The most overrated and under-appreciated films of 2020, so far

Still+from+%22The+Assistant%2C%22+directed+by+Kitty+Green.

IMDB

Still from "The Assistant," directed by Kitty Green.

The pandemic has changed everything. We have had to quickly adapt our entire lives and plans. People’s lives have been unceremoniously upended — I sometimes lose hope thinking about the damage that has been done. In the past, whenever I felt sad or isolated, I would find comfort in movies. 

Now, most of us have sought similar solace these last six months. With the world on lockdown, streaming and binging has become an all-day, everyday exercise for those of us who have the luxury in these brutal times. Regardless of the pandemic, we have been barraged with new films and series and often I feel as though we focus our attention on the less interesting content. So, here are my top five most overrated and most underseen films of 2020.

OVERRATED

Tiger King (d. Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode):

This series (I know I said films, but this will be one exception) took the world by storm — its release lined up with the start of mass quarantining and a world brimming with dread created the perfect cocktail for a cultural phenomenon. And to be honest, I enjoyed it and found it interesting and occasionally compelling. But, the hype is unfounded, probably exacerbated by its timely release.

The public reaction, frankly, angered me. People perceived Joe Exotic as a cocky, funny, deranged man up to all kinds of wacky hijinks in Oklahoma. In truth, Exotic is a sadistic individual who abuses animals and entraps vulnerable, cash-addled men into his snare, filling them with drugs and attention.

Carole Baskin, who is similarly twisted, though more cold and callous, was treated with vitriol. Everybody loves Joe Exotic and they love to hate Carole Baskin. “Tiger King” has altered our baselines and encouraged us to embrace celebrities in a way that is hollow and lacks reflection. Not to mention the obvious sexism rooted in the response to the series’ dual subjects.

It is formally and structurally a strong documentary, and an entertaining one, but it lacks reflexivity and it fails to go deeper. Rather than take a look inside the minds of some truly sick people, it becomes an absurd horror show, basking in the warmth of its own grotesqueness. 

 

The Way Back (d. Gavin O’Connor): 

Ben Affleck is a confounding individual. He is an actor and director who has managed to be both mind-numbingly awful and delicately nuanced. This film, his most personal, shows him as an alcoholic former high school basketball star, who is ham-fistedly recruited into coaching the basketball team at his alma mater. 

Affleck, a recovering alcoholic himself, certainly had a lot to draw from, and does display his acting prowess, although for me, it does not match his impeccable work in “Gone Girl” and “The Town.” Regardless of Affleck’s performance, the film fails in almost every other aspect. The story is textbook and the script — particularly the dialogue — is trite and devoid of subtext. 

Nothing screams amateur hour more than an old, out of touch man attempting to write dialogue for disaffected youths. While there is some slight subversion in the last act, everything you see in this film you have seen before, and seen it pulled off with much more visual flair and more compelling characters. We must stop giving Affleck over-the-top kudos anytime he does something that isn’t a colossal failure. “The Way Back” is not that, but it’s something far worse: mediocre. 

 

Saint Frances (d. Alex Thompson):

This one comes with a heavy heart, as I had the pleasure of spending last winter quarter under the tutelage of Raphael Nash, one of the producers of “Saint Frances.” But, Mr. Nash is an artist — a successful artist — which makes his work, like the work of other successful artists, open to criticism. This film follows Bridget, a woman approaching 30 and something of a lonely loser, as she decides to have an abortion after an unplanned pregnancy. 

She decides to take a job as a nanny for an adorable six-year-old girl named Frances, with whom she forms an “unlikely bond.” This film has many problems but it starts with the protagonist: a wholly unlikeable, unfeeling, scowling human with all of the neuroses of a flawed character, without the charm or relatability. The only saving grace here is Frances, played by Ramona Edith Williams, who is, as mentioned, absolutely adorable. 

With her comes many saccharine moments for Bridget meant to express emotional clarity, most of which land with a thud. There is a scene near the end of the film which takes place at a park that was so telegraphed — pulled straight from the wokescold handbook — that it reached levels of unintentional comedy. The film is, at its best, a mediocre, unimaginative interpretation of an important story. At worst, it is an unwatchable tragicomedy with commentary that collapses on top of you as you watch.

For a far more interesting and emotionally satisfying tale in a slightly similar vein, I would recommend “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which is one of the best films of the year. 

 

Color Out of Space (d. Richard Stanley): 

Every few years, the enigmatic — and completely electric — Nicolas Cage stars in an interesting film that properly utilizes his specific talents. The most recent example is “Mandy,” a gorgeous and terrifying psychedelic horror odyssey, which inspired my excitement for this next film: “Color Out of Space.”

Directed by Australian filmmaker Richard Stanley, this HP Lovecraft adaptation had the makings of a fun, wild ride through a phosphorescent nightmare world. What we get instead is a horribly (and I mean horribly) acted and written film about a weird family in the middle of nowhere, albeit with some genuinely fantastic alien practical effects and makeup work. 

But there is no allure to the characters, no mystery to the story and not even the rambunctious Cage can elevate any of the scenes he is in. It felt like he was phoning it in which is a shame, as I am a fan of Cage, ironically and otherwise. But none of that matters, because Stanley had no control of the material from the very start.

