Here is another top ten list: my films that I think are the most underrated. Many of them were critical successes, but didn’t have the necessary awards season “punch.” And I know that there is more to film than winning awards, obviously, but sometimes even better-than-average films can slip through the cracks, so they aren’t recognized as much on merit as they should be. This is my list of my ten most underrated films. Some of them may have been nominated for Oscars, but not necessarily in the big categories (acting, directing, picture, etc.)
Warning: Spoiler alerts.
10. GoldenEye (1995)
This wasn’t designed to win any awards. I’m aware of that. But as far as the Bond canon goes, it’s one of the better stories, in my opinion. Even if the characters are a little cartoonish, we can go for that, Boris being an example. What helps is that they got very good actors to play the parts – aside from Pierce Brosnan as Bond, they had Alan Cumming as Boris, Robbie Coltrane as Valentin, Judi Dench in her first appearance as M, and Sean Bean as the main villain Trevelyan. What makes this film interesting to me is that Trevelyan’s character arc is somewhat sympathetic as far as villains go: he was a former 00 agent who defected as a result of bitterness of his parents being unable to cope with being betrayed by MI6. Izabella Scorupco as Natalya is one of my favorite Bond girls, and she is pretty capable of holding her own as Bond’s counterpart, not just his love interest. This is also believed to be the first truly original Bond story, i.e. not adapted from an Ian Fleming novel or unpublished story (Licence to Kill). There’s something about this film that keeps me coming back every time.
9. The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)
Derek Cianfrace, the director of Blue Valentine, did this as his follow-up film. And the setting of Schenectady, New York works pretty well. Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle stunt man who finds he has a son and begins to rob banks as a means to support him. But the film largely follows Bradley Cooper as a cop who is trying to weed out corruption in his own ranks, and also come to terms with the son that Luke (Gosling) left behind. It was hurt by being released so early in the year, but it’s a well-crafted story and the acting is very good.
8. Eight Men Out (1988)
I’ve read the book on which this is based; Eliot Asinof’s writing style is a little more hyperbolic than it could or should be, and parts were potentially fabricated. That being said, it’s a shame that more people don’t know John Sayles’ work, and this is his most recognized film. John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Charlie Sheen, David Strathairn, Michael Lerner and Sayles himself all play significant parts in the film. In addition to getting a lot of the details right (if not all), many of the actors, including Cusack and Sheen, actually were pretty good baseball players. Additionally, being filmed in the old Bush Stadium in Indianapolis was pretty cool, too.
7. Garden State (2004)
Written, produced, and directed by Zach Braff, this was the beginning of my love with the sentimental comedies that would come through in the next few years. I love how Braff chose all of the music himself, and inserted it into each specific moment in the film. It also features an early cameo from Jim Parsons as the “fast food knight,” or the mascot of a local fast-food restaurant. One of the funniest moments is when he tries to prevent his armor from clanking as he rises from the breakfast table. Including Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, and Peter Sarsgaard was a nice touch.
6. Stand By Me (1986)
Admittedly, this may be one of those “how can you put it on this list?” kind of films. It has endured pretty well, but it still never had the big-name recognition at the time, except for Richard Dreyfuss. But the thing is, it actually works for this film. Most of the kids in the film became stars in their own right, and you almost forget that it’s a Stephen King story that’s being adapted as well. And of course, it’s another film on this list with John Cusack in it. I also believe it was the first film to be given an R rating solely on the basis of language, with most of it coming from kids. Still, there is a quaint quality to this film that I can’t help but love.
5. Away We Go (2009)
John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play the two leads, a married couple with a child on the way, looking for the perfect place to raise their child. Along the way, they encounter several friends and confidantes, all looking to convince them to stay there. However, many of them have issues or eccentricities that make Burt and Verona feel uncomfortable. But one of my favorite moments is when they declare that no matter what, they will do their best as parents. What makes this scene amazing is that it takes place in an unexpected location – in this case, stargazing on a trampoline at Burt’s brother’s house; the brother is going through a tough divorce, and can’t explain it to his own daughter. While this is going on, Alexi Murdoch’s “All My Days” plays under it, which is a perfect song for the scene. Also lost in the film is the fact that it was directed by Sam Mendes – I like how he’s trying to go in a different direction from many of his previous films. The two characters may come across as paradigms of virtue, but given the people that they interact with, it’s hard to argue against it.
