared viewing experience and reaction, but this one isn’t. So let’s just focus on this one.

Though I will say — I endeavor to only use films on one list. So if you see a movie on this list, you won’t see it on the, say, Underseen list. I try to spread the wealth as much as I can (with the possible exception being the Overrated list. That feels like it can afford a double entry if that’s how I feel).

Anyway, here’s just a sampling of some films I thought were really good and worth seeing that maybe you might not have seen or heard of:

1. All Together Now

This was an absolute surprise of a movie for me (not enough to put on the ‘Films That Surprised Me’ list, but enough to mention how surprised I was by it). Because it’s Brett Haley, whose previous films started as perfectly solid (I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Hero) and then became much more solid (Hearts Beat Loud). He had two of these Netflix YA/high school movies come out this year, and the first (All the Bright Places) came out very early in the year and was very much something I did not like. So I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this, as I suspect most people didn’t (if they even have heard of this at all). It stars Auli’i Cravalho (best known as the voice of Moana) as your typical overachieving high school student (on the surface): she organizes the school talent show, volunteers at the old folks’ home and even teaches night classes to people learning English. Only, here, it’s not just because she’s trying to get into a good college. She’s actually homeless. Her mother is an alcoholic and has just left her abusive boyfriend, so the two of them sleep at night on the school bus her mother drives during the day. She’s trying to save up to be able to apply for/go to drama school across the country, but of course, anyone whose ever tried to save money when not having any knows that something always comes up. It’s… this is a much richer version of the high school movie than I could have ever expected. And it’s really charming, even if it does occasionally fall into the usual genre grooves. But Auli’i Cravalho is really terrific in the lead, plus this movie gives you Carol Burnett, a fact that can never be understated.

2. Blow the Man Down

Another real hidden gem. I love this one. It’s a small town murder mystery set in Maine in a fishing town and has sailors singing sea shanties as interludes between sequences. It’s so awesome. It’s about two sisters, one of whom has lived away for several years and the other who’s stayed to care for their ailing mother, who reunite after their mother’s death. And, one night, one of them goes out to a bar and picks up a guy… who turns out to be dangerous and violent. And so she kills him in self-defense, and so now the two of them have to hide the body and cover up the crime. Which they do. And the rest of this movie is this little small town potboiler, as he had ties to the criminal element of the town and they have to make sure no one’s onto them… it’s really, really well done. It’s a tight 90-minute movie with great direction and just one of those movies that never tries to do anything more than it needs to. It’s on Amazon too, so very easy to find. It’s one of the better movies you can see from 2020 that you probably don’t even know about.

3. The Broken Hearts Gallery

I love a good rom com, and I especially love a good rom com that’s not put out by Netflix, since the Netflix ones, while admirable in reviving the genre, are usually high school-based or of lesser quality. This one is a more adult rom com. It’s about a woman who, in the span of about a day, gets fired from her job after being broken up by her boyfriend — you know, typical rom com stuff. She also has kept souvenirs and trinkets from all her past relationships as a sort of memento for each of them. Most people would call that hoarding. So the movie is her using her heartbreak and inability to get over all these relationships by taking all these objects and starting her own gallery with them — a gallery of objects from failed relationships, allowing people to mention the significance of each object and symbolically ‘move on’ from the heartbreak. Which is a brilliant concept. And so she finds a guy building his own hotel and they have good chemistry and she gets him to ‘host’ the gallery in exchange for helping him with the construction. It’s really charming and a lot of fun and really well-written. I like rom coms, but mostly when they’re good, and this is a legitimately good one.

