(Author’s Note: This article/list is a continuation and companion piece to an article/list entitled The 30 Most Underappreciated American Movies of the 21st Century So Far, which was published on May 21, 2015 by Taste of Cinema.)
Even the most dedicated and sophisticated filmgoers will more than likely relay a general worldwide opinion when asked about American movies today: they aren’t what they used to be.
Present-day audiences pretty much wait for the next theatrical releases from Tarantino, Scorsese, Fincher, David O. Russell, anything owned by Disney, and anything associated with Batman while ignoring just about everything else out there. Consequently, it’s quite easy to think America’s cinematic culture is quickly going down the tubes. While there’s no denying that it is, it’s just not as quickly or as obviously as one might think.
To explain further, there actually isn’t a shortage of good movies out there. In fact, there is such an abundance of them that it has become easier for us to write them off than it is to make the effort, do a little reading, and seek them out.
If the instant gratification that can be obtained from the internet with thirty-second web videos and two-second meme flashes doesn’t fill up most of our personal time for culture and entertainment, then long-form and hyper-addicting television dramas that can sweep us from reality for much longer spells are. The two-hour feature (give or take) film has taken a backseat in popular culture.
The films on this list need and deserve discussion and examination to survive. In a day and age where we can literally surf through thousands of movies and click away from them at any moment of boredom, dislike, or perceived fault, it’s far too easy to miss out on and take for granted some very important modern films, however imperfect they may or may not be. Many of the filmmakers behind such films also happen to be just as audacious, talented, and groundbreaking as the blessed few the media graces with legitimacy and attention today.
Good and great movies have never stopped being made, a lot of us just stopped caring about them. Too many of them are going by unnoticed, released with only the slightest whimper to announce their arrival in the world. And very few of us are hearing them because they’re far too faint and we’re far too busy listening to ourselves complain about how there’s nothing good out there.
30. Men, Women, & Children (2014)
The critical attack on Men, Women, & Children says far more about today’s critics than it does about the film itself. Director Jason Reitman’s film (based on Chad Kultgen’s novel) is an ambitious, sprawling, multi-character piece that centers around modern personal use and abuse of the internet. Sex addiction, anhedonia, lack of empathy, and loss of morality are some of the many consequences this film depicts to living in the online world today.
Critics almost universally slammed the movie for being the Reefer Madness of the twenty first century: the world can’t be anywhere as corrupt as what we’re seeing, so the film must be using manipulative scare tactics to teach us how the evil internet is destroying mankind.
While lacking subtlety and a truly fulfilling outcome (the mother who posts sexually suggestive pictures of her underage daughter for profit gets to be the misunderstood victim that deserves happiness in the end?), the film still deserves praise for the risks it takes and for saying some very harsh and unpopular truths.
At times, it does so with intelligence and bravery, at others, it’s admittedly and laughably simplistic. If you’re able to look past it’s faults, however, Men, Women, & Children can be viewed as an important, while simultaneously flawed, film to represent our technologically-distracted times.
29. Sonny (2002)
Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut (and, to date, the only film he’s helmed) is a curious oddity. It’s a dark, character-driven tale of a young male prostitute (James Franco, excellent in one of his first dramatic roles) in New Orleans trying to get out of the grasp of his controlling, brothel-running mother.
It’s also told with a lot of heart, care, and humor, all of which make the film a multi-toned and memorable experience. Sonny is a unique, sometimes-troubling film that manages to present the lives of those living in America’s underbelly with sensitivity, creativity, and respect.
28. Lollilove (2004)
Politically-active, upper-class white folk who use charitable acts to mask their most selfish intentions just don’t get attacked enough in Hollywood. That’s probably because it’s primarily run by them.
Future costar of The Office Jenna Fischer cowrote, directed, and costarred in this biting and sometimes brilliant mockumentary that astutely satirizes the narcissism, vanity, and insincerity behind many Americans’ most seemingly charitable acts.
