Looking back at start of the century, it seems the ’00s will be remembered for the start of the influx and glut of sequels and franchise films. It was the decade when many thought Hollywood finally abandoned originality altogether. Yet, take a closer look and you’ll see there were a massive number of incredible films out there. While the internet gave film fans a voice and let them spread the word about many smaller pictures, there were still those films that flew under the radar.
The word “underrated” is a broad church in this context – it encompasses small films which not many people may have seen, big-budget studio pictures that have been judged more kindly with time, and critically well-regarded movies which you and I may love, but sadly remain unknown to most of the mainstream audience.
With that in mind, and with the caveat that the films must be English language and released between 2000-2009, take a look at the 51 underrated movies we’ve chosen below, and feel free to suggest more in the comments section.
53. The Escapist (2008)
The Escapist is tense Brit prison-set thriller that was the breakout feature of Rupert Wyatt, who went on to make Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Brian Cox plays lifer Frank Perry, who, with a team of fellow inmates, plans an elaborate escape in order to get home to see his dying daughter. The plan is ingenious but the arrival of a new cellmate for Perry causes problems and complications which threaten to turn violent. Twisty and satisfying, the movie will keep you on the edge of your seat. Overlooked unfairly because of it’s relatively small scale, set mostly in tunnels underneath London, it also boasts a terrific supporting cast including Dominic Cooper, Damien Lewis, and Joseph Fiennes.
52. Son of Rambow (2007)
Sweet nostalgic ’80s-set tale of two kids — one from a strict religious background — who bond over forbidden VHS action movies and attempt to make their own lo-fi movie inspired by First Blood. Bill Milner and Will Poulter star in this British rite-of-passage comedy directed by Garth Jennings (who made The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, and more recently directed animation Sing). Properly heartwarming, it’s a love/hate letter to the stresses of being a kid in Thatcher’s Britain, with overbearing families and schoolyard bullying overcome by friendship.
51. Ghost World (2001)
Thora Birch and a young Scarlett Johansson star in this funny, biting coming of age story based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. Bored misfits in a small town, the two girls play a prank on lonely single man Seymour (Steve Buscemi) pretending to be a woman he met and inviting him on a date to be stood up. But Birch’s awkward Enid feels sorry for him and tries to help his love life. Far from a cute romance, this is an off beat look at outsiders growing up and a friendship growing apart. Insightful, funny, and cool – but sort of sad, too.
50. Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Zathura is criminally unseen semi-sequel to Jumanji, directed by one Jon Favreau. Loosely following the same plot of a board game which magically comes to life, but this time setting the action in space, it’s the wonderful practical effects which truly mark Zathura as something special. Whether it’s robots or aliens, Zathura creates a believable fantasy world for its young actors (including Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart) and correspondingly the audience at home.
An undeserved failure at the box-office, we can thank Zathura for one thing – turning Favreau into a director with real blockbuster potential. He’d go on to make Iron Man in 2008.
49. Watchmen (2009)
Has there ever been a more slavish attempt to perfectly recreate a work of comic book fiction? I really don’t think so, and for all its faults, Watchmen is a work of dizzying spectacle and craftsmanship, and proved that director Zack Snyder deserved his place at the top table in Hollywood. While a near note-perfect adaptation of the seminal comic, Watchmen falls down when it veers away from the source material – the ending is muddled and nowhere near as iconic as the trans-dimensional squid, while Matthew Goode, as much as I love him, is totally off in his portrayal of Adrian Veidt. But the rest of the cast absolutely nails it (especially Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan). What was once considered an unfilmable comic is now something which at times is extraordinary.
48. Wolf Creek (2008)
A vicious little horror film from 2008, Wolf Creek gained a fearsome and deserved reputation, and provided a nice antidote to somewhat stale franchise offerings. Horror is a genre which constantly reinvents itself, but can often do so by going right back to basics – and Wolf Creek certainly does that. Tracing the misfortunes of three backpackers in the outback of Australia, the film has a minimal cast, a terrifying sense of isolation, one of the most depraved and sadistic – yet believable – antagonists in horror in recent years, and some excellent practical effects. Wolf Creek is a smart and violent film which sticks with you long after the credits have rolled, and makes you think twice about driving off into the unknown.
47. Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World
While I often regard it as the ultimate “Dad” film (go on, who hasn’t at some point given a copy of this movie to their father for a birthday present?), it’s easy to forget just how masterful (excuse the pun) this film is. It’s not just a thrilling boy’s own adventure of chasing a French ship across the world during the Napoleonic Wars, but a brilliant character study and look into human nature and the depths of true friendship. It is this combination of the epic and the personal that makes Master & Commander a film to treasure and re-watch, rather than write off as just another empty spectacle. Russell Crowe turns in one of his great performances as Captain Aubrey, while Paul Bettany was born to play the role of Dr. Maturin, the exasperated ship’s doctor.
