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Best Movies You Missed in 2020

Hope Madden Hope Madden Best Movies You Missed in 2020
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By Hope Madden and George Wolf

Let’s be honest, no one saw much of anything movie-wise this year. The highest-grossing cinematic releases made so little they would have been considered catastrophic bombs in any other year, and streaming numbers confirmed that we were having a hard time zeroing in on new releases.

Still, there were some exceptional films that simply disappeared without even a hello. These are movies that broke new ground, broke our hearts, explored new genre hybrids, reimagined familiar tales, startled our senses, and otherwise just impressed the hell out of us. We really want to introduce you to these guys, which we list in alphabetical order because they deserve equal attention (and we argued too much about the ranking).

Black Bear

Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

As slippery as it is inviting, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is an intoxicating trip through the inspirations and indulgences that take root in creative minds. It feels intensely personal, and yet – once Levine delivers his midstream shape shift – malleable enough to bend to myriad perspectives and interpretations. Black Bear isn’t a comedy – except when it’s funny. It’s also dramatic and slightly horrific, depending on your viewpoint.

Most of all, it’s emotional, propelled by career high performances from Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, and Aubrey Plaza. The glee each performer takes in upending character expectations is evident, with Plaza seamlessly moving from a cool, casual customer to the emotionally frayed flashpoint of a volatile triangle.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

Similar to the hybrid reality it creates, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an oddly compelling cocktail. It’s like a foul odor you step back from quickly, then find perversely comforting once you’ve had time to soak in it.

Sitting unceremoniously at the edge of Las Vegas, the bar The Roaring Twenties is down to its final day. Directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross drop us off before noon, when grizzled regular Michael (Michael Martin, perfect) is cleaning up in the bathroom and daytime bartender Mark is hanging up some cheap decorations for the farewell party.

As drinks are poured, ashtrays are emptied and daytime TV gives way to nighttime jukebox singalongs, we get to know the parade of souls that have come to call this dive bar home.

What The Florida Project was to Disney World, Bloody Nose is to Lost Wages, eschewing tourist playgrounds for the world-weariness of an existence in exile, and of outsiders no longer bothering to look in.

Capone

Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

You’ve seen Capone on film: films about him, films containing him, films about gangsters reminiscent of him. A lot of these movies have been great – some of them classic. But you have never seen Alphonse Capone the way writer/director Josh Trank sees him.

The film focuses on the final year of the infamous mobster’s life—the adult diapers and dementia year. Tom Hardy finds the faulty humanity in this character. His depiction of Capone’s confusion is unerringly human, and in his hands Trank’s macabre humor never feels like mockery.

Trank’s loose narrative is less concerned with the scheming, criss-crossing and backstabbing from underlings trying to find the money than it is with Capone’s deterioration, and that’s what makes this film so gloriously odd. No doubt some viewers will be disappointed—those who tuned in to see Hardy play a badass at the top of his game. My guess is the reason one of the finest actors working today was drawn to Capone was the opportunity to do something just this unexpected.

The Devil to Pay

Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.” – 2010 census worker.

Welcome to The Devil to PayLane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed.

One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, The Devil to Pay peoples those hills with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Danielle Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating her character’s low-key tenacity is a thing of beauty.

The Devil to Pay remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, the film shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.

Dirty God

Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

There is an unerring authenticity about the slice of life that is Dirty God. Co-writer/director Sacha Polak sugar coats nothing, wallows nowhere, and dares you to judge Jade (a breathtaking Vicky Knight), regardless of her behavior.

The approach is provocative because Jade’s torment is almost inconceivable. Few of us could honestly imagine it. Polak doesn’t soft pedal, and she doesn’t let the viewer off the hook with a pitiable or noble character.

Dirty God—a film about self-image and the unfair reality of limitations—makes other “coming of age” style films feel like soft drink ads.

Faith Ba$ed

Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

Luke and Tanner are big movie fans, and when they discover just how profitable the faith-based market is, a plan emerges. If they can make their own “Jesus” film and sell it to ChristFlix pictures, there should be more than enough profit to stuff their pockets and help out the local Elevate Church where Luke’s father (Lance Reddick) is the pastor.

Director Vincent Masciale, helming his second feature, brings an irresistibly absurdist vibe to the shenanigans that practically begs you not to overthink any of it. Good-natured fun is certainly had at the expense of the faith-based industry. But the delightful surprise is what else Luke Barnett’s script gives us: a church community that is welcoming to all, one where people missing something in their lives can and do find real fulfillment.

And the film gives us plenty of laughs, memorable quotes and overall nuttiness at a time when we could use it.

Get Duked!

Available on Amazon Prime.

What does one homeschooled teen and three high school ne’er do wells in trouble for blowing up a lavatory have in common? Impending doom.

