2012 was a big year for underrated movies. Top notch effects are getting cheaper, great actors are willing to deign into the world of high-end ‘B’ movies, and faster and less expensive digital production workflows have made it possible for much riskier material to get greenlit for theatrical release. Because of this, choosing my top 5 underrated movies was particularly tough, so I’m sticking with movies I saw in the theater.
5 – Lincoln
Wait, Lincoln on an underrated movie list? Isn’t that a highly acclaimed big budget awards-ish movie? Well sure, but what hasn’t received nearly enough attention is Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. The majority of the scenes in Lincoln take place indoors, in poorly lit rooms, often with backlighting from bright windows. When you film a scene like this, lighting the actors so that they’re visible and look ‘right’ without calling attention to the lights is almost impossible – really close to impossible, actually – and Kaminski pulls it off dozens (maybe hundreds) of times throughout Lincoln without ever drawing attention to his work. Lincoln is a staggeringly beautiful example of a craftsman plying his trade to subtle perfection. Probably the greatest technical cinematography in 30 years, and it’s gone largely unnoticed. If Kaminski doesn’t win the Best Cinematography Oscar, boo your TV and confuse your friends.
4 – The Raid
The Raid is one of two movies on my list that are technically from 2011, but which I saw in theaters in 2012, and it’s my list so here it is. The basic plot involves an Indonesian SWAT team invading a slum tenement apartment building from hell run by a criminal overlord. The good guys (eventually guy) are massively outgunned, become trapped, and have to move from floor to floor through increasingly dangerous obstacles in order to escape. It’s a refreshingly novel take on the ‘ten little Indians’ genre thanks to incredible pacing, well choreographed action, and an exceptional use of negative space that gives the film a real sense of foreboding drama that you wouldn’t normally find in a low budget action film. The Raid reminds me of District 9 from a few years back, in that studios are falling over themselves to remake and/or copy it, but the original is just fine by me.
3 – 21 Jump Street
Filmmakers playing in the action comedy space have the freedom to take viewers across such a broad spectrum of emotions, from coarse humor all the way to intense drama. When it works, it’s one of my favorite genres, and 21 Jump Street has some fantastic performances, a solid script, and is well executed from start to finish. The comedy is funnier than I expected, the action scenes more exciting than I expected, and the film had a level of polish that you’d never expect from a mediocre TV property licensing play. When Joe and I walked out of the theater, we both remarked that this movie would have been received a lot better had it been called “Undercover High” or something – anything – other than “21 Jump Street”.
2 – Warrior
This is the other ‘technically from 2011’ movie on my list. Warrior is about mixed martial arts (MMA), which I generally despise, so I probably put off watching this for much longer than I normally would a movie from a director and actors that I usually enjoy. And while MMA is inextricably woven into every aspect of the film, the movie is really the tale of two estranged brothers from a broken home and how they each use the exact same sport of fighting as wildly different means of coping with the stresses in their lives. Even as I write this, it doesn’t sound compelling, but I spent the entire two hours watching Warrior with my jaw on the floor – it’s seriously probably the best sports movie since Rocky IV. Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy, and Joel Edgerton each deliver pitch-perfect performances as the father and sons, the fighting is real, brutal, and visceral (if filmed violence doesn’t make you want to turn away, it’s been done wrong), and Gavin O’Connor’s direction is pitch perfect. In any other year, this is my easy pick for best underrated movie of the year. If you haven’t seen it, lucky you, because Warrior is an amazingly good flick that most viewers will be able to take in without any preconceived notions.
1 – The Grey
Which leads us to The Grey. To watch the preview for The Grey, you’d think that you were going to a Grade B action movie where Liam Neeson fistfights wolves in the wilderness after surviving a plane crash. Something from the ‘Taken’ calibur of hammy action movies. Which is cool, but The Grey is not that. The Grey is an introspective character study about a man lost in the wilderness of his mind who becomes lost in the wilderness of Alaska. It’s Neeson’s greatest performance, and I firmly believe that if they cut about 15-20 minutes of pace-killing, extraneous set pieces, it would have been a serious Best Picture contender, and Neeson walks away with a near-automatic, Daniel Day-Lewis disappointing Best Actor trophy. Which is such a shame, because I’m sure that when Joe Carnahan started watching early cuts of the film, he must have realized that he had magic on his hands, but there must also be such an intense pressure on directors not to cut big budget already-shot-and-paid-for scenes from movies. Unfortunately, two of the three scenes The Grey can absolutely do without were probably two of the most expensive to create. But even with these infuriating imperfections, The Grey is a terrific film. Neeson is amazing, Frank Grillo does yet another disappearing act into a perfect character role (Frank Grillo has sneakily become one of the best 2-3 character actors working today – check out his IMDB Page and prepare to be amazed by a series of ‘he was that guy’?!?! moments), and Carnahan’s direction of the beginning and end of the film should earn him the trust of studios with quality material for years to come. As a whole movie, Warrior might be the best underrated movie of 2012, but the beginning and ending of The Grey are better than any pieces of any movie this year.
As of this writing, The Grey and Warrior are available for streaming on Netflix Instant. 21 Jump Street and The Raid are available on the ITunes Store and On Demand, and Lincoln is playing in theaters nationwide.