You probably wouldn’t think it, but the single most popular post in the five-year history of Pajiba is our 12 Best Films You’ve Never Seen Guide, which — to date — has been read by well over 100,000 visitors. It didn’t feel that popular when we posted it (it only received 139 comments, compared to 300 or 400 for some of our more popular Guides), but year after year, it’s one of the most popular posts visited in our archives. And for me, personally, there’s something infinitely satisfying about knowing that a handful of people or more read that post and discovered Zero Effect or Shallow Grave or All the Real Girls for the first time. If there’s one thing I like better, as a critic, than steering folks away from terrible movies, it’s helping them to discover some real underappreciated gems.
So, we’re going to do it again. Over the last five years, we’ve seen quite a few movies that we loved that never quite caught on with mainstream audiences. In fact, none of the below movies made more than $5 million at the box-office. For people that have been reading the site for a while, most of the titles will look familiar; in fact, hopefully, some of you saw these movies based on our recommendation. If you didn’t, this gives us one last chance to resurrect some of our favorite underappreciated titles and convince you to see them. For passers-by seeing these titles for the first time, we hope that you check a few out. If they’re your kind of movie, then maybe you’ve found your kind of site.
Brick (2006) ($2 million): No one knew better than John Hughes that high school is more than its own world, but a universe unto itself, with its own laws, physics, and population. The planets are the various cliques, the disparate groups of people that, not yet forced to co-exist in the real world as a result of employment and/or social graces, have chosen to stratify themselves into clearly defined and intensely loyal groups in order to survive. The reason that The Breakfast Club managed to carry weight on its release and maintain it 20 years after the fact is that kids in high school spend most of their time wanting to be or joyfully being the jock, the princess, the thug, or the brain (though there’s not much joy in the brain, actually). Entire civilizations can rise and fall in the course of seven periods and a hectic lunch. To high schoolers, the minutia of their routines and the ever-changing sociopolitical landscape of who hates whom tend to supersede rational thought. Rian Johnson, the writer and director of the phenomenal neo-noir-via-home-ec thriller Brick, understands this completely and, because he does, what could have been a gimmick becomes a shattering tale of love and heartbreak, told between the lockers and the portables. It’s one of the most willfully original thrillers to come along in quite a while, and fantastic to boot. — Daniel Carlson
Charlie Bartlett (2008) ($3.9 million): Charlie Bartlett may as well be an unofficial remake of Pump up the Volume: Exchange Hard On Harry for Bartlett, pirate radio for pharmaceuticals and therapy, and Samantha Mathis for Kat Dennings, and you’ve got extremely similar films, though Bartlett does throw in a few Rushmore nods and an alterna-Harold and Maude musical vibe, which probably makes it even more appealing to adults than teenagers, who are likely too busy text-speaking and recycling to bother rising up against the administration in the school cafeteria (query me this, tweeners: Just how much of your identity is wrapped up in your ringtone these days?) — Dustin Rowles
FUBAR (2002) (Unreleased): FUBAR is one of the tightest mockumentaries I’ve seen and does right by its primary influence, This Is Spinal Tap. It also takes Wayne’s World to the next level and out-Ronnies Ronnie Dobbs (and I do love me some Dobbs). What at first glance appears to be a right roasting of head-banger culture morphs into an exploration of friendship and a meta-analysis of the filmmaker/subject relationship; FUBAR works off the Nick Broomfield palette, in a way, gradually drawing the filmmaker into his subjects’ world and exposing the tricky ethics of documentary-making and the harrowing ways the identities of the watcher and the watched slip about. More importantly, it feels real—these bangers are eerily similar to folks I’ve encountered in life. — Ranylt Richildis
