From A History of Violence (2005) to Take Shelter (2011), these underrated movies should be on your watchlist.
We’re living in times of disruption in the entertainment world. The burgeoning streaming platforms and the choices they offer is overwhelming. It becomes even tougher then to separate the good from the bad. Of course, we all love our typical blockbusters and social media-hyped, fresh off the tube TV shows. But amidst keeping up with all the new content, we miss out on some great films that may not have gotten the attention they deserved.
These are films you probably shrugged off because they didn’t have your favorite actors, didn’t win the coveted “Best Picture” award or were just poorly marketed. But what if I told you these unnoticed movies might be better than some of the biggest box-office blockbusters? And if you’re in the mood to dig up these hidden gems, we’ve already done the needful. Here are 13 great movies I think deserve more audience love and appreciation. Or even multiple viewings! Keep in mind that I haven’t ranked the titles.
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Most Underrated Movies
1. A History of Violence (2005)
A History of Violence is smart, compelling, deliberately slow, and a *very* violent movie. But then this was made by David Cronenberg, the filmmaker known for his bizarre and disturbing body-horrors. In fact, this film was one of his most grounded works. Viggo Mortenson is Tom Stall, an everyday Joe in a small town somewhere in the midwest, owns a diner, with a loving wife and two kids. But when two Mafia-looking strangers come wandering to his place accusing him of being the most insane, bloodthirsty mobster who went into hiding years ago, things go sideways.
A History of Violence exaggerates quite a bit on the ‘violence’ part. But it is much more than that. It is a meditation on the human mind, the trust between man and wife, and the horrors that one man can inflict on another. It’s probably one of Viggo Mortenson’s career-best performances.
2. Sin City (2005)
Based on Frank Miller’s masterpiece of a graphic novel, Sin City was Robert Rodriguez’s passion project. The director is best known for his love for hard-boiled neo-noir tales, and so brings the right tone to visualize the harsh yet stylish world of Frank Miller’s imagination. In fact, Rodriguez has turned comic book storytelling into a beautiful art.
This movie runs on different chapters, connecting characters, all in one setting. And it’s packed with superstar actors playing intriguing characters, in the run-down corrupt hellhole that is Basin City. Though the film is more about style than the story, Rodriquez and Miller offer a very cynical and shocking view about politics and religion. Sin City should be embraced as the wildly fun crime epic that it is. One could even call it a modern noir classic. Unfortunately, the film’s popularity has gradually faded over the years.
3. Children of Men (2006)
Roma wasn’t Alfonso Cuaron’s only masterpiece. He’s made a few before that including the radical road movie Y tu mama tambien (2001). However, Children of Men is one of his most thought-provoking, touching films. It’s set in the year 2027. The human populace has become infertile and the world is in the midst of complete social collapse. When one of the last children born on Earth is murdered, his death sets off massive protests and violent conflicts between sectarian groups.
Clive Owen stars as Theo, a bureaucrat who is thrown into the midst of this chaos. He soon finds a refugee and a pregnant woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), and their journey to get to safety. The movie is bleak, feels timely, and hits you in the gut. But in the end, it gets you back up with a sense of renewed hope.
4. Drive (2011)
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn evidently loves film noir as well as movies dealing with the criminal underworld. His unflinching neo-noir work Pusher Trilogy brilliantly updated the classic noir template. For Drive, Refn was inspired by the underrated neo-noir films like Two Lane Blacktop (1971), The Driver (1978), and Thief (1981). Ryan Gosling plays a stunt driver who, after befriending his neighbor and forming a romance with her, becomes involved in protecting her and her son from the mob.
Gosling has starred in movies like The Notebook, La La Land, The Nice Guys, First Man, and so on. But Drive will always be my most favorite film of his. It seems to take an arthouse narrative approach, even though the action is too brutal at times. With some of the greatest car chases in film history, Drive is an earth-shattering crime epic that reflects the motifs of the human soul.
Drive is streaming on Tubi.
5. Take Shelter (2011)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ entire oeuvre, not just Take Shelter, deserves more appreciation. From Shotgun Stories (2007) to the stirring romance drama Loving (2016), Nichols has brilliantly explored the social realities of modern America. His devastating drama Take Shelter used an individual’s growing paranoia tendencies to subtly deal with themes such as global financial collapse and climate-change crisis.
The film revolves around working-class couple Curtis and Samantha, who live with their 6-year old daughter in suburban Ohio. Curtis starts experiencing apocalyptic visions of impending doom. The foreboding visions push Curtis to build a storm shelter. However, his wife and others around him fear that Curtis is losing his grip on sanity. Michael Shannon’s intense performance and Nichols’ narrative ambiguity keep us anxious till the end. The largely forgotten film received some critical buzz – including FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes – at the time of its release.
Where to Watch: Tubi (Free)
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay is an uncompromising auteur, who has made four complex character dramas in her two-plus decade career. We Need to Talk About Kevin is her masterpiece, which deals with a difficult mother-son relationship. Based on Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name, the story follows Eva, an accomplished travel writer who gets married to the gentle and laid-back Franklin. Soon, Eva brings into the world her son, Kevin. She sets aside her career and ambitions to bring up the child.
But the mother and son have difficulties bonding with each other. Kevin grows up to be a moody, deceitful teenager. Few days before his sixteenth birthday, he commits a despicable and unfathomable crime. We Need to Talk About Kevin offers a disturbing look at parental anxiety and idealized notions of motherhood. Tilda Swinton’s terrific performance takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions.
Where to Watch: Tubi (Free)
7. The Tree of Life (2011)
The Tree of Life is the most ambitious, passionate piece in Terrence Malick’s oeuvre, who’s previously made masterpieces like Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. However, in the long run, I hope the director will be remembered for his brilliantly humanistic perspective in The Tree of Life.
