The top 25 underappreciated films of 2004

We head back a decade to look at a few films that deserve more attention. Here’s our list of 25 underappreciated movies of 2004...

Think back to 2004, and you might dredge up hazy memories of the computer-generated fairytale sequel Shrek 2, Alfonso’s Harry Potter installment, The Prisoner Of Azkaban, or maybe Mel Gibson’s phenomenally successful Passion Of The Christ.

It’s rather less likely that you’ll remember some of the films on this list. You’re probably aware of the drill by now: we’ve gone back into our distant, beer-addled memories to find 25 of the less commonly-lauded movies from the year 2004.

Some of them did reasonably well at the time, but appear to have been forgotten since (especially the one eclipsed by its own internet meme), while others were coolly received by the public or critics (and sometimes both) and arguably deserve a bit more love.

25. Spanglish

Adam Sandler had set his career up at one stage to be a Jim Carrey-esque alternation between the comedies that had brought him fame and riches, and the smaller projects that resonated. And Sandler played the game quite well – most notably with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love – before inexplicably heading back to safer waters.

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Spanglish, from director James L Brooks, is a smaller achievement perhaps, but it’s an enticing and welcome film. Sandler stars alongside Tea Leoni in a drama that follows a Mexican woman and her daughter who head to the US to work for a well-off American family. Brooks is notably off the form of Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets here, but Spanglish still registers as a worthwhile, solid movie. And Sandler’s really quite good in it.

24. The Final Cut

Robin Williams followed up his brilliant performances in One Hour Photo and Insomnia with another low-key turn in this sci-fi thriller from first-time director Omar Naim. In a future where every waking moment is recorded by a special piece of technology called a Zoe chip, Williams plays a ‘cutter’ – an editor of memories who creates sanitised compilations from dead people’s lives.

Already a guilt-ridden and nervy character, Williams’ Alan Hakman is soon drawn into a grim conspiracy involving the company which designed those memory-recording chips. Admittedly, the thriller element of Naim’s films is its less interesting aspect – and the conclusion, it has to be said, is something of an anti-climax – but The Final Cut is worth watching for a great leading turn from Williams, sterling supporting work from Jim Caviezel and Mira Sorvino, and a truly thought-provoking genre premise.

23. Jersey Girl

We seem to mention Kevin Smith’s much maligned Jersey Girl a reasonable amount these days, for two reasons: not many people seem to like it, and we do. It’s a far more notable change of pace and approach for Smith than we saw with Cop Out, and its mix of comedy and drama is really well blended. Furthermore, Ben Affleck really delivers in a role that requires a degree of tenderness and a whole lot of emotion.

Smith keeps it well under control too, never allowing his film to spend much time in the company of mawkishness. Unfortunately, it was released in the aftermath of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s star vehicle with Gigli, which isn’t anywhere close to being an overlooked gem. Jersey Girl is though, and while its box office suffered as the tabloids took aim, the movie buried under the rubble is sweet, entertaining and very worthwhile.

22. Cellular

Before his sad death last year, former stuntman turned director David R Ellis made some really entertaining films, including the amiably daft Snakes On A Plane and Final Destination 2. Cellular is another brisk bit of genre fun, a mid-budget thriller based on an idea by B-movie master Larry Cohen.

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Chris Evans stars as a 20-something slacker who’s randomly called up by Kim Basinger, who’s understandably in a panic because Jason Statham’s broken into her house and taken her hostage. There follows a manic chase across Los Angeles, as Evans resolves to help rescue Basinger and her captive family from Statham’s thuggish clutches.

It’s flimsy stuff, admittedly, but Ellis keeps the story motoring at an irresistible chase, and Evans is more than up to the task of leading the film. Cellular also gives Jason Statham a rare opportunity to play a villain, and he attacks the role with athletic gusto.

21. Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow

It’s sad to think that this larger-than-life digital spectacle didn’t manage to break even at the box office in 2004. Set in an alternate 1930s full of giant robots and flying aircraft carriers, Sky Captain is a fantasy adventure in the vein of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Flash Gordon or Captain America. The plot takes in Jude Law’s heroic Sky Captain, a mad scientist called Totenkopf, and a daring journalist played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

With some captivating visuals brought to life with ‘digital backlot’ technology, and a real affection for cinema past and present – homages of everything from old Buck Rogers serials to Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle In The Sky can be spotted all over the place – Sky Captain is a good-natured treat. Why audiences didn’t warm to director Kerry Conran’s film isn’t clear, but almost a decade on from its theatrical release, Sky Captain’s ripe for rediscovery.

