A few weeks ago, I published my article The 5 Most Overrated Movies of All Time. I received a lot of bile and gall from the public, which was expected, but I also received some positive feed back, including a number of comments asking what my most “underrated” movies of all time would be. Naturally, I set out to give the people what they wanted. However I ran into some complications. The first was that I had already spoken up to defend several underrated movies during my time at Walking Taco, and I thought to include these in a listicle would be redundant and crowd other movies off the list. I thought about making this a top 10 list instead of a top 5, but didn’t think many people would take time to read a list that long. I finally decided I would leave them off, and if people wanted to read my take on them, they could read my original reviews of movies like Van Helsing, The Village, and Spiderman 3. Second, I found that it’s very hard to gather data on how much a movie is hated, because those who like it, even if they are few, tend to be the ones talking about it and rating it online, thus inflating the scores of unpopular movies. Therefore, while in the last article I was able to juxtapose my rating of a movie against society’s rating to gauge just how overrated the movie was, this time I had to settle for a list of movies I wish people would stop hating on, ranked from worst at #5, to best at #1. Third, as I worked on this article I came to realize that I had committed myself, through time investment, to writing about mainstream movies, leaving no time or space for certain unsung classics, such as Luther or Amazing Grace. I was forced to accept the fact that doing justice to these movies would require another article altogether, so what I ended up with was a list of movies that are not exactly great (some are close), but that people need to stop hating on.
And now, by popular demand: the most underrated movies that I haven’t already written about:
Am I the only person alive who doesn’t hate Ben Affleck? Not that I would stand in line for his autograph, but the man is a competent actor, and with the type of looks he has, it’s not surprising he gets some heroic roles. Why fuss about it? He’s been in some good movies, and this is one of them.
Daredevil is one of the earlier movies put out by Marvel Studios, and it had to make its way in the days before superhero movies were automatically popular. It also had to tell the story of a marginally popular superhero, all while competing with an X-Men sequel released the same year. Granted the result wasn’t exactly Iron Man, but it still captured the passion of one man’s struggle against crime and injustice, amid the bleak and compelling scenery of Hell’s Kitchen.
If you’re someone who loves the Batman movies (any of them really) for their dark and gritty “reality,” then you should love Daredevil. Matt Murdoch (Affleck) fights criminals surrounded by poverty and blight in a city where corruption is the rule, not the exception. The body count is high for a superhero movie, and innocent bystanders drop like flies. Even our hero is not above killing a bad guy on occasion. And if you like dark humor, you have to love the scene where Bullseye (Colin Ferrell) is on the airplane.
The thing I love about the Daredevil legend is that Daredevil is the only superhero who is defined by what he can’t do. His power comes from his handicap – the blindness that was inflicted on him as a child. This accident also enhanced his other senses, and allowed him to discover his sonar-like hearing. He then used his enhanced senses to excel in the martial arts. Which leads to the other great thing about the legend: it’s a superhero story that could actually happen. This is much more compelling than stories like Thor or Ghost Rider, where whatever the director thinks would be cool happens.
I will say that this film has by far the stupidest portrayal of the legal world that I have ever seen. This would be more of a problem if it was a lawyer movie. But it’s a superhero movie. And as such, it appeals to that part of us that wants swift and terrible justice, without bureaucracy. Early in the movie, after a painfully brainless trial scene, a scumbag walks into a bar to celebrate beating a rape charge. He’s clinking glasses with his buddies, shouting “To the justice system!” when he sees a stranger in spandex sitting on one of the rafters. He shouts “What do you want?” The stranger replies “Justice!” and then proceeds to inflict catastrophic injuries on everyone in the bar. It’s impossible not to punch the air during that scene. Daredevil isn’t one of my favorite movies, but it’s one I enjoy from time to time. One more cool thing about it: just as the comic was one of the first to be released in Braille, this is one of very few movies where the producers bothered to include a narration track on the DVD so that blind fans would know what was happening.