The four boys are making the Duke of Edinburgh Award trek across the Scottish Highlands. Dean (Rian Gordon), his daft mate Duncan (Lewis Gribben), and the future of hip-hop DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja) have no choice after that lav incident, while Ian (Samuel Bottomley) just earnestly wants to complete the challenge and include the award on his college applications.

But it’s a long hike and a lot could go wrong, especially now that Dean’s used the map to roll a joint. Will Ian ever be able to check off the requirements of teamwork, foraging and orienteering?

The horror is light, the comedy raucous, the fun explosive. Writer/director Ninian Doff’s Get Duked! may not change you, but it will brighten your mood.

I Used to Go Here

Available on HBO Max, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime and Hulu.

Thirtysomething Kate (Community‘s Gillian Jacobs, fantastic) is bumming over a breakup and the cancellation of the promo tour for her very first book. A phone call from her old professor David (Jemaine Clement) perks Kate right up.

Would she come back to Illinois U. as a “Distinguished Alumni” and do a reading from her novel? She would.

Even at its nuttiest, I Used to Go Here is a deceptively smart look at the complexities of accepting adulthood. It’s Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young with a lighter touch, a film that might make the “your future starts now” message on the back on Kate’s t-shirt ring true for both filmmaker and star.

The Nest

Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime.

If you saw the quietly unnerving Martha Marcy May Marlene nine years ago and have had the name Sean Durkin filed away since then, you’re not alone. Good news for all of us then, as Durkin finally returns as writer and director with The Nest, another precisely crafted examination of family dynamics.

This time, though, it’s a nuclear family led by a strong Jude Law and a remarkable Carrie Coon, one that’s slowly imploding before our eyes.

Though it lacks the sinister edge of MMMM, Durkin’s storytelling here still carries a chill, assembling precise details with a subtlety that often betrays a focused narrative. With a microscope trained on the rot of wealth and the minutiae of finding a work/life balance, Durkin gives his stellar leads plenty of room to dig indelible, often heartbreaking layers.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always 

Available on HBO Max, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime and Hulu.

With her 2013 debut It Felt Like Love, Eliza Hittman brought a refreshing honesty to the teen drama. At its core, Never Rarely Sometimes Always could be seen as Hittman’s kindred sequel to her first feature, as two friends (Talia Ryder and a stunning Sidney Flanagan) navigate a cold, sometimes cruel world that lies just beyond the hopeful romanticism of first love.

NRSA shows Hittman in full command of her blunt truth-telling, demanding we accept this reality of women fighting to control their own bodies amid constant waves of marginalization.

Just three films in, Hittman has established herself as a filmmaker of few words, intimate details and searing perspective. NRSW is a sensitive portrayal of female friendship and courage, equal parts understated and confrontational as it speaks truths that remain commonly ignored.

The Other Lamb

Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime and Hulu.

The first step toward freedom is telling your own story.

Writer C.S. McMullen and director Malgorzata Szumowska tell this one really well. Between McMullen’s outrage and the macabre lyricism of Szumowska’s camera, The Other Lamb offers a dark, angry and satisfying coming-of-age tale.

Selah’s (Raffey Cassity) first period and her commune’s migration to a new and more isolated Eden offer the tale some structure. Like many a horror film, The Other Lamb occupies itself with burgeoning womanhood, the end of innocence. Unlike most others in the genre, Szumowska’s film depicts this as a time of finding your own power.

The Other Lamb does not simply suggest you question authority. It demands that you do far more than that, and do it for your own good.

The Painted Bird

Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Hulu.

If you paint the wings of a sparrow (or stitch a star to his jacket) the rest of the flock will no longer recognize him. The other birds will swarm and peck him until he plummets back to the earth. This is just one of the horrific lessons a young boy learns as he desperately searches for anywhere or anyone safe in war-torn Eastern Europe.

What follows is a brutal parade of the worst humanity has to offer. Domestic abuse, graphic violence, multiple instances of animal abuse and death, rape, child abuse and rape, and more. Then the war crimes start around hour three.

The Painted Bird is a test of endurance. It’s also a beautifully shot, well performed, and incredibly moving piece of cinema. You simply have to be willing to go where it wants to take you. And all of those places are dark and darker.

*Originally reviewed by Cat McAlpine

Senior Love Triangle

Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime.

Co-writer/director Kelly Blatz creates a minor cinematic miracle with his feature debut, Senior Love Triangle.

Inspired by co-writer Isadora Kosofsky’s remarkable longterm photo essay of the same name, the film delivers a candid look into the intimate relationship among three elderly characters: William (Tom Bower), Adina (Anne Gee Byrd) and Jeanie (Marlyn Mason).

