The Underrated Films of 2020
Okay, so Overrated was real difficult this year. And Underrated tends to be a mix of Hidden Gem plus stuff that I felt didn’t fully get a fair shake in theaters (which also overlaps with Underseen). There’s a weird alchemy to how I put stuff on lists (to the point where there might not actually be any real logic to it whatsoever. But what else have you come to expect out of me?), so I just kinda go with my gut.
This year, since you can’t really call much of anything underrated, I’ve decided to do something very specific with this year’s list, which is to make it all about representation. Because one thing I’m noticing over the past few years — there’s starting to be more and more films coming from places you would not have seen in years and decades prior. Films directed by women (and written by women at the same time. Sometimes even the same woman). Films authored and made by Black filmmakers. Films by and about LBGTQ+ people. And it’s not that all of them are amazing films (and should not be judged as such simply because they exist. Everything deserves the same equal shot to be deemed good or bad), but I find that they’re taking up some of the space of films that I’d normally see and shrug and go, “Whatever.” And now, there’s this increasing number of stuff that, while some of it will make me go, “Yeah, sure,” I can also go, “Oh, that’s a Black filmmaker who wrote and directed it. Good for them.” And I can be happy that it got made and got a chance to succeed as opposed to the same old boring white people shit.
So that’s what I want this year’s list to be about. I want to shout out all the films that are really worthy of your time and your respect, even if they might not all be my favorite films of the year (though I did like all of them. It’s not like I’m putting them on here just for representation. They’re all good movies). The point is — we’re not giving them enough credit for helping create this massive sea change in the industry and hopefully make it so anyone can tell any story about any subject, rather than it just be the same forty white guys making all the movies.
So here are the films I consider Underrated for 2020:
1. Bad Hair
From Justin Simien, writer-director of Dear White People. His followup feature? A satirical horror movie about race. Set in the 80s, it’s about the pressure Black women face (especially darker-skinned women) to do things in order to better ‘fit in’ with their white counterparts. Namely, weaves. It’s about a woman desperate to get ahead at her job, so she gets a weave under the advice of upper management. A weave that turns out to be possessed. The film works as a statement on race, the 80s, is a very dark comedy and works as a horror movie. It’s true Black auteur filmmaking and really should be seen. This is better filmmaking than 99% of Blumhouse fare.
2. The Boys in the Band
Adaptation of a landmark play about gay men, with an all-openly gay cast and directed by a gay director. On that alone, it’s one of the more important films to come out, because you really don’t see that happen. Part of this is the Ryan Murphy effect – his steady success on TV over the years has allowed him the ability to get stuff like this real visibility. The other part of it is — despite the overwhelming homophobia that exists in this country (which goes hand in hand with the racism — they’re embedded in its foundation, and if you don’t believe that you’re lying to yourself) — there now exists platforms for this films to exist. You couldn’t release a film about gay people in theaters most of the time because they just wouldn’t get people to go see them (because homophobia masquerading as disinterest). At best it would be Oscar fare, in limited theaters, but even then it would be like The Danish Girl — straight people playing gay. This is a legitimately all-gay movie, and I cannot stress the importance of that. And, it’s a faithful adaptation of a very good play, which leads to a very good movie. So on top of being important, it’s actually good.
3. The Forty-Year-Old-Version
This is like, the triple threat of an underrated movie. First off — Radha Blank. Wrote, directed, produced and stars in this. Black filmmaker. Female filmmaker. But the other leg of that tripod that makes this truly remarkable? Real independent movie. I don’t know what the budget was on this, but I can’t imagine it was more than a million dollars, if that (and if I had to guess, I would guess significantly less than that). And I think Netflix did a wonderful thing by never actually saying what they spent on it, so as to let the product speak for itself. And man, it does. It’s a wonderful movie that just oozes authenticity and also gives you something movies don’t normally give you — a woman over forty. Sure, 40+ year old women are in movies, but they don’t look and act like regular people. They don’t live in regular-ass Brooklyn apartments and just exist in reality (and not some bullshit heightened comedy reality). Hands down one of the three most underrated movies of this year, and you’re doing yourself a huge disservice (especially if you’re someone who wants to be involved in movies at all in your life) by not seeing this.