As the late Roger Ebert described Sky Captain in his review, “It’s like a film that escaped from the imagination directly onto the screen”.

20. Steamboy

Katsuhiro Otomo will always be remembered for Akira, his voluminous manga which he later directed as a groundbreaking animated feature in 1988. Steamboy is no less ambitious, having been made with a huge budget and thousands of frames of hand-drawn animation – and the results are visually stunning.

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A steampunk sci-fi fable about a teenage inventor and his adventures in an alternate Victorian Britain, Steamboy’s full of jet packs, fanciful machines and mechanised wars.

Otomo’s work’s always detailed, but Steamboy’s sense of scale and imagination really is something to behold. Even the most incidental bit of background machinery has been designed with care, and Otomo’s vision of Victorian London shimmers with depth.

With its boo-hiss villains and wide-eyed sense of youthful adventure, Steamboy deserved to be a broad international hit, yet its distribution was botched, and it failed to enjoy anything approaching Akira’s mainstream success. Dig out a copy now, and enjoy one of the great unsung animated features from Japan’s recent history.

19. Saved!

Macaulay Culkin, Jena Malone and Mandy Moore lead the cast of this really quite accomplished teen comedy drama. But there’s a bit more to it than a straight genre description may suggest. For Saved! picked up a bit of controversy, and a bit of acclaim, for putting religion at the heart of some of the things it was trying to say. In fact, there’s a cauldron of issues that Saved! puts together, some more successfully than others, with homophobia and teen pregnancy pertinent parts of the mix.

Director and co-writer Brian Dannelly just about balances all of this, and he’s served well by his cast. But mostly, he’s served well by the ambition, and the desire to say a few things under the cloak of the teen comedy genre (which, of course, has been talking intelligently to its audience for far longer than many give it credit for). Ignore whatever residual controversy remains surrounding the issues the film dares to touch on, and do consider digging it out.

18. In Good Company

There’s a line in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve where Topher Grace declares that “I totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie”. Inevitably, perhaps, that Dennis Quaid movie – In Good Company – is a far more satisfying film than Soderbergh’s much-maligned heist sequel.

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The film sees Dennis Quaid as a man trying to hold onto his job, whose new boss – Topher Grace – comes in at around half his age. The complication is that said new boss falls for Quaid’s daughter – played by Scarlett Johansson – which sets up a tricky dynamic that sustains the movie.

Director Paul Weitz also wrote this one, and paired with the film he made just before it – About A Boy – it’s a gimmick-free, worthwhile and grown-up comedy drama, with a lot to like about it. Plus: Dennis Quaid. Who doesn’t like a bit of Quaid in their DVD player?

17. Code 46

The work of filmmaker Michael Winterbottom is almost bewilderingly eclectic. Few other directors could have made such disparate films as 24 Hour Party People, The Killer Inside Of Me and A Cock And Bull Story, or last year’s Paul Raymond biopic, The Look Of Love. Code 46 saw Winterbottom tackle dystopian sci-fi, and while the results aren’t perfect, the film remains a recommended one.

Tim Robbins stars as William Geld, a futuristic kind of fraud investigator who uses something called an empathy virus to extract  information from his interviewees. Geld then begins investigating the case of Maria (Samantha Morton), who’s been forging documents which allow undesirable people access to a genetically pristine Shanghai, and ends up embarking on an affair with her.

Although the ensuing love story is well played by Robbins and Morton, it’s the world around them that is the most compelling aspect of Code 46. With its unusual language and futuristic architecture (the film was shot in real locations in Shanghai, Dubai and Rajasthan), it’s a compellingly realised place, as conceived by writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (who also wrote Millions, mentioned earlier, and several other Winterbottom movies). Seemingly ignored on release, Code 46 is a flawed genre gem, and well worth tracking down.

16. One Missed Call

Forget the dismal American remake from 2008 – for the full J-horror experience, look no further than Takashi Miike’s original. The story is very much in the vein of Ring: two young women receive voicemail messages from their future selves, and are haunted by the sounds of their own anguished screams as they’re murdered.

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One Missed Call’s similarity to other staples of Japanese horror was often criticised on release, but now a good few years have elapsed, it’s easier to appreciate Miike’s film for what it gets right. The director has a fearsome reputation over here for extreme films like Audition and Ichi The Killer (in reality, he makes all kinds of other films, too, from comedies to children’s films), and while this isn’t his goriest piece of work, it’s still quite bloody in places. Like so many horror movies, it’s at its best when it’s at its most assaultive, and as a master manipulator of surreal, violent images, there are few directors better than Takashi Miike.

