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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Ten Best Movies Hardly Anyone Saw in 2020

From topical dramas and animated delights to rousing flicks about the 90s electronic music scene and out-there sci-fi horror movies.
By Sarah Ward
December 08, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
December 08, 2020
  shares

First, the obvious fact: everyone watched plenty of films over the past year. We all ploughed through our streaming queues, checking out everything and anything that each and every platform served up — and we did it for the bulk of 2020. What we didn't do, however, is spend as much time watching big-screen blockbusters. Cinema closures and postponed release dates will do that. Accordingly, unless Tenet whips up a huge box office windfall across the rest of December or Wonder Woman 1984 does hefty business when it releases at the end of the month, 2020's top movie moneymakers worldwide will end up being Chinese action epic The Eight Hundred and, from way back in January, the abysmal Bad Boys for Life.

In one rare pleasant side effect of 2020, the lack of supersized Hollywood flicks has meant that a plethora of smaller movies have reached audiences since cinemas reopened Down Under. Some of them might've hit the silver screen anyway, but some wouldn't have — and there are gems in both categories. Alas, even with more on-screen real estate available for these type of films, they didn't all draw crowds. There are many reasons for that, because this hasn't been an ordinary year. But if you're wondering which absolute must-sees you didn't catch in 2020 but should've — including titles released both before and after the pandemic changed this year forever — we've run through the ten best flicks that didn't set the box office alight, but you should add to your catch-up viewing list.

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QUEEN & SLIM

No one knows how a Tinder meetup will eventuate, but the events that unfurl in Queen & Slim don't fit into anyone's idea of a dream date. One of the points of this crime drama — which also doubles as a romance and a road movie — is that, for Black Americans, being hassled by the police for no reason isn't an unlikely outcome of a simple night out. After an unnamed criminal defence attorney (Jodie Turner-Smith, Jett) and a Costco employee (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) chart the above path, they're forced to go on the run across the US, with law enforcement on their trails. The debut feature from music video director Melina Matsoukas (a Grammy-winner for her work on Rihanna's 'We Found Love' and Beyonce's 'Formation'), Queen & Slim knows that it's leads will always evoke comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the script by Master of None star Lena Waithe namechecks the figures in its dialogue. But as its titular characters' lives change drastically, this potent film combines a powerful message, dynamic performances and intoxicating imagery into one supremely stylish, textured and outrage-filled package. It'd be nice to say that Queen and Slim's world changes, too; however, they've always been forced to inhabit a space where their very existence was precarious due to racism, prejudice and police brutality, as every second of this haunting movie stresses.

Read our full review.

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MONOS

Set in a camp of teen guerrillas, Alejandro Landes' Sundance's Special Jury Award-winning third film Monos follows gun-toting rebels that have barely said goodbye to childhood, but are still tasked by their unseen leaders with holding an American woman (The Outsider's Julianne Nicholson) hostage. Unsurprisingly, even with nothing around but fields, jungle, a cow to milk and occasional enemy fire, little goes according to plan. The relentlessness of modern life, the ongoing unrest in Colombia, and the ceaseless trials and tribulations that plague all teens facing adulthood — they all sit at the centre of this stunning South America-set thriller. Echoes of William Golding's Lord of the Flies are evident (and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the book that inspired Apocalypse Now, too), but Monos firmly tells its own story. Engagingly lingering between a dark fairytale and a psychological treatise on war, combat and humanity's dog-eat-dog nature, the result is one of the definite standouts of recent years (of 2019, when it premiered overseas and did the rounds of the local festival circuit, and of 2020, when it finally released in Aussie cinemas). That status is assured thanks to everything from the eye-popping landscape cinematography to the needling tension of Mica Levi's (Under the Skin) score and the commanding performances from the young cast.

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IN FABRIC

Anyone can make a movie about a haunted house, as many a filmmaker has shown. Peter Strickland could, too — but a feature about an eerie piece of clothing is far more intriguing, fascinating and entertaining. Viewers should expect nothing less from one of cinema's inimitable auteurs, of course, with the lauded British writer/director not only conjuring up narratives that no other helmer ever would or could, but also consistently bringing them to the screen with a distinctive sense of style and mood. It was true of his last two festival circuit hits, Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy. That observation remains just as accurate with In Fabric, aka his haunted dress flick. In London clothing store Dentley & Sopers, bank teller Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Fatman) finds the perfect red dress for her first blind date. It both fits and looks a dream; however, despite her initial delight, she discovers that the fabulous frock has quite the dark side. Fashion items can live many lives, so that's just the start of In Fabric's story — and, also starring Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie, I, Daniel Blake's Hayley Squires and The Mighty Boosh's Julian Barratt, this sartorial-focused horror-comedy is a lurid, imaginative and mesmerising gem. It's also the kind of movie you haven't seen before, and won't again.