Before you dismiss this one as a throwaway movie, lets take a short trip back in time. In 1989, audiences flooded into theaters to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as it joined Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and IJ and the Temple of Doom (1984) as the third installment in the Indy franchise. In the next year or two, it came out on video, and in either 1991 or 92 (I was in sixth grade) the McDonalds Corp. announced a deal: buy a certain kind of meal and get your choice of the Indy movies on video. McDonalds thought it would make people flock to their stores, and they were right. But the question on everyone’s mind was: which movie will be the most popular? Would the public prefer Raiders for its methodical, old-school approach to action scenes, its surprising ending or its fascinating power struggle between the heroic Indy (Harrison Ford), the civil yet ruthless Dr. Belloq (Paul Freeman), and Major Toht (Ron Lacey) in his unfiltered malevolence? Or maybe they would go for Last Crusade for the touching, yet manly relationship between Indy and his dad (Sean Connery), the delightful comedy of Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), and the thrilling tank scene? Nope! Everybody wanted to see an extra get his still-beating heart ripped out! McDonalds could not keep Temple of Doom on their shelves. I spent many a lunch hour listening to classmates talk about how they requested the movie, only to be given a voucher, which they took to another McDonalds, who was also out of the movie, whereupon they drove all over town, looking for the movie everybody wanted but couldn’t find. Some eventually settled for one of the other two, but some went to the next town over. So I know if you are any kind of Indy fan, despite the lazy writing, sub-par acting and really annoying female lead, you probably have a special place in your heart for Temple of Doom, as do I. With that in mind, I submit that, with all its problems, Chrystal Skull is better than Temple of Doom.
Some argue that Ford, at 63, was too old to make another action movie in 2007. Others say Indy, at 57, would be too old to fight in 1957. As far as Ford is concerned, Hollywood makeup and special effects pick up the slack just fine. For Indy’s part, he took at least one swig from the Holy Grail, so that out to buy him a decade or so. Anyway, nobody gets shot in the shoulder at point-blank range and then keeps fighting, even at 36, so why worry about it now? Some complain about Ford’s acting in Chrystal Skull. Frankly, Ford was never a gifted actor. If you need proof, check out the scene in Raiders where he talks to Belloq in the bar after he thinks he’s killed Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). He became a star because he had a tough-guy smirk that made both women and men fall in love with him (in different ways). Actually, one of Ford’s most comical failures came in K-19 the Widow Maker (2002), in which he tried desperately to break out of his American tough-guy image and establish himself as a real actor. It was pretty painful. In Chrystal Skull, he’s back to doing what he’s good at, punching out
Nazis commies and smirking for the camera.
Then there’s Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s long-lost son, “Mutt.” LaBeouf was a largely untested actor at the time, and is probably the part of the movie people most love to hate. And I have to admit, he is one of the weakest links in this chain. Even so, he throws himself into a’50s greaser persona that lends a charm to the movie, and an entertaining element to his interaction with Indy, both before and after they know they’re related. Any problems with Mutt are smoothed over by the return of Karen Allen, looking as good as ever, as Marion. Watching the three of them argue may not be realistic, but it’s as amusing as any family sit-com out there, without distracting from the adventure. It’s certainly better than putting up with Willie and Short-Round in Temple of Doom.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Crystal Skull was how well Cate Blanchett did as the villain, Irina Spalko. In the hands of a lesser director, this could have reeked of gimmickry, but Spielberg pulled it off nicely. There’s no apologetic exposition about why the leader of the bad guys is a woman. She just is, and it works. The movie departs from the Nazi’s rumored obsession with ancient powers to speculate about the Soviets’ obsession with weird science. Spalko, a former girlfriend of Stalin, is driven to uncover the secrets of the extra-terrestrials who planted the Crystal Skull on Earth. The scene in which she expounds on the Soviet dream of using alien technology to control American heads of state and “make your teachers teach the true version of history” is pretty chilling. Blanchett fits in with the boys just fine, keeping team of elite Russian fighters in line, squeezing information out of captives, and sexually insulting Mutt while she fences him on a moving vehicle. And Spielberg makes it all seem natural.
While this film never could have been another Last Crusade, it gave us something we had despaired of ever having: one more Indy adventure. And one blazing fresh turf, as Indy is hacking his way through the ruins of Meso-america for the first time. It has everything we love about Indiana Jones: archaeological puzzles to crack, bull whip stunts, fist fights the good guy wins, booby traps popping out of ancient walls, and a hair-raising encounter with an army of flesh-eating ants. Don’t hate this movie. Thank it. And please ignore those who complain about “inaccuracies.” Nobody loved Raiders because it was a historical documentary.
