Some of these might not be as much underrated as underseen, I should note. But, anyway, here are my choices:
The Green Ray a.k.a. Summer (France, Eric Rohmer)
This was only the third Rohmer film I had ever seen up to 1986 (after My Night at Maud's and Clarie's Knee), but it has since remained my favorite of his films--I find it so immensely moving and relatable. Released in the US in theaters and on video as Summer, but more popularly known now as Le Rayon Vert (or The Green Ray), it sports what I think is the best lead female lead performance of 1986. Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a lonely and neurotic office worker whose best friend ducks out of accompanying her on holiday, leaving her to manage the next two weeks alone and hurting. It's both agonizing and sublime to witness the weepy Delphine travel from the cities to the mountains and the beaches, desperately trying to find anyone to connect with on a meaningful basis; you will surely find yourself alternately wanting to give her a hug and longing to slap her out of her funk, but she's so smart and sweet, you're rooting for her nonetheless The film, like most Rohmer movies, is filled with bright, intellectual dialogue and aching intimacy. And its ending will definitely leave you gasping, if you have any soul at all.
Round Midnight (US/France, Bertrand Tavernier)
God, how I love this movie. And I think its lead, jazz great Dexter Gordon, should have won the 1986 Oscar that year for Best Actor (over Paul Newman in The Color of Money). In it, he plays saxophonist Dale Turner, an American jazz legend being forced--under lock and key--to tamp down his alcoholism as he plays a series of gigs in Paris. An excellent Francois Cluzet (looking like a young Robert De Niro) plays Francis, a French adman who consumptive love for Dale's music turns into a deep friendship with the performer--one that leads him to greater appreciation of the pain and regret embedded deep in the life-seasoned notes emerging from Turner's ax. Some might say that the similarly-troubled Gordon is just playing a version of himself, but that's a facile argument that insults one of the great one-off performances ever (Gordon did appear in Penny Marshall's Awakenings after this, but in a very small and wordless role). For a man who'd never acted before, he delivers a performance of such subtle humor and sadness and grace--every movement he makes is tinged with gold. And the Oscar-winning music, adapted for the film by Herbie Hancock, is just outstanding (most of the cut are jazz standards, many of them performed live on film, but there are a few Hancock originals thrown in there, including the memorable "Chan's Song"). Hancock appear in Round Midnight, too, alongside jazz notables Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins and Lonnette McKee (who does a searing version of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" with Mr. Gordon). Tavernier's writing and direction are supremely elegant, and as an added bonus, we get an extended cameo from Martin Scorsese, suitably energetic as Dale's New York manager. This one is a masterpiece, and you don't have to love jazz to adore it. In fact, it'll probably make you love jazz more.
Dancing in the Dark (Canada, Leon Marr)
It's been a really long time since I've seen this one, as it's never been released on digital, but I can still recall being haunted by Martha Henry's lead performance. She plays an obsessive housewife whose concern over her daily duties veers into the unhealthy, so much so that she frets herself into a mental facility. Very much a tiny film, a character study narrated largely by Henry's character from her diary entries. It's probably a bit slow for some, but if you can find a copy, you won't be disappointed by Henry's commanding performance and the film's creepy bravery.
'night, Mother (US, Tom Moore)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Marsha Norman (who penned the script here), the film itself can be self-consciously stagy and wisely photographed. But it's the words and performances that really get you. Sissy Spacek is really terrific as a depressed woman living with her aging mother (Anne Bancroft) as she's reeling from a crippling disease, a bad marriage and a drug-addled kid. As she furiously makes preparations for her future, she informs her too-doting mother that she intends to kill herself that night, and basically, we spend the entire film watching as Bancroft frantically tries to talk her out of it. There are few films out there that go where this one does in confronting depression and its maze-like dangers, and it does so with a knowing eye cocked to some tense conclusions. Bancroft is a bit much at times, but I think that her hinky frazzlement is okay, given the dire circumstances, and anyway, Spacek is so quietly superb in her character's well-reasoned misery that there's no question she's the reason to tune into this one.
Just Between Friends (US, Allen Burns)
Allen Burns was one of the writers for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and was nominated for an Oscar for his exemplary screenplay to George Roy Hill's A Little Romance. In his only theatrical film, he reunites with Moore, here playing an aerobics instructors (80s alert!) married to TV anchor Ted Danson. At the gym, she strikes up a friendship with Chrsitine Lahti, who's dynamic as a driven journalist who happens to be having an affair with Danson. Sam Waterston is the understanding male friend who serves as Moore's confidant. It's all really soapy, like an above-par Lifetime movie, but, hey, if that's what you're after, then this is for you. It's got some expected elements (tragedy, pregnancy), but it jumbles them in a satisfying fashion, and it's hard to complain about such an accomplished cast.
Director Fielder Cook spent much of his four-decade career in television, having helmed many movies and live productions for the medium. In the '60s, he made a splash with Patterns, a Rod Serling piece about a nasty spat among Manhattan business execs. Here, near the end of his career, he again constructs a depressing view of the forces mounted against an average working man in a piece adapted from a story by writer Saul Bellow. In one of his first wholly dramatic performances, Robin Williams plays the jittery, chain-smoking Tommy Wilhelm, a 50's-era professional failure whose whole life is going down the toilet. His marriage is bust and he can't pay child support because he's just walked out on a soured salesman gig. Leaving his new paramour (Glenn Headley) behind, he sojourns to New York City, his hometown, to try and reconnect with his estranged family led by Joseph Wiseman, cold and lizard-like as Tommy's wealthy, loveless father. Meanwhile, he enters into a questionable investment opportunity dangled in front of him by sleezeball Jerry Stiller, who you just know is not to be trusted. Williams is superb as this perpetually sweaty whipping boy who can't catch a break; given what we now know about Williams' bouts with depression and self-acceptance, it's easy to see how he was so willing to connect with this unpleasant character. He does so quite brilliantly, and the performance deserves to be remembered as one of his best. There's an impressive lineup of character actors--John Fiedler, Tony Roberts, Tom Aldredge, Fyvush Finkel and Eileen Heckert, among others--in this tough, unforgiving film that is now available for viewing on Amazon Prime.
Dang, this is a downbeat list of movies. But, as I've always said, the best films are somehow the most depressing ones, for the most part. Children's book author Raymond Briggs took a break from writing things like The Snowman and Father Christmas to pen a devastating graphic novel called When the Wind Blows. It details the reactions of a elderly British couple to the news that a nuclear attack is underway. They are miles away from ground zero, and being of the WWII generation that hunkered down during the German blitz, the couple believes they can similarly soldier on through this attack as well, as long as they follow the fallacious government advise to take shelter under the table and so forth. So we watch as this sweet couple (animated in an equally adorable style) go about trying to survive the radiation fallout, never gathering that it's a completely useless effort. It has to rank with Watership Down and The Plague Dogs as one of the most somber animated films ever, but it's utterly rewarding as the kind of cautionary nuclear tale we were seeing a lot of near the end of the Cold War. Oscar-winning David Lean veterans Peggy Ashcroft and John Mills give potent, sympathetic voices to the couple, and Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters provides a score that includes two Waters songs, plus numbers by David Bowie (who does the title song), Squeeze, Paul Hardcastle, and Genesis.