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The Most Underrated Movies Of 2020 So Far

Ticket sales are good. Studios want them. Movie theaters want them. But ticket sales don't necessarily have anything to do with whether or not a movie is worth watching. Plenty of cult classics began their lives as box office bombs. Films like Office SpaceThe Big LebowskiFight ClubThe Rocky Horror Picture Show, and so many more were financial disappointments. But repeat lines from those flicks in just about any crowded room, and you'll get people gleefully shouting back. 

Plenty of factors go into whether or not a movie makes money. The marketing, the timing, and the production budget all have huge roles to play, and don't necessarily have anything to do with the film's worth. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is an extreme example of this — if studios release films while people are understandably wondering whether or not it's safe to be in theaters and those movies subsequently fall flat, it's tough to lay the blame on the filmmakers. 

Whether they didn't put butts in seats because of marketing fails, timing, or because they went too hard against the grain, here are the most underrated movies of 2020 so far.

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey was the year's first big budget superhero movie, and it didn't exactly set the world on fire. In spite of Margot Robbie reprising one of the most popular roles in 2016's Suicide Squad — the unpredictable Looney Tune Harley Quinn — Birds of Prey failed to rake in the kind of dough studios want from comic book adaptations. Shortly after its release, the key word became "underperform." It didn't exactly flop, but it didn't bring in Marvel money. 

Freshly broken up from the Joker, Harley Quinn decides to make her own way in the world. Once the rest of Gotham learns that she's no longer under Joker's protection, though, things get dicey. Eventually she forms an alliance with Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to face down the criminal hordes of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). 

Told from Harley's insightful but erratic and twisted point of view, Birds of Prey is one of the most fun and action-packed DCEU additions to date, and overall one of its most impressive. Robbie gets even more time as Harley, and in spite of being the lead protagonist manages to remain true to the character's criminal roots. McGregor is so perfectly disturbing as Roman Sionis it makes you wonder why he doesn't play villains more often. Another standout is Winstead as Huntress, who doesn't get nearly enough time on screen as a hero just as twisted in her own way as Harley.

Guns Akimbo

Sometimes, if you really want to appreciate a film, you need to take it as it is and forget what you want it to be. Such an animal is Guns Akimbo — a gory, action-packed black comedy with a horrifically laughable premise. 

Daniel Radcliffe has never been farther from Hogwarts — he plays Miles, an otherwise mild-mannered geek forced into a gladiator match called Skizm when guns are literally screwed into both of his hands. The ridiculous gun fights and car chases are recorded by following drones which broadcast the action to online viewers. Miles eventually joins forces with one of his opponents to take the fight directly to Skizm's head honcho Riktor (Ned Dennehy). 

With over-the-top action sequences and often juvenile humor, Guns Akimbo doesn't take itself too seriously, and you need to do the same if you want to enjoy it. While it plays with the conventions of social media, video games, and action films, there's no heavy social commentary to be found. Guns Akimbo exists for the action and the laughs and if you're looking for anything else, you're looking too hard.

Ride Your Wave

Ride Your Wave is an animated romantic drama that flew under a lot of radars in 2020. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, the love story is one of a growing number of Japanese animated films using water as a metaphor for young love. 

Shortly after moving to a small seaside town, Hinako (Rina Kawaei) falls in love with firefighter Minota (Ryôta Katayose). Unfortunately, their sweet affair is cut short with Minota's death. True to type, Minota drowns while rescuing a stranger. In the midst of her crushing grief, Hinako discovers her dead lover's spirit will appear to her in any water — even the water of a toilet — whenever she sings a specific song. She eventually realizes its her inability to let Minato go that ties his spirit to her. 

The movie should come off as overly sentimental, but somehow it doesn't. Hinako's emotional journey has a real weight to it, but not catastrophically so. Hinako, we sense, could potentially live a long and happy life without learning any of the story's lessons. But experiencing Minota's love, his death, and the aftermath nevertheless instills in her a transformative joy that feels true in spite of the film's fantasy premise. 

The Photograph

The drama of love stories usually revolves around something coming between otherwise dedicated lovers, be it infidelity, jealousy, or maybe the return of an ex. The Photograph is a refreshing departure — no one gets between Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae) but their own choices. 

Mae is the daughter of the famous photographer Christina Eames, who has recently died. She meets journalist Michael Block as the he works on a story about her mother. They instantly click and soon begin an intimate romance. Their love story is interspersed with flashbacks to a different but not dissimilar romance decades earlier between the late Christina (Chante Adams) and a fisherman named Isaac (Y'lan Noel). Though clearly in love with Isaac, Christina leaves him to build her career in New York City and we eventually get the feeling that, in the present, Michael and Mae are heading toward a similar decision. 

