By Richard Chachowski
2020 was a weird year for movies. With thousands of theaters still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, audience attendance rates were lower than they’ve been in years. Additionally, with many of the year’s new movies being released directly to streaming platforms or video-on-demand services, the number of films that saw widespread theatrical releases were extremely limited. Because of this new approach to film releases, a large number of films released in 2020 went unrecognized by the general public. Here are a few of 2020’s lesser known films that you should really check out.
Performance artist, author and filmmaker Miranda July wrote and directed “Kajillionaire,” a comedy-crime-drama film. “Kajillionarire” stars Evan Rachel Wood, whose performance in this film was arguably one of the best of her career. Wood plays Old Dolio Dyne: an aloof, quirky young woman performing elaborate scams with her equally strange con artist parents. A young woman, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), joins the family and aids them in their criminal activity.
With Melanie’s arrival, Old Dolio’s world is turned upside down. Old Dolio now has to confront her own troubled relationship with her parents and the love she feels she deserves that has never fully been reciprocated from them.
Accompanied by an amazing soundtrack, the film boasts some great performances by the actors and a smart, funny script by July. I really can’t say enough about Wood’s role here – even if you don’t like the movie, you can’t deny that she is incredible to watch. With critical and commercial acclaim equally as receptive, “Kajillionaire” begs the question: is there anything Miranda July can’t do?
When a quiet, reflective cook nicknamed Cookie happens upon King-Lu, a Chinese traveller on the run for murder, the two form a friendship and devise a plan to make a fortune. Namely, by selling baked goods using milk stolen from the prized cow of an English landowner in 1820s Oregon.
Equal parts comedy, Western, drama, period and crime film, “First Cow,” directed by indie film legend, Kelly Reichardt, never failed to entertain me throughout its two-hour run time. As minimalist in plot as Reichardt’s other films, “First Cow” offers its audience a unique, one-of-a-kind take on a Western that doesn’t really feel like a Western, but more like a buddy crime movie where the crime is … stealing milk. I know, I may not be selling it well, but trust me, this movie is a lot more entertaining than a film about milk-stealing bakers has any right to be.
One Night in Miami
Released at the tail-end of 2020, the film “One Night in Miami” tells a fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Sam Cooke. The film takes place in a Miami hotel room in February, 1964, shortly after Ali won the World Heavyweight Championship for the first time in his career.
Directed by the amazing Regina King in her directorial film debut, “One Night” heavily mixes fact with fiction, depicting each of these legendary ‘Black icons’ own experiences with racism in ‘60s America. Throughout the two-hour runtime, the audience sees the many different viewpoints and mindsets of these four young men, all of whom would play prominent roles in the civil rights movement.
The performances themselves are perhaps the biggest highlights of the film, with each actor bringing to life the self-doubt and insecurities these historic men felt in regards to the influential parts they would play in in the years to come. There’s Leslie Odom Jr., for example, as Cooke, the famed singer who feels his voice can never match the resonance of Malcolm’s speeches in one of Odom’s most complicated roles yet. There’s the relative newcomer Kingsley Ben-Adir, who brilliantly measures up to the role of Malcolm, who continuously tries to get his counterparts to realize the significance of their roles in achieving civil rights equality.
Overall, “One Night” is a beautiful exploration and character study of these four Black icons. With many critics praising the film for its performances, screenplay and direction, this is no doubt a film you will want to see when it officially drops on Prime Video on Jan. 15.
Based partly on true stories of older American workers traveling across the country looking for work after the Great Recession, “Nomadland” follows Fern (Frances McDormand) who embarks on a journey across the American west after losing her job. Directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is already gaining praise from critics worldwide.
Prior to this film, Zhao has been warmly received in the world of independent film for her contemporary Western films including 2017’s, “The Rider,” which earned a place on numerous critics’ top ten lists for the year. Having already won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, “Nomadland” is making many people’s predictions for a potential Oscar nomination this award season.
The film itself is beautifully filmed, with tons of shots that perfectly exhibit the natural beauty of the American West. Along with a beautiful score that adds a lot of dramatic weight to the imagery in the film, “Nomadland” is certainly a one-of-a-kind movie the likes of which we haven’t really seen before. The film is also unique in that it utilizes non-actors portraying roles that echo their lives on the road, such as the character of Bob, played by real life nomad and “vandweller” Bob Wells. By featuring these non-actors in the film, Zhao is able to keep the film grounded in a way that seems natural, making the film seem almost like a documentary exploring the complex lifestyles these individuals have.
Focusing on an everyday, working-class character seeking purpose and fulfillment in her life during a time of economic and personal hardship, “Nomadland” is without a doubt one of the more unique, complex films to be released this year, and one that is certainly worth seeing if you get a chance.