(NB: One Missed Call first appeared in some film festivals in 2003, but didn’t go on a wider release in Japan and Europe until 2004, hence its inclusion here. Just thought we’d mention it.)

15. Downfall

It’s fair to say that millions of people have seen one particular clip from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s WWII drama, in which Adolph Hitler (Bruno Ganz) rants furiously from behind his desk. The use of that clip, pressed into service to lampoon whatever topic happened to be in vogue at any given time, became such a common internet meme that the people who made these Downfall parodies and put them on YouTube were given their own name – Untergangers, after the film’s German title.

We’d wager that more people have seen a Downfall clip than the feature itself, particularly since 2010, when the whole Unterganging thing became such a phenomenon. This is why, despite the film’s fairly decent box-office take and Academy Award nomination, it deserves a place on this list: like Rick Astley, Downfall’s in danger of becoming permanently eclipsed by its own internet meme.

Delve into the film itself, and you’ll find a powerful, thought-provoking drama, which dares to lend a hint of humanity (only a hint, mind) to one of the most dreadful figures in modern history – and as Adolf Hitler, Bruno Ganz is simply extraordinary in every scene.

14. Casshern

Like Sin City and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, Japan’s Casshern is a ‘digital backlot’ movie, and director Kazuaki Kiriya achieves a remarkable amount considering his budget amounted to less than $7m. His sci-fi action film also happens to be completely bonkers.

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Based on the anime of the same name, it’s an action adventure set in a retro future world (something else it has in common with Sky Captain)where a revived hero in battle armour fights a race of world-dominating robots. Its story is confusing and almost secondary, really, but as an action film, it’s relentlessly entertaining, with its visuals shifting from over-saturated colours to stark black and white and back, as its masked hero slashes and fights his way through a robot horde. 

13. My Summer Of Love

Just the other week, we were saluting Paddy Considine’s turn in Jim Sheridan’s outstanding In America. Here, he’s excellent again – in more of a supporting role – in Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer Of Love. The two leads here are played by Emily Blunt and Natalie Press, and they’re two young women from differing backgroundswho meet each other in – yep – the summer. Considine fits in as the brother of Press’ character, a released convict who became a born-again Christian while inside.

The title gives a little bit of the film away perhaps, but it doesn’t betray its charm and tale of two women coming to terms with life where they are right then and there. Plus, there aren’t too many films so dedicated to making Yorkshire looking so good on film…

12. Creep

Here’s a cracking little horror film from Christopher Smith, who also made the similarly underrated Triangle and Black Death. Its London Underground setting isn’t entirely original – see Deathline for an earlier British Tube horror – but throughout, Smith creates suspense and jabs of terror with real creative flair. Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente plays the heroine, who’s locked in an underground station and subsequently persued through a network of tunnels by a shadowy killer.

Creep isn’t without its faults, and like quite a few horror films, becomes less frightening as its mysteries are answered. But in its strongest moments, it’s extremely effective, and comes loaded with a few genuine scares. Potente’s a great lead, too, giving her character a real sense of determination and strength – even as the film’s twisted events threaten to drive her insane.

11. The Woodsman

It’s a hard film to recommend, purely off the back of its subject matter, but this is a powerful piece of cinema nonetheless. Kevin Bacon takes the lead as a convicted child molestor who’s released after serving his sentence. The film follows his life once he’s back in the community, the relationship he tries to build and the social ramifications of his previous actions.

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Bacon is quite brilliant in a challenging, complex and not very likeable lead role, and inevitably, for understandable reasons, The Woodsman’s premise has kept it off many people’s radars. Yet arguably cinema has a job to explore a breadth of material and stories, and The Woodsman finds an uncomfortable angle perhaps, but one that it manages to explore really very well. Credit to the support cast too, including an excellent Kyra Sedgwick alongside Michael Shannon, Mos Def and Benjamin Bratt.

10. Millions

Billed as a Danny Boyle film that everybody could see, Millions provided evidence of just how versatile a director he was and is. Millions is also, arguably, one of his very best films.

Based on the book by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Millions sees young Alex Etel as seven-year-old Damian, a boy living with his father (James Nesbitt), who’s out playing with his brother. While playing, the pair’s fun is interrupted by a bag flung from a passing train. A bag chock full of cash. The question: what to do with it?

It’s a lovely film this, stylishly shot and presented by Boyle, and powered by a group of performances with genuine heart to them. It stands up exceptionally well too, and Boyle’s happy to put together a family film with some real edges to it.

