Intention: To create the ultimate list of overlooked Ones That Got Away (from most people) and those underrated films I consider to be the worthiest for revisiting over the past 20 years (2000-2020)
Criteria: Mostly indie flicks that don’t have such a large following as breakout cult hits like Ghost World (2001) or Donnie Darko (2011) or arthouse breakouts like Weekend (2011) or Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Also, a few more mainstream and better-known films I feel don’t get the recognition they deserve.
The list contains quite a few queer-themed films because they tend to be overlooked in general, and many of them are vastly underrated! If you don’t like it, then tough, go look at another list 😉
I’m sure I have missed out lots of potential inclusions (tell me about it!), but these are the ones that most popped to mind and ended up on the list! Enjoy!
20. La Hora Fría (2006)
This little-known Spanish sci-fi horror failed to make a big splash internationally, but for me it’s one of the top overlooked gems of the genre in recent years.
With a video game-esque vibe that calls to mind the Fallout series crossed with Silent Hill, the story finds a group of diverse characters attempting to cohabitate together in a deep underground bunker within a limited ‘safe zone’.
If they venture out into the winding corridors of the rest of the complex or leave their rooms at night during the titular ‘Cold Hour’, they are liable to be devoured by nasty, mysterious (and uniquely-designed) creatures.
There are some plot holes, some of the set-up feels a little contrived, and the fact that all the characters are lumbered with Biblical names is a bit heavy-handed, but overall La Hora Fría is tense and claustrophobic, impressively mounted for its low budget, and boasts a killer twist ending.
19. , Lake Mungo (2008)
I think it’s fair to say that, 20 years into the 21st century, the fake documentary/found footage genre of horror has become so over-saturated and cliche since The Blair Witch Project (1999) that people stopped expecting anything fresh and creative from these films a long time ago.
That’s why the low-budget Australian film Lake Mungo is so surprising: instead of the typical jump scares and screeching confusion usually on display in this genre, Lake Mungo unfolds as a creepily convincing faux-documentary following one family’s grief-fuelled unraveling after the mysterious death of their daughter.
Although it’s filled with haunting imagery and low-key chills, Lake Mungo is a surprisingly affecting drama that would probably work even if its suggestion of supernatural elements was completely stripped out.
18. Contracorriente (2009)
Contracorriente (Undertow in English) is a Peruvian film about a forbidden romance between two men in a small seaside village that stands out for the unusual story elements it employs (which I won’t spoil!).
Contracorriente throws a big surprise into its narrative early on that catches you off-guard and allows for an intelligent and incredibly touching metaphor to develop across the rest of the film, helped by some sensitive and convincing performances from its cast.
17. Excision (2012)
Coming across like a gorier version of Donnie Darko (2001) with a far more troubled protagonist (and fewer apocalyptic bunny rabbits), Excision is the impressive debut of writer/director Richard Bates Jr., who went onto make the fun horror/comedy Suburban Gothic (2014) with Kat Dennings.
With an impressively unhinged but still sympathetic performance from AnnaLynne McCord as delusional teenager Pauline at its center, Excision expertly blends sly humor, disturbing imagery, and nail-biting plot developments to deliver a satisfying and surprisingly affecting whole.
16. Bunny and the Bull (2009)
The criminally underseen British comedy/drama Bunny and the Bull marks the feature debut of Paul King. one of the primary creative forces behind the loveably wacky TV show The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007) who went on to make the 2 universally adored Paddington films, and his fertile imagination is on full display here.
In addition to using heaps of the innovative animation and delightful practical effects that King employed in his other efforts, Bunny and the Bull also boasts a surprisingly deep and emotional story that proves for an engrossing and satisfying narrative.
15. Rusalka (2007)
I first saw this charming comedy/ drama from Russia at the Edinburgh Film Festival years ago and it has stuck with me mostly because of its awesomely upbeat soundtrack that I still listen to when I need a bit of an uplift.
Rusalka (Mermaid in English) is a fairytale-like story given a modern twist and follows loveable oddball Alisa as she narrates her life growing up in a seaside village with her brash single mother before being forced to move to Moscow as a teenager for economic reasons after her town is destroyed by a hurricane (which, in her endlessly magical thinking, she believes she caused herself).
