by Jacob Thomas Jones
Each year, there are any number of movies that fly under the radar for general audiences, whether due to smaller release plans by the studios themselves, release dates that clash with larger movies in the culture at the time, or simply a lack of staying power during their theatrical runs. More often than not, these films will have a decent number of critics and audiences leaving positive reviews, but rarely are they re-considered, re-watched, or re-evaluated in the minds of movie lovers. With all that in mind, we at The Friendly Film Fan believe firmly in giving movies their due which we feel may have been overlooked, underseen, or as the case may be, underappreciated. These are our picks for the Top 10 Most Underrated Movies of 2023.
While Sharper remains a flawed film by no stretch of the imagination, it seems as though audiences haven’t quite grown to appreciate properly what it actually manages to pull off. A solid mid-budget script about a con artist targeting the billionaires of Manhattan with a lot of moving parts and an ensemble this big is bound to take a few missteps, but on the whole, the film remains a fun ride, complete with one of Justice Smith’s better turns in front of the camera and supporting performances filled with some of our great character actors. It’s imperfect, yes, but this one deserves another look.
A surprise pseudo-sequel to 2018’s highly underappreciated Searching, this film stars Storm Reid as a young girl whose mother goes missing (cue Leo meme) while on a trip to Colombia. Much like its predecessor, the film is entirely told through digital screen technology – laptops, ring cameras, text chains, calendar notifications, etc. It’s rare enough to make a screen-based movie that works as well as Searching does, but to do it twice is a real feat. What ultimately sets Missing apart – without spoiling anything – is that it’s less straightforward than this series’ previous entry while still boasting the same spirit and tonal consistency of the story. There are actually a few twists in the film that one doesn’t expect, and it elevates the film beyond the idea of “let’s just do that again.” While it doesn’t quite have the same impact as Searching due to the lack of novelty in its filmmaking and one or two scenes that don’t land as well, Missing is a genuinely good missing persons thriller, and is well worth your time.
8. Polite Society
The most recent of the films on this list that I’ve seen (thanks in part to Barack Obama’s year-end movies list – keep ‘em coming, Mr. President), Polite Society is one of the more bizarre offerings featured among this pack. A film about a Pakistani girl who dreams of being a stuntwoman having to put her skills to use when it seems that a matchmaking family has nefarious plans in store for her older sister does sound like a fun time, but it’s the stylistic flourishes and fantastic costume design that set this one apart. Although its third act reaches for a level of absurdity at some points that makes it more comical than compelling, the terrifically fun performances – especially that of our lead Priya Kansara – as well as the first half’s quite solid stunt work and unexpected plot development, keep Polite Society singing well past the point where lesser films would have settled for simply entertaining audiences in a more conventional manner.
7. Flora and Son
John Carney remains one of film’s most unsung heroes, an artist whose movies are filled with complicated families and hearts too big for the viewer not to feel something by their end. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Sing Street, this new entry in his filmography about a woman whose family life is complex to say the least has just as much heart as anything released in 2023, as well as one of the year’s most underrated turns by Eve Hewson (plus a return to films by the Joseph Gordon-Levitt). And of course, as with every John Carney project, it brings with it some very catchy new music.
6. You Hurt My Feelings
A smaller release this year from A24, You Hurt My Feelings finds Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ betrayed and heartbroken after she overhears her husband (played by the always solid Tobias Menzies) telling his friend that he doesn’t like her latest book, despite having told her earlier that he did. As much a film about how we cling to others opinions of ourselves as it is about the lies we tell others in order to “keep the peace,” so to speak, the movie charts how this idea affects relationships, self-confidence, self-doubt, and whether or not protecting feelings is worse than telling a truth that hurts them. There’s no grand revelation here, and no easy answers, but in navigating the issue with delicacy and grace, writer-director Nicole Holofcener forges one of 2023’s most endearing journeys in film.
5. The Covenant
The second of two Guy Ritchie films released in 2023, The Covenant finds the director operating slightly outside his usual wheelhouse; lucky for us, his care in bringing this story to life means that it can live on for the rest of the world to see. When an American soldier is trapped in Afghanistan, his interpreter (played in a show-stealing performance by Dar Salim) risks his own life to carry him to safety across miles of dangerous terrain occupied by the Taliban. Putting aside the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal just works in a soldier’s part and always will, what ultimately makes the movie worthwhile is just how straightforward it is. There’s a grander point here, yes, about the frustration Gyllenhaal’s character feels regarding even being in Afghanistan and needing to rescue Ahmed so that he can do one good thing to make it all feel worth it, but it’s icing on the cake, not the cake itself. The meat of the story is in the telling of it, and it’s frankly pretty great that we’re still getting mid-budget movies like this one every once in a while.
