The 20 Most Underrated Movies


20. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)

What they said:

“A two-hour, 20-minute advertisement for FedEx. Deeply silly.”
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

What we say:

By the turn of the millennium Tom Hanks had stopped being the new James Stewart and had started being the new Man Everyone Hates Because He’s In So Many Average And Emotionally Exploitative Dramas - something he didn’t really escape until Road To Perdition in 2002.

But Cast Away was unfairly caught up in the mix. Yes, it’s a little too long, but Hanks has the chops to command the screen alone for two hours, and the film has big, booming heart. Anyone who claims not to have shed a tear when Wilson drifted off over the horizon is a stinking liar. Amazing plane-crash scene, too.[page-break]

19. Blades Of Glory (Josh Gordon/Will Speck, 2007)

What they said:

“I'd try to avoid the usual cliche of saying this is a fine 10-minute Saturday Night Live sketch that's padded with another 80 minutes of filler, but if this unclever and mostly unfunny film doesn't bother to put in any effort, why should I?”
Misha Davenport, Chicago Sun-Times

What we say:

C'mon. Anyone who’s tired of bouffant hair, permatans and awkward physical humour about incest and homosexuality is tired of life . Plus, there are very few situations where setting a sporting mascot on fire isn’t funny.

Will Ferrell and Jon Heder do a decent job as the leads in this figure-skating farce, but it’s the canny support casting of Amy Poehler and the always awesome Will Arnett that really captures the grotty glitz of ice dancing.[page-break]

18. Reign Of Fire (Rob Bowman, 2002)

What they said:

“Waterworld with reptiles.”
Joe Queenan, The Guardian

What we say:

Aside from catching the now world-straddling Christian Bale in a decent pre-Batman, pre-Terminator action flick, the main reason to revisit Reign Of Fire is because it’s not half as bad as everyone seems to remember.

Weird, yes, but not bad . The film's view of post-apocalypse England is enjoyably grimy (there’s more mud than a medieval Python comedy and everyone wears thick knitted jumpers), Matthew McConaughey is super-intense as a mad, bald American, and the lack of FX budget is craftily dodged by efficient use of the headlining dragons.

That is, not the standard flowery, fantasy nonsense, but something a bit more like Mad Max with massive firey lizards.[page-break]

17. Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)

What they said:

“American director Todd Haynes revisits the world of London glam rock and manages to make it look dull. He and his costume designer certainly lay on the peacock flamboyance of the 1970s, but none of the strange creatures concerned appear to be having any fun. Plenty of glitter, though, if you like that sort of thing.”
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

What we say:

A jarring fit when originally released among the primary colours and loutish laddishness of late-'90s Britpop, Velvet Goldmine’s sexually ambiguous glitz plays much better these days, post-Mighty Boosh, post-Lady Ga Ga - now everyone’s remembered that glam outfits and arch androgyny are actually pretty cool.

There's also much joy in watching the film’s up-and-coming British cast being braver than their current star statuses would allow. Holy homoeroticism! What’s Obi Wan doing to Batman!? [page-break]

16. Jingle All The Way (Brian Levant, 1996)

What they said:

“Given the leaden nature of the material, Schwarzenegger probably couldn't even bench-press the script. Who talked the Big Guy into this? The performances are uniformly awful, but screenwriter Randy Kornfield's dialogue give them little to work with.”
Jack Matthews, LA Times

What we say:

Uptight audiences looking for one last action-hero outing from Arnie failed to see that this Christmas pile-up was his best comedy work by miles.

As Arnie's neighbour, Phil Hartman brings some of The Simpsons’ smug suburban class to the film, while the big man’s running battle with fellow dad-on-a-mission Sinbad parodies his own action career - and the big fight set-piece featuring a knock-off factory full of counterfeiting Santas is, well, amazing.[page-break]

15. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2007)

What they said:

“Frustrating and finally rather pointless. Is there anything going on behind these randomly firing synapses?”
Xan Brooks, The Guardian

What we say:

The same critics who applauded Kelly’s freaky teen time-travel debut Donnie Darko for its snippy sense of humour and impenetrable plot somehow missed the point of its super-ambitious follow-up.

Southland Tales throws away in seconds ideas other movies would snaffle up as high concepts, whipping up a tornado of fascism, pornography, subjectivity and The Rock’s eyebrow.

It’s flawed, certainly, but almost better for it – think of it as an American Brazil. And rewatch immediately.[page-break]

14. Silent Hill (Christopher Gans, 2006)

What they said:

“Playing much like a game, the story sees clue ‘A’ point to location ‘B’ where monster ‘C’ is waiting to ambush our heroine. Which is all very well when you're sitting at home, controller in hand, but isn't anywhere near as satisfying or scary as a cinematic experience.”
James Dyer, Empire

What we say:

Okay, so the videogame original was never really big on plot – not one that you could understand, anyway – but where both it and the film excel is in creating an overpoweringly forbidding atmosphere.

