Films which become instantly popular upon release are often superhits. But there are others which are hailed as classics only years after they premiere by the same viewers and critics who had not appreciated them earlier. These are counted among the most underrated movies of all time.
One reason could be that when the film hit the theatres, society might not have been ready to understand such plots and themes, or an equally excellent film resonated more with audiences and gained critical praise. Thus, it is important to note that the term ‘underrated’ does not necessarily include every movie that failed to garner appreciation from critics or did not do well at the box office.
Additionally, what defines a ‘badly made’ movie is something very different from that of an ‘underrated’ film. This is because the former might still seem terrible if watched years after its release, which has more to do with, say, below-average performances by the cast, direction or storyline than with audiences’ or critics’ perception of the movie, among other things. Therefore, underrated films can be categorised as those with storylines that were lauded by critics and audiences for acting and filming much after their release.
What makes for a hit film?
Movies by well-known directors are also among the all-time underrated movies. Moreover, at times, audiences find it difficult to connect with the characters that actors portray on screen, even though they have won laurels on the awards circuit for their powerful performances in the films.
It is not about genre either. For instance, the high-octane action film Wheelman (2017), starring Frank Grillo, and the fantastical The Fountain (2006), in which Hugh Jackman plays a man on a quest for eternal life, are considered underrated films alongside the poignant German movie Wings of Desire (1987). The reason is that the first two could not please critics or fans or both. And even if they managed to win over them, the ‘one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles’ — as the great South Korean director Bong Joon-ho famously remarked in 2020 — hampered Wings of Desire‘s reach.
While the BAFTA winner is one of the highest-rated films of all time, it is City of Angels (1998), the critically panned English film inspired by it, that not only did better business but is widely known to date as well. A reason behind this is that City of Angels starred two of the biggest superstars of the 1990s — Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage.
It is no secret that many films have become famous on the back of superstars, production value and deft marketing strategies. At the same time, there is an array of films that fall into the underrated movies category despite having good stories and performances for reasons ranging from lack of marketing and language to the inability of the audience to understand them at the time of their release.
Here is a diverse selection of all-time underrated movies to watch
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
The French slapstick comedy is a simple story of a clumsy man named Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) whose hilarious antics cause pandemonium at a seaside resort where he is spending his holidays.
The film technically has no dialogue and just background noises. It is, therefore, more along the lines of Charlie Chaplin films. And this is one of the major reasons why Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a very underrated movie.
The film was a commercial and critical success of its time, and Tati, along with Henri Marquet, received a nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay at the 28th Academy Awards in 1956 for the film. It was followed by three sequels featuring the character Hulot.
Yet, the film is not as widely known to international audiences as Charlie Chaplin movies or even Mr. Bean.
Mississippi Masala (1991)
The world is still struggling to make love acceptable in all its beautiful forms. Mississippi Masala is, therefore, a poignant reminder that not much has changed in the three decades since.
One of the most romantic underrated films ever, Mississippi Masala revolves around an Indian-origin girl, Mina (Sarita Choudhury), and an African-American man, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) as they struggle to make people around them accept their love. The problem they face primarily comes from Mina’s family, who cannot forget the pains they had to endure when they were forced to leave their home country, Uganda, by the dictator Idi Amin during the ethnic expulsion of Asians in 1972.
Its theme of forced migration and interracial romance appealed to critics, who gave it an overwhelmingly good reception. But the Mira Nair directorial failed to get an equally powerful response from audiences, and yet, decades later, it holds an esteemed place in the hearts of progressives.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
The epic war film received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, at the 76th Academy Awards in 2004. However, it was completely overshadowed by one movie which ruled all films that year — The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
This makes Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World one of the most significantly overlooked Hollywood movies of the 2000s.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the story revolves around the pursuit of a French war vessel in the waters of South America by an intrepid British captain named Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) despite the risks to his crew and the damage to his own ship.
Crowe was on a roll when this film hit the screens. Just two years before this, he garnered worldwide fame with his lead role in Gladiator and won the Academy Award for best actor for his incredible performance. And a year before Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the actor delivered an Academy Award-nominated performance in A Beautiful Mind (2001).
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Jennifer’s Body didn’t perform well at the box office and failed to impress most critics at the time of its release. However, it has since gained cult status and is now not only counted among one of the best in the horror genre but also a feminist classic.
The titular character, Jennifer (Megan Fox), is a popular high-school girl who turns into a bloodthirsty entity after being possessed by a demon. As Jennifer goes on killing all males in the school, her best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), must stop her. In the process, Needy discovers the shocking truth behind how Jennifer was possessed.
According to revisionists, the film marks Fox’s best performance ever. It is considered one of the most unusual movies to watch because of its off-the-mark marketing, which highlighted it as a campy teen flick. This belied the underlying significance of Jennifer’s Body as an important feminist story.
Speak is another great film that finds a place among lesser-known Hollywood movies. Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Laurie Halse Anderson, it is about a young girl who stops speaking after a traumatic incident.
Melinda (Kristen Stewart) is shunned by her friends at high school for calling the police on a popular summer party. No one tries to understand the horrible truth that forced Melinda to call the cops. As the plot progresses, her parents, too, fail to understand what their daughter is troubled with. As she struggles from within, Melinda takes to art. She eventually gains the confidence to deal with the incident and the people connected to it.
