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Underrated Movies Part 2 (warning: Sort of Long)

A sequel list to a long-ago entry, where I talk about some movies that, for whatever reason, I feel were unfortunately neglected, accompanied by a great song of each one's soundtrack. Please feel free to share your own thoughts on these (including f you even agree) and other underrated movies.
1Nathan Johnson and The Cinematic Underground
The Perfect Con

THE BROTHERS BLOOM - Rian Johnson's followup to Brick is faced with several hurdles. Given the divisive nature of that film, Johnson is already contending with a vocal chunk of people who see him as an overly assured egotist, more interested in his own diction than good storytelling. Add to that the fact that the Brothers Bloom owes more than a little bit in both style and plotting to Wes Anderson, including the precious, knowingly quirky nature, and things could be horrendous. It's a testament to Johnson (and, indeed, his actors) that this film works. Is it derivative? A bit. Verbose? Absolutely. Uneven? At times. However, it makes these tonal shifts work remarkably well, it plays its game smartly, and features excellent performances from the sad-sack Brody, the adorably hyper Weisz, the smirking yet stoic Kikuchi, and, perhaps best of all, the inscrutable Ruffalo. In a movie so dominated by trickery, there's always a risk involved in trying to get the audience to truly empathize with what's on-screen; the finale should be enough to convince anyone with doubts. (Also, if you happen to get the DVD, be sure to check out the Curator's Taled scene. Amazing.)
2Dickon Hinchcliffe
Olga's Dream

COLD SOULS - Another example of how marketing can really shoot a film in the foot. Trailers made this look like a comedy in the vein of Charlie Kaufman--and, to be fair, the premise does seem to match. However, for all these connections, Cold Souls is definitely a film apart. It's got just as much, and probably more pathos than humor running through it. The ending, in particular, seems far more concerned with raising philosophical questions than providing closure. And yet, thanks in no small part to an at turns hilarious and heartbreaking performance from Paul Giamatti, the film anchors its pretension with a striking and genuine human facet. It's frustrating, to be sure, but isn't that better than unoriginal?
Help I'm Alive

DEFENDOR - Again, marketing, marketing, marketing. In a variation on what has become an ever-growing superhero subgenre, Harrelson skillfully and subtly plays the "real life hero" titular character, who sets out to fight crime. However, unlike the gleefully over-the-top Kick-Ass or the concerningly brutal Super, Defendor is far more interested in the psyche of the sort of person who would actually attempt this sort of thing, as well as placing him in a much less sympathetic and believably (read: not gratuitously, but adequately) harsh environment of verisimilitude (relatively speaking).
4Clint Mansell

MOON - On the whole, there are two principal styles of science fiction. The first is focused on flash and impressive imagination of futuristic technology, hoping to catch its audience up in its distinct visual world. The other depends on its characters, the people who occupy these fanciful places. They operate almost in spite of their locales, attempting to emphasize the human in the alien. The two styles aren't mutually exclusive, nor is one necessarily superior. But it's clear where the allegiance of a film like Duncan Jones' Moon lies--and where it should. In a film with essentially two characters, a tired human and a smiley (or frowny, or pensive, and so on) -faced robot, must create an investing character. And it does. Sam Rockwell gives yet another masterful, nuanced, and, like most of his, overlooked performance as glorified maintenance man Sam Bell, nearing the end of his three-year solo stint on a resource-harvesting moon station. Spacey is his main companion, the almost too pleasant voice the smiling corporate robot. And if you think you've got it figured out from there, well, just watch this. It is brilliant in its low-key, character-centric way.
5Mike Berger
The Light

NARC - Swept under the rug by the unfortunate and unfair comparisons to Training Day, Joe Carnahan's gritty cop drama plays remarkably well with conventions. You have the cliched "one last case," but here our protagonist (the wonderfully conflicted Jason Patric) actually wants the desk job they're promising. You've got the standard-issue violent loose cannon (Ray Liotta, proving that he can play a role that requires more than being cocky and Italian), but, in many ways, he's also the most sensitive character. There are red herrings, black and blue suspects (mostly black, given the film's admirable refusal to shy away from racial issues), and color-saturated shots of the squalid, devastated Detroit. Pepper in the Rashomon-style treatment of the central mystery, not to mention a gripping final sequence full of hairpin emotional turns, and you've got one of the most criminally ignored crime dramas in recent memory.
6Thomas Newman
Road to Chicago

