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
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.