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Lovie Simone stars in SELAH AND THE SPADES (2020). Photo: Courtesy of Amazon StudiosCourtesy of Amazon Studios

For a year in which it seemed that almost no new movies were released – or movies that people who aren’t film critics had heard about – 2020 was almost too busy of a 12-month stretch. So while I’ve already highlighted my 10 favourite films of this year elsewhere, a few of the approximately 207 other new movies that I watched over the past 12 months deserve special mention, too. Here, then, is an alternative Top 10 list for an alternative 2020: a collection of the most overlooked, underrated, and unfairly dismissed films of the year.

1. Let Him Go

Director Thomas Bezucha’s adaptation of Larry Watson’s western pulp novel didn’t blow my mind when I first watched it a few months ago. But since then, the film’s taut journey into violent Americana has been steadily occupying my thoughts. Thanks to its tightly controlled atmosphere, rock-solid craftsmanship, and excellent performances from Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and a gonzo-bananas Lesley Manville, Let Him Go will, or should, go down as one of 2020′s few pleasant surprises. (Available digitally on-demand)

2. S#!%house

Boy goes to college. Boy becomes lonely. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl spend one long magical night together. But then what? With the micro-budget S#!%house, first-time director-writer-star Cooper Raiff breathes new life into the American indie rom-com, spinning obvious influences such as Before Sunrise and Lost in Translation into something messier and more genuine, all with a heartfelt DIY spirit. (Available on iTunes/Apple TV)

3. Selah and the Spades

Back during this past January’s Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Tayarisha Poe gave her feature debut Selah and the Spades a killer elevator pitch: “Clueless meets The Godfather.” That’s perfect, as her heavily stylized drama mixes teenage anxiety with grown-up violence. Yet Poe is remixing more than Austen, Heckerling and Coppola in her tale of warring factions inside a posh East Coast boarding school; she’s scraping up the ingredients of the entire teenage and crime canons, pulsing them in a blender and throwing the resulting concoction against the wall, happy to watch it splatter. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video)

4. The Assistant

A #MeToo movie that isn’t really about #MeToo at all, The Assistant is both uncomfortable and engrossing. Following one very bad day in the life of a movie producer’s assistant – though we very quickly get the sense that this day isn’t particularly different from any other – Kitty Green’s feature-narrative debut is a powerful reminder of the way power is wielded absolutely everywhere. (Available to stream on Crave)

5. Let Them All Talk

I’m not quite sure a Meryl Streep comedy might ever risk being classified as under-the-radar. But given that Let Them All Talk arrives at the tail end of the year directly to HBO Max – when all everybody can talk about when it comes to that streamer is Wonder Woman 1984 – I fear there’s a good chance that the conversation around the Steven Soderbergh film will get drowned out. Don’t let that happen: this is a witty and delightful journey from a star and director at the top of their respective games. (Available to stream on Crave)

6. The Painted Bird

Warning: do not watch The Painted Bird if you’re feeling happy. Or if you’re feeling sad. To be honest, I don’t think there will ever be an ideal time to sit down and experience Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s Second World War novel. Watching it is akin to chugging back the black ooze that pumps through humanity’s dark heart, swallowing the vile and toxic swill hard, and asking for more. But sometimes we need to feel awful. Sometimes we need to face the world at its worst. Sometimes we need to watch a film like The Painted Bird. (Available digitally on-demand)

7. Fourteen

Chronicling the decade-long dissolution of a friendship between two young women, Dan Sallitt’s ultra-low-budget Fourteen is a twin character study that is as curious about relationships as it is about the cinematic form. Sallitt is grasping for something profound here – a portrait of relationships seen both up-close and from a distance. Fourteen may ultimately be just that – a grasp – but it is worth reaching out for all the same. (Available on iTunes/Apple TV)

8. An American Pickle

Perhaps it’s a good thing that this Seth Rogen comedy got waylaid by the pandemic, ending up on HBO Max (and Crave in Canada) instead of opening in theatres. Defiantly small-scale and intimate, this is not the crowd-pleasing har-har affair that Rogen fans might have been expecting. Which is a mitzvah! A welcome opportunity for the star to wrestle with tricky and profound questions of faith, tradition, culture and family, An American Pickle is a crinkle-cut delight. (Available to stream on Crave)

9. Collective

Directed by Alexander Nanau, the harrowing documentary Collective follows a group of underdog Bucharest reporters as they uncover one of the most controversial and nauseating government scandals in recent political history. And I don’t mean just Romanian political history, either, but the legacies of any state operating in the Western world. This is a fly-on-the-wall production, with no talking head interviews or expository narration. Nanau forces his audience to confront the horrors unfolding right in front of them, and lets it sit. The result is devastating. (Available digitally on-demand)

10. Becky & Freaky

In a year filled with surprises, maybe I should have anticipated that two of 2020′s most brazenly entertaining productions would be horror-comedies that stunt-casted their leading roles. In the nasty Canadian thriller Becky, it is former King of Queens Kevin James who sheds his sitcom persona to play a neo-Nazi. And in the body-swap shenanigans of Freaky, it’s once-upon-a-time Wedding Crasher Vince Vaughn who gets to play fast and loose as both a serial killer and the teenage girl whose soul gets stuck in his imposing frame. Both movies sound like disasters, but they each work tremendously well, convincing audiences to view their leading men in new, sickly disturbing lights. (Becky and Freaky are both available digitally on-demand)