The top 25 underappreciated films of 2010

Our series of lists devoted to underappreciated films brings us to the year 2010, and another 25 overlooked gems...

By 2010, Hollywood’s obsession with 3D movies was in full swing. James Cameron’s Avatar may have given audiences a taste of what the cutting edge of stereoscope could look like, but it has to be said that the movies ushered into cinemas in its wake were a decidedly mixed bunch. Toy Story 3′s 3D was extraordinarily effective, yet Clash Of The Titans looked like a blurry mess. How To Train Your Dragon came to life in its flying sequences, but the less said about the horribly murky Last Airbender, the better.

Unless we’re mistaken, none of the movies on this list were shot or released in 3D, and few of them did particularly stellar business. A few got a certain amount of critical acclaim, but appear to have dwindled from movie conversations since. To remedy this, here’s our pick of 25 underappreciated films from 2010 – and we have to say, this particular year was unusually difficult to whittle down. So with apologies to Brooklyn’s Finest, The Company Men and Troll Hunter – just three films that didn’t quite make the cut – let’s get on with this week’s selection…

25. Tiny Furniture

Lena Dunham’s rise to fame has come off the back of her HBO show, Girls, which she created, wrote, directed and starred in. But it was her feature film, Tiny Furniture, that brought her to the attention of important people with money to spend. In particular, it brought her to the attention of Judd Apatow, who helped get Girls set up at HBO.

But don’t overlook Tiny Furniture. Dunham stars as Aura, who returns home after completing her film studies course, seemingly with nowhere to go. She takes a restaurant job and flirts with relationships, and the film basically uses ingredients rarely considered by American independent cinema. Fortunately, Dunham’s written a strong script here – not always satisfying, but always committed. Her lead performance is also a good one. Uplifting it isn’t, but Tiny Furniture is definitely still of interest.

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24. Made In Dagenham

Director Nigel Cole hit big with his adaptation of the stage show Calendar Girls. Made In Dagenham didn’t hit in quite the same way, though, even if it deserved to. It’s the story of the women at the Ford Dagenham planet, who in 1968 went on strike over sexual discrimination. Mixing in generous dollops of humour, there’s a serious story at the heart of the film, and Cole doesn’t shirk it. Nor does his cast, led by the brilliant Sally Hawkins and Andrea Riseborough. The period detail is strong, the politics is dealt with accessibly, and there’s a welcome supporting turn from Bob Hoskins as well.

23. Silent House

This low-budget, Uruguayan horror film was remade in 2011 and starred Elizabeth Olsen, who was excellent. But the original is well worth checking out, partly for what it achieves on a tiny budget. Cleverly edited to look as though it’s shot in one continuous, unbroken take, Silent House is a supernatural horror that focuses almost exclusively on the terror experienced by its protagonist, Laura (Florencia Colluci).

Sure, the film’s a bit rough around the edges, but its camerawork builds up a palpable air of dread that lasts pretty much until the final moments. As a testament to what a creative filmmaker can do with just $6,000, Silent House is an effective genre achievement.

22. Neds

Peter Mullan, as we’ve said before on this site, doesn’t direct many films. But when he does, it’s always worth sitting up and taking notice. Previous examples? The Magdalene Sisters and Orphans, both of which are brilliant.

And so is Neds. Set in 1970s Scotland, it follows John McGill, who’s going through school but overshadowed by the reputation of his older brother. As a consequence, few are willing to give him any kind of chance, and few have any hopes for him. Mullan’s screenplay cuts away any gloss in telling John’s story too, and while he injects some highlights and the kind of black humour that he’s proven excellent at bringing to the screen, Neds resonates for less uplifting reasons. Arguably not Mullan’s best film as director, but still very, very good.

21. Cemetery Junction

When we looked at the underappreciated movies of 2009, we talked about The Invention Of Lying, a comedy that Ricky Gervais starred in and co-directed. For Cemetery Junction, he co-directed with regular collaborator Stephen Merchant, and the pair put together a film that wasn’t quite what people were expecting.

