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20 Underappreciated Gems Currently Playing on Netflix Instant

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | January 15, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | January 15, 2012 |

One of my very favorite things to do in life is introduce a great film that no one has ever heard of to a friend or family. It means a lot more than, say, introducing them to a movie everyone in the world has already seen, like Ghostbusters. It’s a very satisfying feeling, like I’ve won something of great importance (I am a very simple man). Below are 20 such films, films that most of your friends and family members have never heard of, and maybe you haven’t either.

Mixed among the gems — well known and obscure — there’s an inordinate amount of crap on Netflix Instant. There are a lot of unrecognizable titles starring a lot of unrecognizable people. And if you’re an avid viewer of the service, you may have ran out of movie options months ago. Maybe this list can kickstart your viewing, again. They are 20 Films that Went Underappreciated both at the box office, and for the most part, even on DVD.

I won’t suggest that all of them will appeal to all of you, but most people should be able to dig up a few finds among the list. Review excerpts are included, though I suggest you read the full hyperlinked reviews (where available) to better determine if the film is suited to your tastes.

Please, also feel free to include your own Netflix Instant discoveries in the comments below.

HappyThankYouMorePlease — If you called up Central Casting and requested that they send over an independent romantic comedy, Happythankyoumoreplease would be top of the stack. That’s not to say that it’s a perfect example of an indie rom-com, it’s that it represents perfectly what a pre-conceived notion of the simplest stereotype would be. The film revolves around three different almost-thirty New Yorkers and their varying romantic entanglements. In that respect, it’s kind of pedestrian, but then it’s tagged with quirk like Banksy on a bender. One girl’s got alopecia and wears a headwrap, one guy “accidentally” abducts a small black child and tries to raise him, everyone’s managing to rent apartments in New York on the salary of a job represented by artistic endeavors. It’s Woody Allen by way of Seinfeld with inexplicably coupled couples breaking into crazy indie film riffs in between make-out sessions. It’s a strange film, and it wouldn’t work if not for the incandescent charm of most of the cast, in particular writer-director-star Josh Radnor. Josh Radnor is the filmmaker John Krasinski meant to be, peopling his movie with interesting-looking folks and managing to rein in his overwhelming quirkiness with occasional sweetness. The film barely holds together as it is, but somehow Radnor keeps everything together for a somewhat intriguing romantic comedy. — Brian Prisco

Next Stop Wonderland — I haven’t actually seen this movie since it opened back in 1998, after I’d moved to Boston and was intrigued by the fact that it was named after one of the subway stops (and in all my years on Beantown, I never took the Blue Line out that far). I don’t remember much, except that I thought it was great, Hope Davis was really fantastic, and that it had a really good early role from Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was very cute, very watchable, and completely made for Netflix Instant. — Dustin Rowles

Lebanon, PA — While the plot points might make the less refined among you roll your eyes, the acting leaves no question to its fantastitude. The pros are tops. Josh Hopkins (“Cougar Town”) is incredibly charming as Will, and he damn well has to be. With the number of times he sticks his foot in his mouth, he’d be crapping Keds by page 15 if not for his natural vive. Samantha Mathis is still just as good as she was back when she was pumping the jam. Mary Beth Hurt is in that wonderful fierce old lady mode expertly crafted by Carrie Fisher. But it’s the Philly locals who simply destroy, putting out performances that show just how much skill comes from Brotherly Love. Ian Merill Peakes is so, so, so smashing as Andy. He’s a big dumb truck driver just trying to keep his kids happy and healthy. And I know that sounds like Thomas Jane’s Homeless Dad, but really Andy is so likable, even when he’s playing the bad guy. But I save my shiniest praise for young Rachel Kitson, who joins several other non-Mice Hice factory pressed teen actresses. This was her first film, which is unfathomable from the performance she throws down. She’s got a silent film star beauty, with giant expressive blue eyes and a gentle delivery that make you want to cradle her like a lamb, for God’s sake. I can’t think of an actress working today who could have pulled off the same faithful innocence without falling into pious or pissed. It’s the first of what I hope are many stellar performances from this young ingenue. — Brian Prisco

Tucker & Dale vs. EvilTucker & Dale vs. Evil is a one-joke movie, but it’s a good joke, at least in concept. Unfortunately, writer/director Eli Craig doesn’t bring much else to that joke nor is he able to execute it to it’s fullest potential. The result is a middling effort, a half-boner of a film, that benefits from the performances of its two leads, “Firefly’s” Alan Tudyk and “The Reaper’s” Taylor Labine, as well as the inebriation of its audience. — DR

