The top 25 underappreciated films of 2008

Odd List Ryan Lambie Simon Brew 13 Feb 2014 - 06:39

Our voyage through history's underappreciated films arrives at the year 2008 - another great year for lesser-seen gems...

For some, 2008 will be memorable as the year of The Dark Knight, with its astonishingly unhinged turn from the late Heath Ledger. Alternatively, it could be remembered as the year a legion Indiana Jones fans left cinemas glum-faced, having sat through Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

Elsewhere, Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan sang and danced on a Greek island in Mamma Mia!, while Will Smith played an alcoholic superhero in Hancock. But as usual, 2008 offered plenty of watchable movies outside the top 10, which is where we swoop in - like Hancock after a bottle of gin.

So as usual, here's our selection of 25 underappreciated films from the year 2008 - starting with a British horror film starring Michael Fassbender...

25. Eden Lake

James Watkins had written the films My Little Eye and Gone by the time he embarked on his directorial debut, Eden Lake. From there, he'd go on to hit big with The Woman In Black, but Eden Lake has plenty of signs that he knew what he was doing.

It's a bleak, sometimes nasty horror movie, where a young couple - played by Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender - go away for a romantic break, only to be terrorised by a gang of youngsters. When they confront said gang, things start to go very long. Jack O'Connell adds another performance of some merit here too.

Watkins' camera doesn't flinch at some of what happens in the film, and he's clearly keen to put across a subset of British youth. There's something close to home about the world he presents. 

The ending of Eden Lake is divisive, and it's a film with one or two other areas worth debating too. Yet it's a horror film with just a bit more to it.

24. The X-Files: I Want To Believe

This second (and so far final) X-Files movie was rightly questioned for its distinct lack of extra-terrestrial intrigue, with I Want To Believe more closely resembling a monster-of-the-week episode from the TV series - except without the monsters. Yet while critics and fans were disappointed at the self-contained nature of I Want To Believe, it still retains plenty of the old X-Files magic. Mulder and Scully team up once again to solve a case that involves a missing FBI agent, a severed arm and a disgraced priest played by Billy Connolly.

With only relatively light brushes of the paranormal, I Want To Believe feels as much like a 90s serial killer thriller as a feature-length X-Files episode, but some reliably good performances and atmospheric direction from Chris Carter make this a better film than some of its more damning critics would have had you believe.

23. Punisher: War Zone

Attempt three to successfully bring The Punisher to the big screen got some things right, and some things wrong. This time, Ray Stevenson took the lead role, and whilst we're hardly taking a bullet for the movie and suggesting it's a flat-out overlooked classic, there are some merits to Punisher: War Zone, not least for not compromising on the violence that's been inherent to many Punisher stories. Plus, we quite liked Ray Stevenson in the role.

The script lets the film down, but there's a sense that in other areas of the production, they really put their back in to try and get the film right. As such, whilst it's not our favourite Punisher movie, it's a bit better than it's generally given credit for.

22. Doomsday

This post-apocalyptic action movie isn't up to the quality of director Neil Marshall's earlier films, The Descent and Dog Soldiers, but it is an ambitious and entertaining attempt to channel the spirit of Escape From New York in a UK setting. Rhona Mitra plays an SAS soldier leading an expedition into Scotland, now walled off in the attempt to protect the rest of the country from a deadly virus. With people in London falling victim to the disease, the mission is to find a scientist in the quarantine zone who may have discovered a cure.

Not everything in Doomsday works, but Rhona Mitra makes a compelling lead, the supporting cast includes Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell, and Marshall keeps the action coming at a fearsome rate.

21. Hamlet 2

A fun movie this, albeit one that couldn't translate enthusiastic film festival success into finding a broader audience. Steve Coogan stars here as a one-time actor who's now turned to drama teaching. To try and get his students interested, he decides to mount a sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, laced with several Bard-nerdisms. Oh, and it's a musical too.

Perhaps not making quite as much of the concept as you'd hope, Hamlet 2 is nonetheless continually entertaining, and earns bonus points for a cast that includes Catherine Keener and Amy Poehler amongst its number. You get a fair few giggles for your cash too.

20. The Rocker

Add Rainn Wilson to the list of people who hit big in a television sitcom - The Office - but couldn't translate that success to leading a hit movie. That said, you can add The Rocker to the other list, the one of comedies that actually are a fair bit better than their miserly box office takings might suggest.