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For Cemetery Junction is more a period drama than anything, albeit with that period being the 1970s. Set in Reading, it follows a bunch of young men and women working for an insurance company. That central mechanic works well, but it’s also Emily Watson’s wonderful work as the wife of Ralph Fiennes’ bullying husband that helps make the film.

Merchant and Gervais don’t shoot for the proverbial sky with Cemetery Junction, but they do home in on a particular story they want to tell. As it turns out, they tell it really rather well.

20. The Crazies

Horror remakes aren’t often something to get too excited about, yet Breck Eisner’s The Crazies is among the very best. It takes the premise of George Romero’s 1973 original – the population of a small American town is turned into an army of feral ghouls by a biological weapon – and sensitively updates it with a starrier cast (including Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell) and 21st century production values.

Rather than go for full-on gore, Eisner aims for an insidious build-up of suspense, with a creepy encounter in a baseball field signalling the start of the film’s downward spiral. Although it did quite well in cinemas back in 2010, we wouldn’t be surprised if The Crazies was lost among the numerous lesser remakes that came out before and after it.

19. Valhalla Rising

Nicolas Winding Refn’s film before he scored a big hit with Drive, Valhalla Rising is a strange, one-of-a-kind Viking drama set in the middle ages. Mads Mikkelsen (who worked with Refn before on the Pusher trilogy) stars as a lean, enigmatic Norse warrior named One-Eye, who goes on a difficult-to-describe odyssey that involves violence, the Crusades, and visions of hell.

It’s a minimalist, surreal film, and uncompromising even by Refn’s standards. But as a meditative, sometimes quite scary mood piece, it’s a bravely individual film; comparisons have been made to Werner Herzog and John Milius, but Valhalla Rising creates an elemental, intimidating atmosphere all of its own.

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18. The Killer Inside Me

2010 offered a pair of movies that felt like they had trouble judging the line between putting across violence and sheer nastiness on screen, and playing it for any form of entertainment. The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, which boasted a superb lead performance from Gemma Arterton, certainly felt a little tonally troubling. The Killer Inside Me arguably got the balance a bit better, but it’s no easier a film to watch.

In particular, Casey Affleck’s performance as Lou Ford, sits at the heart of debates that continue to surround the film. Are you supposed to sympathise or warm in any way to a man who’s a psychopath, misogynistic and downright nasty? What if he’s the sheriff too?

Yet Michael Winterbottom knows what he’s doing here, and chooses to not compromise his film, without feeling like he’s deliberately courting controversy for the sake of it. It’s an uneasy, unpleasant piece of cinema at times, and very violent, but there are real merits to The Killer Inside Me that lift it above some of the accusations aimed at it.

17. Submarine

Richard Ayoade had been best known for his work in front of the camera before he made his feature directing debut with Submarine (his second movie, The Double, is finally released in UK cinemas next month). His screen adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s novel, meanwhile, marked him as a major talent to watch. A coming of age story set in Swansea, it focuses on Oliver Tate, played by Craig Roberts, a 15-year old with an imagination, and no shortage of discomfort as he embarks on his first romance.

Around him, there’s also the small matter of his battling parents, not helped by the appearance of Paddy Considine as his mother’s old flame. And from these ingredients, Ayoade shapes a quite wonderful film, that he shoots stylistically but without too much fuss. The few years since its release haven’t diluted its timeless feel either.

16. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

You don’t see this particular Yuletide film clogging up the schedules on television every Christmas, but Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale feels a damn sight more interesting than the bulk of crappy festive fodder.

