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taking the under
10 of the most underrated flicks since 1990
by mike julianelle

A recent article proclaimed Outside Providence one of the ten most underrated movies of the past 15 years. I don't think so. It's an enjoyable flick with a weak lead performance, some nice supporting turns and some funny moments. For the purposes of this column, let's define an underrated movie as "a great movie that is not recognized as being great." Outside Providence doesn't quite fit.

So what does? Glad you asked! I made a list.

First, some qualifications:

I eliminated movies that got a lot of acclaim even if they lacked traction with the public (The Talented Mr. Ripley, You Can Count On Me, City of God). I rejected movies that, though I think they deserve more love, should not really be considered "great" (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Game), solid movies that are unfairly maligned by an unforgiving fan base (Terminator 3), and great cult movies that just aren't for everyone (Pi, Brick, Primer). And finally, I rejected a handful of movies that are just too celebrated in my circle (Go, The Limey, Grosse Pointe Blank).

These aren't overlooked movies, hidden gems or flicks only film geeks know about. They are great, "mainstream" movies that don't get the credit they deserve. So, without further ado...

10* - in no particular order - of the most underrated movies since 1990:

Donnie Brasco - I've had arguments about this movie, mostly because I compare it favorably to The Departed. But regardless of which you prefer, there is an argument. The latter is universally considered a great movie and the former is hardly mentioned. Featuring the rare subtle turn from Al Pacino (in contrast to Jack's dildo-waving hamfest) and typically stellar work from Johnny Depp, this movie is a slow burn without the easy Hamlet-esque out of The Departed.

Punch Drunk Love - If my Departed comments didn't piss you off, I bet this does. Not Paul Thomas Anderson's best (I'm not even sure we've seen that yet!) but not the stunt-casting throwaway it is dismissed as, this movie is odd as hell and twice as deeply felt. Like Flirting With Disaster, it's not defined by its lead.

The Quiet American - Maybe the most obscure movie on this list. And considering Brendan Fraser stars, maybe the most unexpected. Based on the Graham Greene novel, it also stars Michael Caine as a lazy journalist wasting away with opium and a Vietnamese girlfriend. When Fraser's shady American shows up, things get murky in an already confusing pre-Vietnam War Vietnam. Supremely well-acted, sophisticated and suspenseful, it's a little movie that has a lot going for it.

Jackie Brown - Another one by a highly respected director who "disappointed" fans by doing something a little different. All the trappings of a typical Tarantino movie are here, just slowed down as if to fit the age of the people at the center of the story, old-schoolers Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Mature and soulful yet not lacking in hilarious and profane dialogue or interesting turnabouts, this was QT's his last best movie. And Michael Keaton kills.

Quiz Show - A morality tale in the Golden Age of television. Get past Rob Morrow's accent (nobody does Boston right) and focus on the trifecta of amazing performances by fallen idol Ralph Fiennes, painfully, hatefully insecure John Turturro, and the regal, wounded Paul Scofield. Released amidst a string of quality films, it's since been forgotten. It shouldn't be.

Diggstown - The slightest movie on the list but maybe the most fun, Diggstown isn't loaded with star power. But if you like a good con movie, this one does it right. James Woods faces off with Bruce Dern, a young Heather Graham looks hot, and Louis Gossett Jr. has his best role since the immortal Chappy Sinclair. Featuring the always fun Oliver Platt and a gangbusters ending, Diggstown might not be well-known, but it's a small classic.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - I almost didn't include this movie because it seemed like it was more well known than it actually is. Somehow, it's not. Yes, it's self-aware, yes, it's dialogue is occasionally too clever by half. But it's full of great lines and even greater chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Val Kilmer hasn't been this funny since Real Genius and without starting his comeback with this flick, maybe Downey never sniffs Iron Man's metal jock.

A Simple Plan - Billy Bob Thornton rarely gives a bad performance but this may be his best. His sibling rivalry with Bill Paxton - solid as a rock - is gut wrenching, and watching the inevitable sadly play out in this movie is nothing short of crushing. Riveting movie, and Sam Raimi's best. Spider-mans and Evil Deads included. A crime it was ignored.

Wonder Boys - Michael Douglas does the Dude! Complete with bathrobe, joint and befuddlement. A little sad, a lot funny and featuring another great, albeit small, performance from Robert Downey Jr., this is a great movie for writers, stoners and pathological liars.

