It’s not particularly odd for a film to be discarded as shallow and disappointing upon its release only to be lauded and adored years later. Audiences change, and what once was considered trite and strange could be seen in a whole different light by a newer generation. Sometimes it’s a case of a film not getting widespread acclaim but finding a small group of viewers who value it. Yet sometimes a movie’s message is misinterpreted as amazing human truth by a movie-list maker on the internet. Whatever the case, here are some films I consider highly underrated and the reasons why I do so:
10. The Neon Demon (2016)
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is known for films that are heavier on visuals than in story. Such was the case with his last film, The Neon Demon. Starring Elle Fanning as a wannabe model in Los Angeles, this horror thriller was not exactly looked favorably upon by audiences and critics alike. Giovani Marchini, in his review of the film for The Film Stage, wrote “any semblance of commentary is simply a posture for Winding Refn to cover his ass”. It currently holds a scanty 6.2 rating on IMDb and a rotten score of 58% on Rotten Tomatoes.
I think the film is more effective than the majority of people give it credit for. For starters, it holds valuable commentary on the fashion industry, and it portrays it through sometimes visceral satire. The film does an excellent job characterizing the disposability of bodies the fashion industry thrives on. It does so in beautiful fashion too. Winding Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier bring the story to life with shots and lighting as dazzling as the characters that populate it.
The film asks questions (whether it answers them is another story) of identity, beauty, and the male gaze while telling a thrillingly fun story that is a mash-up of horror, sci-fi, and mystery. One of the main points of criticism of the film is the shallowness of the characters. Yet it could be argued that perhaps these characters represent the shallowness of the fashion industry itself, and probably are not unrealistic at all? Style and substance are wholly synchronous in this unique thriller. Don’t let bad reviews discourage you from checking it out.
9. To Die For (1995)
Now this one isn’t completely underrated. Van Sant’s black comedy was originally met with mixed reviews, yet has gained a sort of a cult following since. Particularly praisable is Nicole Kidman’s lead performance as fame-hungry Suzanne Stone and Buck Henry’s clever script. The film follows Stone as she cheats, lies, and murders her way to fame in a small American town. Kidman won a Golden Globe for her performance and the film did well at the box-office.
This is why I find it odd that it does not get much attention from modern audiences. It is a black comedy crime drama that should be on par with some of Coen’s 90s work in terms of acclaim. But it’s a film that has been half-forgotten, even when its message rings just as true today as it did in 1995.
In essence, it is a story of the avenues women must use to gain fame. The film portrays, in an exaggerated and darkly comic way, how women must take advantage of their bodies to achieve things in life. It is a thematically dense exploration of gender dynamics in relation to fame. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Masley writes “[it] takes aim at tabloid ethics and hits a solid bull’s-eye, with Ms. Kidman’s teasingly beautiful Suzanne as the most alluring of media-mad monsters. The target is broad, but Gus Van Sant’s film is too expertly sharp and funny for that to matter”. It’s a darn good story too. Violent, erotic, and wholly funny, it rarely missteps, and when it does, Nicole Kidman is so mesmerizing it’s hard to even tell.
8. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
The Coen brothers’ filmography is made up of thirty years of cult classics, Oscar winners, and occasional duds. 2016’s Hail, Caesar! is at risk of falling into the latter category. Which is a shame, since although it is obviously not their greatest work, it has a lot to offer. The movie revolves around various characters and is set in Hollywood during the studio era of the 1950s. Josh Brolin plays a hard-nosed fixer. George Clooney is an aloof star. Ralph Fiennes is an eccentric director with a short-fuse. It has a great cast and it’s a truly entertaining ensemble-piece.
The Coens make a comedic recreation of a completely different era of moviemaking. A sardonic look at a time when an actor having an affair could ruin a whole movie, performers were basically owned by their studios, and being a Communist could cost you your career as a screenwriter. The Coens bring this world to life with their trademark wit and style. While it’s not their most groundbreaking or thematically dense film, it’s a good movie that has not gotten the love it deserves.
7. The Beach Bum (2019)
Any Harmony Korine film could be in this spot. His offbeat 1997 debut Gummo, the polarizing crime comedy Spring Breakers, or even Julien Donkey-Boy. I’m choosing The Beach Bum because it’s a film that has been controversial and widely misunderstood.
It’s a comedy starring Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, a rich, pot-smoking, easy-going writer living in Florida. He lives in a mansion with his wife and spends his days partying and enjoying himself in general. An accident disrupts Moondog’s relaxed lifestyle and he is forced to reevaluate his existence.
Not only is it a hilarious movie, but it is open to varying interpretations. Many see it as a comedic portrayal of capitalist America. In a way, it is a classic story of riches to rags. Of a rich man’s fall from grace and discovering meaning above hedonism. Matthew McConaughey’s performance is fantastic, it almost feels like he’s been Moondog all along. The filmmaking is solid all around. It’s a film that’s all-around fun and well-made, it really doesn’t deserve the hate it’s gotten.
6. Stoker (2013)
South Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook made his Hollywood debut with this classy thriller. It stars Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker and Nicole Kidman as her mother, a widow who begins a relationship with her husband’s mysterious brother, played by Matthew Goode. It currently holds a mediocre 6.8 rating on IMDb and a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. It wasn’t a failure, but Park’s film was unable to generate buzz. The result has been it’s near discarding into average movie oblivion.
But not only is Stoker an extremely well-made and acted thriller, but its story is a palpable depiction of predatory relationships. Mathew Goode’s Uncle Charlie begins to infiltrate the Stoker’s lives slowly, ingratiating himself to both women. He manipulates them subtly through gaslighting and other tactics and soon sets his eyes on seducing young India. The film is a very good depiction of the avenues of power predatory men use to get what they want. Its realistic depiction of family dynamics makes it a purposely frustrating and intense experience.
Told like a Hitchcockian thriller, mixed with Park’s frenetic directing style. It is a tight and intimate thriller that holds up on multiple rewatches. The performances are great all around, especially Mathew Goode as the suave antagonist. It, unfortunately, did not find an audience when it was released but has all the potential and quality to become a classic in hindsight.