5 Underrated (or Under-seen) Great Films

A list like this probably gets made every 5 seconds online.  I’m not going to say these are the greatest films of all time, or films you must see if you’re a cinephile.  These are merely movies I love and think more people should be aware of; and if you’ve seen these movies, maybe you should watch them again.  Enjoy:

5. The Ice Storm (Directed by Ang Lee.)

In college I stumbled across this movie on AMC one afternoon when I was probably skipping class.  When I turned it on, I assumed I was catching the last 5 minutes, so I kept it on to see what was on next, only to end up watching the whole movie.  This was about the time the first Spider-man had come out, so when I saw Tobey Maguire it caught my attention.  Well, besides having a great cast and amazing direction (Ang Lee’s filming of the titular ice storm is gorgeous), it was just a compelling story.  Imagine “American Beauty” set in the 1970s without the overly sentimental bag blowing in the wind motif and you’ll get an idea of what this movie is about.

Plus, key parties.

And the always beautiful Joan Allen gives a killer performance, so what’s not to love?  Definitely worth a rental if you’ve managed to miss this one.

4. Pleasantville (Directed by Gary Ross)

(Okay, so not the trailer, but I love the song and this video conveys the movie pretty well, too.)

Two movies in a row with Tobey Maguire and Joan Allen, but I don’t have an obsession.  I swear (well, not with Tobey, at least).  This is just a great movie, one that even I dismissed when I first saw it (at like 14 or 15).  But it has grown on me over the years, not least of which because it holds up so well.  I realize this movie isn’t probably ‘under-seen’ as many people have watched it, but I think people need to re-watch it.  Even if you loved it when you first saw it, it’s worth a second (or tenth) viewing just because it completely works from beginning to end.  People who would dismiss this movie for a seemingly simple message (like I did originally) should go back and re-examine it, because there’s a lot more going on underneath than just a simple “We’re not really worse off than we used to be” message.

But forgetting all the ‘message’ stuff, it’s just a clever movie with a great premise and excellent execution.

Also, any movie that has Etta James’ “At Last” and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” in it is automatically a cool flick.

3. The Three Amigos (Directed by John Landis)

As quotable as any 1980s comedy, for some reason this movie doesn’t have the devoted fan following that Ghostbusters or Caddyshack has.  Again, it’s not so much that this movie is underseen or even disliked, but rather that it isn’t so much bigger in the common consciousness of the general public.  I’ve probably seen this movie a hundred times in my life (not an exaggeration), but it still can make me laugh.  It’s one of those few comedies that walks the balance of dumb and smart, slapstick and musical, clean and dirty.  Besides, any movie with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short (seriously underrated comedian) in the days before they all went soft is clearly going to be worth your time.

If nothing else, who doesn’t love  a singing bush:

2. The Fountain (Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Having worked in a Music/DVD section of a Barnes & Noble, I noticed an odd phenomenon with this movie.  A lot more people bought the soundtrack than the actual movie.  With good reason, as the soundtrack to this movie (by Clint Mansell with the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai) is one of the most powerful and affecting scores I’ve ever heard.  Even if you’ve never seen this movie (for shame), you should have this music.

But let me not sell the movie short.  The Fountain is an amazing work, gorgeously filmed, brilliantly acted (say what you want of Hugh Jackman, but he’s got talent; and Rachel Weisz is both an incomparable actress and stunning beauty who is high on my list of celebrities I would sleep with, even while in a relationship) and thick with meaning and ideas.  I know people who have seen this movie have been turned off by its seemingly New Age message and confusing structure, but good art requires that you delve in.  Sure, not every movie has to be an enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a used condom, but occasionally you want to see a movie that challenges your intellect and spacial thinking while you’re watching it, and this is it.

There is a cornucopia of film tricks throughout this movie to sate any cinema nerd, not least of which is the fact that the space scenes are done with an absolute minimum of CGI, and mostly consist of filming chemicals in a petri dish, creating truly stunning and original footage that looks far more beautiful than anything James Cameron or Michael Bay have ever shown us.  Added to that are the repetition of shots and visual cues and what you have is a movie that’s almost more a poem than a movie.  Still, don’t dismiss this movie as psuedo-spiritual hooey, because at the heart of this film is scientific wonder for the creative force of nature and evolution, where the death of a star is really just the beginning of new life.  College theses could be written on the deluge of symbols in this movie.

