A number of movie reviewers have been releasing lists of what they deem to be the best films of 2000-2009. There's a lot of overlap with the films I've put on my own annual "top ten" lists – sometimes you just get a movie that most everybody can agree on. However, whereas I sometimes write lists of what I consider to be the more overrated films of the year (and I could do that easily for this decade; for instance, almost any movie with Kate Winslet in it), this time I wish to shed light on what, to me, are the most underrated films of the past ten years. There is a special joy in liking a movie that everybody else dismisses or even loathes. It does not happen often enough for me. But I found the following nine titles interesting, challenging, and even beautiful. Hopefully they will find their audiences as the years go by.
- BLINDNESS (Fernando Meirelles, 2008). That critics and cineastes would go bananas for Meirelles' gritty but poorly-plotted The Constant Gardener and then write off his tense followup about a virus that strikes everybody in the world blind except for one woman (Julianne Moore) just goes to show you that movie reviewers can be just as fickle and faddish as Hollywood studios and audiences.
- THE FALL (Tarsem Singh, 2006). Though Tarsem's wild fantasia appears to be amassing a cult following – its current IMDb rating is an impressive 8.0 – most critics ignored it at the time. But it is a wondrous combination of eye-popping location photography, stunning costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and affecting performances by Lee Pace and the amazing 5-year old Romanian amateur Catinca Untaru. Tarsem is known for stealing his visuals from other, lesser-known filmmakers, but The Fall is one of a kind.
- THE GOOD THIEF (Neil Jordan, 2002). Jordan is one of the most under-appreciated directors around. Not all his films match the acclaim of Mona Lisa or The Crying Game, but they're always interesting, and The Good Thief, a clever, self-referential remake of the French classic Bob le Flambeur, is as good as any. It may not be a film for the ages, but it's got many layers and a fascinating cast led by Nick Nolte (whom I usually do not like).
- SUNSHINE (Istvan Szabo, 2000). I'm cheating a little here, as Szabo's film is technically a 1999 release, but most of the world didn't see it until deep into 2000. Not to be confused with Danny Boyle's disappointing sci fi pic of the same name, Sunshine is an epic about Hungary's wartime trials throughout the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of one Jewish family. Ralph Fiennes is excellent in three different roles. Some found it pretentious, but I think it's well worth seeing.
- HERO (Zhang Yimou, 2002). Another film that has slowly garnered an 8.0 rating on the IMDb, Zhang's color-coded Chinese epic never flew with American audiences the same way the inferior Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did, and critics shrugged it off, unlike Zhang's earlier films. Too bad. Its visuals are spectacular. Other once-cherished Asian directors whose later work was unfairly ignored this decade include Wong Kar Wai with 2046 and Tran Anh Hung with The Vertical Ray of the Sun.
- THE QUIET AMERICAN (Phillip Noyce, 2002). Well-liked by the handful of people who actually went to see it, Noyce's adaptation of Graham Greene's novel about a love triangle in prewar Vietnam suffered the same fate as Blindness: its studio just didn't get behind it, so it was dumped into a few theaters with little fanfare, then pulled before word of mouth could spread. But Michael Caine is at his very best and Brendan Fraser delivers arguably his sole great performance. Richly shot, like Hero, by the legendary Christopher Doyle.
- A SCANNER DARKLY (Richard Linklater, 2006). Although it exhibited a better use of the rotoscope animation so ballyhooed in Linklater's earlier, overrated Waking Life – not to mention being the most faithful screen adaptation ever made from a Philip K. Dick novel – even hipster reviewers couldn't be bothered with A Scanner Darkly. But it's a very interesting picture about drug abuse in a future police state. And dare I say it? It even features decent performances by Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder.
- BREACH (Billy Ray, 2007). There are probably a dozen films like Breach that, if I thought long enough, I could add to this list, but Breach is what you get. A truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of the takedown of American spy/weirdo Robert Hansson, the film is a fine detective story along the lines of Ray's equally good Shattered Glass, with a fantastic performance by Chris Cooper as Hansson and strong supporting work by Laura Linney. Cooper was unjustly overlooked for what is among his best work.
- INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006). Much as Björk alienated her growing cult audience with a somewhat unlistenable a capella album, so too did Lynch turn off many of the people who loved him since Blue Velvet – and especially the new fans he picked up with Mulholland Drive. This film is three hours long. It's shot mostly on grainy, low-quality video. Its story is so murky that it makes Mulholland Drive look simple. In short, Lynch has not made it easy to like Inland Empire. But if you have the patience, you may just appreciate this for the work of art that it is, a nebulous account of a Polish woman seeking an abortion, and a parallel, possibly imaginary story about Laura Dern in two different roles.