4. Buffaloed

Another nice little gem. This will be hit and miss for people, but it’s still a really solid piece of work and has one of my favorite hidden gem qualities: a star-level performance from someone you either didn’t know about or never really considered as someone who puts in really great work. Here, that person is Zoey Deutch, who you probably saw in Set It Up or in Everybody Wants Some (in the last half of the movie). Here, she plays a woman in Buffalo who desperately wants to get out of Buffalo. She’s grown up with a hustler mentality, scalping tickets and creating all sorts of small business schemes (which tend to land her in jail). And she gets into the biggest legal racket of them all — debt collecting. And it’s one of those movies that’s really well-written with a lot of charm, mostly because of Deutch’s performance, which is great in that she’s not worried about looking like a fool for part of the movie but also just dripping with star power as well. It’s a really solid piece of work that has already fallen through the cracks because it came out before the pandemic even happened and still nobody knew it existed.

5. Charm City Kings

This is based on the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, and is essentially a fictionalized version of the stuff presented in that. But it’s co-written by Barry Jenkins, has a real community atmosphere to it (just one of those movies where you can feel the neighborhood and all the characters pulsating and having real life, rather than just being ‘movie’ manufactured) and is just charming as hell. It’s really well made and is just an admirable piece of work that I felt completely slipped through the cracks this year.

6. Critical Thinking

Chess movies = always interesting. Inner city teacher movies = usually solid and enjoyable. John Leguizamo = the greatest. This movie has all three of those things. John Leguizamo is a teacher at an inner city high school trying to teach the kids in his class (many of whom are the ones most teachers don’t want to bother with) chess. And he’s trying to get them (despite them being not funded the way all the other (white) schools are for these things) to the state and national chess tournament finals. It’s awesome. Just perfectly charming and solid and easy to watch, and exactly the type of movie I knew immediately would be one that almost no one ever knew existed. At best this is something people might stumble upon on cable in 3-4 years. It was never gonna get the right audience, but deserves it because it’s really well done.

7. Kajillionaire

I had this on Underseen for a while and then realized that people probably don’t even know what this is, which better qualifies it as a hidden gem. It’s from Miranda July, whose only made three films to this point (Me You and Everyone We Know and The Future are the other two), and all of them feel like they’re these critically acclaimed, underseen little gems that don’t ever get the right audience when they should. This is a movie about con artists living off the grid in Los Angeles. They are: Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and their daughter, Evan Rachel Wood. Wood has been raised by these two, was given the name of a homeless person and only knows the reality that she’s been told about. So she knows absolutely nothing of the world past what her parents have told her, even as she lives in it. And the movie is them doing their schemes and what not (which usually involves stealing people’s mail, hoping for money or valuables, or stealing items and returning them in exchange for money. It’s this really fascinating character piece that will win you over almost immediately, but will also win you over once Gina Rodriguez gets involved. She’s a woman the trio meet and decide to bring in on their next big ‘job’, and she acts as a sort of link to reality for Wood. It’s really well done. Wood gives one of the better performances I saw this year and the other three leads are also pretty great. I can’t really explain this one past — it’s really good and you should see it. It’s one of the best films on this list.

8. Let Him Go

A modern day western with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. I refer to this movie as an exercise in star power, since the plot is really simple (evoking earlier westerns, even if it takes place today, in an era with cars and technology, to an extent) and Costner specifically barely speaks for the majority of the film. Most of his screen time is about looking at his Monument Valley type face (which, by that I mean, it’s been around so long and is so iconic that he doesn’t need to say anything most of the time because you get so much just from him being there). Anyway, the movie is them as parents whose son died falling off a horse and left behind a wife and infant child. So they take the daughter-in-law in and act as parents for her, while also helping raise their grandson. Then she marries a new guy after some years, who turns out to be an abusive prick, and then one day he up and leaves with her and the baby to go to his parents out west. So the movie is Lane and Costner driving out there to go find her to try to get her to agree to give the baby to them. And so yeah, while they use a car and not a horse, and while they stay in motels and not by a campfire out on the prairie, it’s still a western. They get to his family and they’re this deeply embedded family in this small town who seem to have connections everywhere — you’ll recognize the tropes immediately. Jeffrey Donovan is there, and Lesley Manville is terrific as the matriarch of the family. It’s just one of those movies that will remind you of a lot of other stuff and that’s just really solid. I don’t know why this never got its proper audience when it came out (I’m guessing because they put it in theaters and nobody went to theaters, but even so). This is a movie that could easily also be on the Underseen list if I thought people even knew what the hell it was.

