Having passed July’s midpoint, the world is officially on the down-slope of 2014’s unusually solid summer blockbuster season. As box office trackers tally the season’s winners and critics begin the debate on what was actually worthwhile, we find ourselves in the mood to look back – way back.
Every year, dozens of films are overshadowed by more popular, more profitable, more talked-about, and more awarded features. This doesn’t mean these movies were bad – only that they lacked that certain spark that creates a culture-defining work. Screen Rant’s nostalgia for the waning season has left us wondering at all the titles that could have been contenders last year.
Far removed from their release dates, some titles can gain a new appreciation among critics and general audiences alike. In the home market, 2013’s most underrated could finally find the popularity that they cry out for. In that spirit, we have cobbled together a list of 15 movies from 2013 that disappointed critically or at the box office, but deserve viewership nonetheless (in no particular order).
1. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Despite an evocative promotional campaign, well-recognized lead, and a feel-good message, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (read our review) did tepid business in the United States. Though the film made a profit through the international box office, it remained something of an oddball disappointment.
While it may have ended up slightly more generic than advertised, the flick is also an emotionally rousing ride with eye-popping visuals. Ben Stiller’s direction is confident and often creative, and the plot builds to a genuinely emotional climax that could have come off as schmaltzy in lesser hands. Any seekers of inspiring cinema would do well to consider The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
2. Saving Mr. Banks
Though it’s been characterized as awards bait, Saving Mr. Banks (read our review) comes off more like a somewhat idiosyncratic passion project. The story of Walt Disney’s attempts to woo author P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins novels, Saving Mr. Banks traces the prickly negotiations between the two, along with flashbacks fleshing out Travers’ childhood.
Sure, the film can wax a little bit hagiographic when it comes to Disney. However, Tom Hanks is consistently amusing as the overenthusiastic studio head, whose verve for the project is infectious. Combine all this with meticulous period detail and an exacting performance from Emma Thompson, and Saving Mr. Banks certainly deserves a new audience.
A methodical, painterly exercise in dread, Stoker (read our review) was probably not what fans of director Chan-Wook Park expected out of his English-language debut. Used to the bombast of titles such as Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (and perhaps forgetting the similarly paced Thirst), viewers could be forgiven for being put off by Stoker‘s chilly meticulousness.
At the same time, the film is genuinely unnerving, featuring an entirely unpredictable cast of characters who all seem to be approaching some event horizon of madness. Especially impressive is Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, who ramps up to full-blown psychosis in a way that’s both believable and disturbing.
4. It’s a Disaster
Beginning as an extremely uncomfortable comedy of manners, It’s a Disaster soon becomes something much darker. David Cross and Julia Stiles star as a couple who arrive at a long-awaited brunch – just before a massive terrorist attack dooms the entire West Coast.
Mining surprisingly strong comedy from the coping mechanisms of a group preparing to die, the movie manages to also directly engage with the pathos of the situation. It all ends on a joke so twisted and shameless that viewers will likely split the difference between gasping and bursting into wild laughter.
5. Don Jon
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature film-directing debut (read our review) is a strange beast, combining what could have been the premise of a raunchy comedy with a surprisingly mature examination of modern romance. Gordon-Levitt stars as the titular New Jersey ladies’ man whose long-term addiction to pornography has left him with warped sexual standards.
A premise that could have been used for a series of cheap gags is instead used for a warm-hearted, uncompromising look at sex and dating in the 21st century. It helps that everyone in Don Jon‘s cast is on point here – especially Gordon-Levitt himself, who brings an edge of unctuousness to his natural charm.
Like many of the entries on this list, Mud (read our review) suffers largely because it presents something rather different than the previous work of its creator – in this case, Arkansas-based director Jeff Nichols. Mud contains little of the festering violence of Shotgun Stories or the nearly unbearable dread of Take Shelter.
Instead, the film offers a unique combination of crime thriller and tall-tale bildungsroman, clearly drawing inspiration from Huckleberry Finn. It’s a gentler sort of movie than Nichols’ previous efforts, but just barely. Though it moves at a more languid pace than one would expect, Mud ends up a solidly shot, evocative piece of adventure cinema.
Prisoners (read our review) sets itself apart by creating a familiar story that proceeds to step over the usual boundaries expected of its genre. Whereas other movies about vigilante justice stumble over themselves to justify the morality of their protagonists’ actions, Prisoners takes the opposite tack – instead suggesting that every act of retaliation and violence is inherently self-defeating.
This lack of moral anchor can make the movie difficult to engage with, but it’s worth it – Prisoners is a pretty great thriller. Not only does the film reveal its grand design with tense economy, it also centers on Hugh Jackman’s career-best performance as a supposedly good man driven to do unforgivable deeds.
Director Ron Howard both excels at and receives deserved criticism for the many biopics he has helmed over the course of his career. Thus, it comes as a relief that Rush (read our review) may be the best of Howard’s true-life projects, eschewing many of the dramatic contrivances of titles such as A Beautiful Mind or Cinderella Man.
