The top 30 underrated films of 2002

Odd List Ryan Lambie Simon Brew 12 Dec 2013 - 05:49

The year of Baggins, Potter and Spider-Man also had a wealth of lesser-known movies. Here’s our pick of 2002's underappreciated films...

At the top of the box office tree, 2002 was dominated by fantasy and special effects. Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The RingsThe Two Towers made almost a billion dollars all by itself, with Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets taking second place and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man not too far behind.

In many ways, 2002 set the tempo for the Hollywood blockbuster landscape, which has changed relatively little in the decade since. A quick look at 2013‘s top 10, for example, reveals a markedly similar mix of superhero movies, with Iron Man 3 still ruling the roost at the time of writing, followed by effects-heavy action flicks and family-friendly animated features.

As usual in these lists, we're looking at the less celebrated films of 2002 - the kinds of movies that not only didn't make the top 10, but also failed to get either the financial or critical attention they deserved. Compiling such a list is incredibly tricky, especially when it comes to films that didn't do particularly well in cinemas, but have become adored by a legion fans since. So apologies if your favourite isn't included...

Without further ado, here's our pick of 30 underappreciated films from 2002...

30. Impostor

When thinking about the movie adaptations of visionary sci-fi author Philip K Dick, it’s likely that a handful of films will spring to mind: most obviously Blade Runner and Total Recall, followed by Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly, then maybe the less-than-brilliant Paycheck and Next.

The sorely overlooked Impostor, directed by Gary Fleder and based on the 1953 short story of the same name, isn’t in the same league as the very best PKD adaptations, but it’s still full of the twists and existential crises you’d expect. It’s set in a distant future where invading aliens are capable of creating replicant spies that are almost indistinguishable from humans - that is, until they detonate with deadly effect.

Gary Sinise plays a weapons designer who falls under suspicion of the authorities, and spends the rest of the film attempting to convince everybody he’s not a deadly weapon forged by extraterrestrials. Madeleine Stowe, Mekhi Phifer and Vincent D’Onofrio round out a great supporting cast, and Mark Isham provides some decent music.

Oddly,  Impostor  actually looks less expensive than its not-bad $40m budget might imply, but it’s the quality of the acting (in particular from the ever-reliable Sinise) and the story that makes this a science fiction film well worth watching.

29. The Quiet American

The first of two Phillip Noyce movies that we're going to talk about on this list, The Quiet American is an adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, and casts Michael Caine as an experienced British reporter and Brendan Fraser - who once had a great knack for mixing in blockbuster roles with interesting projects such as this - as a young American, with the two both attracted to the same Vietnamese woman.

Caine's performance is what anchors the film, and unsurprisingly, he was Oscar nominated for it. But there are qualities dripping right through the rest of the movie. The political subtext adds weight, whilst there's a feeling of unease that Noyce successfully cultivates throughout. Beautifully shot, The Quiet American is a treat that grips from pretty much the get go.

28. Bubba Ho-Tep

Full disclosure: the oddball premise behind Bubba Ho-Tep made us approach it with some trepidation when it appeared on disc years ago, but there's far more going on in Don Coscarelli's horror comedy than mere goofy charm. But first, that premise: Bruce Campbell plays an eldlerly Elvis Presley, who after faking his death is now living out his final days in a godforsaken nursing home. Unfortunately, the reanimated corpse of an Egyptian mummy is roaming the corridors in search of tasty souls to devour.

Beyond the puerile yet often very funny comedy moments, there's an unusually touching story tucked away in here about the inevitability of death and the struggle to find a sense of dignity and peace in old age - weighty themes for a horror movie, not least one packed wall to wall with  flying killer insects, souls dragged from backsides, and African American acting legend Ossie Davis playing an elderly man who claims to be John F Kennedy in disguise.

Campbell was born to play the part of an ornery old Elvis, and Bubba Ho-Tep is surely one of his finest and most moving performances. It's also a fine film from Coscarelli, who specialises in little-seen cult films - for a more recent underappreciated gem, track down a copy of the John Dies At The End, another sterling cocktail of comedy and gore.

27. Deathwatch

Horror writers are always looking around for new and unusual situations, and while plenty of genre films have been set in World War II, relatively few have tackled the Great War, which tore through Europe between the years 1914-1918. Writer and director Michael J Bassett’s Deathwatch plunges us deep into the trenches and barbwire-strewn battlefields of this devastating war.

