It’s that time of year again, when the movies with the biggest advertising budgets and the pushiest publicists get a second infusion of attention from end-of-year best lists. While hundreds of films were released in 2011, the same 25 or so are going to dominate most of these lists, and many worthy films that failed to make a splash during their theatrical release will sadly continue to go unrecognized as 2011 draws to a close. Here are 10 movies, listed in no particular order, that deserve better. These movies aren’t perfect, but all of them are worth your time.
The Last Circus Alex de la Iglesia’s lush, rowdy killer clown comedy takes the typical European art-house film and drags it through a gallery of grotesques by its hair. Dateline: Franco-era Spain. Shy, sad clown (Carlos Areces) joins a circus and instantly falls for a beautiful, masochistic aerialist (Carolina Bang). Problem is, she’s the girlfriend/punching bag of the star clown (Antonio de la Torre). And so the two clowns battle it out for her heart, using giant sledgehammers, baling hooks, and machine guns. Part horror show, part historical demolition derby, this riveting atrocity exhibition is as visually inventive as a Terry Gilliam film but far more affecting than anything he’s put out in years. (Released in six theaters, now available on Netflix Watch Instantly.)
Viva Riva! The Democratic Republic of the Congo is underrepresented at the multiplex, and that’s too bad, judging by Viva Riva! Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s debut feature is a sexy crime thriller about one of the most dysfunctional countries in the world. Riva is a bad boy gas smuggler about to make a big score. Nora is a local crime lord’s girl who is all that and a bag of chips. No one’s ever told Riva “no,” so he figures Nora will ditch her cold-blooded sugar daddy if he can prove that he’s the baddest dude in Kinshasa. Viva Riva! gets a lot of mileage from setting a traditional crime flick in a country most of us couldn’t find on a map; it won best film, best director, best actress, best supporting actor, best cinematography, and best production design at the African Academy Awards. If that doesn’t convince you it’s worth checking out, how about this: In what other movie this year will you find yourself cheering on a nun as she totally chokes a dude out? (Released in five theaters, now available on Netflix Watch Instantly.)
Catechism Cataclysm Ever since The Office hit it big, all comedy has been humiliation comedy, but it took ultra-low-budget director Todd Rohal to push humiliation into a whole new universe of strange. Steve Little of Eastbound and Down plays a soft, gawky, man-child priest who oozes neediness and sweats shame. Banished from his parish and ordered to get his act together, he cons his sister’s high school boyfriend (Robert Longstreet, Pineapple Express) into going on a canoeing trip with him. The first two-thirds of the movie is an excruciating improvisational comedy that’ll make you squirm, but with the arrival of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and their slave, Jim, it slides into the surreal and becomes something that you have honestly never seen before. It’s only after you pick your jaw up off the floor that you realize that the movie is a pointed criticism of the current trend in independent movies away from epic flights of imagination and toward a grey little pixelated prison built of mumbled dialogue and banal romance. (Released simultaneously on VOD and in one theater, where it grossed $2,270. Now available on VOD.)
Little Big Soldier Just when you thought he would mug broadly through forgettable comedies like The Spy Next Door for the rest of his career, Jackie Chan turns in his most thrilling movie since 1994’s Drunken Master II. Chan plays a poor farmer, drafted into one of China’s endless second-century wars, who has a unique strategy for survival: When the trumpets sound, he falls down and plays dead. After thousands are killed in a massive battle, Chan discovers that the only other survivor is an enemy general—and if he can drag this wounded “death before dishonor” schmuck all the way back to his kingdom, he’ll get a cash reward that’ll enable him to leave the army and buy a small farm. Chan is famous for taking a simple setting—a video arcade, a one-room apartment—and turning it into a jungle gym for bravura physical invention. Here he takes a simple story and turns it into an excuse to unleash whip-smart comedy set pieces, lightning fast plot reversals, squirrely acrobatics, and left hook emotional punches. At 55, Chan can’t do the big stunts anymore, but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to risk his life to entertain me, as long as he keeps making movies this good. (Released on DVD and VOD only.)
Stake Land What with so many vampire movies being essays on “the tension between a young woman’s compulsion to mate and her partner’s terror that doing so will unleash demonic forces” (David Edelstein, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1), it’s a relief to find one that just does what it says on the box. Stake Land is, quite possibly, the greatest movie ever made about people running away from vampires. No pretentions to meaning, no subtext, no lip-biting romance—just all-out horror action. Set in a post-apocalyptic America entirely populated by fans of the Charlie Daniels Band and packed with way more action scenes than its small budget should have allowed, it stars Nick Damici as a vampire slayer who makes Clint Eastwood look girly. Broadway’s Michael Cerveris plays an evangelist who welcomes the vampires as heralds of the End Times; Top Gun’s Kelly McGillis plays a tough old nun (2011 was a great year for nuns!); and Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo plays a wide-eyed innocent adrift in a sea of blood. If you’ve ever wanted to see Team Edward get staked through the chest, then have its fangs pulled out with pliers, you’ve come to the right place. (Released in five theaters, it played for two weeks. Now available on DVD.)
