As we draw inexorably closer to the end of the decade, it's time to take stock of where we've been. And while a lot of sites and critics will offer a countdown list of the "best" of the year and best of the decade, it's also important to remember those films who flew under the radar, were misunderstood, or just never got the love they deserve from audiences and critics. Through the end of the year, I'll offer my thoughts on these hidden gems.
To start, we're going to go with a weird group: blockbusters. These were films that may have grossed over $100 million but never got recognized for how good they really were. We're going to talk MCU, DC, Star Wars, Bond, and other top franchises, so buckle up. Here they are, in no particular order. Let's start with a controversial one:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Yes, I said it. Despite being one of the top-grossing films of all time, for some reason, this film draws the ire of a particularly noisy group of "fans" determined to slag it for some reason. (PS– all their complaints are wrong.) Somehow this narrative has developed that the film was "controversial" or "not well received," so that makes it a prime contender for one of the most underrated films of the 2010s.
Director Rian Johnson both expanded and challenged what Star Wars could be, and maybe that's why a group of whiny fanboys can't let go of their hate. It's not a perfect film, but it doesn't deserve the hate it gets or its strange bad reputation.
Blade Runner 2049
Speaking of challenging and expanding its source material, it sometimes feels like we collectively failed this movie. Then again, the original Blade Runner was not a box office success or even a huge critical success at the time of its release. Director Denis Villanueve (whose name is [SPOILER ALERT!] going to appear over and over in this series) delivered such a beautiful and thoughtful film on what it means to be alive, to love, to follow society's rules.
But this was also cinematographer Roger Deakins's (who will also appear multiple times on this list) magnum opus– a beautiful, striking film full of iconic shots that finally won Deakins his long-deserved Oscar. The movie also deserves special recognition for its proper use of Jared Leto. . . as a sociopathic, megalomaniacal techbrodouche. The film's best moments include some of its most kinetic (a fight in a long-defunct casino while a holographic Elvis performs) to its quietest and most intimate. The scenes between Joi (Ana de Armas) and K (Ryan Gosling) are especially beautiful and haunting. . . and when you throw in Mackenzie Davis. . . well, if you saw it, you know what I'm talking about. And if you don't, you really really should check this out.
Speaking of beautiful sequels to 1982 classics with a tech background. . . while this film was more style than substance, it also managed to reboot the TRON universe with a promise of more. But because of lackluster performance, we never got those promised sequels. Perhaps it was the early use of de-aging technology that made Jeff Bridges look very uncanny-valley-y, perhaps it was the somewhat weak plot or the weak characterization of Sam (Garrett Hedlund), but what it lacks in these areas it makes up for beautiful worldbuilding, a fun performance by Olivia Wilde and a soundtrack by Daft Punk.
Let's be clear: Daniel Craig is the best James Bond. And while Casino Royale rebooted the Bond franchise and planted the seeds for future greatness, and while Quantum of Solace somewhat faltered, Skyfall came back and completely knocked it out of the park. In its opening scene, it kills off Bond, and as Adele croons the title track we flashback through Bond's life and missions from all the previous non-Craig films, firmly saying that all the other missions we know and love from the other films he did those too. And then he has to come back from the dead, out of retirement, to face former MI6 agent Silva (Javier Bardem) and face his own past.
As a Bond superfan, I was so impressed with how it tied all of the corners of the franchise together and provided new layers and backstory. Director Sam Mendes deserves a lot of credit here, but the visual look and feel of the film is head and shoulders above all other Bond films thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins (him again!). But while this film grossed $288 million at the US box office (4th place for 2012), it cleaned up overseas with an additional $804 million and holds several box office records in the UK, beating out the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Endgame. So maybe it's just in the US where it's underrated. It seems like this sort of came and went, enjoyed as a popcorn movie and another brick in the Bond franchise wall and not much else, but it's so much more.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
From Britain's superhero to America's, this may be the most underrated blockbuster on this list. This is the best film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and yet was mostly missed when it came out. It's hard to say it wasn't a hit when it made over $200 million, but compared to the box office hauls of Black Panther, Captain Marvel, the Avengers movies, or even its direct sequel Captain America: Civil War, it just doesn't quite register. Regardless, this is also the film to point to when people dismiss "superhero movies."
Brilliantly paced and full of iconic action sequences (that elevator fight, the highway scene) thanks to the work of Anthony and Joe Russo (in their first film debut, no less!) the film also holds a distinct moral weight. It is literally about the dangers of mass government surveillance and the military-industrial complex run amok. It warns about allowing AI to run our lives. And it exposes that even people at the highest levels of government who may say they are pursuing "peace" really mean they want control– and built on a pile of ashes as they murder and destroy people who would pose a danger to their regime. It was also eerily prescient– in 2014 it seemed funny and quaint to imply Nazis had embedded themselves into all aspects of American government. Now we just call that "The Trump Administration."
