The 30 Most Underappreciated American Movies of The 21st Century So Far
10. Southland Tales (2006)
Of the younger generation of filmmakers who came to prominence this century, there probably isn’t one more fascinating than Richard Kelley. He burst onto the scene with his brilliantly bizarre sci fi cult classic Donnie Darko in 2001, then failed in the most spectacular fashion since perhaps Michael Cimino in back-to-back-to-back failures with his whacked-out screenplay for Domino (audaciously directed by Tony Scott) and his writer-director follow-ups, Southland Tales and The Box.
Southland Tales is a gloriously warped, bloated, and beautifully messy film. It’s the kind of flawed, misunderstood, and brilliant masterpiece that only a director with enormous talent (and some insanity) could pull off. While imperfect and way too full of ideas for its own good (to make sense of the film, you have to read an accompanying graphic novel prequel saga that was written by Kelley and released around the time of the films’ theatrical release), Southland Tales is well worth the patience and multiple viewings it needs to be even somewhat digestible.
The story takes place in a (at the time) near-distant future and centers around an action star (Dwayne Johnson) who wakes up in the middle of the desert with amnesia. Johnson then finds himself in a massively complicated conspiracy plot involving natural power, political corruption, intersecting parallel universes, porn stars, and an underground Marxist revolution (you know, those old cliché’s…).
Whatever you many think of it on the first viewing, try giving it a couple more tries. There is nothing else out there that is quite like Southland Tales. Take the ride and give it the attention it needs so we can get one of our most overlooked and (currently) forgotten talents back to work.
9. Synecdoche, NY (2008)
Charlie Kaufman pretty much goes all-out with his comedic/surrealist/absurdist style of writing (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) in his directorial debut, Synecdoche, NY. The film is about a theatre director (a never less than great Philip Seymour Hoffman) who replicates a life-size New York City in an enormous warehouse for a piece of “living theatre”.
The rehearsal period never ends, however, and the “play” just keeps getting larger, changes everyday, and eventually winds up consuming Hoffman’s entire life in the process. Like Adaptation, Synecdoche, NY is an unusual and imaginative look at the highs, lows, and personal obsessions involved with the creative process.
Perhaps Kaufman’s lucky streak ended with Eternal Sunshine, or perhaps Synecdoche, NY was just the strangest (and least accessible) screenplay he was able to get produced to date. Whatever its reason for not finding a larger audience or overall respect from its critics, Synecdoche, NY stands up as very worthy, weird, and insightful companion piece to Kaufman’s more accepted and renowned works.
8. Rampart (2011)
Woody Harrelson reteamed with his Messenger director Oren Moverman for this stunning character study of a corrupt LAPD officer who is under heavy investigation for brutality. All the while, he has to also struggle with juggling his many romantic relationships and his uniquely dysfunctional family.
Not so much as focused on story as it is on mood, atmosphere, and character, Rampart’s success is heavily reliant on Harrelson’s talents as an actor. His ability to create an entirely believable though thoroughly despicable man without depicting him as a one-note monster is a feat even some of the best actors struggle to accomplish with such layered perfection. He plays his character like most people who are truly evil view themselves: a nice guy who doesn’t understand why the world is coming down on him so much.
Rampart is the perfect, complicated vehicle for a talent like Harrelson to showcase his strengths within. Harrelson has all the charms and presence of a movie star to keep us entertained, but also posseses the skills and depth necessary to give a truly rounded and undeniably great performance.
In another reality, Harrelson is an Oscar winner ranked with Sean Penn and Johnny Depp as the best of his generation. In this one, he’ll just have to settle on being the popular (and very well paid) actor he is, while audiences are still surprised every now and then by how great he can be. Poor guy.
7. Two Lovers (2008)
James Gray’s beautiful film about a lost soul (Joaquin Phoenix) who can’t decide between two polar opposite women in his life (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw) went largely unnoticed and unappreciated at the time of its release.
