People always seem to lament the sorry state of movies, but don’t let this year’s crop of Hollywood dreck and lackluster Oscar frontrunners get you down, as many excellent films this year went overlooked by audiences. From an insurance salesman gone wild to this year's Rocky, to the most touching gay love story since Brokeback Mountain, here are the films you missed in 2011 that deserve another look.
Cedar Rapids (Feb. 11)
Dir. Miguel Arteta, Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche
This should have been Ed Helms’s 40-Year-Old Virgin moment. In his first lead role, The Office and Hangover scene-stealer stars as Tim Lippe, a naive insurance agent sent to a regional conference in the titular Iowa city, where he strikes up unlikely friendships with a trio of hard-partying fellow insurance agents—Dean Ziegler, or "Dean-Z" (John C. Reilly), the de facto ringleader, Ronald Wilkes, or "Ronimal" (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who does a killer impression of Omar from HBO’s The Wire, and Joan Ostrowski, or “O-Fox” (Anne Heche), an unhappily married vixen. Lippe’s fun new group of friends sheds new light on his boring existence, teaching him some valuable life lessons. The Alexander Payne-meets-The Hangover film boasts a star-making turn from Helms, and, unlike his criminally miscast role in Carnage, the best performance from Reilly in ages, who is perfectly cast as the loony buffoon. The scene of him wasted, mimicking R2-D2’s beeps and boops with a garbage can top over his head in a pool, is alone worth the price of admission.
Hall Pass (Feb. 25)
Dir. The Farrelly Brothers, Starring: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate
Owen Wilson received a well-deserved Golden Globe nod for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but his turn as a disillusioned dad in Hall Pass is his best comedic work since 2005’s Wedding Crashers. Wilson stars as Rick Mills, a married father who, along with his best friend, Fred Searing (Jason Sudeikis), comes to the realization that he’s unhappy with married life, and misses his rowdy single days. The pair’s wives, played by Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, see it too, and grant the boys a “hall pass,” or a week off from marriage to sleep around. Wilson and Sudeikis fully inhabit their roles, portraying convincing middle-aged shlubs while also exhibiting tremendous chemistry during their wild sex hunt that includes pot brownies, exploding fecal matter, and a giant black penis. Their friends, played by Extras’ Stephen Merchant and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove, are hilarious as well in one of the best mainstream comedies of the year.
Meek’s Cutoff (April 8)
Dir. Kelly Reichardt, Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano
Michelle Williams may be receiving loads of awards attention for her pouty, affected turn as screen goddess Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, but her performance as a woman traveling in a wagon train on a doomed journey across the Oregon Trail is far more courageous, and riveting. The year is 1845, and Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is leading a three-family wagon train across the trail, but the passengers soon suspect that he has no idea where he is going. As their resources start to dwindle, the group captures an Indian along the way, holding him captive until he leads them to food and water. Reichardt’s minimalist aesthetic works wonders here, as the Wendy & Lucy helmer has crafted a terrifying lyrical poem/ode to the American frontier. It’s also essential viewing for anyone who grew up playing the addictive computer game, The Oregon Trail.
13 Assassins (April 29)
Dir. Takashi Miike, Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada
Set in 1840s Japan, this remake of the 1963 black-and-white Japanese film of the same name centers on Shinzaemon (Babel’s Kôji Yakusho), one of the last samurais, who is hired to kill the sadistic Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, who rapes, tortures, and kills at will. Shinzaemon recruits a team of 11 other samurais to aid him in his quest, and the team of freedom fighters eventually squares off against 200 palace guards. Boasting gorgeous wide-screen lensing by Nobuyasu Kita, dizzyingly violent, artistic action sequences, and Takashi Miike’s trademark sinister humor, 13 Assassins is not only legendary Japanese filmmaker Miike’s best film since his 1999 J-horror classic, Audition, but also one of the finest films in the samurai canon.