While some of the issues the characters face feel huge, The Photograph is ultimately a simple, yet powerful love story. It has the added benefit of being a rare, impressive example — as D. Watkins writes for Salon — of being a romance between two independent, successful black Americans. "[F]or most of my life," Watkins writes, "all of the films with black leads were biopics and hood stories full of tragedy... however, we do experience joy, fun, and love like every other race." 

Horse Girl

Best known as Annie Edison on the beloved TV show Community, Alison Brie gets to show off her acting range in 2020's Horse Girl. Brie not only stars in but co-wrote the film, using her own family's history of mental illness as a framework. 

If you go into Horse Girl without knowing much about the story, it can fool you. When we're introduced to Sarah (Brie), the film feels light and funny. Sure, Sarah seems a little weird. At the very least she's socially awkward and has a strange fixation on a local horse. But as the film progresses, things take a very hard (and dark) left turn. We learn Sarah suffers from wild delusions. She's a passionate student of conspiracy theories, believes she may be a time traveler, and rants about alien abductions. 

As deluded as Sarah is, you're so convinced that she truly believes in her fantasies that at times it almost feels like a reveal is coming that, in fact, all of Sarah's theories are real and we've been idiots for not believing her. It all helps to make Horse Girl a multi-layered feast. It's a disturbing but empathetic look at mental illness, through the lens of a character who feels achingly real. 

Ordinary Love

Sometimes a powerful story is better told without booming, dramatic music or a torrent of emotional dialogue. A perfect example is the drama Ordinary Love

Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville) are a couple in their '60s whose lives grow more complicated when Joan finds a lump on one of her breasts. We follow them through each agonizing step — through diagnostic procedures and surgeries — and watch as the comfort they find in one another begins to turn sour. There isn't a lot of exposition or even a lot of details revealed. For example, we never learn what either Tom or Joan does for a living. We eventually discover that they had a daughter who died, though the specifics are left unsaid. 

In particular it's a welcome departure for Neeson, who's come to be known more for his action and thriller fare. Neeson and Manville are both at the top of their form here, showing us everything we need to know about the couple's evolving love as it endures some of the worst that life has to offer.


Swallow is a psychological thriller with a bizarre premise. Hunter (Haley Bennett) is newly married into a wealthy family when she becomes fixated on swallowing inanimate objects. Cut off from the rest of the world in her husband's rich but isolated home, Hunter begins her obsession by swallowing a marble. 

As the story progresses and Hunter learns she's pregnant, we come to understand that Hunter's strange habit represents control. With both her husband and his family seeing her as little more than a receptacle to help carry on their family's genes, Hunter has no control over her body and never truly has. Her new habit — as painful as it becomes the more she continues indulging in it — is the only physical agency Hunter has. 

Swallow can be a difficult film to watch, but it's a powerful and bold take on tackling the idea of women being robbed of power over their most basic possession. 

The Last Full Measure

The end of 2019 saw two big-budget war movies — November's Midway and December's 1917. So it may be that audiences were war-weary when it came time for 2020's The Last Full Measure

The Last Full Measure is based on the true story of Air Force medic William H. Pitsenbarger, who saved the lives of 60 American soldiers during 1966's ill-fated Operation Abilene, sacrificing his own life in the process. The movie alternates between the action in the Vietnam War and drama in 1998, following Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) on his assignment to review Pitsenbarger for a long-delayed Medal of Honor. At first simply taking the assignment to help his career, Huffman eventually uncovers a decades-old conspiracy that's helped to keep the fallen hero from the honor he deserves. 

Emotionally powerful and poignant, The Last Full Measure is the first great war movie of 2020. Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd play Pistenbarger's parents and William Hurt plays the late soldier's best friend Thomas Tully. During the course of his review, Hoffman interviews veterans played by Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and Peter Fonda. If nothing else, it's worth watching for the stellar cast. 

Color Out of Space

Considering the long list of stinkers leading man Nicolas Cage has starred in, it might seem strange to find a Cage-led movie described as "underrated," but the freaky sci-fi horror Color Out of Space definitely qualifies.

