This year’s Oscars ceremony has come and gone. The winners have collected their applause and gold statuettes, and the losers have gone home empty-handed. But thousands of movies come out every year, and only a fraction of a fraction can make it to the level of “buzzy,” let alone get nominated for an Academy Award. In 2020, dozens, if not hundreds, of phenomenal movies premiered, and either quickly faded from the public consciousness, or escaped notice outside of “film geek” circles entirely.
Luckily, Hidzir Junaini is one such film geek. Junaini, a film and television critic and commentator at NME and an editor at Popwire, found the roster of Oscar nominations this year refreshingly diverse. That being said, he wasn’t overly surprised by the films that made it all the way to the end of the race. Though he adored movies like Nomadland and Minari, he doesn’t think that Academy members do their due diligence and really try to catch enough of the movies that come out each year. “Nominations are always ultimately about exposure and campaigning,” he explains, “and an indie studio can almost never compete with the big boys.”
Beyond finances, there are also genre biases on the awards circuit—deserving horrors, comedies, fantasies, and sci-fi popcorn flicks rarely get formal recognition. “Ultimately, I don’t really put too much credence into the Oscars these days,” Junaini says of what dictates his watchlist. “There are just too many other good movies out there, and plenty of others ways to discover them.”
To get an idea of the ones he’s discovered and loved, Vogue Singapore sat down with Junaini to discuss the best movies of last year that were overlooked by the Academy—and, in many cases, by general audiences—entirely. While a movie is generally considered to be a “snub” when it’s a shock that they’re not nominated, these films are a collection of hidden gems that gleamed brightly for a few weeks and then faded from the conversation.
There were plenty of movies that made it into our discussion with Junaini that aren’t included on this list. (Honourable mentions include The King of Staten Island, Shithouse, Babyteeth, Saint Frances, Miss Juneteenth, Swallow, Beanpole, and Blow the Man Down.) But if a list absolutely has to be whittled down to 10 titles, these are Junaini’s recommendations. Catch them as soon as you can.
1 / 10
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
A pair of teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania travel to New York City to seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy.
“This was hands-down my favourite film of last year. The young actors [Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder] are spectacular. Their microexpressions convey these complex psychological emotions without ever fully articulating them. And that this was Flanigan’s first movie. I just… It’s so quiet, and must have been so difficult to pull off, but the final film is absolutely wonderful.”
2 / 10
Two con artists have spent their daughter’s entire life training her to swindle and scam every step of the way. During one of their homemade heists, a stranger joins them—and turns their world upside down.
“Evan Rachel Wood has really been phoning it in on Westworld for the past few seasons, so I really appreciate watching her stretch in this. Kajillionaire is bizarre. It’s quirky, but not “Wes Anderson quirky,” if that makes sense. It feels lived in. And Miranda July [the director]? I love everything she does. Despite that, it’s not that spectacularly directed. But it’s so much fun to watch, and you can try to puzzle out exactly where it fits into the cultural conversation at the same time.”
3 / 10
An assistant to a powerful media executive goes about the drudgery of her daily routine, growing uncomfortably aware of the insidious abuse that surrounds her working environment.
“Garner. Is. Phenomenal. So is the movie surrounding her. It’s not a story about Weinstein, but rather the people who enabled him. It’s about culpability in silence. That’s a grey area, though, which is exactly what the industry doesn’t want to talk about. It touches too much of a nerve, which is a shame. What better way to say mea culpa than by using a really great movie?”
4 / 10
When Nyles and Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated as they are unable to escape the same day—or each other.
“As good as it is, Palm Springs never stood a chance during awards season. I can’t think of a comedy that’s ever been nominated [for an Oscar]. We’ve seen the time loop concept done a million times, in films like Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day. But it’s never been done like this before. Palm Springs interrogates the feasibility of long-term relationships in a breezy, fresh way. It considers the idea of consequences and taking responsibility without ever being heavy handed.”
5 / 10
Nobody is safe: an elite corporate assassin uses brain-implant technology to take control of other people’s bodies and eliminate high-profile targets. A mission gone wrong traps her inside a mind that threatens to consume her from the inside-out.
“This is such a midnight movie, and deserved some recognition. But if Toni Collette can’t win [for Hereditary], then nobody else in a horror movie stands a chance. The only exception I can think of to this was Get Out, which was so timely, and all-around excellent, they had to recognise it. Possessor is disturbing and cerebral, and very violent and dystopian. I love it.”
6 / 10
A taciturn cook has travelled west into the Oregon Territory and finds a friend in a Chinese immigrant seeking his fortune. They join forces to embark on a risky business venture—risky, because their business is reliant on stealing the milk from a wealthy landowner’s prized cow.
“Amazing. First Cow is a little esoteric, very slow, incredibly methodical—not unlike Nomadland in tone, actually. The difference is that First Cow doesn’t have a big-name actor for a protagonist. There was a lot of buzz around this movie when it first came out, but I always thought it was sort of a long shot for that reason. But it should have at least gotten a nomination for its score! That said, you can’t miss this one. It’s so good.”
7 / 10
A famous horror writer, loosely based on real life novelist Shirley Jackson, finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple as boarders.
“I’m such a big fan of [Shirley] Jackson. Shirley is a fascinating character study—it’s docufiction in a way. It’s certainly not a biopic in a traditional sense. It’s a study of writer’s block, and lengths a writer will go to to dispel it. And [Elisabeth] Moss—well, Moss has made a career out of being unhinged. It’s fantastic.”
8 / 10
The Vast of Night
At the dawn of the Space Age, two radio-obsessed teens in a small town discover a strange frequency over the local airwaves, which might just be an extra-terrestrial beacon.
“The Vast of Night is a super micro-budget sci-fi. It’s super different and is incredibly artistically ambitious. It’s this quiet, Twilight Zone-esque story that investigates this sound out of space. It’s almost like a radio drama in a way. There’s this one long take that leads the viewer around the entire town—and it never cuts. The behind-the-scenes of that absolutely blew my mind. I still can’t figure out how they did it. Weird as hell, and wonderful.”
9 / 10
An ambitious entrepreneur brings his American wife and kids to his native country, England. But abandoning American suburbia means plunging headlong into the despair of archaic ’80s Britain and a sprawling, decaying English manor house that threatens to rip the family apart.
“The Nest is a really solid middlebrow film, of the kind that we don’t see too much of these days. Today, you’ve got your “highbrow” Oscar bait and your “lowbrow” action flicks. But the ’80s and ’90s were dominated by the middlebrow, movies that were accessible to the mainstream. And there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s a mature story about a disintegrating marriage. It’s a seemingly boring premise with some incredibly novellistic depths to it. [Carrie] Coon definitely should have gotten some recognition.”
10 / 10
She Dies Tomorrow
A woman is struck down by the unshakeable idea that she is going to die tomorrow, which sends her into a dizzying emotional spiral. Her friend discovers this feeling to be contagious—and pretty soon, people all over town are undergoing bizarre journeys through what they believe to be the last day of their lives.
“This is a cool film, where its ambition exceeds its grasp. But it’s still worth a watch anyways. There’s this whole idea of a mental illness that’s highly contagious—and this was all filmed before the pandemic. It’s like a series of short stories, which all build into this mosaic examination of what different people would do if they genuinely believed the world was going to end the next day. Very relevant.”