9. Dead Man’s Shoes

From British filmmaker Shane Meadows comes this violent and constantly engrossing revenge thriller, about Paddy Considine’s returning soldier and his grim actions in a small Derbyshire town. Amid the soldier’s retribution, the reasons for his killings slowly unfold, and it’s only later that we learn the full truth – and it’s a breathtakingly powerful moment.

Dead Man‘s Shoes is a downbeat film for sure, yet glimmers of Meadows’ humour also shine through, thanks in part to the quality of the acting. Considine plays a stony-faced avenging angel, but his scenes with his character’s younger brother (brilliantly played by Toby Kebbell) are filled with warmth.

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Revenge dramas are relatively unusual in British cinema, but Dead Man’s Shoes is one of the very best. It’s also another great entry in Meadows’ body of work, and among the finest British films of the 2000s.

8. Enduring Love

The varied career of director Roger Michell saw him follow up Changing Lanes and The Mother (the latter of which we talked about when examining 2003’s underappreciated movies) with an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.

It’s another strong film which again stars Daniel Craig, this time alongside Rhys Ifans, Samantha Morton and Bill Nighy. Oh, and there’s a great big hot air balloon in there too. Enduring Love tells the story of two people who are drawn together when they both witness the same accident, which involves said balloon. The accident has far-reaching consequences, and not always the ones you might think, and Michell’s film is a tough one at times, but certainly one that rewards a second viewing. The people in it aren’t always particularly likeable, but in spite of parallels that some unfairly drew with one or two other thrillers, Enduring Love has an awful lot going for it.

7. Team America

A modest success on release (it made $50m on a $32m budget), Team America is in danger of becoming a relic of the War on Terror era. But while some aspects of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s movie are far from timeless, it mostly remains as raucously funny now as it was ten years ago.

Comedy aside, it’s important to remember what a technical achievement the filmmaking duo pulled off, and it’s this aspect that makes Team America so underrated. $32m is an awful lot of money to invest in a quirky R-rated comedy told with marionettes, and the filmmakers threw themselves at the risk with seeming abandon.

On the DVD’s commentary track, there’s a brilliant anecdote where Parker and Stone talk about Team America’s opening scene.

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After the opening credits, the first sequence is of a pair of extremely rough-looking puppets jerking around the screen, while a rushed painting of the Eiffel Tower wobbles behind them. It was this scene that Stone and Parker screened for Paramount’s executives before the film’s release. When the executives saw it, they assumed that those tatty marionettes and backgrounds were all they’d got in return for their millions of dollars, and were said to have roared, “They’ve stiffed us!”

Then, the camera pulls back to reveal that the jerky puppets are being controlled by a much bigger, better marionette, standing against a fully-realised version of Paris, complete with a hand-built Eiffel Tower.

It’s an example of Parker and Stone’s mischievous humour, and their creative daring in the face of a potentially career-wrecking project. Team America is a true one-of-a-kind comedy, and we’d be stunned if Hollywood dared to make anything quite like it again.

6. Incident At Loch Ness

Think of filmmaker Werner Herzog, and you might recall such cinematic greats as Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. At a push, you might recall Herzog’s entertainingly cold performance as the villain in 2012‘s Jack Reacher. It’s less likely that this exceedingly unusual fake documentary would spring to mind, yet it really is a Herzog film, with the German auter co-writing, co-producing and even appearing in front of the camera as himself.

Even more strangely, the director and co-writer is Zak Penn, most famous for his long career in action films and larger-than-life comic book movies, such as X2 and The Avengers, for which he received “story by” credits. Incident At Loch Ness, then, is a real curio, and genuinely worth seeking out.

In the film’s version of events, Herzog is fixed on making a serious documentary about the mythology surrounding the Loch Ness Monster, while Penn, as the interfering producer, wants to make something a bit more glamorous and sensational, and the emnity between the pair only grows as the ‘production’ wears on. Are the incidents on Scotland’s lake real, or is Penn merely faking it all for the camera? We can obviously guess the outcome, but the ‘who’s conning who?’ aspect is part of what makes Incident At Loch Ness so wryly amusing.

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5. Primer

This one-of-a-kind science fiction drama has a cult following, but we’d still argue that it’s a film more commonly dropped into conversations than actually watched. With a complex, jargon-heavy plot, Primer’s story – about a group of scientists who build a time machine in their garage – is tough to describe and difficult to follow, but then, maybe this is the point: it’s a film designed to be experienced and picked apart after the fact rather than immediately understood on first viewing.

