The top 25 underappreciated films of 2005

Another 25 unsung greats come under the spotlight, as we provide our pick of the underappreciated films of 2005...

It’s underappreciated films time again, and this week, we delve deep into the year 2005 – a collection of months dominated by the likes of Star Wars: Episode III, another Harry Potter, Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and CG family movie Madagascar.

It was also the year Pierce Brosnan formally bowed out of his role as James Bond, and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator was hyped to win the director his first Oscar, but didn’t. Still, the contents of this list received nothing like the acclaim of The Aviator, nor the financial pickings of a Star Wars or Harry Potter. As ever, we’ve focused on 25 films which we think deserve a bit more love.

So with apologies to the likes of Joss Whedon’s Serenity (which we came to the conclusion was simply too much of a fan favorite to qualify, even though we do really like it – our lookback at the movie is here) here’s our selection of 2005’s underappreciated films, starting with a little-seen drama from Withnail himself, Richard E Grant…

25. Wah Wah

Richard E Grant put together quite the package with his directorial debut, Wah-Wah. Not only did he produce a diverting drama based on his own childhood, but the accompanying book – The Wah Wah Diaries – is a riveting account of trying to get a low budget movie made.

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Set during the final days of the British Empire in 1960s Africa, the movie was shot in Swaziland, and boasts an excellent cast, including Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson and Julie Walters. It’s a very human movie this one, as a family slowly struggles against the backdrop of political change. And there’s a sense that Grant very much put everything into it.

24. Red Eye

Wes Craven stepped outside the horror genre for this Hitchcockian thriller, which stars Rachel McAdams as a career-minded young woman who’s terrorised by Cillian Murphy’s handsome psycho during an overnight flight to Miami. The reasons for the villain’s threats are tantalisingly slow to come to light, and Murphy is perfectly cold-eyed and menacing in the role.

McAdams is equally good, and her cunning and resolve (not to mention some good writing on the part of Carl Ellsworth)  transforms what could have been a stock woman-in-peril character. Although Red Eye really picks up its pace in the final act, it’s here that the movie becomes less interesting, as the simmering tension gives way to action. But Craven directs with a sure hand throughout, and brings a lightness of touch, too – look out for Jayma Mays in a great supporting role as a timid yet relentlessly upbeat hotel worker.

23. Unleashed

Three years after he made the thunderous Statham vehicle The Transporter, director Louis Leterrier directed this Jet Li martial arts flick, again under the banner of Luc Besson’s production company, EuropaCorp. The sorely-missed Bob Hoskins stars as a villain who keeps Jet Li’s sad-eyed orphan chained up as his personal attack dog. Although ferocious in battle, Li’s Danny the Dog is actually a gentle soul beneath the blur of fists and feet.

Escaping the clutches of his master, Danny finds refuge with Morgan Freeman’s blind piano tuner and his stepdaughter, played by Kerry Condon. The rest of the movie sees Danny getting into the kinds of fights you’d expect in a Jet Li movie, while also finding out about his obscure origins. The result is an action movie with a touch of human warmth and more than a little acting heft thanks to Hoskins and Freeman.

Despite good reviews (Roger Ebert looked on it favourably) Unleashed only made a little more than it cost to make on its cinematic run. Track a copy down, and you’ll find an underrated genre movie that satisfies in terms of drama as well as high-kicking action.

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22. Hard Candy

A very, very hard movie to actually like this one, but it’s not without real impact. It marked the breakthrough performance for Ellen Page, playing a 14-year old who crosses paths with Patrick Wilson’s suspected paedophile.

The less you know about the movie the better in truth, for this is psychological horror that works best cold. Page’s performance is quite brilliant, and marked her early as a talent to watch, and it’s arguably director David Slade’s best movie to date. It’s 104 minutes of cold movie theater with quite a punch to it.

21. Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

A relatively large-budget adaptation of Douglas Adams’ quintessentially British Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was never going to please everyone, but all things considered, we can’t help feeling that the resulting movie was a successful one. It’s not without its awkward moments, granted, but for every bump and bemusing storytelling choice there’s arguably a sparkling comedy moment or an inspired bit of casting.

