The year of 2020, one filled with negativity amid a world pandemic, is finally drawing to a close. While society has been disrupted to a degree that nobody previously thought possible, the world of creativity attempted to plough on valiantly.
While cinemas, theatres and music venues were forced to close their doors amid strict social distancing measures, culture reacted in means of adaptation. Live streams came into play, film festivals went digital, delayed production teams found workarounds and, of course, the Far Out Film Club was launched in a bid to offer a momentary period of escapism.
While 2020 has been largely dominated by streaming platform releases as Netflix begins to flex its muscles, the film industry was also propped up by projects from the likes of Christoper Nolan, Francis Lee, David Fincher, Brandon Cronenberg and many more leading names of the art form.
Whether small and low-budget, lacking big names and publicity, or simply underrated, some good films fail to catch the public eye. Here are a few noteworthy examples from the past year.
See the full list, below.
The 10 hidden gem films of 2020:
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)
This debut feature by young filmmaker Emma Seligman was well-received during its rounds of international film festivals. Expanded from a short done by Seligman two years earlier, it deals with a young woman, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), attending a family funeral.
Over the course of the afternoon, Danielle’s darkest secrets and shameful failures are gradually exposed, as she faces her parents’ expectations and the comparative success of her peers. The gathering’s personal conflicts and emotional ambiguities are perfectly captured by Seligman’s razor-sharp script and effective visuals, in a tense and deeply uncomfortable but often hilarious slice-of-life story.
Gaza, Mon Amour (Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser)
Co-directed by twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser, Gaza, Mon Amour is a comedic love story which involves unlikely subjects for film romance. Issa (Salim Dau) is a bachelor in his sixties, a fisherman who lives with his sister. His established life changes when he falls in love with a woman his age, Siham (Hiam Abbass of Blade Runner 2049), a widow who lives with her adult daughter.
Issa’s efforts at courtship are complicated by family opposition, political unrest in the region, Issa’s comical lack of experience with women, and a strange sub-plot in which he retrieves a suggestive ancient statue from the sea bed, resulting in police involvement and multiple arrests. Issa’s struggles are presented in a way that is both sweet and funny.
Shadow In The Cloud (Roseanne Liang)
This horror drama by talented filmmaker Roseanne Liang is a mixed bag. It is a decidedly well made, well acted film, with wonderful pacing and suspense, and a gradually unwinding plot full of surprises, which promises good things from this director/screenwriter. On the other hand, after a strong start, the plot suffers from some implausible developments, inconsistent characters, and a feminist message that is original but rather heavy-handed.
The essential story: an American WWII aircraft is boarded by a mysterious woman (Chloe Grace Moretz) carrying top-secret cargo, whose real identity and purpose is slowly revealed, as the plane is besieged by an uncanny force. Watchable in spite of the plot weaknesses.
Memory House (João Paulo Miranda Maria)
This film by inventive Brazilian director Joao Paulo Miranda Maria is part drama, part metaphoric fantasy. Cristovam (Antonio Pitanga) is a Native Brazilian who works in a factory, encountering contempt and exclusion due to his despised race, as well as unfair working conditions, all of which he stoically endures.
When he discovers an abandoned house in the country, he finds it full of oddly familiar items that relate to his own past and his heritage. As more significant objects seem to appear as if by magic, his memories awaken, and he mentally travels into his past and rebels against his degradation. A strange, cryptic, and disturbing story with a distinctive tone.
The Assistant (Kitty Green)
Former documentary filmmaker Kitty Green’s first feature retains some of the qualities of a documentary, specifically an exposé on harassment in the workplace, but with more subtlety and depth than a documentary could provide. The film follows executive assistant Jane (Julia Garner) through the course of one day in her office.
Shown from Jane’s point of view, the film gradually reveals the injustices and outright abuses of the executive staff, and more importantly, the structures that make them possible. In one sense, nothing of any significance ever quite happens in the film, which is part of the point. A letter-perfect bit of storytelling.
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Winner of multiple awards, including Best Director at Cannes, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole (released as ‘Dylda’) is a touching, often dark and grim portrayal of the lives of two young women in post-WWII Leningrad, struggling to overcome the effects of the war and their own personal traumas.
Without being graphically violent, the film captures the characters’ suffering, and the sometimes terrible consequences, in a way that is often painful to watch.
True Mothers (Naomi Kawase)
Well established Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s most recent film, released as Asa Ga Kuru, tells parallel stories of parenthood from two sides. An infertile couple are delighted when they are able to adopt an infant. Side by side with their account, we are shown the experiences of the baby’s birth mother, a teenaged girl pressured into releasing her child for adoption.
The two eventually meet, and their conflicting claims and attempts at compromise make up the second half of the film. The director/screenwriter’s skill manages to keep the story from sinking into sentimentality.
The Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer)
Thomas King’s bestselling book, The Inconvenient Indian, is adapted with great ingenuity by director Michelle Latimer, into a documentary that won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, where it premiered. King’s book described the history of Native American people, from colonial times to the present, and how their reality clashes with the popular, almost mythological view of them, also delving into ways Native culture is being preserved today.
The film cleverly juxtaposes real Native experiences with images in popular media, also introducing fictional beings into the mix, from imaginary Indian Scout-type movie characters brought to life, to figures from Native legends, such as the trickster being Coyote. Clever, funny, and engaging, as well as informative.
Enemies of the State (Sonia Kennebeck)
Described as a ‘documentary thriller,’ Enemies of the State outlines the complex case of Matt DeHart, a young man charged with crimes relating to illicit online materials. His parents, who had been involved in espionage for the US, believe their son was charged as part of an attack on them, and on Matt’s past whistleblowing actions. The film deals with the case’s multiple layers, weighing the authorities’ case against the evidence of a conspiracy, in an account that becomes increasingly conspiratorial and alarming, each version of reality more twisted than the last.
Director Sonia Kennebeck relates that, while researching a previous documentary, she had interviewed high-profile whistleblowers, who related “a pattern of systematic surveillance and retaliation against detractors,” leading her to approach the DeHart case with an open mind. A fascinating and startling real-life mystery, the film is carefully put together and engrossing from beginning to end.
The Neighbors’ Window (Marshall Curry)
The Neighbors’ Window, the 2019 American short film written and directed by Marshall Curry, offers a tale of emotional voyeurism which recently won a short film Oscar. It is a striking story of a young couple whose life and relationship is altered, in a number of ways, by glimpses of a younger, more exciting couple through the window of an adjoining building. A touching, well crafted story that fits a great deal into twenty minutes.
The sprightly, 12-minute long Joey, by novice director Jessica Hinkson, consists of the thoughts and fears of a prospective bride. We see marriage, weddings, and the bridegroom through the zany wonderland filter of the young woman’s fantasies and forebodings, in a way that is strange, hilarious, and quite distinctive.