Underrated and underappreciated, you won't find any blockbuster remakes here
Everybody has their favourite films; films they regard as classics, worth repeat-watching, or even those worth seeing once but never again.
But what about those films that go under the radar, caught up in internal politics with respect to the production and distribution companies, perhaps mismarketed, or perhaps just the debut title of an upcoming filmmaker who has yet to have the full backing of a major-league studio?
Indeed, there are a number of high profile directors who hit the list with their debut offerings – making up almost half of the entries – back when they weren’t known for a half-billion-dollar-earning Marvel threequel, or a couple of Tom Cruise blockbusters, or, erm, The A-Team.
Here we have a list of 15 modern films (taken from the past 20 years) that you may have heard of – may have even seen, and may even own on Blu-ray (although you’d have to be pretty dedicated to find some of them) – but, if not, are well worth investigating.
You may not realise that your favourite filmmakers are in here, some of your favourite stars, writers, and directors; producing sublime action, superior style, sharp scripts and underappreciated performances deserving of a chance beyond what it got in the often limited release arena.
15. SEXY BEAST
Beyond Gandhi, heavyweight actor Ben Kingsley should be remembered for at least one other striking performance: his angry-man gangster in filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s directorial debut. Kingsley’s venomous shouting-match with Ray Winstone’s retired thief makes for unforgettable viewing, but it’s only upon reflection that you realise – he just intimidated Ray Winstone. Whilst Glazer’s gone on to team up with the likes of Nicole Kidman and, most recently, Scarlett Johansson (in the polarising Under The Skin), he still hasn’t re-captured the underrated genius of this crime drama.
Watch this if you enjoyed: The Long Good Friday.
Remember David Mamet? No? Well he’s the guy who wrote The Untouchables, Ronin and Glengarry Glen Ross. Inimitable in terms of his snappy dialogue exchanges, once you recognise a Mamet script, you’ll spot the work a mile away. Taking his hand to writing and directing, he delivered one of Hackman’s last good movies, Heist, as well as Redbelt, an engaging MMA thriller starring Chiwetel “12 Years A Slave” Ejiofor. But back in 2004 he wrote and directed the limited-release political action-thriller Spartan, which not only features one of Val Kilmer’s last decent performances, but sports some of the best dialogue, tense action and mystery twists that you’ve never seen.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Ronin.
13. CRYING FREEMAN
Brotherhood of the Wolf should have really been on this list, but since it made the Top 50 we did recently, I figured that director Christophe Gans’ debut feature, Crying Freeman, deserved a mention instead. Although not French-language, it boasts a French flavour to its highly stylised adaptation of the original source manga. With arguably the best John Woo-style action – both sword and gun-related – of any title on this list, the film is also worth checking out for being one of the relatively rare lead vehicles for underrated martial artist Mark Dacascos who also went on to kick all kinds of ass in Gans’ next film.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Brotherhood of the Wolf."Don't teach 'em knife fighting. Teach 'em to kill. That way they meet someone who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to hell."12. JCVD
Before you dismiss the credibility of my entire list for the inclusion of a Van Damme film, this one is staggeringly different from the norm: it’s a strange combination of comedy, drama and reality which sees Van Damme hilariously – and, at times, quite emotionally – mock his own messy film history, whilst attempting to survive a bank robbery in classic Dog Day Afternoon style. I dare you to watch this film and still deny that this flagging muscle-bound 80s relic can actually act. Hell, it may even give you pause before dismissing some of his more recent DTV fare – like his Universal Soldier sequel Day of Reckoning which is a smashing take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which most people know better in the form of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now).
Watch this if you enjoyed: Dog Day Afternoon.
11. GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI
I’ve found almost all of Jim Jarmusch’s eclectic and diverse filmography to be rather elusive, but his Forrest Whittaker-starring reflection on life, loyalty, and the samurai code as seen through the modern-day lens of a mob enforcer, is pure genius. Whilst the underrated Whittaker never really graduated to A-list status, he's had a few relatively recent shining moments, including a powerful stint on the unmissable cop drama, The Shield. Here, however, he was finally given an opportunity to shine in a leading role. As elegant as a poem, this effortlessly stylish crime drama pays tribute to Melville’s Le Samourai (a model for everybody from Gosling’s driver in 2011’s Drive to Clooney’s The American) whilst blending verbatim samples from Hagakure with a score from the WuTang Clan's RZA.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Killing Them Softly.
