The top 25 underappreciated films of 2009

The unloved films of 2009 provide the focus in our final list of the 2000s' overlooked greats...

The year 2009 will partly be remembered as the year Avatar dominating the box office, with audiences flocking to see James Cameron’s leafy pulp epic in shimmering 3D. Making almost $2.8bn worldwide, Avatar was a true behemoth, besting Cameron’s own Titanic as the highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation) and hastening a rush of 3D films in the years that followed.

Films such as 2012, Sherlock Holmes and boozy comedy The Hangover were also among the top 10, but as always, some of the most memorable and individual films of the year were far from the most financially successful. So to round off our series of underrated flicks of the 2000s, here’s our selection of 2009’s overlooked films…

25. A Perfect Getaway

A really good, surprisingly overlooked thriller, this. David Twohy is perhaps best known for writing and directing the Riddick trilogy of films, and his screenwriting across films such as Waterworld and The Fugitive. But – along with BelowA Perfect Getaway is among his best, yet least seen.

It casts Timothy Olyphant, Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich, with the story following a couple on a remote island for their honeymoon. But they soon cross paths with another couple, and things start to go just a little awry.

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Shot against a beautiful backdrop, and with enough meat to the film to keep you continually interested, this is a slightly against the grain thriller, that – as with most in the genre – is worth approaching knowing as little as possible.

24. Youth In Revolt

Michael Cera makes some smart choices when it comes to picking films to make, and Youth In Revolt is very much one of them. Directed by Miguel Arteta (who also helmed Cedar Rapids, The Good Girl and the wonderful Chuck & Buck) and based on the novel by C D Payne, it pairs Cera with Portia Doubleday in what at first looks like a fairly conventional coming of age drama.

But conventional this isn’t. There’s some outstanding animation work, and also a quirk to Cera’s character that’s not going to endear everyone to the film, but certainly made it more interesting to us. Far more challenging than it appears, Youth In Revolt isn’t an easy film, but it’s a very good one.

23. The Road

Taking the solemn, poetic prose of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel and translating it to the screen was never going to be easy, but director John (The Proposition, Lawless) Hillcoat’s minimalistic style of directing suits the atmosphere of the story perfectly. The problem, perhaps, is that without the decor of McCarthy’s writing to counter-balance it, The Road becomes unremittingly bleak, which might explain why audiences didn’t exactly flock to the cinema to watch it.

There’s no denying the quality of the acting and direction, though. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are brilliant as the father and son trudging through a barren wasteland of cannibals and thieves, where death seems to be waiting everywhere. Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe find beauty in the grey, devastated landscape, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately low-key score. The Road is hardly the cheeriest film of 2009, but it is surely among the most well crafted.

22. Jennifer’s Body

Over time, we’ve reviewed Jennifer’s Body three separate times at Den Of Geek, and come up with three different conclusions from three different writers. But it’s that kind of film. Penned by Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama, the film gives Megan Fox comfortably her best screen role, playing alongside the excellent Amanda Seyfried.

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Centered on the friendship between their two characters, the film takes a turn when one of them becomes possessed and starts taking out the male members of class. A surprisingly smart horror movie ensues.

21. The Box

Following the divisive (to say the least) critical reception of the sprawling Southland Tales, director Richard Kelly made The Box – a science fiction thriller infused with some of the impenetrable mystery of his earlier Donnie Darko. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play an ordinary American couple whose lives are turned upside down when they’re paid a visit by Frank Langella’s shadowy Arlington Steward. Arlington offers the couple a million dollars in exchange for the push of a button on a strange box he carries around with him – the only catch being that, as soon as the button’s pushed, someone unknown to them will keel over and die.

It’s a tantalising premise from Richard Matheson (the American master of tantalising premises), which was adapted once before in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Richard Kelly takes the idea and spins it out into strange and unexpected places, with elements of horror, science fiction and 70s conspiracy thriller. Not everyone will be especially sold on the final few minutes, but until that point, Kelly builds up an unusual atmosphere of mystery and dread.