Martin Freeman is perfect for the role of the affable Arthur Dent, who goes on an intergalactic adventure after the Vogons decide to blow up planet Earth. Then there’s Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, Stephen Fry’s sonorous voice as The Guide, and Alan Rickman providing perfectly modulated gloom as Marvin the Paranoid Android. For all its flaws, this was a fitting and, we’d say, underrated tribute to Adams, who co-wrote, and sadly died shortly before production. It’s merely a shame that more of the author’s books weren’t also given the same treatment.

20. Kinky shoes

A comedy drama about the Northamptonshire shoe industry might not sound like much of an evening’s entertainment, but there’s far more to director Julian Jarrold’s story than the premise suggests. Joel Edgerton, adopting a surprisingly good British accent, who plays the inheritor of an ailing shoe factory who’s struggling to prevent his family business from going to the wall. During a trip to London, the factory owner meets sassy cross-dressing stage performer Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who gives him the idea of creating shoes for the fetishwear market.

Criticisms that Kinky shoes sticks too slavishly to the rom-com format aren’t too wide of the mark, but what makes the movie worth seeing is the quality of its acting. Edgerton’s a solid lead, but Ejiofor is magnificent as Lola, and quickly emerges as the movie’s sympathetic and extremely funny dramatic center. If the actor’s recent work in 12 Years A Slave has left you hunting through his earlier films, you could do a lot worse than check out this overlooked Britcom.

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19. The Upside Of Anger

Kevin Costner may have left his full-on movie star days behind him by the time he took on Mike Binder’s The Upside Of Anger, but his role here is just the kind of character he excels at. He’s paired with the always-excellent Joan Allen, but whilst the movie has been broadly classed as a romantic comedy, it’s got more of a tinge of a grown-up drama about it.

It’s a very good one too. It’s perhaps understandable given its relatively quiet approach that it didn’t set the box office alight, but there’s a good, enjoyable drama waiting to be discovered for those that seek The Upside Of Anger out. It’s continued proof that even when he slipped off many people’s radar, Costner’s laser-eye for a good script remains unaltered.

18. In Her Shoes

The DVD cover for In Her Shoes makes this look like just another throwaway romantic comedy. But look closer: this one’s directed by Curtis Hanson – of L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys fame – and that should instantly tell you that there’s a lot more going on here.

It’s based on Jennifer Weinger’s novel, and sees Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as sisters, with Shirley MacLaine as their grandmother. Appreciating that it tonally falters a little, never quite deciding how dark it wants to go, there’s still plenty to like, admire and warm to when it comes to In Her Shoes. The trio of lead performances is strong, and it’s a rare high-ish profile movie to bother to delve into the relationship between very different sisters. Worth a look.

17. Brick

The limited movie theater release for this indie thriller was such that, although Brick more than made its money back, it still made a relatively small $3.9m at the US box office. Cleverly relocating the trappings of a typical hardboiled detective story to a Californian high school, Brick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a student attempting to find out who murdered his ex-girlfriend.

Writer and director Rian Johnson captures the terse dialogue of noir fiction perfectly, and Gordon-Levitt is ideally cast as the hard-bitten lead, but then, the rest of the cast’s great, too – there’s Nora Zehetner as a femme fatale, and Lukas Haas as an unlikely drug baron. Expertly merging the staples of the American high-school movie with detective fiction, Brick is a one-of-a-kind thriller, and a cracking debut for Rian Johnson.

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16. The Skeleton Key

A far better thriller, with a far more interesting final act, than you may be expecting here. It’s from director Iain Softley, of Hackers, K-PAX and Backbeat vintage, and on paper it’s just another story about an old house that’s got something of a past to it. In fact, more than on paper: that’s just how it comes across for some time.

Softley’s cast do him good service here, with Kate Hudson, John Hurt and Peter Sarsgaard. And without its ending The Skeleton Key still has plenty about it to recommend it. But with it? It lifts itself into the kind of movie that very much doesn’t let you down at the final proverbial hurdle.

15. The Notorious Bettie Page

Some of the best biopics partly work because they take you into a world you know very little about. Others work because the central performance is so strong. In the case of The Notorious Bettie Page, both ingredients are active, even if the movie itself is a bit bumpy.

Bettie Page was a pin-up erotica model of the 1950s, and the notoriety that came from that would in large part define her career. Gretchen Mol brings her very much to life on the screen, and it’s a tough life too. Mary Harron, who previously helmed American Psycho, mixes in a somber look at the impact of pornography (more successfully than the recent Lovelace) as well. But it’s Mol who remains the main reason to see the movie. She’s never been better.