But I’ll restrain myself.  See this film.  Be blown away.

1. October Sky (Directed by Joe Johnston)

Listen to some music from this film:

I love this movie.  Unabashedly.  It’s not the greatest movie ever made.  It didn’t deserve an Oscar and it certainly didn’t set itself apart as a cinematic masterpiece.  Really, this movie is nothing more than one of those Underdog Sports movies that comes out about 6 times a year.  Except, this movie isn’t about a ragtag football team.  It’s about kids in a coal mining town who want to use science to make an escape from what seems like their inevitable fate in the mines.  And for that alone, this movie ends up in my DVD player 2 or 3 times a year.

This movie exhilerated me as a kid, and even now I find it affecting.   There are very few movies out there that emphasize the kind of profound effect a love of science can have on a person’s life.  Like Homer Hickam in the movie, science wasn’t exactly my strong suit in school (I was great at math, but I never had any real passion for biology or chemistry), but, again, like Homer I had a moment in my life when I saw the illuminating power of science and fell in love with the many facets of it.  His moment was seeing Sputnik fly overhead; mine was sitting in a General Psychology class and seeing how the chemicals in the brain work.  From there, the whole world of biology, chemistry and physics opens up.

I realize that the movie takes plenty of liberties with the true story of the Rocket Boys, as all movies ‘based on a true story’ do, but that’s beside the point.  It’s uplifting and joyous and even a cynic like me can enjoy a movie with no ‘bad language’ or overtly sexual scenes (usually the only 2 things I look for in a movie).  It’s just a simple story with solid performances from everyone involved, including a great performance by Chris Cooper (one of my all time favorite actors).

And, again, I love the music in this movie, both the score  by Mark Isham and the assortment of great 1950s rock n roll.

Do yourself a favor, rent this movie and feel just a little bit better about life.

5 thoughts on “5 Underrated (or Under-seen) Great Films

  1. Why “Pleasantville” doesn’t hover on people’s “Hey, this is a great film” radar baffles me. The acting’s aces all-around (William H. Macy and Jeff Daniels in one movie? I’m in), and the film’s overall look just takes your breath away. It’s one of my favorite movies.

    M. Carter @ the Movies

    • Agreed. The entire cast is excellent, throughout. I’m actually remiss that I didn’t mention Jeff Daniels.

  2. ‘The Fountain’ is for me is the best film I’ve ever seen. A piece of Art. I’m not much of a person who likes movies like that, you know, ‘difficult’ movies, I’m more of a ‘Hollywood’ fan, meaning films like Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Iron Man etc, but I was blown away by Aronofsky’s masterpiece. I agree with everything you said about The Fountain. I own both the dvd and the soundtrack which is the best movie music I’ve ever listened to, and I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks. As for Hugh Jackman, he is underestimated as an actor because for some reason he doesn’t do many films like this one. I mean, ok, Wolverine is great, X-men movies are great fun but he should really stop doing them and star in movies like The Fountain or The Prestige, movies that offer more meaty roles. In The Fountain Jackman is terrific. He is such a great actor but should stop wasting his time and talent in doing films that lead people to think that he’s just an action movie star. I wish more people had seen ‘The Fountain’ to experience the brilliant work (direction, cinematography, art direction, music) the makers put in it and see what Hugh Jackman is capable of as an actor when he wants.

  3. I agree with this list except for October Sky. I grew up in a coal town in West Virginia and the accents in this movie drove me crazy. I know people think if you just talk in a stereotypical Southern accent it’ll work. But it doesn’t. West Virginia (just like every other state) has it’s own little way of speaking and I thought this movie fell into a formula. The accents were so bad that I couldn’t enjoy the movie. Maybe it’s great but I’ll never get over the line: ‘I don’t won’t yer liiiife.’ We don’t talk like that!

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