Year End Wrap Up: Top 10 Under the Radar Films of 2011
Published: December 29, 2011 - 1:58pm
Here we're going to tell you ten films that definitely deserve your attention, even if you don't think so. Some of these you may have never heard of, some may have piqued your interest but you just never gotten around to seeing them.
10. Boy Wonder
"Comic book fans may be fooled into thinking this film is somewhat related to Batman's longtime sidekick due to it's title, but fortunately the similarities end there. A dark and gritty journey into the tortured psyche of a young man who fails to peacefully cope with his mother's murder and father's brutality, Boy Wonder succeeds in humanizing an anti-hero in ways no other big budget film did this year. It is written and directed by freshman filmmaker Michael Morrissey, who believed in the quality of the final product so much that he wouldn't even change it's title even though it undoubtedly caused distribution issues. Boy Wonder is gripping, terrifying and a delight from beginning to end, as well as featuring the best cinematography of any independent film I've ever seen this year." - Pietro Filipponi
A young boy witnesses the brutal murder of his mother during a Brooklyn car-jacking. Now a 17-year-old loner, Sean Donovan (Caleb Steinmeyer) is relentlessly haunted by his past and obsessed with finding his mother's killer. Drawn into a nocturnal urban underworld, Sean's consuming rage is vented one night, defending himself from a chaotic attack by a drug dealer. Thus begins his life as a quiet, straight-A student by day and a self-appointed hero at night. Investigating a series of vigilante murders, hot-shot new homicide detective Teresa Ames (Zulay Henao) takes an interest in Sean and his case. Engaged in a twisting game of cat and mouse, Sean and Teresa become allies by day ... and enemies by night.
"Evan Glodell made a massive splash at Sundance with his micro-budget indie production, Bellflower. But it’s hard to sell audiences such a dark, ambitious film during the summer blockbuster season. As a result, this triumph of independent cinema went more or less unrecognized to many, despite gaining a warm critical reception. But those who are bold enough to seek it out will discover a stellar drama about masculinity that refuses to hold back. Not to mention that the fire shooting muscle car built for the film is just too cool to ignore." - Giovanni Colantonio
Bellflower follows two friends as they venture out into the world to begin their adult lives. Literally all their free time is spent building flame-throwers and weapons of mass destruction in hopes that a global apocalypse will occur and clear the runway for their imaginary gang "Mother Medusa". While waiting for the world to end, their call to excitement comes unexpectedly when one of them meets a charismatic young woman and falls hard in love. Quickly integrated into a new group of friends, they set off on a journey of betrayal, love, hate, infidelity and extreme violence more devastating and fiery than any of their apocalyptic fantasies.
8. Margin Call
"This independent film boosts a remarkable cast, which allows writer/director J.C Chandor bragging rights seeing as how this is his directorial debut. Loosely based around Lehman Brother’s rash decision that sparked a major financial crisis in 2007-2008, this film is all too relevant to today’s audience. Zachery Quinto is endearing as an almost hero in a situation where everyone is to blame, while Jeremy Irons proves yet again that he can fluidly deliver a terrifying performance. It’s a simple, informative film that humanizes the people involved with crashing our economy. Chandor was able to sympathize with both sides, neither defending bankers nor attacking them." - Zoë Gulliksen
Set in the high-stakes world of the financial industry, Margin Call is an entangling thriller involving the key players at an investment firm during the first 24-hours of the 2008 financial crisis. When an entry-level analyst unlocks information that could prove to be the downfall of the firm, a roller-coaster ride ensues as decisions both financial and moral catapult the lives of all involved to the brink of disaster. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s enthralling first feature is a stark and bravely authentic portrayal of the financial industry and its denizens as they confront the decisions that shape our global future.
"Director Mateo Gil (co-writer of the Tom Cruise starring drama Vanilla Sky) masterfully takes the reins of this homage to the gritty western films of old with tried and true veteran Sam Shepard in the lead as Butch Cassidy. More in line with the tone of the recent True Grit remake as opposed to the neo-occidental Assassination of Jesse James, this film balances just the right amount of action and dramatic flair. The varied Bolivian landscapes are filmed beautifully, taking us on a pilgrimage to an alternate era where one of our pulp, outlaw heroes rides again." - Pietro Filipponi
It's been said (but unsubstantiated) that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in a standoff with the Bolivian military in 1908. In Blackthorn, Cassidy (Shepard) survived, and is quietly living out his years under the name James Blackthorn in a secluded Bolivian village. Tired of his long exile from the US and hoping to see his family again before he dies, Cassidy sets out on the long journey home. But when an unexpected encounter with an ambitious young criminal (Eduardo Noriega) derails his plans, he is thrust into one last adventure, the likes of which he hasn't experienced since his glory days with the Sundance Kid.
6. Meek's Cutoff
"Michelle Williams received plenty of attention this year for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. But many missed her other noteworthy performance this year as settler wandering the Oregon desert in Kelly Reichardt’s enigmatic, eerie Meek’s Cutoff. The characters in the film have a vague where they are and no clue when they’ll reach their destination. Reichardt perfectly replicates that experience for the viewer, with a slow pace and unsettlingly quiet sound design. But the result is anything but boring. These minimalistic elements give the film a brilliant sense of suspense and unease. It takes a little more patience than most may be used to, but the reward is worth every second." - Giovanni Colantonio
The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon train of three families has hired mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a shortcut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage. Over the coming days, the emigrants face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in one another's instincts for survival. When a Native American wanderer crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as a natural born enemy.