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THE WOMAN WHO RAN

Combine alcohol, conversation and a scene-stealing cat in one equally melancholy and charming movie, and not only is South Korean great Hong Sang-soo firmly in his element, but he delivers exactly the type of film that has won him a legion of fans. Given how prolific the director is, it'd be easy to assume that he'll soon run out of ways to combine his usual trademarks. Or, to expect that he'll eventually exhaust all of his ideas. But Hong's features never stop finding new ways to twist his favourite touches, themes and inclusions together (see also: Hill of Freedom, Right Now, Wrong Then and Yourself and Yours). In The Woman Who Ran, booze flows freely. Drinking plenty of it is Gamhee, as played by Hong regular Kim Min-hee (On the Beach at Night Alone). She's enjoying her first time away from her husband in five years, visiting friends around Seoul while he's off on a business trip. In Hong's typical fashion, much of The Woman Who Ran unfurls as the characters simply chat — about their lives, hopes, dreams, problems and, with a pesky neighbour in the movie's funniest moment, about feeding stray felines. His penchant for long takes, playful repetition and expertly timed crash-zooms are all used to winning effect, in a movie that slots perfectly into his busy oeuvre and yet always feels uniquely insightful. Also, and it cannot be stressed enough, look out for one helluva kitty.

Read our full review.

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BEATS

Beats knows how to start with a bang, letting the sounds of Ultra-Sonic's 'Annihilating Rhythm Part 1' echo from the screen in its opening moments. It's a savvy move — if viewers are going to understand just what electronic music means to the film's protagonists, early 90s-era Scottish teenagers Johnno (Cristian Ortega, One of Us) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald, Shetland), then they need to not only see and hear it, but feel it deep in their souls. The delight on the duo's faces as they listen to the song down the phone to each other says more than swathes of dialogue ever could. Whether you're a fan of the same kind of tunes or not, you'll instantly be brought into the moment and the elation with them. And, from there, you'll ride every up and down this black-and-white film delivers, as the stage-to-screen adaptation from filmmaker Brian Welsh (The Rat Pack) peers into the broader scene just as the UK government was passing legislation to effectively ban raves. Johnno and Spanner are desperate to attend the very events the powers-that-be are trying to stamp out and, when they get their chance to head to what might be their first and last dance music festival, they go for it. Featuring a thumping soundtrack of old-school tracks, Beats serves up an insightful exuberant coming-of-age film from there, as well as a as a thoughtful and reflective social-realist drama.

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SHIRLEY

Elisabeth Moss has had a great year. While the  Mad Men and The Handmaid's Tale star has enjoyed a fantastic past decade, she turned in two of her best performances yet in 2020. First came The Invisible Man, which twisted the classic horror tale in modern directions, including exploring gaslighting and the lack of willingness to believe women. Then, in Shirley, she stepped into the shoes of horror and mystery novelist Shirley Jackson. This is a movie by Madeline's Madeline director Josephine Decker, though, so it as never going to be a standard biopic about the The Haunting of Hill House author. Indeed, Shirley is drawn from a fictional novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, focusing on Jackson's home life with her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name) during a 1964 period when teaching aide Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman, Hunters) and his wife Rose (Australian The Daughter star Odessa Young) come to stay. An agoraphobic, Jackson's routine is unsettled by her new houseguests, although an unexpected connection springs with unlikely kindred spirit Rose. In telling this story, Decker is far more interested in capturing the essence of Jackson and her sensibilities than slavishly sticking to facts, and her film all the better for it. Indeed, this subjective and engaging character study is daring, disarming, dark and, unsurprisingly, anchored by a pitch-perfect lead performance.

Read our full review.

