The Underrated | The Best Films of 2020 You May Not Have Seen

Say what you want about 2020, but a lot of good movies were released in Ireland. So much so in fact that HeadStuff’s writers wanted to spotlight some great films that didn’t quite make our best of the year list.

The Devil All the Time

The star-studded The Devil All the Time hit Netflix in September last year to mixed reviews. Directed by Antonio Compos (Christine, Simon Killer), it was the filmmaker’s biggest movie to date, a sprawling 140-minute gothic epic about people whose religious obsession drives them and others to madness in post-WWII America. Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel, the main characters include a husband and wife serial killer team (Jason Clarke, Riley Keough), an unscrupulous reverend (Robert Pattinson), a tormented veteran (Bill Skarsgard) who can’t save his wife from cancer (Haley Bennett) and the two’s son (Tom Holland) who grows up to be a good but violent man.

Coming under criticism for being both overlong and humourless, I’d disagree on both fronts. Yes, the film is lengthy and dark. Yet, I’d be hard pressed to find any segment to cut – I certainly wouldn’t trim Harry Melling’s noteworthy supporting role as a crazed spider-handling preacher or Sebastian Stan’s quietly transformative turn as a dirty cop. And there is a unity to all the stories often missing from similarly vignette heavy fare. As the film continues, the narratives interlink in surprising but key ways, giving the film a real sense of propulsion. Plus they all feel thematically of a piece in their critique of blind devotion to faith and people misunderstanding religious principles and as such coming up with warped ideas of right and wrong.

I would also argue the film boasts a thick strain of jet-black humour. It’s in author Donald Ray Pollock’s narration – in a brilliant Southern twang, he passes judgements on all the main characters – or some of the performances, particularly Pattinson (you’ll never say “delusions” the same way again).

Ultimately, The Devil All the Time is the type of adult thriller that doesn’t get released any more in cinemas, having to migrate to streaming. Also, it’s quite nice seeing one of these old-fashioned dark gritty stories populated with a cast full of stars of today and tomorrow – I haven’t even mentioned Eliza Scanlen as a southern belle and Mia Wasikowska as her mum. For that, it needs more love. Stephen Porzio

Kajillionaire

I love when filmmakers not known for making genre films try their hand at it. While the results can vary, viewers are almost always left with something more interesting and unique than most films of the type. Take writer-director Miranda July’s latest Kajillionaire for example. Her offbeat quirky style actually makes a wonderful fit for this comedy-drama centred around a con artist family. While the schemes by the familial unit in Parasite rightly earned a lot of plaudits this year, the scams in July’s film are maybe as fun and inventive.

The movie centres on an emotionally closed-off young woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). She is in a manipulative relationship with her con artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger), who treat her as an accomplice to their petty thefts rather than as a daughter. Her life is turned upside down when her folks invite an outsider (Gina Rodriguez) to join them on a major heist they are planning.

There’s something magical about Kajillionaire. While always quite funny, at first it stacks on the whimsy so hard, it runs the risk of just floating away in viewers’ hands – like the bubbles produced by the factory the huckster family live in. Yet, through a series of deftly written scenes that find a beauty in the everyday, July manages to wrangle all the movie’s disperate concepts and ideas into something that feels hugely emotionally rewarding and true, ultimately detailing the weirdness of familial bonds. Stephen Porzio

Saint Maud

Saint Maud didn’t make the HeadStuff Top 20 of 2020, but I voted for it in first place. Conclusion: the entire HeadStuff film department have dreadful taste, except for me. Saint Maud was the most startling, remarkable, pant-wettingly scary cinematic experience I’ve had in years, and Christ, did I need one in a year like 2020. Terrorising yourself for pleasure was a hedonistic and subversive act in a year in which real life was a constant parade of gloom and anxiety. Fuck you, Covid! You never had absolute control of my body’s stress hormones!

But even in a non-global pandemic year, Saint Maud would have been something special. Its quiet genius was amplified by the fact I genuinely didn’t realise it was a horror film going into it; I thought it was going to be dark, but more of a psychological thriller type of thing. As such, the sheer discomfort I felt throughout the film was, in hindsight, pleasingly authentic. It wasn’t some Pavlovian response, based on the subconscious knowledge that something freaky was destined to happen.

It was because Morfydd Clark was so bloody superb, and so convincing, and unsettling, in her portrayal of the titular Maud., and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her even though I very badly wanted to at times. Writer and director Rose Glass, meanwhile, is surely destined to join Ari Aster and Robert Eggers in the pantheon of contemporary artsy horror director extraordinaires. The final 15 minutes of the film contained at least two images that were instantly and permanently seared into my brain. I would watch absolutely anything else from her. I wish it wasn’t her debut.

I’m already over the word count and I could ramble for even longer, but I’ll try to sum up – Saint Maud is a simply outstanding film, clever, sad and thrilling, a white knuckle 90 minutes, and will rank at the end of the 2020s as one of the best horror movies of the decade. I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Jack Stevenson

Sea Fever

Sea Fever won’t go down as an all time classic, but it was an extremely effective and likeable horror/sci-fi thriller thing, and deserves immense credit for being about a pandemic, released in the middle of a pandemic, and yet still feeling like enjoyable escapism. I really enjoyed the way it stitched together lots of different genres in a thoughtful and entirely seamless way. I mean, it was about pandemic anxiety, but it was also about a nightmarish giant squid, and about how hell is other people, and the unforgiving, maddening wasteland of the sea.