46. 13 Going on 30 (2004)
Much more than just another rom-com, 13 Going on 30 is that rarest of films – a sentimental love story which is full of smarts and is genuinely funny, too. Jennifer Garner plays Jenna, who at the beginning of the film is an unpopular teenager with a geeky friend named Matty. After being humiliated at her birthday party, Jenna wishes she could wake up in the future as a 30-year-old.
Wish granted, she finds that her life has become everything she didn’t want it to be. Luckily, she tracks down the adult Matty, a dashing Mark Ruffalo, and begins to right wrongs. Capturing the same sense of fun as Big, 13 Going on 30 knows that, as a light-hearted fantasy film, it’s not going to change the world, but it can certainly entertain. The key to this is Garner and Ruffalo’s pairing. The easy chemistry between these two makes the film a pleasure to watch. Ruffalo, in particular, oozes charm and makes the movie worth watching, but the constantly amusing and clever script helps too and allows you to get swept up by the magic of movies.
45. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Developed at the tail end of the Disney renaissance (the period between The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, when Disney’s hand-drawn animation had reached critical and commercial success), Atlantis was harshly judged due to a post “fall of the empire” malaise and the filmgoing public’s thirst for CG animation. What you’ll find on a later viewing, though, is a pulp adventure that captures the spirit of pioneering adventure, and sees Disney venturing into sci-fi territory and taking visual influence from comic star Mike Mignola. With the initial story written by Joss Whedon, Atlantis is the tale of a 1914 expedition to find the lost continent and features no songs and a more adult-orientated direction. It’s easy to see why it failed upon release, but it’s a rewarding find over ten years later.
44. Eagle vs. Shark (2007)
Much of the audience (which wasn’t very big anyway) went into this film expecting a fun blast of surreal Flight of the Conchords-style comedy. And why wouldn’t they? Directed by Conchords alumni Taika Waititi and starring Jemaine Clement, it was sold on that basis. But what they got was something much more subtle, weird, and difficult to watch – and unfortunately not as well received.
Written by and starring Loren Horsley as Lily, it tells the story of the awkward relationship between her and Jarrod, another social misfit. Returning to Jarrod’s hometown in order to watch him get even with a school bully from decades past, it’s an at times painfully honest (and funny) look at small-town life, as well as love in all its different forms. Worth it for the computer party and fight scenes alone.
43. My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Hopes were certainly high for Hong Kong-based auteur Wong Kar Wai’s English language debut, but for many, it fell somewhat short of what they were expecting – a lesser retread of his earlier Chungking Express but filtered through the lens of a strange Americana. Oh, and with added Jude Law doing the world’s worst Mancunian accent. But set apart from the context of Wong Kar Wai’s admittedly towering other work, My Blueberry Nights is a beautiful film, both in aesthetics and message.
Norah Jones is a revelation in her debut acting role, and the rest of the cast serves up beautiful treats along the way, especially Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman. Playing out in a series of dramatic vignettes tracing Jones’ journey across America, we learn that time heals all and home is where the heart is. A stunning, but ultimately slight, paean to relationships.
42. Open Water (2003)
Based on true events, Open Water is a supremely effective horror film about a couple accidentally left behind on a deep water scuba diving trip. Shot entirely on digital with a brilliant minimalist aesthetic, the film details the chilling simplicity with which the error is made, and how, by not engaging with other people, it’s fatally compounded. The use of real sharks also serves to bring a raw terror often lacking in other films of this ilk, but the real genius is the actual physical effect it has on the audience. Open Water is so horrifying because it could easily happen to anyone and that nagging fear of being left behind is taken to its grim reality. The main characters’ anxiety, mounting dread, and doubt of rescue is reflected in the audience, who are all silently thinking, “That could be me…”
41. Blades of Glory (2007)
After the success of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, it seemed that The New Frat Pack just got together and decided to make comedies about any sport they drew out of a hat – resulting in some good (Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) and some never to be spoken of again (Semi-Pro). Best of the bunch, though, was Blades of Glory, a film which I will end up watching whenever it’s on TV despite owning it on disc – a sure sign of a comedy classic. Will Ferrell and Jon Heder (in his best non-Napoleon Dynamite role) are rival male figure skaters forced to partner up in order to be allowed to skate again.
It’s often silly, but always laugh out loud funny, and like the best of the Frat Pack comedies, it works best when ignoring any semblance of plot and just letting the leads bounce off each other (often literally). Elevating it further than the also-rans is the incredible supporting cast, of whom Will Arnett and Amy Poehler stand out as evil brother and sister skaters who are a little too close for comfort.
