As 2020 sputters to its conclusion and film critics devise their year-end best-of lists (Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott’s are here), the customary consensus begins to form around a handful of widely beloved titles: “First Cow,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Beanpole,” “Martin Eden,” and the like. But a wide variety of at-home viewing options made this a particularly rich year for independent cinema, so in that spirit, this month’s selection of hidden streaming gems focuses solely on the films of 2020 — from heartfelt indie dramas to searing documentaries to, yes, a thriller about a man and his posterior.
‘I’m Your Woman’ (2020)
The director Julia Hart, whose stunning “Fast Color” was a superhero movie about people rather than powers, brings that same spirit to this ’70s-set story of a criminal’s wife on the lam; it’s not a crime movie in any conventional sense, but a character drama set on the fringes of the criminal underworld. Rachel Brosnahan (in a wonderful performance that’s 180 degrees from Midge Maisel) is Jean, a housewife pulled from her home in the middle of the night — with her new baby in tow — because her husband has disappeared and their lives are in danger. Hart handles the moments of suspense, action and terror with ease, but she doesn’t smother the viewer with style; her focus is squarely on Jean, which gives the picture an intimacy that’s rare but welcome in genre cinema.
Many of the plot points of Shannon Murphy’s coming-of-age drama — a terminally ill teen; her first love with a troubled, older bad boy; her pill-popping mom and poorly coping dad — have been done to the point of cliché, but rarely rendered with this much sincerity and humanity. “Babyteeth” is less about story than feeling, capturing the overwhelming force of being young and infatuated and fearless, as well as the desperation of parents in an impossible situation. Murphy’s direction takes a low-key, slice-of-life approach, emphasizing the sneaky humor of Rita Kalnejais’ screenplay and pulling warm, heart-wrenching performances from Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis.
‘Charm City Kings’ (2020)
The director Angel Manuel Soto does similar wonders with familiar materials in this Baltimore-set street drama, which explicitly recalls such urban coming-of-age pictures as “Boyz N the Hood” and “Juice.” But Soto finds a fresh approach, taking an almost anthropological appreciation of the setting — the film was inspired by the 2014 documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” and aims for a similar lived-in authenticity — while complicating his characters beyond their stock types. The performers do much of that work as well; young Jahi Di’Allo Winston is impressively assured as the protagonist Mouse, while the rapper Meek Mill finds just the right notes as Mouse’s troubled role model and father figure.
“Turn the music down, the music’s too loud,” the neighbor barks. “Don’t make me have to call the cops.” Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) hasn’t even made it to the door of his old home in Washington, D.C., but the warning from his new (white) neighbor makes it clear that the old block has changed, and not in a way that welcomes people like him. But urban gentrification isn’t the only subject of Merawi Gerima’s debut feature; as Jay reconnects with his neighborhood and its people, stories, sins and childhood traumas bubble back up to the surface, making “Residue” less a conventional narrative than a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the ongoing conversations between past and present.
‘She Dies Tomorrow’ (2020)
There will likely be a great many movies about the pandemic of 2020, and if we’re being honest, most of them will probably be terrible. The most enlightening cinematic representations of this peculiar moment may well be those that capture our tense and tenuous mental state accidentally, like this psychodrama from the writer and director Amy Seimetz, which was set to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March (one of the first major cultural casualties of Covid-19). It follows a series of seemingly sane and upper-class characters who, one by one, become convinced they’re about to die — a potent dramatization of the feeling that everything we know is coming to an end, and that paranoia and fear is the most infectious disease of all. (It’s also, by the way, very funny.)
‘His House’ (2020)
Genre filmmakers have spent the past three years trying (and mostly failing) to recreate the magic elixir of horror thrills and social commentary that made “Get Out” so special, but few have come as close as the British director Remi Weekes’s terrifying and thought-provoking Netflix thriller. He tells the story of two South Sudanese refugees who are placed in public housing while seeking asylum in London — a residence they are forbidden from leaving, which becomes a problem when things start going bump in the night. Weekes masterfully expands this simple haunted-house premise into a devastating examination of grief and desperation, but sacrifices no scares along the way, making “His House” a rare movie that prompts both tears and goose bumps.
‘Butt Boy’ (2020)
Early in Tyler Cornack’s comic thriller, Chip (played by Cornack himself) goes in for a routine medical checkup and discovers that he enjoys … how to put this discreetly … inserting things into himself. The direction Cornack and Ryan Koch’s screenplay takes after introducing this information is difficult to convey in a family newspaper, but suffice it to say that objects begin disappearing, and then pets, and then people, as “Butt Boy” attempts to not only send up the killer-next-door narrative but cop movies and addiction melodramas. It doesn’t all work, and a strong stomach is certainly required. But “Butt Boy” is, unapologetically, what it is, and you can’t help but admire the filmmakers’ stubborn determination to go all the way with their insane premise.
Twenty years ago, the director Michael Almereyda and the actor Ethan Hawke collaborated on a film version of “Hamlet” where the Danish prince delivers the “To be or not to be” speech in the aisle of a Blockbuster Video store. Their take on historical biopics is no less irreverent, dramatizing the life of the inventor Nikola Tesla with winking self-awareness, anachronistic flourishes and even a surprise musical interlude. Hawke is appropriately eccentric in the title role, while Kyle MacLachlan nearly steals the picture with his showy turn as an egocentric Thomas Edison.
‘Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn’ (2020)
Great historical documentaries don’t just explain important events; they connect them to the present, and ask what, if anything, we can learn. But even the filmmakers behind this made-for-HBO documentary couldn’t have predicted the relevance to be found this year in revisiting the 1989 murder of the 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, shot and killed in the white neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn for nothing more than being Black. The director Muta’Ali wisely situates Hawkins’ death within the charged racial atmosphere of New York in the 1980s, via the memories of those who were there, and the shocking archival footage of marches, violence and harassment. “Storm Over Brooklyn” is a film not only about Hawkins’ death but his life — and the lives of so many others at that difficult, dangerous moment in the city’s history.
This was a year of intensely personal documentaries — “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “Circus of Books,” and “Time” leap to mind — but few were as brutally, piercingly intimate as this debut feature from Sasha Joseph Neulinger. Drawing primarily from a vast archives of home videos from his childhood (his father, Henry, taped everything), Neulinger investigates his family’s cycle of sexual abuse like an outsider, reporting the story out from that archive as well as interviews with surviving family members and observers. But his proximity to the story is what ultimately renders “Rewind” so powerful, and the results seem as much an act of therapy and catharsis as nonfiction filmmaking.