20. Gentlemen Broncos

While director and co-writer Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite made millions from a six figure budget, his third feature (after the Jack Black vehicle Nacho Libre) made about $118,000 from a $10m investment. Reviews were unfavourable to put it mildly, and while it’s difficult to describe Gentlemen Broncos as anything but hit-and-miss, there are enough quirky performances and weird characters to make the film worth recommending. Michael Angarano is great as Benjamin, a budding sci-fi author, whose story (title: Yeast Lords) is brazenly plagiarised by established genre writer Ronald Chevalier. As Benjamin attempts to prove that Yeast Lords is really his own work, the story’s occasionally interrupted by scenes from the book itself, which is a pulp adventure yarn that somehow manages to be even more surreal than John Boorman’s Zardoz.

Jemaine Clement is good value as the insufferably pompous, thieving author, and the movie displays a real affection for a certain brand of cheesy SF fantasy. Gentlemen Broncos also has the bonus of Sam Rockwell, who wears a range of strange outfits and is seen riding a flying deer with rocket launchers strapped to its flanks. How Jared Hess got him to sign up for this we’ll never know.

19. Dogtooth

We’ve not talked about the cinema of Greece a great deal at Den Of Geek, but Dogtooth is an interesting place to start. The core idea behind the film is a husband and wife who are dedicated to shielding their children from the outside world, and the consequences of that.

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Played superbly, it’s a very different drama, and not one that goes in straight lines, which will be to the frustration of some. But it’s a skilful, suspenseful and fascinating film, and one that might just send you in the direction of far more Greek productions.

18. Ink

Made for a piffling $250,000, this sci-fi fantasy is full of great imagery and ideas, and it’s hard to believe just how much writer and director Jamin Winans achieves for so little money. The story introduces a world-weary and selfish businessman (played by Chris Kelly) whose fate is bound up with that of the Storytellers, angelic beings who fight their mortal enemies the Incubi in a realm of dreams and nightmares.

Imaginatively shot and constantly entertaining, Ink deserved far more widespread attention than it received – barely distributed, it instead had to rely on word-of-mouth to find an audience. Ink‘s sheer quality meant that it soon became an underground success, but it’s still a pity that such an ambitious, absorbing film didn’t get the showing it deserved in cinemas.

17. Extract

The collected non-animated works of Mike Judge should, for our money, just be gathered together in one boxset with the word ‘underappreciated’ plastered across it. The latest exhibit? Extract, a smart comedy starring Jason Bateman as the owner of an extract plant, who’s also battling with his fair share of personal problems. Oh, and potential industrial unrest at the factory too.

It’s not Judge’s best, but there’s lots to enjoy, not least a cast that boasts Kristen Wiig, Mila Kunis and Ben Affleck in a welcome supporting role. It’s a really witty film too, that’s brief, to the point, and consistently entertaining. It’s not up to Office Space standards, but Judge has made yet another comedy that puts most of Hollywood’s humorous output to shame here.

16. Whip It

As underappreciated directorial debuts go, Drew Barrymore’s Whip It is up there with the finest of them. It’s a film about a women’s roller derby team in a small town, and the effect it has on Ellen Page’s character, Bliss Cavendar.

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Barrymore’s skill here is the sheer appeal she loads into the film. The roller derby sequences are great, and in conjunction with writer Shaun Cross (who penned the screenplay, based on her novel) she puts on screen a collection of characters that are interesting, and fun to spend time with.

It’s a hugely entertaining movie this, cast well, and it bodes well for whatever Barrymore chooses to direct next.

15. Micmacs

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is best known for his visually sumptuous confections like Delicatessen, Amelie, or his lone venture into Hollywood filmmaking, Alien Resurrection. His 1999 comedy Micmacs is as stylised and individual as anything Jeunet’s ever made, but it somehow failed to make the same impact of his more celebrated films. Micmacs follows Bazil, an ordinary man whose life has been ruined, in one way or another, by the arms trade – his father was blown up by a landmine when Bazil was still a child, and then as an adult, he’s hit in the head by a stray bullet.

