The Underseen Films of 2020
And now our final one of this series of lists: The Underseen Films of 2020. This one’s pretty simple — I thought these films were great or simply interesting and worth your time, and I feel like not enough people saw them or gave them proper consideration. That’s it. For various reasons, these films feel like they deserve as wide an audience as possible, and I’m hoping my bringing them up gets you to see them and maybe gets a few of you to go, “I really liked that,” and then bring it up to your friends, and so on and so forth. They all deserve it for one reason or another. How is this notably different from Hidden Gems? Probably in that these are more likely to be films you’ve at least heard of in some way. That’s it, really. And it’s more about me saying, “Hey, this is why you need to see this,” instead of, “I think this is great, you should see this, and here’s why.”
So here are my top underseen films of 2020:
1. American Utopia
2020 is the year of the filmed stage show. And honestly, perfect year for it. Since we can’t go see these shows live. Plus most of them are either off or touring or whatever. But still, kinda brilliant, and I think it may have unlocked a secret revenue stream that people have been sleeping on (especially when things are gonna close. This may give them new life in revivals down the line if people can watch them via streaming and become acquainted with the material. Because if we learned one thing with Hamilton — if people like something, they will go see it multiple times.
Anyway, this is David Byrne’s show, built around his “American Utopia” album. Throw some social commentary along the way and some Talking Heads songs, and that’s this show. It’s just fun as hell. If you remember what it was like to be in your 20s and on drugs in a theater, dancing around and watching Stop Making Sense (and that includes people who were in their 20s when the movie came out and people who are in their 20s now — and if you are in your 20s now and haven’t seen this in a theater (preferably while in an altered state of consciousness, though it’s wholly not necessary for the experience)), do it whenever you see them throw up a screening of it. It’s one of the best concert movies ever made.
But back to the point — this show is for when you’re sitting at home, maybe responsibly high or maybe just sipping tea under a blanket and chilling. It’s the older, more relaxed (though just as thoroughly entertaining) cousin to Stop Making Sense. And honestly, if that doesn’t get you to want to go out and see it, then I don’t know how else to sell it to you. (P.S. It’s on HBO. So it’s very seeable.)
2. The Babysitter: Killer Queen
The hidden Netflix genre movies. This is like — you know those fun drive-in/horror festivals that do midnight movies that are designed to be campy and fun and for everyone to have a good time? This is that but on Netflix. The first Babysitter slipped under the radar, probably because Netflix was just getting started in the original movies game, McG was directing and Samara Weaving wasn’t the cult star she is now (well, she was to some of us). But it was a nice little genre film. This one, though — this one goes all out. Whereas the first one tried to be somewhat realistic (to a point, obviously), this one is just balls to the wall — “fuck it, let’s put in a musical number.” It’s that kind of stuff. And it’s just fun as hell. And I think both films are these nice little underseen gems on the platform that are the kinds of movies you watched when you were 12 and hanging out at your friend’s house at 2am during the summer. I’m not sure people have quite caught onto them yet, and if they have — let’s get more.
3. Da 5 Bloods
It’s Spike Lee and it’s been one of the more higher profile (especially since one of it’s major actors died since its release) and lauded (I’ve seen this on a lot more top ten lists this year than I expected to. Though granted I haven’t seen that many top ten lists) films of the year. But I’m not sure people actually went and saw it. I mean, movie people did. Those of us super into movies have. But regular people? Doubt it. And the point of this site is to try to get to everyone. Whether you’re someone who watches nothing but foreign arthouse cinema or only watches superhero movies — I’m just trying to let you know what the cool stuff is that you should probably check out. I only need to hit on one. Everybody watches a bunch of forgettable stuff all the time, but if I can get you to see just one that becomes a movie you really like, I did my job. But anyway, point is — Spike Lee’s great and you should see his movies regardless. But now, after BlacKkKlansman, he not only remains an essential filmmaker but also someone whose movies are getting real audiences again. So keep him going. His voice deserves the support to keep getting his stuff made.
