December has been an exciting month, since critics have been hard at work voting for the best movies they’ve seen all year. We’ve also been hard at work on our best movies of 2021 list. However, even though our best movies list has 25 movies in total, there are still plenty of other movies that were pretty great, but have been left behind slightly by the awards buzz.
That’s the intention of this list: to highlight underrated movies that were pretty stunning and deserve their time in the spotlight too. In comparison to other great lists we’ve done this year, this one is in order of merit – the better the movie, the lower the number beside it. Here are ten of the most underrated movies of 2021.
Director: Nicole Riegel
The opening scene of Holler involves a young woman Ruth (Jessica Barden) hauling scrap metal during winter with her brother Blaze (Gus Halpher) for some cash, however, they don’t get much for their efforts. Her mom’s a drug addict, she’s hiding eviction notices on the regular, and things are pretty bleak. Then, Ruth gets a college acceptance letter, which surprises her since she never applied – Blaze did that for her. But the odds are stacked against her, as even her own school counsellor believes there to be a limit to what she can do because of her circumstances.
Barden delivers such a powerful performance as Ruth, quite between safety of what she’s always known, or striking it out into the unknown to see if she has a chance to make something of herself. It’s a tale that has been done before, but Riegel explores the subject matter in an honest and real way – Ruth’s life doesn’t miraculously transform overnight because of this acceptance letter, but it does pave the way for a glimmer of something different.
Director: Ilya Naishuller
It may be weird including Nobody as part of an underrated list, since this movie has definitely been discussed. However, I do find the conversation usually entails how Nobody is too close in spirit to John Wick to be regarded in its own light — after all, the same screenwriter penned both scripts. I feel that to lump the two together isn’t necessarily fair because besides the general plot of “one man goes ballistic and starts killing a bunch of people”, they aren’t conveying the same ideas.
Nobody stars Bob Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell, a dad and husband who lives a lackluster, routine life, usually bearing the various indignities he encounters daily. This changes when two thieves break into his suburban home one night. Instead of attacking these thieves, Hutch finds himself cooling his tracks, hoping to prevent serious violence by submitting to their demands. His son Blake (Gage Munroe) is disappointed in him and his wife, Becca (Connie Nielsen) has been gradually distancing herself from him all these years.
The aftermath of the incident strikes a match to Hutch’s long-simmering rage, and we discover that he was actually an assassin for hire in the good old days. The movie offers such an intriguing look into the idea of masculinity and suburbia, and how Hutch’s suppression of these sides to him drained the colour from his own life. The movie’s also pretty funny, with brutal action scenes that are well-shot and realistic.
Nobody is a really good movie that needs more appreciation.
8. Plan B
Director: Natalie Morales
Plan B is Natalie Morales’ directorial debut, which is astounding given how good this movie is. Much like Olivia Wilde with Booksmart, Morales’ movie deals with female friendship and the issues women face regarding sex and sexuality. However, despite the similar themes, Plan B is very much its own movie, with a distinct identity of its own.
Teen besties Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) and Lupe (Victoria Moroles) decide to throw a party at Sunny’s house since her mom is out of town. After a boy shows her some attention, Sunny impulsively decides to have sex with him despite not really liking him all that much. Things go wrong with the condom, and so Sunny finds herself in need of the Plan B pill the day after. Getting the pill isn’t technically a difficult endeavour, but pharmacists can choose not to sell it based on their own morality clause.
This forces the pair to set out on a road trip to Planned Parenthood, needlessly putting themselves in trouble because of one man’s righteous denial. Given all that’s going on in the world right now, Plan B deals with important, timely matters, and does so with humour and a lot of heart.
7. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Director: Michael Rianda
Just like Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, The Mitchells vs. the Machines uses a mixture of 2D and 3D styles, drawing quite abundantly from meme culture to craft the humour of the movie. Boy, did it succeed. This movie is probably my favourite animated movie this year, with a top-tier narrative, eye-catching visuals and well-developed characters.
Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is excited to finally be going to film school. Her passion hasn’t always received much validation at home, especially from her father Rick (Danny McBride), so school would be the first place that she would find people who get her and what she loves. In a bid to bond with Katie before she leaves, Rick plans a road trip instead of aa regular plane ride, and Katie finds herself saddled with her family with a trip she didn’t even want to be on. Along the way, the machines turn against the humans, and the family is tasked with saving humanity from this attack.
Much of what drives the movie is the differing worldviews between Katie and Rick – a generational gap in a sense – which stirs conflict between the pair. The road to resolution is done well, with both characters learning to show interest in what makes the other person happy. Katie doesn’t need her father to become some film expert – he just needs to show that he’s proud of her, and that’s more than enough.
6. The Killing of Two Lovers
Director: Robert Machoian
The Killing of Two Lovers has often been described as the working class version of Marriage Story, which makes sense to me – it is equally poignant and heartbreaking, and offers such an insightful look into marriage and separation.
