A decent list of the most underrated movies ever should be top-heavy with modern films--film studies and "classic movie" channels and themed programs have mined the past and exposed older underrated films as the classics they are. That's why this list is a bit heavy on the recent past.
How movies gain underrated status is a mystery to us. Sometimes movies don't get the right kind of promotion, or don't appeal to a wide enough audience to get the attention they deserve. Hopefully, with the help of lists like this, more great movies from the past will be given the credit they deserve.
Unlike most horror flicks from the 50s, The Vampire is grounded in an excellent script. The dialogue is of the quirky variety, think Seinfeld with fangs. In The Vampire, a doctor takes an experimental drug and turns into a vampire, but not of the Transylvanian variety. This vampire is more like a prehistoric human, a caveman with a taste for blood. This is one classic 50s horror movie that is vastly underrated.
You can now see Topkapi playing on movie channels that pay homage to the golden age of cinema--but until recently, Topkapi was all but forgotten. This film represents the campy 1960s approach to movies like none other. This is essentially a great caper movie, a travelogue, and a "Eurosploitation" flick all rolled into one. We've got suspense, we've got (goofy) comedy, and we've got women in their 60s trying to play teenage seductresses. If you've never seen Topkapi, head to your local indie movie rental shop and get ready for a hilarious romp through the psychedelic and ridiculous 60s of cinema.
Remember when Jack Nicholson decided to start making art films? The Passenger is not your typical Nicholson movie. This film moves along like a tortoise on Xanax--not for action movie fans, The Passenger is an Antonioni film, Nicholson's attempt at an art house film. Called "pretentious" by some, The Passenger is remarkable if only for its careful attention to the art of cinematography. A perfect film for students of cinema and acting.
Tom Cruise's least-known and least-talked about role is in The Color of Money. If you've never seen this movie, you're missing out. Paul Newman and Tom Cruise turn in some of their best acting performances in this otherwise ignored story of pool hustlers and drug addiction. It's hard to imagine an Oscar-winning film being "underrated," but this film has fallen out of favor in the past ten years.
Easily the Coen brothers' most underrated film, 1991's Miller's Crossing stars Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden. Prohibition movies are generally very popular, as are Coen brothers films, but Miller's Crossing performed so poorly at the box office, it very nearly sidelines the career of two of Hollywoods greatest contemporary stars: Joel and Ethan Coen. Even more of a surprise: Miller's Crossing is on AFI's Top Ten Gangster Movies list, and almost no one has ever sat down and seen the thing besides Coen brothers fans.
Produced and directed by Robert Redford, Quiz Show gets my vote for most underrated film of the 90s. Quiz Show tells the story of Twenty-One, a massively popular quiz show that rigged the results to maintain its high TV ratings. The story is complex but uncannily interesting. Our current fascination with shows like Jeopardy! and the people who have long runs as champion makes this show even more stunning to today's audiences. There's some controversy about the film's historical accuracy, so if you're interested in seeing Quiz Show as a documentary about what actually happened, you may be disappointed. Still, with actors like Hank Azaria and John Turturro (who is in the cast list of many of the films presented here) the story is well-told and totally engaging.
If any one director consistently makes underrated films, it is Jim Jarmusch, director of Ghost Dog. This film is unpopular probably because it is a hard sell. Part samurai movie, part gangster flick, part homage to French minimalist cinema, Ghost Dog is as hard to pin down as it is to find on movie channels or for sale in retail stores. Forest Whitaker plays the title role, and look for an awesome cameo by RZA of the Wu Tang Clan.
This movie's tag line ("Altered State Police") is a perfect fit for this stoner comedy / cop procedural. Super Troopers is the funniest movie you've never seen--if you weren't in college in the last ten years, the odds that you've seen this hilarious under-the-radar flick are extremely low. What we love about Super Troopers is that the script is endlessly quotable, stuffed with laugh lines, and that the film is deep enough to reward multiple viewings. You don't even have to own a bong to get the jokes. This is one stoner movie that's beer and wine-friendly.
Ricky Gervais has made plenty of movies in the past few years that belong on this list. Ghost Town, a smart comedy for adults that almost no one has seen, is a perfect example. We could have put The Invention of Lying in its place (another smart and hilarious Gervais vehicle) but Ghost Town is even more underrated than the relatively well-reviewed and promoted Invention of Lying. Admittedly, Gervais (in his first film role) playing a dentist who can see and talk to ghosts sounds like silliness worthy of the cutting room floor, but Ghost Town is a kind of revelation. For starters, Tea Leoni does an amazing job in this movie, not a common event. There's nothing better than comedians playing it straight, and usually nothing more underrated.
There's nothing better than sitting down in front of a movie you're not sure about and discovering a gem. We guarantee if you put any of these flicks in your Netflix queue, you won't be disappointed.