Summer blockbusters have started to look the same in recent years: iterations from the same franchises, with comic-book superheroes leading the pack again and again. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 summer-movie season never really began. With Hollywood’s biggest films delayed for months, or indefinitely, I’ve assembled a list of unconventional and underrated movies with a much more eclectic range of heroes to cheer for or be thrilled by. (This year, I’ve also compiled watchlists of unexpected cinematic masterpieces and utterly singular movies for audiences looking to discover their new favorite film in quarantine.)
Most of the works mentioned below are driven by a single, unforgettable lead performance, in the way that many of the best mainstream superhero movies are—though you don’t need to be a Marvel fan to enjoy these picks. I’ve divided the list into true-story films, movies about antiheroes, feel-good fare, and action hits that you can enjoy without any comic-book knowledge. These projects are the kinds of largely unheralded wonders that Hollywood should produce more of once summer movies can make a comeback.
The Hidden (1987, directed by Jack Sholder)
A cult hit that deserves to be replayed on cable TV for eternity, The Hidden is a barnstorming piece of pulp cinema about an alien parasite rampaging through Los Angeles. Jumping from host to host, a creepy extraterrestrial slug takes over people’s brains and wreaks havoc, drawing the attention of the LAPD detective Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri) and the FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle McLachlan). Gallagher is the film’s truly original creation, portrayed in a brilliantly odd fashion from McLachlan that comes in between his best collaborations with David Lynch (Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks). You see, Gallagher is an alien too, but a good one, hoping to neutralize the parasitic threat—and McLachlan leans into all the weird tics and affectations of an otherworldly being pretending to be a good old-fashioned gumshoe.