You ever come across a movie that you just loved, but no one else around you seemed to like or understand? I have, and on multiple occasions. So many times, in fact, that I’ve decided to compile a list of my fifteen favorite underrated films. Why fifteen? Because I like to give 150%. Anyway, my hope is that, by sharing the names of these pictures with the readers of my blog, I’ll be able to expose more people to their brilliance, and subsequently aid the talented artists who made them. Just to be clear, when I say “underrated” I’m referring to a well-acted, well-written, and well-produced film that, for whatever reason, was either critically or financially unsuccessful at the time of its release. It can have a large or small budget, be directed by a Hollywood A-lister, or an obscure Art House Intellectual. All it has to be is a good movie that wasn’t appreciated when it first came out. But, why waste any more time telling you about these pictures? Let me show them to you! Here are my fifteen favorite underrated films!
Number 15: The Lady Vanishes, by Alfred Hitchcock.
The name of Alfred Hitchcock will forever be linked to such classic thrillers as Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window and North By North-West. But what many people forget is that he had quite a successful film career back in the UK before he came to America. The Lady Vanishes is just a single excerpt from that impressive earlier portfolio. A humorous and exciting tale of intrigue and espionage, it tells the story of a group of British tourists and their misadventures while on holiday in a fictional Eastern European country. Possessing many of Hitchcock’s trademark storytelling devices, including a slow, atmospheric start, constant misdirection and continuous narrative twists, Lady kept me laughing and on the edge of my seat until the very end. Considerably lighter in tone than other Hitchcock movies, Lady is a good place to start for any cinephiles out there who might be too timid to watch Psycho or The Birds. Its always enjoyable to see the early work of a genius, and with Lady, that work is both interesting and impressive. I would strongly advise any fans of Mr Hitchcock or simply of good cinema to check this one out.
Number 14: Miller’s Crossing, by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Anyone who’s familiar with the Coen Brother’s movies knows that much of their work is inspired by classic noir. The title of their first film, Blood Simple, is a reference to the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, while the classic stoner comedy The Big Lebowski is, in essence, the Coens interpreting how their real life friend, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, would react were he placed in the Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep. Basically, the Coens are no strangers to the world of wise guys, spies, and private eyes. What’s unique about their 1990 flick Miller’s Crossing is that here, rather than simply allude to or draw inspiration from the gangster genre, they went ahead and made a full fledged mobster movie. And what a movie it is! Blessed with superb dialogue, exquisite costumes and stellar performances from its stars, Gabriel Byrne, John Torturro and Albert Finney, Miller’s Crossing was lauded by critics when it first came out, but only managed to collect a modest $5 million at the box office. I suppose that, with so many other mobster movies coming out that year–Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III–people were just weary of the gangster genre, and so didn’t find the time or energy to go see an intelligent, intricately-crafted film like Miller’s Crossing. But that doesn’t mean that you all shouldn’t! Give it a look when you’ve got the chance.
Number 13: Turtles Can Fly, by Bahman Ghobadi.
There are some movies out there that are so shocking, so eye-opening, that they change the way we look at the world. For me, Turtles Can Fly was one such movie. I doubt that any of you have ever heard of it, but this harrowing and heart-breaking Kurdish picture is the first foreign film ever to be shot in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Set in 2004, in a small refugee camp along the Turkish border, the story revolves around a group of children, many of them disabled, as they struggle to survive day after day with the threat of an American invasion looming on the horizon. It was the first war movie I’d ever seen that dealt with the suffering of the civilians, with the total squalor and penury that the dispossessed live in before and after the last shot is fired. I’d never heard of the Kurds before I watched this movie. I didn’t know about the absolutely atrocious conditions that people lived in under the HUssein regime. I never would have imagined that children would also be the victims of rape and torture until I saw this film. Turtles Can Fly sickened me, saddened me, and educated me, and allowed me to look at the War in Iraq, a conflict I’d long been opposed to, in a far more nuanced light. It’s a film that I’ll never forget, and one that I think all people who’d like to understand the Middle-East conflict and Iraq a little bit better should see.
Number 12: Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, by Zhang Yimou.
