This time of year, everyone looks back on the last 12 months and takes stock, of what went right and what went wrong, what we're going to do better next year. When you write about movies for a living or even see a lot of them, that list usually is just a bunch of film titles-- what you loved goes into a top 10 list, what you hated gets passionately derided, and everything in the middle can sometimes slip away entirely.
But everyone knows that movies aren't just "great" or "awful," and every year there are movies that are perfectly good, maybe even great, that get overlooked entirely. Whether it's because they were box office flops, unfairly critically maligned or somehow otherwise ignored, there are always movies that seem in danger of getting forgotten entirely in the rush to move on to the next year. Which is why we've put together this list, the 10 Most Unfairly Overlooked Movies of 2011, highlighting the films we want to make sure you don't forget. Take a look, give all these a chance, and don't let the good stuff get ignored once 2012 rolls around.
30 Minutes or Less
Released just a few months after Jesse Eisenberg’s Oscar attention for The Social Network and marketed with enthusiasm by Columbia Pictures, 30 Minutes or Less should have been one of the year’s most successful action comedies. But with Apes still in charge at the box office and The Help receiving most of the critical praise, somehow 30 Minutes just couldn’t compete. That’s a shame because director Ruben Fleischer delivers, and in under 85 minutes. The movie’s brisk pace is one of its biggest strengths, in telling the story of a pizza delivery boy who has a bomb strapped to his chest and only a few hours to rob a bank before the guys who put it there blow him up. He enlists the help of his former best friend, played to maximum hilarity by Aziz Ansari. They procure plastic guns, plan their heist, and try to find a way out of their doomed situation. The action kicks ass, particularly in the movie’s plentiful driving scenes, and the comedy completely delivers. 30 Minutes or Less has the good sense to keep it simple; constantly pushing forward, always moving, but never confusing. Few other 2011 movies managed to be as consistently clever and fun. 30 Minutes or Less is a blast.
We've written almost endlessly about 50/50 since it opened in late September, but no amount of support online was enough to get audiences to see something advertised as a "cancer comedy," starring Seth Rogen no less. It's hard to explain on paper how much about this movie works, how it deftly balances the raunchy comedy shared among young male friends-- like in a conversation about blowjobs that happens in a coffee shop about 10 minutes into the movie-- and the heavy emotional toll of what happens when an otherwise healthy 28-year-old is suddenly diagnosed with cancer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance as the ill Adam is the anchor of the movie, but he's surrounded by a ton of talent, from Rogen as an endearing but slightly selfish best friend to Anjelica Huston as his mom who just wants to help him through a tough time. Director Jonathan Levine manages all the shifts in tone perfectly, and even the people who think they can't handle another raunchy Seth Rogen comedy will find themselves choking up as the story takes the expected but always affecting route. By being so hard to define as a comedy or a drama 50/50 missed out on a lot of attention when it came out, but a year of movie watching wouldn't be complete without it.
The Adjustment Bureau
It may be the highest grossing film on this list, having made $127 million worldwide, but starring Matt Damon and featuring an irresistible sci-fi premise, it should have made a lot more. The crackling chemistry between Damon and Emily Blunt should be reason enough to revisit this one, as watching Damon's character literally fight the forces of fate in order to be with her feels like a worthy battle the minute you see them swap quips in the bathroom at the Waldorf Astoria. He's a young congressman with ambitions toward the Senate, she's a dancer with a quick wit and free spirit, and their match seems perfect to everybody except the Adjustment Bureau, a mysterious, fate-altering group of men in sharp fedoras to intervene and make sure Blunt and Damon can't be together. George Nolfi, making a strong directorial debut, gives the film a sharp and distinctive look, and even when the third act gets into what might feel like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, Nolfi, Damon and Blunt-- with excellent supporting work from Anthony Mackie-- sell the hell out of it. It's not an action-fueled Bourne movie, and maybe that's why not enough people saw it, but its thrilling scenes aside, it might be the year's best romance too.
Attack the Block
There's already talk of an American remake of this British film, which is reason enough to catch it before it's inevitably ruined by a movie that's not nearly as sharp, funny, and surprisingly emotional. As the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, Attack the Block is the movie about kids coping with an alien invasion that Super 8 only wished it could be. Set in a rundown south London British housing project-- "the block" of the title-- the movie follows a gang of teenagers who discover an alien that has crash-landed to earth, kill it and parade around with it, only to then be relentlessly hunted by a gang of black furry beasts who want revenge. John Boyega's Moses, as the leader of the group who's the most vicious but also probably the most noble, is the real standout, but the entire cast is terrific to watch, all funny and natural and exactly who you'd want to help you fight the aliens. It's hard to get used to the thick British accents at first, but everything else about Attack the Block is pure sci-fi joy. See it before the remake and say you were on board first.
Released early in 2011 when no one seemed to be paying attention, despite good reviews and generally broad appeal, somehow Fox Searchlight never really got behind Cedar Rapids. Missing the wide release it deserved, the film slipped away without notice. Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe in a movie about the small town people who stay behind, and like it that way. Tim gravitates towards the familiar and has never sought out new experiences. He’s never been on an airplane, had a drink at a bar, or really done much of anything; until he finds himself doing those things anyway when sent off to an insurance convention. Instructed by his boss to hang out with the straight shooters Tim instead finds himself falling in with the convention’s wild man (John C. Reilly), a woman who uses the annual getaways as her escape (Anne Heche), and a man named Ronald (played brilliantly by Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who’s far more than he seems to be. The chemistry between that ensemble makes the charm of Cedar Rapids utterly irresistible, and director Miguel Arteta finds something both hilarious and special in telling what feels like the authentic story of what happens when normal, mundane people step outside their routine. I walked away from Cedar Rapids rooting for Tim and all the Tims out there like him who, though they never seek out success, may be made of stronger stuff than anyone suspects.
