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Eleven of the Best Movies You've Never Seen

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | October 23, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | October 23, 2012 |

One of our very first Guides here at Pajiba was “The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen,” our rave recommendations for 10 brilliant movies you’ve never seen, as determined by the fact that all ten films made less than $3 million at the box office. It’s my favorite kind of post here on Pajiba because — scathing reviews, pop-culture eye candy, and random lists notwithstanding — nothing brings us more satisfaction than introducing a great film to our readers. It’s been six years and a lot of Pajiba turnover since that original Best Movies You’ve Never Seen post, so I thought we’d bring it back. Once again, in order to be included on our Guide today, the movie must have made less than $3 million at the U.S. box office. In many cases, these Underappreciated Gems couldn’t even muster $500,000, but that doesn’t make them any less outstanding. In fact, in an Internet environment where everyone has heard of everything, it’s nice to be able to dig up a few selections that really did slip under the radar.


Chopper, 2001 ($246,000) — Before Eric Bana was Eric Bana, he was an Australian actor little known in America until his brilliant depiction of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read gained him great acclaim and attention from American critics and filmmakers. Chopper Read is a fascinating Australian criminal (and bestselling crime author), who is as menacing as he is full of sh*t. Between the ages of 20 and 38, he only spent 13 months outside of prison, but it was inside the clink where he arguably gained the most notoriety, starting a prison gang war that got so out of hand that Chopper’s best friend would end up stabbing him, costing him several feet of intestine (note, too, that Chopper was only in prison because he stabbed the judge that put his best friend in prison). Killing between four and 19 people (depending on the account you believe), Chopper, as depicted by Bana, is equal parts charming and terrifying, and wholly psychotic: The kind of guy that would play a prank on you, tell you he was just kidding, and then blow your brains out, and somehow, remain a weirdly amiable character. It’s a great movie, not just for the little-seen performance from Bana, but because Reed is such a compelling nutcase. — Dustin Rowles


Braindead, 1992 ($242,000) — We sometimes forget that before the sweeping, ostentatious epics, Peter Jackson cut his teeth on low-budget, tongue-in-cheek horror. His magnum opus in the field of hyper-gory craziness is the beautifully insane Braindead, aka Dead Alive. Part love story, part poignant family drama, part moral allegory, part horrific zombie mutant monster splatterhouse picture, it’s quite literally one of my favorite movies ever. It’s got plague-rat-on-tree-monkey rape, overbearing mothers, the greatest use of a lawnmower in cinematic history and a kung-fu priest who — and I’m not using hyperbole here — delivers the greatest line ever committed to celluloid. All of this for the bargain price of $3 million. The film is wildly entertaining, hysterically funny and absolutely soaked in blood and gore. Sadly, the general public rarely recognizes true genius until it’s too late, and Braindead garnered a measly $242,623. We, as a people, should be ashamed. Beware, my friends. Beware the Sumatran Rat-Monkey or history is doomed to repeat itself. — TK


Coffee and Cigarettes, 2001 ($2.1 million) — Here’s another one of those quirky, minimalistic, and meandering Jim Jarmusch indie flicks that always fail to gain commercial traction but play very well at home in the DVD player. This movie has Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett, and the White Stripes, among others, kicking the shit around in separate black-and-white vignettes while they partake of the titular twin vices. As with many Jarmusch films, this movie serves no real purpose at all, and the quality of the 11 vignettes are hit and miss. Those who are impatient may scoff at the apparent pointlessness of it all, but there is a clever structure and meaning hidden within the whole … if one should so care to discover some tiny bits of wisdom scattered by familiar faces. Best of all, this movie has Bill Murray serving coffee to RZA and GZA in the “Delirium” segment. The wry deadpan humor of both Murray and his director make this movie a treasure that revolves around the complexities of human conversation and the mystery of the (slightly addled) human mind. This movie was never meant to be more than a hidden gem, and it wears that status well. — Agent Bedhead


