So now I must put myself back to this series and let it rest once and for all: My List of Movies I Consider Severely Underrated. “Underrated” being a term a little bit more fluid for subjectivity than “Overrated” as there’s not a completely agreed upon definition of the term – It’s either a movie that is lesser-known by people or a movie that gets flack that fans feel is undeserved.
I’m trying to play to both worlds. These are movies I have a fondness for that I just get little-to-no show of hands for when I try to bring them up and sometimes it’s because nobody likes them and sometimes it’s because nobody’s seen them.
Well, look how the tables have now turned… Hohoho! I can love movies as much as I dislike them!
Also, a sidenote: There will be no Mad Max: Fury Road/Citizen Kane self-check here. It is much easier to pretend I love a movie too much than to pretend I dislike a movie too much. If I had movies to consider for that, it’d be Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire – the lesser known Disney Animation films. The pocketful of people who have seen these forgotten films champion it as more mature than much of the Disney Renaissance, I am not one of those guys. I have little love for these movies, they feel like WDAS playing out of their element.
Hey hey, that’s the beauty of subjective opinion. Let’s get to it so I can shut up now.
Strike (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein)
Eisenstein of course is cannoned like nobody’s business by film historians, filmmakers, and critics alike and yet this is the one film I rarely see anybody mention. And that stuns me as it’s a lot more compelling and thematically dense as macrostorytelling than Potemkin, but I guess the Odessa Steps gets burned into memory more.
Vampyr (1932, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)
You guys we almost lost this movie. Forever. And that would have been a shame because it is one of the most hallucinatory works of horror I have ever seen. I implore you, I beseech you to watch it. Dreyer does no wrong.
I also now have somewhat of a dream project to adapt it into a miniseries. The very bare and sparse plot (which gives way to heightened atmosphere of moving shadows and spaced-out performances) lends itself to that, I think, and I’d just love to explore how easily it is to make mood depressing and dark. And to play around with Dreyer’s style, since I’d most certainly make this miniseries mostly silent and in black and white.
An American in Paris (1951, dir. Vincent Minnelli)
Because we simply don’t see this movie talked about as much as Singin’ in the Rain or The Red Shoes or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and… that’s fine. Those are masterpieces in a manner that An American in Paris isn’t really, but I love the bigness and florid style Minnelli has never shied from and I eat up. And that final number is as ambitious a musical as they come… maybe only The Red Shoes‘ central ballet can take it on.
The Trouble with Harry (1955, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Wouldn’t you know it, Hitchcock did something near impossible. He took the exact same techniques and methods applied to his suspense films and thrillers and this time around applied it to a movie that is one of the few straightaway comedies he attempted and it works! His teasing sense of airing out the moments going into the laughs left us with some real belly bursters. This is why he’s the Master!
Shoot the Piano Player (1960, dir. Francois Truffaut)
Maybe one of the few times we can actually say a French New Wave picture stopped playing gangster and actually felt like a gangster picture in all the right and pleasant ways. It would fit right in with the fast yet criminal tones of the ’30s.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, dir. Jacques Demy)
I totally blame every last person in my life for not talking enough about Demy so I didn’t have to have just discovered his lovely musicals this year and wonder where he has been all my life.
Monterey Pop (1968, dir. D.A. Pennebaker)
Guys, believe it or not, this movie is better than Woodstock. All about the music. All about it.
Phantasm & Bubba Ho-Tep (1979/2002, dir. Don Coscarelli)
Maybe I ought to extend this to the entire Phantasm franchise, but man, it’s just a close to forgotten bit of originality and creativity to turn a boy’s nightmares into an adventure. Maybe the whole sibling thing is overdone, but yeah, I love the places Phantasm takes me.
As for Bubba Ho-Tep, well, you remember how I spent the Evil Dead reviews all on how well Bruce Campbell can play exaggeration to a responsive level? Well, say hello to the fact that he can also play subtle, small inner characters arcs (well… as small as playing Elvis Presley can be) giving depth themes about age, feeling left behind, and waiting for life to end. Ain’t he a treasure?
Twitch of the Death Nerve (1972, dir. Mario Bava)
You got your slashers because of Bava, now sleep in his grave!
Death Race 2000 (1975, prod. Roger Corman)
Corman’s films have always had that cheap enjoyable sense to themselves but are we going to also throw away the fact that Death Race 2000 is a pretty smart satire about television culture, gossip, and the pedestal raising of athletes? Am I reading too much about it? I don’t think so, but ok – it’s also just as fun and entertaining as any of Corman’s primes productions have been. Hell with Rocky or Rambo, THIS is my idea of how Sylvester Stallone oughtta be.
Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme)
The good thing is this – it’s not THAT obscure. Talking Heads fans love it. People who love good music (which of course will include Talking Heads fans) love it. Jonathan Demme fans, which I assume exist, have probably seen it a couple of times. People alive in 1984. So it’s not unknown and nobody I know has ever said a single bad thing about this movie, save for maybe the Tom Tom Club song.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I want this movie to rule the world.
Day of the Dead (1985, dir. George Romero)
Perhaps my fondness for it comes from how it’s the first of the trilogy I saw, but it’s considered the stepchild of the group and I don’t know why. People tell me Land of the Dead is better and hell with that. Day of the Dead is one of the finer zombie movies is existence. Anything in Romero’s original trilogy is.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986, dir. John Carpenter)
I really mentally wrestled with myself between putting this and Repo Man by Alex Cox and some Terry Gilliam stuff and this won out. I didn’t want to overburden my list with too much cult films, but hey, give them a check out. Please. Don’t make me feel weird for liking cult films.
Full Metal Jacket (1987, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
I don’t think this movie as a whole really needs as much defending as its second half. Sure, maybe you viewers feel a little bit empty by the exit of R. Lee Ermey’s loud presence, but… I think the second half is not only superior to the first, it is the payoff that the first needs in order to complete Full Metal Jacket‘s survey about the many ways war changes a man into a mindless killing machine.
Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, & Miller’s Crossing (1987/90/91, dir. the Coen brothers)
We talk about the Coen brothers all the damn time, but we don’t talk about these Coen brothers and damn it these are among the finest Coen brothers the Coens have ever brothered, with their slurry of wit, humor, and genre to make their place at the end of the conversation a shame.
Dick Tracy (1990, dir. Warren Beatty)
It’s vibrant, it’s poppy, each scene feels like a mini-movie in its own right, it’s Al Pacino carrying his later hammery to being a boon for Bad Boy Caprice, and it’s just unfortunate Warren Beatty and Disney feel so ashamed of this movie when Beatty’s developmental enthusiasm for the project shows in every single mark of its visuals and storytelling. I like my comic book movies feeling like moving panels and this has it without using the process that, well, Hulk ruined.
The People Under the Stairs (1991, dir. Wes Craven)
I promise this is not to cover for having two Craven films in my overrated list in a year where people are especially attached in reverence to the man. This is not only a severely underseen work of his, it’s a pretty spot-on recreation of classism and America’s disregard for its urban establishments and the black community (and it’s not the only horror movie to do this well – Clive Barker’s Candyman surpasses it both as a movie AND a social commentary). But it also works as another rise in Craven’s horror movie building technique, especially when the ghouls in question are domesticized in comparison to the real villains of this movie. It’s no Hills Have Eyes or Nightmare on Elm Street, but it’s a damn good time.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992, dir. David Lynch)
What’s with the hate for this movie? Sure, it’s not resolving the cliffhanger the series was cancelled on (though honestly, I was ok with that lack of resolution – though I welcome the upcoming episodes with open arms. This is probably a conversation for when I finally fulfill my Peaks destiny), but did you really think that was what it was about? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me didn’t just do an excellent job of illustrating all the complications of Laura Palmer’s life and psychology and shading in her ethereal near-invisible presence on the show with this flesh-and-blood real human being before us, it also was a shocking and repulsive portrayal of sexual abuse and what sometimes the victims has to go through in her mind to deal with it.
Prince of Darkness (1995, dir. John Carpenter)
I’m not a huge Carpenter apologist personally (I thought he sold out much much earlier than people think; he was re-hashing his work again and again and rarely ever emulated his idol Howard Hawks as much as he wanted to) but when the dude was on fire, he was BURNING like a motherfucker, even his haters have to admit that. Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China… this is the one that people pass over and that’s just wrong to me. Prince of Darkness carries that Lovecraftian weight without being as guarded about it as The Thing or as obnoxious as In the Mouth of Madness and is one of Carpenter’s many obvious pseudo-remakes of Rio Bravo (something I think applies to a good 3/4 of his movies) that can actually carry the energy without bothering to fill us in on narrative. Plus, those dream sequences are among the most potent hallucinatory horror work Carpenter has given us, bordering on Italian Gates of Hell.