The film’s naively optimistic heroine and the beautifully shot, surreal imagery will stay in your head and bring a smile to your face, but be warned: Rusalka can also be incredibly bittersweet, and like the effect the big city has on Alisa, forces you to confront some of the harsher truths of growing up at the end.
If that sounds appealing, I just discovered you can now watch Mermaid in its entirety on Vimeo courtesy of director Anna Melikyan.
14. Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
To be honest, any one of the brilliant Peter Strickland’s films (Katalin Varga, The Duke of Burgundy, In Fabric) could be included on this list. but Berberian Sound Studio has a special place in my heart for its atmospheric depiction of old-school filmmaking techniques and surprisingly hilarious culture-clash comedy.
It’s the intense, claustrophobic story of a buttoned-up British sound technician who gets sent to an Italian film studio to create the ambiance for a preposterous-sounding giallo horror flick, only to seemingly lose his sanity in the process.
The expert mood Strickland conjures is greatly helped by an awesomely retro soundtrack by Broadcast, even if it does go off the rails story-wise a little at the end.
13. Mean Creek (2004)
Of the two excellent teenage dramas revolving around a body found near water I was randomly obsessed with as a teenager, I decided to include Mean Creek on the list.
The fantastic Brick is the other, but I feel like more people are likely to go back and check that out independently following director Rian Johnson’s recent success with another murder-mystery film, Knives Out (2019).
While you could argue that Mean Creek is a bit of a knock-off of 80’s Keanu Reeves vehicle River’s Edge (1986), it’s actually a sadder, more empathetic drama about a traumatic loss of innocence among a group of kids more akin to Stand by Me (1989), and, in my opinion, a more gripping and satisfying thriller.
12. Sunset Song (2015)
As a Scotsman, it’s nice to be able to include at least one Scotland-set flick on this list, and Sunset Song definitely earns its place in my opinion (even though half of it was shot in New Zealand to give a convincing portrayal of the changing of the seasons).
Based on the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (an underrated Scots writer who also wrote the hugely enjoyable sci-fi satire Gay Hunter -way more innocent than it sounds, I promise: was written in 1934!), the film tells the story of a bright young farmer’s daughter in rural Aberdeenshire who is tragically trapped by unfortunate circumstances but who finds her way through sheer will of spirit.
It sounds depressing, but director Terence Davis masterfully expresses the highs and lows of protagonist Chris Guthrie’s life against some stunning backdrops, and the convincing, sympathetic central performance of Agyness Deyn keeps you emotionally invested in seeing how her story plays out.
11. Stranger by the Lake (2013)
A dreamily-shot slow-burn psychological drama that expertly builds atmosphere, dread, and tension, Stranger by the Lake is a cruising-themed French thriller that’s best enjoyed knowing as little as possible before going in…so just go watch it already!
10. The Rules of Attraction (2002)
If you watched the notoriously misleading trailer for this film before seeing it, you were probably expecting a lightweight American Pie-like university-set sex comedy with crude setpieces that wasn’t going to demand much from the viewer.
But it’s clear even from the opening sequence of The Rules of Attraction that it’s an uncommonly ambitious and creatively shot exploration of the university experience. And, while it certainly has its darkly funny moments, it’s more of a deeply cynical and somewhat depressing indictment of youthful hedonism (it is based on a novel by Brett Easton Ellis, after all).
James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, and Ian Somerhalder are all convincingly recognizable (if not always likable) in the lead roles, and many of the hard-earned lessons they learn on their misadventures still resonate with me to this day.
9. Burning (2018)
Like Stranger by the Lake, Burning is another slow-burn mystery thriller that is more effective the less you know going in.
All I will say about this excellent South Korean drama is that it leads you down a very different rabbit hole than you might expect based on the first act, it is beautifully and intimately shot, and has one of the more memorable (and troubling) surprise reveals in recent memory.
8. I am Love (2009)
Italian director Luca Guadagnino achieved widespread acclaim, and an Oscar nom, for the fantastic summer romance Call Me by Your Name (2017), but his masterpiece so far for me remains the criminally underrated I am Love.
A sweeping, epic romantic drama that tackles issues such as love, belonging, and desire in a stifling class system, I am Love dazzles with sumptuous imagery, a beautiful soundtrack, and a typically committed lead performance from a restrained yet still incredibly expressive Tilda Swinton.
