If you missed these sleeper hits during your quarantine binges, now is the time to dive in.
Believe it or not, there were still plenty of TV shows and movies in 2020 that somehow flew under the radar, despite most of us having nothing better to do during lockdowns and quarantine than watch TV shows and movies, and despite there being many fewer releases than we’re used to.
If anything, 2020 was proof positive that even with a scaled back output, the entertainment industry is still providing way more content than any one person can possibly consume in a year–which might be great news for you, if you’re looking to send this year off with some new things to watch! We’ve compiled a list of our unsung favorites of the year, ranging from epic sci-fi miniseries to horror movies that were released directly onto streaming platforms. They’re things you may have heard of and forgotten about, like Devs, or things you may have missed entirely like Color Out Of Space, a Lovecraftian Nic Cage movie that actually did hit theaters–all the way back in January, a lifetime ago.
And don’t forget to check out some of our other 2020 wrap-up galleries:
Writer/director Alex Garland is best known for his movies Ex Machina and Annihilation but this year saw him jumping from the big screen to the small with a limited series for FX on Hulu called Devs. Conceptually, it falls right into Garland’s ouvre–it’s the story of a bleeding edge Silicon Valley tech company called Amaya and its mysterious Devs division as they work to develop a system that has the potential to not only change the world, but change history as well.
Devs is a lavish, poetic, and surprisingly human entry into Garland’s filmography that features some powerhouse performances by actors like Sonoya Mizuno, Allison Pill, and Nick Offerman. It’s somewhere between hard sci-fi and dream-like philosophy and available to watch in its entirety on Hulu, right now.
The Vast Of Night
While The Vast of Night premiered at festivals in 2019, it didn’t get a wide release on Prime Video until May of this year, making it woefully easy to miss–but thankfully, just as easy to find and watch right away.
Set in 1950s New Mexico, The Vast of Night is a love letter to vintage sci-fi like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Its barebones budget was poured entirely into making it as stylish and artfully minimalistic as possible while maintaining a perfect, eerie ambience suited to a sci-fi mystery. Teenage switchboard operator Fay accidentally uncovers a radio signal that could be alien in origin with the help of disillusioned disc jockey Everett, sending the two of them on a whirlwind quest to find the truth in their small town.
Don’t feel bad if you missed the conclusion of Dark’s 3-season run this year; it dropped over the summer, when everyone was more concerned about small things like the global pandemic and the looming presidential election. Besides, the whole thing was in German and the dub sucked, meaning you basically need to watch it with subtitles, which turns some viewers off. But this pitch-black time travel drama managed to weave one of the most complex, but somehow still cohesive, sci-fi stories we’ve ever seen.
The Untamed has all the campy, low-budget charm of old school action shows like Xena as it follows the fictionalized, fantasy world of ancient Chinese cultivators–people who blend deep religious practice and spirituality to gain magical powers and work towards immortality. It stars two pop idols-turned-actors, Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan, as star-crossed lovers from two diametrically opposed cultivator sects as they are swept up in all the political and social drama of the world around them.
Think Game of Thrones mixed with a little Avatar: The Last Airbender, plus some of The Witcher for flavor and you’re on the right track as far as the overall feel.
Mythic Quest and Ted Lasso
With all the stellar streaming services out there, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and even HBO Max, Apple TV+ is a tough sell. That’s why you shouldn’t feel bad about missing some of its best offerings, the video game development workplace comedy Mythic Quest and the feel-good sports comedy Ted Lasso. But if you’re at all considering an Apple TV+ subscription, these two alone are so delightful that they’re almost worth the price of admission.
As a filmmaker, Brandon Cronenberg is quickly carving out his own niche-within-a-niche, creating movies that totally seem like movies his father, the legendary David Cronenberg, might have made in his day. The younger Cronenberg’s latest, Possessor, is the freaky sci-fi horror story of an assassin (Mandy’s Andrea Riseborough) who possesses the bodies of unwitting accomplices and carries out grisly murders on behalf of shadowy clients. It’s arresting and horrifying in equal measure, but largely went under the radar this year.
Raised by Wolves
For an HBO show, Raised by Wolves didn’t reach the hype levels of your Games of Thrones or your Lovecraft Countries. Even in that company, though, Raised is exceedingly weird. It tells the story of a pair of androids (Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim) attempting to restart humanity on a distant planet, whose lives are thrown into chaos when an ark ship full of religious zealots arrives. With Ridley Scott’s name all over it, it’s full of big ideas and unsettling imagery, and we’re looking forward to Season 2.