The Trip (June 10)
Dir. Michael Winterbottom, Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Adapted from a BAFTA-winning sitcom series and edited into a feature film, this achingly funny comedy stars British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalized versions of themselves. In order to impress his flighty American girlfriend, Coogan has agreed to go on a restaurant tour of Northern England representing The Observer newspaper. He brings along his longtime quasi-pal Brydon, who, unlike Coogan, is happily married. The two friends bicker constantly, and engage in the year’s most uproarious game of one-upmanship, usually taking the form of celebrity impersonations. What seems like a lark eventually blossoms into a philosophical voyage, as these two journeymen comedians reflect on their careers, fame, and relationships. Oh, and the scene of Coogan and Brydon doing competing Michael Caine impersonations is one of the funniest of the year.
Attack the Block (July 29)
Dir. Joe Cornish, Starring: John Boyega, Nick Frost, Jodie Whittaker
Marking the feature directorial debut of British comedian Joe Cornish, who also co-wrote the screenplay for The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, this bracingly original debut feature is not only this year’s District 9, but also the best sci-fi movie of 2011. On Bonfire Night in the London projects, a gang of teenage thieves, led by Moses (John Boyega), are transformed into unlikely heroes when they defend their block from an alien invasion. This goofy, albeit riveting, indie sci-fi flick is the movie Super 8 wishes it was, and boasts a star-making turn from Boyega, who was later cast as the lead in Spike Lee and Entourage creator Doug Ellin’s upcoming HBO series Da Brick, based on the early life of heavyweight boxing legend Mike Tyson. Despite receiving near-universal critical acclaim, Attack the Block grossed just over $1 million at the North American box office.
The Guard (July 29)
Dir. John Michael McDonagh, Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose brother, Martin, helmed the underrated 2008 film In Bruges, this hilarious black comedy became the most successful independent Irish film of all-time at the Irish box office, but only grossed a tad over $5 million stateside. The plot, about an eccentric Irish policeman, played by Brendan Gleeson, who teams up with an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to take down an international drug-smuggling operation is secondary to Gleeson’s award-worthy performance as the zany, delightfully corrupt cop. Whether Gleeson is engaged in a randy three-way with a pair of cheery prostitutes or swimming the Irish waters in a body-hugging wetsuit, you can’t take your eyes off him from the first moment he graces the screen… to pop an acid tab in his mouth. The Golden Globes took notice, and hopefully Oscar will as well.
Fright Night (Aug. 19)
Dir. Craig Gillespie, Starring: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
OK, given the troika of Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries, you’re probably sick of the whole ‘vampire craze’. But don’t overlook this film. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), this remake centers on Charley Brewster, played by Anton Yelchin—a teenager in a tiny Las Vegas suburb who, along with his nerdy friend, Ed (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse), begins to suspect that his creepy neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a vampire. Farrell has a ball with his deliciously over-the-top character, and the sexy film also boasts—Hugo, aside—the best usage of 3D this year, with blood, fire, and ashes exploding into viewer’s faces. And former Dr. Who star David Tennant steals every scene he’s in as a Criss Angel-like Vegas magician-cum-vampire slayer. Sadly, it grossed under $20 million at the North American box office.
Warrior (Sept. 9)
Dir. Gavin O’Connor, Starring: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte
Filmmaker Gavin O’Connor is something of a specialist in underdog sports dramas, having helmed 2004’s Miracle. With Warrior, he eclipses that film by producing not one, but two Rocky Balboas. There’s U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) and his estranged brother, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a high school physics teacher and ex-mixed martial arts fighter. Tommy arrives back home under dubious circumstances, and enlists his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), an abusive, recovering alcoholic, to train him for Sparta—a winner-take-all MMA tournament with a $5 million prize. Meanwhile, Brendan and his family are about to be evicted from their home, so he talks his old trainer, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), into training him, and using his connections to get him into Sparta. The first half of this Cain and Abel saga is all character building and working-class strife, while the final hour-plus is riveting, no-holds-barred action. Tom Hardy—and his giant traps—is brilliant as the disturbed ex-Marine, while Edgerton brings soul and humanity to his underdog fighter. And, there’s a scenery-chewing ++Nick Nolte as the boy’s troubled father, delivering his best, scowl-heavy role since Affliction. This is one of only two films—along with the next entry on this list—that made me tear up this year.
