Exclaim!'s 26 Most Underrated and Underseen Movies of 2021
From misunderstood blockbusters like 'Red Notice' and 'Malcolm & Marie' to overlooked winners like 'Beans' and 'Nine Days'
Published Dec 13, 2021Online tribalism, jaded critics and movie studios that own half of Hollywood create the perfect storm: the largest spectacles, the most crowd-pleasing, and oftentimes, the most formulaic movies make the most noise. What follows is a multitude of films not getting their due and chance to find an audience; on the other extreme, a number of solid movies received a disproportionate amount of loathing.
From film festival darlings and big-name action movies to campy comedies and the Muppets, there are a lot of hidden gems that deserve to be seen. As with most years, 2021 was filled with a sea of underrated and underseen projects. To help you wade through the waters, we've compiled a list of the year's most misjudged and/or overlooked movies.
Directed by Kitao Sakurai
Eric Andre's hidden camera prank movie for Netflix saw the comedian (with some help from Tiffany Haddish and Lil Rel Howery) take his signature brand of chaotic humour even further. Somehow, the film manages to infuse heart and sincerity alongside these ridiculous pranks (the zoo scene particularly comes to mind), highlighting the good nature of people across America who unfortunately found themselves in the middle of Andre's mess.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Directed by Josh Greenbaum
The Kristen Wiig/Annie Mumolo (Barb and) star vehicle is the kind of unabashedly absurd comedy that's been largely missing from multiplexes in recent years. Wiig pulling double duty as a Dr. Evil-type villain and Jamie Dornan's fervently sung prayer addressed to the seagulls around him being particular highlights.
Directed by Justin Chon
Written and directed by Justin Chon, who also stars in the film, Blue Bayou tells the devastating story of a Korean-American man who faces deportation because his adoption in the 1980s was never finalized. The gut-wrenching story captures the hardships one man and his family face because of a flawed US immigration system. It's beautifully told with grounded performances by Chon and Alicia Vikander. It's the untold immigrant story that you need to watch and educate yourself.
Directed by Tracey Deer
Tracey Deer's directorial feature debut, Beans is the coming of age story of Beans (Kiawentiio), a young Mohawk girl, during the Oka Crisis. Relying on Deer's own experiences during the standoff as a young child, Beans is a very moving film with some difficult truths for audiences to learn and absorb.
Directed by Luke Holland
The most powerful movie scene I saw all year was a German WWII vet scolding a youngster who was being dismissive about the rise of Right Wing fascism. It seems the whole world needs to re-learn an important lesson, and this film provides some engaging, credible teachers.
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Tackling the mammoth and world-shattering idea of the futility of war by prodding at the scar tissue of mundane life as rebuilt in the shadow of still-raging violence, Huda's Salon interrogates our morals and shows them to be defunct. Hany Abu-Assad's tightly-wound thriller is the slow-burning tragedy that we didn't know we needed this year.
Directed by Alison Klayman
Alanis Morissette famously disavowed this documentary, which is a shame because she's an absolute ray of light. At the centre of a whirlwind of fame, sexist industry forces and extremely creepy bandmates, Alanis reflects back on it all with humour and grace.
Directed by Natalie Morales
Unlike most zoom or one-location pandemic movies, Language Lessons refreshingly ignores reality. Made while director Natalie Morales and costar Mark Duplass were stuck at home, it's a film about taking online classes that ultimately turns into one about forging connections through technology – a premise that will always be relatable.
The Last Duel
Directed by Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott's confusion as to who is to "blame" for The Last Duel's box office failure aside, this apathetic millennial thoroughly enjoyed his Rashomon-structured period piece about unjust gender dynamics. The subject-matter is heavy and isn't for everyone, but it's topical, intriguing, and Jodie Comer's performance alone is worth a viewing.
Malcolm & Marie
Directed by Sam Levinson
Unfairly characterized as pretentious and self-indulgent, Malcolm & Marie has one of my favourite monologues of the year. Director Malcolm's (John David Washington) scathing explanation to actress Marie (Zendaya) of who is truly his muse is well written and perfectly acted. Malcolm & Marie is a gorgeous looking movie with a simple premise well executed. Haters just gonna hate.
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Directed by Ian Samuels
Ian Samuels' The Map of Tiny Perfect Things centres on two teenagers, Mark and Margaret, who find themselves stuck inside a time loop, where they are forced to learn important lessons about life, loss and family. It's a tearjerker that takes views on a hilarious, poignant and devastating journey.
Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun
The Medium takes its time as it devolves into your worst, godless nightmare. Beginning as an almost forensic look into the life of a local shaman, the film slowly gets sidetracked by and enamoured of the shaman's beguiling niece, as she becomes possessed by a mysterious entity. Unrelenting in its old-school horror, The Medium shows us that the found-footage genre, if executed as skillfully as it is here, can still be devilishly good.
