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Don’t Let the Pandemic Bury These Underrated Movies

With theaters shut down, studios treated 2020 like a yearlong Dumpuary. But from ‘The Empty Man’ to ‘She Dies Tomorrow,’ there were a handful of films that absolutely deserve your attention.

Ringer illustration

It doesn’t take an expert to surmise that 2020 was a rough year for Hollywood. After temporarily shutting down the entire industry, the pandemic then accelerated discussions around the potential demise of movie theaters and the effects of shifting consumer habits. (Maybe some people don’t mind watching the biggest films of the year from the comfort of their couches.) But with vaccinations continuing to roll out and recent blockbusters like Godzilla vs. Kong making a decent impression at the box office—at least given the lower standards of a post-pandemic release—there’s hope yet that the industry-wide panic for 2020 will be an outlier from an unprecedented situation instead of a sign of things to come. Perhaps the surest sign that theaters are back in a big way is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is rolling out four movies in six months.

But while we all want to leave 2020 in the rearview, the year wasn’t a total wash when it comes to movies. There were still many notable releases in the world of streaming, from star-studded award bait (Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7) to non-Marvel superhero movies (The Old Guard, Project Power) to indie curiosities from exciting up-and-coming filmmakers (The Vast of Night, Sound of Metal). Still, with the notable exception of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which admirably tried to reignite the box office over the summer, most films released last year didn’t have the benefit of major backing from their respective studios. Releasing a film in the middle of the pandemic was not unlike a stretched-out version of the Dumpuary tradition, in which studios toss a movie in the barren wasteland of January, historically the worst month with respect to box office totals. The studios that chose to drop a movie at a time when most theaters across the country were closed knew exactly what they were doing. But just as certain Dumpuary movies can be misunderstood gems that didn’t deserve such a cold shoulder—if Kristen Stewart battling Cthulhu in the deepest depths of the ocean sounds dope to you, don’t sleep on Underwater!—some of those recently released films have gone criminally overlooked.

Nobody is at fault for missing out on these movies when they came out, but now that they’ve made their way to VOD and streaming in 2021, these films can finally find an appreciative audience instead of slipping through the cracks. Some of these movies I’ve found organically by browsing through a steamer’s library; one was enthusiastically and somewhat ominously recommended by peers imploring me to “catch Empty Man fever.” Not all of them are necessarily great—one of the inclusions might register as a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan—but each has enough interesting ingredients to deserve some shine.

So if you’re tired of revisiting Mortal Kombat’s gnarly fatalities on HBO Max and looking to watch something more off the beaten path, here are seven overlooked films released in 2020 and where you can find them.

The Empty Man

Available to rent for $5.99 on Amazon, YouTube, and more

The circumstances surrounding The Empty Man’s chaotic release are fascinating enough on their own: Originally filmed in 2017, the movie sat on 20th Century Fox’s shelf for years during the studio’s merger with Disney. Predictably, Mouse House didn’t know what the hell to do with an R-rated, 137-minute horror movie—one highly misleading trailer and an unceremonious October 2020 theater dump later, and the company finally had The Empty Man off its hands. (The movie was also accidentally released with the old 20th Century Fox logo, a fitting grace note for Disney’s complete mismanagement.)

But now that The Empty Man has been released on VOD, the film has developed a cult following practically overnight. What’s so great about The Empty Man? Director David Prior pulls from a lot of influences—urban legends, aughts J-horror, slasher films, Lovecraftian terror, the most sustained exploration of tulpas in pop culture since Twin Peaks: The Return—and mashes them together within the framework of a Fincher-esque procedural about a widowed ex-detective (played by James Badge Dale) investigating his neighbor’s missing teenage daughter and how it might be related to a death cult. The Empty Man somehow feels derivative—a terrifically terrifying scene in the woods certainly apes Ben Wheatley’s Kill List—while at the same time being unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The easily spooked should steer clear; for everyone else, don’t wait to experience one of the best horror films in years.

The Kid Detective

Available to rent for $0.99 on Amazon Prime

What happens when a Nancy Drew or a Hardy Boy grows up, but they don’t give up on their childhood dream of being a plucky gumshoe? Writer-director Evan Morgan brings a cynical outlook to this deceptively cheery-sounding movie, which focuses on former kid detective Abe Applebaum (a perfectly cast Adam Brody), who is caught in the aimless malaise of early adulthood in a slowly decaying town. (Abe is such a mess that his parents still bring him groceries and he sometimes forgets to brush his teeth.)

Once the talk of the town, Abe has never recovered from failing to solve the childhood mystery behind his tween secretary’s disappearance—the implication from the movie’s chilling opening is that she was kidnapped and likely killed by someone who passed her by in their car. But when a teenager hires Abe to find out who murdered her boyfriend, he sees the case as a shot at redemption—and legitimacy. The Kid Detective is surprisingly assured as it jumps from laugh-out-loud comedy to profound tragedy, anchored by Brody’s layered performance that takes on a meta-quality any time the subject of the diminishing returns of early fame rears its head. With any luck, though, The Kid Detective will do for Brody’s post–The O.C. career what Abe hoped to do for himself.

Alone

Streaming on Hulu

As far as low-profile genre filmmakers go, you can’t do much better than John Hyams. Hyams has carved out a quietly impressive career, highlighted by two excellent straight-to-DVD Universal Soldier movies made with an unexpected level of craftsmanship and art-house sensibilities. Hopefully, one day a major studio exec will give this guy a fat check to do his thing; in the meantime, Alone is another worthy addition to Hyams’s underappreciated résumé.