Give it another go - and this time, ignore all story points bar the loss of the child. Suddenly, it becomes a surprisingly effective horror of guilt, loss and, you know, big monsters with giant cones on their heads. [page-break]

13. One Night At McCool's (Harald Zwart, 2001)

What they said:

“It's grabbing you by the lapels and screaming, ‘Laugh!’ The movie is so heavily italicised that it's not very funny.”
Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times

What we say:

Come on! It’s a sexy Rashomon for the '90s! Sort of. Or at the very least, an enjoyably sleazy comedy that doesn’t take itself seriously and does give us a lot of Liv Tyler’s thighs.

All of which would leave the film as fun-but-dumb curiosity if it weren’t for Michael Douglas’ brilliantly be-quiffed two-bit huckster - surely his most important and affecting work since Wall Street.[page-break]

12. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (Peter Weir, 2003)

What they said:

“Master and Commander stays afloat to the finish, but that's all that can be said."
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

What we say:

An authentic, measured and ballsy boy’s-own adventure. Weir's movie is smart enough to turn away from swashbuckling bluster and instead gives us a cat-and-mouse battle of wits and wills.

So, on the handful of occasions a firefight does actually break out, it’s a satisfying release of all the simmering tension.

Plus, the friendship between Russell Crowe’s gruff captain and Paul Bettany’s sensitive doctor is a joy.[page-break]

11. Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2004)

What they said:

“The vast mythology readily available through these characters never takes hold and the iconic figures carry no resonance.”
Todd McCarthy, Variety

What we say

A flamboyant action-horror that’s not afraid to inject some contemporary irreverence into Universal’s aging stock of creature features.

Yes, it plays fast and loose with some cult classics, lumping together several big-hitting characters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man)... But since when did people start getting precious about a genre of filmmaking in which crossovers and cheap exploitations are not only the norm, but positively celebrated?

Van Helsing has wit, pace, expensive action scenes and Hugh Jackman’s excellent hat. Sold.[page-break]

10. The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2008)

What they said:

“It is a competently made Horrible Things Pouncing on People Movie. If you think Frank Darabont has equaled the Shawshank and Green Mile track record, you will be sadly mistaken.”
Roger Ebert, Chicage Sun-Times

What we say:

A stern, efficient and unconventional horror. The key is in the restraint - so little information is fed to the audience for so long that the film achieves a towering sense of dread and hopelessness. By the time the creatures do arrive en masse the effect is overpowering.

And that ending... Disciplined and super-bleak - almost cruel, but just the right side of weekend-ruining. Most importantly, though, it's an ending that's more interested in provoking than soothing. Cheap but gloriously nasty. [page-break]

9. 1941 (Stephen Spielberg, 1979)

What they said:

“The slapstick gags, obviously choreographed with extreme care, do not build to boffs; they simply go on too long. 1941 is less comic than cumbersome, as much fun as a 40-pound wrist-watch.”
Vincent Canby, The New York Times

What we say:

The truth is that after unprecedented successes with Jaws and Close Encounters, the critics were lining up to give wunderkind Spielberg a kicking, whether his new film deserved it or not.

In fact, 1941 has an incredible cast, an arsenal of screwball gags, and enough satirical edge for John Wayne - who turned down a part in the film - to condemn the whole thing as unpatriotic. That’ll do for us.[page-break]

8. Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

What they said:

“Its use of the race card will seem cheap and opportunistic. Even more morally questionable is the visually extraordinary material that forms the crux of the film: subjective rapes and murders that are, in the film's context, snuff films, real-life killings marketed for kicks for hard-up seen-it-alls.”
Todd McCarthy, Variety

What we say:

All visions of the future are condemned to look clunky ten minutes after they’re released, and Strange Days is no different (having MiniDisc players offer total sensory experiences is like suggesting we'll soon be cycling to the moon).

But, caught up in a rush of pre-millennial virtual realities – Johnny Mnemonic and Virtuosity were released the same year – Strange Days offered a smarter, politicised alternative to the softer, Hollywood-sanitised dystopias, delivering a grungey, snuff-filled future that reflected sharply upon racial tensions around LA’s antagonistic police force.[page-break]

7. Ten Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999)

What they said:

“10 Things is like something made by your incorrigible uncle, the hep uncle with the girlfriends about your age who thinks he's cooler than your parents. Ugh. It's dispiriting to see a gaggle of up-and-comers held in movie detention.”
Wesley Morris, San Francisco Chronicle

What we say:

A way above-average teen romance which made clever use of its Shakespearean framework to hold up rather than hold back its more modern ambitions.

But from our post-Heath Ledger viewpoint it’s also well worth a look to remind ourselves of the increasingly serious actor's range – singing, dancing, smiling and romancing – and how he could have developed had his career not been cut short.[page-break]

6. Superman 3 (Richard Lester, 1983)

What they said:

“Slow and uninspired. It's clear the filmmakers were scrabbling around for new ideas to keep audiences entertained.”
Jamie Woolley, BBC

What we say:

If blockbusters are measured by their set-pieces, then Superman III is a success.

It contains at least three classics: Supermen freezing a lake to put out a disastrous chemical plant fire, Superman using a small glass of acid to destroy a supercomputer which has made its own cyborg lady, and Evil Superman fighting Clark Kent in a scrap yard, which is confusing if you’re five, but also amazing.