7. My Summer of Love (2004)
Director Paweł Pawlikowski has since reached new artistic heights with his highly acclaimed films Ida (2015) and Cold War (2018), but this engrossing early effort featuring a young Emily Blunt still holds an impressive spell over me years after I last saw it.
A same-sex summer romance that more than rivals that of Call Me by Your Name, My Summer of Love expertly captures the woozy, angsty moods of its 2 infatuated protagonists, and paints an enthralling portrait of their claustrophobic small town and the forces that threaten to tear their fragile union apart, propelled by a perfectly-matched, typically dreamy score by Goldfrapp.
6. Lantana (2001)
One of the best films in the ‘interlocking lives’ subgenre that’s also home to the excellent Short Cuts (1993) and Magnolia (1999), Lantana weaves a tangled web of characters consumed by misunderstandings and frustrated desire.
Although set against the dramatic discovery of a possible murder, Lantana is more concerned with the everyday conflicts, fears, and small emotional breakthroughs among its large cast, and stands out for its truthful performances and the empathetic eye of director Ray Lawrence.
5. The Fountain (2006)
Most people uniformly agree that Dareen Aronofsky is a master director, and the majority of his films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, The Wrestler) are already considered stone-cold classics.
But, much like his polarizing Mother!(2017), The Fountain was an Aronofsky joint that majorly divided people and has sort of fallen by the wayside when it comes to discussion of his best work.
But even if you can’t quite swallow some of the weighty (and occasionally pretentious) themes that the director weaves into his epic narrative about a love that seemingly spans centuries, there is no denying that The Fountain is a touching story vastly enhanced by expert turns from stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
And that’s without mentioning the awe-inspiring special effects and lush production design, both of which are incredibly impressive considering the film’s relatively small budget, as well as the rousing soundtrack by Clint Mansell.
4. Nebraska (2013)
Although many people might not regard a film with 6 Oscar nominations as overlooked or underrated, I still feel like the fact Alexander Payne’s poignant Nebraska was shot in black and white and tackles the difficult subject matter of dementia probably stopped this gem from finding the huge audience it deserved.
I still often find myself thinking about this incredibly touching, sincere, and often very funny family drama years after I last saw it, especially the hilarious comedic banter between the 3 central characters and the perfectly crafted tear-jerker of an ending.
3. The Station Agent (2003)
Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale as three lost souls who form a tender friendship despite having almost nothing in common? That’s about all there is to the warm, funny, and deeply empathetic The Station Agent, and about all this beautifully observed comedy/drama needs to be fantastically great.
2. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Alfonso Cuarón has had an impressive career in the last 20 years (Children of Men, Gravity, Roma), but for me Y Tu Mamá También, an intimate and sensual intimate road trip across Mexico, is probably one of his greatest achievements.
Misleadingly starting out as a kind of teen comedy in which two horny teenage boys convince n older woman to travel cross-country to a mythical beach, Cuaron’s film slowly pulls the rug out from under the audience and turns into a thoughtful, revealing meditation on the fleeting nature of life and the inevitably of death.
The scenes of the trio of protagonists merrily chatting away and goofing around as the ominous narrator explains their innermost thoughts, as well as the events that shaped the history of the land they are journeying through, still give me chills to this day.
1. The Others (2001)
I know what you’re thinking: everybody’s seen The Others, right? The scene where the little girl plays with her puppets under her communion dress is pretty iconic and even inspired an admittedly hilarious silly parody scene in Scary Movie 3 back in the day.
But the horrifying fact that The Others is in line for a remake makes me think it is not widely considered to be the untouchable classic I feel it is, and so I put it at the top to prompt those (few?) people who haven’t seen it to do so, and maybe encourage who have to go back and reappraise it.
Although clearly heavily influenced by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and its 1961 film adaptation The Innocents, The Others is its own unique beast entirely, boasting a near-perfect script, intriguingly ambiguous characters, and the ultimate gothic atmosphere.
Propelled by increasingly nail-biting setpieces and a deeply committed paranoid performance by Nicole Kidman, The Others is only made better by its shocking end twist, which makes repeat viewings of the film even more enjoyable as you spot the sly clues dropped into tip you off. How a new version set in the present day hopes to outdo the sublime original is anyone’s guess.
Some honorable mentions
Some underrated films that didn’t quite make it on to the list:
Check back in January for my first review of 2021 and let me know if you agree/ strongly disagree with my picks for this list in the comments!