Starter for 10, 2006 ($216,000) — You’ve probably never seen Starter for 10, even though you probably know everyone who’s in it: James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch have been the biggest breakouts, though Rebecca Hall, Dominic Cooper, and Alice Eve are likely recognizable faces to a lot of viewers, too. (E.g, Hall was Ben Affleck’s love interest in The Town, and Cooper played Tony Stark’s father in Captain America: The First Avenger). The British-American coproduction opened stateside in early 2007 and topped out around $216,000 domestically, though it did a little better overseas, earning $1.5 million from foreign markets. It’s a shame, though, that more people haven’t seen it. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age/romantic comedy set in 1985 about a first-year university student, Brian (McAvoy), who joins his school’s team for the popular “University Challenge” quiz show. It hits the expected bases — Brian gets his heart broken, tries to overcome class differences with boyhood friends, grows up a bit — but it does so with warmth and grace. There’s no irony here, no hip distance between the filmmaker and their earnest characters, and that believability totally sells the film. McAvoy is fantastic in what has to be the most easygoing role of his career to date, and Cumberbatch is a perfect foil as the quiz team’s resident super-nerd. It’s also got a killer soundtrack of mid-1980s British pop and rock. What are you waiting for? — Daniel Carlson

Tideland, 2006 ($66,453) — With a budget of $12 million that domestic box office is nano-sized, and it’s total take including international ticket sales only amounts to about $566,000. Financially, this is decidedly Terry Gilliam’s biggest failure; including the continuously aborted Don Quixote adaptation, itself the subject of a fairly successful documentary. For many who have seen Tideland — especially the critics that collectively gave the movie a 27.5% average rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic — that failure is entirely reasonable. Hell, for many of Tideland’s staunchest defenders, it’s not at all surprising that word-of-mouth failed to spread and terribly easy to recognize that the movie is the definition of “not for everyone.” It’s about a little girl named Jeliza-Rose who is left to fend for herself within the first fifteen minutes of the two hour film, after her mother dies while she is present in the room and her father dies soon after they move to his old childhood home, both passing due to two separate drug overdoses. She copes via beautifully elaborate fantasies that escalate into a literally explosive finale in which many innocent people are affected. Not only is Tideland emotionally harrowing, it has also the visual grotesqueness of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and the Brad Pitt scenes in 12 Monkeys encroaching on Jeliza-Rose’s dwindling innocence. And yet, after watching it the first time, I immediately watched it a second, and then a third time the following day. I adored it. Because even throughout all that terror there’s still the inherent resilience of the human spirit surviving in the vessel of that little girl. Gilliam himself said it best, from the above clip that precedes the movie’s home video release: “Many of you are not going to like this film, many of you — luckily — are going to love it, and then there are many of you who aren’t going to know what to think when the film finishes. But hopefully you’ll be thinking.” — Rob Payne

The Trip, 2011 ($2.03 million) — A look at the nature of fame and friendship, even when it’s not quite so friendly. Playing thinly veiled fictional versions of themselves, actors and comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon set out on a restaurant tour of Northern England as Coogan deals with his failing relationship. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the actors, the pair match wits and the verbal barbs fly fast, making this an intellectually interesting and extremely enjoyable high-class version of a road trip movie. The film was originally filmed as a series for British television, directed by Michael Winterbottom, with whom the pair collaborated on Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Coogan and Brydon’s dueling impressions, especially the Michael Caine one, are memorable, however it’s the quiet moments of loneliness and studied, relational animosity that make the deepest impression. — Amanda Mae Meyncke


Headhunters, 2012 ($1.02 million) — Headhunters is one of those wonderful films one should go into knowing as little as possible, the better to be violently thrown from your comfy living room expectations. It’s a genius little thriller that makes you think you know where it’s going, but at every gut punch, realize you don’t. You might even feel underwhelmed when first introduced to “Norway’s most successful headhunter,” Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), but as the story begins to move faster and ferociously forward, you’ll change your mind. Despite his successful career, to maintain a lavish lifestyle for he and his wife, Brown spends his off hours stealing valuable works of art from private collectors’ homes, replacing the originals with copies. When Roger’s wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) opens an art gallery, she introduces her husband to Claus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who has just inherited an extremely valuable painting after his grandmother’s passing. With only a couple of daya to retrieve it before the work of art is transferred to a museum, Roger must quickly set up his opportunity, but in truth he has no idea what he’s gotten himself into; nor do you. Set aside any reservations you have about subtitled films, because this one is a non-stop, heart-pounding thrill ride you need to take. — Cindy Davis


