The Top 25 Underrated Movies of 2001

Our voyage through history's underappreciated films arrives at the year 2001, and a vintage year for lesser-seen gems...

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke may have seen 2001 as the year we’d head off to meet alien intelligences in the depths of space, but in reality, its cinematic landscape was dominated by fantasy rather than extraterrestrials. J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien dominated the box office, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring earning almost $1 billion each, while Monsters, Inc. and Shrek thrilled old and young audiences alike.

At the other end of the spectrum of success, 2001 was such a vintage year for movies that we had to whittle our usual selection of 25 films down from an initial selection of more than 40. This is why the decision was made, with a heavy heart, to exclude some of our favorite films, including Richard Kelly’s stunning debut, Donnie Darko. Although it wasn’t a hit in 2001, it has earned such a devoted following since that we decided to replace this movie, and others like it, with entries that deserve a bit more love.

So with apologies to the likes of Dogtown, Y Tu Ma Tambien, Blow, Enigma, and many others that didn’t quite make the final cut, here are our pick of 2001’s most underappreciated films.

25. The Last Castle

One of the lightest of the films that Rod Lurie has directed to date (but then it’s up against The Contender and Nothing But the Truth), The Last Castle is an action thriller that sees Robert Redford in the leading role. That’s a good start. The supporting cast adds in the late James Gandolfini and Mark Ruffalo, and the story sees Redford’s general being court martialed and sent to a maximum security prison.

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read more: The Underrated Movies of 2000

If that’s set off your “there’s no such thing as a bad action movie set in a prison” light, then settle in, because The Last Castle does not disprove the rule. Here, the main attraction is Redford butting heads with Gandolfini, and some decent action sequences too. It’s straight entertainment with not much bubbling underneath, and it could arguably use 10 or 15 minutes trimmed off it. But The Last Castle‘s a fine, solid prison flick, lifted by the gravitas that an actor of Redford’s quality inevitably brings it.

24. The One

Critics were rather grumpy toward this Jet Li vehicle, but it has some decent action moments, an original premise, and a supporting role for Jason Statham in its favor. Li plays Gabriel Yulaw, a sociopath who’s rampaging through parallel dimensions, killing the alternate versions of himself and absorbing their energy. Li also plays Law, who in our version of reality is a mild-mannered LA cop. The good Yulaw then teams up with ‘Multiverse Authority Agents’ Delroy Lindo and Jason Statham to put a stop to his evil counterpart’s antics, and much high-kicking action then ensues.

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A movie best enjoyed with an alcoholic beverage and some friends rather than interrogating with beard-stroking analysis, The One provides a great evening’s entertainment, with even its drawbacks–Jet Li struggling with its English language script and some variable computer graphics–merely adding to the fun. It’s also pleasing to see Statham team up with one of Hong Kong cinema’s finest martial arts stars, years before the 2007 movie War or the action team-up of The Expendables

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23. Evolution

Commonly described as director Ivan Reitman’s attempt to channel the energy of his 1984 hit Ghostbusters into sci-fi territory, Evolution was largely dismissed by critics at the time of its release. Admittedly, there’s nothing in Evolution to approach the classic status of Ghostbusters, but it is infused with a similarly infectious sense of fun, which keeps the movie entertaining even when some scenes of broad comedy fall a little flat.

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A crashed meteorite deposits a rapidly evolving alien organism in the middle of California, and a group of bumbling scientists–headed up by David Duchovny and Julianne Moore–move in to investigate. A sterling supporting cast, including Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott, Ted Levine, and Dan Aykroyd adds value, but the real stars are the aliens, which are imaginatively designed and quite intimidating. A movie very much in the spirit of classic 1950s science fiction movies (as Kim Newman once wrote, this could have been a belated Quatermass movie were it not for the slapstick elements), Evolution is a lot of fun when enjoyed as a knowingly goofy monster movie.

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22. The Majestic

It’s safe to say that The Majestic is the forgotten Frank Darabont movie. It’s also a pretty forgotten Jim Carrey movie too, and in both cases, that’s something of a shame. The Majestic isn’t the finest work of either, but it’s an affectionate drama with a sense of Frank Capra about it.

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The movie tells of a screenwriter in the 1950s who finds himself called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. You don’t have to look far to see the political subtexts at work here, but there’s a warmer heart to The Majestic that bubbles to the fore. It’s a long movie, overly so, but it’s got a bit more ambition than it’s given credit for. It’s 80 percent perfect for a Sunday afternoon though. 

