Top 10 Underrated Cinematic Masterpieces

There are often masterpieces that find their audience years after release or undergo critical re-evaluation to become monuments of importance. Here are 10 we think deserve that reappraisal…

Undisputed masterpieces aren’t as easy to find in the modern age. While Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Tokyo Story, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and alike continue to be lauded masterworks, in the modern era (the past 20-30 years) that level or mastery in cinema is hard to find. The Oscars don’t seem to pick any memorable or lasting works, with the classics of this decade seeming to be works like Mad Max Fury Road, Inception, The Revenant or The Shape of Water.

There are often masterpieces that years later find their audience or undergo re-evaluation to become monuments of importance, and here are 10 I think deserve that reappraisal…

10. The Hills Have Eyes (Aja, 2006)

The Hills Have Eyes - 2006It’s very rare for a remake (let alone a 21st Century horror remake) to not only be a great film, not only be better than the original, but be kind of a masterpiece. Wes Craven’s original The Hill Have Eyes (and sorry Wes Craven fans) does not hold up, it’s just exploitation for the sake of exploitation. And that’s fine, considering The Last House on the Left is that as well and is better than its remake, but the remake of The Hills Have Eyes is superior.

The main reason is the dark commentary on America post Iraq/Afghanistan wars, similar to another 2006 film Children of Men (and yes I compared an Alfonzo Cauron masterpiece to a horror remake). And although director Alexandre Aja never made another hit with lame efforts like Mirrors, Piranha 3D, Horns and The 9th Life of Louis Drax, his initial remake still holds up.

Even besides the rather smart commentary that starts from the opening scene and credits, the film is well made, scary, has an excellent use of geography, the gore is very welcome and it is a great film in general.

9. Miami Vice & Blackhat (Mann, 2006 & 2015)

Miami Vice - Michael MannYes, I’m cheating. No, I’m not sorry because we’re doing this again later in the list. The reason I picked both 2006’s Miami Vice and 2015 flop Blackhat is that they’re both Michael Mann films who’ve suffered box office failure and critical hate over genre confusion.

I feel weird having to point out to older film press who’ve known and seen Michael Mann’s work longer than I have, to remind them he makes neo noir films, not action films. Yes I gave praise for his action abilities previously but action does not make Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice or Blackhat action films. They’re neo noir thriller films made by one of the best directors of action. Miami Vice and Blackhat are digital cinematography masterworks that explore interesting characters, post-modernism, masculinity and relationships while having some fantastic shootouts.

Blackhat - Michael Mann

Seriously, Miami Vice is bookended with two fantastically staged, thrilling and gory shootouts that are more like executions (Sicario proving this approach works incredibly well) and Blackhat gains more action as it goes on with three varied and masterful sequences. It helps that Mann excels at realism and never defaults to the Paul Greengrass or Olivier Megaton school of shaky-cam nonsense. Instead he goes for an easy to follow handheld shooting style.

8. 8MM (Schumacher, 1999)

Say the name Joel Schumacher and most will only remember Batman and Robin as his cinematic work, even though he’s made other films. He has a surprisingly strong calibre with decent flicks like The Lost Boys, Flatliners and A Time to Kill, to greats like Falling Down or Phone Booth. In recent years Phone Booth and Falling Down have earned him some new praise, but my opinion is that his best film is 8MM.

The Nicolas Cage crime thriller exploring snuff films from a screenplay by Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker is one of the most unappreciated dark thrillers I’ve seen. The theme at play is how the seemingly normal person can be a dark, sexually violent monster. We see Cage enter a world of violent and sexual extremes, having to endure a process of darkness to see the truth. It’s easily Schumacher’s most provocative film and one that should not only be seen but considered a modern classic.

7. Beyond The Black Rainbow (Cosmatos, 2010)

Beyond The Black RainbowHere’s the most abstract film of the list. The closest DNA it shares with a film is Only God Forgives in that they’re both art house with neon colours and similar aesthetic and are ultra-violent. Considering that this is a film where upon completion I immediately re-watched it to try to understand it, is praise worthy. After looking at quotes by the director (who is the son of George P Cosmatos who directed Cobra, Rambo 2, Leviathan and Tombstone) I had a clearer idea of the narrative, but I still want to re-watch it more and fully embrace it. Granted if you’re not into art house narratives and execution, you’ll probably hate this, but for those who can appreciate it, it’s a masterpiece. Beyond the Black Rainbow is the best looking one million dollar film you’ll ever see (as in one of the most insanely visually arresting works you’ll find).