9. Olympic Dreams

I have so much love for this movie. First off, to tell you about this movie, I have to tell you about another movie, called Tracktown, a movie that I’m almost certain you’ve never heard of that I only heard about because Paul Thomas Anderson mentioned it while doing press for Phantom Thread and someone asked him what movies he saw recently that he loved and that was the movie he mentioned. That film was co-written by and co-directed by Alexi Pappas, an actual Olympian long-distance runner who stars in it. Which by itself is already a hugely admirable achievement. But the film is also quite good and exactly the kind of movie you’d want to champion. So, having seen that movie and liked it (it’s on Amazon, by the way, should you ever want to check it out), I saw that she was making this movie, which of course got me to track it and see it when it came out. This one was filmed on location at the actual 2018 Winter Olympics. Which is pretty awesome. Pappas co-wrote it with her husband (who also co-wrote and co-directed Tracktown) and Nick Kroll, who stars in it with her. And the film is just this lovely little rom com that takes place at the Olympics (and filmed at the actual Olympics). She plays a cross-country skiier whose events finish up pretty early on during the Games and is left to sort of wander around aimlessly. She then meets and bonds with Kroll, who plays a dentist volunteering at the Games. The movie was literally shot with a cast and crew of three people. And most of it is just Pappas and Kroll going around Olympic village, getting to know one another. It’s a really sweet little film and, like Tracktown, exactly the kind of hidden gem I love finding and championing because it’s exactly the kind of movie that deserves to be made. That’s the kind of movie that should make everyone who dreams of making movies excited, because it makes you feel like you actually can make something someday. I really love this one a lot and really want you to go find this and watch it.

10. Saint Frances

I really liked this one. I’m actually seeing some people shout this out prominently on their year end lists, so I’m glad it’s not just me who really liked this one. This is a movie written by its star, and is about a woman in her mid 30s who is just sort of drifting and aimless. Her sister’s just had a baby, and friends have successful careers, meanwhile she’s not really doing much of anything and has just gotten pregnant from a casual fling and needs to get an abortion. And all this coincides with her taking a nanny job. So it’s her dealing with the aftereffects of the abortion and starting to bond with this child who seems to be the only one not asking her what she’s doing with her life. It’s a really nice piece of work all around and one of those movies that I feel like most people would enjoy if they ever gave it the time of day.

11. Save Yourselves!

A fun movie about our addiction to technology. It’s a couple who realize their relationship is souring because they no longer actually communicate with one another, so they decide to take a two-week break from the world and go to a cabin and unplug, without looking at any of their devices. And of course, the minute they do that, aliens land. So they’re completely unaware of all the chaos happening in the world, meanwhile we’re seeing them be totally unable to function, trying not to look at their phones and then slowly realizing what’s going on and having to deal with that. It’s fun. The right kind of gem because it’s very indie and just solid without ever being great, but still really worth seeing because it’s better than watching yet another generic action movie or horror piece of crap or stupid comedy. This at least is fun and tries to have something to say.

12. Shithouse

One of the recurring themes on this list seems to be ‘movies that do interesting things with genres you’ve seen a bunch’. Which is exactly what this is. It seems like a standard rom com (albeit very indie), but at every turn tries to undercut all the genre tropes as they happen. The premise is: a freshman having trouble adjusting to college life goes out to a party and meets an RA, who could also use someone to talk to. And they have a fun night together, hanging out around campus. And so the movie starts setting up expectations… and immediately starts giving you something else at every turn. It’s really well done.