While stylish as ever, the story of the rivalry between Formula One racing legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt has a heavily detailed quality that keeps it both engrossing and down-to-earth. Featuring confident performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, as well as spectacular racing photography, Rush is more than worth your time.
9. Side Effects
Supposedly director Steven Soderbergh’s final feature film before he retired to work on projects such as Behind the Candelabra, Side Effects (read our review) garnered decent critical buzz but never gained much traction at the box office. This is a shame, because the flick is actually a slick, stylish thriller that reveals new layers of intrigue until its closing moments.
Centered on a haunted performance by Rooney Mara (Her) as the desperately depressed wife of a white-collar ex-con, Side Effects explores themes of prescription drug addiction, medical ethics, and mental illness while also delivering a pulpy, suspenseful ride. Highly recommended.
10. The Spectacular Now
Perhaps the most earnest and honest teen drama to come out in years, The Spectacular Now (read our review) flew under most viewers’ radar in 2013. Notable for its refreshingly mature script and strong performances from Miles Teller (Fantastic Four) and Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars), The Spectacular Now follows a hard-partying high school senior whose anything-goes attitude hides emotional scars and budding alcoholism.
When Sutter meets an atypical love interest during a particularly rough patch, they set off on a journey of discovery – both of each other and of themselves. Though it somewhat flubs the final analysis of its character’s motivations, The Spectacular Now refutes the notion that teen dramas need to be crass or superficial.
In the same vein as Traffic and Crash, Disconnect (read our review) tells multiple stories that parallel one another and intersect in interesting ways. A complex fable about the ways that modern technology alienates us even as it connects society closer together, Disconnect most definitely has no qualms about sharing its views with the audience.
Fortunately, a deft script and strong performances from a wide cast of actors such as Jason Bateman (Bad Words) and Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) save Disconnect from becoming just another polemic. There is a serious and well-thought drama here – one that directly interrogates the basic ways in which the audience interacts with the world.
12. The Iceman
Though he’s been known as a dramatic force to be reckoned with for some years, in many ways 2013 brought actor Michael Shannon most fully into the public consciousness. Of course, this is largely because of his crazy-eyed turn as General Zod in Man of Steel, but the crime-biopic The Iceman (read our review) better captured his intensity and range.
Despite the presences of Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, and Ray Liotta, make no mistake – this is Shannon’s movie. His depiction of professional hitman Richard Kuklinski is at once soulful and enigmatically angry. While the film’s plot can sometimes meander, Shannon’s performance is never less than electric.
13. Man of Tai Chi
In some ways, Man of Tai Chi (read our review) is a fairly meat-and-potatoes martial arts film. Protagonist Tiger Chen (played by the former stuntman of the same name) is a young Tai Chi prodigy frustrated by his inability to put his skills to good use. Catching the eye of a powerful local businessman, Tiger soon finds himself fighting for his life in the world of underground bloodsports.
Though it doesn’t exactly break new narrative ground, Man of Tai Chi is actually a breathlessly paced action flick with some truly rip-roaring fight choreography. Audiences also get to see Keanu Reeves truly sink his teeth into the scenery, bringing a goofy enthusiasm to his role as the piece’s main villain. It’s about as heavy as a feather, but enormous fun in the right context.
14. Frankenstein’s Army
Proving that a strong sense of imagination can overcome narrative shortcomings, the low-budget Frankenstein’s Army takes a familiar horror plot and livens it up with a breakneck pace and wonderful stable of monster designs. Set during the last days of World War II, Frankenstein’s Army follows a Soviet film student as he attempts to make a propaganda movie with an elite scouting unit.
When the squad comes upon an apparently abandoned German village, they also stumble across a facility designed to turn corpses into living weapons. Though it moves through some tired narrative beats, Frankenstein’s Army consistently makes up for it with its sheer audacity – and, of course, dozens of delightfully freaky creatures.
15. Upstream Color
The follow-up to director Shane Carruth’s critically acclaimed, low-budget time travel puzzler Primer had a lot to live up to. Upstream Color is an undeniably bizarre science-fiction drama that demands the full attention of its audience. Almost no moment of exposition is given. Shifts in time are defined almost entirely by contextual clues. The movie’s editing can be drifting and dreamlike.
And yet, Upstream Color tells a fascinating story about lost identity, post-traumatic stress, reclaiming romance in the face of tragedy, and psychic parasites. Granted, it can be something of a chore to follow the film’s logic, but it’s mesmerizing all the same.
Not every piece of art immediately finds its audience. Some films – including titles as diverse as Citizen Kane and John Carpenter’s The Thing – didn’t pick up their passionate fan followings until many years after they originally lit up cinema screens.
This is not to say that Frankenstein’s Army will end up being the next version of The Thing – or any other title listed here, for that matter. At the same time, these 15 titles are all movies that debuted last year to a listlessness that they probably didn’t deserve. While it’s doubtful that many of these titles will find enduring popularity, here’s to hoping that more than one will make its way into its proper place among the filmic canon.
After all: doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?
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