Directed by Bassam Tariq
Mogul Mowgli beautifully explores a second-generation immigrant identity crisis and multicultural dilemma through the power of music, art, and an incredible performance by Riz Ahmed. Mogul Mowgli leaves you more informed about identity, culture, and heritage, and at many times, inspires you to question them. Ahmed gives one of his career best performances through a raw, unflinching portrayal of a man torn between identities and a sickness that causes him to stop and look at his family's past in order to move forward. It's definitely an underrated indie film that needs to reach a wider audience.
Muppets Haunted Mansion
Directed by Kirk Thatcher
Normally our beloved Gonzo is pre-occupied with the courtship of chickens, but this time around he's in serious trouble and mired in the inescapable Haunted Mansion. Like most Muppet outings, this will be fun for kids and amusing to adults. Time will tell if this has the staying power of Halloween classics like The Great Pumpkin. My only complaint is that we needed more Rizzo the Rat!
Directed by Edson Oda
Beautiful, unique and pensive, Nine Days is the directorial feature debut of Edson Oda, who transforms familial grief into a powerful meditation on the truly improbable odds of our existence. An incredible cast of performers — Winston Duke, Benedict Wong, Zazie Beetz, and Bill Skarsgård — all give tremendous performances backed by an exquisite score by Antônio Pinto.
Directed by Fisher Stevens
Justin Timberlake hasn't exactly endeared himself to the world lately, but he delivered a solid leading man turn as an ex-con who becomes a reluctant father figure to a young boy. Apple TV+ movies tend to get overshadowed by other streaming services, but it's worth tuning into Palmer for the performances.
Directed by Johnny Martin
Originally called Alone and then retitled seemingly in a ploy for COVID-era relevance, Pandemic is a solid indie entry in the "trapped inside apartment during zombie apocalypse" microgenre (see also: The Night Eats the World, #Alive).
Prisoners of the Ghostland
Directed by Sion Sono
Prisoners of the Ghostland is one of the year's most unique offerings. A mix of Western, samurai, and post-apocalyptic genres with hints of Fury Road and Metropolis. Epic and cinematic in its blend of cultures. Nicolas Cage has the boldest eye for the kind of films he wants to be in.
A Quiet Place Part II
Directed by John Krasinski
It earned almost $300 million at the box office, so maybe it's not quite accurate to call the long-delayed A Quiet Place Part II "underseen" — except that, when it finally got a theatrical release in May, basically all cinemas across Canada were closed. It was literally impossible to watch in most of the country, which is a shame given how it successfully rekindles the don't-move-a-muscle tension of the first movie.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
Red Notice currently has 36 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which leads me to believe that I watched a different film from everyone else. Did we all not just see how good that museum chase scene was? Was I the only one who thought that Ryan Reynolds' PG-13 version of Deadpool was pretty funny? This action-comedy isn't a masterpiece, but it's the movie Michael Bay has been trying (and failing) to make for years.
The Suicide Squad
Directed by James Gunn
Poor marketing made The Suicide Squad D.O.A. with audiences, who assumed it was a sequel and not a reboot/restart of 2016's ill-fated Suicide Squad. And it's a shame, because everywhere David Ayer's Suicide Squad missed, James Gunn's The Suicide Squad absolutely nailed. Funny, violent, and self-aware in all the right ways.
Things Heard & Seen
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
The main complaint among reviewers against this Amanda Seyfried haunted house horror is that it's predictable, but that's exactly the film's point — bad men are always predictable. Seyfried compellingly raises the stakes for the tragic haunted wife trope popularized in The Amityville Horror by bringing a shopworn fragility and sadness, underscored by a virulent drive to survive, to this role, effectively communicating the film's thesis that no amount of divine or supernatural interference can protect a woman against a man's violence, and that hauntings can't turn a good man bad if he didn't have badness in him to begin with. Predictable? We think not.
The Tomorrow War
Directed by Chris McKay
Maybe too generic or too Chris Pratt for audiences' liking, but The Tomorrow War is a great blend of '90s action tropes with modern-day sensibilities and CGI. It isn't an action film that breaks any new ground, but it's a really entertaining romp with a cool premise and well-designed monsters.
Directed by Christian Petzold
With their performances in both Transit and Undine, Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer are one of my favourite romantic onscreen partners. Mundane life in Berlin turns into a reimagining of a myth in this otherworldly triumph for Christian Petzold. A modern fairytale about love and the sacrifices we would make for it.
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
Directed by Jed Rothstein
Wanna get pissed off about capitalism? Watch this infuriating documentary about tech-douche Adam Neumann who created a money-losing office space empire and claimed, "Our mission is to elevate the world's consciousness."