Filmmaker Shane Caruth spent just $7000 making Primer, which he shot, produced, edited, scored and even acted in himself. He uses the low budget to his advantage, creating an immediate, intimate movie about a group of people playing around with a device whose effects they’re only just beginning to understand – and thanks to the story’s complexity, we constantly feel as though we’re trying and failing to grasp the machine’s potential dangers, too.

Caruth’s one of the least prolific filmmakers currently working; he’s created only one other movie in the past decade – last year’s bizarre yet brilliant Upstream Color. Like comets, Caruth films don’t come around very often, but when they do, they’re always worth watching – and Primer remains a stunningly original debut.

4. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson followed the critical and modest financial success of The Royal Tenenbaums with a typically quirky retelling of Moby Dick, resulting in the rather less lauded Life Aquatic. Regular Anderson collaborator Bill Murray stars as Steve Zissou, an oceanographer plainly modelled on Jacques Cousteau. When his best friend is eaten up by a rare Jaguar Shark, Zissou plans to hunt the creature down and kill it for his next documentary.

Some critics bemoaned The Life Aquatic’s mannered style of comedy and presentation, but we’d argue that it fits well with the zany story; this isn’t the best film Anderson’s ever made, but as a comic book adventure with some great acting and good-natured humour, it’s a pleasure to watch. As an absurdly plummy British lady puts it near the start of the film, “What fun!”

3. Friday Night Lights

Think Friday Night Lights, and it’s usually the superb television series that springs to mind. There’s nothing wrong with that at all either: you can’t go wrong whichever way you turn. But the catalyst for the show was Peter Berg’s original film, a brilliant look at how the young men of a US high school football team carry the hopes of a small town on their shoulders. Inevitably, it also explores the pressures on coach Gaines (played by Billy Bob Thornton) and his young team.

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As with the very best sports movies, Friday Night Lights works on two levels. It doesn’t skimp on the sporting side, but it’s the human dramas – very moving in one or two cases – that really make the film something special. Skip straight to the TV series if you want, but you’re missing a real treat if you don’t give the film a go too.

2. The Machinist

Director Brad Anderson’s thriller is in danger of being filed away as “the film where Christian Bale lost a lot of weight”, and it’s true that Bale’s skeletal appearance creates one of The Machinist’s most memorable images. But beyond Bale’s obvious physical commitment to his character, there are the more subtle nuances in his performance, too: his factory worker Trevor Reznik is a mentally besieged, twitchy creation, and we never quite know whether we’re meant to empathise with his plight or not.

Anderson’s handling of this pitch black material is masterful; he creates a web of nightmarish imagery and recurring symbols, where it’s impossible to work out where Trevor’s hallucinations begin and end. The resolution to Trevor’s torment is easy to predict, perhaps, but the strength of Anderson’s direction, and the sheer quality of the performances – from Bale, obviously, plus Michael Ironside and Jennifer Jason Leigh – makes The Machinist essential viewing.

1. Sideways

When we looked back at the underappreciated movies of 2003, it was a film strengthened by a Paul Giamatti performance – American Splendor – that came out on top. And he’s back at the top of the pile again in arguably his best film to date: Alexander Payne’s Sideways.

Sideways did enjoy some success – it nabbed an Oscar for Payne and Jim Taylor’s screenplay – but there’s still a feeling that it’s not enjoyed anything like the recognition and attention it deserves.

Giamatti stars as Miles, who heads out on a wine-tasting roadtrip with the soon to be married Jack (played by Thomas Haden Church, in his best role so far). On their travels, they cross paths with Sandra Oh’s Stephanie and Virginia Madsen’s Maya. And each of these characters contributes much to what makes Sideways so special.

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But the key moments all belong to Giamatti. His character is funny yet lonely, passionate about wine yet depressed. And there’s a moment in the film that breaks our heart every single time, where he’s sat with Madsen’s Maya describing his love of Pinot. Said explanation opens his soul, and is delivered quite brilliantly by Giamatti. It’s the standout moment in a film that has no shortage of wonderful parts to celebrate.

Very funny in places, and incredibly human throughout, Sideways is warm, wonderful, witty yet deep cinema. It’s also, in our humble opinion, one of the very best films of the decade. 

See also:

The top 25 underappreciated films of 2000

The top 25 underappreciated films of 2001

The top 30 underappreciated films of 2002

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The top 25 underappreciated films of 2003

The 250 underappreciated films of the 1990s

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