The film is equal parts charming, frustrating and heartbreaking. More importantly, it takes its characters seriously. In an era where veteran actors entertain us via “those crazy old people!” vehicles, Senior Love Triangle feels gloriously anarchic. The magic of Blatz’s film is that it offers a character study of the sort we simply never see.

Shadow of Violence (Calm with Horses)

Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime.

Nick Rowland’s crime drama follows Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis). Once a promising Irish boxing champion, Arm left the gloves behind for the reliable income and familiar treatment offered by the Devers crime family. As their chief enforcer, Arm is feared, which often hampers his relationship with his ex Ursula (Naimh Algar) and their autistic son Jack.

The delicate co-existence of Arm’s two worlds is a constant struggle, but when family patriarch Paudi Devers (Ned Dennehy) finally orders Arm to kill, it becomes clear there is room for only one set of loyalties.

She Dies Tomorrow

Available on YouTube, Hulu, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime.

With She Dies Tomorrow, writer/director Amy Seimetz (creator of The Girlfriend Experience) is simply braiding together themes that have quietly influenced SciFi horror hybrids of late. What she does with these themes is pretty remarkable.

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) believes she is going to die tomorrow. She knows it. She’s sure.

She calls her friend Jane (the always amazing Jane Adams), who senses that Amy is not OK but has this obligation to go to her sister-in-law’s party…whatever, she’ll stop over on her way. By the time Jane gets to the party, she’s also quite certain she will die tomorrow. It isn’t long before the partygoers sense their own imminent deaths; meanwhile, Amy is spreading her perception contagion elsewhere.

A remarkable film unfurls from this simple but powerful idea.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Available on YouTube, Vudu and Amazon Prime.

Planting its flag unapologetically at the corner of accuracy and myth, The True History of the Kelly Gang reintroduces a legendary 1870s folk hero through consistently bold and compelling strokes.

Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant – the duo behind the true crime shocker The Snowtown Murders nine years ago – go bigger this time, trading spare intimacy for a tableau of grand visual and narrative ideas.

With a direct nod to the moment when “the myth is more profitable than the man,” Kurzel spins an irresistible yarn that manages to balance the worship of its hero (George MacKay) with some condemnation for his sins. And as the road to Kelly’s guns-blazing capture unfurls, the film incorporates elements of both a tense crime thriller and a Nightingale-esqe reminder of savage colonialism.

The Vast of Night

Available on Amazon Prime.

Opening with vintage Rod Serling welcoming us to “Paradox Theatre,” director Andrew Patterson unveils an incredibly polished debut, one that’s full of meticulous craftsmanship, effective pacing and wonderfully engaging storytelling.

Peterson’s commitment to production and sound design results in a totally immersive experience. The period details – from costumes to recording equipment – are more than just historically correct. Paired with the rapid-fire, comfortably lived-in dialog from screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, they create a throwback setting that charms without the tell of undue effort.

Peterson also flexes confidently behind the camera, moving from extended tracks to slow pans to quiet stills, all in service of the film’s wondrous tone. With Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz leading a stellar ensemble, what could have been a generic sci-fi time filler becomes a smart parable with an eerie grip.

Werewolf (Wilkolak)

Available on Amazon Prime.

Liberation isn’t always the good time it’s cracked up to be. In his strangely hopeful tale Werewolf, writer/director Adrian Panek offers a different image of social rebuilding.

Werewolf is beautifully shot, inside the crumbling castle, out in the woods, even in the early, jarring nonchalance of the concentration camp’s brutality. Panek hints at supernatural elements afoot, but the magic in his film is less metaphorical than that. 

The film is creepy and tense. It speaks of the unspeakable – the level of evil that can only really be understood through images of Nazi horror—but it sees a path back to something unspoiled.

Why Don’t You Just Die!

Available on YouTube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.

Given that 75% of writer/director Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die! takes place in a single apartment—one room of that apartment, really—you might be surprised to learn that it’s an action film.

It’s pretty heavy on the action, actually, amplified by inspired framing, kinetic cinematography, sometimes hilarious but always eye-popping choreography, and blood.

Just a shit ton of blood.

This movie is a hoot!

With a sparse script, visual wonder and energy to burn, Why Don’t You Just Die! promises to snatch your attention like a duffle bag of cash and hang on until exactly enough blood is spilled.

That’s a lot.

Yes, God, Yes

Available on Netflix, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime.

Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) is Alice, a Catholic high school junior who has done absolutely nothing (regardless of one persistent rumor), but still thinks she may be a budding pervert hurtling toward eternal damnation.

It seems a lot of people may harbor that same suspicion of Alice.

Dyer is wonderfully expressive, especially in her most quiet moments. Her understated comedic energy belies a gawky sweetness that makes Alice easy to root for. Writer/director Karen Maine takes full advantage with a raunchy sex comedy that manages never to lose its sweet disposition.

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