The Hidden Gems List (2003)

My Hidden Gems list is an in-depth look at all the films I feel are in some way, underseen, underappreciated, or just plain unknown, and they really shouldn’t be that way.

I have a lot of lists of films I really like on this blog. But there are a lot of films out there that I like, so it can be overwhelming for someone who just wants to find a few movies to watch. Plus, I assume that people reading this know enough about movies and have seen enough to where they know what big shit (Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, etc) they need to see. I don’t need to tell you that. Plus, everyone loves when you can find a movie that not a lot of people know about that’s really good that you can now show other people who don’t know about it.

So the idea was to write, in depth, about some movies that I love that I think people need to see. From each year. And what I’m gonna do is go very slowly go through all of them, and give them their time in the spotlight. And then you can read them and maybe find some to go, “All right, I should check that out,” and maybe add them to your Netflix queue.

The idea is to give you things to see (specifically ones I feel most people would ignore, have ignored, or would assume it wasn’t something they need to see, that I think are really good and worthwhile that not enough people know about), and to show some love to more stuff than the big things from each year. We get enough of that. The big stuff is always there, but it’s these ones that fill out a collection.

You can always buy a diamond, but isn’t it more fun to pan a gem from the rest of the dirt? Here are 2003′s gems.

1. Confidence

    • I love con movies. There are certain genres that are just always interesting to me. The courtroom movie, the spy thriller, the screwball comedy, the prison movie, the heist movie, and the con movie. Because in all of them, you have a mix of exposition, genre expectation and the fact that there are multiple layers of knowledge working at any given time, which gives you an added depth of viewing experience. In the con movie, you know what the plan is, but of course you know that you probably don’t know everything, because there’s always some sort of trick up the sleeve for the end. Plus you don’t know if what you’re seeing is legitimate or not. You don’t know who’s playing who, you don’t know if certain people know what’s going on, you don’t know if what’s being planned is gonna work — there’s a lot of stuff going on in the con movie. So to me, they’re always interesting. So this one, of course, falls right into that category. Not to mention, it has Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz, Dustin Hoffman, Morris Chesnut, Leland Orser, Paul Giamatti, Luis Guzman, Tiny Lister Jr. — there’s a great cast of character actors here. It’s no Academy Award winner, but as solid movies go, this one was very solid and got totally overlooked when it came out.

2. The Cooler

    • Great movie. Really liked it. The pitch is — William H. Macy is a man that’s so unlucky that he makes the people around him unlucky. So a casino hires him to kill gamblers’ good luck streaks. And we see — the minute he arrives at a table, the air just changes, and people just start to lose. No one can explain it. And the film is about him meeting Maria Bello, your standard redemptive woman, and falling in love with her, which starts to change his luck, which naturally causes problems with his boss, Alec Baldwin, one of those old school casino owners (he’s awesome here. He got an Oscar nomination and was terrific in the film). It’s a really solid movie and is one of the more known hidden gems of the year. But even so, a gem is a gem, and I still don’t think enough people know about this movie.

3. House of Sand and Fog

    • This is a powerful movie. It got some Oscar nominations, but I still feel like even people who know the Oscars look at the categories where this was nominated and sort of skip past it. They don’t give it much notice. Like, “Oh, that,” and they move on. But this is a really strong film. Jennifer Connelly is a woman who was left by her husband and is a recovering drug addict. She’s completely ignored all the notices about taxes and is evicted from her house. The house is then auctioned off and bought by Ben Kingsley. He was a colonel in Iran who is now working menial jobs (though keeping up the facade of a businessman so as not to bring shame to his wife). He intends to fix up the house and sell it at triple the value. But Jennifer Connelly wants her house back and starts a whole dispute with him, threatening him and doing all this stuff to get the house back. And — well, it gets good. It’s a very strong, character study of a film. There’s some really great work done by all the leads. It’s a film that I think needs to be discovered and rediscovered by people, because I feel like most people have forgotten about this one.

4. Intolerable Cruelty

    • This, to me, is the most underrated of all the Coen brothers films. This movie is so fucking funny. It’s a screwball comedy. And I don’t get why people think it’s so bad. I’ve shown this to at least a dozen people, and they all found it hilarious. Yet this movie has a reputation of being horrible. But — anyone who’s watched a bunch of 30s and 40s screwball films should love this movie. It fits perfectly into that mold, and is funny, ridiculous, and the performances are spot on. Clooney is amazing in this. The writing is amazing in this. I really don’t understand why people hate this movie, because to me, this was one of the best movies of that year, and is, to me, actually better than a lot of other Coen brothers movies that people like better than this.

5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

    • Oh, this movie is so good. I didn’t much like it when I saw it in 2003, but I watched it again right before I started writing up the Oscar Quest, and I really liked it that time. These seafaring movies are always interesting to me. I kind of wish they were able to make more of these. Since this was based on a series of books. I was kind of hoping they’d be able to do more of them. I love movies set on ships. But, anyway — I think this movie has been mostly forgotten about in the past nine years. And people need to remember — this was nominated for Best Picture. This isn’t just some regular movie that can be forgotten. I think people are due to go back to this and rewatch it and remember how solid of a film this is.

6. Matchstick Men

    • So underrated. So, so underrated. First off — how good are both Cage and Alison Lohman in this? Not to mention Sam Rockwell. This is one of those really solid Cage performances that he doesn’t get enough credit for. And this film was really solid. It seems like people were waiting to shit on this because Ridley Scott was coming off of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down and people for some reason thought ht was gonna go on to do something bigger and more ambitious (which — how’d that theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven turn out?). But this is a relatively small film about a couple of con artists. And it’s terrific. Cage is a nervous man, lot of ticks (actually, there’s a shot in this that, if I’m remembering correctly, was used almost exactly again in Bad Lieutenant, with him standing at the counter at the pharmacy), and he’s pulling off these mid-level scams, not really getting involved in anything big, though his partner/protegé Rockwell wants to start doing some bigger things. And then along comes his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since she was an infant who has run away from home. And now he’s forced to interact with her. And he starts to take her under his wing and teacher her some stuff. It’s a great movie. I don’t see why this got such mixed reviews when it came out. This, to me, was better than almost all the other movies of 2003 (which, admittedly, isn’t saying too much. 2003 was a pretty weak year for movies).