6. Heaven’s Gate (Cimino, 1980)

Heaven's GateSo here’s this article’s massive history lesson – buckle up. Heaven’s Gate is the film that not only killed a major studio, but made studios turn against auteur directors back in 1980 (right around the time The Empire Strike Back proved you could just make a franchise for commercial gain). It was hideously over budget, a monster flop thanks to bad press concerning animal abuse and the director acting like a mad man, and considered one of the great financial disasters.

This was directed by Michael Cimino (who sadly passed away in 2016) and he’s gotten the very short end of the stick for a rather strong career. He co-wrote movies like Magnum Force and Silent Running, directed one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies (Year of the Dragon), but is most well-known for his success with The Deer Hunter and the flop of Heaven’s Gate back to back.

The only reason the studio United Artists gave Cimino the kind of crazy scope and budget for Heaven’s Gate is because The Deer Hunter won five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director). But when filming on Heaven’s Gate started, problems began with Cimino taking too long to film, so long in fact that John Hurt was able to leave the production and film the entirety of his role in David Lynch’s Elephant Man in London before coming back. He had demands like moving an entire street because it “didn’t look right”, waiting for certain clouds to enter frame and purposefully trying to shoot more feet of film than Francis Ford Coppola did for Apocalypse Now (in which Coppola shot one million feet compared to Cimino’s eventual 1.3 million feet). Along with controlling the edit, the news of his onset antics costing days for single shots and the animal cruelty claims, by the time the film released, it would only gross 3.5 million dollars against its 44 million dollar budget (the original budget was 11 million). The film closed United Artists, ruined Cimino, removed the idea of the mainstream auteur, and made studios the controlling production houses they are now. The film was considered so bad, critics immediately went back to The Deer Hunter and panned it, as though Heaven’s Gate had shown the truth about the director’s work.

Considering some modern day production nightmares (Waterworld, Justice League, The Lone Ranger, The 13th Warrior, Fan4stic, The Snowman) it’s clear that the auteur execution hasn’t gone away (look at The Revenant) and it’s clear that big studios can also suck on their own and make a bad product. The difference between a studio fowling up and a director fowling up is that the studio will likely make a hollow and empty film that seems to function, while a director will often make an insane work that has themes and ideas and a sense of its own style that makes you sit up and take note even if it’s bad. These are films to admire, study and respect.

Heaven’s Gate has a clear thematic goal in discussing immigration in America. I mean the actual plot of Heaven’s Gate is businessmen and government men paying people to murder European immigrants because they “taint the American idea” and that’s a pretty good narrative. We see the lives of the people it impacts, it’s not glamorised, but it feels human as opposed to the almost horror movie style depiction of murderous cowboy types. That’s strong stuff. Plus it’s bolstered by great performances. However you feel about Cimino’s insane style of direction, the film looks incredible and lived in.

A number of critics have rightfully given the film the reappraisal it deserves as a modern epic and classic. Set aside some time and watch this because it’s genuinely amazing.

5. Memories (Otomo, Morimoto, Okamura, 1995)

Memories - 1995Memories is a 1995 anime sci fi anthology film with three amazing shorts from some of the greatest creators in anime like Katsuhiro Otomo, Satoshi Kon, Koji Morimoto and Tensai Okamura. The shorts featured are Stink Bomb – a light hearted and incredibly well animated take on a disaster film; Cannon Foddera gritty style post-apocalyptic short that’s actually animated as a single shot (considering this wasn’t done in a computer, that’s insane and brilliant); and lastly Magnetic Rose, the reason to watch Memories. It’s a sci fi story that outmatches others like Gravity, Interstellar or even Sunshine.

4. Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995)

Strange Days, Film, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow,Kathryn Bigelow is most well-known for her fun action romp Point Break, and her gritty war films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. But I would say her best film and the true masterpiece of the bunch is 1995’s box office failure Strange Days. This is a film set in a 1999 Los Angeles where political unrest is heavy and a technology that can record memories is used. Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett are the leads who uncover a noir style mystery that brings us to the darkest parts of this world. This movie really is a masterpiece – the themes of reality and perception are matched perfectly with the world it presents, the action and first person shooting (especially two scenes in particular) are absolutely amazing, and the story is bolstered by an incredible cast under magnificent direction. It’s still praised to this day, but it deserved to be considered among the ranks of Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix.

3. Zodiac (Fincher, 2007)

Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl are all widely praised classics by David Fincher, but I truly think his best film in directing and execution is his 2007 box office disappointment Zodiac. The story around the infamous Zodiac Killer doesn’t aim to answer the riddle of who carried out the murders or get into his or her psychology. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo give truly spectacular performances that remind you of their individual talents. What I love about this movie is that it’s scary and tense when it needs to be, informative when required, and dramatic or comedic at other times. This is based on real people and real people can be human, flawed and funny. Its use of the camera, music and visual effects force us to remember that Fincher is one of the masterful filmmakers today, and I truly consider this his best film (especially the Director’s Cut).

