MTC Recommends: 7 Under-Appreciated Modern Gems

From stop-motion to big-budget blockbusters and everything in between, the Movies TV Comics crew each pick a few of their favorite films from recent years that simply didn’t get the recognition they deserved.

Thanks to a well-timed hashtag campaign, Film Twitter’s unique and wide-ranging movie preferences have taken center stage this week. Of course, it wouldn’t be Film Twitter without some juicy controversy and unnecessary drama to boot! So, in response to some grumbling about fans rehashing the same old, been there/done that, obvious and uninspired choices, we’ve decided to put together a collective #Fav7Films of the criminally underrated, unseen, and/or unappreciated variety…


Short Term 12 (2013)


Short Term 12 (A)

Selected by Minty (@mintsanity)

Have you met our new Captain Marvel yet? I hear she’s pretty great. Chances are your first encounter with the wonderful human being that is Brie Larson would have come via her Oscar-winning turn in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. More devoted fans will remember her from key supporting parts in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs The World, 21 Jump Street and on The United States Of Tara, but the role a surprising amount of people seemed to have missed is her tour-de-force performance in Short Term 12.

Larson plays Grace, a resilient young youth worker in charge of a group home for troubled teenagers. Together with her long-term boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and co-workers Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and Nate (Rami Malek), she devotes her whole life to improving the lives of these neglected youths, providing them with a safe space in which they can move on. Whip-smart, tough-as-nails and overwhelmingly empathetic, Larson is phenomenal as a woman more concerned with helping others than concentrating on her own problems — of which she has a great many…

Short Term 12 (B)

Larson may be the highlight, but she’s ably supported by a diverse ensemble of young stars in breakout roles. The incredibly likeable Gallagher plays off all his co-stars with ease, demonstrating excellent chemistry with Larson in particular. Malek is great as a naïve trainee care worker, while Keith Stanfield & Kaitlyn Dever are outstanding as two troubled teens in desperate need of hope and guidance.

Helmed by second-time director Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 is a special, powerful coming-of-age drama. Blessed with a compelling cast of characters, it’s easily one of the best films of the decade so far.


Signs (2002)


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Selected by Jeremy (@SauronsBANE)

By now, everyone knows the story of director M. Night Shyamalan’s fall from grace — to put it mildly — after first bursting upon the scene, even being infamously hailed by Newsweek as “the next Spielberg” (a claim that they themselves have since hilariously and good-naturedly mocked). Despite rebounding somewhat with the recent, pleasantly surprising horror film The Visit, his reputation has taken quite a hit. Writing and directing such movies as Lady in the WaterThe HappeningThe Last Airbender, and After Earth all in a row will do that to you.

But nestled between M. Night’s two early classics (The Sixth SenseUnbreakable) and the start of his downward spiral (The Village), lies arguably the most compelling item in his entire filmography: Signs. Popularly derided as a wildly imperfect alien invasion flick with much of the genre’s trappings and clichés, Shyamalan’s 2002 low-key thriller has much deeper concepts in mind — the nature of faith and belief, coincidence and the randomness of the universe vs the existence of god, and at its core, a man dealing with his own pain and loss of identity while trying to keep his family from falling apart as his world falls apart around him.

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Alternating between triteness, intentionally stilted acting, camp, Shyamalan’s own effective style of quasi-horror, and unexpected emotional resonance all rolled into one incredibly admirable balancing act, this is a film that abundantly rewards those who engage with it on its own terms (regardless of personal beliefs). Meet it halfway, keep an open mind, and it’s easy to see the mark of a genuinely talented filmmaker who, at his very best, exhibits remarkable instincts for generating tension, atmosphere, and theme.


Mary and Max (2009)


mtc7underratedmaryandmax1.jpg

Selected by Puff (@_staypuffed)

Stop-motion is a fascinating sector of cinema, and Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot (most widely known for his Oscar-winning animated short, Harvey Crumpet) is one of the most unique voices within it. His first — and so far only — feature-length effort, Mary and Max, is the perfect encompassing of his filmography. His visual style, with exaggerated facial features and quirky details, is extremely distinct, and his weaving of dual elements (tragedy/comedy, life/death) is always impactful.