And though the humour’s a little broader than in the first two movies, it’s still funny – when Supes rights the Tower Of Pisa, say, or everything Richard Pryor says or does.

Great action, solid laughs, and Clark’s mom from Smallville when she was still hot. Winner.[page-break]

5. Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001)

What they said:

“Vanilla Sky represents a crushing disappointment. Everything is miscalculated - tone, style, acting, writing... An elaborate house of mirrors.”
Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter.

What we say:

A dazzling, provocative look at life, love and reality.

It’s clunky in places – see the smug explanation of the fact that Tom Cruise’s head is frozen – but the disintegrating narrative is bravely cryptic and unconventional, and the agitated nightmare vision of a deserted Times Square is iconic and unforgettable.

Most impressively of all, Cruise, teetering on the edge of his time as a legitimate leading man, toys admirably with notions of fame, beauty and success.[page-break]

4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

What they said:

“The whole thing looks like off-cuts from the series that were eliminated because they were either too nasty or too inept. Self-parody would seem too generous an assessment of Lynch's aims and achievement.”
Geoff Andrew, Time Out

What we say

People conveniently forget that Twin Peaks’ TV series had been running on empty for months before it was canned and Lynch returned to give the climax some cinema-sized style.

Audiences craved a return to the warmth and mystery of those first few amazing episodes – coffee, cherry pie, and a murdered homecoming queen – but what they got was a dizzying affront, a condensed series of characters and situations which presented a bloody, lusty image of Twin Peaks unbroadcastable on network television.

The choppy structure can frustrate – a great deal was shot and not used, and an extended edition would be very welcome – but there are standout moments of nightmarish anxiety: David Bowie’s apparition of an FBI agent, Laura and her father screaming in half-knowing distress in their car, and the extraordinary strobe-lit bar sequence.

It doesn’t really work as a prequel, but with some distance, it’s very effective as a savage summary of the series’ deeper, darker side.[page-break]

3. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

What they said:

“A horrible mess of a movie, without shape, trajectory or purpose--a one joke movie, if it had one joke. The two characters wander witlessly past the bizarre backdrops of Las Vegas (some real, some hallucinated, all interchangeable) while zonked out of their minds.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

What we say:

Well, it's clearly wonderful and deserved to be a massive hit - gleefully nailing the pace and life-seizing posturing of Hunter S. Thompson’s deranged, insight-packed prose with snappy dialogue and leering camera angles.

Johnny Depp is note-perfect as the author himself - goofy and self-destructive but also rueful and poetic - and the soundtrack is driving, melancholy and balls-out fiendish.

Even to an outsider who’s never heard of the book, the peace movement or even Las Vegas, there’s a frantic irreverence and energy that renders Gilliam's queasy slapstick pacy and poignant. Get the incredible Criterion Edition. Go on...[page-break]

2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

What they said:

“For all its enthusiasm, this film isn't sharp enough to afford all the time it wastes on small talk, long drives, trips to the mall and favorite songs played on car radios. And although Ms. Grier makes an enjoyable comeback, she isn't an actress well served by quiet stretches of doing nothing before the camera.”
Janet Maslin, The New York Times

What we say:

Tarantino’s greatest film, end of story. Maybe even his last great film...

It might not have the edge of Reservoir Dogs or the insane cool of Pulp Fiction, but it drifts on by deliciously, with a mature and masterly sense of poise and timing.

Here is QT doing his thing, unhurried and assured, rolling out a tight, knowing crime caper by focusing on the characters and letting the story do it’s own work.

It's the performances that push it from 'good' to 'great': scuzzy De Niro, sinister pimp Sam Jackson, stand-up parole guy Robert Forster and smart, still-beautiful blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier – all given room by Tarantino’s smooth, '70s-shaped style to make their understated presences felt.

If the director’s subsequent slide into pastiche exploitation is a response to Jackie Brown’s so-so reception, then those short-sighted reviewers have derailed an incredible talent.[page-break]

1. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

What they said:

“Neither shocking, erotic nor profound. Actually, it's rather silly. What starts as a study of a marriage threatened by complacency becomes a murky conspiracy mystery that's barely suspenseful or credible.”
Geoff Allen, Time Out

What we say:

It’s difficult, yes - in the same way that 2001 and A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are difficult.

Notice the connection? Those movies are all masterpieces. Proper, no-debate, inarguable masterpieces.

Sure, Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t the grand send-off we all wanted - the instant, stand-up-and-applaud-Stanley exhibition of greatness that it felt like it should be.

But, genius doesn’t roll that way. Instead, the film is complex, ambiguous and occasionally baffling, but commandingly meticulous and oh-so deliberate.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, playing a struggling couple while themselves nearing the end of their real-lifemarriage, feel cold and disconnected in a way that’s utterly, ruthlessly precise. Cruise’s nightmare slide into an underworld of elitist depravity shakes him loose from his composed star image and has him running loose – acting! – throughout.

It’s challenging, austere, maybe even unlikable, but also dense, dark, sexy, complex, rewarding and - yes, it is - hugely underrated.