This bare-bones thriller follows Jessica (Jules Willcox), a recent widow who’s packed all of her belongings into a U-Haul for a drive across the country. In the middle of her journey, it’s clear Jessica is being stalked by a mysterious unnamed man (Ozark’s Marc Menchaca) in a Jeep. Alone’s best stretch is arguably the opening cat-and-mouse game between the characters in their respective cars, but there’s still plenty to admire when Jessica goes into full survival mode in the woods. Don’t take the protagonist’s lead, though: Alone is best watched with company.

Buffaloed

Streaming on Hulu

New York City gets showered with so much attention that it’s easy to forget there’s a whole damn state outside of the Big Apple filled with its own eccentricities. With Buffaloed, director Tanya Wexler offers up a uniquely Western New York spin on The Wolf of Wall Street. Rather than focus on hedge funds, the film is all about the illicit world of debt collection: an actual thriving industry in Buffalo, New York.

Buffaloed’s blue-collar version of Jordan Belfort is Peggy Dahl (Zoey Deutch), a natural-born hustler who finds herself employed as a debt collector for a slimy local company run out of a warehouse, led by someone known as “the Wizz” (Jai Courtney, having a great time). Peggy soon learns the tricks of the trade to open her own business, a move that inevitably starts a debt collection turf war. Buffaloed is recommended viewing for Deutch’s absorbing and knowingly self-absorbed lead performance alone; the future is very bright for the Set It Up star. And for any viewers familiar with New York’s second-largest city, rest assured that the city’s obsession with the Buffalo Bills—at one point, a bunch of cops and perpetrators stop what they’re doing to take in a touchdown drive happening on TV—is not at all underplayed.

Save Yourselves!

Streaming on Hulu

Are millennial-aimed satires contractually obligated to cast actors from Search Party to get off the ground? Not only does the sci-fi comedy Save Yourselves! cast John Reynolds as a mopey Brooklynite so similar to his character on the HBO Max series that’d you think the film takes place in the same universe, even his costar (Sunita Mani, best known for supporting work in GLOW and Mr. Robot) had a brief turn on the show. Here, they play Su and Jack, a disillusioned couple who’ve decided to unplug from their phones for a weeklong getaway in the woods. Naturally, this all coincides with an alien invasion they don’t know anything about.

Save Yourselves! mines a lot of comedy out of its leads’ incompetence—Jack, for instance, knows more about sourdough starters than firing a gun. They lack any of the survival instincts you’d expect from characters thrust into an apocalyptic scenario, but that subversiveness extends to the aliens themselves, which end up looking like decorative throw pillows. (Mild spoiler: Looks can be deceiving.) In the moment, a long-term relationship going stale might seem like the end of the world—Save Yourselves! brings that idea to life a bit more literally.

She Dies Tomorrow

Streaming on Hulu

Writer-director Amy Seimetz didn’t have the pandemic in mind while making She Dies Tomorrow. In fact, the film was supposed to premiere at South by Southwest in March 2020 before the event was canceled because of, well, you know. The heart of the movie follows a woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) who is convinced that she will die the next day—a deep-seated paranoia that spreads like an airborne contagion to anyone she shares this information with—and it conveys a familiar existential dread borne out of the certainness of uncertainty.

She Dies Tomorrow barely has a plot; instead, Seimetz’s film is content following its characters as they pass along this virus, or whatever you want to call it, like a game of telephone. But jumping from character to character offers up its own thrills. Though Seimetz financed the project using her salary from starring in Pet Sematary, she’s able to bring an impressive amount of established actors along for the ride, including Chris Messina, Michelle Rodriguez, Katie Aselton, Josh Lucas, and even Godzilla vs. Kong director Adam Wingard as “Dune Buggy Man.” (It’s a pretty self-explanatory role.) She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t provide answers to its mysterious dread-inducing phenomenon, but the lack of closure confirms the assuredness of Seimetz’s unique and disturbingly prescient vision.

The New Mutants

Streaming on HBO Max

I’m as surprised as you are. The New Mutants limped into theaters last summer with a less-than-sterling reputation. Josh Boone’s film is best remembered for its yearslong production delays that legitimately gave the impression The New Mutants was cursed. (Maybe it had something to do with the movie whitewashing a character and misspelling the comics cocreator’s name in the end credits.) (Yes, that really happened.)

But setting all that aside, The New Mutants is … honestly fine?

It’s no Logan, but it isn’t the mess we’d been led to believe it was, either. The New Mutants is a pared-down YA horror movie set at a single location, with five mutant teenagers living at a facility run by the mysterious Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga). Dr. Reyes appears to be the only employee of this facility, and that adds to the eerie atmosphere as it soon becomes clear the good doctor might not have the mutants’ best interests in mind. There’s still a generic third-act battle against [checks notes] a CGI bear, and you don’t have to squint too much to notice that The New Mutants was definitely chopped to bits in the editing room. But compared to Dark Phoenix, at least Boone’s long-derided project is actually watchable, while also deviating from the X-Men movie norm.

(Note: In the interest of full transparency, I did watch The New Mutants while in a near-catatonic state recovering from COVID-19 vaccine side effects, so perhaps I imagined the bear part.)