You can’t win making a sequel to The Matrix (except financially, of course). It took the world by storm, becoming the instant favorite of millions on millions, and practically became its own genre. This was not simply because it was so good (which it was), but also because it was like nothing else anyone alive at the time had seen. With a limited budget for promotions, the film came out of nowhere and changed the way we thought about movies – and our lives. It also spawned some ridiculous philosophical movements. Most of those who saw it went away scratching their heads, asking “how do I know what I think I know?” Of course they also went away riding a massive adrenaline rush, feeling inspired by the story, and begging for a sequel. But what should the sequel(s) do? Part I revealed our day-in-day-out world to be an illusion created by computers and gave us a glimpse of the “real” world in which a remnant of humanity fights a war against sentient machines. Some said the sequels should more fully explore that world. Others said they should try for a double head trip, and reveal that this new world is also an illusion. No matter what directors Andy and Larry Wachowski did, they were going to alienate a lot of people. The Matrix sequels were doomed to be hated from the beginning. With that said, I submit that the Wachowskis still turned in the best Part II they could humanly have turned in, and a Part III that’s still not half bad.
Conceptually, The Matrix was a work of genius. It created a world where all the ridiculous stunts we see in Hollywood become totally plausible. Part II capitalized on that perfectly. As an action blowout, Part I wasn’t bad, but Part II takes things to an entirely new level. I’ve often thought of Part II as a “CD movie,” because I don’t usually watch it all the way through. Rather I’m more likely to skip around and watch all my favorite scenes, and watch a couple of them over and over, much like one would listen to a CD. From Neo’s first fight with the three upgrades to the highway explosion, the action never lets up. I love how we get a dazzling five-on-one fight between Neo and the Merovingian’s henchmen, and just when we think things are about to slow down, we join Morpheus, Trinity and the Keymaker, speeding through the streets with two more henchmen on their tail, and now the Agents are involved as well. This sequence has everything, too: gun fighting, knife fighting, sword fighting, and high-speed driving/wrecking/flipping. We get both high-jumping martial arts on the top of a semi-trailer and hand-to-hand inside the close quarters of a vehicle where seatbelts are used as weapons. And we get Morpheus taking out an SUV with a samurai sword. Beyond awesome.
It doesn’t slack off in the head trip department, either. It tends to shift from the question of “what is real?” to the question of whether choice is an illusion. The Oracle and the Merovingian represent two schools of thought on the subject, the Oracle urging the heroes to understand their already-made choices, while the Merovingian insists causality is the only constant. Neo’s conversation with the Oracle will likely have you scratching your head. This is immediately followed by yet another awesome action sequence; Neo’s fight with a army of Agent Smiths. Ah, Smith; the great Hugo Weaving truly chews the scenery in this roll. Weaving as Smith is probably the best part of the trilogy …
Except maybe Ian Bliss as Smith in Revolutions. Smith catches Bane (Bliss) inside the Matrix and turns him into a clone of himself. Bane then reenters his body in the real world, but is “possessed” by the Smith program. Unfortunately, Weaving can’t portray him. But Bliss did his homework and turns in a performance worthy of Weaving as Bane confronts Neo and Trinity. He should have gotten an Oscar.
When this one was first out, the main complaint everyone seemed to have was “not enough fighting.” In fact, Part III has as much fighting as Part I, and almost as much as Part II. The main difference is that now the fighting is happening in the real world instead of the Matrix. Admittedly, this is less interesting. But it still represents a faithful continuation of the story. And if nothing else, Neo’s final battle with Smith is still awesome.
Part III doesn’t have a terribly satisfying ending. The Matrix is never destroyed and the machine army is not defeated. In fact, our hero sacrifices himself to save the Matrix from Smith, thereby brokering a peace between the machines and the humans. There is even an acknowledgement that this new peace will last only “as long as it can.” I can understand why people don’t like this ending. But to be fair, you have to give it credit for taking a risk and doing something unexpected. Not only that, but you might remember certain lines from the previous movies: “If the war was over tomorrow, Zion is where the party would be.” And “If tomorrow the war could be over, isn’t that worth fighting for?” At the end of Part III, they have what they were fighting for. The war is over. The machines leave them in peace, at least for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, the Matrix trilogy delivered what it promised. If people were expecting more, that’s not its fault.
