The 10 Best Movies You Didn't See in 2011
We will unveil our Annual Best Films of the Year list tomorrow, but before we do, we thought it useful to highlight ten exceptional films that largely flew under the radar last year, even among independent films. None of these films earned more than $5 million at the box office, and several either remain unreleased or haven't yet eked out $1 million. That doesn't mean they are not worthy of seeking out or being appreciated; they are all brilliant films seriously worthy of your attention.
I've also included the box-office totals in parenthesis, where applicable.
10. The Guard ($5 million) -- Don Cheadle is (as always) excellent, and Fionnula Flanagan is similarly great in her few scenes as Boyle's equally vulgar mother. But this is Gleeson's film, and he's excellent, from the moments of quiet reaction and reflection to the serious but bitingly undercuting comedic barbs. Writer and director John Michael McDonagh is the older brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of In Brugges, which also starred Gleeson. Unsurprisingly, the two films share a similar tone, aesthetic and sense of humor. I'm loathe to further compare the two films, as The Guard comes out the the loser, lacking the depth and story of McDonagh the Junior's film. But that's not to take anything away from The Guard -- the plot may not be anything new, but the dialogue is consistently sharp and amusing (as long as you don't mind the accents and excessive vulgarities) and Cheadle and Gleeson are excellent. It's simply an enjoyable 90 minutes, a fine directorial premiere for McDonagh the Senior. -- SF
9. The Future ($568,000) -- You know how, when you're trying to describe to a friend a movie like (500) Days of Summer, and you're like, "It's got this great Hall and Oates post-coital musical number, there's a meet cute in the elevator, and the couple frolics lovingly in an IKEA." And then you think about what you're saying and you're like, "But it's much better than it sounds." Miranda July's The Future is the exact opposite: There's a narrating cat, a dude who can stop time, a dancing shirt, and a moon that gives marital advice and it's exactly what it sounds like. But if you love Miranda July, it's what you expect and what you're craving. If you don't know Miranda July, if you haven't been introduced to Me and You and Everyone You Know, then you're probably just not the type of person that gravitates toward Miranda July's work, and you probably won't care for The Future. Actually, you'll probably hate it. The woman makes movies so precious that they tickle even my gag reflex. But they're engaging, and when you're not rolling your eyes at how twee they are, there's a certain wise beauty in her movies that sneak up on you. -- Dustin Rowles
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene ($2.9 million) -- Martha Marcy May Marlene lurches inside of you and crawls around like a nasty beetle, and much of the success of the film can be attributed to the exceptional performance of Elizabeth Olson. She's unreal in the way she depicts Martha, quietly inhabiting the dissociate personality disorder of her character, and pulling you down into her misery. It's almost best you don't know who her older sisters are going in, as that's likely to taint your perception of her performance. She's so far removed from the troll dolls who grew up on "Full House" that it'd never occur to you otherwise that she shares the same parents. Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a movie that's going to get a lot of attention in movie theaters this year but it will make a star of Olsen and leave you scratching your head for yet another year about how John Hawkes isn't yet a familiar name to every filmgoing citizen on the planet. -- DR
7. Natural Selection (Unreleased) -- Raymond is the most unlikeable, unrepentant, unpleasant son of a bitch I've seen on screen in a long time, and yet Matt O'Leary gives a surprisingly subtle, nuanced and complex performance that ultimately makes the character sympathetic. Raymond's a sniveling, self-loathing bum, but he's got his reasons, and as they're revealed, the character becomes far more interesting than anyone could have expected. Robbie Pickering, who wrote and directed the film, creates these strange, quirky characters who don't fall into the conventional indie drama traps, and instead are believable parts whose intense and occasionally heartbreaking lives and motivations escalate to far more profound and engaging whole than I ever expected.
