The Most Underrated Movie Gems of 2023

Movies
the-most-underrated-movie-gems-of-2023

It’s that time of year where critics, film buffs, and awards prognosticators come together and search for a consensus on what were “the best films” from the previous year. It’s already begun with the Golden Globes this past weekend and the Critics Choice Awards coming in the next. Perhaps more than most years, the frontrunners for “the best picture” prizes are obvious too.

That is all well and good, but sometimes attempting to find a consensus (or at least a horse race winner) deprives us from acknowledging our true favorites; films that you or I might have loved and are convinced no one else in the world has seen. These are the pictures that may not be “the best,” but they are favorites for our staff, and we’d like you to consider giving them a chance. Also feel free to shout out your own choices in the comments section below.

Sydney Sweeney in Reality

Reality

A major hit at the Berlin International Film Festival last February, Tina Satter’s impressive directorial debut never seemed to get its real due with the rest of the world, perhaps because it was ultimately released on HBO. Be that as it may, Reality is a gripping and commanding exercise in tension and mounting dread. This is all the more remarkable since the film is the best experiment in verbatim cinema I have ever seen.

Adapted from Satter’s previous Off-Broadway staging of the same material, Reality recreates almost entirely verbatim the transcript of the FBI’s interrogation and eventual arrest of Reality Winner, a U.S. Air Force veteran and contracted NSA translator who was eventually convicted for leaking evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A woman who served her country honorably—and was even awarded the Air Force Commendation medal for “aiding in 650 enemy captures, 600 enemies killed in action and identifying 900 high value targets” while acting a cryptologic linguist for Air Force intelligence—Winner’s subsequent pillory and vilification on Fox News and social media for subverting the Trump administration’s narrative and lies is not lost on Satter.

Yet the brilliance of Reality is that the film cuts through the media spin and online distortions by emphasizing Winner’s ironic name in its title and via the direct recreation of her experience when the FBI showed up at the door. As played by Sydney Sweeney in an illuminating performance, Winner is a patriotic if naive soul who is more concerned with who might be watching her beloved dog tonight if she is arrested rather than the severe legal ramifications she is in. Satter juxtaposes the extremity of her situation with the mundanity and even wry humor of everyday life. There is awkward small talk with FBI agents as they discuss what room in her house needs renovation or what to do about her cowering kitty; this in turn only underscores Sweeney’s own dawning sense of doom. It’s a fascinating, and unfortunately timely, artistic achievement. – David Crow

Stream on: Max (U.S.); Rent on: Amazon, Apple (UK)

Molly Gordon in Theater Camp

Theater Camp

I’ll admit, it took me longer than I’d like to uncover this gem of a film, but as soon as I saw it, it quickly became one of my favorites. Theater Camp is a quirky mockumentary about a small theater camp in Upstate New York and how the campers and staff handle a summer without their fearless leader Joan (Amy Sedaris) after she falls into a coma. As a former theater kid, I wish I had access to a camp like this growing up. I was nowhere near as talented as the youth of this film, but I still know that nothing compares to the sense of community that can arise from spending hours with a group of people that are as passionate about the arts as you are. 

Despite some drama and messiness amongst the eccentric counselors, AdirondACTS is a community of people who love to perform and feel like their best selves while on stage, and it’s inspiring to see them fight so hard for the place they call home. Theater Camp is funny, heartwarming, and a great reminder of how fulfilling the arts can be. – Brynna Arens

Stream on: Hulu (U.S.); Disney+ (UK)

Japanese Janitor in Perfect Days

Perfect Days 

For the first 30 minutes of Perfect Days, director Wim Wenders takes us through the average day of its middle-aged Japanese protagonist Hirayama (Koji Yakusho). He wakes up before dawn and grooms himself in his one-room apartment, orders a coffee drink from the vending machine before driving to his job where he cleans public restrooms in Tokyo. After work, he goes to a restaurant and enjoys a meal, then goes back home and reads a book (usually a translation of an American author, such as William Faulkner), and falls asleep. Then he wakes up, and we watch Hirayama repeat the process. 

That might sound deadly dull, especially for a movie that runs just over two hours, but Wenders and his co-writer Takuma Takasaki find meaning in the mundane. Hirayama takes pleasure in the quiet moments of transcendence offered by his existence, whether it be a beautiful tree he notices while eating lunch or listening to Lou Reed and Patti Smith albums on cassette. 

