What makes a movie underrated? The word raises so many unanswerable questions: Underrated by whom? Assessed by what scale? A film considered underrated in one country can be a huge hit in another. The term and the concept are both faulty.
Yet they are convenient, at least as an expression of support for works that have a spark of something yet have somehow become forgotten, if they were ever appreciated at all. For this list of films that are possibly underappreciated by viewers, I propose the more tempered adjective underloved. Some of these films were at least moderately popular when they were released in theaters but have somehow been forgotten in the year-in, year-out waves of new releases. Others are pictures that received largely negative reviews upon their release but deserve a second look. And one is a largely overlooked gem, made in 2020 and released in the United States in 2021, a picture that has earned a great deal of praise from critics but still hasn’t benefited from any groundswell of popular support. At the very least, taken collectively these movies are an invitation to dig deeper into your queue in search of lost wonders. Movie lovers are, after all, treasure hunters at heart.
Writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane has fashioned a gorgeous, quietly affecting film about an aspiring star in the world of Indian classical music (played, superbly, by Aditya Modak) whose gifts may not be enough to earn him the respect and acclaim he craves. Is it possible—or even a good idea—to live for art? The Disciple—one of the finest films of the 2021 release year—weighs both the joys and the consequences of trying to do so.
By the Sea
Upon its release in 2015, this melodrama for grown-ups, written and directed by Angelina Jolie, received plenty of scoffing reviews. But in addition to being gorgeous to look at (thanks to its French seaside setting, and cinematography by Christian Berger), this story of a complicated, unraveling marriage—starring Jolie and Brad Pitt, at a time when their own marriage had hit rocky shoals—has a dreamy, moody shape. It’s a story about people in trouble, charting their own risky way out.
Mike Hodges—director of the icy-great 1971 Get Carter, as well as the gloriously mad 1980 Flash Gordon—has been a maddeningly un-prolific director, disappearing for years, if not decades, between movies. In 1998, Hodges re-emerged practically from the ether with Croupier, in which Clive Owen gives a sterling performance as a coolly ambitious aspiring writer who, in order to make a living, returns to a line of work he both detests and excels at. The picture was an arthouse hit (remember those?) upon its release in North America. It’s great enough to deserve rediscovery.
French director Mati Diop’s swimmy romantic dream of a movie won a Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and earned ecstatic reviews from critics. But this drama of two lovers in Dakar, played by Mame Bineta Sane and Traore, separated when one strikes out across the sea in search of a better life, casts such a luminous spell that it deserves a wider audience. See if you’re not caught up in its starry net.
Letters to Juliet
This luminous, gentle 2010 romantic comedy, directed by Gary Winick, was treated as a throwaway upon its release. Time to change that. Amanda Seyfried (who is finally being recognized as the terrific actor she is) plays a young woman seeking the wisdom of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine in the Italian countryside. Instead, she meets an older woman—played by perhaps our finest living actress, Vanessa Redgrave—who is herself in search of a lost love. If I tell you that that erstwhile lover is played by Redgrave’s own real-life lost—and then found—love Franco Nero, and that the two are spectacular together, will you watch?
In 2007, Anton Corbijn—who first made his name as a rock’n’roll photographer—gave us the superb drama Control, which told the tragic story of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Corbijn’s second feature, The American, from 2010, wasn’t nearly as acclaimed—maybe because a contemplative thriller that’s low on explosions, car chases and even dialogue seems an unlikely picture for a rock photographer to make. But the movie’s austere stylishness deserves a second chance. George Clooney plays a secret operative with specialized skills, hiding out in the Italian countryside. He’s a man who, it first appears, has no center—and watching Clooney wander toward his character’s lost self is one of this movie’s great pleasures.
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old news reporter in Sarasota, Fla., committed suicide while on the air. Antonio Campos’ sensitively handled 2016 film tells the story of events leading up to that tragic incident, and Rebecca Hall is extraordinary as Chubbuck: It’s tempting for a performer who’s playing an alienated, isolated person to just put up a wall of inscrutability. But Hall’s Christine draws us closer rather than pushing us away—this performance is a quiet, multidimensional marvel.
Get On Up
Chadwick Boseman was an extraordinary performer whose career came to a heartbreaking halt just as it was getting started. His greatness was apparent even in his early film performances, among them his turn as James Brown in Tate Taylor’s 2014 biopic Get on Up. The movie is a bit of an experiment, and not everything in it works. But Boseman is wondrous to watch, giving us a portrait of a man whose staggering gifts—accompanied by grand show-biz braggadocio and boldness—made him a royal among American performers.