The Full Monty's Peter Cattaneo directs this one, with Wilson as a failed drummer who gets another chance at the big time, 20 years after he's been chucked out of a band who have gone on to great things. There's a good ensemble supporting Wilson here, with Josh Gad, Christina Applegate, Jane Lynch and Emma Stone in the cast. And The Rocker, for all its faults, is a good, entertaining blast of fun.

19. Zack & Miri Make A Porno

As has been well charted, the box office failure of Zack & Miri Make A Porno was to prove a catalyst for Kevin Smith, leading him to Cop Out, Red State, and a career not so centred around film. So you might expect Zach & Miri, which stars Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, to be a bit of a mess. Thing is, there's a strong argument that it's one of his funniest films.

Smith has long been an able writer and director of comedy, and his concept - of a couple nervously making an adult film to help get them out of debt - persuaded Harvey Weinstein to come up the funding in double quick time. Smith deepens it beyond that though, and also brings in memorable cameos from Justin Long, Brandon Routh and Jason Mewes.

A bit too long? Possibly, but if you're tuned into its humour, you'll get lots of good belly laughs out of the film. Its box office failure remains something of a mystery.

18. Doubt

Set in a New York Catholic school in 1964, this austere drama is enriched by some mesmerising interior cinematography from Roger Deakins and some superb performances from its ensemble cast. Meryl Streep plays a stern and old-fashioned Sister Aloysius, who becomes suspicious when Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) preaches a sermon about the nature of doubt, before an idle comment from a young Sister James (Amy Adams) sparks Sister Aloysius' suspicions that Father Flynn may harbour inappropriate affections for an altar boy. The elder Sister then embarks on a campaign to unmask Father Flynn as a deviant, even though the supporting evidence is scanty at best.

An extended scene between Streep and Viola Davis, who plays the altar boy's mother, is masterfully constructed, and an example of the film's excellentt acting and writing. Doubt is a low-key yet powerful drama, and well worth seeking out.

17. Sleep Dealer

There's a brilliant premise at the heart of this dystopian film, which, like Gareth Edwards' Monsters, sees the US and Mexico divided by a heavily fortified wall. South of that border, workers file into factories and jack into a network, which connects them to robot servants working and building for the wealthy in North America. Protagonist Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) attempts to use his hacking skills to fight against the system, which controls the water supply as tightly and brutally as its exhausted workers.

Great design and Alex Rivera's urgent direction counter Sleep Dealer's relatively low budget, but it's the strength of the film's ideas and its fully-realised sci-fi world that makes it such a great piece of work. Like District 9, this is a sublime mix of science fiction and social commentary, and it's disappointing that Rivera didn't receive the widespread acclaim he deserved.

16. Speed Racer

The Wachowskis' adaptation of the Japanese anime and manga Mach GoGoGo is a fizzy, psychedelic action film with its own kind of demented energy. Emile Hirsch plays the teen racing hero who finds himself on the wrong side of the grandiose corporate villain Royalton (Roger Allam), who's been fixing Formula One races for years.

Both critical notices and box office receipts for Speed Racer were largely grim in 2008, but there's a commendable eccentricity to the Wachowskis' movie that's often lacking in mainstream films. Although far from perfect, Speed Racer boasts a great cast (John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci) and some trippily effective racing sequences.

15. Splinter

Toby Wilkins found a terrific new spin on the monster movie in his horror flick, Splinter. Surrounding his creation with characters that actually feel like real, logical people - all the more surprising given what they're faced with - he delivers a film that's an awful lot of fun, and very entertaining.

For Wilkins clearly knows and loves his horror, and whilst he would go on to make the unwanted The Grudge 4, he's been doing some solid work on television since. It's another pure horror movie we'd most like from him though: Wilkins is a talent who proves here that with the right material, he can deliver a very effective movie.

14. Babysitter Wanted

You'd need a very powerful radar for horror films to even know of the existence of Babysitter Wanted, a very low budget movie from Jonas Barnes and Michael Manasseri. In the film, the seemingly stereotypical babysitter gets more than she bargains for as she tries to earn a few extra dollars.

Good characters, a strong performance from Sarah Thompson, and a willingness to pull a few surprises keep the film interesting. But Babysitter Wanted also has a welcome capability of getting under the skin. It leans on a few conventions certainly, but it's a film with enough quality and identity of its own to make it worth a look.

13. The Bank Job

Ah, The Statham. We may have mentioned the high priest of British action cinema on this site from time to time, and The Bank Job is a film of his that regularly comes up. With good reason: this is a really, really good crime thriller, with The Statham starring alongside Saffron Burrows in a tale of a 1970s bank heist.