21. The Safety of Objects

An ensemble drama from director Rose Troche, The Safety of Objects has a large cast and a central theme of trouble in everyday life. It’s best manifested through Glenn Close’s excellent performance as Esther, a mother looking after her comatose son (Joshua Jackson). But there are four families and their stories brought together here, and even though critics were sniffy about the movie at the time, each of those stories is never less than engaging.

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According to the oracle that is IMDb, The Safety of Objects, when it finally got a U.S. movie theater showing, took less than $500,000. In many countries in the world, it thus has struggled to get a DVD release, yet alone a cinema-outing. But the movie is worth it for Close and for Troche’s effective handling of a good, talented cast.

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20. Josie and the Pussycats

The first of two musicals we’re going to talk about on this list, Josie and the Pussycats stars Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson as a girl band who find themselves pitted against Alan Cumming’s brilliantly evil producer. With bonus Parker Posey, the movie is a lively satire, far different from the movie that’s portrayed on the box.

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It’s got things to say about the state of modern music, and lots of little jokes and touches that reward going back and seeing the movie more than once. You won’t find a movie that takes the piss so royally out of product placement either. Boasting cracking music of its own, Josie and the Pussycats is intelligent, very funny and very happy.

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19. Kissing Jessica Stein

Sold, and not necessarily to its advantage, as a romantic comedy about a woman falling for another woman, there’s an intelligence and tenderness in Charllie Herman-Wurmfield’s movie that transcends the sexuality angle. Jennifer Westfeldt, who went on to direct 2011’s Friends With Kids, stars in the title role, as a woman looking for the man of her dreams. As it turns out, she finds herself drawn to a woman instead, and the brief, brilliant Kissing Jessica Stein��tells this story with a real sense of charm and humor.

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If you like your romantic comedies with some brains to them, then this is the kind of gem that made early 2000s indie movie theater in America so exciting.

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18. 61*

We’ve cheated a little here, as Billy Crystal’s third–and to date last–movie as director was made for HBO rather than theaters. It thus didn’t get a theatrical release, but it’s such a strong piece of work that we wanted to draw attention to it here.

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Crystal writes about it affectionately in his excellent book Still Foolin’ ‘Em, and it’s very much a baseball movie made by an avid baseball fan. It’s the true life story of the summer of 1961 where the record for the most home runs in a season is up for grabs. Two players are going head to head for it, and Crystal looks for the story going on behind the scenes, as well as the race in front of them.

It’s a rounded, involving piece of work, that’s arguably at its most interesting when it’s off the baseball park. The story of Crystal showing the movie to George W. Bush is worth seeking out in his book too…

17. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Fledgling movie studio Square Pictures spent a then-extraordinary $137 million on this animated sci-fi movie set in the Final Fantasy video game universe, and it was one of the year’s infamous financial misfires. About the efforts of a scientist attempting to reverse an invasion of extraterrestrial ghosts in the 21st century, it’s a lavish, steadfastly serious effort, and the first attempt to make a photorealistic feature movie with computers.

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The characters have a slightly eerie, floaty feel to them, but there’s no denying that Spirits Within is a groundbreaking, even quite brave movie; director Hironobu Sakaguchi was really pushing the boundaries of what was possible at the time, and the level of detail here is often breathtaking. Widely dismissed by most critics at the time of release, the support for Spirits Within from some writers, such as the late Roger Ebert, has led to a widening acknowledgment of its importance.

Recently cited as an influence by the Mass Effect series’ art director Derek Watts, it’s only more than a decade later that Sakaguchi’s movie is finally starting to be remembered for its achievements as well as its faults.

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16. K-Pax

It could be argued that just about all of director Ian Softley’s films are underrated, including his 1994 debut Backbeat (which appeared in our 1994 list of overlooked films), the hip cyber thriller Hackers, and Henry James-adapted drama The Wings of the Dove. K-Pax is surely another, a movie released in the autumn of 2001 to only modest box office fortunes. Based on the first of a series of books by Gene Brewer, K-Pax is about a psychiatrist (Jeff Bridges) and his attempts to help an apparently delusional man (Kevin Spacey) who believes he’s an alien from a distant planet.

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Bridges and Spacey are as excellent as you’d expect, with Spacey perfectly cast as an everyman with cosmic notions, and Bridges is quietly restrained as the skeptical academic who pad into his patient’s obscure history. That the movie could so easily have been cast the other way around, with Spacey as the psychiatrist and Bridges as the alien (he played a not dissimilar part brilliantly in John Carpenter’s Starman) is testament to both actors’ flexibility and talent.

Criticisms that K-Pax is a bit too sentimental and soft around the edges aren’t entirely unfounded, but the movie’s beautifully shot by John Mathieson (he later photographed Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven for Ridley Scott) and, most of all, there’s a chemistry between the lead actors that is difficult to resist.