Terrific costume design and a star lead performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint Georges keep this one afloat just enough to make this list, as well as a show-stopping opening sequence wherein Harrison Jr. plays the violin in an instrumental dual and a final 5 minutes as thrilling as any other film released this year. One of the truly remarkable untold true stories about a Black man rising through the ranks of France’s most esteemed persons, Joseph Bologne was a master of the bow, the baton, and the sword, eventually helping to fund the revolution in France which would claim the life of his one-time friend Marie Antoinette. It’s been a sufficiently long time since I’ve seen this one, so pardon my lack of memory regarding its more detailed elements, but if period piece deserves more attention than it’s been given, it’s this one.
3. Knock at the Cabin
M. Night Shyamalan movies are truly a test of just how much audiences are willing to buy into, but even with his penchant for twists and turns, Knock at the Cabin ends up being one of his most straightforward films to date. Following the disaster that was Old, Shyamalan returns to a more grounded style of filmmaking, following a group of four people who must convince a family staying in a remote cabin to choose someone from within their ranks to die in order to prevent the apocalypse. The tension present in this film is some of the best in any Shyamalan project, but what sets it apart is its lead performance, an exercise in anguish and empathy from Dave Bautista that may rank as the former wrestler turned actor’s greatest on-camera work to date. We all know and love him as Drax from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but outside of the Marvel machine, Bautista has quietly become one of the best character actors working in the business, and this film has all the evidence to back up that argument.
I don’t think people appreciate enough just how good Eli Roth’s adaptation of a fake trailer from Grindhouse turned out to be. A sort of Scream-like birth of a new horror franchise has emerged, and with how fun the performances and kills are in this one, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more holiday-themed horror from Roth as the years go on. After a Black Friday disaster claims the life of one of Plymouth’s citizens, a masked serial killer begins terrorizing those who seem responsible one year later, and with so many people involved in the tragedy, the killer could be any one of them. Thanksgiving is no masterpiece, sure, and the over-the-top performances of some of the side characters can get a little laughable, but on the whole, it’s a deliciously pulpy, bloody B-movie good time that will have slasher fans satisfied by the time it hits the credits.
Perhaps the single most underseen movie released in theaters in 2023, Jules played at my local theater for about a week or so and then was gone before anyone even remembered it was there. A small, heartfelt comedy about an alien that crash-lands in Ben Kingsley’s backyard, the film’s heart, and some of its absurdist sequences (one in particular about dead cats) render it a cut above other films operating in the same space. Ben Kingsley’s performance is of course well-suited to this sort of story, but it’s the richness of the side characters involved that makes it one of the year’s most underrated works. If you happen to come across it on streaming, go ahead and give it a watch. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.
And those are our picks for the Top 10 Most Underrated Movies of 2023! Are there any movies you feel were underappreciated this year? Shout them out in our comments section, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
Hello, all, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! Films fall by the wayside often, it’s true. On many occasions, either the marketing for the film isn’t enough to interest moviegoers or the films themselves can’t quite stack up to what the actual best-of-the-year tallies render worthy of listing. Sometimes, however, a film receives a decent score, some nice viewership, and then disappears from the conversation for the rest of its theatrical life. This is the list for those films: the ones whose scores are just a little low, the ones that didn’t stick in the conversation for long enough, the ones that should be given more credit for accomplishing what they managed to do against whatever level of odds they faced. These are The Friendly Film Fan’s picks for the Top 10 Most Underrated Movies of 2021.
10. No Sudden Move
Boy, it sure is a fun time when Steven Soderbergh makes a movie, isn’t it? Starring Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro, this small little crime caper debuted on HBO Max over the summer, and – despite its issues – was a real blast to watch. Somehow Soderbergh just knows every star we love from Hollywood, and manages to get them all together to make a movie where they get to show off a little. Plus, it features a truly noteworthy David Harbour performance wherein the Stranger Things star gets to play a much less confident character than we’re used to seeing. Pretty good stuff.
9. The Courier
The Courier came and went with nary a splash as it left theaters just as quietly as it entered, but this Cold War thriller does just enough right to be worth at least one viewing. Benedict Cumberbatch is great in this film, portraying arguably his least assured character yet, and going from this to the world-class Power of the Dog showcases just how insanely talented the man really is. There aren’t many movies like this anymore, so take a chance on it, if only to see what may be one of the last of its kind, theatrically speaking.
8. Little Fish
Little Fish was released on VOD to not much fanfare, and its Rotten Tomatoes score was barely featured on the site’s main page long enough to register with more than the smallest audience, but those who did check it out were given a real treat. Set during a global pandemic (I know, I’m tired of it too) of memory loss, the film follows to young adults as they connect and find love with each other, only for things to begin going wrong as they predictably are meant to. Olivia Cooke is one of today’s finest unsung leading actresses, and her performance in this movie – plus her chemistry with co-star Jack O’Connell (also severely underrated) – is an easy example of just why. The script, too, is surprisingly nuanced for the subject matter it’s tackling, never feeling too drawn out or melodramatic in engaging the plot. If you’re in the mood for an indie you could really fall in love with, this is it (well, this and Together Together, but that one’s not on the list).