4. The Half of It
Netflix has now dozens of high school movies, especially high-school rom coms. But this one is not only written and directed by an Asian woman (and stars an Asian woman), it’s also about a same-sex relationship, which you don’t see a lot of. There were a few in recent, but most feel exploitative in one way or another or sanitized in narrative approach. This one felt completely legit and was more charming than almost all the other rom coms on the entire Netflix platform. It’s same-sex Cyrano — smart girl writes love letters to the girl the jock has a crush on. Then she realizes — she has a crush on that girl. It’s really smart, really charming and is completely original and a movie from a female Asian filmmaker. And you know what? If I didn’t tell you that and you just saw the movie, sans credits — would you know? Or care? Sure, Chloe Zhao is gonna get a lot of notice for Nomadland (and her Marvel movie… though does anyone other than established people ever get any credit for making a Marvel movie?), but these types of movies are equally as important for moving the needle on representation. It’s not just that it’s an original idea from a female Asian filmmaker — it’s that it’s legitimately one of the best movies of the year on top of that.
5. Happiest Season
A gay rom com by an out lesbian filmmaker. And one that actually got a real release (on a platform, but it’s 2020, that’s how everything came out) and people legitimately saw it and talked about it for a period of time afterward. Still, could use more eyeballs and more people recognizing that more of this would be a good thing. It’s a pretty generic… in the actual genre sense of the word… story: woman going home for the holidays, her girlfriend (who is thinking of proposing) wants to go with her. Problem is, she’s not out to her family. And insert all sorts of comical and dramatic situations that occur. It’ll feel familiar. But you know what? Not with a same-sex relationship at the center. And that’s entirely the point. It hurts no one to replace some of the boring rom coms most people will never see anyway with stuff like this, from actual LGBTQ+ filmmakers and about LGBTQ+ people. Normalize it, folks, and then it won’t be such a big deal and then it’ll just be another movie that you can take and leave on its own merits.
6. His House
I’ve heard that this actually got some notice since it’s come out, which is good. I think people have put this on their year end lists. Which is nice. It’s a horror movie, so you already know I didn’t like it. But I don’t like horror movies. But even as I watched it, I went, “Oh wow, this is great.” Because it’s not just your standard ‘haunted house’ movie. It actually has a point and has something to say. The ‘ghosts’ in the house have to do with the refugee couple living in it’s past. And the horrors they saw in their home country before getting out. It’s literally a horror movie about the immigrant/refugee experience, and it includes substandard government housing, that feeling of not fitting in, local people being extremely racist or just insensitive despite being well-meaning, trying to force yourself into the culture — all of that. There’s really great stuff here. And compare that to any one of the Blumhouse movies that were dumped on Amazon this year — they’re just generic drivel (though admittedly, some of those had all-Black casts. And one of them actually had South Asian stars (Evil Eye, which theoretically belongs on this list and I plum forgot about because of all the other Blumhouse bullshit that it got released with), which also was kinda nice, though with a lot of those, I felt like the diversity was performative. I don’t know… I’ve been feeling that a lot lately… that all Black movies are getting put in their own version of cinematic ‘projects’… horror movies, thrillers (crazy stalker, someone trying to break into a house… Lifetime shit). This parenthetical got really long). This movie is elevated horror with a purpose. And that’s hugely underrated to me. I might not like it anyway, but at least I can go, “That has a point,” as opposed to jump scare central and haunted dolls or whatever the fuck those movies are that all seem to star Patrick Wilson (sorry Patrick Wilson).
7. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
It’s an original Christmas musical with an all-Black cast. Original musical alone is great. But giving all that to Black actors? Wonderful. Again, Black filmmaker wrote and directed this. Give Black people opportunities and they will make things that are on a par if not better than white filmmakers. It’s not lack of talent, it’s lack of opportunity. Remember that terrible big budget Nutcracker movie they released a few years ago? Disney spent like $150 million on that and it sucked. I doubt this cost more than a third than that. And it’s so much a better movie. Because there’s heart here. And charm. That movie was cynical in every sense. This movie is made with love and joy and imagination. This is the kind of movie we need more of.
It’s gonna get all over awards season, so it’s not underrated in that sense. You know why this is underrated? Because this is more of an American movie than most English-language movies. There are two movies set in rural areas and feature coming-of-age narratives this year. The other is Hillbilly Elegy. You tell me which one is more representative of growing up in America. That’s what makes this so underrated. Forget what everyone’s saying — it’s universal. The secret weapon of this movie is that you will understand it. Hillbilly Elegy was made from the outside in. This was made from the inside out. It’s somehow both a distinctly American movie and a distinctly Korean movie. And that’s beautiful.