This was probably due, in part, to the film’s challenging and not-so-easy-to-grasp nature. It was probably also due to the fact that Phoenix decided to lose his mind and publicly pursue a rap career (which we later found out was staged, maybe?) right around press time for this film’s release.
Now that time has passed, we can all just pay attention to the film for what it is: A profound, sensitive, sad, and potentially hopeful character study of a highly wounded and self destructive man struggling to find his place in the world. Phoenix is painful to watch at times, but still fascinating and often funny. The performance ranks amongst the best of his career. Whatever was going on off screen, the strength and brilliance of Phoenix’s work in Two Lovers is what will (hopefully) stand the test of time.
6. Frailty (2001)
Actor Bill Paxton delivered one of the best and most effective performances of his career in Frailty, which also happens to be one of the best and most effective horror films of the century.
Paxton also made his directorial debut with Frailty, a film about a single father to two young boys who believes he has received a message from God to start slaying demons with an axe.
Problems quickly arise, however, due to the fact that the demons Paxton claims to be slaying look and sound an awful lot like fellow human beings. Matthew McConaughey (in early practice for his entranced and haunted work in True Detective) also stars as the grown up incarnation of one of Paxton’s sons, and serves as the narrator of the tale at hand.
Respected amongst horror enthusiasts, Frailty has yet to fully connect with mainstream audiences. Given its intelligence, refusal to rely on gore or other cheap gimmicks, and the quality of its filmmaking in general, it’s time that audiences take note of this extraordinarily crafted and chillingly realized film.
5. The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as twin siblings who both survive attempted or near-attempted acts of suicide on the same day. They soon re-enter each other’s lives after a prolonged absence, then begin to re-bond over their shared traumatic pasts and overwhelmingly strong, though invisible, connection.
The film is a great and beautifully simple comedy/drama that drops in on these characters’ lives and lets us watch without judgment or forced meaning. Both Wiig and Hader are sensational and lovable as the two screw-ups with hearts of very tarnished gold. The film wouldn’t have worked on the level it does without their charms, talents, or personal neuroses.
Widely underpraised overlooked, this is the kind of film whose intelligence and emotional core should have lured both awards and heaps of praise at the time of its release. Though it got a few nibbles at both when it was released last year, The Skeleton Twins certainly didn’t get the attention it needed or deserves and, as of this writing, remains yet another unsung great film of the century.
4. Ask Me Anything (2014)
Based on his own novel, Undiscovered Gyrl, writer-director Allison Burnett delivers the unforgettable independent great, Ask Me Anything. Just don’t be fooled by anything you think you know about the film, either before seeing it or while you’re watching it.
To hear the story, you’d think you were in for a raunchy, fun teen sex romp: a young, promiscuous girl takes a year off between high school and college to explore life and blog about all the dirty details At first, the film even leads you to believe it might be just that, opening with an intentionally deceptive and highly stylized teeny bopper display of artifice, high emotions, and girls behaving badly while having a great time doing so.
The one benefit to this film currently being lost and buried in the sea of a saturated home video market is that audiences can view it with a fresh and uninfluenced perspective. With that in mind, to say anything else about where this very special film takes us would only be a disservice to it.
All that can be said is that Ask Me Anything may appear to be a very entertaining (or girlishly annoying, depending on your point of view) fluff piece at first, but eventually (and expertly) reveals itself to be something much, much more.
3. Detachment (2011)
Tony Kaye probably should have become a household name after he directed the movie we know and love as American History X. The only problem that got in the way was that the perfectionist filmmaker did not approve of the cut of the film that was released, and very publicly made no secret of the fact that he resented it being taken away from him.
That honest heart behind what some viewed as self-sabotage and others praised as high integrity is poured directly into the director’s uncompromised, passionately assembled, and criminally (to the point of the death penalty) underrated and unknown film, Detachment.
Adrien Brody stars as an emotionally-islanded substitute teacher who is able to avoid any personal attachments in his life by drifting from temporary job to temporary job. The character is a fascinating one, and Brody commits to it with the core of his being. His character cares too much and has to hide from the world as a result. He wants to help everyone, but secretly fears and possibly believes everyone (including himself) is beyond help.