4. The Devil All the Time
I just think it’s a fascinating film. And it’s loaded with famous faces. I’m not sure Antonio Campos has the reputation that people will run out and see this on his name (though I did. I loved Christine), but you have Holland and Pattinson and Skarsgard and etc. in this. So that will get some eyeballs once people check their IMDB pages and go, “What’s that one?” But I’m not sure people now know about this, that it’s even there. It got put out on Netflix mid-September which might not have been the best spot for a lot of people seeing it. So this is just to remind you that it’s a solid movie with a lot of stars in it that is worth your time. And if you haven’t seen it or don’t know about it… now you do and now you can. I will also point out that every movie I’ve talked about so far is streamable (and I think something like 12 of the 15 are). So it’s not like I’m making you have to go out and find stuff. It’s all pretty findable.
5. The Gentlemen
This came out a year ago by now. You forget that. We don’t really go to the movies in January, plus COVID hit and this got forgotten about pretty quickly, even by people who were gonna wait for VOD for this. I think it finally came out right as lockdown was in full swing, and I’m sure if you had plans to see this you likely forgot about it and never did. And that’s why this is here. This is Guy Ritchie making original material. No King Arthur, no Aladdin, no Man from U.N.C.L.E., no Sherlock Holmes. And even though I like two of those movies, chances are you see at least half that list as unnecessary, especially when you consider that Ritchie has stuff like Snatch, Lock Stock, and RockNRolla in his filmography. Dude makes cool, fun movies, and they’re often much better when they’re from original ideas. So I think everyone should see this not only because it’s awesome, not only because it’s got Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant doing an 80s Michael Caine impersonation and a bunch of other people you know and recognize who I’m blanking on because I’m just doing this off the top of my head without stopping to look things up (which is why you come to me. For that off-the-cuff, ‘I clearly have not bothered to edit this’ feeling). But yeah. Lot of cool people, solid movie, and just support Guy Ritchie making original films, or else you’re gonna see him do studio shit that’s beneath him again. (This is on Hulu, by the way. So again, also watchable.)
6. The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone
The film on this list that I’m most passionate about. Francis Ford Coppola’s done this three times now. First he made a ‘Final Cut’ of Apocalypse Now, which basically bridged the gap between the theatrical release and Redux (since Redux threw in all the extra scenes he had — some of which didn’t necessarily need to be there, like the extended Playmate stuff). It kept some of it, tossed some of it and remastered the sound mix (which, I saw it in IMAX and holy shit. Still the greatest sound mix ever put to screen). But it was fantastic. And then he put out a Directors Cut of The Cotton Club, which also took a good movie and made it better. Now this one is probably the most substantial of all his recuts. Because Godfather III is a bit of a notorious film. Everyone just reflexively shits on it for being terrible because it’s not the first two. And because it’s not the first two, that automatically means it sucks and everyone has to pile on.
But the dirty secret about that third movie was always that it was still really good. It wasn’t the first two, but it wasn’t meant to be. And now that Coppola’s done all this press for this recut, all the reasons for it being what it was have now come out (namely — they wanted to wait a year to finish the edit but the studio forced it to come out because they had a date. And Coppola originally wanted to call it The Death of Michael Corleone, but the studio (which had fought against him calling Godfather Part II a part 2) forced him to call it Part III). Not that context matters, since it’s the film that has to succeed or fail on its own terms. But now you’re getting the version that Coppola would rather you see. And honestly I think it’s the best version of this movie that it can be. Because it presents the film the way Coppola wanted it to be seen. And it reminds you — it was always good, and now it fixes a couple of things that probably needed to be fixed (slash would have if they had more time to finish cutting it). There’s more of a driving narrative here, and it explains why all of this is happening, and firmly places this as an epilogue to Godfathers I and II as opposed to a third film. Because it’s about a man who basically committed the ultimate evil act at the end of the second movie when he had his brother killed. And so now, he’s done the ultimate evil and now trying to wash his soul by using the church — which of course turns out to be dirtier than the mafia altogether, which is a great premise for the story. But if you fundamentally look at this as the final act in this man’s life, it changes how you see the film. And I know people haven’t properly watched III when it came out, so that makes this automatically one of the more Underseen films of the year and something people should see. Because it’ll never convince you that it’s as good as I and II, but it will show you that this movie was always a good one and that once you take off the weight of expectations, this is a perfectly great film.
7. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman films never find their audiences at the right time. Maybe Eternal Sunshine, but even that needed a two-year build-up time for everyone to buy the DVD and get it off Netflix. Nobody saw Synecdoche, New York and less than nobody saw Anomalisa. The man is a brilliant filmmaker, and while I know I’m preaching to the choir (the choir being — a lot of people who will read this), but I need anyone out there who still hasn’t watched anything Kaufman has done since Eternal Sunshine to know he’s still out here making great things (and he wrote a book this year, which I will also shout out. It’s called Antkind, and it’s basically what you think it’s going to be — his films just on the page). This is already on Netflix, so that makes it so much easier to get to. It’s brilliant, like all his films are, and I need those of you who haven’t seen this to go out and see it (*insert Bernie ‘I am once again asking you’ meme*).
8. I’m Your Woman
This is on Amazon. I hate that this has to be said for all of these now, but I feel like we’ve reached a place at society that I can recommend a hundred good movies to people, but they’re still gonna think, “That’s too difficult,” and watch their same old crappy reality TV or just-as-bad Network one hour dramas and not see all the great movies that are out because they feel like they require effort. That’s honestly the sense I get from people. The amount of cool shit I recommend to people, maybe 10% of it ever gets watched. At least now I can be like, “This is literally right there,” and then maybe the percentage will go up slightly. Anyway, this is a pretty brilliant revisionist crime film that takes the usual ‘criminals on a job that goes bad suddenly need to get out of town’ narrative and turns it on its head and approaches it from the perspective you’ve never seen — the woman’s. There’s always that scene where the guy frantically comes home, packing up hidden money and clothes and a gun and telling his wife, “Take the baby and leave town. I’ll find you.” But you never see what happens to her. Well, that’s what this movie is. And it’s pretty brilliant. It’s a great deconstruction of a genre and it looks incredible. They really nail the 70s milieu in all the right ways (and on a budget too, I’m assuming. Not micro, but also nowhere near most movies get) and it’s one of those movies that I know is never gonna get the right audience because people are gonna go in expecting one thing and getting something else. But, if you saw Fast Color last year, you know that Julia Hart is a good director, so just go on that instinct and see this.
9. Let Them All Talk
It’s Steven Soderbergh, and he is perennially an underseen filmmaker. You see the big stuff, but rarely do people get around to the smaller ones at the right time. I’m not sure even now that people have seen Side Effects, and that’s less than ten years old. Logan Lucky too. Unsane? Hugely underrated movies. Last year he had two movies come out, both on Netflix (High Flying Bird and The Laundromat). Did people really go see them? Not like they should have. So I’m just gonna keep pounding the table for people to see his movies unless it’s something like Ocean’s or whatever where it’s clear everyone’s seen it. Because he is an essential filmmaker. And everything he makes is interesting. Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater. Those are my big three. They will almost always appear on this list because they deserve your time. You may not always love the movie (and I’m ambivalent-to-positive on this one), but they are never not worth the effort. (P.S. This is on HBO, so it’s viewable.)
10. Promising Young Woman
There is no upper limit to how many people need to see this movie before it stops being considered underseen. And especially in a year like this, I have no real sense of the waves a movie like this is making, especially since they did put it out in theaters (but no one’s going to theaters) and only put it out on VOD recently. So at this point, I don’t know who has or hasn’t seen it or who knows about it and is planning to, but let me just say — see this movie. It’s incredible. It’s wonderful. I don’t even care if this ends up getting a fuck ton of awards nominations. Go see it. It’s underseen. Everyone should see this. And if you’re gonna say, “I haven’t had the chance to yet,” then good for you. I’m trying to get the other people.