Elliot’s narrative is centred on two fractured people, spanning two countries across two decades. Mary Dinkle (played by Toni Collette) begins as an isolated eight-year-old living in Melbourne, while Max Horowitz (an undervalued Philip Seymour Hoffman performance) is a 44-year-old New Yorker, overwhelmed by the world due to various mental and physical problems.

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Elliot juxtaposes the two characters by their surroundings (his America is a black-and-white metropolis; his Australia a sepia-tinged trip through suburbs), but explores their surprising connection as they become pen pals. Watching this relationship develop is certainly entertaining, but prepare for some bittersweet (or just plain bitter) moments throughout.

This is definitely a bit of a weird one, but Elliot’s eccentric voice becomes natural as the runtime progresses. If you’ve been dazzled by the innovation of Laika’s stop-motion efforts (including their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings) or claymation films of years past, Mary and Max is well worth seeking out.


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)


mtc7underappreciatedmasterandcommander2

Selected by Jeremy (@SauronsBANE)

In a climate where movies keep getting sequels that nobody asked for, let’s light a candle for one would-be franchise that just wasn’t meant to be. In fairness, Peter Weir’s 2003 adaptation of Master and Commander released to rave reviews, had a decent (if underwhelming) box office run, enjoyed several Academy Award nominations… and was then promptly forgotten as the Lord of the Rings juggernaut concluded a month later and stole the show, squashing any realistic chance for future sequels.

Standing out from the likes of The Last of the Mohicans or The PatriotMaster and Commander is an historical period piece/drama that’s far more episodic in nature, almost meandering from seemingly disconnected plot point to plot point until it occasionally and emphatically meets up again with the overarching storyline — the captain and crew of a British frigate chasing (and being chased by) a legendary French warship during the Napoleonic Wars.

mtc7underappreciatedmasterandcommander1

But make no mistake — that’s not a critique. Despite an unorthodox structure that may turn some viewers off, it only accentuates that this is a character study through and through; one that’s filled with intense drama, punctuated by impeccably-staged action, and guided by a steady hand with an expert grasp on balancing pacing, tension, character drama, and ship-to-ship combat and thrills.

If any of this piece comes across as a little bitter and jaded, well, that’s because it is! Given how unique and refreshing it is, driven by an incredible cast of character actors (led by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany) who fill each role with warmth and humanity, it’s hard to dispute that Master and Commander — and any sequels it could have spawned — deserved a far kinder fate than it received.


A Scanner Darkly (2006)


A Scanner Darkly (A)

Selected by Minty (@mintsanity)

Richard Linklater is quite possibly the most versatile filmmaker of the last 25 years. He’s bounced from revered hangout films like Dazed & Confused and Slacker, to the deeply romantic Before Trilogy, to mastering the family friendly demographic with School Of Rock. And who could forget his magnum opus, Boyhood: It Took 12 Years To Make? Ultimately, A Scanner Darkly stands out as his most unique film, not just for its striking visual style, but also for being Linklater’s first and only foray into science fiction.

Adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly explores the issues and consequences of long-term drug use. Set in a dystopian future where ~20% of the American population is hooked an a dangerously addictive drug named Substance D, the film stars Keanu Reeves as an undercover police officer chasing the supplier of this drug. The film is most notable for a it’s rotoscoped animated style (a technique also used by Linklater in Waking Life), which perfectly lends itself to the paranoia and hallucinations experienced by these characters while under the influence of Substance D.

A Scanner Darkly (B)

Reeves gives an excellent lead turn, proving to be the perfect guide through a film as philosophical as this. Of course, his supporting cast of addicts and dealers are an equally impressive bunch. Woody Harrelson & Winona Ryder both turn in likeable performances, while Rory Cochrane’s neurotic Charles Freck is simply captivating to watch whenever onscreen. However, the real standout is Robert Downey Jr’s Barris, who steals every scene with his bullshit metaphysical rambling and sly wit.