40. The Number 23 (2007)
Whatever your opinion of Jim Carrey, you can never accuse him of taking the safe option. He’s always willing to broaden his comedic roles and take dramatic risks, and sometimes they pay off in spectacular fashion, such as his turns in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Less heralded, but still intriguing and worth seeking out, is his first attempt at a thriller, playing a man who becomes obsessed with a very personal conspiracy regarding the number 23 and past crimes coming back to haunt him.
Overblown and unwieldy it may be, but this is Joel Schumacher guilty pleasure cinema at its best. As long as you don’t take the film seriously as a dark thriller in the same vein as something like Se7en, I guarantee you’ll have a blast with it. Piecing together the ludicrous mystery is half the fun and working out just how it all fits in is a melodramatic delight.
39. Me Without You (2001)
Me Without You is essentially an anti chick-flick. Telling the decades long story of the intense friendship between Holly (Michelle Williams) and Marina (Anna Friel), it’s a warts-and-all portrayal of what can happen when two people become dependent on each other to the point of unhealthiness. Not always pretty, but often painfully truthful, Me Without You is the type of film which touches a nerve and remains with you for the rest of your life. The film excels at not always trying to make the two leads likable or selling the over-arching love story as something written in the stars. Instead, like the rest of the film and its characters, it’s unvarnished, and all the better for it.
38. Whip It (2009)
Drew Barrymore’s debut feature is exactly the kind of film you’d expect her to make – a stylish character piece with a killer soundtrack. Based on the underground but definitely hipsterish female sport of Roller Derby, Whip It is at once a charming coming of age tale and an unconventional underdog sports movie. Ellen Page is as charming as ever as Bliss Cavendish, a small town American teenager forced into beauty pageants who finds her true calling in Roller Derby. Full of clichés but hopelessly charming and enjoyable with it, Whip It is decidedly old-fashioned even if it plays with some modern fashionable trends.
37. The Prestige (2006)
Okay, I’m going to say it – The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s best film. Not my favorite, or his most enjoyable, but in execution definitely his most accomplished. The flaws apparent in his post-Prestige work (woolly plotting, the visuals not quite matching the ideas) are all dealt with here. Based on Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name, Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play magicians in Victorian times whose intense rivalry destroys both of their lives. The Nolan brothers made significant changes to the book, all for the better in my mind, resulting in a clever and lean piece of filmmaking with a neat trick ending. This was the film which really sold me on Jackman as a bonafide acting talent, and the addition of Bowie as Nikola Tesla is a masterstroke.
36. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
I’ve never been able to quite understand why A Series of Unfortunate Events didn’t explode in the way it should have. Taking its cues from Daniel Handler’s brilliant books, the film version is a subversive treat which doesn’t talk down to kids and makes no concessions to adults either. This is a film which proclaims that it’s us versus them. Taking the best bits of Tim Burton and filtering them through a child’s point of view, A Series of Unfortunate Events tells the tale of the Baudelaire orphans and their attempts to escape the villainous clutches of their uncle, Count Olaf.
Jim Carrey puts in a great performance as Olaf, turning the book’s more restrained villain into a pantomime threat, but one that is totally right for the film. His job is not to fade into the background, even as he tries to hide, but instead be the focus of dastardly behavior and a flashpoint for kids to rally against. Perhaps it was the weird non-conformist tone that led to this sadly being the only film made so far. Perhaps the adults who pay for the tickets simply felt out of the loop here.
35. The Rules of Attraction (2002)
From a mischievous and witty family film to Dawson’s sweaty, grunting sex face. Hello, Rules of Attraction. Based on Brett Easton Ellis’ novel, The Rules of Attraction is wickedly funny, as well as expertly directed by Roger Avary. Charting the year of wealthy Americans at college, we see the parties, the drugs, the hook-ups, and the desperation. While on the surface it seems nothing but good times, like all of Ellis’ best work, it bites deep at the truth of wasted rich youth.
Every character is despicable in his or her behavior, but special credit must go to James Van Der Beek’s sociopathic portrayal of Sean Bateman (brother of Patrick) and Shannyn Sossamon’s blankness as lust-object and serial fantasist Lauren Hynde. Here’s a film of razor-sharp lines and inventive visual tricks.
34. Friday Night Lights (2004)
While the TV series of the same name has rightly gone on to be regarded as one of the most acclaimed shows of the last ten years, it is easy to forget that its journey to the small screen started here, with Peter Berg’s superb adaptation of HG Bissinger’s non-fiction book of the same name. Following the true story of the Permian Panthers’ 1988 season and their run to the state championship, the themes prevalent in the later series are magnified here in theatrical form: the pressures of being the stars in a small town, the dreams of making it to the big time, and the ever-present fear of injury bringing it all crashing down to Earth.
While Billy Bob Thornton puts in a powerhouse performance as Coach Gaines, it’s Garrett Hedlund who proves the real star as fullback Don Billingsley, a boy struggling with his abusive father, a former high school star himself. While the themes here would be explored at length in the series, and to obviously greater effect, there’s no denying the condensed power of the movie, which stands head and shoulders above pretty much any other high school sports film.