5. Into the Abyss
"Werner Herzog found surprising success this year with his 3D documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film gained long standing acclaim, so much so that it almost completely overshadowed Herzog’s second documentary of 2011: Into The Abyss. In this project he engages with the subject of capitol punishment, digging deep to discover the value of human life. It may not have astounding cave paintings, but the interviews acquired for the documentary are just as breathtaking. Herzog examines life and death in ways that some spend their entire lives fruitlessly trying to figure out." - Giovanni Colantonio
In his fascinating exploration of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, master filmmaker Werner Herzog probes the human psyche to explore why people kill-and why a state kills. In intimate conversations with those involved, including 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die within eight days of appearing on-screen), Herzog achieves what he describes as "a gaze into the abyss of the human soul." Herzog's inquiries also extend to the families of the victims and perpetrators as well as a state executioner and pastor who've been with death row prisoners as they've taken their final breaths. As he's so often done before, Herzog's investigation unveils layers of humanity, making an enlightening trip out of ominous territory.
"50/50 is a great film, there's no simpler way to put it. My doubts about filmmaker Jonathan Levine's ability to mesh a cancer rooted drama with buddy comedy overtones were quickly dispelled as this story fluidly panned out in the best way possible. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives the performance of his career, I don't mean that lightly as he is undoubtedly one of the most well received and highly sought after actors of this generation. He brings his character to life with much effortless aloofness while dynamically surfacing real emotion. There are scenes in 50/50 that hit me like a solid gut punch simply because Gordon-Levitt drew me into his cinematic world, his life, and forced me to care. Nothing ever feels forced. This film succeeds due to the combination of brilliant writing and perfect casting including Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Angelica Houston and Bryce Dallas Howard in supporting roles. For a film whose central theme revolves around a life-threatening illness, there is so much unexpected happiness to be had in it." - Pietro Filipponi
Inspired by personal experiences, 50/50 is an original story about friendship, love, survival and finding humor in unlikely places. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen star as best friends whose lives are changed by a cancer diagnosis. 50/50 is the story of a guy’s transformative and sometimes funny journey to health. The film draws its emotional core from Will Reiser’s own experience with cancer and reminds us that friendship and love, no matter what bizarre turns they take, are the greatest healers.
"There are a few factors that lead to a quiet release for Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, Pariah. One is the film’s late December release date, pushing it to the very end of Oscar contender hype. Another reason may be the film’s surface similarities to Lee Daniel’s Precious, which may have caused many to disregard Rees’ film as shameless Oscar bait. But Pariah is an astonishing work that never feels exploitative. It’s an unflinchingly honest portrayal of a girl becoming comfortable with her sexuality that deserves praise." - Giovanni Colantonio
Adepero Oduye portrays Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a 17-year-old African-American woman who lives with her parents Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) and younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. Alike is quietly but firmly embracing her identity as a lesbian. With the sometimes boisterous support of her best friend, out lesbian Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike is especially eager to find a girlfriend. At home, her parents' marriage is strained and there is further tension in the household whenever Alike's development becomes a topic of discussion. Pressed by her mother into making the acquaintance of a colleague's daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), Alike finds Bina to be unexpectedly refreshing to socialize with. Wondering how much she can confide in her family, Alike strives to get through adolescence with grace, humor, and tenacity - sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, but always moving forward.
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
"John Hawkes and newcomer Elizabeth Olsen give powerful performances in this slow burning suspenseful drama which is beautifully and seamlessly edited to offer the most compelling story possible. Writer/director Sean Durkin based part of this story on research he had done on cults and, in particular, a woman who had escaped a similar experience. The true standout is Olsen (younger sister to her much more famous siblings Mary-Kate and Ashley) whose expressions and lungful stares tells us so much about this character and the torment she is going through. Her performance is both haunting and powerful throughout, completely engrossing you in her plight. Avoiding the tropes of a megalomaniac or religious fervent, Durkin and Hawkes present cult leader Patrick with a simple creepy magnetism that pulls these young women into his fold. As the movie reveals itself, peeled back layer by layer, you are forced to deal with the palpable dread and panicked energy in the air." - Bryan Kritz
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a powerful psychological thriller starring Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman rapidly unraveling amidst her attempt to reclaim a normal life after fleeing from a cult and its charismatic leader (John Hawkes). Seeking help from her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), Martha is unable and unwilling to reveal the truth about her disappearance. When her memories trigger a chilling paranoia that her former cult could still be pursuing her, the line between Martha's reality and delusion begins to blur.
"Every year has some quirky indie movie that’s a little cute and a lot obnoxious. Trailers and advertisements for Beginners suggested that Mike Mills’ debut was that film for 2011, turning many heads away. But Beginners is everything films like that desperately and insincerely try to imitate. It’s heartfelt, intelligent, witty, and undeniably charming. With an excellent script and wonderful performances—including one of Christopher Plummer’s best roles—Beginners is a film that captures relationships, whether between family members or lovers, in a remarkably natural way." - Giovanni Colantonio
Beginners imaginatively explores the hilarity, confusion, and surprises of love through the evolving consciousness of Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Oliver meets the irreverent and unpredictable Anna (Mélanie Laurent) only months after his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has passed away. This new love floods Oliver with memories of his father who - following 44 years of marriage - came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energized, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life. The upheavals of Hal's new honesty, by turns funny and moving, brought father and son closer than they'd ever been able to be. Now Oliver endeavors to love Anna with all the bravery, humor, and hope that his father taught him.