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15. Osmosis Jones

There are very few of the later Farrelly Brothers films that we’d get into a proverbial fight for, but Osmosis Jones deserves far, far more love than it ever got. A mix of some live action and lots of animation, the movie is set inside the human body with a virus running rampant. The job of one of the white blood cells, and a special tablet, is to stop it. How’s that for a single, containable goal?

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Bill Murray heads up the live action side, with the voice talent including Chris Rock, Laurence Fishburne, and William Shatner. The movie itself is fast, funny, and different too. It thus absolutely bombed at the box office. 

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14. The Devil’s Backbone

This horror drama from Guillermo del Toro may be critically acclaimed, but it’s important to remember how little-seen it was back in 2001–it made just $6.5 million at the U.S. box office, which is a far cry from the $84 million reaped by del Toro’s 2006 dark fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth

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Set in civil war-era Spain, The Devil’s Backbone is seen through the eyes of a young boy (Fernando Tielve) who shows up at a remote orphanage–a lonely place with a dark secret and an unexploded bomb jutting out of the front yard. Beautifully made and perfectly paced, del Toro’s movie is full of flesh-crawling moments, and its drama is all the more effective because its central character is so vulnerable.

By turns terrifying, poetic, and profoundly moving, The Devil’s Backbone was a real triumph for del Toro after his difficult experience in making the entertaining, deceptively clever creature feature, MimicPan’s Labyrinth may be the better-known of the director’s Spanish language films from the 2000s, but The Devil’s Backbone is arguably its equal in many ways.

Our suggestion? Watch both in one sitting for an emotional rollercoaster of a double-bill.

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13. The Man Who Wasn’t There

After writing and directing a string of films that were either cult favorites or box office successes (and sometimes both), The Man Who Wasn’t There could be regarded as the Coen Brothers’ first truly underrated movie. Maybe audiences weren’t ready for such a somber and austere drama after relatively successful, quirkily funny films like The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

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Billy Bob Thornton is outstanding as Ed, a sullen barber who lives in small town California, attempts to blackmail $10,000 from a local businessman called Big Dave (James Gandolfini), only for it all to go horribly wrong. Then he discovers that his alcoholic wife (Frances McDormand) was having an affair with him. And then his wife is arrested for Big Dave’s murder. From there, things just keep getting worse for Ed.

The Coen Brothers are particularly good at directing these prowling, noir-ish dramas, like their debut Blood Simple or 2007’s Western hybrid No Country For Old Men, where foolish decisions have far-reaching and deadly consequences. Roger Deakins, who later shot No Country For Old Men, captures the ’40s setting perfectly and, in tandem with Thornton’s performance, creates an atmosphere of palpable sadness and regret.

This bleak tone makes The Man Who Wasn’t There one of the Coens’ less accessible films, but it’s arguably one of their most mature and powerful.

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12. Das Experiment

A German thriller based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, Das Experiment sees a prison being constructed in the middle of a research laboratory. Said prison is a convincing one, right down to bars on the windows and cameras watching every move. And then 20 people are recruited to play the prisoners and guards.

The setup sees the guards being told to keep everyone in line without resorting to violence, while the prisoners are given a set of rules they need to follow. If you quit, you don’t get paid, but all the participants can leave whenever they want to.

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We wouldn’t ordinarily look to tell you so much about the setup in one of these descriptions, but it feels important here, because it was that setup that convinced us to rent the DVD many moons ago, and Olivier Hirschbiegel’s movie very much makes the most of it. We’ll tell you nothing else about it if it’s all the same, other than Hirschbiegel would also make 2004’s Downfall, and thus is a key contributor to five percent of all the videos on YouTube.

11. Joy Ride

The tragic death of Paul Walker has led some to seek out his earlier work that they may have missed. We’ve been talking about the work of director John Dahl a lot during this series of lookbacks, and Joy Ride (released under the title Roadkill in the UK) is perhaps the last of his run of excellent, underappreciated thrillers (if you’re looking for our now-almost-weekly Red Rock West plug, consider that box ticked).

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With a nod to Duel (in much the same way that Jeepers Creepers nodded to it as well), Joy Ride sees a trio on a road trip, talking to a truck driver on their CB radio. Turns out he’s the wrong truck driver to talk to, and when he gets on the wrong side of them, an at-times brilliant chase is set-up.

Walker is one of the leads of the young cast here, along with Steve Zahn, and John Dahl proves adept at tightening the screw, bringing a level of tension to what could have been just another pedestrian, throwaway thriller. The first half is a lot better than the second, but the overall movie is still far better than the tame box cover and anonymous title would leave you to believe. It’s a gem in Paul Walker’s back catalogue.

