For the most part, Taste of Cinema’s 2020 movie coverage has come to a close but, as with previous years, we fell head over heels for a number of films that seemed to get short shrift on other movie sites or, largely owing to the pandemic, didn’t get the propers that they so richly deserved.
And so, presented here in our easy to digest list form, are 20 films from 2020 that we feel were given to short a shelf life and really deserve a second look. Some genre fare will be found below, as well as a few festival faves that have yet to garner a wider release, as well as some foreign language films that hit the sweet spot, and more than a few films that seemed to go straight to streaming services where they were lost in the shuffle.
Enjoy, and please feel free to join the discussion and/or add some of your favorite overlooked films from last year in the comments section below (and be nice!). Thanks for reading!
Following her string of award-winning short films, Belgium-born writer-director Zoé Wittock makes the leap to feature length fare with Jumbo, a strange love story that pretty much guarantees future cult adoration, and we’re here for every oddball moment of it.
Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is Jeanne Tantois, a socially awkward woman who works a go nowhere gig at an amusement park and finds herself falling head over heels in love with Jumbo, the new tilt-a-whirl ride. Yes, you read that right, Jeanne has the hots for a hydraulic-powered, flashy light festooned midway ride.
Their love story, something like “girl meets ride, ride meets girl”, in Merlant’s oddly capable hands, promises star-crossed courtship, surreal sexiness, and more. Admittedly it does sound a little like a cross between David Cronenberg’s Crash crossed with something spicy from Quentin Dupieux and an added dash of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Either way, Wittock’s debut is wholly original, entirely out to lunch, and easy on the eyes.
19. Come to Daddy
While it’s hard to deny that much of what works with Ant Timpson’s very violent and very fun B-movie thriller utterly evaporates by the final reel, Come to Daddy is still an enthusiastic and effective ride with the top down and the wind blasting you full on in the face.
Elijah Wood is a sheer delight as entitled man-child Norval Greenwood, out to reconnect, if he can, with his estranged father (Stephen McHattie) at his remote cabin off the bucolic coast of the Pacific Northwest. It’s not long before things escalate in upsetting ways and weirdos start to dogpile at Norval’s doorstep (brilliant character actors like Martin Donovan and Michael Smiley make memorable appearances).
Come to Daddy has so much vicious violence and caustic wit that these elements make up for some sadly overdone banalities with the rather flimsy plot, making for a horror comedy that tries very hard to be likeable, and though it may not be as clever as it sets out to be, it has a warped warmth and eagerness that’s hard to resist.
Perhaps the less said about the Twilight Zone-ish plot behind Irish director Lorcan Finnegan’s mystery-shrouded Vivarium, the better. Let’s just say that young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) get much more than they bargained for when they, on a whim, take advice from bizarro real estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris) and drive out to the suburban development called Loom for a look-see.
Nightmares of marriage, parenthood, and complacency loom on Loom’s serpentine horizon, but so does much more. Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley maintain a relentless and cruel clip as this sci-fi horror film pulls willing viewers down the rabbit hole. Home sweet home this most assuredly is not!
Like the bastard lovechild of Green Room and Degrassi High, directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion have made some seriously exuberant genre fare that will have you pumping your fist for much of its fast moving 98 minutes.
Intense and terribly entertaining, Lulu Wilson is wicked in the titular role as the angsty young rebel who soon runs afoul some extremely cruel escaped convicts led by an effectively against-type Kevin James.
Bonus points for how therapeutic this film is when you get to watch white supremacist dirtbags get their asses handed to them so fucking hard. If Becky gets a sequel we’ll be first in line.
A new film from German auteur Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit) is always cause for celebration, that it’s a magical-reality infused modern day fairy tale ups the ante even more, and to win the entire kitty it just so happens that Petzold’s most recent muse, Undine’s star attraction, Paula Beer, is already winning raves (including Best Actress at Berlinale 2020). Not to be outdone, the other heavy-lifter in the acting department in this one is Germany’s answer to Joaquin Phoenix himself, Franz Rogowski.
Undine (Beer) is a historian living in Berlin where she lectures on the urban development going on there, and it’s in the lecture hall where her recovering romantic failings may be in for an uptick after she meets Christoph (Rogowski). An ancient myth enfolds Undine and her latest lover, and while ambiguities unfold, so too does dizzying romance, underwater revelry and a lot more in this fantastical diversion from a great filmmaker.