4. Scream (1996)
In hindsight, it doesn’t hold up as well as it used to do in recent years. But there was something innovative about it, with the big reveal being that there can be more than one person committing the crimes. Also, the motivations for why they do it, at least for one of them, is somewhat more frightening because you find yourself sympathizing with them to a certain degree. Additionally, I love how it feels like a “meta-horror” film, being very self-referential in terms of horror movie cliches and either working them in well or re-working them to make it creative. It was Neve Campbell’s breakout role, and I love the way that they advertised it being around Drew Barrymore, only to have her killed before the opening credits roll. I draw parallels with Janet Leigh in Psycho as far as that goes. From a horror film standpoint, it can be gory, but still have a little bit of intelligence to it. The sequels were probably overkill, but the first one definitely broke some new ground in the horror genre.
3. In Bruges (2008)
Yes, you know why I put this film on this list (wink-wink.) But aside from that, it’s another film where the scenery is its own character. Bruges is a very ethereal city, especially at night, and director Martin McDonagh works it in beautifully. There’s a great running joke about Colin Farrell’s character Ray disparaging everything about the location, and his impulsiveness and naivete being his keys to redemption. It’s a violent film, but sometimes you are able to focus more on the characters. When Brendan Gleeson’s character Ken goes to the belfry in his final moments, it’s another great example of how a certain song underscores a scene so well. In this case, it’s “On Raglan Road” in one of Bruges’ most famous landmarks. It’s such a poignant scene, especially for somebody who works in a position that he does (i.e. a hit man). There’s not much else to describe here.
2. Inside Man (2006)
Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen are in it, and that’s enough for me. It’s actually my favorite Spike Lee film as well. As robber Dalton Russell, Owen is cunning, masterful, and in the end, pretty much does commit the perfect crime. But I love how he is a robber, but what he robs is nothing physical. Instead, what he robs is a man’s dignity and reputation as an honorable man (played by Christopher Plummer, whose character is the owner of the bank). He only takes one thing, and ends up slipping it to Detective Frazier at the end. He not only doesn’t plan to get caught, he doesn’t expect to get away with the loot. The riddle that Russell gives to Frazier and his team is brilliantly crafted, and he and his cadre of fellow robbers construct it so nobody is harmed, and yet still manipulate everything to make it look like they’re in total control. It’s a heist film, but the twist is not who did it, but how they did it. I love films like that.
1. Burn After Reading (2008)
This has to be tops on this list. Even for the Coen brothers, it’s arguably one of their best films. It’s the perfect example of what I call the “inept victim” theory – that is, the criminals fail because the victims are even dumber than they are. The Coen brothers are masters of this. The ending scene is so brilliantly written and acted, particularly by J.K. Simmons. In a nutshell, the story goes like this: CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is being phased out of his job, so he decides to retire. His wife, who is having an affair, decides to divorce him. Cox decides to write a memoir (or, as he puts it in his faux-posh accent, a “mem-wah.”) of his experiences. Of course, most of it is just rambling and settling vendettas against the “morons” that have wronged him in his life. The joke comes from the fact that Cox is often the one doing moronic things; an example is a scene where, having been reduced to living on a houseboat, he is unable to access his bank information because he considers it beneath him to memorize the numbers to his savings account (and of course calls the other person on the phone a “moron” in return). George Clooney is hilarious as a philandering government official who is drawn into the story through his affair with Linda (Frances McDormand), and who is being followed by a process server, because his wife is also having an affair and wishes to serve him divorce papers. Linda and Chad’s arc is probably the funniest. They both work in a gym, and an employee of a law firm leaves behind the CD on which Cox’s writing is stored. Because of Cox’s CIA connections, most of it is encrypted, and Linda intends to blackmail Cox with it, solely to get money to pay for cosmetic surgery. Brad Pitt’s character Chad is there for the ride, although he hilariously fails to blackmail Cox – he tries to use big words to appear smarter than he is, but he can’t quite get the syntax right (“Appearances can be deceptive.”) Without giving too much away, the final scene sums up perfectly the whole motif of the movie, and how random life can sometimes be. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most underrated.