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It’s a Finnish movie that has a very different spin on the secret of Santa Claus, subverting it into a horror origin story, with a taste of The Thing to it. You never got that with Home Alone 2. Set the night before Christmas, Rare Exports features disappearing children, a quest to sell Santa to a multi-national corporation and some excellent horror movie moments. There’s some strong comedy work in here too. A perfect double bill with Bad Santa, might we suggest…

15. The American

Director Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) was a beautifully shot and extremely moving account of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Corbijn takes his unfailing eye for mood and composition to Italy for The American, which retains the meditative tone of Control while exploring very different 60s and 70s thriller elements. George Clooney stars as an assassin who’s holed up in a tiny, mountaintop town in central Italy following an attempt on his life in Sweden.

It’s a slow-burning, quiet film, and more of a character study than a thriller; the film’s at its best when exploring its lead character’s obsession with detail and his uneasy friendships. Clooney’s performance is excellent in these scenes – full of dignity and regret – and his rueful exchanges with a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) are particularly well-handled. We’re looking forward to seeing Corbijn’s next film, A Most Wanted Man, out this year.

14. Four Lions

British satirist Chris Morris is no stranger to controversy, and he doesn’t flinch from handling a troubling topic – terrorism – in this jet-black comedy. About four young Muslim men who decide to become suicide bombers, Four Lions explores how disillusioned, naive young men can be manipulated into doing the unthinkable. There are moments in Four Lions that are extremely funny, but it’s important to note that Morris doesn’t go for cheap, bad-taste jokes; the film’s conclusion is as gut-wrenching and saddening as any ‘serious’ drama could be. The cast, which includes Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay, Adeel Akhtar, Julia Davis and Benedict Cumberbatch, is uniformly excellent, but it’s Kayvan Novak, as the childlike Waj, who makes the strongest, most poignant impression.

13. Tucker & Dale Vs Evil

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin In The Woods is generally credited with flipping the remote house horror subgenre on its head, yet as a riotously funny parody of the same genre, Tucker & Dale Vs Evil is a less widely celebrated gem. Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine play a pair of gentle rural types who’ve just purchased an old cabin in the woods, which they plan to renovate and keep as a holiday home. But then a group of obnoxious college kids show up from the city, and become convinced that Tucker and Dale are a pair of Texas Chainsaw-type mass murderers.

Gory and consistently hilarious, Tucker & Dale Vs Evil is bolstered further by the brilliance of its lead characters; they’re genuinely likeable, and their tenderness – not to mention their bewilderment at all the accidental deaths going on around them – is what gives the film its heart. An unmissable comedy horror.

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12. Super

James Gunn’s second superhero movie (of sorts) will be this summer’s mega-budget Guardians Of The Galaxy. However, his micro-budget Super was his first feature venture into the genre, casting Rainn Wilson as his hero in a film that fell a little under the shadow of Kick-Ass on original release.

A shame that, though, as not only is Wilson very funny here (“Shut up, crime!”), but the film around him – co-starring Ellen Page and Liv Tyler – has plenty to like.  Wilson is the Crimson Bolt, a self-made superhero, apparently at the behest of God himself. The subsequent film is very violent, very gory, very funny, a little bit sweet, and surprisingly unpredictable. It’s also, we’d wager, absolutely nothing like Guardians Of The Galaxy will be.

11. Exit Through The Gift Shop

Anonymous artist Banksy turned filmmaker in this highly unusual documentary, which blurs the lines between fiction and reality. It follows Thierry Guetta, a French former shop proprietor and amateur filmmaker who moves to Los Angeles and becomes the toast of the city’s faddish art scene. There’s been much speculation over whether the film’s events are a hoax, and even suggestions that Banksy may have created Guetta’s artworks himself.

Really, none of this matters, because Banksy’s point still stands: that art is too often about the financial value attached to objects rather than the quality or meaning of the pieces themselves. As a critique of the modern art scene – and of how value’s ascribed to anything in the modern world – Exit Through The Gift Shop is a thought-provoking, wryly funny film.