Tales from the Loop
If you’re a fan of horror and sci-fi art, there’s a good chance you’ve run into the work of Simon Stålenhag at some point. He may not be a household name but his art, typically featuring some deeply surreal (but eerily familiar) landscapes invaded by retro-futuristic technology or monsters, has an instantly recognizable aesthetic. And it’s that aesthetic that inspired Amazon Prime’s Tales from the Loop, a series set within Stålenhag’s worlds, populated by Stålenhag’s creatures, told in the style of something like The Twilight Zone. It’s episodic, haunting, and at times deeply moving–don’t sleep on this one.
Directing duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson haven’t disappointed yet, and their next movie, Synchronic, may be worth checking out when it hits digital on-demand services on January 12 (it’s currently out in a limited number of theaters). The indie time-travel drama features Anthony Mackie as a terminally ill man who discovers a street drug that can send users back in time, and uses it to try and rescue his friend’s (Jamie Dornan) daughter (Ally Ioannides). Benson and Moorhead’s previous movies include excellent sci-fi/horror mash-ups like Resolution and The Endless, so this should be a good watch in January.
The Trial of the Chicago Seven
Aaron Sorkin’s second turn in the director’s chair proved to be an emotional retelling of the true story of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam War activists and protestors who were tried in federal court in the late ’60s. It didn’t make many waves, but it’s streaming now on Netflix, and definitely worth a watch.
Color Out of Space
January 2020 feels like a million years ago, a time when we still had hope, because the rest of the year hadn’t happened yet. Also, Color Out of Space, which is maybe the best H.P. Lovecraft adaptation yet made, had just been released, and we were still riding the high from infamous cult director Richard Stanley returning from a nearly-two-decades-long filmmaking hiatus to make a cosmically weird sci-fi horror movie starring Nic Cage.
Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens
Comedian turned actor Awkwafina has been having an incredible run and her Comedy Central series (that is now available to watch on HBO Max) Nora From Queens is absolutely no exception. The perfect blend of raunchy and heartfelt, the series tackles everything from accidental arson to dating app invention, you know, normal Millennial stuff.
Fargo Season 4
The sprawling scope of the latest season of Fargo was a lot to take in. Still, it managed to present an ambitious and satisfying take on the series’ particular focus on organized crime, all while being something of a loose prequel. Focusing on two crime families in Kansas during the 1950s–the African-American gang the Cannon Limited, and the Italian-American Fadda Family–their ensuing conflict reveals that in the pursuit of success in America, the most underprivileged often have to fight amongst themselves to get ahead. Oh yeah, and there’s an awkward nurse moonlighting as a serial killer thrown into the mix. With particular shout outs to Chris Rock, E’myri Crutchfield, and Jessie Buckley, the ensemble cast dug deep in playing off the oddities and hypocrisy of life in the 1950s, all with the show’s signature American-Midwest stylings and humor were firing on all cylinders. The season’s standout episode was East/West, which not only served as a surprisingly touching tribute to The Wizard of Oz, but also allowed two of the season’s lesser-seen characters to shine.
Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey managed to sneak in under the wire as one of the year’s only superhero releases and theatrical blockbusters before the quarantine shut down most of the entertainment industry–and, despite getting a wide release, it still struggled to perform in the box office. However, those low numbers were anything but indicative of the movie’s success in the DCEU at large. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn shined as a larger-than-life live-action Looney Tune, surrounded by a cast of supporting characters that we can’t wait to see more from in the future.
Andy Samberg was once known for rapping about his private parts and mugging for the camera, but he’s slowly become one of the most entertaining and underrated actors in Hollywood. Nowhere is that more apparent than 2020’s Palm Springs, a movie we’re afraid to even describe lest we spoil the twist. Samberg takes an inherently silly concept and, with help from co-star Cristin Milioti, turns it into a smart, funny, and touching metaphysical love story
The formula for DC superhero shows is well-worn by Arrow, Flash, and the rest of the Arrowverse. This year, though, brought us a new contender in Stargirl. Stargirl began life on the now-defunct DC Universe streaming service before shifting to the CW. It tells the story of a young girl saddled with a lot of responsibility in a very weird town, but grounds the goings-on by always tying back to the theme of family–even for the genuinely scary villains. Great performances from Brec Bassinger and Luke Wilson bring a surprisingly well-crafted show to the next level.
Source: Game Spot Mashup