What follows is one of the quirkiest revenge stories ever, as Bazil devotes his energy to bringing down the weapons manufacturers that made those landmines and bullets. A carnival of strange characters and misfits assist him – these include a contortionist, a cook, a human cannonball and a mathematical genius – and the story deals with similar issues to Andrew Niccol’s Lord Of War, but with Jeunet’s peculiar humour and lightness of touch.

14. Exam

This futuristic psychological thriller takes the threatening air of TV’s The Apprentice to its logical conclusion. A group of eight ambitious young candidates file into a coldly-lit room to take an exam which will land them a position in a pharmaceutical company. An invigilator tells them they have 80 minutes to answer a single question. But when the candidates turn their papers over and find them blank, they realise that this is no ordinary job interview – and as the time ticks down on a digital clock, events take a deadly turn.

Shot on a low budget, Exam makes the most of its single location, with the ticking clock and deteriorating relationships providing a rising sense of tension. The acting’s a bit of a mixed bag, but Luke Mably really stands out as a hard-nosed London business type who becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses, and the film remains absorbing right up until its slightly anticlimactic ending. As a rare example of a psychological slasher movie, where the cast is slowly whittled down by cunning and mind games, Exam is highly recommended.

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13. In The Loop

A film that’s well known to British audiences perhaps, but outside these isles the big screen antics of Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker remain mainly a mystery. Capaldi’s Doctor Who casting may well motivate more people to seek out his previous work, but this big screen expansion of UK TV’s The Thick Of It is a blisteringly funny, foul-mouthed, political work of comedy genius.

Even to begin quoting some of the film’s best lines would put us the wrong side of many workplace’s internet filters. Heck, the moment when Tucker asks for a bottle of milk for the US vice president is just one of the moments of sheer gold here. One of the best British comedies of recent times, hands down.

12. Enter The Void

Any film by maverick Argentine director Gaspar Noe (I Stand Alone, Irreversible) should be approached with caution, and Enter The Void is no exception. Set in Tokyo, Enter The Void’s a drama about a young drug dealer who’s shot dead by police and then views the life of his troubled sister from the hereafter. Shot entirely from a first-person viewpoint, Noe’s movie attempts to simulate the experiences of tripping out on a psychedelic drug, with entire sequences devoted to Tron-like tunnels of light, pulsating shapes that look like bioluminescent jelly fish, or aerial scenes of Tokyo.

Filled to the brim with explicit sex and jabs of violence, it’s a claustrophobic, unsettling brew. It’s no surprise that Enter The Void divided critics, with the leaden pace proving infuriating at the best of times. But it’s also a one-off, individual film from Noe, and as an eerie art installation about sex, drugs and death, Enter The Void has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

11. Fantastic Mr Fox

It’s a genuine pity that Fantastic Mr Fox didn’t find a wider audience, because it’s the most gentle and broad showcase for Wes Anderson’s storytelling to appear so far. Based on Roald Dahl’s novel, it’s a delightful stop motion-animated story about the daring Fox (George Clooney) and his repeated brushes with local poultry farmers – much to the chagrin of his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep).

Taking the central fox-farmer rivalry from Dahl’s book, Anderson deftly bends the story to his own interests, resulting in a film as full of middle-class angst and colourful supporting characters as you’ll see in, say, The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic. Anderson’s version of Fox is a newspaper columnist as well as an expert catcher of chickens, and much of the film’s drama comes from Fox’s attempt to reconcile his desire for a comfortable family life with his pathological need to hunt. There’s a great voice cast, too, including Bill Murray as a legally-trained Badger and Willem Dafoe as a dastardly Rat. Stylishly animated and superbly written, Fantastic Mr Fox is a handcrafted, good-natured gem.

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10. The Invention Of Lying

Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s fantasy comedy isn’t perfect, but it does have an abundance of wonderful ideas. One of them is its central notion that lying is a defining and even vital human characteristic. Set in an alternate reality where humans are hardwired to tell the truth at all times, Gervais plays Mark, an underachieving everyman who writes for the movies – a job made utterly joyless because films always adhere rigidly to the truth. But when Mark becomes the first person to utter a lie – he fibs about the amount of money left in his bank account – he realises that he holds a unique power to change the world. He writes the first fictional movie (about aliens invaders in the 14th century), becomes a celebrity, and inadvertently invents religion.