Lots and lots of fun this, helped by a witty screenplay from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Credit to the direction from Roger Donaldson, whose Thirteen Days has also popped up in one of our underappreciated movies lists.

The film did decent-ish business, grossing $64m in total worldwide. But given how entertaining and Statham-y it is, it deserved a lot more than that. One of the great man's very finest.

12. Blindness

Director Fernando Meirelles doesn't try to replicate all of the graphic harshness of Jose Saramango's novel of the same name, and instead fashions its premise into a thoughtful and visually striking science fiction drama. Taking the opening of John Wyndham's The Day Of The Triffids to its logical extreme, Blindness sees the inhabitants of an unnamed city robbed of their sight.

The government coldly turns the city into a quarantine zone, forcing victims into a disused mental institution where they live in ever worsening violence and squalor. Julianne Moore plays the only woman immune to the epidemic, providing a rock-solid centre for the supporting cast, which includes Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Alice Braga and Gael Bernicia Bernal. It's a nightmarish film for sure, but also one shot through with sensitivity and unexpected touches of bleak humour.

11. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Mark Herman earned his stripes with the excellent Brassed Off and Little Voice in the 1990s. But arguably his most ambitious project was the challenging adaptation of John Boyne's haunting novel, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

Featuring Asa Butterfield (most recently seen in Ender's Game), Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis, this is a story set in World War II, framed through the eyes of the young son of a concentration camp's commandant. Said young son befriends a Jewish boy of similar age through the camp's fence, and that's as much as we'll tell you about the narrative.

Instead, what Herman manages in 93 minutes of screen time here is extraordinary. His film treads a tight line, very successfully, and whilst it's not the easiest movie to watch, it will stay with you.

10. Somers Town

Shane Meadows reunited with Thomas Turgoose after their hugely successful pairing on This Is England for Somers Town, a London-set drama that homes in on a pair of young friends, and the girl they're both attracted to.

It's the friendship between the two boys, in not always easy circumstances, that very much forms the core of the film though. Often funny, and surprisingly short, it's not Meadows' best film, but it's very, very good, and has plenty of edge to it too.

9. A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures

A not always easy documentary to watch, but at times an incredibly funny one. The basic idea is that Chris Waitt, just after he's been dumped for the umpteenth time, decides to go and find out what he's been doing wrong. So he decides to get in touch with his ex-girlfriends to catalogue his shortcomings. Oh, and he talks to his mum about it too.

It's the outright honesty that makes the film work, frequently proving to be incredibly funny, and never short of self-deprecation. One or two moments left us feeling just a little uneasy, we should note, but the film succeeds far more than it stutters, and it feels very much one of a kind.

8. The Escapist

Where, you might wonder, did 20th Century Fox come up with the triumphant idea to hire Rupert Wyatt to make Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes? Simple. They watched The Escapist, a movie that takes what could be a standard prison escape flick and elevates it to something far, far more interesting.

Brian Cox takes the lead as a man 14 years into his life sentence, but desperate to get to see his ill daughter. Co-starring Damian Lewis, Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham and Dominic Cooper, Wyatt's film avoids going for comedy, and instead plays things as a far straighter crime drama. It proves to be a good choice, and The Escapist captures the spirit of prison escape movies of old, whilst infusing it with strong characters of its own.

7. City Of Ember

The mixed reviews and dismal box office for this sci-fi fantasy may lead you to assume that it's best left unwatched, but there are many commendable things in City Of Ember - not least its superb cast and its lavishly-designed underground metropolis. Nuclear war has forced the remnants of humanity to flee underground, where they live in a city that's one part Dickensian London to two parts Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Saoirse Ronan plays the plucky heroine who kicks against the authority imposed by Bill Murray's corrupt mayor, while Toby Jones, Martin Landau and Tim Robbins are among the supporting cast. The plot's unremarkable, but the acting and visual style keep things darkly entertaining.

6. JCVD

Jean-Claude Van Damme has never been better than in this brilliantly post-modern action drama. Playing a fictionalised version of himself, Jean-Claude is on the downward slope of his career and back in his native Belgium. Suddenly becoming embroiled in a post office robbery one day, Jean-Claude becomes a reluctant hero while a Dog Day Afternoon-like media circus builds outside. The action star deals head-on with his legacy and public image in an extended, direct-to-camera address, revealing a dramatic depth barely even glimpsed in his combat-heavy back-catalogue.