9. Ordinary Love
This one’s not about race so much as age. Older people don’t get places in movies. At a certain point, anyone over 60 stops being the lead of a movie unless it’s about them having Alzheimers or dealing with a spouse dying or it’s some dumb comedy. Usually they’re just the ‘grandparent’ character in someone else’s movie. Every time an older actor is the lead of a movie, there’s some ‘concept’ going on. Here — pretty simple story. Couple who’ve been married for a long time. They’re in their 60s and they’re comfortable. Regular people. Hence the title. Then, one day, the wife goes in for some regular tests, and finds out she has cancer. And instead of it being this big, emotional movie — we just watch them deal with it. The way any of us would. That’s it. That’s the movie. And while race and sexual orientation are big things that need to be included more in film… age is another one (as are disabilities, but I didn’t have some of those this year. I did last year though, so while we’re here, go check out Give Me Liberty and Peanut Butter Falcon). Older actors don’t stop working. They stop getting parts. So you get Robert De Niro forced to do shit like Dirty Grandpa. Gene Hackman just fucking retired. Robert Duvall has only really popped up occasionally in stuff. There are such incredible actors that are still there, and yet they don’t get material written for people their age. So they end up doing small roles in stuff that are often meaningless or the same stock role you see all the time. When’s the last time you saw Dustin Hoffman in something? You’re gonna have trouble naming more than one movie he made this year, because if he was in stuff this year, it was in small parts (and even in the one you did see, it’s still a relatively small part). We can ask for more movies for Black audiences by Black filmmakers, but let’s not leave out older actors too. Old people still exist. I hate even saying old. Because it’s hard enough for actors over 60 to get work as leads unless they’re playing less than their age (Liam Neeson is almost 70, folks. Sam Jackson is 72). Hollywood already has fucked up relationships when it comes to age (and the double entendre is very much intended), but 70+ year olds deserve stories too.
10. Over the Moon
It’s underrated purely because — do you know how little memorable (American) animated fare there actually is that doesn’t come from Disney or Pixar? Or Laika. And just because there are franchises does not make a film memorable. Name me five truly memorable American studio animated films from the past decade. Everybody gets Spider-Verse, but you struggle after that. And immediately the first two you think of are Anomalisa or Isle of Dogs. And guess what? Those are auteurs making animated movies. That’s not regular animated fare. I actually had to look to see if I could even do it. Tintin counts, but that’s another auteur one and not studio animated fare. Sausage Party. We can probably count that. Boss Baby? Rango? The first How to Train Your Dragon? The point there is — if it’s not Disney, Pixar, Laika or foreign, nine out of ten American animated movies ever year (if not ten out of ten) are forgettable drivel. They just are. They all look the same, they all feel the same, they’re all targeted for the same audiences and you can pull out about a dozen tropes from every one of them that all of them do. There’s no artistry there. It’s purely about money. Which means, typically you don’t get a diversity of voices and stories in those movies. They’ve started making lead characters Black girls (or mixed girls, if we’re being honest. They still hedge those bets most of hte time), but they don’t feel like Black girls. It’s just their way of trying to seem representative. So a movie like this — this actually feels like it means something. It’s a story rooted in Chinese mythology with a specifically Asian family and starring Asians as its main characters (who are actually voiced by Asian actors). That is one of the most noteworthy things to come out of American studio animation in years. Is it the greatest movie ever? No. I thought it was just fine, like I do with most non-Disney/Pixar/Laika stuff. But you know what? I’m more likely to remember this in a few years than I am the fucking Trolls sequel or the Croods sequel. Who needs that crap? That stuff only exists to keep children quiet for a while. And believe me, I’ve been a child and I have been around lots of children… they’ll watch almost anything. If the movie is good, it doesn’t matter who the stars are or what it’s based on. It’s pure bullshit rationalization based on institutional racism. This is a huge deal of a movie and it’s legitimately pretty good (probably because it was co-directed by Glen Keane, master animator, who somehow hasn’t directed a feature film to this point).
11. The Photograph
You know what I love about this? I’ve seen dozens of movies like this with white actors (or one white/one Black). It’s about goddamn time we got a simple romance with Black actors. It’s written and directed by a Black woman, and you know what? The cinematographer actually knows how to shoot Black people, which so few movies actually know how to do. The DP on this is white, too, so it’s not like it took a Black person to do it. It just took care and consideration. This movie is basically a Nicholas Sparks kind of story — it’s Black Notebook in a lot of ways. Not as overly melodramatic, but that felt like a bit of a comp here. Honestly — didn’t really like it all that much. But you know what? I love that I can see this movie out there (instead of yet another un-noteworthy one with white actors that I can completely dismiss) and go, “Ehh, it was okay.” Because the same movie with white actors? I’d completely dismiss. This, at least I can go, “You know what? I respect it.” Because you truly don’t get to see this, and I like that I can get this kind of movie from a different perspective and still not feel pressured to like it. That’s all I think anyone’s asking for. Let me have enough opportunities to not give a shit about movies starring people of any color. (But also, LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae are fucking charming as hell together.)