15. Black Bear
The deceptively simple premise of a tense weekend in the woods with a small group of headstrong but emphatic characters gets mined for all its worth in this chamber piece from Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries), and the results are paradoxically satisfying and inconclusive in Black Bear, a film that plays out like a mumblecore Mulholland Drive or a Noah Baumbach variation on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The best reason to wrestle with Black Bear is to see and appreciate the three leads who each take a turn in the spotlight, though it’s largely Aubrey Plaza’s showpiece, easily stealing any and all thunder that co-stars Chris Abbott and Sarah Gadon can muster.
A fine indie drama full of quick quips, uncomfortable laughs and meta-musings, this may be an acquired taste but it’s worth the while.
14. Daniel Isn’t Real
Luke (Miles Robbins) is a troubled man who survives a horrific family trauma that resuscitates Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold), his imaginary friend from childhood to help him deal. But Drop Dead Fred this most certainly is not.
Based on Brian DeLeeuw’s 2009 novel “In This Way I was Saved”, director Adam Egypt Mortimer (who also adapted the book along with DeLeeuw) has crafted a supernatural suspense thriller that keeps viewers enthralled, off-balance, and fully engaged. Is Luke suffering from mental illness or something truly demonic?
The film may be low-budget, but there’s nothing on screen that would suggest that, and Mortimer, who must be a Clive Barker fan, also scores points for casting so many promising and personable young stars. Sasha Lane (American Honey, Hellboy) and Hannah Marks (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency) are standouts in this creepy and catchy little number.
13. Horse Girl
Director Jeff Baena (who also co-wrote along with star Alison Brie) has crafted a very effective fantasy/psychodrama with Horse Girl, and don’t let that fact that it’s billed as a “Netflix Original” turn you off. I mean, let’s face it, the world’s most popular streaming service is pretty inconsistent in the quality control department, but here the stars definitely align. Brie is excellent as the eponymous Horse Girl, actually named Sarah, and her story, while strange and unsettling, is very engaging as it moves from light comedy to something much darker.
As a sympathetic examination of severe mental illness (or is it?), Horse Girl gets very squirmy, and it should, but for SF heads there’s also a definite Philip K Dick influence that grabs hold of you, if you let it. In fact, Sarah’s love of all things equine, spelled out in the film’s very title, is an allusion PKD fans might connect to his best-selling VALIS trilogy which combines similar gnostic visions of alien abduction as religious experience endured by one Horselover Fat, Dick’s alter-personality.
The enigmatic aspects of the film might infuriate some viewers, there’s a lot going on here for the patient amongst us, but Brie’s by turns comical, fragile, frightening and tough performance carries us through any narrative lapses. This genre-jumping mindtrip is confusing and fun, and you can unpack it for days afterwards. So saddle up, this ride is quite an amble.
12. The Bloodhound
Unsettling and strange, the Bloodhound is a cerebral chamber piece that riffs on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” while slyly entertaining and provoking a patient audience in writer-director Patrick Picard’s ferocious feature debut.
Francis (Liam Aiken) visits his one time very close pal, Jean Paul Luret (Joe Adler) in his luxurious but forbidding mid-century home, after an alarming but aloof plea for help. What unfolds involves JP’s tormented twin sister Vivian (Annalise Basso), a crawling apparition, and more over the film’s scant but effectively utilized 72 minutes.
Picard composes many lovely and unnerving visuals compositions (cinematographer Jake Magee is also one to keep an eye on), with a highly effective production design from Arielle Ness-Cohn, suggesting that this eerie introduction is one full of promise and menace.
11. Selah and the Spades
An intriguing and visually rich coming-of-age tale from writer-directorTayarisha Poe, Selah and the Spades also functions as a highly stylized film noir crime film in a high school setting (films like Brick and Heather are obvious influences here). In the titular role, Lovie Simone is a force of nature as Selah Summers, a beautiful, motivated, power-obsessed matron who sells drugs to her fellow classmates at the prestigious Pennsylvania boarding school where she rules with a velvet glove.
When the new girl on the block, Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), transfers to Selah’s school, a struggle for power will soon develop and while some threads of the ensuing story start to get a little frayed and messy, Selah and the Spades shines in its own offbeat, visually full, and slickly imparted way. We can expect great things from Poe, and this dressy debut makes for a more than apt, and entirely expressive calling card.