Nine Recent American Films That Were Underrated


Here's a quick list of films that I personally happened to like, despite poor critical and/or public response, and I still recommend them for certain reasons (and certain moods).

  1. Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995). Mostly dismissed by critics upon its release as being a poor copy of Scorsese's earlier Goodfellas, I contend that the world of Casino is much better suited to the fast-paced, rock music-laden style employed in both films, and it might have been considered one of Scorsese's best works had Goodfellas not come out first. It still gave us Sharon Stone's only decent performance ever.
  2. Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997). A shocking and discomfiting film directed by the guy who wrote the shocking and discomfiting Kids. This was soundly thrashed by just about every critic around. Nevertheless, if you can stomach it, I think the film's bleak look at the modern American landscape (and its inhabitants) contains an urgent and heartfelt cry for help.
  3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992). Every David Lynch film has its detractors – even amongst Lynch's own fans. This one was written off by many as oblique, poorly acted, and pointless. But I think it contains some of Lynch's most moving (and frightening) scenes. And Ray Wise is a great actor. That said, if you didn't watch the TV series, you'd probably be even more lost with this one.
  4. The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir, 1986). Weir and star Harrison Ford followed up their Witness success with this toxic portrait of a brilliant inventor losing his mind and destroying his family in the Amazon. Ford has never before – or since – played such an unlikable character, but that doesn't mean it's not a strong role, or a strong film. Watching it is a test of one's temper, but you can't say it doesn't shake you up.
  5. Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990). Weir again. Now that he's having loads of success with The Truman Show, perhaps this low-key comedy might get a second look. I liked it because there seems to be something deeper than the frothy romance and ill-chosen Enya songs – something reflecting Weir's earlier, more troubling films about white colonial arrogance and its disastrous effects. Plus the plot foreshadows my own film's "Love, Trevor" story somewhat, so I have to pay my respects.
  6. Casualties of War (Brian De Palma, 1989). A relentlessly depressing Vietnam War drama about a US platoon kidnapping a Vietnamese woman in the heat of battle, and the one soldier (Michael J. Fox, very good) who tries to stop them, was too heavy for most. The film didn't do well, but it's still a tense and moving experience, with an excellent score by the great Ennio Morricone.
  7. Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996). I know people who love this movie and people who absolutely despise it. I guess it depends on whether you think having a bunch of huge movie stars get melted down by cackling Martians is funny or not. The actors seem so ill at ease and lost that you can't help but wonder if that was Tim Burton's intention – all the more reason to cheer when they get rubbed out. The Martians themselves are really well-animated and gleefully nasty. It's actually a nightmarish film.
  8. Serial Mom (John Waters, 1994). Audiences avoided it, but I find it John Waters' most subversive movie – subversive because, out of all his "big" films made with studio money, it's definitely the darkest. It's also got lots of rich humor and a fine performance by Kathleen Turner (who doesn't get to turn in many fine performances these days). Serial Mom is not a great film, and it does lean toward the PC at times, but still gets away with some really kinky, funny, brutal moments.
  9. Mad City (Costa-Gavras, 1997). Blink and you missed it, but I found this hostage thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta to be quite well-performed (except for some of the supporting cast) and well-written, where every word spoken is loaded with meaning and intent. This was what I was taught good drama was all about. Only the very, very last bit of dialogue is stupid. Trivia note: Much of the film was shot in my hometown of San Jose.