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10. Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2001. The horrific events that took place in America two days later nixed any chance of it ever getting a wide release. Even when it got a limited rollout in America in early 2003, it generated some hostility. Gregor Jordan’s movie was always something of a risky project. A very funny satire centered on American military personnel in West Germany during the 1980s, the regiment in question are the focus of a lot of comedy, some of it quite dark. Even now, we’re choosing our words carefully: so worried was Miramax about the movie’s U.S. release that the rollout date was pushed back five times before it finally got a run.

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But the movie is both important and very, very good. Ed Harris is excellent here, leading a cast that also includes Joaquin Phoenix and Anna Paquin. It’s a very black comedy at times, and is about as far removed from an army recruitment movie as you can find. It’s far more interesting for that though and deserves to be seen.

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9. Lantana

In its native Australia, Lantana was richly rewarded. It won a host of AFI awards and did good box office as well. It earned a small release in the U.S., but most of us elsewhere on the planet were left to import the DVD from our Australian retailer of choice.

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It was worth it though. Appreciating that any description of a movie as a collection of disparate characters being interlinked by a central event immediately invokes the best work of Robert Altman, Lantana is nonetheless a rich, deep, yet accessible drama. You’ll find Geoffrey Rush and Kerry Armstrong in the movie, yet director Ray Lawrence is careful to give each of his characters enough screentime to get across their part of the proverbial jigsaw.

It’s absorbing cinema, tightened to just under a two hour running time. By the time it’s done, it’s explored a multitude of themes, fleshed out a lot of interesting characters, and if you’re anything like us, left you hoping that Ray Lawrence would make more films.

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8. Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Fed up of anodyne musicals, and wish someone would fire a rocket into the midst of them all? Long before The Book of Mormon found its way to the stage, Hedwig and the Angry Inch landed in a few theaters, and it’s been building a small but entirely correct following of fans ever since. It’s based on a stage musical, adapted and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also takes the lead role. That lead role sees him as a transgendered East German rock singer, whose sex change operation goes wrong, leaving Hedwig with the ‘angry inch’ of the title.

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The movie has a very human heart to it, but also a collection of off-the-wall songs and narrative turns that mark it out as a feature with no shortage of identity. It’s also, arguably, the kind of movie you watch once, and immediately want to watch a dozen times again afterward. Not to all tastes? Most certainly. But the most interesting, subversive, and moving screen musical of the decade? It’s certainly worthy of a shout.

7. No Man’s Land

We’re always of two minds whether to include films that won an Oscar on these lists, and No Man’s Land did just that. It took home the prize for Best Foreign Language movie and with good reason. Yet, not for the first time, we’re left wondering: who still talks about it? We concluded that the answer to that was not enough people, hence it makes its way here. No Man’s Land is a Bosnian war drama, that spends its time with a trio of wounded soldiers in the trenches during the Bosnian war. They’re not in the safest place anyway, but then we discover that one of them is lying on a buried land mine. If he moves, the mine goes off.

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We then follow the effort to save the trio and diffuse the bomb, but the tensions and horrors are never far away. With a large cast and a running time under 100 minutes, No Man’s Land explores the human beings and the situation they’re in, and emerges as one of the decade’s very best war films. It doesn’t just deserve the Oscar it won. It deserves more people seeking it out. Hence, it’s here.

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6. A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Although the overseas take eventually pushed A.I. into profit, the movie’s $78 million take in the U.S. was something of a disappointment, particularly given the movie’s pedigree and $100 million budget. Adapted from a short story by British author Brian Aldiss, A.I. was famously a project first undertaken by Stanley Kubrick, before Spielberg took over following Kubrick’s death in 1999.

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A.I.s critics sometimes used its history as a stick to beat it with, describing it as an awkward collision of Kubrick’s cold intellect and Spielberg’s popcorn sentimentality. Yet it’s this collision which makes the movie so interesting; Haley Joel Osment is a typically starry-eyed, beatific young protagonist from a Spielberg movie, yet the odyssey he goes on is almost unrelentingly dark. A robot on a Pinocchio (or Roy Batty)-like mission to become a real boy, Osment’s David is abandoned by his parents and gradually learns how cruel and harsh the wider world really is. Even A.I.s conclusion, dismissed by some as a syrupy coda too far, could also be subjected to a far more somber interpretation, as Roger Ebert pointed out when he rewatched the movie and wrote a new, more sympathetic review shortly after its release. Full of beautiful designs and haunting moments, A.I. is rich with ideas and disquieting notions.