Actually, that seems about right: Italian Gates of Hell picture + Rio Bravo + Lovecraft (with a dose of Pleasance harbinging doom again) = Prince of Darkness! If that doesn’t excite you, I don’t want to know you.
Showgirls (1995, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Here’s the thing: Verhoeven’s American movies have almost always been celebrated as intelligent satires with no subtlety whatsoever. RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, we’re always in on the joke. For some reason, this is considered the odd man out and I don’t get why? Because the actors suck? They sucked in Starship Troopers too. Because it’s not as overt as Christ metaphors and propaganda? It’s Hollywood sensationalism. Ayiyiyi, I feel alone. I feel alone.
Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow (1996/99, dir. Tim Burton)
Feel free to say what you want about Tim Burton post-1999, I will probably join you in jeering at his work. But 90s Burton is unfuckwitable for me and when it comes to his more cartoony works of this era… ain’t no cartoon like a Tim Burton cartoon, ’cause a Tim Burton cartoon don’t stop.
Schizopolis, Full Frontal, and Ocean’s Twelve (1996/2002/04, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
I like Soderbergh at his most experimental. I like Soderbergh at his anything for the most part, but when he really gets to breaking down elements of movie culture like narrative in Schizopolis, the line between reality established in a film and fiction created in a film in Full Frontal, or celebrity culture in Ocean’s Twelve (I mean, I don’t think people are wrong to hate the Julia Roberts thing, but I loved every second of it), I’m game to see what he does with it. And it always feels rewarding to have patience for that, it informs the way I want to make movies.
Plus, his movies look really cool when they do it. They really have style.
The End of Evangelion (1997, dir. Anno Hideaki)
Remember how the end of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion got people fired up to riot and break down the studio it was made in? Well, this movie definitely put salt on those wounds by being every bit more obtuse than the actual television finale, but I’m fine with that. The disappointment of Shinji’s lack of growth in the first half actually feels like genuine despondency that colors the author’s involvement (it also spoke a lot louder to me about depression than anything in the show – mostly because the movie doesn’t demand we sympathize with Shinji like the show kind of did, but berate him for dooming the world), while the second half is just a beautifully glowing abstract collage of images with vague connections to the ideas of the show as though it were a late overture put in the backend of the show rather than the front.
And then it ends with a most provocative moment for the lone Shinji and Asuka and stops. And I don’t move for a long while.
I was gonna put The Iron Giant here, but I don’t think that counts anymore, do you think? We just got a successful theatrical re-release of the movie that made up for its failed initial release and promised it a Blu-Ray release, plus Brad Bird’s career is kind of on a roll, even past the hiccup of Tomorrowland.
Mystery Men (1999, dir. Kinka Usher)
It IS a really dated movie (name the latest movie you saw half of these folks in and then name the latest movie they made you laugh in), BUT it’s also a grab-bag of the type of comedy you couldn’t get except in the 90s and the best of those comedy types: Gen-X, superhero parody (based on the actual comic tropes rather than the cartoons or movies! Oh joy!), puerile juvenilia paraded as adult humor in that Comedy Central manner, it’s all here and given some creative threads by the film’s more disgruntled city design that feels like it’s just exhausted all its potential to be a metropolis and just wants to go back to sleep, steaming sewer drains and all.
Ravenous (1999, dir. Antonia Bird)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is the best episode of Tales from the Crypt never made and Antonia Bird should have had a career. Life is not fucking fair.
The Cell & The Fall (2000/06, dir. Tarsem Singh)
“Yeah, his stories suck but his visuals are amazing” these are claims applied to the likes of Zack Snyder and Michael Bay (ironically, both of them were classmates of Singh in Film School), both of whom I’d argue actually look awful visually, but these claims should really be applied to Tarsem Singh’s underappreciated output (though I guess his last few movies have made him tough to love – Self/Less didn’t even look good) and while I’ll hold that story lament towards The Cell, the Fall is so much more than just a pretty picture. It is a story ABOUT telling stories. And works wonders around that between the two leads and the repeated stylistic elements from the child’s world and her dreams.
Shanghai Noon (2000, star Jackie Chan & Owen Wilson)
Hong Kong Jackie Chan from the 1980s and 1990s will always be superior to his attempts to break into Hollywood (or more so, Hollywood’s attempt to break him in). The man is too much of a master to be conformed. Police Story, Drunken Master II, and the like are godsends.