Natural Selection rightfully won SXSW's Best Narrative Feature Award, and it's not hard to figure out why. It's simultaneously hilarious, tragic, and exhilarating, with richly rendered characters that, despite its ludicrous-sounding story, is ultimately one of the more engrossing and entertaining films I've seen in a long time. --TK
6. The Myth of the American Sleepover ($39,000) -- The Myth of the American Sleepover is a mood movie, a contemplation not on the loss of innocence, but on hanging on to it. Or in one case trying to recapture it. There are no adults in the movie -- no reminders of what we've become or what we may soon be. There are also no named actors, so we can choose to believe that these aren't characters. They're just teenagers doing what teenagers do: Obsessing over girls (or boys), wandering aimlessly, experiencing brief flickers of lust of love of desire of heartbreak of doing the impossible. It follows several different teenagers on the Friday night before school is set to begin for the fall. It's an impossible movie to describe -- not much happens on screen; it all happens in your mind. The way it recalls our own teenage years, the nostalgia fever it inspires. It captures so much by doing so little. It's a remarkable, transportive film that reaches inside your adulthood and it takes you back to another time. --DR
5. Oliver Sherman (Unreleased) -- Oliver Sherman is one of those quiet films that comes out of nowhere and gutpunches you. It's amazing that a film with no action, no violence, no scares or manipulation, can leave an audience in such a cold sweat. You'll find yourself knotted with tension throughout its brisk 82 minutes, which is a notable achievement given the film's deliberate pacing and almost stolid atmosphere. Redford has created something remarkable with Oliver Sherman. It's a terrifying, tragic and at times skin-crawlingly creepy film that takes a completely apolitical look at two radically different post-war veteran experiences, and exposes some truly unnerving possibilities, while simultaneously managing to deliver a bit of hope. --TK
4. Turkey Bowl (Straight to Netflix) -- Beyond being funny, the movie has an underlying familiarity and resonance. Not just in terms of the football game itself, but in terms of this idea of watching your post-college "grown up" friendships evolve. That evolution can go many ways, and most of us have probably seen endless variations of this, from those who drop off the face of the Earth after assimilating into whatever new life they've developed, to others who have grown some mix of anger, resentment and sadness over other friends leaving them behind, to those who adapt with the situations and work to keep their friendships going, learning to appreciate that great friends can pick up where they left off no matter how much time is in the gaps. Turkey Bowl doesn't touch upon each of these, but all of this is underlying what the characters are dealing with and, even if the circumstances of this particular circle of friends don't match your own in fact, they almost surely do in tone. -- Seth Freilich
3. 13 Assassins ($802,000) -- This dedication to historical honesty is bolstered by phenomenal cinematography and set design. The lush settings somehow make the drab browns and greens stand out, and the costume design is painstakingly careful. But amidst that attentive eye for detail is an even more arduous depiction of the times, as characters are dirtied and bloodied over time, and the land is slowly enveloped in mist and brackish gloom. As the weather declines, the plot speeds up, creating a total immersion in the film's trajectory towards its grisly yet glorious climax. 13 Assassins isn't another hideous glimpse into the darkness of the human condition from Miike. It doesn't have the same nihilistic lunacy of some of his films. Instead, it's an intelligent, thoughtful historical musing ... for the first hour (interspersed with some genuinely horrific imagery), followed by a spectacularly inventive, wonderfully violent climax that still doesn't distract from its sharp-eyed buildup. It's a history lesson, a political thought piece, a Seven Samurai homage, and an orgy of swords and blood, all wrapped in one thunderous and satisfying package. -- TK
2. Take Shelter ($1.6 million) -- The impulse to protect one's family is strong. But what happens when that impulse becomes an addiction, when the growing sense of dread about your family's well-being becomes so overpowering and all-encompassing that you risk losing the very family you're trying to protect? That's one of the questions at the heart of Take Shelter. Director Jeff Nichols manages to toe the line between actual thriller and psychological thriller splendidly. The writing is deceptively complex, and visually, the film is both as wide and expansive as the farm plains of Ohio, and as narrow and taught as a collapsing mind. The cinematography is particularly gorgeous, especially during the repeated rain storms that may or not actually be taking place over the course of the film. Some may find Take Shelter's intensely ambiguous ending a disappointment, but it's really the perfect and only way to end the film. I can't really say more about that ending, but it's great, as is the film as a whole. Take Shelter is simply a stunning film.
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin ($39,000) -- If We Need to Talk About Kevin is a fine china plate dropped on the ground and shattered, Ramsay spends her time putting the pieces together not in some pointless effort to restore what once was, but because she doesn't want anyone to cut themselves on the shards. This easily could have fallen into the mistake of being a message film, but it's so much more devastating left to it's own captivating devices. It's not a gut punch that takes your breath away, but rather the slow draining of oxygen from the room where you suddenly start to feel lightheaded and weak. I hope aspiring filmmakers -- and even some of the self-indulgent old hats who've been in the game for a while -- take a look at what Ramsay has managed with this brilliant film. She pulled off artsy filmschool trickery, a fractured hallucinatory narrative, understated yet devastatingly dramatic performances, and told the tale of a palpable tragedy without any sort of manufactured pathos -- and she pulled off every fucking moment. It's not an easy film, and it certainly won't leave you feeling uplifted, but it's a powerful work well constructed. -- Brian Prisco