Through the lives of a Texas-based family in the 1960s, Terrence Malick shows us the beauty of life on a universal and spiritual level. The cinematography is stunning, to say the least, and if you’re a romantic like me, this movie will move you, and give you a renewed sense of optimism and appreciation for life. Tree of Life doesn’t offer any answers to questions it raises about existence and human condition. Yet, it’s a gorgeous film to look at which would make even the greatest blockbuster look feeble.
8. The Master (2012)
PT Anderson has made some absolute masterpieces, most notably There Will Be Blood, and more recently, Phantom Thread and Licorice Pizza. But my most favorite work of his will always be The Master. There Will Be Blood is an absolute gem, but The Master equals it in my opinion. The film is inspired by the early life of Ron L. Hubbard, the charismatic founder of Scientology Church.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as WWII veteran Freddie Quell. He gives a career-best performance which outranks the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, who portray leaders of a Scientology-like cult that recruits Freddie. Subsequently, Freddie finds a purpose and discovers a sense of belonging. The film is a haunting depiction of the struggles of a lost and traumatized individual such as Freddie, and Joaquin miraculously brings the character to life.
9. Cloud Atlas (2012)
The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s visually stunning adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel polarized critics and emphatically failed at the box-office. The sci-fi fantasy painstakingly weaves together six stories. Every story takes place in a unique time period, set between the 19th century and 23rd century. It’s natural to feel a little disoriented as we move through different timeframes, multiple characters, and complex conflicts.
Yet, the overriding theme of Cloud Atlas focuses on how the actions of a few individuals influence and impact the larger society. While the struggles of each individual are different, all seek emancipation from tyrannical power structures or systems. The film contemplates on how self-determination and suffering have always been part of human society. Cloud Atlas is both fascinating and frustrating. It’s an original piece of cinema that deserves multiple viewings.
10. Ruby Sparks (2012)
Quirky, free-spirited women became an archetype in Hollywood romance dramas/rom-coms. Film critic Nathan Rabin coined a term for such stock character types: Manic Pixie Dream Girl. From Audrey Hepburn to Natalie Portman, several actors played these eccentric magical characters, designed mostly to help men achieve their goals. Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton’s Ruby Sparks mesmerizingly deconstructs the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope.
Paul Dano plays Calvin, a socially awkward author suffering from writer’s block. Calvin hasn’t yet moved on from his ex-girlfriend. In a fit of inspiration, he creates a character named Ruby, who he describes as the perfect woman. To his surprise, Ruby suddenly appears in his life as a real person, and Calvin must navigate the challenges of their relationship as he struggles to control her actions and behavior. Overall, Ruby Sparks is an interesting critique on modern-day relationships.
11. Locke (2013)
Screenwriter Steven Knight’s second directorial effort is entirely set inside a car. A well-respected family man named Ivan Locke has the terrible night of his life. Over the course of a single, lonely drive, Locke is behind the wheel and talks to different people on phone, in order to sort out the crisis in both his personal and professional life. Tom Hardy incredibly plays the titular character and perfectly anchors the strong emotional core of the story.
Hardy was largely known for playing a villain in The Dark Knight Rises and as the stoic hero in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Here, he plays a simple man and exhibits a remarkable range of emotions. However, the highlight of Locke is Knight’s screenplay. He keeps us engrossed in the drama even in the limited visual setting. Knight also shines as a director. He conjures an impressive variety of compositions to bring about a visual momentum.
12. Enemy (2013)
Denis Villeneuve was best known for his bold, artful indies as well as Hollywood projects. He made a powerful, low-budget drama on school shooting, titled Polytechnique. At the same time, Villeneuve spear-headed multi-million dollar projects like Blade Runner 2049 and Dune. Enemy is, perhaps, his most puzzling and underrated project. It’s based on Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s equally confounding novel The Double.
The story centers around a timid, mild-mannered history teacher Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal). While watching a movie, Adam discovers his perfect doppelganger, an assertive and strong bit-part actor. The discovery leads to an identity crisis and brings forth a few complex twists. This great movie should be watched for Gyllenhaal’s riveting central performance and Villeneuve’s spell-binding aesthetic framework. In fact, Enemy will remind you of David Lynch’s phenomenal psychological horrors.
13. 99 Homes (2014)
American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani often makes movies on one of the most underrepresented sections of the American populace: the working class. His earlier indie projects like Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), and Goodbye Solo (2008) empathetically delved into the lives of the poor and homeless Americans. 99 Homes was made with veritable Hollywood stars like Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, and Michael Shannon.
The film is set in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and follows Dennis Nash (Garfield), a construction worker and single father who is evicted from his home by ruthless real estate broker Rick Carver (Shannon) and his team. Desperate to get his family back into their home, Dennis takes a job working for Carver, becoming embroiled in the corrupt and unethical world of foreclosure evictions. But as his business becomes successful, Dennis must confront the moral implications of his actions, and the cost of his ambition.
Where to Watch: Youtube, Pluto TV, YouTube, Tubi
‘Underrated’ doesn’t necessarily mean films that failed to garner critical acclaim or commercial success. Movies like The Master, Children of Men, and Sin City received the right amount of attention at the time of release but over time, didn’t garner as much discussion as some other, less deserving movies.
If you’re done with these 13, check out Killer Joe (2011), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Coherence (2013), Anomalisa (2015), Mudbound (2017), and Under the Silver Lake (2018). Over to you now. Which do you think are the best movies cinephiles have overlooked all along?
Additional writing by Arun Kumar
I'm an engineering graduate trying to make the most out of what life throws at me. Currently working as a Brand Strategist at Mitsogo Inc, Chennai. Outside work, you can find me on a football pitch, a basketball court, or in front of a tea stall - still trying to make the most out of what I get.