10. INFERNAL AFFAIRS
I tried my best not to include in this list any films that have subsequently been remade by Hollywood. My reasoning was not because the originals aren’t superior – they almost always are – but because few viewers will ever be able to enjoy an original movie as it was meant to be seen, if they’ve already seen its remake, inferior or not. Infernal Affairs is just such a movie. A stunning blend of crime thrills and dramatic subterfuge, it tells the familiar tale of a mob mole and an undercover cop who cross paths whilst deployed in each other’s organisations. Why is it so familiar? Because Scorsese decided to remake it a few years back with the enjoyable, star-studded The Departed. Such a shame because Infernal Affairs is still the better movie, and yet so many will never be able to see that now, nor enjoy the excellent sequels.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Grrr... The Departed.
9. GET THE GRINGO (aka HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION)
Yeah, yeah, Mel Gibson's an easy target for all the hate. Hell, he may well deserve it, but you've got to wonder whether he's really all that different from all the other problem stars that populate Hollywood. Whilst I think Scientology is an elaborate joke, I don't have any problem booking my tickets to the latest Cruise movie at the earliest possible convenience. And a case in point is this little self-funded gem shot in a Mexican prison and with the look, style and narration of an unofficial Payback sequel, right down to Gibson's wisecracking, forward-thinking career criminal. And yet few will have actually seen it because it never even got a proper release (although I'm pretty sure ITV4 ran it the other night from 01:15-3:00). Condemn the man as much as you like, but you can't deny he's worth watching in pretty-much anything, and here's hoping his villainous turns in Machete Kills and Expendables 3 help get him some decent gigs to remind us all of what we've been missing. In the meantime, hunt this baby down.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Payback.
8. UPSTREAM COLOUR
The most recent title on this list is filmmaker Shane Carruth’s sophomore feature, following his acclaimed 2004 debut, Primer. With a plethora of excellent indie sci-fi dramas of late to choose from - Lars von Trier's Melancholia, Gareth Edwards' Monsters, Mike Cahill's Another Earth, Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, Sebastian Cordero's Europa Report and Spike Jonze's Her - it was tough to pick just one. This audiovisual masterpiece doesn’t pander to the ADD generation; doesn’t spoon-feed audiences, and will leave you scratching your head throughout, and certainly forevermore if you didn’t pay attention. Yet his filmmaking style is superb, painting in pictures and sounds, evoking emotion through imagery, and allowing the story to simply seep into you. It’s just about the furthest you could get from standard, outright exposition-based narratives, and a welcome, refreshing relief for it.
Watch this if you enjoyed: The Tree of Life.
"There are two approaching armies: hunger and fatigue, but a great wall keeps them at bay. The wall extends to the sky and will stay up until I say otherwise."7. OUTRAGE BEYOND
There are so many films from acclaimed Japanese writer/director/actor ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano that I want to include on this list; so many films that I want to recommend. You could try his stylish samurai updating of Zatoichi, or his one-off attempt at crossing over to the US with the English-language Brother. And, if it was out on Blu-ray, I would have certainly put his tour de force masterpiece Sonatine right at the top of the pile. But instead I’m going to celebrate his latest return to form, the Yakuza crime epic Outrage Beyond, a sequel to the inferior but still engaging Outrage (which you have to see first) which proves that Kitano, both behind and in front of the camera, is still one of the greatest director’s you’ve never heard of. With any luck he’ll complete his so-called Yakuza ‘Godfather’ Trilogy with a third chapter soon.
Watch this if you enjoyed: A Fistful of Dollars.
When Joe Carnahan delivered the relentlessly tense survival thriller, The Grey, he shocked audiences expecting more of the same from the guy who came up with the frenetic Smokin’ Aces and the vapid The A-Team. Not so when you realise that his debut offering was just as impressive, a low budget indie cop thriller featuring career-high contributions from Ray Liotta and Jason Patric. Moody and atmospheric, dark and unpredictable – and driven by two powerhouse performances – after seeing this film you’ll realise that The Grey wasn’t so much a diversification for Carnahan, but actually more of a return-to-form.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Training Day.
5. THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD
Another directorial debut, this time from filmmaker Gary Fleder, who went on to revel in mediocrity with a succession of unexceptional thrillers like Kiss the Girls, Runaway Jury and, most recently, Statham’s Homefront. Back before all that, though, he delivered one of Andy Garcia’s finest lead roles, with an eclectic ensemble supporting cast including Steve Buscemi, Christopher Lloyd, Don Cheadle, William Forsythe and Treat Williams – as well as a scene-stealing Christopher Walken. Packed with memorable dialogue, and driven by fateful urgency and imminent mortality, this crime thriller is one of those rarest undiscovered gems.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Pulp Fiction."For the record I'll call myself Mr. Parker. My associate will be Mr. Longbaugh."4. WAY OF THE GUN
We’re on a directorial debut streak here, with this one coming from none other than Christopher McQuarrie. Not quite a household name yet? Well he should be, considering his involvement with Tom Cruise’s last three films – writing and directing the well-received Jack Reacher adaptation, co-writing this year’s exceptional summer blockbuster, Edge of Tomorrow, and writing and directing the upcoming fifth Mission: Impossible outing. Before all of that, however, he wrote and directed this superb little neo-noir modern western, which features standout performances from Ryan Phillippe and the King of Cool, Benicio del Toro, and has some of the sharpest dialogue of any of the features on the list, as well as some superbly-staged and refreshingly atypical action set-pieces.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Yes, another directorial debut, this time from writer/director Duncan Jones, who was previously better known as David Bowie’s son before he wowed audiences with this low budget sci-fi which featured staggeringly impressive use of miniature modelwork. Although his Groundhog Day-esque Source Code was nowhere near as accomplished, it has nonetheless cemented his standing as an upcoming sci-fi auteur. Here, with the aforementioned model work, a miniscule budget, and a single actor – Sam Rockwell (assisted by Kevin Spacey’s HAL-like computer voice) – he works absolute wonders, promoting lofty sci-fi ideas that far outreach the scale of the production.
Watch this if you enjoyed: 2001.
"Wow, I feel sore. I mean physically, not like a guy who's angry in a movie in the 1950's."2. KISS KISS, BANG BANG
Having written the script to a number of action gems from the 90s – including both of the first Lethal Weapons, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight – anybody familiar with the writing of Shane Black will recognise it as clearly as that of David Mamet. Indeed it must have shocked audiences expecting just another Marvel sequel in the vein of Iron Man 2, when he came along and shook things up for the third outing, which received a love-hate welcome from viewers irrespective of the billion dollar Box Office returns. For my money, anything written by Black is pure gold, and his directorial debut – which also, you should note, marked something of a comeback for the then-fallen Robert Downey Jr. (as well as being a brief comeback blip for Val Kilmer, the only actor to score twice on this list) – is a superb modern film-noir, brimming with his trademark snappy dialogue and distinguished by its against-cliche narrative.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Iron Man 3.
1. THE THIN RED LINE
Terrence Malick’s greatest masterpiece hit cinemas at a time when nobody even noticed; when a little-known film by a little-known director starring a little-known actor – Saving Private Ryan – was cleaning up both at the Box Office and the Oscars, and, since it ostensibly covered the same ground, was totally overshadowing it. Despite an all-star cast including the likes of Elias Koteas, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, John Travolta, Adrien Brody and Jim Caviezel, the general public largely failed to even notice this ensemble epic, and thus failed to realise that Malick’s work of art is a sublime reflection on war which goes far beyond even Spielberg’s best efforts in this regard, using stunning trademark visuals and disjointed ‘narration’ to paint a haunting portrait of war, humanity and mortality. Deemed fractionally too obscure to make our previously-compiled Top 50 list, I’m proud to give this the Top Spot here.
Watch this if you enjoyed: Apocalypse Now.
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In This Article
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
- Payback: Special Edition
- Pulp Fiction
- Apocalypse Now: Redux
- Get The Gringo
- Infernal Affairs Trilogy
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
- Iron Man 3 - 3D Edition
- The Tree of Life
- Iron Man 3
- Brotherhood of the Wolf
- The Thin Red Line
- Brotherhood of the Wolf
- The Thin Red Line - Criterion Collection
- Apocalypse Now
- How I Spent My Summer Vacation
- Apocalypse Now - Full Disclosure Edition
- Infernal Affairs
- Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier
- The Tree of Life
- Pulp Fiction