The Invention Of Lying is at its least interesting when it drifts into conventional rom-com territory, but utterly redeems itself in isolated moments – an earnestly truthful advert for Coca Cola (“It’s basically just brown sugared water”) is utterly inspired, while the scene where Mark soothes his dying mother with stories about Heaven is unexpectedly moving.  

9. Down Terrace

Ben Wheatley’s first film introduces much of what has gone on to make him one of the UK’s very best filmmakers. There’s sharp characters, pointed direction, a tight final cut and a collection of great performances, all wrapped into an economic British independent film.

This one’s a crime drama, as a family look to get to the bottom of who the informant is in their midst. Underpinned by dark comedy, Down Terrace is interesting from the start for pinning a crime drama in the midst of kitchen sink Britain. There are one or two bits that might, er, have you turning your head away from the screen. A blisteringly good film, mind.

8. Pontypool

In common with Down Terrace, Pontypool proves you don’t need an extensive budget, lots of locations and a huge company of actors to come up with something that really gets under the skin. The setting for much of the film is a lonely radio station, where Stephen McHattie’s Grant Mazzy broadcasts, while reports from the world outside suggest that a virus is spreading outside the station’s walls, with devastating consequences.

Tense, strongly played and just about lasting the course of its 95 minute running time, Pontypool takes its time certainly, but builds a tone and mood that pays dividends come the third act.

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7. The Joneses

A terrific idea for a movie this, and it’s arguably the most underrated film of David Duchovny’s career. He’s the head of a family here – The Joneses, as it happens – who move into a gleaming house, filled with gleaming products. Turns out, though, that this perfect family life isn’t what it seems, for reasons we’re not going to spoil here (although the back of the DVD box will have  damn good go for you).

Making some good points in the midst of a fairly light film, there are two core reasons why The Joneses works so well. Firstly, it has an original idea at the heart of it. Secondly, the execution commits to that idea, and does it justice. Oh, the film’s got Gary Cole in too, so added points for that.

6. World’s Greatest Dad

Actor-turned-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait is no stranger to taboo subject matters, having touched on zoophilia in his 2006 film Sleeping Dogs Lie and spree killings in 2011’s God Bless America. World’s Greatest Dad is similarly edgy, and stars Robin Williams as Lance, an English teacher whose obnoxious son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) accidentally strangles to death himself during an autoerotic asphyxiation session. Keen to paint a more sympathetic portrait of his late child, Lance forges a diary that depicts Kyle as a misunderstood, tortured poet. A cult of personality forms around the dead teen, while Lance becomes a minor celebrity on the chat show circuit – but privately, guilt over the whole charade nibbles at him.

What’s surprising about World’s Greatest Dad is how deftly and sensitively Goldthwait handles the premise. Refusing to mine his subject for cheap or easy laughs, Goldthwait is bravely unafraid to deal with the darkness of his story frankly, and as funny as the film is in its lighter moments, World’s Greatest Dad is also a highly effective drama – Williams’ central performance is sublime as a guilty, grief-stricken father whose frustrated creativity results in a media circus.

World’s Greatest Dad‘s story doomed it to become a cult item, but make no mistake: this is a brilliant piece of filmmaking from Goldthwait, and deserves to be seen.

5. Adventureland

Greg Mottola, before he helmed Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Paul, pulled together this charming, quite wonderful coming of age drama. It stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who come together when the former has to take a job in a theme park over the summer when his parents’ financial support dries up.

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The work works in a few different ways. The core drama and hints at romance are handled well, with both Eisenberg and Stewart putting in strong work. The music is great too, capturing the 80s era perfectly. And as a comedy, Adventureland is a hoot, not least in any scene that Freaks & Geeks alumnus Martin Starr is let near.

Ryan Reynolds has a solid cameo role in this as well, but it’s ultimately Mottola who’s the star. He penned the script too, and his balancing of themes and genre proves delightful. 

4. Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans

It’s not clear why Werner Herzog took on this largely unrelated ‘rethought’ of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant – Herzog had never seen the original 1992 film, and he hadn’t even heard of Abel Ferrara when he signrd up. But we’re glad this very strange police drama was willed into existence, because it not only complements Ferrara’s maverick film, but also gives Nicolas Cage one of his best leading roles in recent years.

Taking over from Harvey Keitel as the title Lieutenant, Cage is hunched and sweatily desperate, and turns in an endlessly engaging, jazzy performance. Herzog’s direction is similarly free-form, following Cage’s drug-addicted, corrupt cop around hurricane-battered New Orleans while occasionally pausing to admire things like a lizard basking on the side of a road or the contents of a fish tank. The result is a true one-off – a drama about gangsters and drugs and unpaid debts, shot through with an oblique sense of humour. This bad lieutenant has a lucky crack pipe and claims of a dead victim, “I can see his soul dance.”

Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Michael Shannon and Brad Dourif are along for the ride, and there’s a sense that everyone involved is just about clinging on by their fingertips as Herzog’s film swerves wildly to its deranged climax. Poorly distributed in 2009, Bad Lieutenant is a real must-see.

3. Anvil

You can’t help but recall the glory of Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap whilst watching the excellent, funny ‘rockumentary’ (that does indeed appear to be a word) Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. By choosing a rock band from the 80s that few will have heard of as a subject for his film, director Sacha Gervasi (who helmed 2012’s Hitchcock) can put across a story that few will come to with much in the way of preconceptions.

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The end result of this is a very, very funny and surprisingly touching film about Anvil’s attempts to put together a comeback album, and their European tour. A film more about the fall than the rise, it’s quite brilliant.

2. Moon

The cult following enjoyed by Moon made us hesitate to include it on this list, but then we thought again about its minimal box-office take (less than $10m theatrically, according to Box Office Mojo). And then we thought about how Sam Rockwell’s wonderful performance was sorely overlooked at the Oscars and the BAFTAs, despite lots of attention at independent film awards. On balance, we came to the conclusion that Moon still qualifies as an underrated film, despite its core following.

Set in a near future where the Moon is mined for its resources, Duncan Jones’ directorial debut sees bored astronaut Sam (Rockwell) nearing the end of his lonely contract on a lunar base. With only an artificially intelligent computer called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to count as a friend, Sam whiles away the hours by tending his plants and building model houses. Then an accident during a routine mission leads Sam to question everything he thinks he knows about the base and his job.

There’s an absorbing mystery in Jones’ low-key sci-fi drama, but it’s Rockwell’s wounded, gentle performance that beguiles from beginning to end. The direction is uncluttered and perfectly paced, mimicking the measured tone of classic 70s and 80s science fiction films like Silent Running or Outland – the pleasing use of traditional miniature effects underlining the faintly retro theme.

The underlying appeal of Moon, however, is timeless: beneath the AI computers, sinister corporations and moon buggies, there’s a poignant, human drama in here about mortality and memories, and that’s what makes it one of the very best genre films of the past decade.

1. The Secret In Their Eyes

The Secret In Their Eyes is another example of a film that’s seen the upside and downside of winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar. On the one hand, there’s a degree of exposure, and the guarantee that it’ll get slightly broader distribution. On the other, it still seems overlooked in large parts of the world, the UK included.

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But what a film it is. From Argentina, it’s the haunting story of a retired legal worker and a judge who, 25 years previously, had worked together on a case that remains unsolved. The former decides to write a novel about the case, and as such, digs up things from the past that have very unpredictable ramifications.

There are so many things to this wonderful film that set it apart. Narratively driven and keeping you very much on your toes, it’s beautifully performed, superbly directed, and has a third act that stays in your head long, long after the film is finished. And that’s before you get to the subtexts involved too.

A big hit in Argentina, The Secret In Their Eyes is a film that remains off many people’s radars. And at a time when people are turning to Nordic noir to try and get something else out of the thriller genre, this example from far further afield proves that South American cinema has an awful lot to offer the world.

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