Weekend (Sept. 25)
Dir. Andrew Haigh, Starring: Tom Cullen, Chris New
Weekend, by writer-director Andrew Haigh, is not only the most realistic and complex examination of love put to film this year, but also offers the most poignant portrait of gay love since Brokeback Mountain. Made on a microbudget of just $186,000, the British indie opens with Russell (Tom Cullen), who, after a rowdy house party, heads to a gay club. There, he picks up Glen (Chris New), and what they thought was just a one-night stand soon blossoms into a three-day affair, as the two love-struck strangers discuss everything from love and the meaning of life to sexual identity. There are so many casually beautiful moments in Haigh’s fly-on-the wall film, it feels like you’re witnessing something entirely authentic. This is the gay man’s Before Sunrise—but much, much better.
Take Shelter – Sept. 30
Dir. Jeff Nichols, Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
Whether it’s his star-making performance in Bug, his Oscar-nominated turn in Revolutionary Road, or the role of demented Jesus freak Nelson van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, Michael Shannon has no better, among actors working today, at capturing crazy. And in Take Shelter, the sophomore effort from acclaimed indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), the imposing actor delivers the best performance of his career as Curtis LaForche, a construction worker in a small Ohio town who begins to experience apocalyptic visions—worrying his loving wife, played by 2011’s "it actress" Jessica Chastain. Curtis eventually mortgages his house in order to build a high-tech storm shelter in the family’s backyard to keep them safe from what he believes is a violent storm headed their way. The hysterical father is soon cast as the town pariah, but is he really crazy, or an unlikely prophet? With all the terrible forces of nature that have plagued the world this past year, Nichols’ haunting film seems vital as ever, and also boasts impressive, eerie cinematography, perfectly mirroring Curtis’ scattered mind.
Like Crazy (Oct. 28)
Dir. Drake Doremus, Starring: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence
Despite being one of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival’s premier acquisitions after being scooped up by Paramount for $4 million, and receiving critical acclaim, this hyper-realistic, largely improvised romantic drama has only earned just north of $3 million so far, stateside. Drake Doremus’ film centers on a young couple, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), who fall in love while attending college in Los Angeles. Anna, a British exchange student, decides to overstay her visa to be with Jacob the summer after they graduate so, when she flies back to L.A. after settling some family business in England, she is detained and barred from entering the country. The two young lovers then try their hand at a long-distance relationship, with frustrating results. Shot on a Canon 7D, the film uses a shaky, invasive camera that augments its naturalistic feel and, while Yelchin is just fine as an unassuming, lady-killing carpenter, it’s the gorgeous Felicity Jones, radiating vulnerability and kindness, who will break your heart.
Melancholia (Nov. 11)
Dir. Lars Von Trier, Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard
I’ve said this before, but it’s truly sad that, with the exception of Rooney Mara’s electrifying turn as sinewy hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, two of the year’s finest female performances—Kirsten Dunst’s in Melancholia and Charlize Theron’s in Young Adult—probably won’t be nominated for Oscars. Set on a posh estate during and moments after Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) disastrous wedding, the movie follows the travails of two opposing sisters—the depressed Justine and distraught Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—who struggle with each other’s respective psychoses, all while the Earth is about to collide with a new planet. Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s film is gorgeously shot, and crescendos with tension up until the film’s glorious finale. While the supporting cast, including Alexander Skarsgard, his father, Stellan Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, and a delectable Udo Kier as a saucy wedding planner are all top-notch, it’s Dunst’s show, as the actress—who, by the way, can really wear a wedding dress—exhibits heretofore unseen levels of depth and grit in her performance, it’s no wonder she took home the Best Actress award at Cannes.