Flirting With Disaster - This is NOT a Ben Stiller movie. It's a hilarious ensemble comedy in which Ben Stiller happens to give a good performance. Everyone in it does, actually, from Tea Leoni and Josh Brolin to senior circuit all-stars Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore and the consistently awesome Richard Jenkins. I haven't even mentioned the guy that plays Lonnie the jealous quail chef. This is the most underrated comedy since Quick Change. And it blows Meet the Parents out of the water.

Near misses (for a variety of reasons):
Shattered Glass - Hayden can act. Peter can act better.
The 25th Hour - A bit sloppy (as usual from Spike Lee) but maybe Ed Norton's last best role.
A Perfect World - Costner has some great movies on his resume.
About A Boy - A love story between a jerky Hugh Grant and an awkward little kid. Not as creepy as it sounds.
Searching for Bobby Fischer - Love quadrangle between chess prodigy, his dad, Laurence Fishburne and Ben Kingsley. Not as creepy as it sounds.
Heavenly Creatures - Best friends murder one's mother. Kate Winslet's first movie. Pre-LOTR Peter Jackson.
American Psycho - Those monologues on 80s music are absolutely priceless.

Most Underrated Director since 1990:
David O. Russell: two more of his movies almost joined this list, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. Even his first flick, the cheery incest indie Spanking the Monkey, is solid. He's four for four. A modern day Howard Hawks, he does everything well. Even screwball.

*I threw this list together pretty quickly this weekend, so I am sure I'm missing a few. Share your picks in the discussion sidebar.


Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

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sandra thompson
10.6.08 @ 9:22a

Apparently we have the same taste in films, so anytime you want to write a film colum oh, say, once a month, so I can update my Netflix cue, I'll bait my breath, cause now you've got my confidence that if you say a film is good, I'll prolly like it a lot.

juli mccarthy
10.6.08 @ 10:26a

I've only seen Donnie Brasco and Diggstown on your list, but I'd agree completely with your assessments of both.

I generally don't expect more than simple mindless entertainment from a movie, but every now and then there's one that gets me with something small and interesting or unexpected.

Secondhand Lions, which suffered for its release date coming too close to the similar, splashier Big Fish - though I think the single best scene in SL was one that only appeared on the DVD extras deleted scenes. Just a great story with Michael Caine and Robert Duvall as two brothers seen through the eyes of a neglected child who gets dumped on them for a summer.

Desperado which is complete over-the-top silly tripe in terms of plot and acting, but is such a great mindless popcorn flick and so visually cool. It's less a narrative than it is a series of interesting scenes, but sometimes that's just perfect.

Tequila Sunrise with Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Raul Julia. Another popcorn movie, but redeemed by Raul Julia's complex, double-crossing, and surprisingly pragmatic character.

mike julianelle
10.6.08 @ 10:30a

Tequila Sunrise is 80s. I did not like Desperado, it was a strange remake/sequel hybrid of El Mariachi, which is incredible and almost made this list but for the splash it made upon its release.

juli mccarthy
10.6.08 @ 11:19a

Oh. 80s. Yep, it was. Sorry.

I think I did not see El Mariachi because I had pre-warning of the violence. I should see it, since I obviously survived the Desperado version of the bloodbath.

sarah ficke
10.6.08 @ 1:18p

I remember really enjoying Jackie Brown -- a lot more than I enjoyed Pulp Fiction.

brian anderson
10.6.08 @ 3:47p

I like Jackie Brown, too. And on a completely different note, The Big Hit is well-loved within my circle of friends, most of it unironically.

michelle von euw
10.6.08 @ 3:56p

My list would probably start with two you eliminated -- Go and Three Kings. Also need to once again shill for Eternal Sunshine. And Singles.

Wonder Boys. Hm. I loved it when I first saw it, but the more I watch it, the less I'm willing to tolerate the Hollywood version of a creative writing department. Or the gender politics.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang -- brilliant choice.

jael mchenry
10.6.08 @ 4:47p

Yeah, I think Go is the quintessential "underrated" movie, whether or not those crazy kids in your circle celebrate it. Grosse Pointe Blank is a cult movie with a wide following, so I think that was a just elimination, but not Go. More people need to know about Go. Period.

"It's like Wow. Bang. Surprise."

Shattered Glass, ditto. Sarsgaard fever! Catch it!

mike julianelle
10.6.08 @ 5:00p

I LOVE Singles. And I love Eternal Sunshine, but it is so well loved amongst its fans, hard to classify as underrated.