Jamie Bell, Hugo Speer, Laurence Fox and Andy Serkis are among the British troops who become lost among a network of German trenches, and slowly realise that something evil is stalking them. Bassett’s brilliantly chosen cast  ably depicts the madness and trauma of conflict, and that’s before the supernatural horrors have even kicked in.

Admittedly, the story doesn’t always satisfy as it should, but we’d argue that critics were a bit too harsh on what is an atmospheric and disturbing film - full of grime and squalor, its plot is forgettable, but its atmosphere is difficult to shake.

26. The Good Girl

Aim as many barbs as you like at Jennifer Aniston's movie career - as some tabloid columnists seem determined to do - but she's consistently had a knack of choosing interesting movie projects to tackle. The Good Girl, from Miguel Arteta, was arguably the first time she's got the critical notices she deserved, but even before this, she'd signed up to do movies such as The Iron Giant, Office Space and She's The One. We never got the memo that we weren't supposed to like her, we're glad to say.

The Good Girl is written by Mike White (who also penned the wonderful Chuck & Buck), and follows Aniston's shop worker who starts up a relationship with an unusual young helper in said shop, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. There's a sadness to Aniston's character, and to the entire film as a consequence, as she's trapped in an unhappy marriage, and stuck in an unhappy life.

Quality support comes from the brilliant John C Reilly, and there's a good role for Zooey Deschanel too, who does some of the comedy lifting here. But credit to Aniston for taking on and making such a rounded lead role her own. And credit too to director Miguel Arteta - who would go on to make Cedar Rapids and Youth In Revolt - for keeping the tone of such a delicate story.

25. Laurel Canyon

It's somewhat dull to say that Frances McDormand has put in another excellent acting performance here, given that we can't remember a time when she hasn't. Laurel Canyon is one of her lesser-seen projects though, and that's something of a shame.

She stars alongside Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, in a film that sees a young couple move into the home of the husband-to-be's mother. Bale and Beckinsale play the couple, McDormand is the mother, and if you suspect that tensions and inappropriateness ensue, then you're on the right track.

It's a film with problems, certainly, but Laurel Canyon still has enough going on to make it more than justify a watch. Furthermore, McDormand is quite brilliant, and writer/director Lisa Cholodenko - who would go on to make the wonderful The Kids Are All Right - wrings plenty out of the setup.

24. The Good Thief

A taut, twisty thriller from Neil Jordan, The Good Thief also gives a rare and much appreciated leading role to Nick Nolte. He takes the title role, with his character living in France, battling addictions and failing to resist the chance to take on a particularly lucrative job in Monte Carlo.

Jordan makes the most of his unusual French setting, and his stylish film is well cast even beyond Nolte. There's an uncredited turn from Ralph Fiennes for a start, but credit to Nutsa Kukhianidze and Tcheky Karyo too.

Yet this is Nolte's film, in a troubled, three-dimensional role that he inhabits with utter conviction. It's a very loose remake of a French movie by the name of Bob le Flambeur, and a good one at that. If you're a sucker for a good crime drama, with an outstanding lead performance, The Good Thief is a really compelling piece of work.

23. Death To Smoochy

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, FilmFour was well on its way to becoming a British powerhouse. It funded or part-funded a stream of interesting movies, and gave many British filmmakers a much needed break. By 2002 though, after a string of disappointments, it needed a hit. In fact, it needed its $5m investment in Danny DeVito's Death To Smoochy to pay off. The total budget for the movie was $55m. The film would gross less than $10m at the box office. FilmFour shut down in its original form at the end of 2002.

Death To Smoochy attracted some vitriolic reviews at the time, and we can't stand before you and declare it a full-on classic. But it is an interesting, challenging piece of work, headlined by Robin Williams as he was seeking out darker material. Co-starring Edward Norton, the movie follows a children's TV host who is fired and replaced by a Rhino character by the name of Smoochy. It's a very grown-up and satirical comedy that ensues, and one far better than its reputation suggests. It may forever be entwined with the story of an era coming to an end, but that's no reason to write an ambitious, difficult film off.

22. Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself

A great title, and a really good film this. Wilbur, played by James Sives, is not happy, and feeling suicidal. Along with his brother though, he inherits his father's seocnd hand bookshop. Located in Glasgow, said bookshop is visited by Lisa McKinlay's Mary (along with her mother), and there's a connection between her and Wilbur that the film moves on to explore.