A Lonely Place To Die If you’re scared of heights, don’t pick this one off your VOD menu. Full of helicopter shots of fragile people hanging by their fingernails from vertical rock faces, this thriller should have been retitled Vertigo II: Totally Off the Hook. Horror go-to girl Melissa George (Amityville Horror, 30 Days of Night) stars in this U.K. mountain-climbing thriller that sees a gang of climbers in the Scottish Highlands stumble across an imprisoned little girl. They decide to free her—and then the locals decide to reveal what they have hidden under their kilts: automatic weapons and bad attitudes. The movie’s meticulously constructed set pieces owe much to Hitchcock, filled as they are with sudden interruptions, truly shocking surprises, and plenty of directorial sleight-of-hand. It’s a thin little movie and the plot serves as little more than a framework for some intense cinematic craftsmanship, but enjoying these empty, adrenalized thrills doesn’t leave you hating yourself in the morning. That’s more than can be said for your last two-hour roll in the cinema sack with Michael Bay. (Released on VOD and DVD only.)
Kaboom These days, movies are obsessed with violence and scared of sex, despite the fact that most of us are far more likely to have sex than get shot. Kaboom single-handedly attempts to rectify that imbalance by throwing more nubile, naked flesh at the camera than should be legal. Gregg Araki continues to refuse to act his age, turning in a wonky, college comedy about cults, the apocalypse, fluid sexuality, and lesbian witches. Thomas Dekker is a gay boy who goes to college, exchanges razor-sharp quips with his BFF (Haley Bennett), and is obsessed with his hunky roommate, Thor. Oh, and he might also be the messiah. This movie is so frank about sex, so good-natured about hooking up, and so casual about nudity that you’ll find yourself tapping your toe to the rhythm of its nonstop bonking. The world could use more movies that are this sweet and this good-natured. (Released simultaneously in 11 theaters and on VOD, it’s the highest grossing movie on this list, with a whopping $116,814. Now available on DVD.)
The Weird World of the Blowfly Some documentaries are great movies; others are made great by their subjects. Blowfly falls into the latter camp. In the ’60s and ’70s, Clarence Reid was a successful soul songwriter and producer (he discovered KC and the Sunshine Band), but when he slipped on a sequined mask and cape he became Blowfly, the filthiest rapper you’ve never heard of. Now in his ’70s and desperate for money (having sold off the rights to his music for a song), he’s taking Blowfly back on tour—and not a lot of people care. Rarely has life on the road been depicted this realistically, and this depressingly, but holding it all together is Blowfly’s gloriously idiotic, gleefully pornographic songs and his drummer/manager, Tom Bowker, who patronizes him, provides for him, yells at him, and genuinely loves him. As Blowfly sings, “It’s a weird world/ Full of weird people,” and this is a portrait of one of them in all his uncensored glory. (Released in a handful of theaters it made about $3,000. Now available on DVD.)
Super You can keep your Green Hornet and your Green Lantern and all your other green meanies. The best superhero movie of 2011 was, hands down, Super. The idea of Rainn Wilson (The Office) and Ellen Page (Juno) starring in a superhero movie sounds like an invitation to a joyless hipster snarkfest, but this movie deconstructs the superhero movie while still managing to deliver its thrills. Wilson plays a schlub who becomes a homemade vigilante, the Crimson Bolt, when he hits rock bottom and God touches his brain. Page is his perky, possibly psychopathic sidekick, and Kevin Bacon and Michael Rooker are the bad guys with bad skin. One minute you’re laughing, one minute you’re crying, one minute you’re thinking, “WTF?” in this deeply weird and kind of powerful exploration of what being a hero actually means. (Released in 11 theaters, now available on DVD; read Nathan Heller’s review in Slate.)
Texas Killing Fields This movie was going to be directed by Danny Boyle (who claimed it was “so dark it would never get made”) before being helmed by Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of Michael Mann. Two cops, one a devout Christian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Watchmen) and one a young punk (Sam Worthington, Avatar), keep finding their daily routine in League City, Texas, interrupted by the endless string of corpses dumped in a nearby bayou. It’s as sprawling and clinical as a Michael Mann movie, but his daughter isn’t so much interested in following the whodunit plot as she is in painting a portrait of a part of America where caring for someone smaller than yourself is a sign of weakness and where empathy is considered mental illness. This isn’t a movie about law enforcement; it’s about those endless Texas fields and how they bring out the violence hiding in everyone’s heart. (Released on 10 screens, it did $45,000 at the box office. Now available on DVD and VOD.)
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