33. Treasure Planet (2002)
Yep, it may be another Disney sci-fi animation (they really went hard on those in the early 00s…), but once again it’s a criminally overlooked flick from the House of Mouse, who at this time was under attack not just from Pixar, but from DreamWorks and Blue Sky Studios, too. Disney responded with a daring take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, relocated to outer space.
Doing away with the usual conventions of the genre, and making sci-fi seem warm and family friendly, the film was brought to life by voice talents such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jim and Brian Murray as Jon Silver. Like the best of modern animation, Treasure Planet excels in both heart and edge-of-the-seat action sequences, while also telling the heart-warming story of a young boy without a father bonding with a murderous space pirate cyborg.
32. The Wackness (2008)
Confirming his status as one of America’s most versatile and exciting directors, Jonathan Levine followed up his brilliant slasher movie All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (which just missed out on this list) with something completely different – an early ’90s-set coming of age story involving teenager Luke (Josh Peck) dealing marijuana to psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) in return for therapy. What follows is the type of film that really gets under your skin, as their relationship grows and encompasses Dr. Squires’ failing marriage, Luke falling in love with Squires’ daughter, and his troubled home life. The Wackness touches so many emotions you’ve felt yourself, but filtered through the lens of film.
31. One Night at McCool’s (2001)
This one’s a fun, fast, and funny piece of crime comedy that uses a Rashomon style of intercutting stories from different perspectives to create several versions of meeting and being fooled by Liv Tyler’s femme fatale. Matt Dillon, John Goodman, and Paul Reiser unite to play a trio of ultimately loveable if not always likable losers, and the film plays out with style and panache, though it ultimately feels a bit hollow. But then again, you’re not here for the in-depth characterization.
30. Solaris (2002)
Taking on an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s masterpiece sci-fi novel of the same name was never going to be easy, even with a near four-hour-long 1972 Soviet cinema classic by Andrei Tarkovsky already in existence. But director Steven Soderbergh was never a filmmaker to aim low, and with this effort, he created something which many found hard to love, but if you took the time, his Solaris revealed itself as a work of powerful emotion.
George Clooney plays Dr. Chris Kelvin, sent to a space station orbiting the living planet Solaris to investigate strange disturbances plaguing the crew. It turns out the planet is reading their minds and trying to communicate with them by reconstructing the most powerful images in their heads. In the case of Kelvin, it is his recently deceased wife, who, as flashbacks reveal, had committed suicide years earlier. Despite showcasing some of the most spectacular sci-fi visuals ever put on screen, at its heart, Solaris is a film about loss, regret, and what you would do with a second chance, but presented in a robustly cerebral manner.
29. Reign of Fire (2002)
Definitely non-cerebral is this post-apocalyptic man versus dragon adventure film, which consistently manages to be equally awesome and awful throughout its runtime. Notable for allowing method actor Christian Bale the chance to use his actual accent (which sounds a bit silly), it pairs him up with beefcake Matthew McConaughey to destroy the reawakened dragons once and for all. I applaud any film that gives its two leads the character names Quinn Abercromby and Denton Van Zan. Oh, and also wants to demonstrate how macho McConaughey is by having him ride around on the barrel of a tank cannon (hint: it symbolizes his penis). It’s not all cringy cheesiness, though. The dragon-fighting action is actually pretty well done and it rises above other B-movies through a great concept matched by its great cast. Who doesn’t want to see dragons fighting apache helicopters?
28. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
I’m going to cheat a bit here and put Kingdom in based on its director’s cut. While the theatrical cut was a beautiful looking mess of a film, the director’s cut adds in another 45 minutes of material and transforms the entire experience. Adding in vital details such as Michael Sheen’s priest and Orlando Bloom’s blacksmith being brothers, the reveal of Bloom’s military past (clearing up how he can plan for a siege) and explaining the tragic death of Eva Green’s child (rather than having her just go mad halfway through the film for no reason), the entire epic scope of the end of Christendom and the decline of the Crusades is laid out. While suffering from Bloom’s weird empty vacuum at the center of the film, it is still the best medieval film ever made.
27. Murderball (2005)
There was a reason why wheelchair rugby sold out the quickest during the 2012 London Paralympics and why their players are known as the rock stars of the games. That reason is this incredible documentary charting the rivalry between the Canadian and the US squads in the lead-up to the 2004 Paralympics.
Completely redefining and blowing apart people’s preconceptions about disability and its limitations, Murderball is as furious as its title suggests, with the action as intense off the pitch as it is on it. With frank discussions about their injuries, sex lives, families, and personal lives, this is a documentary that proves the form is every bit as compelling as fictional narratives – and many times more enlightening and rewarding.
26. Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Charlie Kaufman certainly influenced cinema in the ’00s – his brand of metaphysical fantasy seeped through into several films, of which Stranger Than Fiction is probably the best. Known chiefly for starring Will Ferrell in a “dramatic” role, Stranger Than Fiction is far more than its premise – that of Ferrell’s Harold Crick beginning to hear a voice in his head narrating his life to him as he lives and discovering he is a character in a book. While having fun with its setup, the film takes the smarter route of focusing on the characters, and in particular Crick’s burgeoning love of life and relationship with Ana (a perfect and quirky Maggie Gyllenhaal), as well as novelist Karen Eiffel’s (Emma Thompson) struggle to balance her art with the fact she may have written many people’s deaths. Well worth spending the time with.
25. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
For those who have yet to see this, make sure you sort that out as soon as you can. Far more than just a silly parody trying to cash in on the musical biopic, Walk Hard skewers every sanctimonious cliché with impeccable aim and delivers on the laughs in a big way. It’s one of the endlessly quotable comedies, with many people having a different favorite scene. For me, it’s hard to choose between his Dylan rip-off and the irreverent Beatles sequence (with an uncredited Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman, Jack Black, and Justin Long as the Fab Four). Walk Hard succeeds chiefly because, despite its high gag hit rate, it’s not played for laughs and instead filmed as if it’s deadly serious Oscar bait. Telling of just how much it has succeeded is the lack of a successful music biopic since.
24. Morvern Callar (2002)
A stylish and gloomily introspective piece of work that expresses the pain of grief and loss in a powerful an intriguing way. Morvern Callar wakes on Christmas Day to find her boyfriend has committed suicide. Taking his leftover money as well as an unpublished book he wrote, she travels to Spain with her best friend to both lose and find herself – and pass off the book as her own work. Perfectly soundtracked in the form of a mix-tape her boyfriend left behind, Morvern Callar engages the viewer not just through the words spoken but by the music, the unspoken actions, and the visuals, creating a lasting impression of a seemingly inarticulate woman given full voice to her grief but not able to express it. Proving herself once again a skilled adapter of a novel, Morvern Callar is further evidence of Lynne Ramsay’s status as one of the UK’s leading directors.
23. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
If every praised director has an underrated classic, then this is most certainly Paul Thomas Anderson’s. PTA unleashes Adam Sandler’s acting talent, and in a dramatic role, too. Playing Barry, a social misfit with anger issues, Sandler is a revelation in the lead role. Opposite him is Emily Watson as Lena, a girl almost as odd as Barry. Charting the pair’s quirky relationship, the film takes in a beautifully shot trip to Hawaii, and a sub-plot about a sex-line exhortation racket run by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a delightful film, and truthfully like nothing else the director has ever made.
22. Australia (2008)
If ever a film was released at the wrong time, then it was this one. An old-fashioned epic that would have been a jewel of the 1940s, instead Australia was lambasted as unoriginal and overwrought. But give it a second chance and the film is incredibly rewarding. A technically brilliant piece of filmmaking, it laments the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” days of filmmaking. Steering clear of his more postmodern flourishes (which he gets out of the way within the first half hour), Baz Luhrmann quickly settles into telling a spectacular tale of steering cattle across the continent, with a little thing called World War II getting in the way.
Hugh Jackman proves himself a movie star with his turn as the rough and ready Drover, while Nicole Kidman complements him perfectly as Lady Ashley. Falling in love over their epic trip, and faced with impossible odds, it’s melodrama in the best tradition, coupled with some stand-out sequences. I defy anyone to name a more intense war scene than the Japanese bombing of Darwin that Luhrmann recreates. Go into Australia with an open mind and let yourself be transported back to an idealized time when Hollywood produced towering spectacle.
21. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Taking on the rotoscoped animation process he first used in Waking Life, Richard Linklater applied it to Philip K. Dick’s most personal novel, A Scanner Darkly, and made the most faithful and arguably successful adaptation yet of one of Dick’s books. In a tale of rampant drug addiction in the future and high-tech surveillance, the animation technique works perfectly, allowing ideas such as the scramble suit to really come to life, as well as some of its more outlandish hallucinations.
The casting is pitch perfect, and while it may be a little unfair to say Keanu Reeves is great as an undercover cop so strung out he’s lost his personality, the actor sells the desperation and heartbreak well. Providing comedic back-up of the dark kind is Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and the brilliant Rory Cochrane.
20. Quantum of Solace (2008)
Does Daniel Craig’s second outing as Bond really deserve the bad press it received upon release? I don’t think so (although some here at Den Of Geek really can’t stand it). Considering the production problems that beset it (namely the writer’s strike), it’s a miracle that we even got a film, let alone something as enjoyable as Quantum. Suffering due to the long shadow cast by Casino Royale, Quantum is actually a rarity to be treasured – Bond as serialized storytelling.