Frozen River (2008) ($2.5 million): Frozen River is this year’s Little Engine That Could, a moving character study by writer/director Courtney Hunt about an impoverished woman caring for two sons in the pre-Christmas winter of upstate New York. Frozen River earns its cinematic stripes as a straight drama, but writer/director Hunt goes deep under the ice in capturing the subtle cruelties imposed on down-and-out women and children whose dire poverty prevents them from catching the very break that might lead to opportunity. In an era when just about every major film studio has its own “independent” film division — irony generally being lost on Hollywood suits — Frozen River is the type of truly independent project that takes the quotation marks off the word. Despite its frayed, grey shoestring of a budget and spare production values, it went into a stacked 2008 Sundance field and emerged with the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films, besting a slew of strong contenders. — Ted Boynton
Half Nelson (2006) ($2.6 million): Director Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote with Anna Boden) knows his material and hews — perhaps a bit too closely — to the reality of addiction, without really making Half Nelson a glum addiction film, per se. Still, there are no Bobby Fischer/Finding Forrester epiphanic moments, but neither does it devolve into a Requiem for a Dream-type experience that has you looking for a 10th-floor window. Indeed, there is just enough optimism in Half Nelson to leave you feeling content, but not so much that you feel robbed. In an indie world where quirk and whimsy seem to be constantly battling it out with utter despair, Half Nelson is one of the few films that finds a satisfying middle ground. — Dustin Rowles
Happy Endings (2005) ($1.3 million): Ever since 1998, when I flipped for Don Roos’ brilliantly sardonic directorial debut, The Opposite of Sex, I’ve been dying to see how he would top it. In 2002 he wrote and directed another film, Bounce, starring Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow, but it was a bit of a dud. Despite some strong performances and Roos’ sharp, witty dialogue, ultimately the film was a rich set-up that he never quite brought home. Happy Endings is the true successor to Opposite, with an even richer cast of hopelessly, hilariously screwed-up characters and the same sense of surprise — the plot twists are as unpredictable as the characters themselves. — Jeremy C. Fox
Junebug (2005) ($2.6 million): Cultures rarely clash the way they so often do in the movies, when a slick lawyer has to deliver a calf or a redneck has to figure out how to order off a French menu. They more often clash the way they do in Junebug, when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer, visits the North Carolina family of her husband, George (Alessandro Nivola). The characters here all have good intentions, and for the most part they’re not caricatures. They just lead lives full of very different assumptions. This leads to personal conflicts and stony silences that feel genuine. Director Phil Morrison also has a deft touch with set pieces, like the one in which Madeleine watches George earnestly deliver a hymn at a church social. It’s a beautifully rendered moment of revelation for Madeleine, and for the audience as well. — John Williams
Let the Right One In (2008) ($2.1 million): It’s difficult to convey the experience of watching Let the Right One In with words. It doesn’t traffic in many words itself, for one thing, and those it does use are all Swedish. It would be easier to give a sense of the movie’s tone and impact, which has stayed with me for 72 hours and promises to linger for a while longer, by sitting down to perform a haunting piece for cello, or by standing alone with you, silently, during a snowstorm near an abandoned warehouse. Let the Right One In is creepier, and more visually beautiful, than anything else you’re likely to see this year. Or next. Directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, it could be — and has been — called a horror movie, but it’s also an exceedingly unusual love story.— John Williams
Night Watch: (2006) ($1.5 million) Director Timur Bekmambetov reaches for epic levels here and succeeds in a big way, his grasp extending into territory mapped by Tolkien’s Silmarillion to capture a sprawling tale of the unending and often evenly matched battle between good and evil. The story’s mythology goes that Others walk among us, gifted humans that can see the future, shapeshift, work magic, etc. There are Light Others and Dark Others, and their forces met more than a thousand years ago to do battle, with Gesser (Vladimir Menshov) leading the Light and Zevulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky) leading the Dark. After realizing that the fighting would lead to complete annihilation, Gesser offered what would be known as the Truce: No more fighting, and no more meddling with normal humans. The Light forces became known as Night Watch, and were charged with keeping an eye on the Dark ones, while meanwhile the Dark ones became known as Day Watch and kept a similar guard over their enemies. This supposedly kept the balance till now, but from the start Bekmambetov presents a far more complex worldview than the black hats versus white hats routine. The mere fact that the good guys are forced to watch the night while the evil armies must face the day admits the complicated truth that people are rarely if ever completely good or completely evil: There’s always compromise involved. As the story goes, no one can be forced to become Light or Dark, but must choose it for himself. — Daniel Carlson