 

Onward (d. Dan Scanlon):

I know we are in the midst of a pandemic and we want to escape to magical worlds and fairytale stories that make us feel warm inside. But, we can do a lot better than this — and so can Pixar. It takes place in a world of magical creatures and follows two elven brothers who embark on a quest to see their deceased father for one more day. 

For a film set in a fantasy realm, it fails to inspire any amount of awe or wonder. It is an acceptable film.There is nothing worse than being painfully average, and the shallowness of this tale is shocking, considering the depth of emotion that previous Pixar films have evoked. 

The voice cast is fun, with Tom Holland and Chris Pratt filling out their characters nicely, one a meek and smart young man and the other a brash older brother with adventure on the brain. The transcendent Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has one of the most dynamic and commanding voices of her generation, plays their mother. Frankly, her immense talent is wasted. If you have the option to watch “Onward,” then you likely have Disney+, and your time would be much better spent watching “Wall-E” or “The Incredibles.”

 

UNDER SEEN

Shirley (d. Josephine Decker):

While most will be clamoring this year about Elisabeth Moss’s performance in “The Invisible Man,” it’s this indie film from Josephine Decker that really shines. The film follows Moss as famous writer Shirley Jackson, as she and her philandering husband take in a young couple. The film seethes with tension, though most of it implicit, which is part of what gives the film such quiet gravitas. 

Moss is incredible as usual, embodying a genius, yet emotionally withered writer who gets off on the destruction of others. Michael Stuhlbarg takes the role of  her overtly skeevy husband, Stanley. The film echoes the four-person intensity of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but with a subversive, gendered twist. 

This film is great based on its acting alone, but the subtle work of Decker, who has carved herself out as an essential aut eur of strange cinema (see her previous film, the bonkers “Madeline’s Madeline”) is what makes the film more than an actor’s showcase. 

 

You Don’t Nomi (d. Jeffrey McHale): 

Few people will have heard of this documentary, which reexamines “Showgirls,” the camp classic heralded as one of the worst films ever made upon its 1995 release. First of all, “Showgirls” is incredible — think of it like “The Room,” a film so terrible that it becomes gloriously great. But this doc has a few tricks up its sleeve as it looks back at the barrage of hate the film got, specifically aimed at star Elizabeth Berkley. 

She was essentially thrown out of the film industry, and this doc sheds light on the severe sexist backlash which plagued her career after the ‘95 film. The director of “Showgirls,” Paul Verhoeven, got off fairly easy, as he released his satirical masterpiece “Starship Troopers” two years later, which has similarly reached new heights of critical reevaluation. 

“You Don’t Nomi” goes incredibly in-depth into what makes “Showgirls” so appealing: its hilariously bad dialogue, the gonzo, larger-than-life performance from Elizabeth Berkley, and Verhoeven’s grasp of the nihilism and grotesqueness of American culture. This combination will make a great double-feature of film buffs for years to come. 

 

The Assistant (d. Kitty Green): 

This is not one for the mainstream crowd; they might fall asleep. Not much happens over the course of the brisk 87-minute runtime, yet this is a taught, eye-opening thriller.

It follows the assistant to a Hollywood producer over the course of an entire work day, as she meticulously approaches each task with the same frightened attentiveness as she would tip-toeing around her boss.

You never see the producer (you hardly hear his voice over the phone), but his presence looms over the entire film, as does the weight of patriarchy and sexism over the entire film industry. Despite literally saying so little, “The Assistant” speaks volumes about the workplace, no matter the industry, as potentially dangerous waters for women. Simultaneously, it also proves women’s vitality to industry, and sheds light on how much more difficult it can be for women due to societal expectations and the shark-like competitiveness of the working world. 

 

Bad Education (d. Cory Finley): 

This film, previously reviewed in The DePaulia, is one of the most engrossing and economically paced films of the year. It tells the true story of the largest embezzlement scandal in U.S. history, spearheaded by a school district superintendent, played perfectly by Hugh Jackman. 

His performance is multi-faceted, as he plays a man masking his insecurities and deep-seated narcissism with a warm, welcoming facade. The story unravels slowly and meticulously, taught and filled with intrigue, evoking classic ‘70s political thrillers like “All the President’s Men” or “The Parallax View.” The film is astute in its observations on greed and excess — it does not only come in the form of sociopathic CEOs or sleazy stockbrokers. It also shows itself in educators, well-intentioned individuals with smiles on their faces. Greed can take hold of any of us, even though with their hearts in the right place.

 

Boys State (d. Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss): 

This incredibly revealing documentary is my favorite film of the year so far. It captures the 2019 Texas Boys State, a yearly event that draws hundreds of high schoolers to run a government over a week. What ensues is an intensely compelling experience I wish I could have had in a theater. 

The doc’s primary focus is four would-be candidates, all of whom display moxie and oratory prowess. The filmmakers take an entirely objective perspective, never injecting outside politics or interfering with what is happening. 

The entire thing plays out as a microcosm of modern politics, complete with targeted attacks on social media fueled by race, in-fighting among political factions and attempting to whip votes from the other side. By the end, I was filled with sadness, but also a profound sense of optimism for the future of our fractured nation.