The Door in the Floor — If you’ve ever read a John Irving book, you are probably familiar with a few recurring motifs: prep schools, a young man losing his virginity to an older woman, the death of a child, adultery, and, often, dismemberment. The Door in the Floor, based on Irving’s A Widow for One Year, does include many of these stock events, but they’re handled in a quieter, more harrowing way than Irving generally manages. Although Door has been radically altered from its source, there is little doubt that it is based around an Irving story. There is still a preoccupation with sex (which, as in all Irving novels, is depicted with lurid detail), the disintegration of the family, the interplay between comedy and tragedy, and a whimsical plotline; but where the author often overly sentimentalizes, Williams resist that urge, jettisoning Irving’s maudlin cutesiness in favor of a prescient, spare and beautiful approach. Indeed, Williams manages not only to make a movie that is superior to its source material, he captures Irving’s spirit even better than the author could himself. — DR

The Trip — Several of us here having seen The Trip (and it was included as one of Michael Murray’s highlights of 2011), but no one ever managed to write a review. For my part, it’s because I didn’t really know what to say, except that it’s a really pleasant, often funny, engagingly aimless road trip movie starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as themselves. It’s an absolute delight, and completely ideal for Netflix. — DR

Four Lions — When most people attempt to do terrorist comedy, they always approach it with a broad stereotype. Usually, some buffoon wearing a towel around his head, making “durka durka” sounds while repeatedly shouting Allah and wearing some sort of belt of plastic explosives. Just Hi-LAR-ious. In order to get a laugh, they have to pull out the old trope of “Lookit da funny furrinner! He don’t right talk right, hyuk!” What makes Christopher Morris’ Four Lions so daring is that he totally humanizes a group of jihadists. He essentially pulls off “Seinfeld” in Riyadh. It’s a bumbling buddy comedy about a group of petty and pissed-off friends who insult each other and get mad at each other - but who also happen to be British Islamic extremists. But make no mistake, it absolutely takes jabs at Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist bombings and governmental stupidity. However, it comes from the same kind of jokes you would expect from any four friends who are fuck-ups. You could easily replace Islam with Christianity, Scientology, or hell, even the Mormons. The characters are so sharp and rich, and so brilliantly hilarious, it’s like watching the In The Loop mash-up of Dr. Strangelove. I just think most audiences are going to find it unpalatable because of the sheer kudzu stranglehold of the British slang and dialects, and the dark, dark, stunningly dark places it inevitably goes. — BP

Red Riding Trilogy — I could’ve sworn we’d reviewed this film, but I cannot find it in the archives. Trust me: It’s a brilliant, engrossing trilogy. It is dark and slow moving, and it will suck up a lot of your time, but if you like Zodiac, you’re going to love the Red Riding trilogy, three movies set several years apart all revolving around the investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper. — DR

Marwencol — Sometimes beauty comes from the most horrid ugliness. Five men dragged Mark Hogancamp out of a bar and pummeled him so viciously and brutally, that he had to have his face reconstructed. He suffered massive brain damage, so much so that he had to relearn everything — including who he was. His Medicaid ran out, so the therapy that was helping him was cut off. Mark sought therapy elsewhere, by constructing a 1/6 scale model WWII Belgian village in his backyard. He peopled the village with dolls, some replicas of people in his life, some just characters he created from whatever the dolls inspired. And one doll to represent himself. With Marwencol, Mark began to weave intricate stories for all of his characters, a narrative he documented with photographs. The small town became Mark’s sanctuary, where he could work out frustrations or fears or anxieties or triumphs. Marwencol drew the attention of a local photographer, and then magazine editor, which led to Mark’s Marwencol receiving a space at an art gallery. Director Jeff Malmberg does an astonishing job of documenting how Mark Hogancamp found his way back by escaping into his own little world. — BP

Hunger — (Fassbender Alert) Ostensibly concerning the 1981 hunger strike of IRA prisoners in Maze Prison, Belfast, Hunger is connected to real events by an occasionally tenuous thread — specificities that could impair McQueen’s attempts to construct a metaphor. McQueen can’t possibly give us the entirely of Anglo-Irish relations, or even a summary of “The Troubles” which directly inform the events of the film, and he doesn’t try to. We see the conflict in the microcosm of Maze. Early on, Margaret Thatcher’s voice can be heard, railing: “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, and political violence — there is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence,” and while that isn’t very far from the other condescending and asinine statements the old monster was fond of making (she also famously insisted there was no such thing as “society”), this was one of the gestures of parochial militancy that sparked the events herein. The British government’s denial of political status to IRA prisoners would spark a new wave of violence and protest, especially among the prisoners at Maze who fight their captors with utter savagery, refusing to wear prison uniforms or clean themselves, smearing the walls with shit, damming their cells with rotten food in order to flood the corridors with the contents of their chamber pots, and then being trussed, beaten, and humiliated by guards just as intent on bitterness. If such embittered actions were lost on Thatcher as those of mere criminality, it sure as hell isn’t lost on us. — Phillip Stephens

