The Films of 2020 That Surprised Me

This is a list that’s slightly harder in a pandemic year, when a lot of the calendar was pushed to next year, but it’s not impossible, since if you’re gonna try to watch every movie that comes out, you’re gonna have some ones that you go into thinking will be one thing and come out going, “You know, that was way better than I thought.” I think the variance will probably be smaller this year, and the lack of big budget blockbusters will hurt it, but overall, I think I was able to find some movies that did, to some extent, made me go, “Oh, that was better than I was expecting.”

To put a finer point on it: this is mainly about why the films surprised me. The fact that they’re here is an implicit recommendation to go see them, and they count just as much as the Hidden Gems or any other list that I’ve put out around this one. I’m just trying to turn people on to some good movies here.

As usual, I’ll remind you that this list is entirely subjective and based solely on me and my own personal opinions on what I thought the films were gonna be versus what I actually thought of them. That said, here are the films that felt like pleasant surprises to me from 2020:

1. The Assistant

This came out super early in the year, and it had played Sundance and was being touted as the ‘Harvey Weinstein movie’. So, naturally, I had reservations. Something coming out so soon after an event without the full weight of information and historical context (especially with some things I imagine it can’t say) — when movies do this, it too often feels exploitative rather than something legitimately there to do good. And having like a week between when it played Sundance and came out, I didn’t really have any context for what this was going to be, so I naturally had to be apprehensive until I saw what it was. And honestly I was very surprised how they handled this. Mainly because it tells the story about its main character and all the other stuff is only hinted at in the margins (but very obvious if you know who it is). It’s like, to borrow a similarity to another movie that came out this year — how everyone knew Citizen Kane was about Hearst without needing to be told. And I like how the movie had this laser thing focus but allowed all the other stuff to come through by implication and by not being explicitly talked about, and as much as being a film about Weinstein and all the fucked up things he did, it’s also about what it’s like to have to work for one of these people (because there are many of them out there). I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite as good as it was without feeling way too on the nose or exploitative, and this wasn’t either of those things at all.

2. Babyteeth

This movie, at the outset, reads like The Fault in Our Stars. Which, maybe appeals to some people, but for me, makes me go, “Oh god, not another one of these.” But, Australian, stars Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis, so you think, “There must be a reason these people are in this.” And I think it’s because I’m so used to assembly line American studio movies that all follow the same genre progressions that something like this, that dares to do something different and interesting, was such a surprise to me. You expect some chaste romance and the standard ‘dying teenager’ stuff. Here, in the opening scene of the movie, she meets a 23-year-old drug dealer and develops a crush on him, taking him home to meet her parents (where he immediately tries to rob them). And immediately you realize that this is not the kind of movie you think it’s gonna be. It’s the same concept — dying girl decides she wants to truly live — but it just does it in a way that eschews all the trope-y bullshit and really makes you feel the message. And it hits so much harder in the end than those other movies do.

3. Bill & Ted Face the Music

I saw the first two growing up, which means at least 20-25 years ago. And they were cute and I enjoyed them, but I never really thought all that much of the movies. And then seeing them make this one after almost 30 years, I didn’t think much of it past ‘good for them’. You knew Keanu and Alex loved these characters and tried really hard to get this movie made for like 20 years. And on that level, I knew the movie was gonna be fine, because you don’t try that hard for something that’s not, at minimum, gonna be worth it. But even then I just figured, “Sure, it’s cute, good for them.” I didn’t actually think I’d legitimately like the movie the way I did. And part of that is the story — the way they brought their daughters into it and the way that they gracefully handled the fact that they’re older. The other part is just the fact that these two are just so damn charming in these roles. And they legitimately had some funny stuff in this movie. Honestly, if you don’t think everything the killer robot (Dennis Caleb McCoy) does in this movie is hilarious, then you’re a monster and we can and should never discuss comedy movies. It’s that kind of care and humor that really made this a true surprise for me. I thought I’d respect the effort. I really didn’t think I was gonna care the way I did.

4. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Kind of a gimme. It’s always a surprise when D.C. doesn’t take a giant shit in their pants and fuck up a movie. That’s largely why this is here. D.C., from Man of Steel to present (and I suspect into the future as well), has produced largely garbage, with two actual reasonably good movies… well, three. Wonder Woman, the first one, which most people would say is good (even if it doesn’t actually hold up under scrutiny, which let’s not pretend most Marvel movies do either), and I’ll also allow Shazam into that conversation. Other than those, the rest of the movies have been unmitigated disasters (and no, Joker doesn’t count. The only reason that movie counted as D.C. is because they used one of their characters. D.C. had literally nothing to do with the making of that movie). This movie — actually does have fun. It’s not as much of a surprise as the first Wonder Woman is, because they specifically made her a part of the shit universe before she had her own movie. But Harley Quinn was in another movie already. Shazam is kind of its own thing and feels like it’s gonna remain its own thing. But this… they spun Harley Quinn off to remove her from the dog shit, largely because the Harley Quinn character is best when left to her own devices. And they just went off and did their own thing and had fun with this and played up all the goofy shit that Harley Quinn can get into. It’s a girl power kind of movie and largely works on its own merits in almost all regards. And that is what surprised me. Because I just can’t trust D.C. to make anything remotely decent. So the fact that they actually let the female writer and female director and female star/producer do their own thing with seemingly minimal influence (because that is the problem, when the boring white men who run D.C. on both a film and comics level get involved). And so you get fantasy musical numbers and comic book moments and the right amount of violence and cartoonishness that actually makes this universe fun (I’d say again, but let’s face it… never was). But all of this comes back, yet again, to the first sentence: it’s always a surprise when D.C. doesn’t fuck something up.

5. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

I remember seeing the first movie twice: first by myself, where I thought it was fine but didn’t understand what the insane noise was about it when it came out, and second in a film series screening in college (drunk and during a snowstorm), where I thought it was very funny because I saw it around other people. I remember being very upset when the movie was nominated for Best Screenplay, because the movie didn’t really have a screenplay and I thought it took a spot from a movie that was actually written and very good that year (I can’t remember what it was off the top of my head). But, the Borat character is brilliant and everything Cohen does to get people to reveal their ignorance/racism/whatever he’s after on camera is one of the greatest and most daring feats of comedy we’ve had in the past half-century. My strong opinions on the movie at the time were the result of me being 18 and being at that age where you had very strong opinions about things. And while I am positive about that first movie now, 15 years later, I’m not necessarily as positive about it as others were. Which is to say — a movie that I’ve had some ambivalence about having a sequel almost 14 years later… not a recipe for me to assume high expectations. But, having seen Who Is America two years prior to this coming out, I knew what he was going for in doing it and I knew what to expect. I thought Who Is America was brilliant, but I also felt that style of comedy is very hit and miss. Some segments are gonna be brilliant and hilarious and others are gonna feel forced and drag and not totally work. Again, not really adding to any expectations. But, much like with Bill and Ted — same deal. Character you have affection for and they told the story with the right amount of heart for it to overcome the ‘why now’ aspect and just come across as really charming. It’s the father-daughter story that (while generally forced into the movie, which it had to be, since this is a string of gags) makes this work, and is the reason that, after seeing this, I went, “Oh, that was actually quite good,” instead of, “Okay, sure.”

6. The Climb

I had no expectations for this at all. It was an indie comedy that I knew had already been nominated at the Independent Spirit Awards, which, when that happens, indicates to me a certain level of quality and tone most of the time. Sometimes I find real gems from there (Give Me Liberty was one of those last year). This happened to be one of those, but generally I can’t assume that. So I went into this just seeing it like I see everything else. And within about ten minutes I was laughing very hard at this. And then you peel back the layers and go, “Oh, this competed at Cannes?” And you realize there was more there than maybe you realized. I just wasn’t expecting to find it as funny as I did and to legitimately think this was really good. Indie comedies are like one step below studio comedies for me. Studio comedies all are the same assembly-line garbage nowadays and maybe I get one really good one every five years (pure comedies, that is. Not mixed with something else. You know, like Hereditary which is a horror comedy) and indie comedies just all have the same goddamn tropes and most of the time have that same ‘we did improv’ sense of humor that just does not do it for me most of the time. And this one did. And that was a huge surprise to me.