I’ve spent years trying to understand how so many people can hate this movie. After a lot of interviews, research and thought, I’ve concluded that it all boils down to good old fashioned ignorant prejudice. Prejudice first against Superman. Ever since Tim Burton gave us the mixed blessing of Batman in 1989, DC and Marvel alike have tried to out-do each other in dark and nasty superhero stories. Despite the fact that, as Simon R. astutely put it, Batman itself was loaded with cheese, the public has adopted the attitude that a realistic or “adult” movie always equals a bleak, nasty, cynical movie, and superhero movies have become increasingly sick ever since. It just isn’t cool anymore to cheer for a hero who believes in “truth justice and the American way,” and who won’t kill or lie.
Prejudice second against anything but the Christopher Reeve version of Superman. There are still some who love Superman, but they won’t tolerate the existence of anything new or different. I wasn’t around for the debuts of the beloved Superman the Movie and Superman II, which I think gives me a valuable perspective. A good illustration of society’s flawed thinking about Superman is found in a video by the Nostalgia Critic, in which he counts down the Top 11 Dumbest Superman Moments. At the beginning, he shows the posters for the five movies in existence at the time (Man of Steele wasn’t made yet) and comments “…I love the Superman movies … well, most of them … some of them … two of them.” And of course, Returns is the first one he crosses off the list, and the two left standing are Superman and Superman II. And yet, if you watch the list, only one of his least favorite moments – number 11 in fact – is from Returns. And that is simply the casting choice of Returns. The ten worst are all from the Reeve movies, including those first two. See what I mean? It’s just prejudice.
Having watched the first Superman movies, I can see why people like them, but don’t see why they should set the standard. Reeve played the role well enough, but I see no reason to elevate him to Bella Lugosi status. There have been several other good Supermen, and Brandon Routh is one of them. He most distinguishes himself in the way he shows the emotional vulnerability of the indestructible symbol of protection. There’s none of Reeve’s stomping around, whining to his mother about how he loves Lois here. Routh communicates everything with a look, a grimace, a sigh. And he isn’t letting it out – after all the world’s protector never could. But we see it peaking out all the same. One of the most memorable moments of Returns is when Clark and Lois both bend over to pick up Lois’ purse, and Clark’s glasses fall off. Lois is still gathering the contents of her purse, and Clark has glasses in hand. Without a word spoken, we see the epic struggle inside him; one that makes fighting Doomsday look easy. And we see the pain in his face when he puts the glasses back on.
I have to admit, Kate Bosworth doesn’t shine as much as Lois Lane, and she’s certainly not as memorable as Margot Kidder. But she never drops the ball, and turns in a solid performance, including generating some real chemistry with a child actor (Tristan Leabu as her son, Jason White), which is not easy. While Reeve might hold his own against Routh and Kidder beats Bosworth, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is erased by Kevin Spacey. Hackman did his best, but was never quite right for the part. Spacey can play almost any role (L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, House of Cards …) and is one of very few Hollywood actors who actually avoids getting extra face time (e.g. in gossip magazines) and has accumulated his considerable fame and wealth through (get this) being a good actor. He could probably play Shaft convincingly if he really worked at it. Unsurprisingly, he knocks Lex Luthor out of the park.
It doesn’t hurt that Spacey gets to play one of the most interesting characters in the history of fiction. Anybody who loves Batman should love Superman, if only for Lex Luthor. He is, in many ways, Bruce Wayne’s dark twin; a mental marvel, and a proven genius. In better shape than most people physically, endlessly creative and endlessly driven. You wouldn’t think any ordinary man could stand up to Superman, yet Luthor does. Oh, he’s definitely a bad guy. There’s no more of a conscience in him than there is in the Joker. But he’s a bad guy of penetrating insight and almost inspiring vision. Where the Joker destroys, Lex is driven to create. He’s an easy guy to hate, just because of his certainty of his superiority to everyone, including Superman, yet there are moments where you have to wonder if he’s wrong.
