The Most Overlooked Movies of 2020: A Controversial Portrait of a Killer to Nicolas Cage Unleashed
Despite cinema closures and many delays, there were many excellent films released this year. Here are some you probably missed—but really shouldn’t.
INTO THE DEEP
This one’s complicated. Aussie director Emma Sullivan was embedded with Danish inventor Peter Madsen and his crew of volunteers for a number of months, making a short film about his DIY creations when, in August of 2017, he invited journalist Kim Wall onto his homemade submarine under the guise of an interview—and brutally murdered her. Sullivan’s Into the Deep chillingly captures Madsen’s descent into madness, as well as the fallout among his team of mostly young, female admirers following his heinous crime. It is the most haunting, terrifying documentary I’ve ever seen. Following its Sundance premiere, however, two of the film’s subjects disavowed it, alleging that they’d never formally agreed to appear in it, causing Netflix—which had acquired it prior to the festival—to distance themselves from the project. It’s still unclear if it will ever see the light of day.
Aubrey Plaza deserves her flowers. In the otherwise hollow Happiest Season, her chemistry with Kristen Stewart was so dynamic it threw the entire film off its axis, and had the whole damn internet wishing they’d ride off into the sunset. But Black Bear sees Plaza stretch herself like never before, portraying both the scheming interloper and the gaslit target in Lawrence Michael Levine’s meditation on directorial control and duplicity. To see her toggle effortlessly between the two extremes, chaos agent and unraveling victim, is to watch an actress at the height of her powers. Plaza deserves to be squarely in the middle of the Best Actress conversation. Black Bear is available to rent on Prime Video.
COLOR OUT OF SPACE
These days, it’s hard to tell whether a Nicolas Cage project will be worth your time. There are just so many—the man has serious debts to pay, after all—and for every diamond in the rough like Mandy, there are five more that sound wild and entertaining on paper but wind up being anything but. Fortunately, Color Out of Space falls into the first category. Directed by Richard Stanley, and adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, it involves a meteor crash-landing on a farm; instead of signaling the arrival of the son of Jor-El, however, it wreaks havoc on the family, who gradually become untethered from reality. And few can so amusingly capture a descent into madness like Cage, whose farmer-dad is overtaken by an uncontrollable rage/paranoia. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Color Out of Space is now streaming on Shudder.
Sasie Sealy’s feature directorial debut is first and foremost a monument Tsai Chin, the former Bond girl best known as the crafty Auntie Lindo in The Joy Luck Club. Here, armed with a not-to-be-trifled-with scowl and seemingly endless supply of cigarettes, her titular Grandma is the noir hero you never thought you needed, playing both sides of a vicious Chinatown gang war against one another over a missing bag of money (scooped up by Grandma after a wild all-night casino bender, naturally). Chin conveys more righteous anger with a single scowl than most can with a ten-page monologue, and the hair salon callback to The Joy Luck Club is pitch-perfect.
Lucky Grandma is available to rent on Prime Video.
BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
What I wouldn’t give to park myself at a dive bar, pound whiskeys, shoot the shit, play some music on the jukebox, and stumble home (fuck you, COVID). The next best thing to that is Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Turner and Bill Ross’ loving ode to the American dive. The filmmaker-brothers’ “documentary” chronicles the final 18 hours of a beloved Las Vegas bar, The Roaring 20s, before it closes its doors—only to accomplish this, they auditioned real-life barflies around the U.S., and shot them over three long days in a New Orleans watering hole, feeding them scenarios. And there is so much beauty and poetry on display here, the lines of their worn faces like constellations of the soul.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is available to rent on Prime Video.
ON THE RECORD
Malcolm X famously proclaimed, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” For evidence of this, look no further than On the Record, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary exploring the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the documentary’s release—with Oprah backing out as producer at the 11th hour after speaking with Simmons, citing “creative differences”—overshadowed what is a nuanced, devastating look at misogyny and colorism within the Black community, and the burden Black women face in coming forward. Put some respect on Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, and Sheri Sher’s names. Theirs is a bravery I cannot fathom.
On the Record is now streaming on HBO Max.
If you haven’t seen Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho and veteran actress Sonia Braga’s previous collaboration, 2016’s Aquarius, an indelible portrait of an elderly working-class woman standing up to the shady developers pulling every shady trick in the book to force her out of her apartment, remedy this immediately. Their reunion is a horse—or rather, flying saucer—of a different color, as the tiny (fictional) town of Bacurau in rural Brazil is plagued by curious, even otherworldly happenings. There’s a corrupt mayor diverting their water supply in tankers that are then shot up by a murderous couple on motor bikes that are then shot up by a group of upper-crust English-speaking foreigners hunting locals for sport and armed with a UFO drone. It’s part anti-colonialist satire, part gonzo Western, and one crazy ride.
Bacurau is available to rent on Prime Video.