Not only does it ask familiar science fiction questions about the nature of consciousness and our responsibility to our creations, but it also dares to suggest that if we were to make artificially intelligent machines, they’d probably end up being considerably more gentle and humane than us.

5. Ghost World

Barely distributed in American cinemas, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World had to make do with a growing cult audience instead. Starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, it’s a wryly observed and extremely funny account of how painful it is to grow up, especially if you don’t happen to be one of the cool kids at school.

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Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson are both perfect as the movie’s two leads, Enid and Becky, while Steve Buscemi’s on typically quirky form as Seymour, a lonely single man who befriends the former following a prank phone call. Director Terry Zwigoff, who co-wrote this adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ own comic book, is a master of capturing off-beat, outsider characters from his documentaries, Louie Bluie and Crumb, to the comic anarchy of Bad Santa, his biggest hit. Ghost World is no exception and thanks to its charm and wit, it’s easily the best teen movie of the era.

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4. The Piano Teacher

Although it’s a drama rather than a horror movie, there’s an honesty and brutality to Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher that makes it almost painful to watch. Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, a middle-aged professional pianist who becomes infatuated with one of her teenage students.

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Adapted from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel of the same name, Haneke’s movie hums with tension and unease, and it has certain elements in common with Darren Aronofsky’s more operatic, fantastical Black Swan: both are about lonely women domineered by their mothers and whose buttoned-down facades hide a dark reservoir of violent desire.

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3. Shaolin Soccer

It could be argued that a Hong Kong movie that made $42 million in the U.S. is too successful to be underrated, but that figure’s a drop in the ocean compared with the $213 million made by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a year earlier. Besides director, writer, and star Stephen Chow soon eclipsed his own international success with the even bigger Kung Fu Hustle in 2004, although for us, Shaolin Soccers the funnier of the two.

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Chow stars as a kung fu master who marries his martial arts skills with European football, and sets up a team to enter a tournament in Hong Kong. Like a comic book sprung dementedly to life, Shaolin Soccer is stuffed with larger-than-life characters and improbable feats of physicality, and it has to be said that the sheer pace and charm of Chow’s movie is infectious. Suspect tactics, brutal tackles and footballs kicked hard enough to knock opponents down like skittles are just a few of the highlights in what is surely one of the funniest sports comedies ever made.

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2. The Pledge

Sean Penn’s third movie as director features a stunning cast with Jack Nicholson in the lead and Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, and Mickey Rourke among the supporting players. Nicholson plays a retired, weary detective who’s drawn into a fresh mystery when a young girl is discovered in the snowy countryside nearby. Despite his better judgment, the former detective gives into the teary demands of the dead girl’s mother, and pledges to track down the killer.

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As the detective pad into the clues surrounding the case, he becomes increasingly obsessed by the murderer’s identity, and stoops to some extremely amoral, disturbing methods in an attempt to catch him. Nicholson’s performance is remarkable here, full of doubt and desperation–and the movie isn’t so much a conventional serial killer thriller, as much as a character study about an aging man willing to go to any length to find what he’s searching for.

1. My Sassy Girl

This. This is just the kind of movie that you hopefully read lists like this for: to find an undiscovered gem that enters the running as one of your favorite ever movies. Let’s deal with the remake first: avoid it as though it were poisoned with the elixir of Brett Ratner. It’s not that it’s awful, in fairness, but it’s much, much less interesting than the movie it’s based on. For My Sassy Girl, the 2001 South Korean vintage, is superb. The genesis of the movie lay in a series of tales that Ho-sik Kim posted on the internet, which he subsequently turned into a novel, and were subsequently adapted for movie. It talks about his meeting of a mysterious and not particularly friendly girl, and the complicated relationship between the pair.

There’s a good deal of ambiguity lying underneath, and the character of the girl herself (we never learn her name, but that’s as much as we’re really going to tell you about her) is layered, interesting, three dimensional, and utterly, utterly one to root for. And that in itself is complicated: few could take such an unsympathetic character as Jun Ji-hyun does and turn her into someone quite the opposite. The writing is a major contributor, of course, but the pairing of Cha Tae-hyun and Ji-hyun is exemplary.

If you had to categorize the movie in a genre, then perhaps romantic comedy is closest. But those two words may well deter a whole bunch of people hunting for a moving, unpredictable movie about two rounded characters. Were this site Den of Geek Korea, then we wouldn’t need to put My Sassy Girl at the top of this list. It’s one of the highest grossing films of all time in its home nation, and a massive hit across much of East Asia. In the UK? It has a few advocates, but not enough.

Ignore the title, and ignore the genre. Just watch it. My Sassy Girl might just become one of your favorite films too.

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