This is the third of several year-end wrap essays detailing the year in film. This time, it's about highlighting the good or great films that slipped under the radar somehow. Some got rave reviews and wide releases but stiffed at the box office, while some never made it out of limited release. All are worth tracking down and all are, with one exception I will point out, now available on DVD/Blu-ray/download/etc. And nearly all of them are not hardcore independent films, but seemingly mainstream dramas and comedies that would have likely merited a wide release even a few years ago. Once again, these will be in alphabetical order.
13 Assassins (review)
Like pretty much all Magnolia titles in the last few years, the majority of the film's initial profits came from their OnDemand services, with Takashi Miike's truly epic samurai drama receiving on a token theatrical release in a few major cities. No matter where you see this one, it's a surprisingly compelling shades-of-grey morality play. At its core, it's about the morality of committing murder, political assassination no less, in the name of dispatching a regional ruler who may be too evil to eventually wear the crown. For the first two thirds it is a character study and a classic samurai drama. But the entire last third of the picture unleashes one of the longest and most impressive non-stop action sequences I've ever seen. If for no other reason than it's last 40 minutes, 13 Assassins is a must-see action picture.
Attack the Block
If you read any blogs that travel in the "geek circles," this may be the most talked-about movie that nobody saw this year. The film premiered early in the year to rave reviews from the Faracis and McWeenys of the world, but it's token limited release from Sony Screen Gems on July 29th, a weekend with six new releases. Needless to say, it died and never really expanded. Is the film as gloriously awesome as you may have read elsewhere? Not quite. It doesn't break much new ground, but it does what it intends to do very well. The young kids are all quite good and the aliens they encounter are all the scarier for their sparse use. This is just a rock-solid genre entry that is just different enough to be memorable and just good enough to be a must-see.
Beautiful Boy This one took it on the chin for being the first, but far less talked-out, film involving troubled youth from this year. It's not as good as We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it's also a more clinical and arguably more "realistic" variation on a similar story. It's slow, quiet, and almost painfully objective, but it leads up to a finale that packs a surprising punch. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello do good work as grief-stricken parents trying to cope with their son's murder/suicide shooting spree. And if the casting of Kyle Gallner earns unintentional laughs as an example of sledgehammer-obvious typecasting, it should be noted that he delivers an emotionally compelling extended cameo.
Everything Must Go
This is a classic example of something that was inexplicably platformed when it could have been a modest success with a wide release. Will Ferrell shines as an alcoholic who has lost his job and been locked out of his house by his about-to-be ex-wife after dramatically falling off the wagon. The majority of the film concerns his attempts to unload all of his personal property in a yard sale, which brings him into contact with a few token colorful characters, including Rebecca Hall who refreshingly is not cast as a love interest. But everyone plays it straight and the film feels authentic and human-level. Writer/director Dan Rush's debut won't set anyone's hair on fire, but it's the sort of solid, low-key, compelling character drama that we don't see nearly enough of outside of the Oscar season. It's just a darn good movie.
In a less competitive season, Brendan Gleeson's delightful star turn would have been considered an awards contender. Regardless of statues awarded, The Guard is a charming and quirky police comedy that nonetheless respects the seriousness of its situation enough to make its drama work. Gleeson delivers a career-peak turn as his somewhat unorthodox and smarter-than-he-acts Irish cop teams up with a FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to deal with drug runners. Cheadle is loser here than he's been in awhile, and the rest of the film works as an amusing and thoughtful little gem that only occasionally flirts with becoming a thriller.
This one could have made the year-end best-of list if not for a few missteps. The film, which premiered at Sundance and then aired on the OWN network in October, is a mostly all-encompassing look at how the media portrays and discusses women both in entertainment and journalism. Overall, it's a sobering wake-up call to the uninformed and a stiff reminder to those in the know about how little progress the media and culture at large has made about how they portray and advertise to women of all walks of life. (The film makes a strong case, as I have long believed, that we've actually regressed quite a bit.) But the film loses major points for some out-of-context clips (Going the Distance is not a traditional rom-com as its discussed in the film) and a lengthy moment where the film uses Mad Men clips as examples of mass-media preaching the 1950s/1960s patriarchal gender roles without noting that said show is an explicit critique of such. And, Sucker Punch is a commentary on, not an example of, the whole "fighting f**k toy" archetype. Nonetheless, the film is a mostly terrific capsule of how and why the media at-large preaches that girls and women should only value their appearance and their worth as child-bearers.