Based on the 1927 short story by H.P. Lovecraft, Color Out of Space begins with the Gardner family having just moved to the idyllic woods of Massachusetts. Both the adults and kids are dealing with their own personal dramas, which are all interrupted by a meteorite that crashes nearby. In the aftermath, a pinkish/purple light begins to slowly envelop the Gardner home. Humans and animals alike undergo horrific and nauseating physical transformations, and in perfect Lovecraftian fashion just about everyone starts losing their minds. Cage's signature over-the-top style is suited perfectly for Nathan Gardner's descent into madness, though unlike most of his more well-known in-character freak-outs, in Color Out of Space Cage's journey to insanity is slow and steady.

It seems more than likely that director Richard Stanley tapped Cage after the actor's performance in 2018's mind-bendingly unique horror/action flick Mandy. While Color Out of Space is a very different movie, like Mandy it takes different horror and sci-fi genre elements and dials them well past 11, resulting in a singular and compelling experience.


In VFW, Stephen Lang stars as Fred, a Vietnam vet who holds court with his buddies at the run-down VFW hall. In the meantime, the teens and tweens of Fred's town have been seduced by a deadly new drug called Hype which transforms users into punk rock mutants. When a girl calling herself Lizard (Sierra McCormick) shows up looking for protection, the assembled veterans battle the oncoming horde with everything from guns to mounted antlers to tennis balls stuffed with gun powder. 

When VFW begins — with its opposed sides of teenage mutants and social security eligible veterans — you might get the impression that what's about to unfold is some kind of anti-millennial catharsis, but really the young vs. old theme is just window-dressing. It's not meant for social commentary or to appeal to any particular political stripe. VFW is a fun, low-budget DIY gorefest that pays heavy tribute to John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and calls back to '80s grindhouse fare. It's got exploding heads, veterans fighting mutants with sharpened pool cues, and miles of goofy machismo.

Fittingly, a lot of the great acting talent found their fame in the '80s. Along with Lang, VFW features Martin Kove (the ruthless Cobra Kai sensai of Karate Kid), Geroge Wendt (Norm from Cheers), David Patrick Kelly (Sully in Commando), Fred Williamson (a former pro football player and '70s blaxploitation star), and William Sadler (the Grim Reaper from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey). 

Saint Frances

Kelly O'Sullivan is both the star of and screenwriter for Saint Frances, an unconventional comedy in conventional clothing.

Bridget (O'Sullivan) doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, and at 34 she feels the mounting pressure that she's supposed to have everything figured out by now. She hires herself out as a nanny not because she has any particular strong feelings toward children, but because she needs work. She becomes the caretaker for the young Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams) and while on one hand the experience forces Bridget to mature, it also starts to reveal the truth that no one — regardless of age, income, or anything else — has everything figured out. 

While on the surface Saint Frances often feels like a light comedy, it includes uniquely blunt discussions about subjects not often broached on film. Subjects like abortion, sex, menstruation, and child-rearing are handled with an honesty rarely seen on the big screen. Yet while it may be a bit much for some viewers, for the most part it doesn't come off as any kind of heavy-handed commentary, but as a natural and necessary presentation of a woman's existence. 

On the Rocks

Apple TV+ is one of the newer streaming services, and its list of original films is still fairly short. That probably has something to do with why On the Rocks flew under a lot of viewers' radar. The film reunites Bill Murray with director Sofia Coppola, who first collaborated on 2003's Lost in Translation

Murray plays Felix, the charming and wealthy father of Laura (Rashida Jones), whose hectic life with Dean (Marlon Wayans) is starting to show its flaws. When Dean gets an attractive new assistant, Laura suspects he's having an affair — and her restless father does everything he can to feed his daughter's suspicions. He gets Laura, against her better judgment, to accompany him on nightly adventures, including stalking her husband like a private detective and even going so far as to secretly following him on a business trip to Mexico. You get the distinct impression Felix cares less about whether or not his son-in-law is unfaithful as he does about the excuse to spend more time with his daughter, and yet with each new crazy outing, Dean looks more and more guilty.

While On the Rocks is a comedy at heart, Murray brilliantly evokes an unspoken sadness. Apple TV+ gets high marks for its first original dramedy, which proves to be funny, tender, and breaks your heart just a little.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

There's a good chance you haven't even heard of one of the best and most singular films of 2020. Not completely documentary but not completely fiction, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is the brainchild of brothers Bill and Turner Ross. The film plays as if it's documenting the final night of a Las Vegas dive bar, the Roaring 20s. In fact, the Rosses auditioned different barflies all over the United States and brought them to a bar in New Orleans, where the directors gave them topics to talk about rather than scripts, and filmed as the drama unfolded. 