7. The Coldest Game

This one surprised me because I didn’t know it existed. Truly didn’t know it existed. It came out in February and then in like, October, I was asked, “What did you think of this movie?” (because to most people, I see everything and it’s just assumed that I know about it/have seen it). And I went, “What is that?” Because: Cold War spy movie about an alcoholic chess master played by Bill Pullman is like, exactly the right series of notes to hit for me to love a movie. So, this entry is just: it surprised me because somehow I didn’t even know this existed and had to be told to me. It’s 2020. It’s a weird year. There weren’t that many surprises this year. You gotta take what you can get.

8. Extraction

I just assumed ‘generic Chris Hemsworth action movie’. It was by the Russos, and I know better than to not assume that just because the mainstream crowd loves them and that they did well with Endgame that everything they make is just gonna be great. So not even that really changed my expectations going in. But, it was just like with The Climb… I started watching it and went, “This is actually good,” and then I peeled back the layers — oh, it was directed by a stuntman, like with John Wick, and it’s based on a graphic novel, which means that stuff was built into it that they could find cool ways to show on screen rather than just writing some generic plot like all goddamn action specs nowadays. You expect generic action, but when you get elevated action that you actually kind of care about and find yourself going, “Oh wow, that was a great sequence” — that doesn’t happen all that often.

9. Freaky

I liked Happy Death Day and I expected this would be amusing. But with a horror-comedy, you can never truly expect that much, especially when it’s a Blumhouse movie. Blumhouse as a model is, “Spend $5 million, doesn’t matter if they’re good. One or two of ten will hit and that will pay for everything.” And it’s not about quality, it’s about playing numbers and genre. It’s the cinematic equivalent of analytics. And sure, every once in a while Blumhouse will put money behind something cool or original, but you can never assume anything more than the majority of the crap they put out. And even with slightly heightened expectations for this, given its director and given Vince Vaughn being one of the two stars, I still didn’t expect what I go. This was really delightful, instead of the ‘appropriately amusing’ I thought I was getting. It’s a legitimately good movie that has legitimate laughs in it and was even better than Happy Death Day was at its best. I just couldn’t have expected that.

10. Hamilton

I have to count this as a surprise because I missed the entire phenomenon in 2015/2016. I knew it was coming, I saw it blow up, I heard people talking about the show, saw parodies of some of the songs, and I even downloaded the soundtrack (but either never listened to it or started and realized after four songs I had stopped paying attention, vowing to go back at some point but never actually doing so). So watching this version was an entirely new experience for me. And so I was one of the few people who saw this and went, “Oh, this is quite good.” Which comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s seen the show or listened to the soundtrack or doesn’t live under a rock with this sort of stuff as I seem to do. You guys were all over this show in 2015/2016, and I was finding 20+ hidden gem movies that I loved that you still don’t know about. So I’m fine with how things went, but still — this was new to me, and honestly I was surprised that I liked it the way it was meant to be liked. If that makes sense. I sort of half-expected to go, “Yeah, it was good, but…” Even if the ‘but’ was rooted in my inability to deal with stage musicals (love them on screen…just struggle with them on stage. Don’t know why, but that’s just how it’s been to this point). So yeah, this counts as a surprise for me. That’s where I am.

11. Herself

I saw this on like, December 30th, and really only saw it to really feel like I’d ‘finished’ the year and saw everything that theoretically could have factored into my top ten list (because I hate when I don’t see something in time and then I see it on like, January 5th and it would have made the list had I seen it that much sooner… something that’s happened twice this decade). I didn’t expect this to at all and just figured it would be some standard indie drama, but I watched it nevertheless. And within about 30 minutes I went, “Oh, wow, this is kinda great.” Because it reminded me of those realist dramas from people like the Dardennes and Ken Loach. Where you almost feel like half the cast are non-actors and that there wasn’t really a script and they just put actors in real situations and let them go. And this had what those films tend to not have — a female voice and presence. I know that’s not entirely the case with them, but this definitely had the feel of coming from a female perspective. And that’s because it was directed by a woman and co-written by the film’s star Clare Dunne (who apparently based it on something that happened to a friend of hers). And there’s just a different feel about this one that you can tell almost immediately while watching it. Good movies have that intangible about them that you can’t explain but just know when you’re in the presence of it. And so the surprise was simply me putting this on with no expectations, knowing nothing about it, and coming out blown away by how much I’d liked it (to the point where I actually considered putting this in my top ten for a minute).