Wenders and Takasaki do add notes of drama, especially involving the sudden arrival of niece and a brief reconnection with his sister, but the power of Perfect Days comes from just enjoying the poetry of public spaces, playing out with wonder on Yakusho’s incredible face. – Joe George

Glenn Howerton in BlackBerry

Blackberry

Blackberry’s “underrated” status is debatable (it turned up on our list of the best movies of the year after all), but for the handful of plaudits this Canadian indie has received, it still feels like it’s not enough. In a smarter, kinder world, Blackberry would be a legit Academy Award contender… and not only for Glenn Howerton’s star-making, multi-award nominated performance. 

Blackberry is simple biographical filmmaking done right. Shot with fast-paced voyeuristic realness by director Matt Johnson, the film takes a real-life story you’re probably passably familiar with and makes it feel like the most important thing in the world. 

Even though anyone holding an iPhone or Android mobile device already knows how the story ends, watching the rise of Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), Jim Balsillie (Howerton) and their company Research in Motion (later Blackberry) is thrilling stuff. Thankfully the fall is just as thrilling as well. – Alec Bojalad

Stream on: AMC+ (U.S.); Rent on: Amazon, Apple (UK)

Martial arts in Polite Society

Polite Society

This action, comedy, romance, heist movie, with a little bit of sci-fi, is a mad genre mashup that’s an absolute riot. Ritu Arya (Umbrella Academy) and Priya Kansara (Bridgerton) play sisters Lena and Ria. Ria dreams of becoming a stuntwoman while her big sister Lena has dropped out of art school. When Lena meets a man who quickly proposes, Ria thinks something suspicious is going on and hatches a plan to save her sis with the help of her pals.

Polite Society is written and directed by Nida Manzoor, who makes her feature debut here but has directed episodes of Doctor Who in the past. There’s a playfulness throughout, with chemistry to spare between the two sisters, a great script as well as some kick-ass martial arts sequences. This film got a bit overlooked at release, possibly because it wasn’t instantly obvious what it was (confession time: I thought it was a superhero film for some reason), but do yourself a favor and check it out. – Rosie Fletcher

Stream on: Amazon Prime Video (U.S.); Sky (UK)

Dogs in Strays

Strays

Making a packed theater of tipsy moviegoers laugh out loud on a Friday night is one thing; making two entirely sober moviegoers laugh out loud in an otherwise empty theater at 2.30pm on a weekday deserves respect. Talking-dog movie Strays, from director Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) and writer Dan Perrault (American Vandal), deserves much more respect than it had on release. It’s a solid bad taste comedy that would have had ‘em rolling in the aisles if only anybody had been in the aisles to roll.

The premise—a Border Terrier teams up with other stray dogs to get revenge on his former owner by biting off, well, his dick—may sound unpromising, but writer Perrault squeezes heart and even wisdom from it. Mostly though, it’s just a very good time with some very enjoyable R-Rated gags. Will Ferrell voices good-hearted dupe Reggie, a naive scruff abandoned by Will Forte’s scumbag Doug. Reggie learns the ways of the strays from Jamie Foxx’ streetwise Boston Terrier Bug, a German Shepherd voiced by Isla Fisher, and a Great Dane voiced by Randall Park. And you know what, they all learn something from him too.

It’s 90-odd minutes of gross-out silliness and fun and—to read some of its sniffy, humorless reviews—the very definition of underrated. Louisa Mellor

Stream on: Peacock (U.S.); Rent on: Amazon, Apple (UK)

John Boyega in They Cloned Tyrone

They Cloned Tyrone

Before John Boyega was Finn in Star Wars, he was alien-killing gang leader Moses in Attack of the Block, the sci-fi horror flick that first put him on the map. In 2023, Boyega returned to those roots, playing stoic and mean drug dealer Fontaine, who stumbles onto a secret government conspiracy in the hilarious and very cool They Cloned Tyrone. Every frame of this homage to ’70s Blaxploitation films directed by the very talented Juel Taylor is dripping with style, as he takes us on a tour of the sketchy street corners, motels, and parking lots that make up Fontaine’s crime-ridden neighborhood, the Glen.

Boyega is of course on point in this genre mashup, which at first plays like a straightforward gangster movie before a tumble down the rabbit hole and into an underground lab reveals the real sci-fi movie underneath it all. It’s all made even better by the rest of the ensemble, a smooth as silk pimp played by Jamie Foxx and Teyonah Parris’ fast-talking Yo-Yo, who can take down racist creeps just as effectively as she gives the mythical “Shalomar” to her customers. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any character named Tyrone. Just wait for it. Trust me.

Stream on: Netflix

The post The Most Underrated Movie Gems of 2023 appeared first on Den of Geek.

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