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets often comes off as so natural that it can be difficult to believe it isn't a documentary. As a film released during 2020, it carries a particularly poignant weight — it's a movie about the last night of a bar during a time when such social gatherings, with or without alcohol, feel like a distant memory. 

Without a script to follow, the patrons of the Roaring 20s reveal themselves in surprising ways. The movie is a joy to watch, giving us moments that are both powerful and hilarious. As RogerEbert.com's Matt Zoller Seitz writes, the film "sees their pain when they can't admit or describe it. It sees their struggle when they try to hide it. It's a documentary of compassion."


While the United States was the first country to put a man on the moon, it was the Soviet Union's cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who became the first human to orbit the Earth. In the world of the Russian sci-fi horror flick Sputnik, set in 1983, the Soviet Union beats the U.S. to another space travel landmark — cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fedorov) becomes the first man to bring an alien visitor back to Earth, though he doesn't know it.

After the cosmonauts' space craft crashes to Earth, with only one of its two occupants surviving, psychiatrist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is summoned to a secret facility where the remaining cosmonaut is held. She soon learns Konstantin carried an alien that emerges from his body every night. She's here to try to separate the man from the monster, and she uses every tool she can to do it, including digging deep into Konstantin's past and confronting him with ugly truths. 

If you judge Sputnik by its plot, you're bound to be unimpressed. There's nothing terribly new about aliens inhabiting human hosts in movies. What makes Sputnik stand apart is how the story unfolds. While it's got plenty of gore, the film is a surprisingly slow burn with a high IQ. As Tatyana's interviews of Konstantin continue, you begin to wonder who the true villain of the film is — the monster, Tatyana, or the military brass running the facility.

The Old Guard

Imagine if you could round up a squad of men and women gifted with an immortality similar to the heroes and villains of Highlander and turn them into a mercenary special ops team. What would that be worth — and what wouldn't the Powers That Be do in order to get those soldiers under a microscope?

That's the premise of The Old Guard, the Netflix original action thriller based on the 2017 comic book miniseries by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez. Charlize Theron plays Andy, a soldier who's been alive for centuries in spite of suffering wounds that should've put her down for good countless times. Her comrades in arms are the same, including U.S. Marine Nile (KiKi Layne), the Old Guard's newest recruit. Unfortunately, before bringing Nile into the fold, the team is tricked into having their abilities recorded — and soon they find themselves under constant siege from those who want to replicate their superhuman healing.

Theron is perfect as the head of the immortal mercenaries, and the film includes some incredible action sequences. At the same time, The Old Guard isn't your average action flick. The movie takes its time letting you get to know the characters, thereby making you care more about its heroes. As Salon's Melanie McFarland writes, because The Old Guard focuses more on "who these characters are... the movie opts to be rich with emotional resonance as opposed to lousy with quips and explosions."

The Banker

How do you win when the playing field isn't level — when, in fact, you're not even allowed on the field? In The Banker, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) discover a unique answer. The film is based on the real-life story of two Black businessmen who not only found success in Jim Crow-era America, but thrived and did their best to open doors for other Black business owners. 

Garrett has the knowledge and the backbone to be a high-level financial player, but being a Black man in '50s America creates too many obstacles for him to reach his full potential. Garrett reluctantly links arms with the more cynical Morris, and together they recruit white handyman Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) as a mask. Steiner puts a white face to Morris and Garrett's business schemes, and at first the plan is successful — including allowing the pair to purchase the most expensive office building in Los Angeles, making them landlords to the same banks who won't give them loans. Things get a lot more complicated, however, when Garrett convinces his colleagues to follow him to his home state of Texas with a plan to buy up white banks and offer loans to Black businesses with nowhere else to turn. 

The Banker is an eye-opening drama with humor, featuring a wonderful banter-rich chemistry between Mackie and Jackson. In spite of half a century passing since the events depicted, the messages it carries sadly remain relevant.

Palm Springs

For years, filmmakers inspired by the success of 1993's Groundhog Day – in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman cursed to relive the same day countless times — have tried to remake the comedy's winning formula, often in other genres. Examples include the 2014 sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow, the 2016 fantasy Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and the 2017 black comedy slasher Happy Death Day. Not to mention memorable episodes of popular TV series like The X-FilesStar Trek: DiscoverySupernaturalFarscape, and really too many to name. The Hulu original Palm Springs is the most recent addition to the time loop, and it has a refreshing take on the otherwise tired trope.

