Though awards season is already upon us, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Like so many other things in 2020, Hollywood is in the midst of a sea change. Even if you wanted to, it might be hard to name 10 great films that came out this year off the top of your head. That said, 2020 hasn’t been a total loss for great movies—as long as you know where to look. And if you want to look back even further (as any serious cineaste should), you’ll see that there are lots of movies that you’ve probably overlooked in the past 20 years that are definitely worth revisiting. They’re not all streaming on the major networks, but they can be rented from Amazon, Apple TV+, or YouTube. (We’ve included where you can get those that are streaming below.)
The big question, of course, is: What constitutes a movie being “underrated”? For the purposes of this list, we looked at movies that tanked at the box office (even if they earned a better reputation once they were available on video-on-demand), films that seemed to invite a number of negative reviews and were worth giving a second chance, and movies that were well-reviewed by both critics and viewers, but just never seemed to find an audience. With that in mind, here’s everything you need to catch up on before starting your next 20 years of watching movies.
Ozark star Julia Garner delivers a brilliantly subtle performance as Jane, a recently hired assistant to a major Hollywood power player. While the bulk of her day involves monotonous tasks like answering phones and replenishing the refrigerator’s water supply, it’s within these mundanities that Jane—and the audience—begin to notice small details around the office that hint that not everything going on behind closed doors is appropriate. Garner’s performance, coupled with the film’s understated approach to the film industry’s rampant objectification and outright abuse of women, are what make The Assistant so effective. Writer/director Kitty Green (Casting JonBenét) trusts her audience to read between the lines and understand that this is a timely take on the Harvey Weinsteins of Hollywood. While The Assistant received great reviews nearly across the board, the film didn’t get much of a theatrical release (and made just $1 million). Hopefully that can change now that it’s streaming.
Where to stream it: Hulu
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a cellular biologist whose Green Beret husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly shows up at home a year after being dispatched by the government to analyze an anomalous zone deemed “The Shimmer.” Kane has no recollection of where he has been, or how he got back. As his condition deteriorates, Lena is called out on a mission of her own to go explore The Shimmer herself. But when she and her team arrive, strange things start to happen—and it becomes clear that not everyone will make it out alive. While Annihilation was fairly well received by critics, it was pretty polarizing among audiences, and it’s almost easy to see why. The film was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man behind Ex-Machina (2014) and this year’s FX miniseries Devs—both projects that mix sci-fi themes with deep philosophical questions. Annihilation is no different, and will have you thinking about life, death, and the nature of humanity itself for days after.
Where to stream it: Amazon, YouTube
Robert Pattinson never seemed comfortable as the vampire teen idol the Twilight series turned him into, and he’s made very smart decisions in the wake of that franchise to establish himself as one of cinema’s most interesting actors. Good Time is one of the movies that helped put him in this enviable position, as it marked a turning point in Pattinson’s career and helped further establish the Safdie brothers as two of the most compelling directors working today. There’s a visceral feeling with all their work—you can feel your heartbeat quickening with each new scene. In the case of Good Time, Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a bank robber who recruits his developmentally disabled brother Nick (codirector Benny Safdie) to help him in his criminal endeavors. But Connie might not be as slick as he thinks, and when the two brothers get arrested, Connie then spends the rest of the film trying to bust Nick out of the hospital he’s been placed in—without stopping to think what might be best for his brother. Like 2019’s Uncut Gems, Good Time is made in such a way that you can almost feel the walls closing in on you—which is a good thing.