The top 25 underappreciated films of 2006

Our series of lists devoted to underappreciated films brings us to the year 2006, and a further 25 overlooked gems...

With all the major films that elbow their way into their cinemas every year, there’s bound to be some casualties among the big hits. And just like any other year, 2006 was dominated by the likes of Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Da Vinci Code and Ice Age: The Meltdown. But in tandem, there were dozens of lesser-seen films which shuffled in and out of cinemas (or occasionally, didn’t get a release in cinemas at all) without very many people noticing.

As we’re sure you’re aware by now, these lists aim to redress the balance a little, and hopefully introduce a few films from any given year that you may have missed. There are also one or two films that, although they’re from well-known directors or got a bit of acclaim at the time of release, appear to have fallen from general conversation since.

So without further ado, here’s our selection of 25 underappreciated films from the year 2006. There’s animation, science fiction, comedy, drama, and just about every other genre you could care to mention. And to start things off, here’s a look at a quintessentially British romantic comedy starring one pre-superstardom Benedict Cumberbatch…

25. Starter For 10

The big screen adaptation of David Nicholls’ hit novel One Day really turned out to be something of an unsatisfying muddle. The far more focused adaptation of Starter For Ten, however, came out a whole lot better.

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James McAvoy and Alice Eve star, and the film’s primarily a romantic comedy about a pair of students in the mid-80s who end up on the same University Challenge team. Eve and McAvoy are a good screen couple, whilst Dominic Cooper chips in with some excellent support. You’ll find the likes of James Corden and Catherine Tate in the ensemble, and then geek glee is induced by Benedict Cumberbatch popping up along with Mark Gatiss playing the late, great Bamber Gascoigne. A lot of fun this one.

24. Sleeping Dogs Lie

Also known as Sleeping Dogs, and also known as Stay, Sleeping Dogs Lie is, on the surface, a sweet romantic story. But then you notice Bobcat Goldthwait’s name as director and writer. As a result, we get the story of a man and a woman who come together and settle down for the talk about things they’ve done in their past. Thing is, Amy (played by Bryce Hamilton) confesses to her boyfriend that she once blew her dog. And it takes 0.00001 seconds to appreciate that wasn’t the confession he was expecting.

But what makes Sleeping Dogs Lie interesting is what Goldthwait does next. Because he turns this premise into a surprisingly charming, warm film. It’s perhaps not got enough to fully make the most of what it sets up, and Goldthwait’s subsequent movies are better. Yet it takes risks, goes off where you don’t expect it, and warrants a watch.

23. Southland Tales

The first cut of Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly’s Southland Tales was greeted by hoots and jeers at Cannes, while its more concise final cut made almost nothing at the box office. Some reviewers looked favourably on it, while a slightly greater number treated its labyrinthine plot with derision.

Yet for all its flaws – its sometimes infuriatingly opaque story, its awkwardly comedic tone – Southland Tales remains a brave and fascinating sci-fi film. You can try to follow and decipher its plot if you like (it has something to do with a Hollywood action star, terrorist attacks, clean energy fuels and the end of the world), but Kelly’s indulgent confection is best enjoyed as a kind of hallucinatory channel-hopping experience.

Southland Tales feels like a portrait of America put together by an alien: Kelly captures the excess of Los Angeles and its glammed-up porn stars, vain actors, massive cars and muscle beaches in a way that is familiar and incredibly weird. It’s a satire of Bush-era politics and a bit of mainstream cinema akin to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and features a great performance from The Rock as a neurotic stand-in for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Justin Timberlake also lip-synchs to The Killers while showgirls cavort on pinball machines. For these and other reasons, Southland Tales is well worth seeking out.

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22. Sherrybaby

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s got no shortage of quality performances in little-seen movies under her belt. Sherrybaby is another. From director Laurie Collyer, Sherrybaby sees Gyllenhaal playing a young mother who’s just been released from prison after three years (given that her parole officer went on to be Gus from Breaking Bad, there’s every incentive to stay in line) and wanting to pick things up with her young daughter.

It’s a fairly straightforward premise, and not one that gets too heavily developed beyond that set-up. But the strength of the film is the characters it puts into the heart of it. And, bluntly, the excellent lead performance from Gyllenhaal, which received moderate attention around the time, but was heartily deserving of more. A film with its imperfections, certainly, but with considerable merits too.