As such, it took some not very fresh tropes and made them feel very interesting and fun again. The cast were also uniformly excellent (and, as I think I mentioned in my original review, uniformly handsome). It wasn’t a movie that was attempting to radically alter your worldview, but it was massively entertaining and a really worthwhile reason to seclude yourself in the cinema, in a year where you might not have especially wanted to do so. Jack Stevenson

Small Axe

Steve McQueen’s beautiful urgent anthology, telling five different stories about the lives and stuggles of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s, didn’t show up in HeadStuff’s best of lists. Perhaps this was a classification issue. We categorised it as a show because of its anthology format and because it played on TV. However, if we had broken up its entries – the courtroom drama ‘Mangrove’ (approximately ten times more timely and gripping than Trial of the Chicago 7 FYI); the intoxicating, needle-drop heavy party-set romance ‘Lovers Rock’ or the searingly powerful ‘Red, White and Blue’ about one of the UK’s first black policemen – no doubt they would have made our top 20 films of the year, episodic TV or not.

Other episodes in the anthology are the introspective, melancholic ‘Alex Wheatle’, a pocket-sized biopic on the title author, and ‘Education’, an illuminating portrait of the segregation of black children in British schools. Each of Small Axe’s films boasts authentic and rich period detail, a wonderful soundtrack and uniformly incredible performances, the predominately black cast a blend of major stars like John Boyega and Letitia Wright, lesser known faces and first-time screen actors. On top of this, the movies manage to portray the awfulness of the racism and other social problems their protagonists face in a visceral yet unexploitative way thanks to McQueen’s empathetic, emotive direction. Yet at the same time, they never forget these characters exist outside of that misery, with the series always taking time to showcase its protagonists’ great joys, whether that be their West Indian culture, music, dancing or food.

By considering the five films together, Small Axe is a groundbreaking effort by McQueen to engage and inform people of recent history not taught in schools, serving as a reminder of how far Western society has come in terms of stomping out bigotry but also that a lot more work needs to be done. In years to come, I believe it will be held up alongside Dekalog and Berlin Alexanderplatz in terms of filmmakers moving to TV to tackle subjects they couldn’t in traditional cinema. Stephen Porzio

True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s new take on the well-trod tale of Australia’s most famous folk hero is more about the myth than the gunslinger himself. George McKay shines as Ned Kelly, a sinewy ball of rage who seeks to resist the criminal role ascribed to him since birth. A vortex of abuse, immiseration and persecution swirls all around, pulling him toward an inescapable fate.

Nicholas Hoult turns in a stand-out performance as the decadent Constable Fitzpatrick, avatar of the colonial administration, who taunts and seduces Kelly into a fatal reaction. Elemental violence flows through a hallucinatory final act as a deranged Kelly sets out to pre-emptively avenge his own death in an explosion of tragic fury.

Kurzel’s latest is messy and often jarring but this is basically part of the charm. True History is an intensely angry with film, with all the excesses that go along with that. The ‘truth’ alluded to in the title is less a measured retelling of fact and more like the shock found at the wrong end of a sucker punch. A rotten world finds its rotten hero in the madness of McKay’s Kelly. Mark Sheridan

Underwater

2020 was bookended by two pretty good movies that both starred Kristen Stewart. Hitting Irish cinemas in February was the Alien-esque thriller Underwater. Landing on VOD (due to, well, you know) in December was the charmingly complex lesbian rom-com Happiest Season. Two very different films and although at this time of year I lean closer towards Happiest Season because hey we’ve all endured a nine month pandemic, I still have a soft spot for Underwater.

Stewart plays Norah Price, a mechanical engineer on the underwater drilling platform Kepler 822. Seemingly at random the station begins to collapse and buckle sending Price and a rag-tag group of survivors scrambling for the surface. However, it’s soon clear that the ocean pressure isn’t the only thing they’ll have to deal with.

Underwater was shot in 2017 but 20th Century Fox’s acquisition by Disney may have slowed things down. Either way William Eubank’s sub-aqua thriller is a taut, tight movie with little time for exposition, character development or plot. It only cares about getting to the next shred-the-nerve sequence as quickly as possible.

Still you don’t put actors like Stewart and Vincent Cassel as her captain in a movie and expect nothing. The two are given scraps to build their characters and they make a semi-decent meal out of them. The same can’t be said of the supporting cast but Underwater lives and dies by its dark and silty action scenes. The creatures – like the shark in Jaws or the xenomorph in Alien – are kept hidden for most of the movie and it’s better that way because it keeps the scares fresh.

As H. P. Lovecraft said: “The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. That quote will make more sense (or none at all) once you get to Underwater’s explosive, gargantuan ending. Until then just sit back and enjoy the ride. Andrew Carroll

The Wild Goose Lake

If one very specific genre is having a moment it’s the Chinese neo-noir. Ever since Diao Yinan’s snowy and stunning 2014 Berlinale winner Black Coal, Thin Ice other directors have stepped up to take their shot. The likes of Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night have shifted and skewed the genre to fit their own themes but Yinan’s sweltering followup The Wild Goose Lake brings things back to basics.

Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a small time crook in Wuhan in 2012. After a scuffle over territory leaves a cop dead he flees to the Wild Goose Lake, an unincorporated territory popular with criminals. Chased by a massive police contingent led by the merciless Captain Liu (Liao Fan – Best Actor at the Berlinale for Black Coal, Thin Ice) Zhou runs to prostitute Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) for help. Constantly soaked in sulfurous yellows, blood reds and lime green neon The Wild Goose Lake dances a razor’s edge of capitulating to censors while also questioning brutal police tactics. Powered by a trio of icy cool yet desperate performances Yinan’s latest assures that his Berlinale win was no fluke. Andrew Carroll

For more end of year content, check out HeadStuff’s film podcast I Know That Face and their episode on the best movies of 2020.

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