The Skin I Live In
This genuinely engrossing and ultimately disturbing little thriller is important if only for the glorious reunion of Antonio Banderas and director Pedro Almodóvar. But aside from momentous occasions, the film is one of the better pure thrillers of 2011, and one of two great star turns from Banderas (the other being the unexpectedly delightful Puss In Boots, natch). I'm not nearly enough of a Almodóvar nut to judge this one within the pantheon of his other pictures, but I do know that The Skin I Live In deserves a look when it eventually arrives on DVD and the like.
There has been a sub-genre of late that basically involves regular people deciding to become costumed crime fighters. Kick Ass and Defendor tried their hands at it last year, and this year's entry is James Gunn's Super. But what sets this one apart, messy as it sometimes gets, is that it's not a superhero story at all. It's a tale of religious and spiritual redemption. Starring Rainn Wilson as a man who is inspired by a religious vision to go after people who do bad things, he ends up in a comic book store and wearing a costume purely because that's how super-heroism is filtered in today's culture (in another place or time, he might have ended up dressed like a samurai). The film's selling point is watching Wilson commit painfully realistic violence against genuine criminals and petty annoyances (such as people who cut in line). But the movie is no glorification of vigilante violence, and it builds up to a surprisingly moving climax involving Liv Tyler, as Wilson's wife who fell off the drug wagon and left him for a local dealer (Kevin Bacon). Unlike most other comic book super hero stories, this one feels painfully personal, a therapeutic statement of grief arguably stemming from Gunn's own divorce. It's powerful stuff.
It's no secret that I loathe the whole sub-genre of "sensitive and mostly handsome young man deals with his personal problems and comes of age with the help of a selfless hottie" that has invaded independent cinema over the last five to 10 years. But this one is the polar opposite, as the title character (Jacob Wysocki) is not a matinee idol and the girl he yearns for (Olivia Crocicchia) is neither an out-of-this-world knock out nor a solution to his problems. John C. Reilly gives another great supporting turn as the empathetic school principal who doesn't have all the answers but is willing to fail until he makes progress. The film feels real and the level of "breakthrough" is life size and plausible. This is one of the better examples of the whole "young man comes of age" genre since Thumbsucker (whose director, Mike Mills, is justifiably earning raves this year for Beginners).
Tree of Life I'm slightly cheating, but the box office figures ($12 million) seem to imply that most moviegoers missed this epic and sprawling portrait of a 1950s family. I didn't find it as over-the-moon compelling as some critics, but it is absolutely a must-see picture. Terrence Malick's drama threatens to cross over into self-parody at times, but the strong performances of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken feel the focus on the family at its center. Yes, the second half isn't nearly as compelling as the first half. Yes, Sean Penn's scenes are so disconnected that it reminds one of Bela Legosi in Plan Nine From Outer Space. But this is a good movie with an inordinate amount of great moments.
Most people don't know that A) David Schwimmer directs a lot of television and B) David Schwimmer spends a lot of time overseeing and volunteering in the realm of rape-crisis. Thus it may be a surprise that David Schwimmer has directed a nearly-terrific drama about a seemingly normal family trying to cope when their fifteen year old daughter is sexually assaulted by a man she met online. While the first international trailer suggested Eye For An Eye-type fear mongering, the final film is a somber, quiet, and quite realistic. The film doesn't pretend that there is a sex predator lurking in every corner of the Internet, nor does it pretend that the idea of such violence being perpetrated is all that shocking. Trust is not about every family, merely about one specific family. There are a few minor hiccups along the way, but it's probably as good of a film as we're likely to see about this sensitive subject. Couple that with one of Clive Owen's best performances, a should-be star-making performance by Liana Liberato, and yet another solid turn by Viola Davis (as, yes, the empathetic therapist), and you have a film that will probably improve with age. Yes, it will surely air on Lifetime at some point. If only every Lifetime movie were as good as Trust...
Winnie the Pooh (review)
This delightfully charming and unexpectedly inventive little cartoon felt as cozy as a warm blanket just out of the dryer. Director Stephen J. Anderson earned the plaudits that he damn-well should have received for Meet the Robinsons back in 2007, but the film died at the box office anyway. Simply put, this is Winnie the Pooh as you remember him, and it's warm and simply quality turned my daughter into a Pooh fan, possibly for life.