Before I became a frequent movie-goer, one whiff of a bad review would be enough to convince me to avoid a film. I’d go to the theater to see the “hits,” the usual popcorn flicks, but that was more or less it. Now, over the past few years, my film taste palette has expanded considerably. Since this shift in my habits, I have seen a slew of movies that I found enjoyable despite a poor performance at the box office, as well as movies that I loved against my expectations. So, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite “underrated” films and “unexpected” films.
The Grey (2011)
Whenever I am tasked with thinking of an underrated movie (which is almost never) my automatic answer is The Grey. I only ended up seeing it when some friends recommended it to me during my second year at college. It’s a survival/thriller about an oil-drilling team stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash in Alaska, and their efforts to survive both the harsh weather and being stalked by a pack of grey wolves. Plus, it stars Liam Neeson, which should have been enough to drive throngs of people to see it. It’s a sort of “subtle” thriller, in a way – it’s not super fast-paced, nor does it feature nonstop action, but I was completely engrossed throughout the film; especially as details of the character’s lives start to trickle through the narrative. The colors/imagery/cinematography of the film are also excellent, as is the tension/suspense woven throughout. I can still picture the ending of this movie in vivid detail, complete with Liam Neeson’s closing narration – the film really stayed with me, like a grey wolf on my periphery, and it made me think. It’s easily one of my favorite Liam Neeson performances (besides Schindler’s List, obv) and a seriously underrated and unexpected hit. Even if you aren’t a fan of survival thrillers, complete with seemingly hopeless situations and increasing feelings of despair among the characters, I recommend giving it a try. AND SPEAKING OF UNDERRATED, Dermot Mulroney also stars in the film and he is consistently great.
Tron: Legacy (2010)
Tron: Legacy is a movie that I did not expect to love as much as I do, to the point where words cannot accurately convey my adoration for this movie. I like the original Tron just fine, despite the fact that it has not exactly aged well, but the sequel is one of my all-time favorites. The story follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and his journey into the digital frontier of The Grid in order to rescue his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who has been missing for two decades. It’s not groundbreaking in terms of plot or character development, but the story is compelling enough and the acting is superb on all fronts, though it does take some time to get used to CLU and Kevin (both played by Jeff Bridges, though John Reardon was the body double for CLU) being onscreen at the same time. Bruce Boxleitner is also back as Tron/Alan, though Rinzler is physically portrayed by the talented Anis Cheurfa. The cinematography and stylistic elements are amazing, and the symbolism, while overt at times, contains more subtle allusions that I didn’t notice until my 2nd or 3rd time watching – and yes, I did see it 3 times in theaters. The 3D was phenomenal, and the film is a visual and auditory feast. I love this movie so much I even wrote a 20+ page paper on Tron Legacy in college, entitled Biodigital Jazz, Man: Simulation and Identity in Tron Legacy for my Video Games in Literature class. Also, I still consider Daft Punk not getting at least nominated for Best Original Score one of the worst Oscar snubs of all time.
Crimson Peak (2015)
When I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak about a week or two after it was released, my mom and I were the only two people in the theater – though I attribute this mainly to the fact that it was a Wednesday afternoon and “Back to the Future Day,” so most folks were at the theater to see the one day re-release of “Back to the Future” – someone even had a flux capacitor with them in the concession line. I think Crimson Peak also suffered from a minor case of mis-marketing, because people seemed to think it was a horror film, when really, it was a gothic romance which contained elements of horror – but all the ads I saw seemed to encourage the “horror” aspects of the film. I enjoy period pieces and the like, but I went in with no expectations, so I was not disappointed. It’s a gorgeous film, though it doesn’t delve quite as deep as it could – the story is somewhat predictable, but that didn’t make me enjoy it any less. It has typical “horror” moments, and romance moments, and suspense, but, while it has so many components of a gothic romance, it never quite realizes a concrete identity. The film has an all-star cast in Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam as the leads – Chastain is especially and wonderfully creepy in her role, and the highlight of the film. It’s visually arresting, and I recommend seeing it solely for how beautiful it is, from the music to the sets to the costuming, especially for fans of del Toro’s style.
The Finest Hours (2016)
Though T.S. Eliot might disagree, I think January is the cruelest month – especially when it comes to film releases. I don’t know exactly what causes this to happen, but January seems to be the month where new movies go to die a slow and painful death, and I think 2016’s The Finest Hours was an unfortunate victim of this phenomenon. I actually saw it on opening night, so it was pretty busy in the theater – but attendance waned in the following weeks, and ultimately, the film bombed. I don’t think it should have crashed and burned, though – because it was a perfectly good movie. Following the true story of the 1952 Coast Guard rescue of the SS Pendleton during a vicious storm, The Finest Hours boasts a stellar cast (Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck,) an engaging story, and all of the elements to make a great movie; and, in my opinion, it is quite good. Certainly underrated, considering the poor performance at the box office; I came out of the theater impressed, and definitely expected it to do well in spite of an unfavorable release date. It just couldn’t rise above the January doldrums, and it’s a shame that it didn’t.
