These days it’s hard to define exactly what movies qualify as “underrated movies” in 2021. With the first half of the year engulfed in a pandemic, most movies, even ones that were critically well-received, did not release to a wide audience. Indeed, unless a movie found its way onto a streaming service, most people did not see it. With Warner Bros’s hybrid HBO Max release plan and Disney’s straight to Disney+ strategy dominating the cultural landscape, a lot of great movies fell by the wayside.
Though 2021 isn’t over, there are already a lot of great movies that have come out. These are movies that deserve to be a larger part of the cultural conversation. More importantly, they are movies that simply should be seen by more people and deserve a shoutout. These are the most underrated movies of 2021.
10) The Truffle Hunters
It’s common for a lot of underrated movies lists to include documentaries, but 2021’s The Truffle Hunters is something truly special. The film follows a group of older Italian men and their dogs as they hunt for the prized Alba truffle. It’s a simple and niche premise that satisfies food lovers and dog lovers alike with lush cinematography and lovely characters. The exploration of the simple pleasures of life combined with sharp scene framing and bright colors is intoxicating to experience. Plus, there’s a scene where the filmmakers attach go-pros to the dogs as they run through the woods and search for truffles.
Dazzling, shocking, and surprisingly funny, Zola is a bold and furious film by director Janicza Bravo. Most people, however, know it as “that movie based on a Tweet thread“. Yet despite the dubious source material, the film is a visually bold and confident A24 comedy that is as audacious as it is daring. In lesser hands, this film could have been a disaster. However, Bravo’s deft direction and willingness to mine the dark material for comedy leave a lasting impression. Unfortunately, this movie only grossed $4.9 million at the box office, just short of making back its budget. However, with time, people will hopefully see Zola as one of the great underrated suspense movies of 2021.
8) Shiva Baby
A Jewish bisexual woman in college attends a Shiva with her overbearing parents. Also on the guest list are her successful ex-girlfriend, her sugar daddy, her sugar daddy’s wife, and their unrelenting baby that won’t stop crying. What could go wrong?
Often compared to Uncut Gems, Shiva Baby is a one-location anxiety comedy that explores the humiliation and discomfort that visiting your family can entail. Not only does the movie mostly take place in one house, but the film also takes place in real-time. In other words, the events of Shiva Baby unfold without ever jumping forward in time. Far from being a gimmick, this narrative technique builds insurmountable anxiety that never relents.
The film’s soundtrack is akin to a horror movie as the camera sways from stressful scenarios to awkward interactions. However, what really sets Shiva Baby apart is how accessible it is. There’s a universality found in the specificity of its setting that manages to enlighten viewers to Jewish cultural practices and also be insanely relatable.
7) Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
They say studio comedies are dead. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, however, makes a strong case that they don’t have to be. This Kristen Wiig/Annie Mumolo vehicle largely went under the radar when it quietly forwent its theatrical run and crawled onto VOD. However, it eventually found a small adoring audience and has the makings of a true cult classic.
Describing the film is hard, though it follows the usual trappings of SNL-inspired comedy films like Austin Powers and Anchorman. The movie forgoes a plot and largely gets by on the margarita-soaked charisma of its leads, and the outrageousness of the jokes. With an aggressive quirky sensibility and random dance numbers, Barb & Star captures the spontaneity and stupid-smart “why am I laughing” vibe that all successful comedies share.
The film’s unpredictability and surrealism demand that you either get on its wavelength or suffer. Its specific appeal and lack of marketing have led it to be one of the more underrated movies of 2021. However, with hope, it will gain a loyal fanbase in years to come.
6) Willy’s Wonderland
A silent Nicolas Cage fights animatronic Chuck E-Cheese rejects in an abandoned entertainment center. Though it sounds like a Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfic, this film really came out this year. Despite only making $445,211 in box office gains, this deliriously ridiculous horror-action-comedy is quickly gaining cult status.
There’s something very satisfying about the straightforward campy kills that populate the movie’s brisk runtime. Willy’s Wonderland is a movie that knows exactly what it is and it has a great time delivering what’s promised: Nicolas Cage fighting deranged animatronic animals.
5) The Green Knight
The Green Knight is one of the most underrated movies of 2021 because it does not deliver what it promised. Or, more so, the film does not deliver what audience members have come to expect from the fantasy genre. Instead of featuring action-packed scenes of heroism, director David Lowery made a deconstruction of the fantasy genre.
The film follows Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur. Gawain is a coward who stumbles through an adventure that will result in his death. The catch, though, is that the adventure was of his own choosing, in a desperate effort to prove himself.
The movie balances a striking atmosphere with fascinating existential questions on the nature of the hero’s journey. In a cinema landscape that relegates the fantasy genre to children’s films, The Green Knight is a breath of fresh air.
4) Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
In the summer of 1969, about a month before Woodstock took place, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was held at Mount Morris Park. A producer named Hal Tulchin recorded around 50 hours of the footage, but never aired it on television. The footage sat in a basement collecting dust until now.
The snappy logline for Summer of Soul may sound like the setup for a standard documentary. However, the film is a necessity for those who appreciate film restoration and the music of the era. Within this documentary are some of the greatest performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, and many more. The director supplements the film with interviews. However, the movie doesn’t feel like a self-congratulatory “talking-head documentary”. Rather, it feels like a vital piece of history has been painstakingly crafted so it can be preserved forever.
With tons of historical political background, amazing performances that rival Woodstock itself, and emotional beats that feel earned, Summer of Soul is one of the most underrated movies of 2021. Hopefully, with its release on Hulu, it will find the audience it deserves.
During the ’80s, a movement implemented by conservative activist Mary Whitehouse led to a classification system in Britain that sought to ban obscene horror films. These films, often low budget in nature, were compiled onto a list called Video Nasty. Police raids on video stores to confiscate these films increased. As a result, Britain introduced legislation to impose strict censorship on movies.
Taking place during the Video Nasty moral panic, Censor follows a woman who meticulously censors violent horror movies. However, when her own past trauma bleeds into the films she watches, she quickly loses touch with reality.
Censor is a clever mediation on the nature of moral panic and the assertion that people cannot distinguish reality from entertainment. It is also one of the most original horror premises in recent years. With thoughtful characters, dizzying cinematography, and a shocking finale, Censor is an admirable directorial debut that deserves more attention.
2) Shadow in the Cloud
One is forgiven if they saw trailers for Shadow in the Cloud and assumed it was a lame-brained Chloë Grace Moretz vehicle. However, despite the weird marketing, Shadow in the Cloud is a treat for B-Movie fans. It’s also one of the better full-length adaptations of a Twilight Zone episode.
The film is a take-off of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the episode in which a man believes a gremlin is on the wing of his plane. Shadow in the Cloud takes that premise and sets it in WW2, with a female pilot who’s found herself on an all-male fighter jet. With over-the-top action sequences that embrace cheesiness, Shadow in the Cloud is a great time. Indeed, it stands as one of the most underrated movies of 2021.
1) Together Together
Together Together is a lighthearted feel-good dramedy that flew under the radar in 2021. The film follows a middle-aged man who hires a woman to be a surrogate so he can have a child. While most movies of this nature inevitably turn into a romantic comedy, Together Together refreshingly breaks the trend by delivering a touching story about boundaries and platonic friendship. With intimate and vulnerable performances from Ed Helms and Patti Harrison, the film delicately tackles a very sensitive subject with a soft touch and character-driven humor.