21. 16 Blocks

In many ways, this overlooked thriller feels more like a Die Hard sequel than the most recent entries in that ageing franchise. It features a simple, relatively small-scale premise, lots of tension, and Bruce Willis as a jaded New York detective – this time going under the name of Jack Mosley. Assigned to escort a key witness from a police station to a courthouse 16 blocks away, Mosley comes under fire from the bent cops determined to prevent the witness from testifying, and much running, driving and shooting ensues.

Veteran director Richard Donner keeps the tension high and the action tough, while Bruce Willis sparks entertainingly off his supporting stars Mos Def (as the mildly infuriating yet vulnerable witness), and the great David Morse as the main villain.

Bruce Willis seems to be growing increasingly distracted as his Die Hard sequels degenerate into formulaic action movies, but 16 Blocks is a cracking thriller with effective flashes of action – and here, Willis is at his laconic, fully-engaged best.

20. The Hoax

This one got a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release, and deserved the kind of backing that Richard Gere’s recent movie, Abritrage, enjoyed. Gere is great here, enjoying a late career resurgence that not many are seeing, taking on the role of Clifford Irving, who’s got a fake biography of Howard Hughes to sell. Set in the early 1970s, the movie is based on the book by Irving himself, although he eventually requested his name be removed from the credits.

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Thus, whilst there’s an argument that it’s only so far a true story, The Hoax is nonetheless a pacey, entertaining story of a scam in the world of literature. It has a 70s vibe too it as well, not just in the look, but also in the way that the film was put together. Lasse Hallstrom directed it, and it’s some way removed from his run of Oscar films. It’s far more fun, for a start. And Gere really is a treat.

19. I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK

Having finished off his blood-soaked, intense Vengeance trilogy two years earlier, Park Chan-wook switched gears for this bewitchingly off-beat comedy drama. Im Soo-jung stars as a young woman who’s convinced she’s a cyborg, winds up in a mental institution, and finds love in a fellow patient played by Jung Ji-Hoon (also known under his stage name, Rain).

The plot is slight, but Park uses it as a launch pad for his unwavering eye for beautiful, scary and unexpected imagery. Like all his movies (including last year’s fabulous Stoker), there isn’t a shot in I’m A Cyborg that isn’t exquisitely composed. But unlike Park’s other films, I’m A Cyborg wasn’t a hit, perhaps because it’s so unexpectedly off the wall. Its contrast to his much darker work, however, makes it stand out all the more.

18. Idiocracy

Woody Allen’s Sleeper and TV’s Futurama both took inspiration from HG Wells’ 1910 story The Sleeper Awakes, in which a man from the present wakes up in the distant future. Mike Judge’s Idiocracy takes the same premise and turns it into a cheerfully profane satire. Luke Wilson plays the everyman who, along with a prostitute (Maya Rudolph) is put into suspended animation and remains there for half a millennium.

The pair wake up in a future where decades of animated gifs have finally taken their toll on the population’s intellect: a film called Ass has just swept the board at the Oscars, citizens are all named after famous brand names (such as Justin Long’s cretinous Dr Lexus), while Starbucks – well, the less said about Starbucks, the better.

Judge clearly relishes the opportunity to poke fun at modern culture and the pervasiveness of major corporations, and the results are often extremely funny. Unfortunately, the sharpness of the resulting satire clearly made Idiocracy’s distributor Fox nervous (or annoyed – according to Judge, Fox News will one day be called Fox News and the Masturbation Channel), since it held the film back for two years before quietly sneaking it into around 130 US cinemas.

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Although it’s since earned a deserved cult following, we’d still argue that more people should see Idiocracy. Like Office Space, it’s another cuttingly-observed film from a great comedy director.

17. Right At Your Door

Although a critical success at Sundance, this indie thriller didn’t make much of an impression in cinemas – perhaps because its nightmarish scenario hit a little too close to home. Right At Your Door imagines what would happen if a dirty bomb detonated in Los Angeles, and follows an ordinary couple (played by Rory Cochrane and Mary McCormack) as they deal with the aftermath.