10. Black Death

In 2011, Nic Cage starred in Season Of The Witch, a surprisingly flat period road movie involving demons, black magic and flashing broadswords. Director Christopher Smith’s Black Death came out the year before, is several times better, yet failed to get the marketing push that might have made it a bigger hit. In a medieval Britain ravaged by plague, a knight (Sean Bean), a band of mercenaries (including Andy Nyman and Johnny Harris) and an idealistic monk (Eddie Redmayne) head across the country to capture a necromancer.

It’s an earthy tale, with jabs of bloody violence and a satisfying conclusion. Sean Bean’s on stoic form and Redmayne is extremely effective in a gradually darkening role. Like Smith’s earlier films – Creep, Severance and Triangle – Black Death is greatly underappreciated, and well worth tracking down.

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9. Chico & Rita

A Spanish-English co-production that shows that there’s a lot more you can do with animation than talking animals singing songs. And heck, we quite like talking animals singing songs. There’s singing in this one mind, but in this case it’s the piano playing of Chico and the singing of Rita. We follow the pair over a period of time, taking them from Havana, to America and to France in search of their dreams.

The animation here – on a tight budget too – is wonderfully realised and stylised, and the musical backdrop – crucial to the film – is equally exquisite. You can’t help but care about the central characters, nor are you blinded to the changes and history going on behind them. A wonderful film.

8. Buried

Also on a tight budget, Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes wrings every drop of creative possibility from this single-location thriller. Ryan Reynolds stars as Paul, a truck driver working in Iraq, who’s kidnapped and wakes up in a coffin buried several feet underground. With little more than a lighter and a phone buried with him, Paul attempts to get help before his oxygen runs out.

In what must have been a difficult and claustrophobic shoot, Reynolds is superb as the luckless protagonist, conveying despair, terror and grim humour in one of the most restrictive locations ever committed to film. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock were common but not wide of the mark, and Cortes makes simple things like making a phone call seem as exciting and loaded with tension as something like a massive car chase in a Hollywood action movie. Superbly shot and deceptively well written, this claustrophobic thriller engrosses from beginning to end.

7. A Prophet

This French prison drama was released in January 2010 in the UK, so it just about qualifies for a place on this list. The endlessly engrossing account of a young French Algerian’s time in jail, it’s superbly acted by Tahar Rahim, and explores the rivalries and brutal day to day struggle for survival behind bars. It’s a bleak story, enlivened by Rahim’s charismatic performance as the intelligent and resourceful lead, who learns how to navigate through the potentially fatal danger lurking in every encounter. One of those films that received a ripple of press attention and a few mentions at the BAFTAs and Oscars, it’s possible that A Prophet passed you by on its original release. If it did, we urge you to seek it out.

6. The Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec

If there were any justice, this rip-roaring period adventure movie would have been a huge hit, and maybe even spawned a sequel or two. Based on French comic book artist Tardi’s stories, The Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec follows the title heroine (brilliantly played by Louise Bourgoin), a journalist and fearless adventurer. She becomes embroiled in a case that involves ancient Egyptian mummies, a hatched dinosaur and an evil, decrepit villain named Professor Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric, who’s unrecognisable).

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Luc Besson directs with his usual flair, bringing a real sense of buoyancy and fun to this madcap caper. Although by no means a box office failure, The Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec wasn’t a major hit outside France, either. But it was one of the most purely entertaining movies of 2010, and we’d urge you to see it if you haven’t done so already. Now, if only Besson could get round to making a sequel.

5. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

The original Elite Squad was a breathtaking account of poverty, crime and on-the-spot punishment in the favelas of Rio, and director Jose Padilha’s sequel is, remarkably, even better. Picking up from where the last film left off, The Enemy Within again stars Wagner Moura as Nascimento, the colonel of an elite troop of cops who patrol the state’s most dangerous districts

The plot’s a complex interplay of violence, corruption and political intrigue – it’s far more labyrinthine than the first movie – and it’s testament to Padilha’s strength as a director that it’s all so coherent. Providing a sublime second chapter in the Elite Squad saga, The Enemy Within both improves on the first film and completes Padilha’s grand picture of futile violence in a divided city. A magnificent movie.