Unlike much of Linklater’s work, A Scanner Darkly actually boasts some semblance of a plot. In that sense, it’s one of his more accessible movies — providing you’re ‘focused’ enough to follow it, that is…


TRON: Legacy (2010)


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Selected by Puff (@_staypuffed)

You’d be hard pressed to find a more dazzling directorial debut than Joseph Kosinski’s. Serving as a follow-up to the 1982 cult film TRON, Legacy shifts its focus from hacker Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) to his audacious son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund). As Sam searches for his long-lost father, he winds up in the Grid, a sprawling, dangerous virtual reality that leaves him with far more questions than answers.

Hedlund and Bridges are enjoyable leads, but the MVP award belongs to Olivia Wilde. She gives an absorbing performance as Quorra, Flynn Sr.’s apprentice within the Grid. The character’s an interesting mix of physically skilled but naive, and feels fresh within the realm of mysterious sci-fi heroines.

The primary success of Kosinski’s film comes from its incredible visual storytelling. Through his direction and Claudio Miranda’s cinematography, every shot tells a story of its own. The action sequences are particularly spellbinding, as the famous TRON games get exhilarating updates. One might even label the film a masterpiece, at least on a visual level. Six years later, we’ve still seen nothing quite like it.

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Admittedly, it prioritises visuals over everything else, and that may not be for everyone. But even with the flaws one might find in Legacy, it’s just such an earnest, open picture. Has it got a simple narrative? Sure. But TRON: Legacy is about diving into a world, and it does that beautifully. Besides, narratives don’t always have to be infinitely complex to be satisfying, and the one here is mighty satisfying.

It’s still absolutely devastating that this film doesn’t have a sequel; what we’re offered here is a mere glimpse into incredible possibilities for storytelling. Hopefully Disney don’t take another 28 years to bring a third TRON to theatres. This franchise deserves far better than that.


Locke (2014)


mtc7underratedlocke2.jpg

Selected by Jeremy (@SauronsBANE)

Tom Hardy. A Welsh accent. A dimly (and beautifully) lit car. A hands-free phone. And taking a right turn at a stoplight, rather than a left. These are the ingredients that — somehow, inexplicably, beyond all odds — come together to form one of the most understated thrillers in recent memory. Yes, let’s get this out of the way right now: this is a movie that consists of nothing more than 85 minutes of Tom Hardy driving a car, making/receiving phone calls, and spouting gorgeously written monologues. Gimmicky? Perhaps. Shockingly effective? You better believe it.

And it IS a thriller, no doubt about it… although maybe not in the most traditional sense. Hardy’s impressively well fleshed-out character, Ivan Locke, isn’t a shadowy assassin on his way to another hit, or an undercover spy embarking on his next mission. No, Locke is simply a blue-collar, working class man driven by a singular motivation that threatens to upend his entire life as he knows it. Those are the stakes. The scale is limited to Locke’s own point-of-view, and writer/director Steven Knight makes sure to wring pure drama and tension out of every ounce of it.

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Delving into the plot for this kind of film would be a massive disservice to those not lucky enough to have seen it, as the narrative’s emotional fulcrum  rests entirely on viewers carefully getting to know this man, gradually realizing the extent of his (self-inflicted) predicament, and ultimately understanding — or not — exactly why he makes the choices that he does, starting with that afore-mentioned, fateful right turn.

Propelled by one of Hardy’s most commanding performances, aided by a skillful cast of voice actors (keep an ear out, discerning viewers, you may hear a familiar voice or two), and structured to keep the plot moving breathlessly forward at all times, Locke is one of very few contemporary movies that has the sheer guts to do more with less. Don’t let this film pass you by.


Those are our picks! D’you agree/disagree with any of them? We’re hoping this will be the first in a series of ‘MTC Recommends‘ articles coming your way over the next few months. If you liked it, be sure to let us know  – and give it a share. If you hated it, let @SauronsBANE know… and, um, give it a share?

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