But American audiences are more quick to think of Rush Hour when they think of his movies. That just mortifies me – the first is tolerable, but the second and third installment are near unwatchable. Shanghai Noon always felt like the picture that cared a bit more about being a platform for showcasing Chan’s physical talents while playing to his broad strokes storytelling by being an unambitious but pleasant enough genre picture.
25th Hour & Inside Man (2002/06, dir. Spike Lee)
I know it’s shocking to some, but Spike Lee is perfectly capable of creative social portraits without bringing race into it and of making Scorsese-esque thrillers with only a minimum of artifice to his drama. I mean, sure his recent movies aren’t anything to be proud of, but Lee is not exactly a less than capable filmmaker so much as just a guy whose attitude has left him with very few resources.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005, dir. Shane Black)
Remember how in the Overrated list, I called this movie everything Last Action Hero wanted to be (I should note Black – perhaps the most accomplished writer in all of the action genre – wrote both LAH and this movie, the latter which was his directorial debut). Well, ahoy, ahoy, it most certainly is – it has the action setpieces, the detective story drama, and most importantly, all those shallow and toxic attitudes these movies have about women and masculinity and doesn’t hide those things.
Instead, by putting them in the hands of a narrator as unreliable and snarky as Robert Downey Jr., they just become aware that they’re problematic elements and self-critical. Not dismissed, but worse, Downey Jr.’s character stops let it hanging over his head (or if he tries Val Kilmer or Michelle Monaghan keep it hanging).
But more importantly, it does all this without ever feeling less than fun. I always feel like replaying this movie after I see it because it just feels done with way too soon, the banter between Downey and Kilmer is snappy and quotable like all hell. And the movie overall has a tone of cynical Godard, it knows it can’t be much more than just a shallow LA noir, but it also still knows that noirs are still fun and movie detectives are always going to be the coolest. And Gay Perry van Shrike and Harry Lockhart are as cool as they come.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005, dir. Doug Liman)
Come on, this was kind of the last of the great screwball couples, we don’t see this kind of romantic comedy work anywhere else. Right there with William Powell & Myrna Loy, or Cary Grant & Katherine Hepburn, or Grant & Rosalind Russell, or Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda, here we have ourselves the last of that dying race: Brad Pitt & Angeline Jolie playing off each others chemistry to make each other believable as romantic foils AND as enemies. I probably won’t see another screen couple do it as damned well as they do it, since it helps that Pitt and Jolie have established themselves as the coolest and sexiest people on the screen in the eyes of their audience. Hell, I don’t even find either actor THAT attractive and I still fall for the kinetic charge they give off in this film.
How do people dislike this movie? Is everybody Jennifer Aniston in disguise or something?
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, dir. Tommy Lee Jones)
Tommy Lee Jones, as a director of Westerns, is just about the perfect visual and audial eye for the dried up skeleton ground and the teasing hot winds of the genre and I want HIM and nobody fucking else to make Blood Meridian into a movie like yesterday. He’s so much more gifted as a director as he already is as an actor, carrying both the morality and the exhausting atmosphere that a Western demands and after nourishing his stories with enough of those elements to make it feel weighty and make me involved, he pulls the rug out under me as a viewer and saps all my hope away til I feel bone-dry like the sands. If that doesn’t scream Cormac McCarthy to you, you haven’t read his works.
War of the Worlds (2005, dir. Steven Spielberg)
I made basically an essay when I came to it in an October list, but the basic gist of my feelings is: it’s surrounding, it’s loud, and it’s confusing in all the right ways that make it scary once the aliens begin attacking the Earth and that’s all the satisfaction I need to forgive Tom Cruise’s contrived narrative whose only real purpose is to have the worst luck so we can keep running into this huge and heartstopping setpieces with him and Spielberg can partake in all the grounded and harsh realism that 50s Hollywood sci-fi and destruction pictures could only dream of without the technology that was his playground then.
Fuck with me.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006, dir. Scott Glosserman)
Same with Stop Making Sense, it has a small yet dedicated fanbase of which I belong to, but why? It is a slasher that recognizes itself as a slasher to the point of letting itself take a point of view shift in its last third that only gets jarring for a few minutes until we actually start to let the movie continue with us watching. Until then it’s totally willing to guide us along with the “tricks of the trade” – both in slasher killing and in slasher movie tropes – pretty much acknowledging everything that we laugh and joke about, from the impossible physics to the misogyny of the genre, in hilarious fashion without ever denying these movies or the fans who love them any dignity. And Nathan Baesel is charismatic as one can be as the central killer. And yet this movie only has a niche audience and the creators of this movie, almost ten years later, have made NOTHING ELSE. NOT. A. THING. No shit.