27. Give ‘em Hell Malone (2009)
A modern noir that rides the line between hyper-stylization and farce (somewhere between Sin City and Shoot ‘em Up), Give ‘em Hell Malone is an enormously entertaining shotgun blast of a movie that will mock you if you take it seriously for even a second of its running time. Russell Mulcahy delivers his most interesting and unique directorial effort since his 1980’s cult classic, Highlander, with this film.
Thomas Jane is perfectly cast as the lead: a grizzled, comic book-like private investigator who goes by the name of Malone. Both hiply modern and full of classic references, Give ‘em Hell Malone is a wild, exceedingly fun ride that too many audience members have already missed.
26. Redacted (2007)
For everyone who was put off by the nearly-psychotic patriotism that could be interpreted at the heart of American Sniper, there is a counterpoint film about the war in Iraq that was quite bluntly made years earlier by the quite bluntly brilliant writer/director Brian De Palma.
Set up to be a film cobbled together from “found footage” (home videos, surveillance footage, security cameras), Redacted refuses to depict the American military as heroic, and could perhaps even be accused of going out of its way to depict them as bloodthirsty psychopaths (DePalma doesn’t exactly excel at exploring life’s grey areas).
In spite of the flaws that result from being guided by DePalma’s stylish and heavy hand (it’s far too stagey and way too pretty to be as gritty and real as it wants to be), it is also the filmmaker’s irreplaceable audacity that creates an unquestionably bold and extraordinarily unforgettable film.
25. Chained (2012)
Though it suffers from a far-too-complicated and contrived final act, Chained still deserves more recognition than it has received to date for being one of the most disturbing and intense films to be released so far this century (it also comes very close, but admittedly falls short, to being one of the best).
Jennifer Lynch does some of her most mature and assured directorial work in this highly unsettling film, which is about a young man’s (Eamon Farren) relationship with the serial killer (a career highlight for the hyper-intense Vincent D’Onofrio) who murdered his mother, kidnapped him as a child, then raised him to be his accomplice.
Twisted, sick, and quite confusingly touching at the briefest of moments, Chained, when it is at its best, is a complicated and skilled depiction of the complexity and contradictions found in the darkest recesses of the human soul.
24, 23. Milius (2013) and Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)
Fringe talents and figures in American filmmaking can easily go through their lives and careers without getting their due respect. Sadly, there are more unknown and obscure forces behind and in some of the best scenes of your favorite movies than there are known directorial auteurs or movie stars. Luckily, two of the most fascinating of these talents, actor Harry Dean Stanton and writer/director John Milius, are explored and celebrated in these two great (but predictably under-seen) documentaries.
When you see and hear stories about the lives they’ve lead, the figures they’ve lived and worked with, and the classic screen moments for which they are more responsible than the famous names we all credit them to, you will be red-faced with shame that you didn’t know more about Milius or Stanton much earlier.
22. Automata (2014)
Antonio Banderas is a missed figure in popular American films these days. The likability, charisma, humor, and intelligence he imparts into each of his characters are all a huge part of what has made the majority of his filmography the success it is. Automata is thankfully a rare example of a film that is as interesting as Banderas.
A worthy companion piece to both Blade Runner and the recent critical darling, Ex Machina, Automata is a tight and intelligent science fiction thriller that touches on the increasingly-popular theme of artificial intelligence inevitably revolting against us. As Banderas matures, smaller and smarter screen choices like Automata will hopefully welcome his presence with more and more frequency.
21. Septien (2011)
This extremely low-budget, languidly paced, and quite (wonderfully) sickly funny indie hasn’t caused much commotion since its release. Echoing the small town quirk and characterizations of David Lynch and David Gordon Green, Septien is a character-driven and bent exploration of the backwoods of America.
Spring Breakers’ Rachel Korine lends the film her compulsively watchable screen presence as a teenage, doe-eyed girl caught in the middle of some reasonably disturbed and fairly questionable intentions.