Fish Tank — God forgive anyone who makes the same mistake I did, sloughing off any future coming of age films about a young girl trying to make it out of her broken home in the projects as the “Insert Clever Slur Here” Precious. Fish Tank is a derivative film, in that the mores it explores are universal — following dreams, coming of age, teen sexuality, poor home lives, hip-hop dancing — but director Andrea Arnold claps those themes together between her palms, squashing them together as though she were killing a swarm of flies. The result is a harsh and uncomfortable exploration of one teen girl trying to free herself from the tethers of a horrible life. It’s as if someone clawed out all the shitty parts of Step Up or Stomp The Yard and crammed in the meatiest bits of Lolita. As an audience member, you feel complicit in every slag shriek, every slight stroke, every moment when we watch this poor British girl get simply pulverized by the sheer unfairness of life. Its only failure occurs when Arnold lets up the slack and dawdles off into the trappings of independent film tropes: arbitrary shots of birds swooping or trains in the distance, melancholia expressed through walking, and allowing the plot to sort of drift off like a plastic bag aloft in the breeze. However, there are so many wonderful moments, buoyed by some just staggeringly powerful performances, that you can forgive Arnold her jejune errata. Or you can call it the British Precious and feel welcome to go fuck off. — BP

The Vicious Kind (Adam Scott Alert) — Caleb Sinclaire (Adam Scott) is basically a completely fucked-up bastard, a misogynistic misanthrope whose own inner demons have turned him into a snarling, sniping prick. If it were mere sarcasm, it’d be sitcom, but there’s an insanely violent undercurrent of menace and actual savagery, coupled with a fragility Krieger uses to toy with your sympathies. Caleb offered to drive his younger brother Peter (Alex Frost) home for Thanksgiving break from college and pick up his new girlfriend Emma (Brittany Snow) along the way. Caleb pines for Emma while threatening her not to break his brother’s heart. Every actor in this film is so tuned up to maximum carnage, with awesome performances from everyone, including J.K. Simmons as the boys’ father and Vittorio Brahm as Caleb’s dull-witted kicking post/best-and-only friend. The Vicious Kind is a baffling and ugly film. If missed, you would truly be missing some monstrously good performances. Adam Scott always seems to be waiting to go on cigarette break in his performances I’ve seen, an attitude that works wonders for him in “Party Down.” If you suffered through the ball-drumming of Step Brothers, you might have gotten a glimpse at his fiery douchebag potential. But in the hands of a skillful filmmaker like Krieger, Adam Scott turns in a nuanced performance that should have gotten him accolades and awards. — BP

Solitary ManSolitary Man is a quietly entertaining film. It’s intelligent, well paced, emotionally complex, and at times, sexually charged. But like Up in the Air, which also had a lighter, breezier tone, Solitary Man is so thematically heavy that it sneaks up and wallops you over the head as you’re leaving the theater. Thematically, it’s about the consequences of living in the moment, and about mortality, and how we face death when we know it’s lurking around the corner. Do we go quietly, snuggled up against our spouses in front of the television waiting for death to knock? Or do we cast our loved ones aside and seize all the moments we missed out on in our lives, regardless of the repercussions? We only die once. How do we go out? Guns blazing, no regrets? Or do we holster all those missed opportunities and peacefully embrace the end? — DR

Trust — It’s bold to make a film about a teen statutory rape where the girl seems to be a willing participant, without turning it into some sort of running away together. It’s bold to make a film without a safe ending. It does a damn fine job of demonstrating the potential dangers of the internet culture. I don’t think it will, or should, start a slew of parents confiscating cell phones and blocking internet chats. Because the problem is that the target audience needs to be the children themselves. Most teenagers know the fact that they could get raped by a stranger, but they suffer that feeling of indestructible invincibility that puts morgue pages in yearbooks. So I’m not sure how effective it will be in the long run, but it’s still a pretty fierce film. — BP

Easier with Practice — Technology has brought people closer by allowing them to lie. Some of my best relationships, and some of my best friends, are people I’ve never met in real life. Even having to make reference to “in real life” says volumes about where we’ve gotten to as a society. There exists an entire cottage industry based around phone sex and cyber sex. For dollars a minute, you can have a dream-lover whisper sweet Mariahs into your ear while you pleasure yourself. Even if that lover is obviously a lie. Easier with Practice takes that lie and spins it into a fascinating and complex love story about a lonely aspiring writer and his infatuation with a girl who exists only as a voice on a telephone. The layers infused in the telling and the excellent characters imply a practiced hand, but this is writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s first feature. Alvarez explores all the complications and implications of a romance communicated entirely through phone sex without ever relying on cartoonish punchlines or broad gimmicks. It’s just as touching and quirky and beautiful as Secretary. And it’s also a movie you’ll probably never get a chance to see theatrically thanks to the desiccated and outmoded MPAA and their unconscionable prejudices because it’s been tainted with a bullshit NC-17 rating. — BP