2. Watchmen & Sucker Punch (Snyder, 2009 & 2011)

The Watchmen, Rorschach,Here I am breaking that rule and putting two films by the same director. So I first put Watchmen on here because considering the challenge of adapting the greatest deconstructionist satire of superhero graphic novels (in which directors like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Tim Burton failed) Zack Snyder pulled it off very well, even if he had to make it a DNA of his own work. Considering the craze and boom are Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Logan, Thor Ragnarok and the rest of the superhero genre, not enough people look back on Watchmen as the best looking, best executed superhero film, and a masterpiece of its genre. It’s a film that deserves to stand alongside Richard Donner’s Superman, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Marvel’s The Avengers in superhero terms, not despite the darkness but because of it. The performances are fantastic (especially Jackie Earl Hayley and Billy Crudup) the narrative and themes at play are orchestrated well as a combination of both Roger Moore’s source and Snyder’s own philosophy, the visuals and imagery move me emotionally to this day and I just can’t but think of this movie as my definitive superhero experience.

As for Sucker Punch, let’s open a nice can of worms.

A lot of criticism was originally levelled at this movie for its over stylisation, seemingly incomprehensible narrative and sexism. I, and many others disagree on this and while it is kind of bloated, not completely functional and isn’t the easiest to grasp film, it’s a piece of work that you should think about instead of just going for its jugular. As for the over visual stylisation, what else did you expect from a Zack Snyder film? Aside from the completely bonkers idea that having cool visuals is a bad thing, the visuals on display are so unique and inventive that they can inspire other movies. Samurai, mech suits, dragons, robots and more are on display in one of Snyder’s best looking films, that’s not even counting the pure emotional and dark imagery on display too.

The dream-like narrative structure under multiple levels was hated in this, but praised a year earlier in Inception and in every David Lynch film. So why does this film get special hated treatment?

As for the sexism, I feel this is by people who’ve not seen it or are twisting the truth. For one, when the girls are flipping around (and the opportunity is there) the film doesn’t go for the panty shots and instead shows how badass they are in their distinct feminine form. The film is pretty much about how women can fool and lure disgusting, perverted and violent men (because pretty much all the men in the movie are) in order to take from them and leave the cruel world they’re in. Snyder doesn’t frame the men as heroes or justifiably angry, he frames them as monsters and villains.

This film is clearly Snyder’s open discussion and exploration of various feminist ideals, while also making fun of the kind of perverted freaks who would want the version of this story that does degrade the girls. So I wouldn’t call Sucker Punch sexist, I’d call it a weapon (or a “punch”) against sexism.

Its themes and visuals are worth the price of admission, but it’s got great performances by Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac and Jon Hamm. So yeah if you couldn’t’ tell already, I think Sucker Punch is a masterpiece.

1. Kingdom Of Heaven – Director’s Cut (Scott, 2005)

Top 10 Sexiest Eva Green Performances - Kingdom of HeavenThe original Kingdom of Heaven is fine, but the three-hour cut of Ridley Scott’s 2005 historical epic is both a modern masterpiece and another example of why you shouldn’t restrict Scott. Why does is continue to be that after Scott’s versions of Blade Runner, Legend and Kingdom of Heaven that studios continually to neuter his ability to work? The Final Cut of Blade Runner is the masterpiece that it should be and although Scott has a spotty career, Kingdom of Heaven’s director’s cut deserves to be considered amongst his best work.

The differences in story from the original release and the director’s cut are immense, because subplots that never existed are present and add far more complexity and development to the film. Orlando Bloom’s character enjoys a more fulfilling character arc and journey. Other characters enjoy similar development. The action is a great balance between bloody and epic (as Scott showcased in Gladiator) and ultimately the film manages to be like JFK or Lord of the Rings in terms of an enjoyable three-hour epic.

Kingdom of Heaven, Blade Runner and so many films (even Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice) are examples of why studios chopping up films for the sake of time or other reasons against a director’s vision often don’t work. A pure directorial vision can be hot garbage or a resounding masterpiece, but often times a studio cut version will either be serviceable or laughably poor because they’re thinking like a machine to get a human reaction. It’s why so many potential masterpieces aren’t made because a studio butchered it, which is why it’s always great to see something like Kingdom of Heaven’s Director’s Cut. If this didn’t exist, one of Scott’s true masterpieces would not exist.