14. Thank You For Smoking

It’s frightening to think how good the boxset of Jason Reitman’s work is going to be once he comes to the end of his directorial career. Juno is the movie for which he’s most noted, but just look at Young Adult, Labor Day and Up In The Air for a demonstration of range and talent.

Also, check out the movie that arguably put him on the map. Thank You For Smoking is Reitman’s first full-length feature, and it’s got an edge to it that’s in some way defined his movie theater since. Mixing satire and drama, Aaron Eckhardt stars as a lobbyist for tobacco companies in a movie dripping with wit, and let down a little by how much work it’s trying to do. It’s not Reitman’s best movie, certainly, but Thank You For Smoking is still a very good one, It’s smart too, and played strongly by its impressive cast. And: nobody smokes a cigarette in it, ever. That’s the kind of trivia that wins bar quizzes, friends…

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13. The Jacket

This science fiction drama isn’t without its flaws, but we’d argue that critics were a little harsh to The Jacket when it appeared just under a decade ago. Playing out vaguely like a low-key mix of Twelve Monkeys and Ken Russell’s bonkers Altered States, The Jacket‘s about Gulf War veteran Jack (Adrien Brody) who finds that, while secured in a straightjacket in a mental institution, he can project his consciousness forward in time.

In the future, the ex-soldier meets a woman named Jackie (Keira Knightley) whose fate is bound up with a sad event in the former’s past. Director John Maybury’s movie flits between the years 1993 (where Jack’s in the institution) and the year 2007, where Jack gradually changes Jackie’s life for the better.

The story’s a simple one, and doesn’t exactly build to an earth-shattering conclusion, but until then, The Jacket engages with its moving drama, quality of acting, and some arrestingly chilly visuals. The result isn’t the best time-travel movie ever made, but one that is nevertheless strongly recommended.

12. A Cock And Bull Story

A movie-within-a-movie about a doomed attempt to adapt the novel Tristram Shandy for the screen, A Cock And Bull Story stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play the same heightened versions of themselves we’d see in TV’s The Trip a few years later (also directed by the prolific Michael Winterbottom). Coogan and Brydon gamely snipe at one another over their roles in the movie, their previous work  (Coogan’s Alan Patridge is a common point of reference, understandably) and their physical attributes.

Featuring a remarkable supporting cast, including Keeley Hawes, Gillian Anderson, Stephen Fry and future Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris, it’s certainly the starriest British movie of 2005, and quite possibly the funniest, too. Although the reviews for A Cock And Bull Story were extremely positive, it was somewhat outgunned by the year’s big releases (in the US, it just about scraped $1.2m according to Box Office Mojo) – so if you’ve never seen it before, A Cock And Bull Story is well worth rediscovering.

11. The Squid And The Whale

Writer and director Noah Baumbach brings humor and a lightness of touch to a potentially melancholy drama about a couple’s divorce and its effects on their two children. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are outstanding as the fractured couple, but Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are better still as their offspring whose anxiety over the coming break-up manifests itself in different ways. Eisenberg’s sensitive teenager Walt fools parents and teachers into thinking he’s written a Pink Floyd song, while Kline’s adolescent Frank turns to alcohol and acts of frantic self-pollution in the school library.

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There’s no shortage of New York-based middle-class dramas set in New York, but The Squid And The Whale is one of the best. Written with honesty and intelligence, and brilliantly acted, it remains one of Baumbach’s very best films.

10. Zathura

We’ve talked about Jon Favreau’s excellent Zathura: A Space Adventure a few times before at Den Of Geek, and suspect we’ll talk about it a few times again. For it’s a movie that proves you can stretch a relatively modest budget very, very far. And as a spiritual sequel to Jumanji (both are based on books from the same author, Chris Van Allsburg), it blasts that movie clean out of the sky.

It’s easy to classify Zathura as Jumanji in space, and there’s certainly a strong element of that. But it all gels so much better. The young cast, including Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo and Kristen Stewart, are uniformly strong, and there’s a welcome, important small role for Tim Robbins too. Favreau proves he can handle effects work on a tight budget, and it’s intelligent, entertaining movie theater for a younger audience that he delivers. Naturally therefore, the movie bombed. Sigh.

9. The Matador

Pierce Brosnan took on a few projects in the aftermath of his departure from the James Bond role, but none of them could top his choice of The Matador. It’s one of his best roles this, playing a not particularly enthusiastic assassin by the name of Julian Noble. He meets Greg Kinnear’s travelling salesman, and writer-director Richard Shepard (who most recently made Dom Hemingway, starring Jude Law) fashions a dark, interesting comedy that richly rewards repeated viewing. It helps it’s willing to take a few chances along the way too.

8. Junebug

Kevin Smith once wrote a piece on Junebug, calling it the movie that “reminded me why I got into movie in the first place”. Because this was, certainly back in 2005, the kind of movie that independent movie theater wasn’t making so much. Since then? Offbeat family dramas of this ilk have become a lot more prevalent.

Still, there are many reasons still to seek Junebug out. The high profile one is the breakthrough role it gave to Amy Adams, as the relentlessly upbeat, heavily pregnant Ashley. It’d be wrong to overlook Embeth Davidtz though, as a gallery owner meeting her new in-laws.

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Never overly showy, and with director Phil Morrison keeping his focus exactly where the movie needs to be, Junebug is a delightful movie, that doesn’t rush itself, and allows a series of characters to be developed and explored properly. A real treat of a movie.

7. The Proposition

Australia’s John Hillcoat specialises in his own brand of low-key and gritty films where you can almost taste the dust in the air, whether it’s the 2012 moonshine drama Lawless or the apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road. But neither of those films contains quite as much grit and dust as Hillcoat’s 2005 Outback western, The Proposition.

The proposition of the title is a deal made between Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley and infamous outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce): the captain frees Burns from jail on the proviso that he tracks down and kills his sociopathic younger brother, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). If he does, then his mentally enfeebled younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) will be spared from a trip to the gallows.

What follows is a grim and violent tale of double-crosses and retribution, as Charlie heads off on a Heart Of Darkness-like journey into the wilds of Australia, where even characters with the kindly face of John Hurt aren’t necessarily to be trusted. There’s a bitter streak of nihilism in Nick Cave’s script, matched perfectly by the terse performances of Winstone and Pearce, and the story touches on the dark side of Australia’s 19th century history.  

6. Sky High

Here’s a thought: had the brilliant Sky High been made now, would it be a big hit? Because when it was released back in 2005, it made some impact, but not very much in the scheme of things. And what a pity that is, because this is the best, most loving riff on the superhero genre this side of The Incredibles.

It’s a movie set in a world where superheroes are widely known and accepted by society, cenetring more specifically on Sky High, a sort of Hogwarts for heroes, except set in the clouds. Michael Angarano is the proverbial kid that doesn’t fit in though, unsure if he has powers of his own, in a school where everyone around him clearly does.

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It’s a nice new approach for exploring a degree of loneliness, and it doesn’t help Angarano’s character that his dad – played by Kurt Russell (who is, clearly, brilliant) – is The Commander.

All of this adds up to a layer of substance, which then leaves lots and lots of room for comedy and fun. Because, bluntly, Sky High is an absolute hoot, a gleefully funny, very enjoyable superhero movie that never fully found the audience it so clearly deserved. It has problems, certainly, but if you don’t get to the end with a huge smile on your face, then we’d be really surprised.

5. A History Of Violence

This David Cronenberg crime thriller won a plethora of awards and did reasonable business in 2005, so what makes it underrated? For us, it’s Viggo Mortensen’s performance in the lead role of the outwardly calm, even-tempered small-town restaurant owner Tom orchestra seat. William Hurt was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role as crime boss Richie, yet Mortensen didn’t get so much as a mention.

When two criminal low-lifes attempt to rob Tom’s restaurant, the latter leaps into action and kills his attackers with lightning speed. Hailed as a local hero on television, Tom receives a visit from an even shadier group of organised criminals (among them a particularly menacing Ed Harris) who claim that Tom isn’t really Tom, but an Irish gangster from Philadelphia. As Ed Harris and his goons continue to loiter around Tom’s restaurant and family home, his wife Edie (Maria Bello) begins to wonder whether there might be a grain of truth in the villains’ claims.