ROAD TO PERDITION - Speaking of crime, this Lone Wolf and Cub adaptation isn't so much underrated as under-seen. Nearly everyone I know who has checked it out had only praise. Tom Hanks plays well against type as Irish mafioso Michael Sullivan, on the run with his son after a very messy falling out in his hometown. Since it's Hanks, you know he's not going to be wholly unsympathetic, but still, there's an impressive amount of moral ambiguity in play here. The two primary allies-turned-enemies, for instance, are operating from the same core motivator: protecting their sons. Both have codes. Both must compromise. Both must suffer consequences. And Jude Law actually manages to be threatening and creepy as hell.
7Do Make Say Think

SYRIANA - Traffic creator Stephen Gaghan's study of politics, foreign relations, bureaucracy, and corruption has been called cluttered, preachy, didactic, jumbled, and countless other pejorative things. These are all more or less accurate claims. But it's this same disorienting, misdirecting nature that drives the film. And despite the sometimes heavy-handed monologues from amirs and attorneys alike, Gaghan does an impressive job eliciting sympathy for characters as disparate as CIA operatives just following orders (an impressively shlubby Clooney) and opportunistic energy traders to Middle Eastern reformers and the young kids ensnared by the promises (and food) of Islamic extremist groups. And, besides, chances are if you are uninterested in politics, you wouldn't give this movie a moment's thought anyway.
8Philip Glass
Living Waters

THE TRUMAN SHOW - By now, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is no doubt the commonly accepted go-to movie for anyone arguing for Carrey as a legitimate dramatic actor. And the opponents have their arsenal, too, whether it's the mawkish The Majestic, or the schizophrenic Number 23. However, an unfortunately overlooked entry in the Carrey canon is this scathing, cerebral, and, above all else, heartfelt analysis of celebrity and identity. When I first saw it, I was eight, and hated that it wasn't the Mask or Dumb & Dumber or Ace Ventura. Rewatching it, though, reveals just how much value there is in Carrey's understated performance. And Ed Harris is, as always, superb.
9John C. Reilly
A Life Without You (Is No Life At All)

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY - One of the smartest parodies in recent years--and a powerful antidote to the seemingly (hopefully) defunct Movie movies--is also one of the silliest, and one of the most consistently (and hilariously) creative. Nearly every trope of the music biopic is skewered, from the formative tragedy ("Ain't nothin' horrible gonna happen today") to the requisite drug addiction/rehab sequences ("You don't want no part of this shit"). The scope of this film is brilliant, its humor both subtle & throwaway and salacious & obvious in equal measure, and its spirit aptly embodied by what is no doubt its ace in the hole: the original soundtrack, which ranges from the Johnny Cash-aping title track to lush, bombastic Orbison ballads ("A Life Without You..."), acoustic, hilariously cryptic Dylan homages ("Royal Jelly"), Smile-era Brian Wilson-like over-ambitious musically masturbatory hodgepodges ("Black Sheep"), and even a surprisingly workable disco cover of David Bowie's "Starman." Dewey Cox is an inspiration, an icon, and an innovator. And to think, he never paid for drugs. Not once.
Cover Me

WITH HONORS - Like Liotta, Joe Pesci is an actor known mostly for his roles as hot-tempered, grating mobsters. And Brendan Fraser is now mainly referred to as "the big guy who shouts a lot in those Mummy movies, and isn't a mummy." However, given the right material, both can break from these niches very nicely. With Honors is not a perfect movie. It's another entry in the whole life-lessons-from-unexpected-sources, coming-of-age of the feel-good variety, and lots of other hyphens thrown in for good measure. But, by the merits of Pesci's surprisingly endearing "bum," and Fraser's decidedly meeker than usual Harvard student, the film somehow manages to breathe life into its tired old trajectory.
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