Though he’d already won critical praise for such exquisite dramas as Raise The Red Lantern, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou first broke into the American mainstream with the martial arts epic Hero. And for good reason. A colorful, visually-striking spectacle, it synthesized unbelievable fight choreography with strong performances from its leads–Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung–and also managed to raise some interesting questions about the role of government in ensuring stability and the point where personal loyalty must be sacrifice for the greater good. In a word, it was awesome. Another equally awesome, but considerably less well-known film from Zhang Yimou is the 2005 drama, Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles. A quiet, touching picture, it tells the story of an aging Japanese man trying to make amends with his estranged, and terminally ill son, by going to China to videotape a rare nuo opera performance. What I was most struck by when I first saw this movie was that the majority of the actors in it are amateurs. You’d never guess it to look at them, which is a testament to how good they are. Plus, I enjoyed the fact that Yimou chose to follow the grand, ostentatious extravaganza that was Hero with this gentler, more realistic piece. In my mind, Riding Alone showed the true depth and range he had as an artist, and made me that much more interested in his other films. And honestly, what could be better than watching a movie about love, reconnection and reconciliation?
Number 11: Dead Man, by Jim Jarmusch.
Thanks to directors like Sergio Leone, the Western genre will forever be associated with bar brawls, gun fights, and other such ridiculous displays of machismo. JIm Jarmusch’s slow-paced, cerebral, black and white potboiler Dead Man is about as far from all that as you can imagine, which, in my mind, is what makes it the ideal Western movie. Part poetry, part satire, part psychedelic rock, Dead Man is an intelligent, engaging and altogether unreal audio-visual experience. Anyone who’s read my early blogs knows how adamant I am about this picture, and if any of you get the time to watch it as well, you’ll understand why.
Number 10: Lake View Terrace, by Neil Labute.
Horrendous flops like 2006’s The Wicker Man have made director and playwright Neil LaBute a laughing stock. But what the people who hurl the most biting remarks often forget is that, before and after his embarrassing collaboration with the king of kabuki acting, Nicolas Cage, Mr LaBute made several financially, if not critically, successful films, the most notable of which is Lake View Terrace. A harsh, racially-charged thriller, it tells the tale of Abel Turner, a black LAPD officer, and his increasingly hostile relationship with his new neighbors, a young interracial couple. With such stars as Samuel L Jackson and Kerry Washington in the lead, it almost goes without saying that they acting in this movie is superb. The cinematography is also something to be admired. In keeping with the effect that extreme heat can have on people’s judgement, the filmmakers drained all cool colors from the movie’s images. But what I truly appreciated about Lake View Terrace is that each of its characters is realistic and well-rounded. Few films made these days can claim to have no real villain, and Lake View Terrace is one of them. People who’ve seen the movie might argue that Abel is the bad guy, but I would tend to disagree. True, he’s not the friendliest of men. He slashes his neighbors tires, and sends a burglar into their home to mess it up but, we also see him act as a loving, if strict, father, and a dedicated law enforcement officer. Hell, the first thing we see him do is look at his wife’s picture and pray. Basically, Lake View Terrace is too thoughtful, too complicated, to be categorized, trivialized or demonized. To quote the late Roger Ebert, “Some will find it exciting. Some will find it an opportunity for an examination of conscience. Some will leave feeling vaguely uneasy. Some won’t like it and will be absolutely sure why they don’t, but their reasons will not agree. Some will hate elements that others can’t even see. Some will only see a thriller. I find movies like this alive and provoking, and I’m exhilarated to have my thinking challenged at every step of the way.
Number 9: Red Belt, by David Mamat.
The first film I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in was not, as it was for many of my classmates, 12 Years A Slave, but rather, this slick, low budget, critically-acclaimed neo-noir martial arts thriller. I enjoyed this movie so much when I saw it, and have so thoroughly associated it with Mr Ejiofor as an actor that, now, whenever someone mentions his name, my first response is usually something along the lines of “Oh! You mean the Red Belt guy?” The story of a morally stalwart, if financially insecure jujitsu instructor, this film deals with corruption and intrigue within the world of professional fighters, and is populated by a number of extremely interesting, highly unique characters, including a young lawyer recovering from the trauma of a rape, an emotionally unstable LAPD officer, and an aging movie star with anger issues. When I first saw the film, I had just begun to study Aikido, and so its fight sequences and philosophy really resonated with me. Then, three years later, when I stopped taking martial arts and reexamined the movie, I found that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than the first time. True, its ending is a bit abrupt, but the film more than makes up for that with plot intricacy and character development. So, whether you’re a diehard fan of the martial arts, or simply someone who likes good cinema, Red Belt should definitely be at the top of your Netflix queue.