4. The Illusionist

Belleville Rendez-Vous arguably remains the most popular animated work of Sylvain Chomet to date, but his follow-up feature, The Illusionist, is equally brilliant, and equally unconventional. Using the same visual style that gave Belleville Rendez-Vous such flavour, this time Chomet tells the story of an illusionist, Jean-Claude, who finds himself with less and less work. Thus, he heads off to Scotland in search of further jobs, where he crosses paths with a young girl by the name of Alice.

Alice and Jean-Claude are unlikely central characters for a film, but the impact that subsequently have on each other’s lives is skilfully demonstrated by Chomet, in a film that from the opening frame feels as if someone has really put in the hours to make it all hang together so well. It’s beautiful, just beautiful to look at, succeeding both as a piece of storytelling, and a piece of art. A hugely, hugely recommended animated treat.

3. Monsters

Shot on a tiny budget, this sci-fi road movie romance proved to be the making of British filmmaker Gareth Edwards. Scoot McNairy stars as Andrew, a photographer pressed into service as a chaperone for his employer’s daughter Samantha (Whitney Able), and together the pair travel across Mexico, here devastated by gigantic creatures from outer space. Edwards establishes a quiet, meditative rhythm, with the leading couple picking through the remains of towns and cities damaged by both the creatures and aerial bombardment by the military. The monsters themselves are rarely glimpsed, making their occasional entrances all the more grand, scary, and sometimes beautiful.

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Those expecting a Syfy Channel-style creature feature will be disappointed by Monsters; those looking for an intelligent and moving SF drama will almost certainly be beguiled. The critical success of Monsters brought its own reward for Edwards, who was quickly signed up as the director for Legendary’s expensive new Godzilla movie. With that iteration of Ishiro Honda’s 50s classic due on our screens this summer, now’s the perfect time to see what Edwards can do on a fraction of the budget.

2. Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is sensitively adapted by director Mark Romanek, and the results are subtly devastating. A group of children grow up in an unfeasibly genteel and picturesque boarding school in rural Britain, where time seems to have somehow ground to a halt in the mid-1950s. But the children are unaware that they’re being kept at the school for a far darker purpose than simple education. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield play the teenagers who learn the truth about the school, and try to find a way to save themselves from their gloomy fate.

The leading trio are superb, and Mark Romanek – who made the superbly chilling One Hour Photo in 2002 – directs with precision and intelligence. Never Let Me Go’s downbeat themes won’t endear it to everyone, but as an existential drama about love and mortality, it’s beautifully shot and profoundly haunting.

1. Animal Kingdom

Writer and director David Michod spent several years perfecting the script for this unvarnished and intense drama about a Melbourne crime family. A tragic series of events sees 17-year-old J (James Frecheville) go to live with his grandmother, Janine (Jackie Weaver), the mother to a terrifying brood of career criminal sons, the worst being Ben Mendelsohn’s Barry ‘Pope’ Cody. J is gradually drawn into an increasing cycle of violence, and his attempts to escape it (with the help of well-intentioned cop Leckie, played by Guy Pearce) are repeatedly thwarted by Janine’s icy resolve.

Superbly shot, written and acted, Animal Kingdom was justifiably admired by critics, and Jackie Weaver eaven earned an Oscar nod for her performance as the remorseless matriarch. Mendelsohn’s arguably as good, however, and his sociopathic Pope is casually threatening in every single scene – an embodiment of callous, mundane evil, he’s arguably the best villain of 2010.

A film that garnered plenty of acclaim but a relatively small pile of box office receipts, Animal Kingdom emerges as one of the most compelling crime dramas of recent years. Michod’s next film, the near-future crime drama The Rover, is out this year.

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