The Escapist — It’s rare these days to get a movie with such potent gravitas rooted in a simple story. Dynamic acting plastered over a relatively basic framework, like a particularly well-built suburban subdivision, squats pensively at the center of The Escapist. Prison movies — at least ones that aren’t dependent upon soft core pornography — usually fall into one of two camps: guys trying to escape or guys trying to survive. Prison as a backdrop lends itself to monologues and terse dramatic scenes, and director Rupert Wyatt — who also penned the film with Daniel Hardy — makes the most of his cast. The story itself is pretty standard: a lifer needs to escape for noble reasons, so he enlists a ragtag crew to hatch a daring escape. The Escapist splits its time between the escape and the plotting and devolves into a bit of a surrealist existentialism, but frankly this is one of the few environments where you can get away with that. Despite a bit of a wonky cheat of a finale, The Escapist is like a well-stocked prison: it’s not really about the walls as the people who fill them. — BP

Harry Brown — Because I only know the charming older version of Michael Caine, it’s hard for me to remember that he actually was at one point Michael Caine, Beater of Ass. It’s like Alec Guinness — he’s always going to be Obi Wan Kenobi for most people, but when you watch Bridge on the River Kwai or Kind Hearts and Cornonets, you realize just how fucking amazing of an actor he actually was. The most I’d seen Michael Caine kill up to this point was a shark and a gay playwright Superman. And I forgot how dangerous an old man can be. Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown is the oldest of action flicks — the vigilante/vengeance flick. The stuff that sends roidmonkeys from the WWE straight to DVD. It’s such a simple premise: Someone you care about is beaten badly or killed, so you track down the criminals that perpetrated the crime and perpetrate a little whoopass of your own. What makes Harry Brown so effective and so powerful is its lack of frills. It’s a gritty, ugly, almost documentary-feeling film. There aren’t huge stunt sequences or flashy one-liners. There’s no Harry Brown signal, no footage of low-income citizens giving their opinions into a news camera, no little kids dressed up in a Michael Caine mask playing in a playground. There’s just one man, upset that his friend was murdered, taking out the trash. And goddamn is it fun to watch. — BP

Last Night — Massy Tadjedin’s directorial debut is a conversation-heavy film about jealousy and infidelity that relies on looks and glances to get much of its story across; how successful you find Last Night may depend on how familiar those looks and glances feel to you. If you’ve cheated, or if you’ve attempted to read the unfaithful signals of your partner, there’s some raw emotional power in between the almost endless streams of dialogue and a final scene that resonates with quiet devastation. It’s those moments — a flicker of the eyes, a too-knowing glance — as well as a nuanced performance from Keira Knightley that salvages Tadjedin’s Last Night, elevating it ever so slight above any number of Before Sunrise knock-offs with a infidelity twist, even as the excruciatingly wooden Sam Worthington threatens to drag it under. — DR

Phoebe in Wonderland — The uneasy enchantment of Phoebe in Wonderland begins and ends with the remarkable relationship between Clarkson’s Miss Dodger and Fanning’s Phoebe. Phoebe showcases Clarkson’s luminous, other-worldly presence, from the highs of her empress-like command of her devoted students to the lows of having her fairy wings clipped by Scott’s plodding, earth-bound administrator. Clarkson delivers an actor’s clinic, finding tremendous range in the clichéd role of Uplifting Drama Teacher, first relying on the ethereal presence shown in countless supporting roles like her turn in The Green Mile, then re-visiting the sorrow and melancholy she so soulfully plumbed in The Station Agent. Ted Boynton

Severance — t’s considerably more clever and well done, but the death scenes in Severance are as creative and furiously exuberant as anything I’ve seen outside of Final Destination films, though these are extra fun because they are both intense and take the piss out of Splat Pack. The movie works slightly better for those with an astute eye for slasher-flick conventions, especially Christopher Smith’s conclusion, which turns the final-girl trope on its head in an awesomely unexpected way — I won’t say anymore, except that it involves a fair amount of cleavage. Severance is unlikely to turn too many heads, and it doesn’t reinvent the slasher pic the way that Shaun of the Dead did for the zombie flick, but it is a welcome development for a subgenre stagnating in blood, aggression, and ripped flesh. Thankfully, it’s as entertaining as it is grisly. — DR

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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