Shot with the immediacy of a zombie horror flick but without the fantastical cushion of flesh-eating ghouls, director Chris Gorak’s film is harsh and disturbing, but well worth the effort of tracking down.

16. Flushed Away

At some point in the future, the story of what went on behind the scenes of Flushed Away may yet be told. Because this clearly wasn’t a happy ship to sail on. It was Aardman’s first CG feature, and it resulted in it parting company with DreamWorks Animation. There’s no sign of a Blu-ray release, and the film is rarely talked about.

What a pity too, as it’s bristling with wit, style and no shortage of outright fun. The original concept – of a pirate movie – may have been long gone by the time we saw the final cut, but Flushed Away still has fun by flushing a posh rat down the toilet, who then ends up in the sewers with less posh rats. That gives Aardman room to make one or two points too, and as always, there’s plenty of detail to enjoy. Mostly though, this is a brisk, funny, hugely entertaining film.

15. Red Road

Andrea Arnold got a lot more prominence for Fish Tank than she did for Red Road, but her 2006 film Red Road stretches a small budget wonderfully well. It centres on Kate Dickie’s Jackie, working as a CCTV operator, who one day sees a face she’s very much not expecting on the screen in front of her.

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It’s not always a comfortable film to watch this one, and Arnold draws very natural performances from her cast. Set in Glasgow, Red Road is very deliberately paced, and features characters with their raw edges exposed. Fish Tank remains the first Andrea Arnold film to dig out. But Red Road is firmly in second place behind it.

14. Venus

The late Peter O’Toole secured his final Oscar nomination for this wonderful film, which made some impact on its original release before slipping out of sight. It’s from Roger Michell, who we’ve saluted many times on the site (for films such as The Mother, Changing Lanes and Enduring Love), and it’s a typically complex, interesting, and different.

It centres on O’Toole and the brilliant Leslie Phillips, as a pair of actors whose life changes when Jessie, a woman in her late teens (played brilliantly by Jodie Whittaker) comes into their lives. O’Toole dominates, but it’s still a strong ensemble here, with Phillips snaring some scene-stealing lines from Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay. Strongly recommended.

13. Tell No One

At around the time The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo made the world take interest in European thrillers, along came the brilliantly brisk Tell No One, based on the novel by Harlan Coben. François Cluzet plays a well-to-do doctor whose wife is murdered by an unknown serial killer. Years later, the doctor is just beginning to suspect that his wife is still alive when he’s suddenly framed for a double murder – and what follows is a race against time to discover the truth.

Championed by numerous critics (and no less a celebrity than Michael Caine), Tell No One did well in its native France, but remained more obscure elsewhere. But thanks to some solid direction from Guillaume Canet, and some thoughtful performances from Francoise Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas, Tell No One emerges as one of the most compelling thrillers of recent years.

12. Running Scared

When news broke about the tragic death of Paul Walker at the end of 2013, Running Scared was one of the films that many cited as a prime example of just what the world was going to miss – and with good reason. Whilst Walker was pigeonholed later in his career somewhat by the Fast & Furious franchise, there was always a bit more to the man’s work than he generally got credit for.

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Running Scared, directed by Wayne Kramer (we talked about one of his earlier films, The Cooler, back in our 2010 list), sees Walker as Joey Gazelle, low down on the rungs of the Mafia, but suddenly thrust into very real danger thanks to a missing gun, a drug deal going badly wrong, and people getting shot.

No spoilers here, but Kramer’s violent crime thriller is a better bet than the original raft of reviews would leave you to believe. Walker’s good in it, too, and it deserves a second chance.

11. The Foot Fist Way

It’s a bit of a rough and ready film this, with as many people who don’t warm to it as do, but if you’re on its wavelength, The Foot Fist Way is a hoot. Starring Danny McBride (who co-wrote) as a Taekwondo teacher, and Ben Best as the B-movie action star who happens to be his idol.

Director Jody Hill would go on to make the Seth Rogen-headlined Observe And Report, and as with that film, there’s no obvious desire here to get you to like any of the characters. That inevitably isolates some, as does the raw, low budget feel of the production. But then, firmly in its favour is just how funny the film is. The laugh count is high, and it’s the kind of movie where if you like it, you’re going to be rewatching it a lot…

10. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

In anime and Japanese cinema circles, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is likely to be a firm favourite. But for a wider movie-going public, it’s likely that Mamoru Hosoda’s animated feature is largely unknown – and if you haven’t seen it, gentle reader, we’d urge you to seek it out. About a teenager who discovers she has the ability to time travel, it’s a delightfully light and airy sci-fi romance, full of clever ideas and sweet humour.