As a film, it's built like a 70's political thriller but paced to modern tastes. And, on first viewing, who among us wasn't worried/convinced that Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) wasn't potentially a traitor? It also brought Anthony Mackie into the MCU and gave Gary Shandling a final, perfect cameo. Hail Hydra.
Let's be real: if this film had come out sans controversy from butthurt fanboys who seem to think it's necessary to have a penis to operate a proton pack, and if audiences had just enjoyed this as a re-imagining of the 80's classic, it would be hailed as one of the best action comedies of the decade. This was a good movie, and anyone saying otherwise is not arguing in good faith. No, it wasn't perfect. I won't put it in my top 50 of the decade (unlike a few others on this list), but in the sense that it in no way deserved the hate it created, it is perhaps the most quintessentially underrated of all.
The Planet of the Apes films
For a series of films that pushed the boundaries of what motion capture technology can do and which grossed over a billion dollars total, no one seems to respect or recognize these films for how amazing they are. Andy Serkis deserved an Oscar nomination for his work as Caesar. And given his work on these films, Matt Reeves has my complete confidence in the ability to bring us an amazing Batman film.
The three films boasted an impressive roster of talent as both apes and humans: Woody Harrelson, Gary Oldman, James Franco, Toby Kebbell, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Judy Greer, Jon Lithgow and on and on. . . but my personal favorite (besides Serkis) is the work of Karin Konoval as Maurice the orangutan. Beyond just being great sci-fi/action films, they also interrogate perhaps some of the most important questions about leadership and (gulp) humanity, morality, and ethics of any films of the decade. Ape shall not kill ape. And if you haven't, you should go check out these films.
This was such a brilliant sendup of the spy genre and a direct assault on the idea that the "gentleman spy" game can only be done by a gentleman. Melissa McCarthy delivers one of her best performances among a cast of luminaries who all play their parts incredibly as well, but the repartee between her and Rose Byrne is magical.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Because one under-recognized spy movie deserves another, we need to talk about one of Guy Ritchie's best films of the decade. The chemistry between Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill is undeniable, and watching Cavill eat a sandwich has never been so entertaining as in this movie.
The Cold War vibe and European style of the film help immensely, too. This movie is just pure cool, and I just have no idea why this slipped off the radar of so many people.
It's only been a few months and somehow we've already forgotten this gem. Zachary Levi perfectly embodies the "Big Red Cheese" of DC Comics. And at the heart of the film, we get an amazing message about found family and the heroism that lives inside the purity of childhood.
This could not be in sharper contrast to DC's other major success this year in Joker, and it seems incredibly likely the folks at Warner Bros will (as per usual) take the exact wrong message from the success of some of their films and try to make their films "dark" and "gritty." Shazam showed you could do the exact opposite. The real lesson they should take is that they should let each of their iconic characters exist in a world that matches their individual tone. Also, a gentle reminder that Shazam is, technically, a Christmas movie. So think about turning it on sometime in the next month or so.
We come back to the second entry from Rian Johnson on this list, but this time it's time-traveling hitmen played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. This film is so perfectly crafted and scripted. Every single plot hole opened up by time travel they close that loop and weave together a really cool crime caper with sci-fi elements.
Between the makeup and JGL's acting, he is a young Bruce Willis. It's incredibly effective and one of the most interesting performances of the decade.
Edge of Tomorrow
Who doesn't want to see Tom Cruise die over and over and over and over and over. . . ? And who doesn't want to see Emily Blunt make him look like a piker and show him up at every turn? This film was great but suffered from its forgettable name and lackluster marketing (along with serious Tom Cruise fatigue that they should have leaned into to sell tickets). But on top of that, we just had an amazing and entertaining action movie.
I'll end with my most controversial pick alongside my first one. Cloud Atlas stands out as a particularly flawed movie (while most of the rest of these are pretty amazing). And yet it's so undeniable and ambitious, it's hard to ignore. It's also not deserving of a lot of its hate and somehow managed to age into some respect.
The cast here is incredible, and it's just worth it to watch them go through all of their various transformations and scenery changes and embody different aspects of these characters. Is there any deeper meaning behind it? Perhaps not. Is it still bloated and ponderous? Yes. But is it underrated? Absolutely.
Well, I gave you a baker's dozen of blockbuster films that deserve more respect and attention than they got. What else deserves to be on this list? I'll be delivering more of these to you before year's end, and hopefully, you'll go seek these out and watch them. Coming next: Underrated animated movies! There will be Ghibli. There will be Laika. There will be Disney/Pixar. But no Shrek.