Number 8: John Rabe, by Florian Gallenberger.
If ever there was a movie made with me in mind for an audience member, it would have to be John Rabe. A 2008 German-Sino-French film, directed by two time Oscar winner Florian Gallenberger, this modern masterpiece tells the true tale of John Rabe, a German businessman who, while living as an expatriate in China, witnesses the horrors of the Rape of Nanking first hand, and decides to get involved. Working with several other foreigners, including a French teacher, an American doctor, and a German-Jewish diplomat, Rabe establishes the Nanking Safety Zone, and saves the lives of nearly 250,000 people. When I first saw this movie, I was overcome with a multitude of emotions, foremost among them, gratitude. For three years after I moved to Maryland from Germany, all I ever heard from people was how I was a “Nazi” and how “all you krauts are evil.” This film, a true an inspiring story of a German risking his life and business to save innocent civilians, was more than refreshing. The fact that it was set in China, and revolved around the Rape of Nanking, an event that I have long been interested in and have a personal connection to, was a huge bonus. Add to that the fact that its shot in all the right languages–German, Japanese, Mandarin, English–and the fact that all the actors portraying Germans, Japanese, Chinese, French and Americans are actually from these countries, and I’m one happy camper. Now, some of you might be thinking, “okay Nathan, you’ve told us why it made you feel good, but what about us? Will we, people who don’t have personal connections to Germany or China, enjoy it? Is the movie actually any good?” YES! YES! YES! In addition to being visually striking and historically accurate, the film has a beautiful soundtrack and astounding acting. The movie’s stars, Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Jingchu, Anne Consigny, and Steve Buscemi (Yes! That Steve Buscemi. Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, Big Fish, The Sopranos) don’t simply portray their historical counterparts, they become them. You actually believe that they’re in a horrendous, inhumane circumstance, and that they want to help, knowing that doing so will likely just make the whole situation worse. Each character has a personality and an arc, and you feel genuine sympathy for all of them. It’s not too long, it’s very well acted, it’s historically accurate and it addresses an event and people that both merit greater attention. What can I say? It’s awesome. Check it out.
Number 7: Rosewood, by John Singleton.
Every great director has, at one point in his or her life, made a movie that, while as interesting and well crafted as his or her hits, nevertheless remains unknown to the public. For the Coen’s that movie is Miller’s Crossing, for Christopher Nolan it’s Insomnia, for the Wachowski Brothers its Bound, and for John Singleton its Rosewood. An intense, perfectly cast, beautifully shot drama, this last film gives a fictionalized account of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, the burning of an all-black town that took place down in Florida. A rich, multi-layered movie, Rosewood was showered with praise upon its initial release back in 1997, and yet only managed to reclaim a modest $13 million from its $30 million budget. Which doesn’t make sense, if you ask me. Sure, the movie is over two hours long and it takes some serious liberties with history, but its so well acted, and has so many interesting scenes that move the plot forward, that you never get bored or really care if its inaccurate. But what really stands out to me about Rosewood is the amount of depth and internal strife that every character has. Each person that’s presented to you has a name, and some individual issue that needs to be addressed. Within the single family of Jon Voight’s character, for example, there are at least three separate conflicts–his desire to protect his black neighbors while not endangering his family; his sons’ distrust of their new step mother; his new wife’s sense of isolation in Rosewood, and so on. A truly great film is one that has several believable sub-plots that are continually addressed throughout the story and add color and texture to the overall narrative. Rosewood possesses plenty of these, and they are what truly makes this film, in my mind, an underrated masterpiece.
Number 6: Snow Falling On Cedars, by Scott Hicks.
I’m always somewhat weary when I go to see a movie adapted from a book, especially if the book in question is one I grew up loving. There’s always the fear that the picture won’t be accurate, that it won’t stay true to the events or themes of its source material. That’s why I was extremely anxious when I rented Scott Hick’s Snow Falling On Cedars. Few books have influenced, or touched me, as deeply as Snow Falling, and I didn’t want to see it get turned into Hollywood trash. Well, I’ll tell you right now, I felt more than relieved when I finished watching it. Not only did the film capture the raw emotion, sexual energy, and unforetold beauty of the original novel with its striking visuals and lyrical soundtrack, it even managed to add a new dimension to the tale which I could never have foreseen. For those of you who aren’t familiar with either the book or the movie, Snow Falling On Cedars is a rich, multi-layered story of love, murder, betrayal and prejudice. Set in a small island community off the puget sound in the years following World War 2, it centers around the murder trial of a Japanese American fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto. Several other townspeople, including the accused man’s wife, Hatsue, a local reporter named Ishmael, and the dead man’s wife and mother, all give testimony, and in so doing ,reveal the scars that the recent war and internment have left on their island community. A slow-paced, atmospheric story, it is one that left millions, including myself, in tears, and one that I feel every fan of good literature and good cinema should be exposed to.