Honourable mentions:
Black Hawk Down (2001), Cloud Atlas (2012), Crimson Peak (2015), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), The Fall (2008), Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (2000), Klute (1971), The Limey (1999), Metropolis (1927), Mother! (2017), The Mothman Prophecies (2002), Pain and Gain (2013), Phonebooth (2003), The Relic (1997), Revolver (2005), The Sky Crawlers (2008)

So, what are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? Any auteur adaptations we should’ve mentioned? Let us know in the comments and keep reading Top 10 Films.

Written and Compiled by Tyrone Bruinsma

Tyrone Bruinsma
About the Author
Born in Australia with a love of storytelling and cinema, Tyrone Bruinsma has gone to earn the skills in both making and critiquing cinema. With a love of visceral, disturbing and horrifying works (both to make and watch), he's aiming to make a strong name for himself in the industry he loves so much. Currently working his way into the larger workforce and gaining a positive reputation so far, his voice, talent and attitudes towards filmmaking are showing his genuine strengths as a creator and critic. You can follow him on Twitter & YouTube

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  1. Mark Fraser Reply

    During the second half of last year I bought the Criterion Blu-ray release of Heaven’s Gate hoping I had missed something during previous viewings (I missed the theatrical release in Australia during 1981, which was the truncated cut, and saw it for the first time on VHS in 1992; I rewatched it circa 2014 on DVD – both times I wasn’t impressed). The Blu-ray was colour corrected and the sound was fixed, but it didn’t help – it was still a self indulgent mess with a few good moments sprinkled throughout. There is a web cut in which the “editor” moved the opening graduation ceremony to the end as a kind of coda, and that was much better. I think there were some good reasons why Cimino stopped making films, and a few of them can be found in his remake of Desperate Hours, which is chock full of his annoying idiosyncratic visual twitches.

    I haven’t seen all of these, but I agree that Zodiac is one of Fincher’s best. Also, I would have replaced Sucker Punch with Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. 8mm is ultimately marred by Cage’s usual histrionics when he becomes the avenging angel.

    Nevertheless an interesting list.

  2. Dan Grant Reply

    Well, dammit, I love this article. You had my curiosity with the topic, but when you opened it with the massively under rated Hills Have Eyes remake, you got my attention. I personally think there are a litany of horror films you could put on here. Besides The Hills Have Eyes, which I agree with you about, you could put older films like Friday the 13th on here. Here me out before you call me crazy.

    Friday the 13th was ostracized by the media and many regular movie goers. People called it misogynistic and mean and just downright filth. And yet it gained a massive fan base because people like to be scared. The original Friday the 13th benefits from Tom Savini’s ridiculously amazing make up effects and some of the stuff they did in film, we never saw again. The spear through Kevin Bacon’s neck from under the bed was one of the most innovative horror deaths of the 80’s. And now, almost 40 years later, Friday the 13th is still imitated and it certainly paved the way for many other horror films along the way.

    8MM is another one that I’m so pleased that you put on here. That movie is about as disturbing as they come and Cage knocks it out of the park. And as you mentioned, Schumacher’s direction is outstanding. Sure he did the absolute horrible Batman and Robin, but he also did Falling Down and A Time to Kill. So he can direct the hell out of a movie with the right material.

    Watchmen is one of three favourite comic book films. Snyder is a way better director than people give him credit for and Watchmen is his best film imo.

    Zodiac is terrific, but not Fincher’s best imo. That would go to Fight Club.

    I had no idea Cosmatos had a son who directed as well. Rambo and Tombstone are two of my faves, so I will try to find the film you mentioned on here.

    Great article. Thanks for doing this one.

  3. Callum Reply

    An interesting article. I have to say that for some of these I fall into the category of not liking them – Sucker Punch for instance. But others I totally agree – Zodiac and Watchmen are definite classics and Kingdom of Heaven is far, far better in its director’s cut form.

  4. CineGirl Reply

    It’s great to see Zodiac appear here. It’s another film that I feel probably has a “Final Cut” out there somewhere waiting to make an appearance and further showcase the merits of this brilliant film. For example, Fincher’s Alien 3 was massively improved when some of the cut footage (and plot-lines) were put back in.

    Is it his best film? Not for me. But he’s made some brilliant work. Fight Club and Seven are still his best stuff in my opinion.

  5. Silver Screenings Reply

    A well-written and well-reasoned essay. *looks around, whispers* I haven’t seen ANY of the films on this list… And I call myself a movie blogger. Sheesh!

    Happily, it looks like there’s some terrific viewing ahead, so thanks in advance!

  6. Chris Reply

    Nice idea for a post! I agree Heaven’s Gate is worthy of a reappraisal. The sets and cinematography are stunning. Just because it didn’t make its money back doesn’t make it an artistic failure. I really need to finally check out Strange Days-thanks for the heads-up!

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