It's a moving piece of cinema this, that doesn't just explore the character of Wilbur, but also the people he affects (his brother in particular). Uniformly excellent performances help, but the screenplay from director Lone Schefig and Anders Thomas Jensen is exquisitely pitched, finding dark humour in the midst of what could have been a very melancholy film.

Schefig would go on to make the excellent An Education (and she also tackled the film adaptation of One Day), but this arguably remains her best film. It's crying out to be discovered by a larger audience, and at the time of writing is just £4 at Amazon. That, friends, is a bargain.

21. Equilibrium

A few years before Christian Bale took on the mantle of the Dark Knight, he donned a black outfit of another kind for this futuristic action flick by Kurt Wimmer. The stylish coats and stylised violence gave the impression of a low-rent Matrix rip-off in trailers, but in reality, it's more akin to George Orwell with added martial arts.

Bale plays John Preston, a particularly talented member of a government force tasked with wiping out any cultural artefect held by so-called “sense offenders". In this particular future dystopia, all emotion is kept strictly in check, and stimulating things like books, films and paintings are rooted out and destroyed by Preston and his order of Grammaton Clerics. But when Preston stops taking his state-supplied drugs (designed to further suppress emotion) and sides with an underground resistance group, he starts to use his ‘Gun Kata' fighting skills to fight the Totalitarian establishment instead.

Throwing together ideas from all over the place - a bit of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 here, a healthy dose of John Woo there - Equilibrium couldn't be described as an original movie, but it is a compelling one. Wimmer's use of Berlin locations creates an appropriately chilly, imposing atmosphere, and there's a great cast alongside Bale, including Emily Watson, Sean Bean (you can probably guess how his character fares) and William Fichtner.

20. The Cat Returns

Fans of Studio Ghibli's output will probably be wondering what on earth this entry's doing here, but we'd argue that, for many people in the west, The Cat Returns is among the least well-known of the Japanese animation house's works. About a young girl who has an unusual ability to talk to cats, The Cat Returns is a kind of feline Alice In Wonderland, as the heroine ventures into a mystical Cat Kingdom. Extremely funny and beautifully animated, The Cat Returns is full of charm and personality- the chubby, slightly surly cat Muta, in particular, is an exquisite creation. A kind of spin-off from Studio Ghibli's earlier Whisper Of The Heart (Baron is the returning cat from that film, hence the title), The Cat Returns isn't the best of Studio Ghibli's films, but it's still seldom less than captivating.

19. Secretary

A drama about a meek secretary dominated by her boss could so easily have emerged as a smirking, puerile effort, but writer and director Steven Shainberg's Secretary is instead a mature and elegant film, and laces its kinky subject matter with a pleasing thread of wit. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the secretary in question, while James Spader (who's no stranger to quirky or difficult roles) is her boss.

Slow-burning yet constantly compelling, Secretary explores its central relationship impeccably, with Gyllenhaal and Spader both excellent as likeable people whose fetishes happen to overlap. The film's conclusion is a little too muted to satisfy, perhaps, but the journey towards it is eminently watchable.

18. Morvern Callar

We’re not quite sure what went wrong behind the scenes of the forthcoming Jane Got A Gun, but we hope the negative publicity surrounding director Lynne Ramsay’s abrupt exit from the production doesn’t prevent her from making more things in the future, because as films like 1999‘s Ratcatcher, 2011‘s We Need To Talk About Kevin and this one, adapted from the novel of the same name, shows just how talented a filmmaker she is.

A simple story about a young woman (played by Samantha Morton) who puts her own name on the manuscript of her late boyfriend’s unpublished novel, Morvern Callar is a brilliantly acted and superbly made, expertly treading the line between comedy and pathos. Although it made a pittance on its limited theatrical release, Morvern Callar is well worth tracking down on disc - Samantha Morton’s turned in plenty of great performances in her career so far, but this one is easily among her best.

17. Rabbit-Proof Fence

We've already talked about The Quiet American here, but Phillip Noyce also saw his adaptation of Doris Pilkington's Rabbit-Proof Fence released in 2002. This, too, is an excellent film, set in 1930s Australia and following three young Aboriginal girls who are taken from their homes to work as servants. The three girls escape, and begin the 1500 walk home along the fenceline in search of home.

Based on a true story, and with real footage added at the end, Rabbit-Proof Fence finds levity in the midst of a horrible tale, and the young leads - playing opposite Kenneth Branagh's officer leading the charge to track them down - add a warm and very human feel to the film. It's an accomplished and strongly realised take on the story, deliberately taking its time - even appreciating its brief 94 minute run - to get its moments across.

