A number of films are released each decade that deserve a good deal more positive attention than they get. These films are awarded that great consolation prize of the movies, entry to the hall of the underrated or overlooked, for many reasons. A hopeless and misleading marketing campaign can doom the film’s intention. It might simply not have enough money behind it to generate enough interest for a successful run. The elite at Cannes or Venice might choose to pass it by in favour of overpraising something less deserving. In rare cases, such as in that of the first film listed below, a director’s runaway infamy might overshadow his masterpiece.
The following is my list of underrated works of the 00s, and they were made with widely varying intentions, perhaps more than my main list of the best of the 00s. For one, comedy is much better represented here (good God, I’m becoming the Oscars). I would be quite happy to put many of them in the ‘best ofs’, and dare say I would prefer to do a marathon of these than the generally drier, heavier set in the other list, but they are here because they each, as far as I can perceive, warranted closer inspection than they were allowed. So, in alphabetical order…
Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)
I went gleefully to the theatre when Apocalypto was released, eager to see what deliciously violent mishmash Mad Mel had thrown together. In the build-up to its release, the trailer for this historical Mayan epic included a shot of Gibson himself hangin’ with the boys, and a shot had been leaked of a Holocaust-style pile of bodies with Wally, from the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books, obvious among them. Added to that, Gibson was charged one of the more memorable DUIs of the decade, and his previous film was The Passion of the Christ. Believing I would love every minute, but with a healthy ironic detachment, I suddenly found myself riveted and in awe: here was a film with extremely pure and genuine intentions of telling a simple universal story, telling it with considerable filmmaking skill, and never letting you leave the edge of your seat. Its HD photography looks phenomenal and at nearly two and a half hours, it isn’t a moment too long. One of the best action films of this, or any decade? Absolutely.
Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)
There were few positive voices among the scathing mass of critics as Birth started getting its first notices. I won’t go so far as to say that the naysayers missed the point, as they might simply place the highest emphasis in their film analysis on believability. For me, it is atmosphere: a sense of being involved with something, being drawn into a specifically composed world of sound and vision. From the simple, beautiful prologue – we follow a man running in snowy Central Park and watch as he has a heart attack, and is perhaps reborn, with the accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat’s extraordinary score – Birth is riveting and not a little disquieting, with Nicole Kidman’s best work at its centre.
Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
Its companion Letters from Iwo Jima may be the better film, but the idea here is much more interesting: what is the reality of an iconic image of war (in this case, the American flag-raising on Iwo Jima), and how does the dichotomy between that reality and how it is presented back home affect the soldiers involved? With such wide scope, a lesser director could have crashed and burned trying to keep all the plot strands in focus and avoiding jingoism. Fortunately, Eastwood’s sure hand guides Flags of Our Fathers through a deeply satisfying and thought-provoking series of events with an appeal that welcomes the whole world to listen, not just Americans.
Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, 2004)
A brilliant meditation on mental illness and paranoia, handled with rare sensitivity. Damian Lewis’ portrayal of the title character may go to the edge, but never over the top, and Abigail Breslin (of Little Miss Sunshine fame) shows her natural talent and ease in front of the camera. Worth seeing, at the very least, for one of the cleverest cuts of the 00s, from one character to another (?) – something I had to rewind and watch again a couple of times so I could marvel at it.
Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004)
Biopics remain one of the chief stocks-in-trade for the Hollywood machine, alongside those blasted sequels and comic books, and it felt like the 00s were dealt with more of them than any previous decade. While Ray, Walk the Line and Capote et al received the most attention and plaudits for their mostly clean-and-easy approach, this look at the life of the world’s most famous sex researcher delves deep into the taboo and somehow manages to stay focused and fascinating even while following the subject’s entire life. A mature and highly provocative work for which the advisory “viewers discretion is advised” seems woefully inadequate.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
One of the funniest and most entertaining films of the 00s, with Robert Downey Jr’s dumb petty thief and Val Kilmer’s gay private eye trading one-liners and an intricate plot filled with opportunities for hilarity. Endlessly rewatchable to pick up all the lines you missed and marvel at the inspired, delectable writing and acting.
The Ladykillers (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2004)
I’m yet to find anyone to support me with this one, widely criticised as the weakest and most pointless film in the Coens’ canon. Personally, I find their preciousness more irritating than interesting – with a few notable exceptions – but with this remake of a classic (which, to my embarrassment, I have not yet seen), the brothers’ whimsical approach fits perfectly with the material. It must be said, however, that the film benefits greatly from one of the great comedic performances I’ve seen, by Tom Hanks of all people, and from a series of wonderful supporting turns led by Irma P. Hall. Still, it’s a technical marvel with a great soundtrack and the product of two revered filmmakers clearly having fun.
Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott, 2003)
This simple, clever film merits only a one-sentence mention on legendary Brit Scott’s (now a knight of the realm) Wikipedia page. However, amongst all the big-budget dross he turned out in the 00s – another look at that Wikipedia entry reminds of just how much crap he dumped on the slate – Matchstick Men quietly came and went with little recognition. It is in fact a tight, well-acted and amusing look at a con man with OCD who discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter. Nicolas Cage (in his increasingly rare Taking it Seriously mode) and Alison Lohman are outstanding in the central roles. As I left the theatre, I couldn’t shake the delighted grin from my face.
For part 2, click here.