Top 25 Most Underrated Films of the 21st Century

Listed below are 25 of the top underrated films in this century that range from indie to mainstream. 

Listed below are 25 of the top underrated films in this century that range from indie to mainstream. 

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25. Shutter Island (2010)

Martin Scorsese’s shocking and mind-bending thriller isn’t only a directorial demonstration of mastery but holds the prize for containing Leonardo DiCaprio’s most amazing performance. DiCaprio exerts an array of talents, from his intense dramatic confrontations to his heartbreaking emotional breakdowns, making this his most soul-shattering work of acting of his career. While this film was universally liked, it has been mostly forgotten behind Scorsese and DiCaprio's other works and was completely ignored by the Oscars. 


24. Enemy (2013)

Denis Villeneuve might be known for films like “Arrival” and “Blade Runner: 2049,” yet one of his earliest films, “Enemy,” is one of the most intriguing and creative pieces of cinema of the 21st century. Jake Gyllenhaal —  portraying two characters who come in contact with each other and are shocked by their identical appearance — gives two phenomenal performances that speak volume to his gifted talent as an engaging actor. Enemy is a true mind-bender that deserves to be seen by everyone. 

23. Take Shelter (2011)

Jeff Nichols’ original and provocative drama stars Michael Shannon as a paranoid family man who builds a tornado shelter after receiving mysterious signs of a powerful storm. Nichols does a great job in this film making his audience as confused as his protagonist to keep us fully engaged in Shannon’s personal journey. Shannon excels in expressing his full potential in a truly brilliant film.


22. Nightcrawler (2014)

“Nightcrawler” is a stylish thriller that raises profound questions about American society and the nature of troubled individuals who feel outed by society. In Jake Gyllenhaal's most captivating performance, the actor portrays a man who makes a successful living filming violent videos. He begins to lose his mind along the way in a full-throttle, thrilling manner.


21. IT (2017)

While widely liked by critics and becoming a pop-culture sensation, “IT” wasn’t appreciated for its poignant themes and beautiful story of youth and friendship. Stephen King’s ingenious horror novel was adapted with a rich style that blend chilling terror and heartwarming characters. If people were able to look past the scary clown, they’d realize there’s more to this story than meets the eye. 


20. Gran Torino (2008)

In what I would argue is Clint Eastwood’s best film, “Gran Torino” portrays a broken old man who changes his negative view of the world once he challenges his prejudice and befriends a family of Korean immigrants to help protect them from a local gang. This is a powerful and moving human story that deserves more credit than just Eastwood’s infamous “Get off my lawn” quote. 

19. Sin City (2005)

Despite solely being a visually-based action flick, “Sin City” is an epic chronicle of crime that depicts a black-and-white comic-book world with stunning style. This is a violent, artistic and flat-out amazing adaptation that should be embraced for its wildly fun nature.


18. Little Children (2006)

Kate Winslet stars in this haunting portrayal that depicts the truth behind suburbia and the personal issues surrounding troubled adults. Few films are as subtle in their dramatic effectiveness, which comes from its brilliant script that makes us look under the surface of our modern society. 

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

This beautiful visual poem and work of art — despite receiving significant Oscar nominations and vast critical acclaim — was largely misunderstood by audiences. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a testament to a child's imagination and the raw truth of the grueling lifestyles for rural Americans. Each scene is captured with a rich beauty that is effective in making you emotional.

Frame grab from opening fireworks sequence

 

16. Doubt (2008)

Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis shine in this thought-provoking drama following a Catholic middle school. The nuns grow curious to the relationship between their priest and a student. Meryl Streep is brilliant in playing an emotionally tormented woman lost in what she believes, Amy Adams gives the best performance of her career and Philip Seymour Hoffman does an amazing job of portraying a character who leaves you confused as to who he truly is — his performance a miraculous display of emotional acting. This film does a brilliant job of leaving you questioning not only the plot but the characters themselves.

15. Prisoners (2013)

“Prisoners” is a gripping drama with incredible performances by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Following a troubled father and determined cop trying to find a missing girl, this film perfectly captures the lengths adults are willing to go to rescue their children and the moral changes adults embark on while searching for the truth.  

14. Munich (2005)

Steven Spielberg’s most underrated movie depicts the aftermath of the Olympics terrorist attack in Munich in 1972. It follows the Israeli assassins who hunted and killed the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the attack. Spielberg crafts a tense thriller with substance by addressing the controversial methods of combating terrorism and the true nature of evil. 


13. mother! (2017)

Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre, shocking, twisted and confusing masterpiece wasn’t just unpopular with critics and audiences, but down-right hated. Jennifer Lawrence stars as a woman whose husband keeps inviting strangers to their home, the vast gathering of people wreaking havoc on her and her house. In what is really a unique take to the stories in the Bible, Aronofsky's ingenious directorial vision for this film is intoxicating — a film that hits you and refuses to let go. Those who hated it simply didn't understand it, not only being confused by its story but by its visual style as well. 

12. First Reformed (2018)

In one of the most original and important films of the century, Paul Schrader's pitch-perfect drama stars Ethan Hawke as a pastor who has a crisis of faith when he mentors a troubled woman and her eco-terrorist husband. The film does a masterful job exploring important societal issues and grounding them in an intimate character study. Hawke does wonders in one of the best leading performances you can find, expressing his personal struggles and the reality of being an emotionally vulnerable man in the 21st century with rich subtly. 


