Scott Weinberg’s Top 12 Underrated Films of 2013

By January 4, 2014

Open a web browser and you’ll stumble across 150 different Top 10 and Bottom 10 lists, but how many movie sites focus on the overlooked, the underrated, or the unfairly dismissed films? Well, several do, actually. And we’re one of them! Let’s hear it for really great scenes in otherwise forgettable films and for the simple joy of watching an allegedly stinky movie — only to realize that you really liked it. Even though 80% of Twitter thinks you’re crazy.

Let’s pick just one movie from each month. Otherwise I could pick 25 films that deserve a little more respect.
Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters
January: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters — Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with strange foreign indie genre films (like Dead Snow, which got director Tommy Wirkola this gig in the first place) that I was able to not only settle into the “dark comedy/light horror/snarky adventure” tone that the film put forth, but overlook its narrative missteps and just enjoy the visual nuttiness on display. And while lead actors Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton probably cringe when this title comes up in conversation, both performers are rather amusing in the flick.
FebruaryBullet to the Head — Stallone just keeps plugging away with the late-career action stuff, and while there’s not a whole lot to movies like Escape Plan, Expendables 2, and Grudge Match, it’s important to give an actor credit when something goes right. Bullet to the Head will never rank among the best films ever directed by action genius Walter Hill, but for this old mayhem fan, there’s a lot to enjoy in this simple, low-key throwback to relatively simple action lunacy.
March: Phantom — Raise your hand if you’re a sucker for submarine films like Crimson Tide, Below, and The Hunt for Red October. Good. Me too. Phantom isn’t nearly as good as those films, but if you want to see an eclectic ensemble (Ed Harris, David Duchovny, Bill Fichtner, AND Lance Henriksen?!?) tossing around some disparate accents and some wild facial hair in a hazardous submarine, this one’s actually kinda fun.
AprilOblivion — Yes, it’s an amalgam of maybe 14 other (better) sci-fi stories, and sure, it’s getting pretty obvious that Tom Cruise is squeaky-clean super duper everyman hero — but if you hop on Twitter and ask people what they thought of Oblivion, you’d get mostly venom and perhaps even bile in response. And nobody wants those. I saw a slick, sleek, and consistently interesting sci-fi adventure movie that goes to some obvious places, but also does some rather cool things too. Maybe people just like picking on Tom Cruise.
May: Now You See Me — Doesn’t make a lick of sense once the end credits roll and you give the story a second’s worth of scrutiny — if you even bother — but there’s definitely some fun, flashy nonsense in this sharply-written and intermittently downright weird heist comedy. Plus it’s not too rough to sit down with Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, and Jesse Eisenberg for 120 minutes. I sure didn’t think so.
Man of Steel banner
June: Man of Steel — This is another one that seems pretty fun while you’re watching it, but once you hit Facebook (or, God forbid, bring it up at work) it seems like everyone hates the darn thing. “That’s not the Superman I know!” says one person. (Yes, but it’s a movie about Superman’s first day on the job.) “It has too much sci-fi in it!” is another complaint. (I think the sci-fi angle is one of the film’s biggest selling points!) “There’s too much collateral damage! People actually dieeee!” say others, and one has to wonder if they ever saw Superman (1978) or Superman 2 (1980). OK, one more: “There’s too much damn product placement in the film and it’s not just annoying, it’s actively distracting! Not cool!” (This one I agree with 100%. IHOP and Sears co-directed this movie.)
July: The Lone Ranger — Every summer film season needs at least one big punching bag, and this was the one to beat for 2013. I’m not about to say it’s a misunderstood masterpiece (like some people do with Hudson Hawk, if you can believe that) but if you’re a fan of lovely cinematography, very impressive editing, and outlandishly cool action sequences, then you’ll have some fun here. The flick has three major problems: 1) the atrocious wrap-around story, 2) a tonal confusion that borders on pre-pubescent schizophrenia, and 3) Johnny Depp’s charmless, mirthless, meandering performance that’s meant to be charming but actually grinds the film to a halt every nine minutes. (I love Johnny Depp, but I gotta be honest.) Focus mainly on the visual side (fine, and the music) and you’ll probably have a good time.
Elysium Damon
August: Elysium — A certain segment of sci-fi fans seem to want Neill Blomkamp to be a whole lot deeper or cerebral than he actually strives to be. Yes, his District 9 was a very clever combination of sci-fi, horror, and pointed social commentary, but his follow-up (Elysium) dared to be a little more simplistic. It’s basically the story of a dying man who tries to fight back against the tyrannical class system that doomed him in the first place — but really it’s just a 1980s “robotic warrior” action flick with a whole lot of money thrown at it. Regardless, this is a fun, fast-paced, and occasionally bizarre sci-fi action movie that seems destined to be called “lame” just because it might not be as awesome as District 9. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for Matt Damon.
September: The Family — This one might just be my #1 most underrated movie of the year. Look, nobody laments the comedic Robert De Niro like I do…but when the man is on, he’s freaking on. De Niro has several great scenes in this movie, most notably with lovable people like Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones. But this is not the broad, stupid, Focker-y sort of farce you might have expected from the film’s advertising materials. The Family (written and directed by the wildly inconsistent but still talented Luc Besson) is decidedly darker than you might expect — which doesn’t automatically make it a good film, but it does make it infinitely more interesting than 90 minutes of fart and discomfort comedy. Rent this one and tell me I’m not crazy. It’s a good, weird black comedy.
Gravity Banner
October: Gravity — OK, this choice makes no sense. I admit it. This film has received rave reviews, numerous awards, huge stacks of cash, and endless squeals of delight from moviegoers. But you know…I still think it’s being sold a little short in the “drama” department. As if being a simple and streamlined sci-fi thriller with some heart isn’t as important as a more dramatic film. I think it’s one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in years — plus, fine. October didn’t have anything underrated. It was a weak month, mostly. And I love this film.
Contracted 2
November: Contracted — I picked this one partially because Thor 2 and Catching Fire were both solid, but hardly underrated. Instead I went with a strange and rather disconcerting indie horror film that, while it isn’t perfect, exhibits all the things we like to see in low-budget DIY horror storytelling. Let’s just say it’s about safe sex (sorta), it’s not for kids, and it goes to some truly unpleasant places. Which I mean as a compliment. It’s a dark, odd, challenging horror flick.
American Hustle
December: American Hustle — OK, now I’m insane, right? How could an awards-bait favorite like David O. Russell’s American Hustle be considered underrated? Here’s how: I keep seeing tweets like “American Hustle is good but not OSCAR GOOD.”: Let that sink in for a second. The logic here is that a film can be strange, funny, and intelligent, packed with great performances, fantastic music, and dozens of important components…but it’s not OSCAR GOOD? It’s not…dour enough? Important enough? Topical or cliched enough? Such a strange argument. American Hustle is a bunch of filmmakers paying homage to Scorsese while telling a fact-based story that’s not very interesting, but the characters are — in a ridiculously entertaining way.
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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.
  • Imaad Shahrukh

    Gravity is overrated.