At her sister's wedding in Palm Springs, Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is about the have a romantic interlude with Nyles (Andy Samberg) when the latter is inexplicably struck with an arrow. After Sarah follows the wounded Nyles into a cave, she wakes up on the morning of the day she just lived — stuck in the time loop. Unlike Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, however, Sarah isn't the only person trapped by time. The loop is old news not only to Nyles, but to Roy (J.K. Simmons), the same man who shot Nyles earlier. We don't want to give too much away about the plot, but watching how these three adapt to their bizarre situation is surprisingly delightful and absolutely hilarious. 


Destined to miss most audiences' notice, the indie comedy crime drama Kajillionaire is the most recent creation from writer/director Miranda July. Evan Rachel Wood of Westworld fame stars as Old Dolio, the twenty-something daughter of a pair of small-time con artists (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) with delusions of big-time heists. The pair regularly risk their freedom and that of their deep-voiced daughter for such petty theft as breaking into post office boxes and scamming airlines over supposedly lost baggage. 

Things are status quo for the ridiculous trio until they recruit the bubbly and relatively straight-laced Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) for their next "heist," and having the new element introduced to the family dynamic makes Old Dolio realize exactly what her eccentric parents have denied her. The film takes a more emotional turn as Old Dolio sees the validation, the tenderness, and every other form of tangible love that's been denied her since she was a child.

Advertised mainly as a quirky comedy, Kajillionaire proves to be much more. It's inventively funny, but equally heartbreaking. As Reyzando Nawara of Film Inquiry writes, "Kajillionaire is a movie full of bizarre and eccentric moments. But deep down, what July offers here is a tender and moving story about love and our needs for connection."   

Boys State

What do you get when you send over a thousand boys to Austin, Texas to build a mock representative government, including electing one of them governor of the event? Well, in the 2020 Apple TV+ original Boys State, you don't get anything less divisive than in the much more real world of politics. 

If you watch the documentary Boys State looking to get for a hopeful picture of the future of America's politics, you will probably be disappointed regardless of where your beliefs fall on the political spectrum. As Dan Schindel of Hyperallergic quips, Boys State "is both a comedy and a horror movie." The teenagers on the left and the right in this political exercise are just as polarized as their older counterparts, and some are more honest than any professional politician you've ever heard of about being in it to win it, and being willing say whatever they need to say to get that done.

So if you're looking to these young men to be the architects of tomorrow, Boys State will leave you with little sense of hope. Regardless, the documentary remains a compelling look at boys beginning to grow up, as well as a sobering reflection of the current political landscape. 

Bad Education

Released on HBO in August 2020, Bad Education is a darkly humorous drama that can't help but feel well-timed in light of the 2019 college admissions scandal that dragged celebrities like Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, and Lori Loughlin through the mud.

Hugh Jackman plays Dr. Frank Tassone, the superintendent of a wealthy Long Island school district that's ranked fourth in all of the United States, aiming for the coveted #1 spot. In light of the district's goals, spending $8 million on a skybridge to beautify a high school campus seems perfectly reasonable to all the parents set on sending their kids to Ivy League schools. But when student reporter Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) works on a puff piece about the bridge for the school paper, Frank makes the mistake of encouraging her to aim high in her reporting. Inspired by her elder's words, Rachel goes on to uncover Frank and Pam's (Allison Janey) embezzlement scheme, adding up to millions of dollars.

Witty, timely, and tragic, Bad Education is one of the year's best and most favorably reviewed films. Critics seem to agree Jackman's portrayal of Dr. Frank Tassone is a highlight of the movie, and that it's proven to be one of his best performances to date.  

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

If Will Ferrell is involved, it's going to be ridiculous and you're going to want to watch it. The musical comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is no exception. Just like in the 2007 comedy Blades of Glory, Ferrell plays the underdog in an international competition, but instead of ice skating it's in the arena of song that our hero — Lars Erickssong — wishes to make his mark. He's joined by childhood friend Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams). Together they make the singing duo Fire Saga and they dream of representing Iceland in the eponymous annual competition. Things don't look particularly good for their dream until a complication too hilarious to spoil renders Fire Saga the only choice for Iceland to send to the contest, a development that pleases exactly zero Icelanders outside the duo. 

Even though the comedy was made in cooperation with the real-life Eurovision competition, it mercilessly parodies the annual event. It makes the film what Atlantic critic David Sims called "a rare work of movie branding that manages to both mock and honor its subject." In a turn of cruel irony, the film was initially meant to be released to coincide with the actual 2020 competition, but because of COVID-19, the contest was canceled — making Fire Saga the only version of the contest anyone saw in 2020.