Stewart showcases her brilliant acting abilities, something that was overshadowed by the Twilight franchise (2008-2012) even though the vampire films made her internationally famous. What is remarkable, however, is that Speak got an overwhelming positive reception from critics at major film festivals in the US, including Sundance Film Festival and Woodstock Film Festival, but was never screened in theatres. Perhaps, this is why it is a lesser-known film, making it one of the most underrated gems of the 2000s.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Western anthology film directed by the illustrious Coen brothers had a limited theatrical release and was primarily streamed on Netflix. It is one of the finest hidden gems on Netflix and, though critically appreciated, is relatively lesser known despite having an ensemble cast of famous actors. These include Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, and Brendan Gleeson.
The film gets its title from the first of the six storylines which revolve around a singing gunman who apparently cannot be beaten in a duel.
Other stories in the film include a tale of a young cowboy whose luck runs out and an old gold prospector who gets lucky. But among its most heartbreaking stories is the one titled Meal Ticket, which showcases the harsh realities of life in the Wild West through the fate of a performing man without arms and legs.
The six short stories in the whole movie are not connected in any way except for the setting.
Raincoat is the first Hindi-language film directed by illustrious Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh (1963-2013) and is one of the most underrated movies on Prime Video. The film’s plot is based on O. Henry’s short story The Gift Of The Magi.
Manoj (Ajay Devgn), a down-on-luck man, visits the house of his lost love Neerja (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) on a rainy day in Calcutta to seek financial help. Manoj thinks that Neerja married a wealthy man, and they can help him. But once there, he finds himself unable to tell her his plight. As their conversations unfold, Manoj realises that something is not adding up in Neerja’s apparently wealthy lifestyle.
Despite having two of India’s biggest actors of the time in the lead roles and ample character development, Raincoat was a failure at the box office. Additionally, some critics at the time could not understand the depth of the cast’s performances or the story.
However, the film won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi.
Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Naa (1994)
Not only is Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Naa one of the best underrated movies of the 1990s, but it is also perhaps the most underrated film in Shah Rukh Khan’s career. The film was released the year after SRK gained fame as an anti-hero in Baazigar and Darr, and was expected to be another mega hit in his career. But even though most critics liked it, the film failed to strike a chord with the masses.
Nevertheless, Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Naa is now hailed as a cult classic not only by fans of SRK but also by those who love a feel-good romantic film full of innocence and mirth involving ordinary characters. Its songs, composed by Jatin-Lalit, continue to woo fans across generations.
The story is of Sunil (SRK), a young man in Goa who is in love with Anna (Suchitra Krishnamurthy). Sunil tries to win Anna’s heart, but she loves Chris (Deepak Tijori), who, too, is truly in love with her.
The supporting cast of the film includes Naseeruddin Shah, Satish Shah, Rita Bhaduri, Ravi Baswani, Anjan Srivastav and Ashutosh Gowarikar. Juhi Chawla does a cameo in the film.
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
When the film hit the theatres, some critics were particularly appalled that it deviated from Alexandre Dumas’ acclaimed 1844 French novel of the same name. Others, who received the film slightly more positively, labelled it merely watchable. This was one reason why the film didn’t actually fare well at the box office.
However, critical and fan reception has since changed and many are of the opinion that it is a gorgeous film where action, performance, dialogues and cinematography, all come together quite well. Even director Kevin Reynolds’ change in the source material is now appreciated.
Except for some changes, the plot largely follows the original novel. Edmond Dantès (Jim Caviezel) is framed by the deceptive Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) for an offence he did not commit and is imprisoned in the formidable Château d’If. As he loses hope, Dantès encounters a fellow prisoner, Abbé Faria (Richard Harris), who changes his fate and prepares him for vengeance.
The supernatural horror is a remake of the 1977 Italian film of the same name by Dario Argento. It is about a young American woman, Susanna (Dakota Johnson) who arrives in West Germany to attend a dance school. Unbeknownst to her, the dance school is actually a coven of witches.
Apart from the overall horror ethos, the film is noteworthy for Tilda Swinton’s performance as three different characters — the school’s artistic director Madame Blanc, an ageing witch Mother Helena Markos and the psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer.
Yet, while critical reception was divided, Suspiria was a disaster at the box office. It also failed to impress Argento, who directed the original.
“It did not excite me, it betrayed the spirit of the original film: there is no fear, there is no music. The film has not satisfied me so much,” the ace Italian filmmaker said on Rai Radio 1 programme Un Giorno da Pecora. But at the same time, Argento added that the film is “refined.”
The views of critics have taken a more positive turn in recent years. For instance, in March 2022, Brian Eggert of Deep Focus Review said that Suspiria “belongs among the pantheon of great horror remakes” and even compared director Luca Guadagnino to horror masters such as David Cronenberg and John Carpenter.
What If (2013)
Set in Toronto, Canada, the film, which is also known by its other title — The F Word, is a beautiful romance about a young man, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), who falls in love with a woman, Chantry (Zoe Kazan), who is already in a relationship. The film also stars Adam Driver in an important role.
Even though critics gave it a thumbs up, the film was a flop. One reason was the low expectations from it, principally because the story is formulaic. And What If followed Kill Your Darlings and Horns — two unsuccessful films starring Radcliffe that were released the same year. As for Driver, he was still an upcoming star.
But going by critical reception, including the more recent ones, What If succeeds in showing the struggle to find love of people with average looks and average lives. Perhaps this is why it is one of the most underrated romantic films ever.
(Main and Featured images: IMDb)