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The source novel was published in the 1960s and has since been the subject of numerous TV and film adaptations, the most recent being a live-action movie released in 2010. The story works beautifully as an animated film, though, with Hosoda saturating the screen with sun-drenched colour and warmth. If you can, seek it out on Blu-ray for a shimmering antidote to the grim winter weather. (Assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere – and also assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere. If you’re not, buy The Girl Who Leapt Through Time anyway.)

9. The Good Shepherd

Robert De Niro has directed two movies to date, both of them slow, diligent pieces of work with human beings at the heart of them. It’s worth digging out A Bronx Tale if you can find it, but we’ve always warmed to The Good Shepherd, his story of the formative years of the CIA. It’s moody, atmospheric and suitably serious, framed through the eyes of Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson.

What’s particularly pleasing about The Good Shepherd is it assumes you’ve got a bit of intelligence. Inherently critical, and unwilling to spoonfeed every bit of background on American history that it’s talking about, De Niro leaves questions unanswered, but posed in an interesting way.

If you’ve seen the film once, it’s most certainly worth a second run, too. And whilst there are moments when it perhaps gets just a little bogged down, it’s absorbing cinema nonetheless. De Niro’s a fine director, too.

8. Stranger Than Fiction

Just as Robin Williams did in the 80s and 90s, Will Ferrell went on to prove that there were more sides to his talent than his own brand of comedy. Here, he stars as a rather beige IRS worker who begins to hear an unseen narrator talk through the finer points of his life. Even more worryingly, the narrator happens to mention something about his imminent death.

Having established that he isn’t going crazy, Ferrell’s character then begins to suspect that his fate is being worked out in real-time by a British author with an acute case of writer’s block (brilliantly played by Emma Thompson). The upbeat, seize-the-day stuff in Marc Forster’s film may border on the over sentimental at times, but Ferrell is excellent in the lead role, while Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman round out the sterling cast.

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7. Find Me Guilty

Bizarrely, this one’s only just had a DVD release in the UK, which is all the more staggering when you consider Vin Diesel is in the lead role, and the late Sidney Lumet – who made his final film, the acclaimed Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead afterwards – directed it. For a film to disappear for seven years, you could assume that it’s a mess/rubbish/has something horribly wrong with it. But that’s not the case. Find Me Guilty is funny, playful, boasts a terrific lead turn from Vin Diesel, and bombed at the US box office. It’s based on the longest Mafia courtroom trial in US history, and feels different to the standard courtroom movies we’re used to getting.

It’s got problems certainly, and Lumet would end his career on a better film. But there’s so much to enjoy in Find Me Guilty that it’s borderline criminal it’s been buried for so long.

6. Apocalypto

Mel Gibson’s last film as director to date, Apocalypto is, like The Passion Of The Christ, told entirely in a foreign language. It’s also exceedingly violent. But while its use of Mayan language and slavish attention to cultural detail might suggest some sort of worthy historical epic, Apocalypto is really a fast-paced action movie, in which a Mesoamerican trisbesman is captured as a would-be sacrifice by the Mayans, but then escapes into the jungle. As the hero flees his captors and tries to find his wife and son, he witnesses the evidence of a civilisation in terminal decline, and much bloodletting follows.

Apocalypto was a moderate success, but not on the same level as Braveheart or the controversial yet massively popular Passion Of The Christ. But both dramatically and on a technical level, Apocalypto is arguably better than either. Gibson may have fallen from grace since, but the film’s a reminder of his talent as a director.

5. Monster House

There’s a feel of 80s movies such as The Goonies to the quite wonderful Monster House, one of the very best CG animated movies to never come out of Pixar. Directed by Gil Kenan (who’s now hard at work on the Poltergeist remake) and co-written by Community’s Dan Harmon, it centres on three teenagers, who find a creepy house in their neighbourhood.