11. You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Lynne Ramsay’s stunning noir drama follows a traumatized Joaquin Phoenix as a hitman who rescues kidnapped girls and murders their captors. In what is without question one of the most artistic and stylish character studies of the 21st century, “You Were Never Really Here” is a masterful crime drama that excels in every manner. Sadly, this indie film wasn’t as well-known to the public as it should be, but truthfully, it would have most likely gone over the heads of mainstream audiences due to its poetic style and unique means of storytelling. 


10. Signs (2002)

M. Night Shyamalan's best film follows Mel Gibson as a retired pastor who after the death of his wife is haunted by alien invaders alongside his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two children. This film was unfortunately viewed as just a scary alien movie, but underneath the brilliantly crafted suspense lies a deeply human drama about the importance of having faith in life and oneself and the signs that guide us to our potential. 

9. I, Tonya (2017)

Despite being generally well-received, “I, Tonya” didn’t earn nearly enough credit for being one of the most memorable and entertaining nonfiction films of all time. Margot Robbie is amazing as Tonya Harding, portraying the talented figure skater throughout her troubled life and the skating scandal involving Nancy Kerrigan. Allison Janney is incredible as her abusive and cruel mother, giving one of the best performances by an actress in a supporting role. The film is a terrific piece of storytelling with kinetic style and magnificent performances that is nothing short of perfect. 

8. District 9 (2009)

District 9 is a brilliant metaphor for apartheid in South Africa that is directed with a stunning vision by Neill Blomkamp. Portrayed with a realistic fashion, we follow the relationship between a man and an alien in a futuristic South Africa — their relationship a brilliant reflection on the true meaning of the word alien and what it means to have a prejudice, unequal society. Despite being nominated for Best Picture, this film is mostly forgotten, a true shame due to its rich story and creative visuals. 


7. The Hateful Eight (2015)

While not as noteworthy as other Quentin Tarantino films, “The Hateful Eight” is a traditional Tarantino film that pays tribute to the classic spaghetti westerns of the 20th century. This bloody, gripping and brilliant action flick is pure Tarantino, a beautiful blend of gritty violence and witty humor. Witnessing eight characters spend an entire film mostly in a cabin and slowly unleash hell on each other may sound pointless, yet Tarantino's gift as a writer and director is evident from start to finish. 


6. Under the Skin (2013)

Jonathan Glazer wins the award in my book for crowning the greatest alien movie of all time. Despite being almost completely unheard of by mainstream audiences, “Under the Skin” is a dark beautiful testament to the human condition, using an alien in disguise as Scarlett Johansson to identify what makes us human and what drives the human soul. This visually arresting and mentally captivating sci-fi masterpiece does a wonderful job expressing its main ideas with very little dialogue but tremendous detail and imagery.  

5. Her (2013)

Spike Jonze’s imaginative love story follows Joaquin Phoenix as a heartbroken loner who falls in love with his intelligent computational device voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Jonze does a mesmerizing job illustrating the complexities of love and gives us an emotional love story that is so creative and imaginative. Despite its win for Best Original Screenplay, “Her” was most unsettling to the public due to its unconventional methods of expressing the beauty of love. 


4. The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrance Malik’s magnificent exploration of the beauty of life follows both the universe and spirituality through the lens of a family in Texas during the '60s. With limited dialogue and its heavy reliance on its stunning cinematography, it explores the meaning of life through stunning visual explorations. This beautiful work of art is simply unforgettable despite audiences snickering at it.

 

3. Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling plays a stunt driver who, after befriending his neighbor and forming a romance with her, becomes involved in protecting her and her son from the mob. Despite being shockingly brutal, “Drive” is a strangely beautiful film that shouts “style,” crafted with astounding direction by Nicolas Winding Refn. With some of the greatest car chases in film history, “Drive” is an earth-shattering crime epic that reflects the motifs of the human soul. Even though critics fell in love with this movie, the Oscars mostly ignored this film and many view it as nothing more than a violent action movie. 


2. King Kong (2005)

Yes, this is a remake of one of the most iconic films in the history of the world and yes, it has moments that are beyond ridiculous. I don’t know how Naomi Watts could run through a treacherous island barefoot or still look insanely gorgeous after being stranded in the tropical wilderness for so long, but Peter Jackson’s King Kong is nothing short of amazing. This is the ultimate adventure film that explores man's relationship with nature and the effects of colonialism. Even though it’s over three hours long and may have a few plot holes, King Kong is an epic adventure that is perhaps the most re-watchable film of the century. 


1. The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s character study of a traumatized drifter after WWII is an unfathomable work of mastery that holds the prize in my book for containing the single best performance by an actor in film history. Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell is nothing short of miraculous, his effortless display of emotion and detailed complexities surrounding his emotional breakdowns is acting at its best — an unrivaled display of talent. The film itself is a brilliant societal explanation of what it means to be lost in a competitive world, Anderson’s layered story and elegant directorial vision a stellar work of art. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams deliver remarkable performances as leaders of a Scientology-like cult that recruits Freddie and causes him to find meaning and belonging for once in society. “The Master” artfully examines the horrors of a truly lost individual. How the Oscars only nominated the film for its performances (or did not grant Joaquin Phoenix the award for Best Actor) and the audiences ignored such a profound drama is a sin. “The Master” is the most underrated film of the 21st century. 





Dominic LeRose is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.

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