16. Frailty

Save for one festival appearance at the end of 2001, Frailty was rolled out properly in 2002, hence we've included it in this round-up, rather than our 2001 piece. Wherever we'd put it though, Bill Paxton's directorial debut is a piece of work that gets under the proverbial skin.

Paxton and Matthew McConaughey take the lead roles, and Frailty centres on a heavily religious father and the relationship with his two sons. You might think there's a very slight Carrie parallel in there, but Frailty is a different kind of horror. There's an awful lot going on under the surface here, and Paxton's quite uncompromising in his approach. He trades off just a little bit of accessibility in favour of a deeper film.

It crosses genres, refuses to paint the father - played by Paxton himself - as an outright villain, and doesn't shirk some of the big moments, which we won't reveal here. It's a difficult film to watch, but ultimately, a very rewarding one.

We've had to split this one over two pages. We don't make a habit of this, and we're not doing it as some trick to get ad impressions or anything. It just tends to make longer pieces more manageable if we do this.

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Like most things in 2002, all these were pretty forgettable.

I've seen only three of these films. I will be keeping an eye out for them on Netflix and elsewhere now...

Really? We had to expand the list to 30 this time, because there were so many interesting films we wanted to cover. Seems harsh to declare the whole lot as "pretty forgettable"!

Its called a personal opinion.

To be clear: I'm not challenging your right to a personal opinion at all! (don't think I've ever done that!)

I was just curious about it, and was genuinely interested in whether there weren't even a couple of exceptions here to your thought that they're all pretty forgettable. I didn't make the films, so I don't have a vested interest in them. But I think all of them have merits. Genuinely surprised they'd all be classed as forgettable, that's all!

And you posted that opinion in a comments thread. Surely he's allowed to ask you about it?

a really nice mix of stuff that i have seen and stuff that i definitely want to. 2002 had some real gems in it and i think it spawned a mini boom in ''cult movies'', people love some of these titles.

I wouldn't take a comment from someone who calls irreversible forgettable too seriously. It might be a demented/horrible etc movie, forgettable it is not.

Also thanks for this segment, a lot the of the movies which are listed the past months I indeed forgot. Keep up the good work!

I really enjoy Equilibrium, a great film.

Two Towers, Spiderman, About Schmidt... to name just 3 unforgettable films from 2002.

Also, calling Irreversible forgettable is just, well, silly. Maybe you just haven't seen it?

Also it's not its - it's called an apostrophe.

Blimey, what was I doing THAT year? I've only seen four of them! Must rectify that.

2002 was a pretty dull year. However, you've done a good job with this list. Interesting to see "Igby Goes Down" at #1. I love how horrible and selfish all the characters are - great cast too. "Irreversible" is still the most shocking film I've seen. I first saw it on DVD that year, and had to stop it a few times and ask myself if I wanted to continue watching. I don't know how I would have fared seeing it on the big screen.

"Seems harsh to declare the whole lot as 'pretty forgettable'". That coming from the man who named the whole list "underappreciated". Pot-kettle-black!

So many films in this list that I absolutely love.

Death to Smoochy is fantastic.

Once Upon A Time In The Midlands is fantastic. Love Shane Meadows, and this is just a brilliant film.

And Irreversible. That film haunted me for days after I first watched it.

Disappointed to say I've only seen 4 of these. This was the point when I had to knuckle down on my studies and I didn't have as much time for cinema.

No The Count of Monte Cristo is not underrated, it's just terrible. It completely misses the point of Dumas epic and turns it into the most generic blockbuster going. The Simpsons version has more reverence for goodness sakes.

Bubba HoTep was a film I came across due to my love of Bruce Campbell. I was expecting an out and out comedy horror but there are some quite poignant moments. Another great list

Bubba Ho-tep is indeed an overlooked gem. I also own and have re-watched Igby, Confessions, Vengeance and Infernal Affairs several times.

A good list again

In our defence there, we wrote several thousand words to back that position up. You don't have to agree with what we wrote - far from it - but we did supply the working!

I really enjoy your reviews and writing. I think it is a great list and you can be almost certain 'intheshadow' has not seen any of them to really be able to form any judgement! Well done for responding back. This is THE finest movie site on the internet.

That does not make your position anymore valid.

The last time I looked "under-appreciated" and "forgettable" had different definitions.

Just looked again now. Yep. Still different.