Life is REALLY unfair.
Crank & Crank 2: High Voltage (2006/09, dir. Neveldine/Taylor)
It’s pretty goshdarn fearless and I love that about it – the first movie alone drives its energy into the ground (and it’s short enough that I don’t get tired of it), but the second movie just keeps digging and digging for more ridiculous ways to continue the story of Chev Chelios, a man who is damn near unstoppable and made to exist by a performance by Jason Statham that is basically him going “well, fuck it! I would love to do all these things anyway!” And hey, it’s not just Statham, but we have directors willing toy around with visual elements to the point that Chev reacts to simple things like subtitles, breaking the fourth wall and a guy’s face at the same time to a soundtrack that feels like the musical equivalent of drinking a fizzy soda, eating a whole pack of mentos in one gulp, and shaking yourself for an hour (the score to the second movie is composed by my favorite vocalist ever, Mike Patton, and sounds like his sort of work: avant-garde tribal and primitive tones resembling something of a heartbeat). And a cast that is just as willing to say ridiculous things (the second movie has a hella lotta fun with the news anchors reacting to what they’re reading on-air and a layout of Chelios troubled childhood without going into all that “Oh poor Chev had a bad life!” sympathetic attitude) including performances by Dwight Yoakam, Amy Smart, Efren Ramirez, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Bai Ling, Clifton Collins Jr., David Carradine, Ginger Spice, Corey Haim, Glenn Howerton, Chester Bennington, Maynard James Keenan (doing something other than recording a new Tool album… AGAIN!), and so many more and everybody takes it to 11.
What results is a fiery wreck that’s still so goddamn fun to watch. You live this movie, man.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, dir. Guillermo del Toro)
REALLY unpopular opinion time: this is my favorite Del Toro film. And that’s quite a leap to make – not only because this movie is kind of dismissed by even his biggest fans, but because – while conceding that I disliked Mimic and have not yet seen Crimson Peak – I LOVE HIS MOVIES. Faults and all, they are inspired and stylized with mixings of angelic monstrosities and living landscapes of stone and teeth for our eyes to explore the frame with. And yet, I think THIS is the movie where he feels most relaxed – he’s in his element with that beautiful underground monster bazaar and the environmental domain of the elves (feeling like if Miyazaki decided to animate with weathered stone rather than pen and paper) and he outright throws away any interest in secrecy with Hellboy – using it to further the development of these characters and make both their pains and their humor (there’s a lot of laughs in this movie that I didn’t expect) feel more amiable. And hell, even the villain Nuada seems like a guy whose heart is in the right place, as the movie ends on many unexpected notes that make me really really desperate for that sequel. Anytime now, Guillermo and Ron…
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, dir. Steven Spielberg)
OK, this one I can get people having a problem with. We didn’t need a new Indiana Jones film, same as we didn’t need a fourth season of Arrested Development. Especially when both ended on perfect notes. But you know what? I like the fourth season of Arrested Development too. Sure, they’re significantly less than their predecessors (well… I don’t think we can claim Temple of Doom is anywhere near as good as Kingdom), but I have a damn good time with both and recognize vintage Indy moments in Kingdom just as well as others.
Plus, are we kind of forgetting that, even with the near-perfection of Raiders of the Lost Ark, there are ridiculous moments in the original trilogy? And I’ll even take the way they treated Marion Ravenwood as a character here than in Raiders and I swear by Raiders.
The Limits of Control (2009, dir. Jim Jarmusch)
I know it feels uneventful or about nothing, but look at the title and then look at the content of the film, or better, Isaach de Bankole’s character. Does it kind of start to make sense now? Are you beginning to understand it now? Now you are allowed to hate it or love it. I mean, I find it unfortunate that we have an ADD esque culture that has a problem with a movie this dedicated to spanning its ideas out.
I can’t bring myself to listing movies from the past five years that I feel are underrated simply because I think the test of time has a lot of involvement in a movie’s status as underrated – as opposed to being immediately overrated which could just be given in as immediate word-of-mouth hype. There is still avenue for a movie’s reception to be raised in that five year span or even inflated.
But if I had to pick my underrated films of the 10s, I feel I’d get more shit my way than my overrated list:
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Rango, Haywire, Magic Mike, Cloud Atlas, The Lords of Salem, The Last of the Unjust, The Homesman, Jupiter Ascending, Blackhat