Primer (2004) ($500,000): In creating a complex, well-acted, mindbending sci-fi flick for $7,000 — seven-fucking-K! — director Shane Carruth jabbed a sharp stick in the eye of every overpaid studio hack, the scores of producers and directors who manage to spend anywhere from $10 million to more than $100 million on gargantuan projects that culminate in a huge dog turd. I’m not even going to pile on Uwe Boll or Paul Haggis here, since they have enough fellow inductees in this Hall of Shame to fill several stadia. None of these jackasses feels the mortification he or she should, however, since no one is held accountable in a real-world sort of way when a green newbie like Carruth posterizes them. — Ted Boynton
Rocket Science (2007) ($700,000): More than anything I think I’ve seen in years (at least since “Freaks and Geeks”), Jeffrey Blitz actually manages to capture what it feels like to be in high-school. Even if the exact situations aren’t entirely familiar, the feelings and sentiments of that time and place are. He manages to rekindle those angsty, confused, insecure, achy, excited, scared-pissless feelings I had on my way to the first day of school or standing in front of a classroom or even approaching a girl in the hallway and trying to muster the courage to eke out a substantive half-sentence that didn’t make me look like a complete and total dumbass (a feat I only realize now was impossible). And Blitz, who also wrote the script, does something even more powerful: He finds the grace … the illumination … the motherfucking epiphany that can inhere in rejection, failure, and heartbreak, and then poses a question I suspect we all wondered post-puberty: Why does love have to be like rocket science?
Snow Angels (2008) ($400,00): At 32, David Gordon Green is five years younger than Paul Thomas Anderson and six years younger than Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. The fact is worth noting, not because Green has calcified an aesthetic and turned himself into a mini-industry like the other three, but because he hasn’t. He still has the room (and time) to become the best director of his generation. Snow Angels is not the movie that gets him there, but it features all the qualities that make him a candidate for the position. As in his debut, George Washington, and All the Real Girls, the director lovingly establishes a sense of place. He’s sharply attuned to the visual cues of a geography’s character, here captured in a snowblower on a church lawn, the bleachers at a high school football game, and birds flying low over a lake’s icy surface. Green’s not interested in matching track suits or frogs raining down from the sky. He may be drawn to the darker corners of this world, but it’s this world. We’re lucky to see it through his eyes. — John Williams
Wackness (2008) ($2 million): The Wackness is a spectacularly smart film from writer-director Jonathan Levine. Not only is this one of the finest acted films I’ve seen in a long time, but it doesn’t take an easy path in the telling. In fact, it’s a pretty unpleasant tale told with a spirit of honesty and sense of humor that Levine’s more experienced contemporaries cannot come close to approximating. In this film, life isn’t fair, we don’t get what we want, and things can end happily without a pink bow and a funky dance number. At its simplest, it is a coming-of-age story, not just about a young man in the summer after his high school graduation but of a grown man in the middle of the collapsing life he shoddily constructed for himself. The movie is gloomy and sad, with a washed out, somber tone to every image and frames that are slightly out of focus on the edges. It doesn’t end happy. It ends the way it needs to, which still manages to elicit a grin. The Wackness is a complicated love story with complex relationships, and a stellar cast with a fresh set of beats. It’s like firing up a mix tape you made for an ex-girlfriend: It’ll bring back all the heartache and love and sweetness of those moments you used to spend wasting your lives together. — Brian Prisco