Wounded and betrayed after the events of Casino, it’s a revenge film at its core, and as fellow Den Of Geek writer Duncan Bowles eloquently summed up, “It’s basically Bond going ape-shit for an hour and a half.” This is the progression of Bond from rookie agent to cold-blooded super spy and Craig sells it perfectly. It might take more time, but Quantum will be better regarded in years to come. Possibly.
19. 25th Hour (2002)
Seemingly forgotten about in the 10 years since its release, 25th Hour is not only one of the best performances of Edward Norton’s career, but one of the best films of Spike Lee’s. Norton is Monty, a former drug-dealer in New York who has one last day of freedom before he’s sent to prison. The film takes in a whole range of themes: the nature of friendship, trust, and mistakes; New York in the post 9/11 landscape; as well as condensing a difficult father-son relationship into what matters most – regret at missed chances and an ultimate love for one another. It’s the pain and rage from Norton that ultimately gives way to what he loves the most, the city and those in it, which equals his freedom.
18. Manic (2001)
A great ensemble cast elevates this film above merely accomplished to verging on brilliant. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lyle, who’s sent to a teenage mental institution after beating a kid who made fun of him with a baseball bat. Thinking he doesn’t belong among the other inmates, who include Zooey Deschanel and Michael Bacall, it is only through sessions with Don Cheadle’s Dr. Monroe that he learns he may be as dysfunctional as everyone suggests. It’s a sublime experience watching all these actors at the very top of their game, with not a bad performance to be found.
17. Stardust (2007)
A modern-day Princess Bride,Stardust has the potential to be a fantasy classic for the ages, and to be talked about fondly by future generations of movie fans, much like the classic Rob Reiner ’80s film. Like that film, Stardust was adapted from a book, in this case, Neil Gaiman’s dark fairytale. Made considerably lighter, the film charts the progress of Tristan (Charlie Cox), who must cross over to the magical kingdom of Stormhold to find and bring back a fallen star in order to prove his love for the spoiled Victoria (Sienna Miller). Except it turns out that the star is an actual living being, named Yvaine and played by the incredible Claire Danes. Stardust is captivating, exciting, adventurous, funny when needed – and yes, magical.
16. The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont and Stephen King – it’s been a pretty successful partnership. Proving that he knows how to adapt King’s work, no matter what the genre, Darabont gave us this fantastic sci-fi horror about a group of townsfolk trapped in a supermarket by an otherworldly mist and attacked by fearsome creatures. While the monsters provide the narrative thrust and some great horror scares and thrills, the film’s greatest strength is in its examination of human interactions and how people react to pressure, tension, and terror. Watching the townsfolk tear each other apart lays bare just how far our “humanity” stretches, and the incredible bleakness right through the film is a refreshing change from the majority of films that tell you everything is going to be all right in the end.
15. Zodiac (2007)
Before I would have said this was the best procedural film of the 21st century. A visual piece of dramatic journalism, Zodiac traces the unsolved case of the Zodiac killer, who murdered several people in the San Francisco Bay area in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Action scenes are few, but the film is all about the compulsion to solve a puzzle rather than solving the puzzle itself, all told through its three powerhouse leads, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. Painstakingly researched and written, the film is all about little details, the patience, persistence, and perseverance required to see an investigation through, and the knowledge that no matter how close you may get, you still might never sate your obsession.
14. Grindhouse (2007)
Unhelpfully split up into its two separate components, Planet Terror and Death Proof, Grindhouse was shorn of much of its purpose and regarded as two misfiring and even misguided movies. However, when you actually watch it as the double-feature it was intended to be, complete with fake trailers, it’s an absolute blast, soaked with nostalgic nods to the past. While Death Proof may be a little slow, it still has some vintage Tarantino dialogue and action in it, while Planet Terror is all kinds of crazy. For those willing to make the effort and get a bunch of friends over, Grindhouse is some of best cinematic fun you can have.
13. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
With a career stuffed full of classics, it’s always inevitable that one or two of the Coen Brothers films were going to slip through the net. It’s just such a shame one of them had to be The Man Who Wasn’t There. A dark, dark neo-noir shot in black and white, The Man Who Wasn’t There has the type of multifaceted dense plotting that Coen fans will love, as well as the black humor and unhappy yet perfect resolutions that the Coens themselves seem to prefer. Billy Bob Thornton plays the taciturn Ed Crane, a small-time barber going nowhere who gradually becomes involved in blackmail, murder, UFO conspiracies, and dry cleaning schemes. To say anymore would require far more words than I have here and ruin the fun of watching how it unfolds.
12. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Whatever you expected of George Clooney’s directorial debut, it probably wasn’t this. Penned by Charlie Kaufman, the film is based on ’60s and ’70s game show host and producer Chuck Barris’ amazing claims that he was, in fact, a CIA assassin throughout these decades. An amazingly odd claim like that is matched by this equally odd movie, which marries pop sensibilities of the ’60s and ’70s with brooding Cold War era spy-scapes, and makes them both work to enhance an already gorgeously shot film. The casting of Sam Rockwell as Chuck Barris is inspired, with Rockwell giving a performance which is in turns magnetic, unhinged and ultimately believable despite the incredible claims.
11. Inland Empire (2006)
David Lynch’s follow-up to the sublime Mulholland Drive never quite managed the same cultural and mainstream crossover, perhaps because people were still working out what the hell the previous movie was all about. Which is a shame, as Inland Empire deserves far more than to be a curiosity in Lynch’s filmography. A mind-bending and woozy trip into both the mind and alternate realities, Inland Empire plays with chronology, dramatic tone, and style, mixing anything up it sees fit.
Loosely revolving around the comeback of an actress and the filming of her new film, like all of Lynch’s best work, this is as much a riddle to be solved as a piece of entertainment to enjoy. And there’s a lot of puzzle-solving to be done here, involving Polish fairy-tales, people trafficking, infidelity, and narrative deconstruction. It’s seductive, impenetrable, and mysterious, and will keep you coming back for more.
10. Sunshine (2007)
Believe it or not, there was a time not that long ago when Danny Boyle wasn’t the Academy Award-winning director. Between 2002’s 28 Days Later and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, he slipped off the mainstream radar a bit, but happened to release arguably two of his best films – Millions and Sunshine. With Sunshine, he created a sci-fi classic which proved he was a master of pretty much any genre he tried his hand at, and a compelling and talented storyteller.
Set in 2057, the sun is dying and Earth has launched one last mission to reignite it. Mixing sci-fi, horror, and good old-fashioned human drama along with moral and philosophical questions, Sunshine makes great use of its self-contained spaceship locations, as well as its brilliant cast, with enthralling turns from Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, and Chris Evans, who proved here he had the acting chops to become the leading man he now is. Science advice on this film came from the marvelous Professor Brian Cox, while Mark Strong’s insane Pinbacker is a reference to Dark Star’s Sgt Pinback.
9. The Fall (2006)
Sometimes a movie comes along which is so beautiful it takes your breath away and makes you realize that, first and foremost, film is a visual medium. The Fall is one such movie. Directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Lee Pace, the plot of The Fall is very simple. Set in Los Angeles, 1915, Pace is a movie stuntman crippled while trying to impress a woman with an audacious horse jump from a bridge. While there, he befriends a young Romanian girl, Alexandria, and tells her an amazing fantasy story which is brought to life through the girl’s imagination. It is these imaginative leaps which take The Fall into spectacular territory and rival any fantasy world ever put on screen, especially when you realize most of it was shot in real-world locations.
Filmed over four years and visiting over 20 countries (including India, Namibia, Italy, and Indonesia), it’s like the best looking travelogue you’ve ever seen. Taking the film to another level, though, is the relationship between Pace and six-year-old Cantinca Untaru, whose conversations are largely improvised, lending the film a naturalistic air which perfectly complements the amazing flights of fancy.
8. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix was a genre-redefining classic that took on the first new Star Wars film in 15 years and won. It literally couldn’t have had a bigger cultural and commercial impact. So kudos to the Wachowskis for following their beliefs and making a sequel that was not just more of the same, but a film which went as deep into rabbit-hole as they could and expanded the first movie’s philosophical concepts to extraordinary levels.
The simple distinction between real and not-real presented in the first film is revealed to have been an illusion, as the Wachowskis get down to exploring ideas about freedom of choice, as well as the power of belief, and enabling us to define the difference (if any) between fate and causality. On top of all that, Reloaded is also full of incredible action sequences and effects which set the tone for the whole decade – with the freeway chase and the burly brawl being stand-out efforts. Perhaps crushed by the weight of expectation and audience disappointment that it wasn’t a clone of the first film, The Matrix Reloadedis an immensely rewarding return to and expansion of The Matrix.
7. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
A quick-fire, hilarious pulp crime film from Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang cemented his reputation as a master of dialogue and re-established lead Robert Downey Jr. as a truly formidable acting talent. Oh, and it’s easily Val Kilmer’s best ever performance, too. Knowingly self-aware, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tells how Downey Jr’s Harry gets mixed up in Hollywood murders, receiving assistance from Perry van Shrike (Kilmer). An absolute blast, you cannot fail to have fun while watching the film, as the leads bounce off each other with a joyful and easy chemistry only heightened by Black’s excellent scripting. Both director and lead are clearly reveling working with each other.