David Cronenberg’s direction of Josh Olsen’s script (loosely based on a graphic novel of the same name) is economical and all the more effective because of its light and shade. The movie opens with an almost silent sequence involving a pair of criminals and a motel, which builds up to a startling jab of horror. It’s a rhythm which continues throughout the movie, matching Mortensen’s stunning turn: beneath his steady demeanour hides a reservoir of carefully-suppressed aggression.

Mortensen would later earn an Oscar nomination for his next Cronenberg collaboration, Eastern Promises, in which he played a Russian gangster. That, too, was a great performance, but for our money, A History Of Violence edges it for complexity and sheer subtlety.

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4. Broken Flowers

It was 2003’s Lost In Translation that earned Bill Murray a lot of acclaim and an Oscar nomination. We’d argue that his superb turn in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers was equally as strong too, and if anything, the movie around him is even better as well.

Here, Murray plays a withdrawn, quiet man, who receives an anonymous mail from a woman in his past. Said mail informs him that he has a son who might just be looking for him. Thus, Murray’s character begins a journey as he tracks down his former partners to try and get to the bottom of things. As a consequence, he has to face up to much of his past, and that’s as much as we’re going to tell you.

Broken Flowers is a wonderful movie. It’s also one of the most accessible films that Jim Jarmusch has made to date, patiently, slowly revealing more and more. And Murray is quite, quite brilliant as well, with his low key performance perfectly fitting, and lifting, the movie.

3. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Considering the western is a genre oft-written off as consigned to movie theater’s past, the 2000s weren’t short of some decent ones. Perhaps the best of the decade, competing with Kevin Costner’s Open Range for the honor, is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a superb piece of movie theater with a title that gives you a pretty literal outline of the movie’s foundations. But there’s a promise to Melquaiades that needs keeping, to bury him in his home town, yet circumstances keep preventing that from happening.

The movie’s to date the sole big screen directorial effort of Tommy Lee Jones (although he’s helmed a couple of TV movies, and has The Homesman in mail-production for release later this year), and his reportedly demanding style pays real dividends here. It’s the kind of movie that tends to come either from a fearless first time director or an experienced helmer towards the end of their career. With a love of Sam Peckinpah seemingly threaded throughout, it’s at times unpredictable, and utterly compelling. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada comes very, very highly recommended.

2. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

For Shane Black, who’d been out of the Hollywood game since the late 90s, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang would ultimately bring its own reward, as it inadvertently led to his appointment as the director of last year’s hugely successful Iron Man 3. But in 2005, the comedy thriller was something of a gamble for Black, one of the most highly-paid screenwriters of the 80s and 90s. Quirky and occasionally violent, it’s a fusion of Black’s own slick humor, all bickering dialogue and one-liners, and the hardboiled detective novels he clearly loves.

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Robert Downey Jr, who was himself just coming out of a difficult patch in his career, stars as Harry Lockhart, a shambling actor who pairs with Val Kilmer’s private investigator in order to research a potential movie role. Together, they’re drawn into a complex and unpredictable murder case which takes in Michelle Monahan, a severed finger and a hungry dog.

It’s a rambling, sharp and very funny movie, full of digressions and bewildering turns of events, and Black’s laid-back direction and the sparky performances make it entertaining from beginning to end. A limited theatrical release meant that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang barely made its money back in 2005, but it’s a movie which deserves to be remembered as a cult classic. With a hit like Iron Man 3 under his belt, we’re hoping Black gets to make more films like this one very soon.

1. Lord Of War

His showier, crazier roles aside, Nic Cage is also capable of restrained, intelligent performances, and Lord Of War provided the perfect showcase for this side of his talents. Cage plays the morally bankrupt weapons dealer Yuri Orlov, who makes a fortune from selling munitions to third world countries. Bridget Moynahan plays his wife, who’s blissfully unaware of the source of her husband’s wealth, while Ethan Hawke plays an agent intent on bringing him to justice.

Impeccably researched and brilliantly directed by Andrew Niccol (who also wrote the screenplay) Lord Of War is utterly engrossing from beginning to end, and its story is all the more troubling for its basis in reality. As Yuri puts it at the start of the movie, “There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?”

Cage’s narration is sharp and cuttingly amusing, contrasting perfectly with his character’s increasing ambivalence over his chosen line of work. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking movie, and while its subject matter didn’t exactly endear Lord Of War to a mass audience, it deserves to be seen. Providing a rare insight into a troubling industry, Lord Of War is, for us, among the most powerful films of 2005.

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