Got a pile of ironing to do, or some other soul-killing household chore? Time to fire up this 1999 firecracker of a domestic thriller, directed by Bruce Beresford, in which Ashley Judd plays a woman who’s framed and imprisoned for her husband’s murder—and who hatches a revenge plan when she learns he’s still alive. Bruce Greenwood plays the sexy—but evil—spouse. Tommy Lee Jones brings premium cragginess to his role as a by-the-book parole officer. Nothing in Double Jeopardy is remotely realistic, but you’ve probably got enough realism in your life already. That pile of shirts isn’t going to iron itself.
Guillermo del Toro may be an Academy Award winner, but that doesn’t mean every one of his films has gotten the notoriety it deserves. Crimson Peak, from 2015, is a work of spectacular, lurid lunacy involving a young newlywed and novelist (Mia Wasikowska) who’s plunged into a whirl of intrigue involving a tumble-down mansion, various unsavory family secrets and some grisly, menacing ghosts. Pour yourself a of goblet of blood-red cranberry cocktail and dive right in.
In this delightful 2007 adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel, Claire Danes plays a star who falls from the sky, and she’s a valuable commodity. More than a few people want what she’s got: Charlie Cox is the lad who tries to capture her to impress the woman he thinks he loves (Sienna Miller); Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch who needs certain celestial components to recapture her youth. This dreamy romantic fantasy is gentle and funny and just a little bit wicked.
David Michôd’s The King, from 2019, is an entertaining riff on Shakespeare’s Henriad, with everyone’s Tiger Beat crush Timothée Chalamet as the prince who will become Henry V, if only he can stop partying and carousing. But the real star of the show is Joel Edgerton’s Falstaff. Grouchy and wary and tender, he’s a sozzled hedonist seemingly out for himself—though his party-animal facade is just a mask for his bottomless generosity.
Only in 1967 did interracial marriage become legal in all 50 states. Director Jeff Nichols’ Loving, from 2016, tells the story of the couple whose case brought that legislation into being, Mildred and Richard Loving, played superbly by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Although Negga was nominated for an Academy Award, this stirring movie never really found the audience it deserved—and it may be even more resonant five years after its release, as a reminder that our country is hardly as progressive as we’d like to believe.
In this 2019 film, writer-director Isabel Sandoval stars as an undocumented Filipina working as a live-in caretaker for the elderly Olga (played by the late Lynn Cohen), in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Olivia is also a trans woman, which adds layers of complexity to her life: To obtain a green card, she’s seeking to marry a U.S. citizen, a quest that becomes even more complicated when Olga’s roguish grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), moves in. This is a gorgeous, delicate picture about finding your place in a setting that may not always be hospitable; in other words, it’s simply a film about living in the world.
Director Ron Howard tells the story of the rivalry between English racecar driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the Austrian-born speed demon Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in this lively, sporty movie from 2013. If Howard, the guy behind tony prestige pictures like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, seems an unlikely choice to direct a movie about hotheaded racing rivals, remember that he did make his directing debut with Grand Theft Auto, for shlock impresario Roger Corman, way back when.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Before New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi became part of the Marvel directors’ stable—but after he made the glorious vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows—he brought us this buoyant, expansive coming-of-age story. Twelve-year-old Ricky (Julian Dennison) seems to be a juvenile delinquent in the making, until he’s sent to live in the middle of nowhere with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff, laconic husband Hec (Sam Neill). What follows is a wilderness adventure and a story of how mismatched personalities learn to connect with one another, all garnished with Waititi’s characteristic, oddball stamp.
Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, this 2017 film, beautifully directed by Dee Rees, is an intimate epic about two American farming families, one Black and one white, working the land in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. Mudbound works as a thumbnail picture of midcentury American racism and injustice, and as a reminder of how slowly things change in this country. And the superb cast—including Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan—ensure that every minute is deeply felt and believable.
In this radiant film from 2009, director Jane Campion offers a fictionalized version of the love affair between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and a woman who was, quite literally, the girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish). The duo’s relationship was relatively short but deeply passionate, largely recorded in letters that Brawne kept. Campion fashions it all into an unfussy and gently erotic love story that never tips into sentimentality.
The Bank Job
In Roger Donaldson’s dazzling 2008 heist movie, Jason Statham plays a family man with a shady past who’s pulled back to a life of crime by an old neighborhood friend (Saffron Burrows). Set in 1971 London, and based on a real-life robbery, the picture captures the vibe of its time, evoking a Great Britain caught in the limbo between post-swinging London and pre-punk. But if The Bank Job is lively and clever, it’s also brushed with an aura of desperation, thanks in part to Statham’s soulful performance, which proves that he’s a much better actor than many of his movies require him to be.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.
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