12. Selah and the Spades
This is some real auteur shit. I was blown away by the firm and steady hand of writer-director Tayarisha Poe when I saw this. Didn’t necessarily love the movie. It’s highly stylized. But you know what? You know what happened when a white dude made a movie like this? He became Rian Johnson. And that’s not to take away from Rian Johnson. But let’s appreciate that Tayarisha Poe could become our next Rian Johnson if she got the ability to tell the stories she wants to tell. Because it’s the same as Johnson’s first movie — a very highly-stylized high school movie. And while this isn’t dabbling in noir, it’s still got that same level of confidence and skill that makes you go, “Oh, the person who made this knows exactly what they’re doing.” You can tell talent just from watching certain movies. This woman has talent. And she has a voice. Get on the bandwagon now before she makes a movie that hits big and all the wrong people start to join and it starts to feel dirty (even if it’s all toward a good end).
13. Sylvie’s Love
Give Black people niche genre movies. I’m too old to do the clapping emoji between all the words. You know what this movie is? Black Far from Heaven. That movie was literally just doing a Douglas Sirk pastiche (and basically doing All That Heaven Allows, only with the gardener being Black instead of Rock Hudson and her husband is gay instead of being dead). This movie? Literally the plot of almost any melodrama from the 40s and 50s. You know the difference? Black people didn’t get to be in those movies in the 40s and 50s. And if they were, do you know who they were? Housekeepers. Servants. Minor roles. Probably stereotypes and comic relief, but even if their role actually was substantial (like, say, Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life), still a housekeeper. Still subservient to the white person. Hattie McDaniel in the original Imitation of Life was literally Aunt fucking Jemima! So you know what? I’m thrilled that not only are we getting another movie evoking 50s melodrama but that Black people actually get to have their chance at being in this genre. So on that alone — good for fucking them. (Again, too old for the clapping emojis.) It’s just such a sweet and beautiful movie, gorgeously shot (on actual backlots! Giving it that real melodrama feel. Which I love to no end), and again — straight up on Prime for you to see. These are the kinds of movies we should be championing. More of these movies changes nothing except maybe gets rid of one or two of the boring all-white movies that no one ever watches anyway. You won’t notice a difference and it may actually enhance the damn product because it’ll force these white filmmakers to actually put more goddamn effort in their material if they have to become one of the six spots instead of one of the thirty-four spots. There is absolutely no logical reason we couldn’t have a movie like this every single year. None at all.
Asian filmmaker makes a movie set (half) in Taiwan in the 50s. Asian filmmaker telling an Asian story. Telling a good story. More so than Black filmmakers, Asian filmmakers and Asian stories don’t get any representation in movies. That’s why Crazy Rich Asians was such a big deal when it came out. It’s not that these need to all be great. It’s that the entire weight of a culture (multiple cultures, even. Since America is so dumb, we view all of Asian culture as one thing. There are so many shades in there. And, if all of them got to tell their stories, you’d know the fucking difference) should not be riding on one movie. If Crazy Rich Asians didn’t work, you might not have gotten The Farewell. And you might not get any movies from Asian filmmakers telling distinctly Asian stories (from all over Asia, be it Mongolia or Bangladesh or the Philippines). These movies deserve shout outs because there need to be more of them. I want to get to a place where I can dislike a movie and not feel like I’m disrespecting an entire culture or race by doing so. (But this movie is very good. I just mean in general I would like to one day be able to do that.)
This was a surprise for even me. I had no idea what to make of this and just saw it because I see everything. I can’t even imagine how few people even know this exists. It’s another Netflix movie (and shout out to Netflix for at least giving filmmakers from across the spectrum chances to make their own movies. That’s how you truly expand a platform) and it’s from a Black filmmaker (another writer-director). It’s about a (Black) guy (I’m only pointing that out to point out that it is a Black story at heart, even if the whole thing is pretty universal… also kind of the deal with any good story, but I digress) who is really into wine. Wants to become a sommelier. But his father expects him to take over the family barbecue restaurant when he retires… which he doesn’t really want to do. So it’s that father-son struggle all while the guy pursues his dream to study wine. It’s a really wonderful little movie. And it’s not expressly that it’s from a Black filmmaker (though that part is wonderful). It’s that it’s a good and interesting movie (truly — I didn’t think I ever gave a shit about wine and tune right the fuck out whenever people around me start talking about the properties of wine) that just happens to come from a Black filmmaker. The whole point of this article is to highlight good movies from (primarily) non-white sources that highlight the types of stories that there should be more of in the marketplace. There’s so much stuff out there that there’s really no excuse for people not to get opportunities anymore. Plus, there is so much stuff out there that so much of the really good stuff that’s worth praise and worth seeing does get lost between the cracks a lot of the time (really had to struggle to not say ‘between the crackers’… because also kinda true), so it’s nice to be able to shout out good things for reasons on top of the fact that they’re good.
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