This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
Although I just finished reading Johnathon Tropper’s 2009 novel This Is Where I Leave You a few weeks ago, I saw the movie adaptation when it was released in 2014 – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Following the colorful (and conflict-ridden) Altman family during their time sitting shiva in the wake of their father/husband’s death, the film has an excellent cast – Tina Fey, Timothy Olyphant, Adam Driver, Jason Bateman, among several others – and the chemistry between them gave off a very believable family vibe. It’s not the most fast-paced or exciting film, but it has its fair share of humorous moments and poignant moments, and never tries to do “too much” in either department, so the story is relatively balanced and the pacing is decent. While it doesn’t attempt “too much,” it also doesn’t do quite “enough,” especially with such a stacked, talented cast – though I did find the narrative more entertaining and engaging than the lukewarm reception implied. However, the real highlight of the film is the cast; I recommend seeing it solely for the sibling relationships portrayed onscreen, especially between Fey and Bateman.
Rise of the Guardians (2012)
This animated gem is a visual triumph and features a stellar voice cast (Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny is a stroke of genius, as is Alec Baldwin as Santa) but it failed to become a real “hit.” When my best friend and I saw it, the theater was almost empty; but I still remember how ensnared I was by the film’s trailer. The story, based partly on a book series by William Joyce, is unique – when the evil Pitch Black threatens the world, the four “Guardians” must band together with the enlisted help of Jack Frost to stop the rise of darkness – and though it contains familiar tropes, it’s plenty entertaining, and it features intriguing interpretations of well-known characters, from the Sandman to the Tooth Fairy. It had all the components of a great film, yet still resulted in a studio loss. For fans of animation who missed this film upon its initial release, I definitely recommend giving it a chance. It was likely hindered by being released around the same time as a few box-office giants from that year (a Twilight film, Skyfall, Lincoln) but I found it to be an unexpected delight, and I still think it didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
My mother is my most frequent movie-going companion, because we share a similar appreciation for film, both as an art form and as entertainment. I like to think of it as being film snobs who simultaneously don’t take it too seriously. Regardless, The Hundred-Foot Journey is one such example of a “mom and me” film. It’s got a great cast, and engaging story about an Indian family who opens a restaurant after a tragedy forces them to relocate to France, and the subsequent rivalry with the Michelin-star restaurant 100 feet away. The film also focuses on Hassan (Manish Dayal), the son of the Kadam family, who strives to make a name for himself as a chef. It’s a story about love, compromise, competition, and acceptance; a great movie to see on a Friday night when you want to put the stress of the work week behind you. I mean, it’s about warring restaurants, and it stars Helen Mirren and Om Puri – what’s not to like? It’s a prime example of a great film that is entertaining and heartwarming, but doesn’t try too hard – resulting in an unexpected delight.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
When people think of Studio Ghibli, they probably think of the landmark titles like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, three memorable projects by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki. Because Miyazaki’s works are consistently brilliant and are the most well-known of the Ghibli lore, some other works from the studio get overshadowed. Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart is one such film, and it is actually my favorite Ghibli production – plus, it features The Baron, my favorite Ghibli character. It’s a sweet and simple story about a young girl who dreams of being a writer and her interactions with a boy who aspires to make violins. It follows the trials and tribulations of adolescence, young love, and the struggle between making dreams come true and facing reality. The animation is gorgeous, the music is great, and the writing (provided by Miyazaki) is poignant. It might not carry a message as deep as Mononoke or feature the whimsical magic of Howl’s Moving Castle, but Whisper of the Heart is a subtle slice-of-life that hits the closest to home, and fans of Ghibli’s other projects shouldn’t miss out on this underrated gem. And semi-sequel The Cat Returns is a hilarious companion to the film that is well worth seeing – especially since Cary Elwes reprises his role as the Baron.
I didn’t hear much about Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion when it was first released, and, as such, I didn’t see it until it came to Red Box. The film is a post-apocalyptic scifi film about a tech named Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) who are doing recon/repair work on Earth while the rest of Earth’s population has allegedly relocated to Titan; however, Jack is haunted by flashes of memory of a previous life, which leads him to question his purpose and his identity. While the film does rely on previously used scifi tropes (hey, if it works, it works, as long as it’s entertaining) and it’s somewhat predictable, I also think it did an excellent job of not making familiar material feel stale, and it does introduce some new, fresh ideas into a genre with so many possibilities. Also, the film is gorgeous – it’s sleek, like Tron Legacy, only with a different aesthetic. I just saw Arrival (2016) the other night and Oblivion’s setting/atmosphere was semi-reminiscent of that; futuristic, but subtle and not over the top. It allows the viewer to put the pieces of the story and characters later, and doesn’t rely on excess exposition and explanation, which scifi does tend to fall victim to. I know that many folks have grown weary of the “post-apocalyptic” style of scifi, but Oblivion breathes a whisper of new life into it.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
My parents and I ended up seeing this film after the film we wanted to see was sold out – and I ended up enjoying it so much that I don’t even remember what we originally intended to see. The story is about an employee of Life magazine named Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) who must embark on a search for a film negative and, subsequently, finds himself hunting the “meaning of life.” It’s definitely not a runaway box-office hit, but I found the premise of the film intriguing, and was definitely engrossed by the story as it was unfolding onscreen; as such, I was stunned when I found out that reception to the film was mixed, with some folks loving it and some hating it. If a ~50% Rotten Tomatoes score is enough to deter you from seeing I film, I recommend you reconsider that stance and give this film a shot. It’s a visually stunning film with a good story, amazing scenery, and a great cast. It might not be award-fodder and it doesn’t hit all the high notes, but it’s worth seeing simply for the fact that most people can likely find a bit of themselves in the character of Walter Mitty.