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RIDE YOUR WAVE

When 19-year-old surfer Hinako (voiced by former Japanese pop idol Rina Kawaei) frolics around a seaside spot with her boyfriend Minato (fellow local pop star Ryota Katayose), it's a scene that's familiar from many a film. In the picturesque Japanese city of Chiba, the pair chat, laugh, stroll and see the sights, as plenty of couples have in similar situations. Actually, this duo does so twice. The first time plays out exactly as expected but, occurring well into Ride Your Wave, the lovestruck duo's repeat romantic rendezvous has a twist. In the kind of image that can only really be brought to the screen via animation, Hinako isn't spending time with Minato in the flesh the second time around — instead, she's dragging around an inflatable porpoise filled with water that, when she hums the pair's favourite song, manifests her boyfriend's spirit from beyond the grave. While Ride Your Wave hails from a different filmmaker to big Japanese hits Your Name and Weathering with You, this Masaaki Yuasa-directed film falls in the same heartfelt, gorgeously animated, emotionally sweeping realm. It clearly  also has an element of the supernatural to it, focuses on a star-cross'd romance, and delves into love and loss as well. Sweet, charming, sensitive and a joy to look at, it's especially thoughtful when it ruminates on the latter, tackling tough emotional terrain with unflinching, heart-swelling honesty

Read our full review.

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HONEY BOY

Following a child star's journey both as a 12-year-old actor (The Undoing's Noah Jupe) in a hit TV show and as a young man (Waves' Lucas Hedges) grappling with his time the industry, Honey Boy boils down easily to a one-sentence description — but this isn't an easy or straightforward film. Just what its protagonist Otis experiences at both ages, and how his youthful time with his ex-rodeo clown and Vietnam veteran dad James Lort (Shia LaBeouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon) leaves an imprint, proves complex, messy and resonant in this intimate feature. It feels personal, too, because it should. LaBeouf isn't just playing any father figure. He's stepping into the shoes of a version of his own dad. And, he's starring a movie that he wrote, that's based on his own journey from Even Stevens to Transformers and beyond. Brought to the screen by first-time feature director Alma Har'el, Honey Boy is raw, reflective and expressive as it wanders through LeBeouf's heart and soul, and it's an intense but rewarding work from everyone involved. This isn't an idealised, nostalgic look backwards, or a work of unfettered anger. Honey Boy, like LaBeouf himself, pinballs between multiple extremes. It should come as no surprise that this frank and sincere movie was penned while LaBeouf was in rehab himself — where Otis heads as well — and that it always feels like he's confronting issues he knows will never completely be resolved.

Read our full review.

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LUCKY GRANDMA

Lucky Grandma might be the second American-produced film about a Chinese grandmother in as many years, but no one should mistake Sasie Sealy's feature debut for The Farewell. Both offer up something special, and their similarities are truly only superficial. Here, the titular elderly woman (Tsai Chin, Now You See Me 2) is first seen chain-smoking and glaring her way through a fortune teller's appointment. When Grandma Wong is told that luck is coming her way on a specific day, she's quickly on the bus to Atlantic City. And when she spies a hefty stash of cash in the bag belonging to the gentleman sitting next to her on the return ride home, she barely hesitates. This string of events comes with consequences, however, with local Red Dragon  gangsters soon following her every move. To cope, the feisty senior enlists the help of their rivals, and pays the towering Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) to stick by her side as her bodyguard. Chin, who has featured in everything from You Only Live Twice to The Joy Luck Club, is such a gruff, no-nonsense treasure to watch in Lucky Grandma — and Sealy smartly lets audiences peer her way closely and regularly. Sometimes, Lucky Grandma is a drama about a widowed woman trying to make the most of what's left of her life. Sometimes, it's a crime caper that's hopping around Chinatown with glee. In Sealy's hands, that combination always works.

Read our full review.

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COLOR OUT OF SPACE

If you're going to task anyone on this earth with finding a blazing rock that has plummeted from the heavens and crashed down at a remote New England property — and in a big-screen adaptation of a short story by horror and sci-fi writer HP Lovecraft at that — you may as well give the job to Nicolas Cage. If you're going to ask any actor to run an alpaca farm and profess their love for the animals, too, you also know that he's just perfect. Thanks to its story about the fallout from said meteor, which turns the sky an otherworldly shade, unleashes both radiation and shape-shifting aliens, and sparks quite the wave of strange events, a film version of Color Out of Space would always garner interest. Cage has made some out-there and seemingly intentionally terrible movies in his career, especially over the past two decades, but this weird and wonderful effort doesn't fall into that category. It's bettered by his presence, because no one does unhinged and manic quite like the Vampire's Kiss, Face/Off and Mandy actor; however, filmmaker Richard Stanley (The Island of Doctor Moreau) turns this wild tale into an off-kilter, hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic, vibrantly pink and purple-hued spectacle. It occasionally lets it get a little too lost in its own delirium and can threaten to become a bit weighed down, but letting Color Out of Space's gleefully bonkers sights, sounds and story developments wash over you is all part of the experience.

Read our full review.

Published on December 08, 2020 by Sarah Ward

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