13. Stargirl

It’s a coming-of-age high school movie, and there are no shortage of those about, but this one felt very different, and I suspect that’s because of who wrote and directed it. It’s from Julia Hart, who last year made Fast Color, which I suspect was also on this very same list last year, and I’m Your Woman, which is on a different list this year but also very much a hidden gem. This doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any stretch, but for a movie where you kinda get the idea and know what it’s gonna be within the first ten minutes, this sure did surprise me in the way it handled everything, and how this felt a lot more mature than most of these movies are. In a movie about a high school kid, you suspect they’re making it for kids that age and are generally trying to have things end well for them. You know, the kid gets into the school they want to get into, the team wins the big game, everything ends nicely. But here… that’s not always the case. It’s definitely a more complex look at these relationships than you normally see. And while it’s not the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, I do think it’s a nice little gem in that it gives you a more grounded and realistic look at a genre than anyone else will give you. And, at the very least, shows you that Julia Hart is firmly a director to watch going forward.

14. Swallow

The perfect hidden gem. Because it’s just unique and weird enough to stand out and make an impression and just solid enough to where it’s not just a weird experience and actually feels worthwhile even if it’s not wholly for you. (For example, the movie Butt Boy this year — that felt like an oddity, sort of the way The Death of Dick Long felt last year.) It’s about a housewife who discovers a need to stick increasingly dangerous objects in her mouth. It starts simple, with marbles and things. Then moves up to stuff like thumb tacks and then gets worse and worse from there. It’s very well-shot and looks gorgeous, which is kind of the point — the seemingly perfect couple in the perfect house and she’s seemingly the perfect wife, and yet behind closed doors all this weird and fucked up shit is happening. The movie is really about gender roles and a woman’s place in society, and it finds some really nice ways to get its point across without ever forcing it. It’s… yeah, there’s a moment in this movie where she’s at a motel eating dirt and by that point you’re either all in or it’s just never going to work for you. But I think it’s a nice gem worth seeing because I guarantee this will be the only movie from 2020 that you see where someone is casually eating dirt like potato chips.

15. To the Stars

This was such a lovely little coming of age movie. Definitely not for everyone, but that’s kind of what hidden gems are. Not for everyone, just for some people. It’s set in Oklahoma in the 60s and is about a shy girl with no friends who befriends the new girl who moved from the big city and has loads of personality and helps her come out of her shell. It seems like a standard kind of movie, but there’s so much here going on underneath the surface and so much interesting little character stuff that I quite liked. There’s not really much else I can say about this without saying too much, but I think it’s a very solid movie and I think there are certain people who like movies like this that don’t know about this one who will be glad they saw me talk about this in this article.

16. Uncle Frank

So this is a movie that I liked because I had no expectations for it and it turned out to be a solid drama with great performances from an actor who never really got a proper chance at being a leading man. That being Paul Bettany. It also is a nice showcase for Sophia Lillis, who made an impression in the It movies but is now fully establishing herself as a legitimate star. On those two things alone, it’s a nice little gem worth seeing. But also, I quite enjoyed it. It’s set in the 70s and is about a girl who grew up in the south and grew up idolizing her uncle, because he always seemed so much smarter and funnier and more cultured than the rest of her family. She ends up, on his advice, going to college in New York where he teaches and ends up finding out that he’s gay and has been hiding it from the rest of the family. Meanwhile, her grandfather, his father, dies and they have to take a road trip back down south to attend the funeral. And the film is her coming of age/bonding with him and him dealing with the death of his father (who openly hated him) and the stress of all those feelings, along with his longtime boyfriend wanting to come with him and meet the rest of the family. You could see it as fairly on the nose at times, but ultimately, you have good actors giving good performances in a solid movie that almost no one saw (or maybe even knows about). That is the definition of a hidden gem.

