Unless you’ve been scavenging through the depths of countless VOD apps and websites, you’ve likely had an unusually slow year when it comes to movie-watching. With theater chains closed across the globe, it’s safe to say that blockbusters are out and indie gems are in, but even then, it’s hard to find which indie gems to watch. After all, they’re not being advertised before theatrical releases because there aren’t any theatrical releases.
With all of that in mind, it might be surprising to hear that 2020 has had some legitimately excellent releases. Black Widow, Mulan, No Time to Die, and countless other films have been pushed aside, and that’s a shame, but there’s a silver lining here. In their place, you’ll find a variety of smaller films that have made their way onto services like Vudu, Mubi, and Hulu. Without the competition, they finally have a chance to shine. They just need to overcome the lack of publicity.
That brings us to this list. Below, you’ll find ten lesser-known movies that are worthy of your time. They may be missing Vin Diesel’s lengthy monologues about family, but they have more than enough to offer. In fact, they might help you temporarily forget about the chaos that is 2020, and that’s the gift that keeps on giving.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
What makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always the best reviewed movie of the year? Could it be the breakthrough performance from newcomer Talia Ryder? What about the daring subject matter? Maybe it’s the memorable screenplay. Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a combination of everything. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a near-perfect motion picture.
At any given opportunity, it could’ve forced some kind of message down viewers’ throats but it doesn’t. Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama may be heavy, but it’s never preachy. It’s refreshing to see something take on such a controversial issue without yelling at you, even if it’s still relatively easy to tell where this film stands on the topic.
Preachy doesn’t always equal bad, but in the case of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the more low-key approach results in something more honest than we’re used to seeing. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching an after school special. Hell, sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie at all. It feels like you’re stepping in somebody’s shoes in an attempt to understand their pain and suffering, and it’s brilliant.
When you look at the botched releases of so many films from 2020, it’s easy to forget that there are numerous high-quality offerings outside of major theatrical releases. This is particularly true when it comes to documentaries. Crip Camp, Miss Americana, Spaceship Earth, and On the Record represent only a small portion of the excellent documentaries that have come around this year. They quickly gained traction thanks to their availability on wider-known platforms like HBO and Netflix, but there are other documentaries that remain relatively obscure.
Rewind was given a release on PBS as part of their Independent Lens series. Unfortunately, this series does not have the same kind of draw as something like Netflix. As a result, this harrowing tale of abuse quickly faded into oblivion.
Sasha Neulinger’s stomach-churning analysis of sexual and physical abuse can be hard to watch. By compiling decades of home video footage, Neulinger is able to tell his story in a way that comes across as authentic.
At the same time, it should be noted that old footage can only help so much. Rewind would be nothing without a strong voice. This isn’t just a collection of videos from twenty years ago. Neulinger’s narration, mixed with skilled editing, creates an educational experience with a booming message.
Keep in mind that the Independent Lens series locks documentaries behind a paywall after a certain period of time, so Rewind is no longer accessible for free through their website. It is, however, available on every major VOD platform, and the rental price is worth it. Be aware that the subject matter can be triggering for viewers who have experienced similar traumas. Even so, this is a necessary watch.
In Driveways, we meet an introverted young boy who can’t relate to the kids who try to befriend him in an unfamiliar New York neighborhood. Rather than enjoying his time with people his age, he meets a Korean War veteran whose tough exterior doesn’t match his warm interior. From the outside looking in, this sounds an awful lot like a certain Clint Eastwood movie, but Driveways separates itself by approaching the material in a far more understated manner.
Unlike Gran Torino’s gruff Walt Kowalski, this old retiree remains static throughout. He doesn’t need to learn any lessons about racism because he’s not outwardly racist. In theory, this could be a problem, but there are conflicts elsewhere. Driveways just wants to tell a story about a lonely kid who finds a friend, and it does so successfully. It’s not as loud and proud when it comes to the central message. Nevertheless, it has a lot to say.
This heartwarming story is made better by a game-changing performance from the late Brian Dennehy. The Golden Globe winning actor delivers a tender performance that’s filled with muted emotions. Alongside his stellar costars, we’re gifted with a movie that grips viewers and doesn’t let go.
Director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins could’ve taken the easy way out. They could’ve taken a Shirley Jackson biography and recreated it for the big screen. That’s what a lot of filmmakers do, and those movies tend to do pretty well. A nice, safe biopic would’ve been perfectly watchable, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting as this small dose of madness.
Though Shirley is biographical, it can’t fairly be deemed a biopic. Sure, a lot of biopics take liberties with their stories, but this doesn’t revolve around a specific event from Jackson’s life at all. Instead, viewers are transported into a Jackson-inspired world that happens to feature the author as a character. The events featured in the movie are almost entirely fictional, but the actual characterization of the acclaimed author is genuine.
This unusual approach to storytelling benefits Shirley in the long-run. Viewers will come in expecting a been-there-done-that biopic only to be surprised when they’re transported to a gothic world akin to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s bold, it’s unconventional, and it’s exactly what fans of the author would appreciate.
5. The Wolf House
The Wolf House is a fairy-tale inspired nightmare masquerading as a stop motion animated movie. It’s grotesque and often repellent, but it’s one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will ever encounter. Calling it a modern take on Grimms’ fairy tales would be underselling it. This is something else entirely.
Like several entries on this list, The Wolf House lacks accessibility to some degree. This isn’t simply arthouse adjacent; this is a picture-perfect example of an arthouse film. It doesn’t tell its story by going from point A to point B. It zigzags around until it finally wraps up in its own peculiar way. This can be jarring, but the method of storytelling lends itself well to the artistic vision.
In the end, the artistic vision is the main draw. It’s immediately clear that the pair of directors poured their hearts and souls into this quirky indie flick. The result is haunting, bleak, and utterly memorable.