Brody is effortlessly able to convey both the likability and hidden pain of such a torn and conflicted character. He receives excellent support from an astounding ensemble cast that includes Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Peterson, Sami Gayle, and Betty Kaye.
Detachment is ultimately about the leap of faith one takes in putting everything they have into caring for and trying to help fellow human beings. Focusing on teachers (and finally giving them a voice in film that isn’t reliant upon movie cliché’s leftover from the eighties) as the unsung heroes of today, the film gives us a disturbing and uncompromising look at the hurdles faced on a daily basis by those working in the public education system. The teachers who do the most good are the ones that suffer the most for caring.
Boldly told through an innovative style that includes animation, documentary interviews with real-life teachers, expressionistic editing, and raw, handheld camerawork, Detachment is a great film that is still awaiting its (already) long-overdue recognition. It also makes you wonder: no matter how good we all thought American History X was when we first saw it years ago, what level of greatness did we ultimately miss out on when the powers that be took control away from the fascinating and brilliant Kaye?
2. Narc (2002)
Those who haven’t seen Narc are most likely curious as to why it’s so high on this list. Those who have seen it know it’s a classic, and are probably wondering why it’s even on this list at all. Even though it had some solid (though not universally great) critical support at the time of its release and also jump-started the career of writer-director Joe Carnahan, Narc is still widely and shockingly under-known.
Jason Patric stars as an undercover narcotics officer who teams up with the former partner (Ray Liotta) of a fallen cop to solve his murder. Liotta and Patric, long known as two of the best and most intense actors of their generation, have been on the fringe of mainstream success for years. Their performances in Narc are not just great, they’re downright real.
Good actors know how to control your attention so you can’t stop watching them. Great actors put you in the shoes of their character and make you feel everything they’re feeling right along with them. As an audience member, part of Narc’s raw thrill is that you feel every hit, every shock, and every bullet that Patric and Liotta take.
Narc is an emotionally draining experience with twists and turns that will shock you as much as break your heart. It reaches greatness and stays there because it pays attention to the characters first, and everything that happens as a result in the story is an organic extension of their (often hidden) motives. It’s hard for a film to be labeled as perfect, but Narc comes about as close as you can get.
1. The Dead Girl (2006)
Of all the films on this list, perhaps the most audaciously effective is writer-director Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl. It is truly hard to say why both critics and audiences have let this challenging and brilliant film fall into obscurity. It is safe to assume, however, that the film’s dark and disturbing tone and lack of an established (and possibly male?) director played a hand.
The film is set into motion with the discovery of a dead young woman’s callously disposed-of body in a field. The film then explores the resonance her murder has on everyone in connection to the act: the woman who finds her corpse, the morgue attendant who inspects her body, the murderer’s wife, the dead woman’s mother, and, ultimately, the dead woman herself.
There isn’t a weak link in the large ensemble cast. Toni Collette, Piper Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, Rose Byrne, James Franco, Mary Steenburgen, Bruce Davidson, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Josh Brolin all offer outstanding performances that deserve singular recognition. Each one of them offers a fully realized performance that is so powerful, interesting, and full of history that they could carry an entire film by themselves.
The late Brittany Murphy, however, gives the best work of her tragically short life and career as the deceased girl around which the film centers. Even though she is only onscreen for roughly twenty minutes of the film, Murphy uses that time to thoroughly get under your skin and stay there. Moncrief’s expert direction and writing, combined with Murphy’s razor-sharp, jaggedly pained performance, tells us everything we need to know about this “Dead Girl” to understand who she was and why.
Ambitious and haunting, The Dead Girl offers us a sincere and feminine perspective into the lives of used and abused women. It is a wrenching film about the destructive secrets of a young woman’s past and the effect they had on her life and the lives of everyone she touched, both while living and deceased. The Dead Girl’s overriding strength and greatness as a film resides in its ability to infect its viewers with the same saddened resonance that is inflicted upon its characters long after the film is over.
Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.