When we talk about a movie being “underrated,” what do we really mean? It’s essentially as nebulous a distinction as “overrated.” Sometimes a film earns great reviews, but no one sees it. Other times a populist hit doesn’t get enough respect for a particular cinephile’s taste. Can a movie be underrated and overrated? Plenty would argue that’s the fate of Avatar, the biggest box-office smash of all time and also an easy target whose ultimate cultural impact is constantly being questioned. Perhaps “underrated,” like “best,” is all in the eye of the beholder.
It’s by multiple, even competing definitions that the 10 films below could be considered underrated. Some of them were unfairly maligned, or just underappreciated, by critics. Others were ignored by audiences despite great reviews. And a few failed with both crowds — a double whammy that makes them instantly rife for reconsideration. There’s nothing scientific about the ranking; consider it more of a ballpark approximation of just how good a movie was relative to how roundly it was panned or ignored. And if some of these movies strike you as not underrated at all, take solace in knowing that you can now point to this article as proof that they are, in fact, overrated.
The backlash to David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy was nothing compared to the hell he caught for his latest legacy sequel to a ’70s horror classic. Believer is no misunderstood masterpiece; beyond wasting a returning Ellen Burstyn, it adds little in the way of fresh ideas or scares to a story that Hollywood has been milking for 50 years as of this month.
But the vitriol spewed at the movie is disproportionate to its sins, and it ignores some grace notes, like the typical wealth of environmental texture Green brings to his Southern suburban setting. Maybe the timing was just wrong: Would any attempt to revive The Exorcist benefit from arriving after William Friedkin’s death?
Oppenheimer may have struck a big blow for the lost art of big-budget Hollywood movies for adults, but Ridley Scott has been carrying that torch for years. Reviews of his sprawling history lesson on the diminutive military strategist who conquered half of Europe were mixed and leaning negative — an unfair fate for the kind of lavish drama that the studios hardly make anymore.
Not that Napoleon deserves praise just for its unfashionable qualities. What detractors overlooked was how Scott used the classic period trappings and biopic conventions as a Trojan Horse, smuggling a dry comedy of royal insecurity into multiplexes. Joaquin Phoenix’s tantrums (“You think you’re so great because you have boats!”) should have been enough to push the critical consensus from “Rotten” to “Fresh.”
A nameless man, played by Melvin Gregg, awakens in a windowless room, clueless as to how he got there. His only source of communication is a lone computer monitor that prompts him for video content. But who’s on the other side receiving his messages? The first feature film by veteran commercial director Ira Rosensweig very quietly crept into theaters this fall and racked up only a handful of reviews … which is a pity, because it’s an intriguingly minimalist dose of lo-fi sci-fi.
If the film’s a little heavy-handed in its critique of social media, it gets by on its formal and conceptual ambition — the way Rosensweig never strays from his single camera angle, even as he slowly expands the scope of the story. Maybe it will find an audience on the smaller screens upon which it metaphorically comments.
It was one Scream too many judging from some of the more withering takedowns of this newest installment in the deathless post-modern slasher franchise. We certainly didn’t need another, but the sixth installment might be the best since the second, thanks to inventive set pieces (the crosscutting subway attack is a highlight), an ingeniously subversive cold open, and a general downtick in the kind of winking, self-conscious commentary on the rules of franchises that made its immediate predecessor more of a chore.
Scream VI is such good fun that we’ve managed to overlook the boneheaded decisions of its production company, Spyglass, which has now driven three scream queens from the franchise — a true profile in greed, cowardice, and unforced errors.
One person’s radical midnight-movie experiment is another’s tedious exercise in nothing happening slowly. That’s the charitable way of acknowledging that one of the year’s most singular movies of any genre was not built for the short attention spans of impatient sensation junkies.
Of course, the minute the viral hype resulted in a quasi-wide release, Kyle Edward Ball’s ultra-low-budget supernatural horror movie Skinamarink was destined to divide audiences and critics. Just consider this a lament that more of the latter didn’t get behind it — or that, nearly a year later, it didn’t make a bigger dent in year-end discourse.
Another strange whatsit in the rough shape of horror — this one a psychological reverie that applies the bad hippie vibes of British cult classics like The Wicker Man to the story of a lone researcher losing her mind, or maybe just getting swallowed by memories, on a lonely stretch of rock.
More neglected than panned, Enys Men deserved a bigger fan base. The vibrant celluloid imagery and hypnotic, suggestive editing rewarded repeat viewings, but how many drank in the sensual wonders of this movie even once, let alone went back for seconds?
Yes, the script mostly stinks — it’s a generic hodgepodge of earlier, better science fiction stories, festooned with a gooey, sentimental perspective on the pressing matter of AI. But almost nothing else this year delivered as richly in the spectacle department as Gareth Edwards’ failed blockbuster, an oasis of gorgeous futuristic design and staggering IMAX-scaled imagery in the desert of chintzy green-screen attractions passing for Hollywood event cinema.
That The Creator isn’t garnering attention for its cinematography, art direction, or even visual effects this awards season is proof that too many people who vote for such things can’t see the trees for the forest; you don’t have to love the whole machine to appreciate its finely rendered individual parts.
Imagine if Belgian festival darlings the Dardennes made Speed, but instead of a bus, it’s a woman racing to catch a bus, and if she slows down, her bank account explodes. That’s the energy of Éric Gravel’s urgent drama of hamster-wheel desperation, in which a working mother (Laure Calamy) balances parenthood with an unforgiving daily commute. Like a few other movies on this list, Full Time earned mostly glowing reviews.
It’s underrated in the sense that it barely made a blip on the American cultural radar or in the year-end conversation. While plenty rallied around the same handful of international movies (like Anatomy of a Fall), arguably greater films from aboard slipped through the cracks; consider this a shared plug for other overlooked 2023 gems like Godland, Falcon Lake, and the take-n0-prisoners satire Sick of Myself.
We’re past the days when dumping on horror movies was just standard practice for film critics. But the genre still inspires more than its share of overly harsh reviews — a trend that plays out across this very list, and which reached an apotheosis in 2023 with the unjust tongue lashing visited upon the enjoyable Hammer-grade hokum of The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which adapted a few short pages of incident from Bram Stoker’s Dracula into a doomed-vessel creature feature and quintessential August thriller.
Dracula on a Boat, as fans and detractors alike nicknamed the film, has its flaws, but plenty of critics treated it like some unholy abomination to be eradicated with the blinding light of their words. Truthfully, this writer would take 10 more movies like it a year, especially if they all boasted such tactile monster effects and an accomplished cast of slumming vampire bait.
Taking an anatomical deep dive via tiny cameras that capture surgeries in big-screen close-up, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (or The Fabric of the Human Body) was the most remarkable movie of 2023 that nobody saw. OK, not nobody: The latest queasy, visceral documentary from Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan) certainly has its champions, including on this very site.
But the film’s theatrical release last spring was brief and limited, and it’s barely been written about since. The reception was too quiet for such a jaw-dropping achievement. One is forced to attribute its baffling absence from the awards season discourse to a squeamish refusal to even watch it.