Illustration by Ben Beechener
When The Wizard of Oz was first released in 1939, it was considered a box office flop in spite of positive reviews from critics, making roughly $3 million on a budget of $2.77 million. Only after repeats on television and a theatrical re-release a decade later did it start to become the revered classic we know today. Contemporary critics and author Stephen King were unimpressed by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, yet now it is recognised as one of the greatest films in the horror genre. Both of these stand as examples of underrated films which were positively reappraised, so, as a tribute to forgotten gems, here’s my list of five films I believe, for one reason or another, deserve a second chance:
1 – Halloween II: On the day I’m writing this, it is Halloween 2021, so how better to start than with a film perfect for the spooky season. The second film in the Halloween franchise picks up immediately from where the first left off, continuing the story of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. On release it was panned by critics for increasing the levels of gore and weak characterisation, but I think these are unfair critiques. While the gore goes over the top in places, I actually believe it makes the film a much scarier experience than the slow-burn of the first, a film which I enjoy but don’t feel deserves its reputation as one of the best horror films ever made. Similarly, the point about characterisation wears very thin when you go back and watch the first film, in which the characters are just as hollow as in any other teenage slasher. I consider Halloween II to be an extended, underrated epilogue to the first film, which – when the two are viewed back-to-back – enhances the overall experience. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but, controversially, neither is the first, in my opinion. Both are fun, suspenseful slashers perfect for watching as a double-feature in October and the second part is in dire need of reassessment.
2 – Jackie Brown: Jackie Brown is the Quentin Tarantino film nobody remembers, despite it being, for my money, his best work. It follows a flight-attendant called Jackie, played by Pam Grier, who smuggles money across the border for gun-runner Ordell Robbie, before she is forced to choose between helping the police or a life spent in prison. Though it received mixed to positive reviews upon release, its box office returns paled in comparison to Tarantino’s previous film, Pulp Fiction, likely due to its slow pace and lack of Tarantino’s trademark violence and dialogue. The director’s next film, Kill Bill Vol. 1, was clearly a response to this lukewarm reception, as he doubled down on his stylistic choices and made more money, as a result. Critic Mark Kermodeclaims that this is the only Tarantino film in which the characters don’t sound like Tarantino himself, as it is based upon a novel called Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, a point with which I am inclined to agree. The script is tightly written, perhaps due to the source material, making for a film that, if you can get past the overuse of racial slurs, is definitely an underrated treat worth seeking out.
3 – Mortal Kombat (2020): Film buffs among you, hear me out. It was May, 2021, in the heat of Trinity Term here at Oxford. My preliminary exams were approaching, I had work to do for upcoming classes and my room was a permanent sauna due to being in the sun all day with a window that barely opened. How could I overcome such overwhelming conditions? By spontaneously deciding to go and watch video game characters beat the living daylights out of each other for a couple of hours on the big screen. I know it’s forgettable. I know the characters aren’t well-developed. I know it’s not the next Citizen Kane, but it doesn’t have to be because it’s so much fun. I laughed more throughout this film than I would watching any of the supposed comedies Netflix pumps out onto our screens. Critics were never going to like this film, however their expectations will inevitably have been placed too high. It’s a CGI-fest based on a video game in which superhuman characters rip each other’s limbs off and have magical powers; obviously not a genre-defining staple. Honestly, sometimes dumb fun is exactly what you need and Mortal Kombat provides that in spades, so don’t let the reviews put you off.
4 – Apples: Apples is a film I knew almost nothing about when I went to see it. I was aware it was a failed Oscar submission from Greece, which dealt with the subject of memory, but that was all. By the time the credits rolled I was blown away by this thought-provoking, sombre, yet funny piece of work, which was undeniably worthy of the Oscar nomination for which it was put forward. I don’t want to say much about the film’s plot, as it is best to go in blind, but the questions it asks about memory are fascinating and will linger on in your head for days after the screening. Apples was received very positively by critics, but of course the pandemic release means it will likely go unnoticed for the majority of audiences, which is a crying shame. My hope is that, by putting it on this list, it may at least reach a few more people, because it is one of the best films I have seen this year.
5 – Brassed Off: If, after reading this list, you only go and watch one film I have recommended, make it Brassed Off. Set in the Yorkshire Village of Grimethorpe, the story concerns the local colliery brass band fighting against pit closures, in the wake of Thatcherism. Released in 1996, it only grossed £3 million at the box office, being overshadowed by the success of The Full Monty the year after, which dealt with similar themes. As a proud Sheffielder, I adore The Full Monty, but Brassed Off deserves just as much love. The spectacular music for the film is provided by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and I have been listening to it on repeat since my first viewing. Pete Postlethwaite and Stephen Tompkinson are both astounding in the lead roles, in what manages to be both one of the most heart-breaking and heart-warming films I have seen in a long time. My love of Yorkshire may mean I was never going to hate it, but I cannot think of another film which so perfectly encapsulates the phrase ‘underrated gem’.
With any luck, this article might just introduce you to a new favourite movie, which otherwise would fade into the mists of time. In fact, instead of adding these to the ever-growing list of those films that you ‘meant to see but just didn’t have time to’, this is your signal to pick a title from this article right now, find a copy of it and enjoy.