Arrestingly shot with a reduced, almost monochrome palette, director Mabrouk El Mechri brings humour and pathos to a simple story. Arguably one of Van Damme's best ever films, it's a showcase for his brains rather than his brawn. Here's hoping he'll get other chances to explore his acting abilities in future movies.

5. Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais made his Hollywood leading man debut in David Koepp's Ghost Town, and he proves to be an excellent choice in an excellent comedy. He plays a dentist who's not very good with people. He seemingly dies, then awakes minutes later with the ability to see ghosts, specifically that of Greg Kinnear's Frank. And as a consequence of that, he's urged to help break up a relationship.

Frequently very witty, and one of David Koepp's very best scripts, Ghost Town doesn't try and present its main characters as particularly pleasant people, and as such, the film's comedy has a sharpness to it that's much appreciated. Crucially, the laughs are not in short supply here. Its box office take of just $27m worldwide remains a disappointment.

4. Let The Right One In

The English-language remake (Let Me In) had much to recommend it, but for us, Tomas Alfredson's Swedish adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel remains the superior movie. About a bullied, isolated 12-year-old boy who befriends a mysterious young girl named Eli in 1980s Stockholm, Let The Right One In is a starkly beautiful vampire drama. The horror elements are handled with style and restraint, allowing the central relationship to take centre stage. As a result, the splashes of blood and violence that do occur are all the more powerful, and Alfredson succeeds in building up an extraordinary level of tension in the third act.

Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson are superb leading actors, subtly conveying a childhood friendship with quiet naturalism. In its balance of drama and jabs of geniune fear, Let The Right One In emerges as one of the very best horror films of recent years.

3. Gomorrah

Where most gangster movies reflect the honour-among-thieves glamour of organised crime, Gomorrah strips any hint of surface gloss away, presenting the crime syndicates of Naples as a grim collection of thugs, parasites and unfortunate victims.

Based on the book by Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah itself feels like a piece of journalism, digging deep into a city's underbelly to tell five interlocking stories, all linked by the Camorra crime syndicate. There are betrayals, assassinations and robberies, as the film shows how crime can work its way into the very fabric of daily Italian life, from the collection and disposal or household and industrial waste to ordinary businesses, like a dressmaking factory that sells expensive gowns to Hollywood's rich and famous. A long and at times disturbingly violent film, Gomorrah explores a real-world problem with a compelling eye for detail.

2. Bronson

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's volatile style of filmmaking collided with an equally volatile subject matter in Bronson, a character study of Britain's "most violent prisoner." A beefed-up Tom Hardy disappears into the role of Charles Bronson (real name: Michael Peterson), a moustachioed, unfathomably aggressive man who's spent more time in jail than out of it.

The film follows Bronson's rare moments of freedom, where he enters illegal boxing matches and is soon arrested again for robbery, his repeated, brutal clashes with prison guards, and his private moments of whimsy, where Bronson imagines himself as a garrulous stage performer in clown make-up. Hardy puts every sinew into his performance, creating a portrait of a physically terrifying yet ultimately quite childlike and troubled man - ultimately, he just wants to be an artist, and violence becomes his means of expressing himself.

Hardy was spurred on, no doubt, by the infectious energy of Refn's direction. On a miniscule budget, Refn revives the geometric cinematography of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and fuses it with his own fascination for unexpected blasts of music and hallucinatory colour. The Los Angeles fairytale drama Drive, all smouldering looks and synth pop, may have brought Refn to a wider audience, but Bronson is arguably its nightmarish equal.

1. Synecdoche, New York

When looking back over the career of the late, sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's difficult to choose just one standout role from among all those charismatic, intricate performances. But if pushed, we'd argue that his role as Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York deserves to sit somewhere near the top of the list.

The directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche is about Hoffman's depressed and ailing theatre director Caden, whose award of a MacArthur "genius grant" essentially gives him the means to pursue whatever artistic project he fancies. Caden spends the cash on constructing a gigantic stage production in a disused warehouse, which is part play, part performance art: the set gradually builds up into an increasingly elaborate copy of the real world, and Caden populates it with actors, all playing versions of himself and the people around him.

It's a complex film packed with references and symbolism, but also humanity and pathos. Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan are all magnificent, but it's Philip Seymour Hoffman's film: his portrait of an artist obsessed with his work is nothing short of meticulous.

It's little surprise, perhaps, that a film as slippery and downright melancholy as Synecdoche, New York should struggle to find an audience (it made just a quarter of its $20m budget in US cinemas), but almost six years later, it shines as one  of the most elaborate, original and downright bold films of the last decade.

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