Oftentimes, a film being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture boosts its popularity within communities of film fans. What is or isn’t nominated is speculated about for months, and the prestige of a Best Picture nomination is proven to boost a film’s theatrical gross, home video sales, and success on streaming platforms. Ranking and evaluating each year’s lineup of Best Picture nominees is always an important part of critical film discussion every year.
However, the conversation surrounding some of these films ceases after the end of the awards cycle. Even the most forgettable Best Picture winner will be ranked among other winners until the end of time, but just getting nominated doesn’t guarantee that it will be remembered. Some films are accused of being “Oscar bait,” and others just fail to generate the same excitement that they did during their first release.
As films are cycled out every year, there are some films that seemed important at the time they were first released, but have now slipped into the category of being underrated. Here are the top ten most underrated Best Picture nominees of the 21st Century.
10. Good Night, and Good Luck
Outside of being one of the best actors of the 21st Century, George Clooney has led a bold and uncompromising career as a director. Clooney’s second film was Good Night, and Good Luck, a period drama that told the true story of CBS host Edward Murrow (David Strathairn in an Oscar-nominated role), who was accused of being a communist by Joseph McCarthy. Acclaimed as an instant classic within journalism movies, the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t routinely discussed in the same way, which may be due to the negative responses to some of Clooney’s later directorial efforts. Regardless, Good Night, and Good Luck is a fascinating depiction of the relationship between media and government, and uses its intimate locations and black and white color grading to create a unique chamber piece. Clooney’s screenplay is layered with big ideas and unafraid to deal with legal and ethical minutia, but the dialogue is never dull due to the terrific performances from Straithirn, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, and Clooney himself.
9. Gangs of New York
Like Scorsese’s most recent film The Irishman, Gangs of New York is one of the rare films to receive ten Oscar nominations, but win nothing. The film often is considered to be one of Scorsese’s minor efforts, and is usually referred to as a mediocre film that is elevated by an excellent Daniel Day Lewis performance. While it is true that Day Lewis is exceptional as always, the rest of the film boasts gorgeous production design, interesting characters, and some of Scorsese’s most visceral and gripping action sequences.
The first of Scorsese’s collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio, Gangs of New York sees DiCaprio as a young man from the slums who navigates his way through the Five Points in order to avenge the death of his father. An opening flashback perfectly sets up the character’s motivation, and the rest of the film does a great job at establishing the relationships between each gang and how they seek control. Unrelentingly grim and grandiose in scale, Gangs of New York is proof that even “minor” Scorsese is better than most other films.
8. Michael Clayton
2007 was a landmark year for the Academy Awards, as it saw a competitive season between No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood; both films were instantly hailed as masterpieces, and both are now considered to be among the best films of the 21st Century. However, another film released that year that deserves to be mentioned more often is Michael Clayton, a gripping legal thriller that follows the titular fixer (George Clooney) as he does damage control for a law firm after one of their lawyers has a public meltdown.
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, the film is mercilessly grim, and despite the many shocking plot developments, the film never loses its sense of realism. It also never gets so lost in the plot that it forgets the characters, as key moments reveal the effects that Clayton’s work has on his family. Tom Wilkinson is also phenomenal in his Oscar-nominated role as the lawyer whose moral awakening sets up the film’s plot.
7. The Descendants
George Clooney appears in several films on this list, which isn’t surprising; he’s often someone who is celebrated more for his charisma and celebrity status, so it’s easy to forget that he’s an actor with a very diverse range. Clooney has never been better than he is in The Descendants, playing an attorney in Hawaii who learns of his wife’s infidelity after she gets in a coma after a dangerous accident.
In his performance, Clooney must play someone who has watched life pass him by, and Alexander Payne’s brilliant script doesn’t settle for any generic mid-life crisis movie cliches. The heart of the film is the relationship between Clooney’s character and his two daughters Alex and Scottie, who are played brilliantly by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in breakout performances. Both heartbreaking and funny in a very real way, The Descendants is one of the most emotional dramas of the 2010s.
6. Up in the Air
While Jason Reitman’s last few films have received middling reviews and produced disappointing box office results, it’s easy to forget that he was once one of the industry’s most promising young filmmakers. Films like Juno, Thank You For Smoking, and Young Adult showed Reitman’s knack for deep relationships and wry humor, and his best film to date is Up in the Air, in which George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, an HR employee who travels across the world to fire employees at different companies.
What’s fascinating is seeing how the character moves in and out of the lives of various people, and how he manufactures a personna that emphasizes a false sense of compassion. Bingham grows more sincere over time as he comes to realize his own dissatisfactions, and Clooney is able to make this difficult character one that is worth rooting for. Somehow managing to be both cynical and optimistic, Up in the Air is a clever and insightful gem.