Superman Returns is the first Superman movie that can be taken seriously. The Reeve movies have their charms but they all bear as much resemblance to a Three Stooges sketch as to an actual movie. Take for example the scene in Superman where Lex, a bubble-headed groupie, and a bumbling fatty actually steal nuclear missile codes from a platoon of trained military men by having the groupie lie in the road, pretending to be hurt and unconscious, with no blood or other makeup. This distracts the entire platoon long enough for the fatty to sneak aboard a truck and punch in a series of computer codes that he has written on his arm. But then the bad guys have to go back and do it again, because his arm wasn’t long enough. And it still works! Maybe our government’s best soldiers and computers were that dumb in 1978, but I doubt it.
Returns has much tighter story. Unlike some movies, where a superhero’s appearance just happens to coincide with an upswing in crime and disasters, everything here is tied together. How does Lex Luthor obtain power that threatens the world? He remembers where the Fortress of Solitude is from when he was there in Superman II. He’s able to find it, and find the crystals that built it, which came with Superman in the ship that brought him. He knows he can use these crystals to build a whole new world – on top of ours. Ergo, both the hero and the threat are Kryptonian in origin. In fact, the need for Superman’s first heroics upon his return is caused by Lex’s experiment with one of the crystals. This is one of the most awesome scenes in cinematic history. A Boeing 777 is coupled to a space shuttle as an experiment. A micro-burst sent out by the Kryptonian crystal messes up the shuttle’s computer system, which results in it trying to “blast off” while it’s still coupled to the plane, endangering the lives of everyone on both vehicles. Superman races to the rescue, passing two fighter jets as if they were standing still. I won’t spoil details for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but seeing Superman trying to pull the 777 out of free-fall is worth the price of the ticket by itself. The movie also gives us plenty of iconic images, like the ones you see here.
Finally, this movie delivers a fantastic score, which makes excellent use of the beloved Superman theme, and delivers some other great pieces to boot, most notably the one playing as Luthor’s goons fire a Kryptonite crystal into the ocean. It’s a shame Routh didn’t get to do any more Superman movies. I hope he’s doing well, wherever he is, as a I’ve heard playing Superman tends to be the kiss of death for an actor’s career. I have to admit, a little bit of Superman goes a long way. But Superman Returns remains the best Superman movie ever made, and one of the best superhero movies, period.
And the most underrated movie of all time:
I was stunned when I saw this film had an approval rating of just over 10% on rottentomatoes.com. I’m not sure why people hate this movie. Maybe fans of the book were angry about things that were changed. Not having read the book, I can’t say. Maybe it’s just because, like every fantasy epic in the last ten years, it had the misfortune to be compared to Lord of the Rings. That’s hardly fair, when you think about it. Maybe the youthful cast turned people against it, but I’d have to say they do pretty well, and the more seasoned cast members do a good job of picking up the slack when necessary. I do know that it took a lot of heat for being derivative of LOTR and Star Wars. Again, this is hardly fair, considering that both of those tales were derived from centuries of stories themselves, and some of the modern world’s most beloved stories (Highlander, Harry Potter, The Matrix) are essentially the same story as Star Wars.
And, yeah, Eragon is too. But if an archetype works, why mess with it? It’s enough to do a good job of retelling it, and Eragon does just that. Our story begins in a dark age of the fictional land of Alagaesia. People’s meager possessions are confiscated at will and young men are dragged off to fight, and usually die, in wars no one cares about. Destitution and misery reign. We learn that in a prior age, the peace was kept by the
Jedi Dragon Riders, but they became arrogant and began to fight over power. An evil Dragon Rider named Galbatorix (John Malkovich) was able to trick them into fighting each other, and finally killed them all, becoming the last Dragon Rider and amassing all the power to himself. Galbatorix now rules Alagaesia with an iron fist. The only resistance left is the Varden, a group of freedom fighters hiding in the mountains.