There's a great story about Sam Rockwell at the premiere of Confessions. I don't know how true it is but it certainly says a lot about Rockwell's method of acting.

It's well know that he's a chameleon-like actor, vastly changing his look, timbre of his voice and mannerisms from role to role often making his parts more iconic and memorable than, to someone who does not know him personally, the man himself.

So - he needs the loo during the film so nips off to do his business but is denied re-entry to the theatre by an usher. Upon challenging him that he is the star of the film the usher looks him up and down and says "Nah. That's Clooney. And I don't recognise you so you can't be a big movie star."

Um, I think it kinda does, actually.

To quote a certain vampire slayer, I don't see this being settled with logic.

Just watched irreversible thanks to this list - and now I am mentally and emotionally damaged for the rest of my life. Thanks Den of Geek. Can you have best pick me up films, as a chaser to help wash down the industrial strength ethanol you just told us to watch

Yes it is! I love this film, it's not perfect but it is hilarious and sweet and Robin Williams is just wonderful in his role.

You only wished Irreversible was forgettable.

There really are some terrific films in that list. I had a discussion with friends last weekend about Sam Rockwell - they were querying whether he had done anything of note outside of Moon. I implored them to watch Confessions.

Solaris was rubbish, people only watched Irreversible for the shock value - not sure I'd want to know anyone who's seen it (or wants to see it) more than once. Bubba Ho Tep should be much higher

I love Igby, but was pleasantly surprised to see The Cat Returns on the list too. It's always been my favourite Ghibli for some reason. They capture the kind of bored diffidence of cats really well.

"Oh Muta... that's disgusting"

If anyone tries to tell you over Christmas that the story of the birth of Jesus is the greatest story ever told, they clearly haven't seen Bubba Ho Tep. Utter GENIUS.

No way are these films under-appreciated or underrated!!! Most get high scores on rotten tomatoes. If someone can label them underrated on a whim, why not forgettable? It is an opinion after all. You shut-ins are being pedantic hypocrites.

Lots of brilliant films in this list. Makes you wonder why films now are so shitty.


Of course!

I looked up under-appreciated and forgettable again and the definitions have changed over night!

Turns out that you're right now! You win!

Well done! You are both big AND clever!

I think you are right. Ignore from this point forward methinks.

How about sharing your write up of 30 underrated films of 2002 then hotshot?

I don't think they are in any kind of order

Galaxy Quest! His role as the nameless red-shirt who is permanently terrified he's going to die on an away mission is the best thing in the film.

Oh - he's also in Frost/Nixon and The Green mile too. But Confessions is great!

Fair enough. With the best will in the world, we're going to have to agree to disagree.

I've tried to respond to the exact points that you've made - I think the last 13 weeks or so of these articles is ample evidence that this is no "whim" - but for fear of this conversation now being about the people commenting, rather than the films themselves, I'm ducking out.


Another year in films I'm going to need to re-visit, several on this list I haven't got round to seeing yet, and others I need to see again now that you've reminded me of them! :)

I saw "Imposter" years and years ago and managed to take away from it that it was set in the same universe as Bladerunner, and Sinise was suspected to be a replicant with a bomb inside him. To read the summary and find out that he was suspected to be an alien is quite a surprise.

I own Equilibrium and have seen it many times and totally agree that it is a mash up of several far superior films, but is nevertheless very enjoyable. Although it is a little difficult to buy because the protagonist is supposed to be re-discovering his emotions and yet is almost (apart from one crying scene) uniformly wooden, and one of the main bad guys (who logic would suggest is completely without emotion) is continually smirking. Having said all that, the fight scenes are really really cool.

Count of Monte Cristo is an interesting one there - I found it vacuous, shallow and trite. Dantes comes off looking like a complete idiot for not seeing Mondego as a sinister and conniving soul (even though they have been best friends for years).

An example of a film which would be great to see a 4/5 hour director's cut to see what they could do with it (and source material better suited to a mini-series than 2 hour movie)

Strangely, as I began reading this list I thought 'I wonder if Igby Goes Down will turn up in one of these articles'. Glad to see it at number one.

One Hour Photo is a great film, always loved it, I find it's a bit like Williams other film Mrs Doubtfire as there are some scenes that no matter how much you watch them, I still end up watching through my fingers.

So happy to see Cypher on the list! That movie doesn't get enough love.

I just saw Cypher last night !!! it was fantastic !!!! i mean really great !! and it is related to cube somehow !!!

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