7. In the Earth
Of all the “Covid films” released between 2020 and 2022, Ben Wheatley’s quasi-horror film about a mysterious woodland area was the first to come out which was objectively…not bad. I still struggle to feel that the film tackles its third act in an interesting or engaging way, but the first two, at least, are quite well-done, and don’t hammer the audience over the head with the film’s setting. Eventual Cruella co-star Joel Fry manages to carry it to the finish line just enough to be worth checking out, and its center-most section provides some truly tense thrills.
Plenty of people will be pissed off by the way this film ends, and I can certainly understand that perspective, given that its finale is decidedly less interesting than its biggest turning point. However, that turning point is quite a powerful statement on its own, and this “screen thriller” largely lands as high as it does because of how much power that statement holds. Apart from that moment, specifically, the film is also wonderfully tense, and both its lead performances provide ample space for those thrills to grow over the course of the film. As with many screen thrillers, it’s a breeze to sit through – short and to the point as much as it is also somewhat misguided in its final moments, but there’s a lot of potential here.
5. The Paper Tigers
I couldn’t count on one hand the number of people I know that have seen this small movie about three middle-aged former Kung-Fu prodigies avenging their slain former master by balancing their quest for vengeance against their now largely ordinary lives, but that’s mainly because I don’t know anyone else who’s seen it…at all. Apart from its appearance towards the top of a few Rotten Tomatoes lists over the summer, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into with this, but I quite enjoyed the experience of it. Sure, it’s noticeably low-budget and the fights don’t actually last that long, but there is some great comedy in here, and the heart is all over the film’s screenplay. A hidden gem if ever one film were to fit that definition entirely.
4. Dream Horse
From its trailer, it would have been easy to discount Dream Horse as some Seabiscuit or Secretariat wannabe project, but when Toni Collette shows up to something, you watch it anyway, and I ended up really glad I gave this film a shot. Though it doesn’t really do much of note outside of the usual beats for a story like this, Dream Horse is nevertheless a charming ride about a community not just coming together, but finding something they could come together for. Collette is excellent in the film, but it’s her supporting cast that make it worth sticking around, each of them capturing a different element of living in a close-knit community and all of them enchanting the viewer through their various whimsies and wants. True, the story could be more unique, but this one has a lot of heart, and is well worth seeing if you feel like something a little lighter.
3. The Dry
Pardon the pun, but The Dry is…well, it’s a little dry, emotionally speaking at least. But that doesn’t mean that this investigation into the murder of a local in small town Australia doesn’t still pack a punch in its plotting. Eric Bana is excellent as the lead detective who moves back to his hometown to head up the case, and it’s his interactions with the various members of the community – most of whom don’t trust him, believing her murdered a childhood friend and got away with it – that really make the film worthwhile. I might’ve preferred the ending left things more ambiguous in that regard, but The Dry is still every bit as worthy of your time as most mediocre actioners or almost anything in theaters right now.
9/11 can be a touchy subject to attempt tackling in film, though several have tried (and several more have brutally failed), but tackling the aftermath is a fool’s errand. How can one hope to capture both the grief and the strength of an entire populous losing something or someone so dear to them, even if they personally did not know or weren’t related to, the victims of such a heinous attack? Worth’s recounting of the subsequent victim’s fund setup could have been a trainwreck on par with Remember Me’s ridiculous ending, but in the viewing, one can tell that the filmmakers were really trying to tackle this in the best way they knew how. True, the film doesn’t really get going until Stanley Tucci shows up to spar against Michael Keaton in the acting battles, and the first five-to-ten minutes of the film don’t really add anything meaningful to the plot itself, but this movie is about as good as it was ever going to be working with such a small-scale topic, and for those of you willing to test that theory, it’s on Netflix for your viewing. Play away.
The single most underrated film of 2021 is the fourth-wall-breaking Covid project from Stephen Daldry that no one saw and everyone thought looked incredibly weird. To a point, they would be correct – the film is weird, unconventional, in-your-face, and very much a Covid-centric story about two people in a contentious relationship being forced to quarantine together over several months. Not exactly a recipe for anticipation in the summer of 2021. Yet somehow, Together is the film most attuned to just how hard the whole pandemic has been on a host of various people, including those who – for whatever reason – still don’t have access to the vaccine. It’s the human cost of all of this at the heart of the film, and James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan are more than up to the challenge of tackling what that cost means at the base level. Horgan, in particular, crushes a scene she has to deliver just after a hospital visit, and her aching words induce true heartbreak in the viewer. There’s plenty of comedy in here as well, so it’s not the bleakest of Covid-centric narratives, but it is the one most adept at navigating the bleakness of the whole ordeal so far when discussing the topic explicitly.
And those are our picks for the Top 10 Most Underrated Movies of 2021! What movies from last year do you think were unfairly overlooked or undervalued? Are there any we missed here? Let us know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan