Five Underrated Movies of the 2000s

I’ll be the first to admit that the terms “overrated,” and “underrated” are probably thrown around too frequently. That said, “Five Movies from the 2000s That Might Have Slipped Your Attention but That I Think are Excellent and Totally Worth Your Time” isn’t quite as punchy. For my purposes here, “underrated” means that general critical perception of the movie (per Metacritic) doesn’t match up to my view of how good the film is. I considered including movies that were critically well-received but that too few people saw, making the movie “underrated” from a popularity standpoint, but most of the movies on that list would be critical darlings – films almost universally popular among those who actually watched them (Pan’s LabyrinthChildren of Men, and a few others), and probably deserve their own list.

My criteria for “underrated” is a Metacritic score under 75. Anyway, here they are, in no particular order.

Stranger than Fiction (Metacritic score: 67)

Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal

This affected my perception of Will Ferrell in a similar (though not quite as extreme) way as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shook my perception of Jim Carrey. It isn’t quite as far afield from what Ferrell normally does, but his performance in Stranger than Fiction is wrought with complex, nuanced emotion and a humor far more subtle than his usual overgrown child routine in movies like Talladega Blades of Semi-Pro Step Brothers. The film’s ingenious conceit (Ferrell plays a man who one day finds that his life is being narrated by an author – literal, not metaphorical – (played by Emma Thompson)) is executed to perfection, and the resulting film is by turns hilarious, bittersweet, inspirational (a word that too often condemns a film as sentimental, even when it isn’t), and profound. As much as I love Anchorman, this is Will Ferrell’s best movie, and it isn’t close. Added bonus: Spoon does almost the entire soundtrack.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Metacritic score: 65)

Starring: Jude Law, Haley Joel Osment

A.I’s legacy is wrapped up in the fact that  Stanley Kubrick started the project, and when he died, Steven Spielberg finished it. A lot of people saw (and see) this as a major incompatibility problem, and view the film as true to neither man’s vision. This is, however, a total projection of audience expectations, and unfair to the finished product. Spielberg has shown that he’s capable of dark (Minority Report, Munich, Saving Private RyanSchindler’s List), and he manages A.I.’s tone just fine. The other major complaints involve the films runtime and it’s ambition. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it is a long movie, but considering the enormity of the themes it’s exploring, I think 146 minutes is a fair allowance. As far as the film’s ambition goes? Yes, A.I. wrestles with a lot of universal questions, and it doesn’t always reach clear conclusions, but if it did, we would just say that it simplifies a complex problem with a token “answer.” I’ll typically give films with an ambitious scope the benefit of the doubt, even if they don’t entirely realize their objective. Would we rather have movies that play everything safe just to ensure a placated audience? I don’t think so.

The Darjeeling Limited (Metacritic score: 67)

Starring: Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman

Oh, Wes Anderson. Your quirky charms started sputtering with 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and died on the table in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited. Or so the world at large would have us believe. I’ll agree that Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are better movies than either of the two mentioned above, but The Darjeeling Limited was criminally overlooked, mainly, it seems, because it appeared to be a lot like Wes Anderson’s other movies. In certain ways, of course, it is like those other movies, but TDL gives us something different. Call it a more grounded (in some ways) version of the familial complexities explored in Tenenbaums. Anderson’s tone is often compared to J.D. Salinger’s, which makes considerable sense. If Rushmore is The Catcher in the Rye and TRT is Nine Stories, then TDL is Franny and Zooey, a more focused philosophical exploration that relies less on the narrative to pack its punches. Of all the things this movie has going for it, tops is the brilliant interplay between Brody, Schwartzman, and Wilson and the river scene – the most powerful Anderson has ever put to film.

Brick (Metacritic score: 72)

Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt

When I finally saw this movie (more than a year after the trailer stunned me), I was floored at how good it was. Brick plays out like The Big Sleep set in a California high school, complete with noir dialogue and slang that stacks up more and more thickly as the movie goes along. It sounds ridiculous, but it plays out incredibly well. Levitt, in his role as a hard luck loner (of course), shows staggering acting chops that make it easy to see why Christopher Nolan, Marc Webb, and Steven Spielberg (the upcoming Lincoln) have cast him in their recent films. Like the best hard-boiled detective stories, plenty of twists and shadowy characters populate Brick and keep the viewer on uncertain footing throughout. The similarities don’t stop there, however. If you watch Brick, do it with the volume turned up when you’re sure not to be disturbed. With literally one glance away from the screen, you could miss something critical.

Unbreakable (Metacritic score: 62)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson

I’ve been carrying a torch for this movie since its release in 2000. It’s hard to talk about an M. Night Shyamalan movie without also talking about the measurable decline in the quality of Shyamalan’s films over time, but, like Wes Anderson, I think Shyamalan gets a bum rap (more deservedly so, but still). The Sixth Sense is great, Signs has a lot going for it (complaints about the film’s hard-to-believe coincidences miss the film’s entire point), and The Village never deserved its position as the target of every critic who ever found anything wrong with an M. Night Shyamalan movie. His more recent fare has been pretty poor, but the thing that keeps me hoping that he’s still got something brilliant up his sleeve is Unbreakable. First of all, I can’t remember marketing campaign that was more misleading than Unbreakable‘s. Expectations are powerful things, and I think most of what bothered people about Unbreakable was that it didn’t match up to what they envisioned. Instead of a horror movie, audiences got a ruminative exploration of heroism and evil, strength and weakness, courage and fear. Subtlety rules this movie, and though its development is more of a slow burn than a build to a brilliant flash, Unbreakable is an incredibly strong conceptual film.

There you have it. Obviously, I’ve only seen so many movies, so if there are any you think deserve to be on this list, let us know.

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