Married couple David (Clayne Crawford) and Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) are separated, and as part of their separation, they’ve agreed that they’re allowed to see other people. But it becomes clear that David only agreed to this because he thought the separation would be temporary, and with every conversation the two share, it appears that Nikki is leaning closer to divorce. It isn’t an easy situation for all involved, especially since the pair share four children together.
Crawford makes it easy for us to sympathize with David, and the film’s most excruciating moments are just of him on his own, and the film’s close-up shots of Crawford’s face allow us to be privy to every single emotion his character is feeling. Not a moment is wasted, with every scene and frame communicating so much about David’s interior and his relationship with his family.
It’s a film you won’t soon forget.
5. The Night House
Director: David Bruckner
Beth (Rebecca Hall) and her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) are in love, so she can’t understand why he would take his own life while in a boat in the middle of a lake beside their house. His suicide note to her provides more confusion than clarity, and as her grief consumes her, she’s swepy up in something that may or may not be supernatural.
The tension in The Night House is so well-crafted, and Rebecca Hall’s performance as Beth helps steer every single moment of the film. Hall is one of my favourite actresses, and she is mesmerising to watch here as Beth. She feels like this ticking time bomb, donning a mask dripping with sardonic derision to hide the pain she’s feeling upon her husband’s death, threatening to explode at any moment.
As she looks for clues, she starts dreaming and sleepwalking while she’s at it. The transition from reality to nightmare make up some of the scariest parts of the film, with Ben Lovett’s score making everything absolutely nerve wrecking. It’s an effective genre film, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.
4. I’m Your Man
Director: Maria Schrader
I’m Your Man deals with the intersection of A.I and humans with regard to romantic relationships. In the movie, a company is able to build you a humanoid of your dreams, tailored to adapt to your needs and desires – the absolute epitome of artificial intelligence. Alma (Maren Eggert) is selected to test one of these A.Is, a decision she highly objects to. But her boss is insistent, and so she reluctantly agrees after he makes her some career promises. Enter Tom, a gorgeous humanoid, played wonderfully by Dan Stevens – who even knew he could speak German so flawlessly?
Alma clearly finds it off-putting that he’s not human, but is also obviously attracted to him. One of the factors Alma struggles with is Tom’s agency, and whether he possesses any. If this A.I is programmed according to Alma’s needs, can he ever say no to her, or fight with her? Would this be a satisfying relationship if your partner is always at your beck and call?
As Alma grows closer to Tom, these are the questions she ponders, and the film wants you to think about it too. After all, as technology continues to evolve, this possibility might only be a few years away from becoming something real. Isn’t it better to have companionship, than to lead a lonely, desperate life yearning for some scrap of love? Watch the film to find out.
3. The Humans
Director: Stephen Karam
A24’s releases have quite the reputation among cinephiles, who are often eager to check out films that have the A24 stamp as it speaks to a certain quality – The Humans is no exception.
Based on Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play, and adapted for the screen by Karam himself, The Humans centers on the Blake family as they come together for a Thanksgiving dinner. The apartment that they are gathered in is Brigid’s (Beanie Feldstein) new place with boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). The setting gives quite a claustrophobic feeling to the whole meal, as each character proceed to get certain things off their chest.
There’s love between family members, but at the same time an urge to wound, to hurt. The tension is so well-crafted, and the talented cast do great work in making this a riveting film to dive into. Definitely an underrated movie of 2021 to check out, but maybe not right after Christmas dinner.
2. Little Fish
Director: Chad Hartigan
In Little Fish, a memory-erasing virus is sweeping the world. There’s no news as to how it spreads and whether there’s a preference for who it infects, but there’s no cure, just a slow descent into oblivion, where a world of strangers awaits. The pandemic atmosphere of the movie hits a little too close to home, despite the varying natures of these two viruses.
Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are newly married, where a chance encounter on a beach birthed a permanent and binding relationship. The film doesn’t move in a linear fashion, so we transverse their past and live their present all at the same time – in an Emma and Jude bubble, so to speak. It’s all lovely and beautiful, until Jude begins to forget things. As Emma tries her best to help Jude hold onto his memories, we’re given a haunting reminder of what awaits through the people around them.
If a relationship is a cumulation of memories a couple holds together, what happens when one person forgets? Maybe love is powerful enough to thwart the mind’s deterioration, maybe we’ll always find our way back to each other, even in spite of insurmountable odds.
Little Fish drips with equal doses of beauty and poignancy – an affecting dive into love and memory, and how it defines who we are.
1. Nine Days
Director: Edson Oda
In Edson Oda’s directorial debut Nine Days (he also penned the screenplay), souls are applying for life on earth, hoping to be deemed worthy enough to be born into comfortable circumstances. They are to go through a series of tests, which will take up to nine days (hence the title). These souls don’t experience things like we do, their senses are dulled, so the chance to be alive means everything.
Winston Duke, who’s mostly known for his roles in Black Panther and Us, is incredible in this movie. This is a role we’ve never seen him take on before – more academic, serious, but never boring. It’s a true shame that his performance will be overshadowed by bigger, busier names, and hopefully this project will lead to better things for him.
Nine Days has rich, complex ideas and performances, and that final scene will stay with you long after the movie’s over.
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