In an era where vampires have been transformed from brutal killers into romantic leads, Fright Night burst into theaters and tried to make fangs frightening again by remaking a mostly forgotten 80s movie. Audiences responded by ignoring it, even though over the course of the film Colin Farrell creates one of the all time great vampire characters. He’s spine-tinglingly scary and his name is Jerry. Jerry lives next door to Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his single-mother. It doesn’t take Charley long to figure out Jerry’s a vampire, but Jerry’s already three steps ahead of him and planning his destruction. The first half of the movie is spent hanging out in suburban terror until Charley, looking for a way to survive, seeks out a magician and vamp expert played brilliantly by a flamboyantly Goth David Tennant. Together they set out to save the suburbs by going vampire hunting. Jerry’s ready for them and whether he’s ripping up gas lines or terrorizing the family minivan this is one of the best true vampire movies to hit theaters in a long, long time. Scary, funny, gory, and unlike anything else you saw this year; make up for the mistake you made when you bought that ticket for Twilight and seek out Fright Night.
This past summer the R-rated comedy was king. From The Hangover: Part II to Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids to Horrible Bosses, just about every laugher with lascivious behavior was a hit at the box office. Sadly, that didn’t really translate for John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard. The story of a laid-back, racist Irish cop (Brendan Gleeson) who must team up with an uptight FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to top an elite team of drug smugglers, the film was an irreverent laugh riot. The film operates partially as a Shane Black-style action comedy, in the vein of Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the pairing of Gleeson and Cheadle is just as brilliant as any of those films. The two actors have a great rapport and every conversation between their two characters is a scream. Mark Strong, as an existential baddie who has become bored by the work he does, seems to have a blast with the part, playing up the audience’s expectations of him as a villain while also showing off a sharp wit. The Guard was only given a limited release – never expanding beyond 203 theaters – which would explain it’s less-than-stellar box office numbers, but is definitely one to hunt down as soon as it becomes available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Take Me Home Tonight
A victim of a marketing campaign that unfairly branded it as a slice of 80s nostalgia, a victim of a studio who let it sit on a shelf for four years and most of all, a victim of every shitty raunchfest about twenty-somethings that came before it, Take Me Home Tonight looked like an absolute trainwreck on paper. Rightly so too. We don’t look for honesty and heart in comedies that play cocaine for laughs. We don’t look for imagination and warmth in puking scenes, and we don’t try to learn something from movies staring Dan Fogler, Topher Grace and Anna Faris. History has taught us there’s little upside to any of that, but sometimes life is messy and stupid and a little bit dirty, especially when it involves twenty-two year olds. Aimless and beaten down, Grace’s Matt Franklin doesn’t have any idea what to do with his college degree. Were he a bit older, that would make him a loser. Since he’s not, it makes him exactly like everyone else. A lesser movie would demand he and his sister and his best friend figure it all out in one night. Take Me Home Tonight, over beers, first kisses and bored shenanigans, simply nudges its characters in the right direction. It’s the type of quiet understatement amidst overblown chaos only men and women at that age could produce.
The standard for road trip movies featuring two characters that don’t get along was set a long time ago. Be it the limit-pushing strife between Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles or the contentious relationship between Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, it’s a subgenre with a rich history. As a result, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip isn’t anything revolutionary, but it is a simple premise executed brilliantly. Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as the “friends” traveling through the English countryside visiting various hotels and restaurants, the film is not so much plot driven as it is about the conversations that the two actors have. They sit down for five-star meals while comparing Michael Caine impressions, dissect each other’s film and television careers, and riff back and forth on trope movie dialogue, all of it reducing movie-goers to nothing more than laughing on the floor of the theater. The movie came out in very limited release over the summer and didn’t have any real A-list stars to push in the marketing (unless you count a brilliant cameo in the middle of the movie), so it didn’t perform exceptionally, but it’s definitely a film that real comedy fans should hunt down.
Tom McCarthy's third film is a lot like his first two, a small-scale story about people living relatively ordinary lives, trying to do the right thing even when it's kind of a pain in the ass. Win WIn has the added benefit of also being really funny, a story about a relationship between a middle-aged lawyer and wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) who winds up taking in a runaway kid (Alex Shaffer) who doesn't seem to fit at all into his average middle-class life. The tensions between the kid and the family, along with the tensions the kid's own family brings with him, makes for both perfect worlds-colliding comedy and some real moments of emotional truth. There are no villains in this movie, only people trying to get through life without hurting too many people, and it's a pleasure to slip into McCarthy's view of the world, where everyone really just wants to be a mensch. With fairly limited Oscar hopes and a release date from all the way back in March, Win Win could easily be forgotten by now, but it keeps popping up among critics who loved it. Take their advice. It's a winner.
For more of our end-of-the-year coverage, visit our Best of 2011 page.
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