12. The Invisible Man

The surprise was that it wasn’t a letdown. Leigh Whannell surprised me with Upgrade, a movie I assumed would just be this generic thing and turned out to be very smartly written and directed. And so this one — I got what he was going for and half-figured it would be solid, based off his previous effort, but also saw all the ways in which it could’ve gone wrong. And so the surprise was that it didn’t. I have issues with the movie, but they all stem from the reaction to the movie and not with the movie itself. So, this does qualify as a surprise to me because I wholly expected to come out going, “Yeah, you got it the first time, but this one didn’t work (for whatever reason).”

13. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

This was a surprise because I absolutely hated Eliza Hittman’s previous film. I remember an agent coming out of Sundance and talking up that movie and saying it was so great, and then there were some people who were talking it up as one of the hidden gems of the year. And then I finally saw it and was like, “What the fuck is this?” I was sitting in the office with a co-worker and we ended up jokingly calling it “MoonWhite.” Because that’s basically what it was — Moonlight but with a white guy. I just actively did not like that movie (which I’m sure is a perfectly solid movie. That was just my reaction to it in that moment). And so, going into this, knowing this would be along those lines, I had lowered expectations. My expectations were actually still pretty high, just because I knew the synopsis and loved the idea of it and was hoping for it to be good (and I’m guessing I’d heard good things out of Sundance, which probably means little, just because I know what happened with her last movie that got great notices out of Sundance). But I was expecting solid. And I got great. This held up as a top ten movie for me all year long, and even when I finally went back to see it in December… I was hoping to see it and think, “Okay, I can justify having this at like, 8 or 9 on the list.” I saw this again and it made the top five. And that was just not something I could have seen coming.

14. Palm Springs

There were really only two options for this one — Surprised Me or Disappointed Me. Because the absolute praise for this one that sustained January through when it came out in July — people went nuts for this. And, having lived through a couple of Andy Samberg/Lonely Island things (or things in that general sphere) that people loved and praised that I absolutely hated (like Popstar, which I still hate. Everyone else loves it but I can’t stand it. Can’t explain it, just don’t like it), I knew that either I was gonna like this as much as everyone else did (which would be surprising) or I was gonna say, “Fuck all of you, it was just fine. You led me to believe it was gonna be better than it was.” And I’m not saying that. Because this movie was delightful. If anything, I could have used another 3-5 minutes of them going through loops and strengthening the relationship. It’s fine without them, but my point was that I liked this enough to feel like I could have handled more of it. I don’t need to praise this, because everyone’s done it, plus the goal here is to explain why it surprised me. And it’s because — for once the hype machine isn’t full of shit. And that’s surprising, given how often it is.

15. Run

Had to do it. Just like with Invisible Man, when a director makes a surprise of a movie the first time, you never expect they’re gonna be able to do it again. Especially with the genres all four movies in this scenario are in. You’re taking a genre that is well worn and not really changing anything, just doing it slightly differently. And, given the genre, we all know what you’re doing and we all know what it’s gonna be. So, to have it still work makes it a surprise. And, in this case, he’s done it twice. In this case, the director is Aneesh Chaganty, and his first surprise was Searching, the ‘takes place entirely in a screen’ gimmick movie from a few years ago. And all those other ‘screen’ movies are gimmicks and almost all of them are horror movies and all of them are dumb. But that one worked, because the gimmick actually aided in the story and it turned it into a thriller instead of horror and you actually gave a shit. So, having him come back and do a ‘disabled girl stuck in her house starts to think she might not be sick and her mother is lying to her’ movie — you think, “Oh, you’re just a genre person and you got lucky the first time.” Because these genres are loaded with people who got lucky once and the rest of their stuff is utter trash. And you just can’t expect they’re gonna elevate something again. Especially — when I tell you the premise of this movie, you know the movie. You know all the scenes, you know what moments are gonna happen, you know all of it. And this movie does all of it. And yet… somehow works. Can’t explain why or how it works, but it does. And that’s the surprise. Not only is it a magic trick, he did it twice. So I had to put it on this list. And I bet I’m gonna do the same thing with his next movie. Because how could he do it again after doing it twice?

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