6. A History of Violence (2005)
If someone asked me if there was a completely flawless film, I’d probably suggest this one. I simply can’t think of anything wrong with David Cronenberg’s powerful and punchy adaptation of John Wagner and John Locke’s 1997 graphic novel of the same name. Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, a small town restaurant owner who becomes a local celebrity after killing two robbers who threatened the life of one of his waitresses. The way he so easily killed them attracts the attention of Ed Harris’ gangster Carl Fogarty, who alleges that Tom is really Joey Cusack, a mobster hitman.
What follows is a narrative so precise and controlled that it makes you want to stand up and applaud. Mortensen sells both his role as family man and potentially violent criminal, and the film doesn’t withhold any mystery unnecessarily, revealing the truth exactly when needed to for dramatic effect. It’s a film that makes you earn its beats and payoffs, while also getting you to reflect on just how violence makes you feel – both exhilarated and appalled at the same time.
5. Open Range (2002)
Often cited as Kevin Costner’s comeback film, Open Range reminded us of just what a powerful director and screen talent the man could be, harking back to his ’90s heyday. Returning to his Western roots, Costner served up a classic slice of gunslinging that not only remained true to the best conventions of the genre (the vistas, the shoot-out finale, the taciturn hero) but recognized the post-Unforgiven changes, too.
There’s acknowledgment of the brutality of life and the price of violence, the effect of the Civil War, the advance of modernity, and the approach of the 20th century. But none of that gets in the way of a rousing story of two open range cattle herders going up against a powerful and corrupt businessman, rescuing a town in the process. Absolutely splendid stuff and a cracking performance from Robert Duvall, too.
4. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
So, how exactly do you explain Bubba Ho-Tep to the uninitiated? An old Elvis (played by Bruce Campbell), who faked his own death, now lives in an old people’s home, where he must team up with a black JFK to fight an ancient Egyptian Mummy. If that doesn’t make you want to watch it, then you’re dead to me.
From legendary director Don Coscarelli, this is a film that is both a comedy horror classic and a surprisingly moving rumination on growing old and the perils of fame. It is Campbell’s turn as the King which makes this a must-see, and it’s easily the best screen interpretation of Presley to date, as not only does he nail the clichés and mannerisms you’d expect, but he also humanizes a man more myth than reality these days.
3. Speed Racer (2008)
Initially panned on release and a box office bomb, Speed Racer is finally being recognized as a game-changing film which redefined and reconceptualized the film form as we know it. Kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing, the visuals, editing, and pace of the film are perfectly in line with 21st-century aesthetics and the way a new generation of film fans see the world. An adaptation of the 1960s anime, Speed Racer is pure and simple at its heart – Speed Racer loves to race and must keep winning in order to keep racing.
Many critics felt alienated by it, dismissing it as pretty but vacant and of limited appeal. What they failed to recognize at the time was that Speed Racer was a glimpse into the future of cinema, and showcasing a new way of telling stories to a generation of gamers. If you’ve never seen it, or watched it once and hated it, I implore you to try again – this will be an important film in years to come.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Criminally ignored upon its release, The Assassination of Jesse James is an almost perfect film. Charting the months leading up to his death at the hands of Robert Ford, this is a genre-redefining Western, with a solemn pace and quiet power which makes it unforgettable.
While the plaudits may have gone to Casey Affleck in the role of Robert Ford – and he is incredible – it’s Brad Pitt who really deserved the acclaim. His turn as Jesse James is at once central and removed from the action. He sets the mood of unhinged paranoia which the movie lives and breathes, portraying stillness, regret, and violent anger in one of the most notorious outlaws in American history.
Director Andrew Dominik draws brilliant performances from his talented cast, with Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, and Mary Louise Parker, in particular, standing out. He also benefits from his collaborators. The always magnificent Roger Deakins provides a defining take on the modern Western, and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is a high point for modern film soundtracks.
1. The Fountain
Flawed? Certainly. Inspirational? Definitely. Set across three different time periods, the film tells the interconnected stories of a conquistador trying to find the Tree of Life and save the Queen of Spain from the Inquisition, a modern-day scientist trying to find a cure for cancer, and a space-traveler dreaming of his lost love as he hurtles toward a nebula.
The Fountain is simply astonishing, an epic romance across the ages which takes in elements of sci-fi, fantasy, historical swashbuckler, and religion, and blends them with acceptance of death as a part of life, while all the time pushing an incredible and moving love story.The Fountain feels like director Darren Aronofsky’s most personal film, and that passion shows on screen.
While it doesn’t always work (it’s at times a bit too earnest and unfocused, perhaps, and the reduced budget from the original version limits Arofonsky’s ability to truly fulfill his ambitions), The Fountain is at times a truly transcendental triumph which speaks to us all, helped by the stunning camera work and macro-effects, as well as Clint Mansell’s finest score (yep, even better than Moon).
Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz bring towering central performances to this meditation on losing someone you love, and the peace and acceptance you can find in the aftermath. Let The Fountain wash over you and you will be swept away.