Even a worldwide pandemic hasn’t stopped Netflix in its quest to be the most prolific content-making machine around. By the time that this year from hell draws to a close, the streaming giant will have dropped more than 450 different originals in the space of just 12 months.
Of course, from Tiger King to Emily in Paris, most of us appear to have spent lockdown binge watching the same handful of guilty pleasures. But away from the worlds of mullet-haired polygamous zoo owners and ludicrous French stereotypes, you’ll find numerous other new films, shows and specials worthy of gracing your Netflix watchlist. Here’s a look at ten of 2020’s most underrated movies and TV shows.
Writer/director Alan Yang had already touched upon the Asian-American immigrant experience in the sublime ‘Parents’ episode of Master of None. In his semi-autobiographical feature-length debut, the Emmy winner gets to further expand on the sacrifices made, hardships faced and opportunities missed by the likes of his real-life father.
Spanning multiple generations, Tigertail chronicles a grocery store worker’s journey from the poverty-stricken rice fields of Taiwan to the humdrum suburbs of New York and the emotional disconnect that results. Boasting a heartfelt performance from The Farewell’s Tzi Ma, this subtle and sensitive character study shows how the reality of the American Dream rarely matches the fantasy.
Most of the attention surrounding The Eddy focused on the involvement of Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle. But although the La Land director skilfully sets the freewheeling tone in his opening two episodes, the Parisian jazz club drama only truly comes alive after he’s passed on the reins.
It’s here that the show’s central murder mystery veers off into other interesting directions, allowing all the major players to get their moment in the spotlight. Tying it all together is André Holland, who shines as a retired pianist struggling to keep both the eponymous Parisian venue and his personal life afloat. And as you’d expect, few shows sound more dynamic.
Cate Blanchett pulls double duty in this empathetic, if often unflinching, insight into the machinations of Australia’s immigration policies. Stateless sees its co-creator and Dominic West play married cult leaders whose sinister sides compel a disciple to assume a different national identity, only to find herself detained indefinitely in the Aussie outback.
This bewildering (loosely-adapted) real-life tale is cleverly interwoven with three other compelling detention center back stories, involving a desperate Afghan refugee, an out-of-her-depth administrator and a reluctant new security guard. Putting a human face on a crisis that can often seem abstract, the six-part drama is a powerful watch that doesn’t shy away from asking the most uncomfortable of questions.
Note: if you’re in Australia, you can stream this one on ABC iview.
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado
Chances are, the name Walter Mercado means little to you. In Latin America, however, the flamboyant astrologist was a treasure. Filmed shortly before his death at the age of 87, this affectionate documentary – named after his famous catchphrase – explains how Puerto Rico’s answer to Russell Grant captured the hearts of so many.
The former soap opera actor, who’d been out of the public eye since 2006, radiates an eccentric charm as he recalls his early years on the stage, reflects on his spirituality and meets long-time fan Lin-Manuel Miranda. Mercado’s predictions may have been pure hokum, but the man himself was 100% genuine.
Nobody Knows I’m Here
Best known as Lost’s wisecracker Hugo ‘Hurley’ Reyes, Jorge Garcia plays against type in this understated Chilean drama from first-timer Gaspar Antillo. The leading man barely utters more than two dozen words as an anti-social recluse who spends his days tending sheep and his nights nosily wandering around neighboring homes.
Yet his world-weary expressions alone manage to convey the pain and resentment built up since the record industry Milli Vanilli’d his teenage vocals, depriving him of the pop career dream he still holds on to. Unafraid to slide into flights of fancy, Nobody Knows I’m Here has a surrealist, disquieting edge which makes it stand out from most other meditations on fame.
The latest of several recent Netflix originals to explore gentrification (see Vampires vs. the Bronx, Gentefied), Merawi Gerima’s debut is by far the most striking. Residue stars Obinna Nwachukwu (one of the film’s few professional actors) as a young African-American filmmaker returning from the bright lights of LA to his less glamorous Washington D.C. hometown for inspiration.
But as dreamlike flashbacks show, his old stomping ground has now changed beyond all recognition, leaving the prodigal son with survivor’s guilt and those he left behind with concerns about his motives. Distributed by the indie company founded by Ava DuVernay, this poignant, impressionistic tale suggests Gerima is destined for more amazing work.
Middleditch and Schwartz
Transferring the energy of live comedy from the venue to the screen is difficult enough without throwing in the hit-and-miss art form of improvisation too. So it’s quite the feat that Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley’s painfully awkward tech genius Richard Hendricks) and Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation’s scene-stealing baller Jean-Ralphio) command attention for every minute of their three near-hour-long specials.
The long-time friends draw upon their natural chemistry and vast experience of the improv circuit to take some rather banal audience prompts (job interview, law school, wedding) into all kinds of weird and wonderful narrative paths. You’ll marvel at their willingness to laugh at themselves just as much as their spontaneity.
Netflix finally got in on the podcast adaptation action this year by tasking Hrishikesh Hirway with adapting Song Exploder, the music-deconstructing hit once described as “the best use of the format ever.” The smooth-voiced host proves to be equally engaging in front of the camera, establishing an easy-going rapport with all four artists, offering an intriguing insight into their songwriting process.
It doesn’t particularly matter whether you know, or even like, the tracks meticulously pored over by Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M. and Ty Dolla $ign. Hirway’s infectious enthusiasm and the creative mix of archival footage, studio sessions and lyrical visuals ensure these deep dives entertain whatever your tastes.
A late contender for 2020’s best horror movie, Remi Weekes’ remarkable debut laces magical realism with harrowing social commentary for a genuinely scary haunted house tale. BAFTA winner Wunmi Mosaku and Gangs of London’s Sope Dirisu play a refugee couple who survive a tragic journey to suburban England from South Sudan, only to be placed in such hellish accommodation that suddenly their war-torn homeland looks appealing.
Some magnificently creepy sound design and folklore-inspired imagery will have many viewing through their fingers. Yet it’s when the pair encounter the outside world (a daytime walk across a labyrinthian estate threatens to turn particularly nasty) that His House truly sends shivers down the spine.
Jumping on the horror anthology bandwagon kickstarted by Black Mirror, this Norwegian original uses a hell-bound, midnight bus journey to link six short stories which balance their scares with plenty of gallows humour. With only half an hour to spare, each tale gets refreshingly straight to the point: standouts include Lab Rats (owner of a pharmaceutical company turns a dinner party into a humiliating interrogation about a stolen prototype) and Bad Writer (privileged aspiring author discovers her perfect life is at the mercy of a scriptwriter). But there isn’t a dud to be found in an inventive series which proves there’s more to Nordic TV than rain-soaked, woolly-jumpered murder mysteries.