MirrorMask, 2005 ($866,000) — MirrorMask is a lovely little fairytale. Based on a screenplay by Neil Gaiman, in what’s a thematic precursor to (the admittedly superior) Coraline, the film focuses on Helena, the daughter of a circus family who begrudgingly works in said circus. When her mother falls ill following an ugly exchange of words between the two of them, Helena’s guilt takes life in the form of an old-fashioned journey through a realm of fantasy. The credits tell us the film is not just directed by artist Dave McKean, but “designed and directed” by him, which is an appropriate credit because the film, particularly once it enters the realm of fantasy, is really like a McKean work of art come to life. The story is simple, and entirely not the point. With a leisurely pacing that some might think is too slow, this isn’t a film about the hero’s journey as much as it’s about feeling and experience that world that the hero is in. And the world that McKean gives us, full of stirring visuals and punctuated by fantastic performances and a cool little jazz score, is one that’s dark and beautiful and magical. — Seth Freilich


Wristcutters: A Love Story, 2006 ($446,165) — There’s this thing that often happens when you attend film festivals. You enter a sort of fugue state full of half-glimpsed movie stars, interminable screening lines and swag tents. This has a tendency to reset your “normalcy” barometer. Did Michelle Williams just urinate on herself? Totally normal! All that’s to say that when I saw first saw Wristcutters at the Sundance film festival, the movie struck me as the most enchanting romantic/suicide/road trip comedies I had ever seen. I have, subsequently, had some trouble selling it to my friends and loved ones. Something about the title just doesn’t quite sit right. But if you can look past it, the story of Zia (Patrick Fugit) who, along with two other suicide victims Mikal and Eugene (a surprisingly great Shannyn Sossamon and “Boardwalk Empire’s” Shea Wigham) search Purgatory for Zia’s lost love. What follows is an always quirky, deeply macabre love story anchored by the strong leading trio and peppered with splendid performances from Tom Waits, John Hawkes, Will Arnett and, oh yes, Nick Offerman. If you like it as much as I did, you might want to check out the Etger Keret The blue/grey filter of the afterlife might get you down, but the rollicking Gogol Bordello soundtrack will lift you up. —Joanna Robinson


Sweet Land, 2006, ($1.7 million) — I saw Sweet Land alone in a a small, Grecian-muraled theater at Chicago’s Music Box shortly after its release. The first movie I ever saw by myself in the theater, it has always had the distinction of feeling so much like mine and mine alone. Its relative obscurity further cushions the intimacy I feel towards this film, but it could have exploded into box office glory, and I can promise it would still have delivered that same experience. Featuring a cast almost entirely comprised of “hey, it’s that guy!”s — with the notable exceptions of Alex Kingston (River!), Alan Cumming and one or two others — Ali Selim’s simply stunning (in that it is both simple and visually stunning) tribute to love, land and post-World War I Americana tells the story of Inge and Olaf: a German mail-order bride and her newly American farmer/husband-to-be. Made for just a million dollars, its cinematography and score create a quiet epicness I’ve never quite seen before. From the gorgeously shot scenery to the understated performances to the matter-of-fact story of a nervous love blooming amidst small-town xenophobia, Sweet Land walks the line of minimalism and grandeur in the most beautiful way — by making this place, this love story (awkward without a hint of twee about it) and these characters matter without force or manipulation. Like so many great intimate experiences, it’s a kind of secret that becomes so much bigger, so much more special, than it set out to be. And those are the best kind. — Courtney Enlow


Sound of My Voice, 2012 ($408,000) — They say that the root of laughter is in our brain making a connection it had never made before. It’s why jokes are less funny each subsequent time we hear them. It’s also why often our first instinct when we have an epiphany is to erupt into laughter. Sound of My Voice, like much good science fiction works on this principle. It draws your brain into connections you did not know you were supposed to consider. In most stories, characters know the least at the beginning and the process of the plot is their piecing together of information, so that by the end of the story, they know more than they have at any previous point. Sound of My Voice flips that logic on its head. Its characters begin the film absolutely certain, and have their preconceptions ripped down one by one. If anything, the film is shot as a horror movie, despite the time-travel at the core of its tale. You’re introduced to a bizarre cult, with a suffocating forboding that screams that something horrible is happening at its core. But as each layer of mystery is revealed to be weird but ultimately harmless, the relief lasts just long enough to hit you again with something with even darker implications. — Steven Lloyd Wilson