Monster House then succeeds on two levels. Firstly, the bonding between the three teens is really well done. There’s a sense of capturing the adventure of youth here, as the trio team together. But then the film also finds interesting things to do with the house itself, and threads a creepy, uneasy tone through what subsequently happens.

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With no talking animals, no star names on the poster, and a grounding in sheer talent, Monster House is something really quite special, and one of the most underrated mainstream animated movies of the decade.

4. Black Book

After a couple of disappointments in Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven returned to his native Netherlands, where he made the rip-roaring Black Book. Set in World War II, it’s about the incredibly brave resistance spy Rachel (Carice van Houten) and her part in the Nazis’ defeat. Both a detailed account of the Netherlands in WWII and a rip-roaring adventure, Black Book is as dark, violent and thrillingly-paced as you’d expect from a Verhoeven film, and it all builds to a satisfyingly sharp conclusion.

A hit at home but relatively overlooked elsewhere, Black Book is arguably an underrated film – Verhoeven’s last feature-length project to date, it ranks among the finest of his career.

3. Paprika

We’ve mentioned the works of Japanese animated filmmaker Satoshi Kon before in these lists, and Paprika is, for us, the finest of the late artist’s movies. Like a Philip K Dick novel, it blurs the lines between fiction and reality, and as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it’s essential viewing.

In a  future where an experimental piece of technology called the DC Mini allows psychologists to watch patients’ dreams, a troubled detective is on the trail of one of the stolen devices. Its misuse sees the realm of dreams and waking life merge, allowing Satoshi Kon’s imagination to explode in a riot of surreal and quite frightening images. The story may get a bit lost among the dervish, but there’s no denying the power of Paprika’s animation – as a collision of hard-boiled mystery, science fiction and gonzo fantasy, Kon’s one-of-a-kind film truly stands in a class of its own.

2. Children Of Men

Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of PD James’ sci-fi novel provided the perfect showcase for his filmmaking talents. Clive Owen plays an ordinary guy in a future dystopia where humankind hovers on the brink of collapse – women can no longer give birth, and extinction seems inevitable. Against this gloomy backdrop, a spark of hope emerges: a young woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) falls pregnant, and since she offers the key to the survival of our species, she becomes the target of some shady revolutionists. Owen is swept up in the whole conspiracy, and Cuaron’s camera whirls nimbly around him as he lurches from terrifying set-piece to terrifying set-piece with the woman in tow.

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Technically astonishing, superbly acted and hugely affecting, Children Of Men is little short of a genre classic. The praise heaped on the film by critics and awards bodies might imply that it isn’t underrated, but it’s important to remember that Children Of Men didn’t even make its £49m budget back at the box office. As a great piece of storytelling from a hugely talented director, Children Of Men is required viewing.

1. A Scanner Darkly

There have been several attempts to conjure up the hallucinatory worlds of Philip K Dick on the big screen, but none is as faithful or as blackly funny as Richard Linklater’s animated masterwork, A Scanner Darkly. Using a type of computer rotoscoping to transform live-action into colourful line work, the film recreates the liquid sense of unreality in Dick’s writing, creating a future world where you can absolutely believe that the police wear eye-scorching scramble suits to hide their identities, and that Robert Downey Jr really has just morphed from human to insect before your eyes.

Keanu Reeves stars as Bob Arctor, an undercover cop so anonymous that his own bosses don’t even know who he is. As a result, he’s given the absurd task of investigating his own activities as both a user and dealer of a dangerously addictive drug called Substance D. And as he delves into his own life and the neurotic druggies that inhabit his derelict house, his mind begins to unravel.

Dick’s source novel was partly autobiographical, and Linklater mines its imagery and finest cuts of dialogue to create a bleakly funny film. Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane are all fabulous as the various oddball friends of Bob Arctor, and Reeves turns in a sullen, quietly moving narration as the increasingly bewildered protagonist.

Stunning to look at and by turns hilarious, poetic and utterly tragic, it’s miraculous to think that Linklater managed to achieve so much on a budget of just $8m. It’s also disappointing to note that A Scanner Darkly didn’t even make that paltry sum back during its theatrical run. Financial matters aside, A Scanner Darkly isn’t just the most underrated film of 2006; it’s also one of absolute best.

See also:

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The 250 underappreciated films of the 1990s

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