I knew there would be quibbles with my definition of underrated, but it is what it is. And by my circle, I was kind of including you guys, and our mutual appreciation of GPB and Go is well known.

jael mchenry
10.6.08 @ 5:11p

Yeah, but we love Kiss Kiss Bang Bang too.

Ooh! Ooh! I Heart Huckabees!

mike julianelle
10.6.08 @ 5:13p

Huckabees is in my "Most Underrated Director" section, I worship it. I could have listed three of his four movies there but I didn't want him dominating the list. Flirting With Disaster is older and is inexplicably ignored. He doesn't get talked about with the new guard of "auteurs" and he should.

jael mchenry
10.6.08 @ 5:59p

I think Flirting With Disaster was one of those "ruined by high expectations" movies for me. And as far as Spanking the Monkey... I don't see how an "incest comedy" can be "inexplicably ignored". I think the reason it's ignored is extremely explicable.

Lists like these are meant for discussion, and I know that, but in general I don't think any movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (e.g. Quiz Show) should be eligible for the label "underrated".

mike julianelle
10.6.08 @ 6:05p

I didn't call Spanking "inexplicably ignored."

Agreed on Quiz Show, but my point was that it's been completely forgotten since it was released.

alex b
10.9.08 @ 4:29p

Absolutely loved Quiz Show and Jackie Brown. Kudos to you for calling up Heavenly Creatures and About A Boy.

One of my favorites from the 1990s was L.A. Confidential. Great movie with Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey which was run over by Titanic at the Oscars. But still one helluva terrific movie.

jeffrey walker
10.9.08 @ 4:46p

Quiz show was pretty well known, but that may be a perception I have because I know the movie and I later met and befriended the real Herb Stempel.

jael mchenry
10.9.08 @ 5:03p

They also had a big article about Charles Van Doren in either New York mag or the New Yorker recently.

Walker, knowing Herb Stempel gives you serious nerd cred.

mike julianelle
10.9.08 @ 5:21p

I worship LA Confidential, but, to Jael's point, a best pic nominee (and one that SHOULD HAVE won) can't really be called underrated. Not gonna say that QS should have beaten Pulp Fiction - even tho Forrest Gump won (shouldn't have).

If I were to drop Quiz Show and add a movie that I haven't yet mentioned, it might be The Commitments.

Walker, what did Stempel think of his portrayal in the movie? And what's he like?

jael mchenry
10.9.08 @ 6:22p

La Confidencial is the BEST. Just thinking about it makes me want to watch it again.

I had to go through my Netflix five-star ratings to try to find movies that I might consider underrated given these criteria (I want to force every moviegoer in America to watch Brick but have to concede Mike's point that it isn't for everyone.) Some ideas:

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Deep Blue Sea (yeah, I said it)
Down With Love
Keeping the Faith
Playing by Heart
The Spanish Prisoner

I suppose Garden State, Fight Club, and Out of Sight got enough acclaim in their day. Though in my mind no amount of acclaim is enough for them, particularly Out of Sight, which is the best work everyone involved in it ever did.

mike julianelle
10.9.08 @ 6:40p

Love Dave! I watch that whenever I flip by it.

Wow, I HATED Keeping the Faith Didn't much like Confessions or Down With Love.

I saw Spanish Prisoner once and totally forgot it existed. Should see it again. I considered Out of Sight but it's pretty popular I think.

beth clement
10.11.08 @ 4:17p

Only one comes to mind, great cast and finally a GREAT TWIST!
The Usual Suspects

ted byrnes
11.3.08 @ 8:42a

I loved "American Psycho." "Jackie Brown" was forgettable, and "Grosse Pointe Blank" was passable as entertainment. "The Departed" would be on my list as one of the most overrated movies of all time. I knew I wasn't going to like it as soon as the well-known mobster pulls up to the FBI graduation ceremony and starts talking to DeCaprio's character like they're old friends. Ummmm, this didn't sound alarm bells to any of the hundreds of law enforcement people there? If it was a science fiction movie, I could look past the lack of realism, but it wasn't.

I thought "Magnolia" was THE best movie of the '90s.


mike julianelle
3.13.09 @ 6:41p

So, this movie is way out of the time frame for this column, but it's incredibly underrated and I would say ranks among Scorsese's best. Hallucinatory, hypnotic, superbly acted (Keitel's Brooklyn Judas notwithstanding), and provocative, The Last Temptation of Christ is an overlooked gem.

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