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Most Underrated Films of the 21st Century

Updated on June 24, 2017

They might not have been box office stars when they were first released, but these five films stand out as some of the best films made over the past two decades. In some cases, they have become cult classics. In other cases, they have yielded entirely new genres of films or led to new breakout roles. Together, they are the five most underrated movies of the 21st century.

#1: “Another Earth” (2011)

This sci-fi fantasy film was a breakout hit at Sundance when it first premiered, but never picked up any traction at the box office, making less than $2 million worldwide. But it was a breakout role for Brit Marling, who both starred in the film and was a co-writer on the film with Mike Cahill. Many of the ideas and themes explored in the movie – such as what it might be like to encounter one’s own self in an alternate reality – later became the foundation for Brit Marling’s new standout hit show on Netflix, “The OA.”

#2: “Monster” (2003)

Now that Patty Jenkins has become the talk of Hollywood with her blockbuster hit “Wonder Woman” – which just turned in the highest grossing weekend of any film made by a female director – there will likely be a retrospective attempt to explore Jenkins’ earlier work. “Monster” was clearly a masterpiece from the beginning, challenging viewers with its grotesque depiction of the nearly unrecognizable Charlize Theron, who went on to win an Oscar for Best Actress. Theron, in many ways, made it possible for other mainstream actors to deal with the moral complexities of being an anti-hero, as well as to take on roles that involved physical disfiguration.

#3: Under the Skin” (2013)

For his film “Under the Skin,” director Jonathan Glazer was described by Variety as being the next Kubrick. The film featured little or no dialogue (all of which was largely unscripted), non-actors as major characters, and Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on unsuspecting men in Scotland. It was both unnerving and erotic, especially the much discussed nude scene featuring Scarlett Johansson. The film made just $7.2 million at the box office, but became an instant cult classic.

#4: “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014)

For a film that involved two of the real stars of world cinema – actress Juliette Binoche and director Olivier Assayas - the real story of this film was the emergence of Kristen Stewart (of “Twilight” fame) as a bona fide actress. There’s a gripping psychological plotline pushed forward by Stewart, who plays the young assistant to a fading movie star. And then, just when you think you’ve gripped the psychological dimensions of the film, Stewart’s character simply vanishes – seemingly into the mists of the film’s evocative Swiss Alps locale.

#5: “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)

If there was ever a film that offered a brave, nuanced look at being a gay man in contemporary America, it was Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” The movie, starring the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, has become a longstanding pop culture meme. But to see the film only as a story of two homosexual lovers in cowboy country is to miss the richness and texture of this movie, which boasts one of the most memorable opening sequences in recent cinematic history. The film was produced on a shoestring budget of $14 million, but went on to make $178.1 million at the box office.

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If these five films share anything in common, it’s their unflinching portrayal of themes and concepts that more mainstream films often try to avoid. They challenged viewers to reconsider their notions of good and evil and to view the world from a new perspective. They might have evoked classic films from an earlier era, but in every case, they were new, original and breathtakingly cinematic.

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