Number 5: The Beautiful Country, by Hans Petter Moland.
My senior year of high school, I landed a speaking part in the epic rock opera, Miss Saigon. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the play follows the tragic romance between a young Vietnamese woman and an American GI during the final days of the Vietnam War. Among its many themes is the one of abandonment, specifically, the Americans’ abandonment of their mixed-race children, known in Vietnam as “Bui Doi,” an offensive term that means “less than dirt.” I was so touched by the plight of these children, that I decided to do some research of my own and, in so doing, came across this gem of a picture. The Beautiful Country is a bittersweet independent drama that tells the story of one “Bui Doi,” Bin’s, journey to America to find his father. Shot on a relatively low budget, it still manages to capture all the color, heartbreak and tenderness of a major hollywood movie. It’s acting is quiet and subdued, which fits the somber subject perfectly. It’s writing is simplistic, but powerful, the reason for this being, as the screenwriter said in an interview, to give depth and dignity to people who might only speak two or three words of English, and I can tell you now, it does that perfectly. The Beautiful Country might not have the flare and style of its thematic counterpart Miss Saigon, but its every bit as powerful, and every bit as touching. The last fifteen minutes are guaranteed to leave you in tears, and in the best possible way. So, don’t hesitate. Put it at the top of your Netflix queue.
Number 4: Mystery Train, by Jim Jarmusch.
One of the reasons why I enjoy watching Jim Jarmusch moviesis the music. See, unlike most filmmakers, Jarmusch doesn’t let it just play in the background or add a little flare to a moment that’s supposed to be dramatic. No. He uses it. He has it permeate every scene, every character, to the point where it almost becomes the story. From that regard, one might be able to look at every Jim Jarmusch movie as a sort of cinematic representation of a different kind of music. Dead Man has the rhythm and chords of classic rock, while Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai synthesizes elements of both hip-hop and jazz. Mystery Train, Jarmusch’s 1989 anthology film, has the soulful, mournful, and almost wistful feel of blues. A fascinating and genuinely funny picture, the movie is set in Memphis, Tennessee, and focuses on three separate, yet equally colorful groups, a young pair of Japanese hipsters, an Italian woman accompanying a body back to Rome, and a trio of depressed and out of work young men, all over the course of one night. Each of them encounters the legacy, and in one instance, the ghost, of Memphis’s most famous resident, Elvis Presley, and each of them manages to find their way to the same flea bag motel. The dialogue and acting both feel natural, and the movie manages to capture the quiet despair of the former American music capital beautifully. And yet, despite its warm critical response, the film failed to break even with its modest $2.8 million budget when it was first released. A shame, really. Maybe it just didn’t have enough explosions. But, then again, who knows what the public will go see?
Number 3: 13 Assassins, by Takashi Miike.
Very few people in the West have ever heard of Takashi Miike, and even fewer have heard of his 2010 samurai epic 13 Assassins. Which is too bad for them, because they’re missing out on one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. If you can imagine a movie which pays as great attention to story and character development as Seven Samurai, but is also as fast paced, visually striking and tightly choreographed as The Matrix, you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for with this film. A remake of the 1963 black-and-white epic of the same name, 13 Assassins follows a group of samurai who have been given the task of killing the shogun’s sadistic half brother, Naritsugu. An action-packed, yet oddly meditative adventure, the film is as much about friendship, loyalty and the desire of warriors to feel useful in a time without war as it is flashy fight sequences and impressive visual effects. What’s most astounding about it is that it’s a surprisingly un-gory movie, and it was produced by Takashi Miike, a man who made a name for himself directing unbelievably bloody cult films. I guess every artist has got more than one side, and in the case of 13 Assassins, it’s a side that’s worth seeing.
Number 2: In Bruges, by Martin McDonagh.
Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is easily one of the funniest, most mean-spirited, and deeply moving motion pictures I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. The fact that its all of those things at once should give you an idea of how truly unique it is. A 2008 black-comedy crime thriller, the film follows a pair of Irish hit-men, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who, after a botched job, are told to hide out in the small medieval town of Bruges, Belgium. Having lived for several years in Europe, and visited Bruges myself, the movie offered a lot to me in terms of nostalgia. But don’t worry. It’s great for more reasons than just that. Its viciously funny to begin with–within one five minute sequence, for example, Collin Farrell manages to insult both a group of overweight tourists, describing them as “a bunch of fucking elephants,” and the town of Bruges itself, stating “If I’d grown up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me”–but the film quickly turns down a much darker path. We learn that the reason the two are in hiding is that, on his last job, Farrell accidentally killed a child, something for which he has never forgiven himself. Had the movie been made by any other director, or starring any other actors, the transition from raunchy, biting comedy to brooding meditation on morality, personal responsibility and guilt might have been jarring or unnatural seeming. As it is, though, with McDonagh behind the camera, and Farrell and Gleeson in front of it, the movie manages to seamlessly shift from hilarity to depression in almost every scene. Some will find it too bleak, too vicious, but i personally think that it is precisely this film’s dark tone and subject matter that make its sparks of comedy shine all the brighter, and the picture as a whole an underrated masterpiece.
And my absolute favorite underrated film is…
The Flowers of War, by Zhang Yimou.
Where do I begin? This film is beautiful, in every sense of the word. Not only are its sets and costumes astounding, the vibrant color scheme is gorgeous, the lead actresses are all jaw-dropping, the performances are amazing, and the soundtrack is so hauntingly lyrical that it will stay with you for months after you hear it. As for the story, it deserves to be in a class all its own. A heartbreaking tale of redemption and ultimate sacrifice, the film gives a fictionalized account of the Rape of Nanking, and focuses on a group of people trapped inside a Catholic Cathedral, one of the few places untouched by the marauding Japanese hordes. Among those left for dead is a class of Chinese school girls, a group of local prostitutes, and a drunken American mortician (Christian Bale) who’s been sent to bury the priest. None of them likes each other to start off with, but as time passes, and conditions worsen, they all grow closer and do their best to help one another. Bale sobers up and takes the place of their fallen priest, while the prostitutes impersonate the school girls when the Japanese arrive. As the grandson of someone who survived the war in China, the film was extremely difficult to watch. Yimou doesn’t hesitate to show us all the atrocities committed by the Japanese–the worst scene, by far, is the protracted gang rape of Dou, a kind-hearted prostitute–and let me tell you, even though its all staged, he makes it look pretty damn real. And yet, in an odd sense, I’m actually quite grateful that he took such an unflinching approach to the subject matter. What happened to the inhabitants of Nanking in 1937 was more than inhumane. It was evil. Portraying it as anything less than that would be disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands who were slaughtered. Anyway, when Flowers first hit the theaters back in 2011, it gathered nearly $96 million at the box office. And yet, in spite of all the money it made, it was almost universally panned by critics. Many, like Roger Ebert, hated the fact that a Chinese movie had a white man (Bale) as one of its leads. Writing in the Chicago Sun Times, he asked, “”Can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell this story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?” No disrespect to the late Mr Ebert but, he clearly didn’t know what he was talking about when he wrote that review. Anyone who’s familiar with the history of the Nanking Massacre knows that foreigners played a HUGE part in protecting the civilian population. The Japanese had absolutely no respect for the Chinese, whom they viewed as sub-human. They did not, however, wish to start a war with Western nations like America or Germany, and so were willing to negotiate with people from these countries. So, if Bale’s character had, as Mr Ebert suggested, been Chinese, the Japanese would likely have shot him and then pissed on his corpse. And if Mr Ebert–who, by the way, gave such stinkers as El Topo, The Devil’s Double, and the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs positive reviews–had actually paid attention, he would have seen that all the film’s real heroes, the prostitutes, Major Li, Mr Meng, George the alter boy, are Chinese, and that Bale himself is actually quite a minor character. And honestly, is including a person from another country in your movie really so heinous an offense that it merits terrible reviews? No! Absolutely not. And that, dear friends, is why you all should have absolutely no trepidation about watching this film.
There you have it! My fifteen favorite underrated films. Hope you found this list helpful if you were looking for new stuff to watch. If you’d like to list some of your own underground idols, please leave a comment. Alright, that’s all for today. Good night and god bless.