17. Vampires vs. the Bronx

This seemed like a kids movie to me. From the images I saw to the title… it just seemed like it was aimed at kids, like something from Nickelodeon. But it is not that. Not that at all. This is a movie you’ll enjoy as an adult because it’ll remind you of the movies you grew up watching. But this is firmly a movie for all ages and a movie with a real message behind it. Kind of like See You Yesterday, the time travel movie with kids that’s really about police brutality and racial inequality. This is a ‘kids trying to save the neighborhood from vampires’ movie that’s really about gentrification. The vampires are coming in, buying up all the local family (Black- and Latinx-owned, primarily) businesses (and murdering them, because vampires) and replacing them with organic juice bars and trendy coffee shops. And so the film is the local kids trying to save the neighborhood bodega while also trying to warn everyone that vampires are there and nobody believing them. It’s fun as hell. It really is. The perfect throwback and one of the few movies that really will work for people of most ages. Don’t sleep on this one. Oh, and Method Man plays the neighborhood priest. How can you not want to see this?

18. The Vast of Night

This list usually comes in early December and not now, so I guess the best way to start this entry is — THIS IS ON MY TOP TEN LIST. So yes, it’s a hidden gem. Because so few people even know about this movie, and it’s just there, on Amazon, for everyone to watch at any time. So, I will once again stress that this movie is on my top ten list and then tell you what it is about, and after that, if you do not want to go out and see it, I cannot help you. The movie is presented as a sort of Twilight Zone episode. You follow a couple of kids in a small town in New Mexico in the 50s (get it?) as they start to discover some strange things happening, which begin with the local switchboard operator hearing some strange sounds over the phone lines and then getting strange calls from people reporting seeing some strange things. There’s such a low budget charm to this, especially the way the first half of the movie is presented, with the main character as a fast-talking know-it-all and then the incredible ten-minute unbroken take at the switchboard. It’s got such a laid back charm that, by the time you start getting into the real meat of the story, you’re totally hooked as a viewer. Everyone should see this one because it’s such a fun, throwback kind of movie. Plus, it was made for $700,000! That’s like, one effects shot in Avengers. And they made one of the best movies of the year on that budget.

19. VHYes

This is the perfect hidden gem. The beauty of the hidden gem is not that it’s for everyone to find, it’s for the right person to find. If a movie was that great that everyone who saw it would love it, then it probably wouldn’t be a hidden gem. It would just be an underseen gem. What makes it hidden is that the proper audience hasn’t yet found the film and it’s there to be shown to them for them to get that ‘aha’ moment of, “Oh my god, this is amazing.” And that’s what this is. This is a movie for everyone who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s and remember what TV was like back then. If you remember being 7 or 8 years old and randomly seeing a bunch of weird shit while flipping channels late at night, this is the movie for you. The premise is a kid playing with his dad’s new camcorder (and accidentally taping over his parents’ wedding video as he does) and making all sorts of home movies with his friend. But mostly, it’s him and his friend at a sleepover recording off the television as they watch it late at night. So you just see them flipping around and see these great recreations of the weird shit you’d have seen back then: from the insane commercials to the weird public access stuff to those QVC shows to late night softcore porn… it’s all there. Trust me when I say, if you grew up anywhere between 1987 and 1995, you will recognize some of this stuff (it’s all fake, but you’ll remember seeing something exactly like that on TV at some point). That’s what makes this movie so amazing. It’s not for everyone, but the people who it is for will enjoy the hell out of it.

20. Yes, God, Yes

If you were in middle school between 1997 and 2002 and remember the days of AOL, boy is this the movie for you. You have no idea what you’re missing with this one. The movie is about a girl who goes to a religious high school and is reaching the age where she’s starting to discover masturbation. The movie is basically a rom com with her and masturbation. You know how in rom coms, the couple meets at the beginning, but through circumstance, end up being kept apart for the majority of the movie and then finally in the end they get together because they should be together? That’s her and masturbation. It’s pretty wonderful as a concept. And the film is about her and people her own age, not properly being taught about sex and what they’re all feeling as they hit puberty, dealing with the awkwardness of being at that age where literally anything anyone says somehow has that double meaning where you only hear the sexual context of it. And there’s such relatable humor here. That’s why I say anyone who grew up around that time needs to see this. Because you’ll remember that stuff, and you’ll identify with a lot of it. It’s a really terrific movie.

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