11. Small Axe
This might be the greatest single achievement in film in 2020. This series of films is stunning. And I think, because they came out in November/December, and because it’s on Amazon and is a miniseries but all of them are films, I think a lot of people either didn’t know, didn’t pay attention or just weren’t sure about seeing these. But let me tell you — you can do no better for anything than seeing this. And Steve McQueen is also one of those people whose stuff is always underseen. You know how I know that? Widows. That movie was brilliant, and nobody watched it or just dismissed it because it wasn’t as ‘important’ enough as 12 Years a Slave. But you know what? With those two, Hunger and Shame, McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker whose stuff you see sight unseen. You trust him instinctively because you know he’s gonna give you the goods. And man, does he gives you the goods here. These five films are incredible. Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education. All of them. Amazing. And about the same length of time as a miniseries. You watched fucking Tiger King, you can watch these. Until I can be sure that this got the same amount of people who saw it as Avengers, I will consider this as underseen.
12. Sound of Metal
Another Amazon one. It’s one of the best films of the year, and maybe it’ll get awards attention, maybe not (too early to think about that stuff). But just in case it doesn’t, don’t let this one slip into the ether to be forgotten. Riz Ahmed gives a career-best performance and Olivia Cooke (when she’s on-screen, since she does disappear for a large chunk of the film) matches him every step of the way. It is a really incredible piece of work. And if this gets a bunch of Oscar nominations, then at least it will have those to maintain an audience. But if it does not — and I’ve seen this happen to a lot of great films — people will forget about it. Maybe it’ll get an audience, maybe it won’t. And I need to cover all the bases. Because this is a wonderful movie.
13. What the Constitution Means to Me
Another filmed stage show, this one the most appropriate for the year in which it came out. This is a show that — admittedly I don’t really follow this stuff — I didn’t know about. And I’d wager that means a lot of people didn’t know about this. And so now it’s on Amazon for you to see. Here’s the premise: Heidi Schreck wrote this one-woman show (though there are three people in the show, two of whom are on stage throughout and a third who shows up in the third act) based around her experiences as a child Constitutional debater. Got that? She would go around as a child and enter contests where she would display her knowledge of the Constitution (by reciting it and explaining what it all means and interpreting it for real-life situations). And it’s just this brilliant show. Smart, funny, poignant, and it has something to say. It will illuminate a lot of things that maybe you didn’t quite know or fully understand about this country and the way things are now, and it’ll do it in a way that won’t feel like it’s hitting you over the head with ‘facts’ and ‘importance’ and all the stuff that I feel turns people off about news stories and documentaries. That’s why I think this is so important. And why I think every single person in this country should watch this. Because not only is it entertaining, but it really is one of those things everyone should think about.
Apple TV+, by the way. This is a movie from the director of Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea — both also underseen films — which are two of the most stunning pieces of animation this century (2000-present. And also ever, if we’re being honest), especially if you remove Disney, Pixar, Laika and Ghibli from the equation. Those studios are known for (usually) exemplary work and for being a cut above the usual bullshit American studio animated fare. Taking those studios out of the equation, I’m pretty sure if you were to list the top 20 animated films since 2000, both those films would be in there. As would this one. It’s a stunning piece of work, and might be Tomm Moore’s best. It’s so beautiful, and is what animation should be, a medium and not a genre. He’s telling his story using animation, and not just assuming, “This should be colorful and dumb for kids,” like most animated films do. I know not enough people will see this, therefore it is, and will perpetually be, underseen.
15. Words on Bathroom Walls
I didn’t love this, but I do think it’s worth calling it Underseen because this does the high school coming of age movie differently than I’ve ever seen it done. Because it’s about a paranoid schizophrenic. So the kid, at best, comes out at the end able to function and maybe slightly less suicidal and happier than he was. And I liked that. They’re trying to get into more… what’s the word… ‘modern’ territory, I guess, by dealing with stuff like race and mental health issues. Sometimes, it works out great. The Hate U Give was fantastic. Sometimes, it’s All the Bright Places (not so good). This one, I respected. Because it really gets into the whole — he sees imaginary people who fuck with his head — thing. I liked how they went about this and think it’s worth a watch. Not gonna change your life (probably, unless you’re like, 16 or something), but I thought this did the genre in a different and more interesting way than I’m used to seeing it (and at this point, with Netflix, I’ve seen it about a hundred different ways the past couple of years).
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