One of my favorite features here on Pajiba is our Underappreciated Films series, which was initially prompted by the popularity of our The Best Films You’ve Never Seen post way back in 2006 designed to call your attention to several films that have flown under the radar in past years. Accordingly, I’d be remiss if, before leaving the Aughts behind, we didn’t take one last look back at the some of the great overlooked films of the decade, none of which made it on any of our Top Ten lists.
The criteria is simple: In order to be considered, the film had to make less than $3 million at the box office. Moreover, these films were excluded from consideration, if only because we’ve already beaten them to death with praise and either you’ve already seen them or you never will: Rocket Science, The Wackness, Let the Right One In and Brick.
The Host ($2.2 million): What do you get when you cross an old-fashioned B-level monster movie, an eco-political farce, and a poignant road-trip flick? Well, you get The Host, actually. And let me just say this up front: It is awesome. The Host, Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up to the successful Memories of Murder, went on to become South Korea’s biggest domestic grosser of all time, and it deserved every goddamn penny. Indeed, Bong does for Godzilla and Alien what Scream did for Freddy and Jason and what 28 Days Later … and Shaun of the Dead did for zombies. Yet The Host one-ups them all by combining slapstick with political undertones and merging comedy and horror with a plot that accomplishes what so few horror movies even attempt anymore: moving you to something awfully damn close to tears. — Dustin Rowles
Mysterious Skin ($700,000): Because we’ve poured so much affection of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brick. and because Mysterious Skin pre-dated (by days) the existence of Pajiba, we’ve given short-shrift to Gregg Araki’s devastating and beautiful film about the diverging paths of two boys who were molested by their Little League coach. It’s an exceptionally understated film, given its subject material, and JGL gives nothing less than a sublime performance. And though this overlooked film deserves to be seen once for its sweetness, it may be to disturbing ever to sit through again. — Dustin Rowles
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days ($1.1 million): It’s been almost two decades since Nicolae Ceauşescu was bloodily ousted from power after over 30 years of rule, but the icy grip with which he held Romania infects every frame of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, another impressive film at the crest of a flourishing cinematic wave from that country. For Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the chief protagonist of Cristian Mungiu’s second feature, winner of the 2007 Palme D’Or, Ceauşescu’s menace lies not in broad, Stalinist gestures (political issues are scarcely mentioned here) but in the laconic malaise of a society reduced to fear and self-interest. Mungiu’s film is not meant to be a paean to the pro-choice ethos, but he makes it clear that the subjugation of women is a monstrous injustice. But even this is but the symptom of a larger sickness — the social sickness of a people bullied into fear and mistrust by their total lack of power. And in 1987, so cruelly close to the end of Ceauşescu’s reign, that sickness was all the more bitter. Mungiu wants to show us that merely surviving that era was unremarkable, but surviving with your humanity intact was all but impossible. — Phillip Stephens
Tigerland ($139,000): While it’s no stretch to say that it’s Joel Schumacher’s best effort to date, it’s also one of the better boot camp films, only a few notches below the first half of Full Metal Jacket. Certainly, it has all the boot camp clichés — hard-ass superior officers who speak in strings of profanity, naïve kids in way over their head, lousy Southern accents, a wiseass who refuses to conform, and, of course, a soldier/writer documenting it all. But Schumacher and his cheap film stock and shaky handheld 16 mm camera (a novelty at the time) also managed to craft a brutally honest, surprisingly affecting film about the Vietnam experience, or at least, the experience of knowing you’re about to be shipped off to die in a war that you have no vested interest in. Indeed, if Tigerland were made today, the thematic parallels to our current war would have felt too obvious and maybe a little exploitative, not unlike the slew of war films currently hitting theaters, many of which are quite good but nevertheless seem to utilize the audience’s built-in anti-war sentiment to drive the narrative. Tigerland, released before 9/11, had no such sentiment upon which to capitalize — it was a film weirdly out-of-place during a year in which cross-dressing black men in fat suits dominated the marketplace. — Dustin Rowles
Morvern Callar ($267,000): My own twisted logic would dictate that, on first blush, Morvern Callar would represent the sort of film — artsy, pretentious, disjunctive — that I immensely dislike. To further these affectations, the movie seems to have forgotten its plot, contains very little dialogue, and — gag me with a free-form spoon — is often described as a very poetic work of cinema. If all of that wasn’t enough, the film differs substantially from its novelized source material as originally created by Scottish author Alan Warner. Lynne Ramsey’s (Ratcatcher) film departs from the novel in almost every regard except for the basic premise, yet she has somehow managed to retain the essential spirit of the novel’s title character and unlikely luminary. Most importantly, the film abandons the novel’s first-person narrative and much of the admittedly baffling Scottish slang, allowing Ramsey to properly project the main character onto the screen. As such, Morvern Callar, as both book and film, is considered a rightful peer of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. In particular, both films share a notably ferocious editing style and an arguably nihilistic undercurrent within their perverse appeal. — Agent Bedhead
The Proposition ($1.9 million): I love Westerns, but I find most of them unwatchable. The stories and settings are tailor-made for epics about love, death, betrayal; it’s a uniquely American genre, our own version of Shakespeare. But the Western’s heyday is a good 40 years gone, and it seems now that, at least most of the time, something gets lost in the translation from thought to script to film, and for every film like Unforgiven there’s another like The Postman. In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems facing the genre today: The need to change it, twist it, make it post-apocalyptic or overly stylized or full of broad, cheap humor. So it’s something of a minor miracle that director John Hillcoat’s latest film, The Proposition, manages to add a few updates to the classical Western while retaining and expanding upon all the expected themes of bloodlust, murder, bounty hunters, and brotherly disaffection. Hillcoat manages to sidestep the concept versus execution landmine by making the entire concept the execution. The Proposition is thinly plotted at best, but the film is more about the feel of the story and its impact on the viewer than any simplistic kind of conclusion to a storytelling arc. It’s an experiential, postmodern Western, and it totally works. — Daniel Carlson
Junebug ($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
Half Nelson ($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
All the Real Girls ($549,000): Writer-director David Gordon Green’s second effort focuses on the relationship between Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel). He’s the local lothario and she’s a virgin in a depressed North Carolina mill town. Their love intensifies without sex, and eventually they face a significant hurdle. After that moment, the movie loses a bit of momentum, but it’s stunningly shot throughout — Green has a well-deserved reputation for capturing languorous days in unlucky places. It’s true that his characters sometimes seem a bit too lacking in self-awareness — I believe one imdb commenter indelicately described his movies as “Hallmark cards for retards” — but there’s a sense that you’re watching their lives unfold in something like real time, and that’s enough of an accomplishment to keep you watching even during the flat spots. — John Williams
Primer ($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