Amid all this, in a seemingly insignificant corner of
the galaxy Alagaeisa, we meet a humble farm boy being raised by his uncle. His name is Luke Skywalker Eragon (Ed Speelers, at age 17). We spend a few scenes getting to know him, his cousin (Chris Egan) and his Uncle (Alun Armstrong). Poor Alun Armstrong; he never seems to get a good role. He always plays a wormy guy we’re supposed to hate, and he always dies horribly (take Braveheart, for instance). But in this film, he actually gets to play a strong, honorable character. Garrow has sacrificed much to raise the boy his sister abandoned, and provides him with a caring father figure. At least until he dies horribly (sorry, Alun). Eragon finds a dragon egg while hunting, and, sensing the presence of its destined rider, the dragon hatches. Eragon raises her in secret for awhile and eventually, her magic causes her to change from half-grown to full-grown in a few minutes. Galbatorix, sensing the magic, dispatches the Ra’zac (some truly scary assassins), who find the farm, and join the long list of movie characters who have killed Alun Armstrong. Eragon is saved by Saphira (the dragon) flying away with him. However, she’s still not old enough to carry a load very long.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
They are joined in flight (as in running away; not as in flying) by Brom (Jeremy Irons), a former Dragon Rider, who commits to training Eragon to fulfill his destiny, and getting him to the Varden’s hideout. The chemistry between these three characters is superb. Speelers is a bit green to be carrying the lead in an epic, but that actually translates well to the character. As Speelers is learning his way around the set, Eragon is learning the ropes as a dragon rider. This makes his fluctuations between fear and recklessness perfectly plausible. And where Speelers’ acting lacks, Irons’ more than compensates. Irons could carry almost any movie (except Dungeons and Dragons). His stage presence is endless and his voice commands respect. This is, after all, the voice that made Scar one of the most memorable villains of all time. He has played many types of rolls, but what he does best is play Obi Wan Kenobi; the grizzled, has-been warrior who mentors the hero. The student-mentor bonding in this story is some of the best I’ve seen, as we see Eragon grow from a foolish boy to a hero, and Brom change from the grumbling vagrant that he is at the beginning, to the begrudging teacher of Eragon, to a father figure sacrificing his life for him. Saphira adds to, rather than distracts from, this dynamic. She seems to have some kind of inborn knowledge, but she’s still on a learning curve of her own. It would have been tempting to make her an unstoppable juggernaut of claws and teeth, but the filmmakers gave her significant limits. She’s too young to breath fire, and can’t fly very well with more than one on her back. Her CGI face conveys plenty of emotion, making her vulnerable and relatable. She and Eragon can hear each other’s thoughts, which puts their communication on a separate track from that of Eragon and Brom. The bond between Dragons and their Riders is strong, and the choice to make Saphira female (Rachel Weisz puts her heart into the voice) was a good one, as the relationship seems almost like a marriage (without being creepy). As Eragon works to master the
light saber sword, Saphira tries to sustain her first flame. She growls at Brom when they first meet, but there is a very touching moment after he dies, in which Saphira, still unable to breath fire, works up enough heat to melt a pile of rocks around him, giving him a crystal casket, in which “time cannot ravage him.”
The visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re there when it counts. There are moments throughout the film where you can see how a few more millions of dollars could have made the makeup a bit more seamless, the camera work a bit more fluid, or the battle sequences a bit more gripping. At the end of the day, it must be acknowledged that Eragon is not LOTR. But there is at least one event in which it absolutely leaves LOTR in the dust: spectacular flying sequences. I was on the edge of my seat when Eragon was learning to ride Saphira. Then at the end, the two are about to ride into battle against Galbatorix’ forces. Saphira, for the first time, spews a monstrous fire ball, and Eragon shouts “Into the sky, to win or die!” You can shout “derivative,” you can shout “cliché,” I shouted “F—k, yeah!” (inwardly) at that moment, and the aerial battle that follows is truly awesome. Afterward, when it looks like Saphira might not make it, it’s impossible not to feel something.
The book was actually the first in a tetrilogy, and this film leaves its end open for a sequel. Unfortunately, it’s been eight years now, and after the drubbing this film got from the fans, I don’t think one is coming. If you haven’t seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
So those are my thoughts. I hope you enjoyed them. Before you start sending me hate mail, why not rent a few of these movies and give them a second chance? You might find you’ve been missing out on something.