7. The Return

    • This is a Russian film I saw as part of my Russian film class I took junior year. I didn’t attend many of the screenings for this class (there’s a long story there. But basically — they were from 8-10 — scheduled. The longer the movies were, the longer we were stuck there — on Monday and Wednesday nights. You try enjoying college by having to go to screenings of (mostly) boring Russian films two nights a week right in the prime of the evening). Usually I showed up, saw what movie it was and then left within fifteen minutes. This one, however, I started watching, planning to give it twenty minutes. Then twenty minutes went by, and I was still watching. And by the midway point I was so invested in the film that I stayed until it was over. And for some reason, the movie hit so many buttons for me that it ended up affecting me on a very deep level. I still don’t know why, but there was something about the story that really affected me when I saw it. And that still stays with me. I haven’t watched the movie since them, but this movie still makes me remember what it was like watching it. The premise is — two brothers are living with their single mother. Their father has been gone for twelve years. We don’t know where he went. One day, he comes back. Completely unannounced. And he just moves in with the family and becomes their father again. And the boys have grown very close in the absence of their father, so they wonder what’s going on. And the father is weirdly strict and stern with them, and isn’t a very likable guy. And then it’s decided that the boys are going fishing with their father. So they set out. The younger brother is happy to have his father back, and the older one is completely distrustful. So they go out, and — well, stuff happens. Not major plotty stuff. Mostly small moments that build over the course of the film. And it’s just fascinating. This movie had me riveted. Absolutely riveted. And I assume no one’s seen this, since it’s Russian and never really got any traction anywhere. But it did win the Golden Lion at Venice, so that’s something. I’m giving this film my stamp of approval, and I thin people ought to seek this one out, if only to give it a chance. Who knows? You may like this movie as much as I did. Isn’t that why we watch movies in the first place?

8. Runaway Jury

    • I always say I’m a big fan of movies based on these kind of paperbacks. They’re always solid and very watchable. I think this movie is very underrated and was just tossed away as trivial when it came out. I think it’s because it’s not enough of a “thriller” to be put in that early year thriller category, but isn’t enough of a serious film to be counted among the “Oscar” stuff. So it just got left out and forgotten. But it’s a really solid film. I think more people like this film than they’re willing to admit.

9. Seabiscuit

    • Sure it was nominated for Best Picture, but how many people actually saw this/remember it? Horse racing pictures are always interesting and this is a terrific one. This was one of my favorite films of 2003, and it seems like even when it was nominated, everyone just sort of pushed it aside, like, “Yeah, all right.” I don’t think this was ever taken very seriously as a Best Picture nominee, or really as a film. So I’m calling it a hidden gem, since I bet even people who did see this in 2003 have long since forgotten about it.

10. Tears of the Sun

    • I liked this. I thought it was very engaging, and I actually saw it a bunch of times around the time it came out. I was a big fan of this one. I haven’t seen it in years, but that doesn’t make it any less of a hidden gem. I don’t think this one has been seen by people all that much. So I’ll put it out there and hope some more people see and like this movie.

+ Honorable Mention to: The Room. I can’t really put it on my list, and I can’t go through this article without mentioning it. If you haven’t seen The Room yet — you need to. It’s one of the greatest cinematic experiences this side of Ed Wood.

– – – –

Quick Hits:

  • Bad Santa — Just in case there are people who haven’t seen this masterpiece. I’m assuming it’s not many, hence why it’s only here and not on the “main” list. But come on — people should have seen this by now. (Though it is kind of a cult film, which is why it feels acceptable on this list.)
  • Basic — I haven’t seen this in about eight years, but I did enjoy this when it came out. I left it here because I’m worried that if I see it again now, I’ll think less of it. But I remember liking this, so that’s something. I’ll put it here. Maybe this will actually prove to be more of a hidden gem as I remember it to be.
  • 11:14 — It’s kind of like Crash, but in the smaller, B movie sense. It takes place over one night, and is about a bunch of different people interacting at the exact same time. There are like, a dozen people in the movie, and shit happens to them at 11:14 at night. It’s pretty good. Nothing amazing, but I know nobody’s seen this, and these kind of movies are usually interesting no matter what they’re really about, so I think people should give this one a shot. There are a fair amount of famous and recognizable people in this.
  • The Hunted — This was brutal. And by that I mean… the fighting in this was really gritty and you can feel every punch. I was a huge fan of that. Basically it’s about Benicio del Toro as a former military man who has crazy PTSD and has started hunting people, and his former CO, Tommy Lee Jones, has to track him down and stop him. And it’s one of those movies that’s really solid and really fun to watch, and then those fight scenes — it’s some real gritty stuff. And I know almost no one has seen this movie. Shit, I haven’t seen this movie in like, nine years. But I remember really enjoying it when I did see it, and again, I know almost no one has seen this.
  • Oldboy — I know this has earned more of a following, but I still don’t trust American audiences to have seen a foreign film, no matter how well-known it is. I’m leaving it. This film is incredible, and you should see the original before the Spike Lee remake comes out next year. Don’t be one of those people who’s all like, “Oh, I loved Let Me In! But that other version was weird.” I don’t respect those people. See this. You should already know how good this is.

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