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Weekend Roundtable: Underrated Movies of 2011

Last week, we had a Roundtable about 2011′s most overrated movies. This week, per reader request, we’re going to flip that around and look at some of last year’s most underrated or overlooked films.

When I sent out this week’s topic to the staff, I offered some definitions of what types of movies should qualify. These include:

  • The movie unjustly received negative reviews and word of mouth. You thought it was better than generally regarded.
  • The movie may have received mixed-to-positive reviews or word of mouth, but largely flew under the radar and has been ignored during awards season.
  • The movie barely got released at all. Practically no one’s even heard of it, and it has no awards buzz.

What we want to avoid is someone claiming, for example, that ‘Midnight in Paris’ or ‘The Artist’ are underrated because neither has made $200 million at the box office. Both films received stellar reviews and plenty of award recognition. This is not a “Best Film of the Year” Roundtable. We’re hoping to bring attention to movies that may have been overlooked, or defend movies that may have unfairly taken a beating.

With that said, let’s get on with it:

Aaron Peck

My most underrated movie of the year is an easy choice. ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close‘ faced a backlash from critics who called it manipulative. I don’t share that opinion. It seems that people have written the film off just because it deals with one of the most emotionally sensitive times in our country. I never thought that its emotional resonance was phony. Honestly, I got teary-eyed quite often. Call me a sucker if you want, but this is a well put together drama featuring an acting performance by newcomer Thomas Horn that was honestly the most overlooked performance of the year.

[Ed.: Please note that Aaron submitted this entry before the Oscar nominations, which included this film, were announced earlier in the week.]

Tom Landy

I’d say the icy reception ‘The Hangover: Part II‘ received this year was excessively harsh. I’m not sure what critics were expecting, but I was fully prepared for an awful, unfunny mess from what I heard about the movie, and it’s nowhere near as bad as some people have made it out to be. Sure, it’s not as strong as the first film, and any appearance by Ken Jeong is still way too much Ken Jeong, but frankly the sequel wasn’t bound to have much originality anyway since we’re talking about a plot that revolves around a “hangover.” Really, that shouldn’t have been surprising, with the word being in the title after all.

Mike Attebery

Look, I don’t think that ‘Tower Heist‘ is a great movie by any means, but it was certainly an entertaining pre-Thanksgiving release. I thought that it would do pretty well as we approached the holiday season and folks needed a post-shopping dose of entertainment. Instead, it just barely made its production budget back at the box office during its domestic release. Sure, Brett Ratner acted like a jackass as usual and stole the spotlight from his own movie, but really, I think most of us assume that the guy’s movies get made in spite of his involvement. He gets veteran cinematographers, editors and actors to keep things running smoothly so that he can blather on his cell phone and schedule Howard Stern appearances while the work unfolds around him. With Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck and Matthew Broderick turning in their best performances in ages, and Alan Alda and Tea Leoni sweetening the pot, I thought this would have been a popcorn-heist goldmine. Sadly, it was a middling “success” that no one talked about. Weird.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

It’s really not that hard to argue that John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is the most masterfully crafted genre film of the past thirty years, and… No, wait! I know you already see where I’m going with this, and I’m sure your jaw has dropped in disbelief that I’m defending the newly-released prequel/remake. I’m right there with you that the 2011 version of ‘The Thing‘ doesn’t hold a candle to the original, but realistically, what can? Carpenter made an unnerving paranoid thriller that still holds up brilliantly three full decades later.

This prequel is more of a straight-ahead creature flick and is kind of disposable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The craftsmanship behind it is frequently reminiscent of the 1982 film, so there’s no shaky-cam, no spastically frantic editing, no chugging guitars or thundering electronic drum beats in the score, and no pale-blue-horror-tint. The writing’s reasonably sharp, its characters rarely do dumb things just to keep the plot moving, and the bulk of the cast is really engaging. The prequel also gets that there’s only one Kurt Russell, so it goes in a completely different direction by casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead. She radiates a certain strength, confidence, and intelligence that works astonishingly well without leaning on the usual Final Girl clichés.

Yeah, yeah, the cut of ‘The Thing’ that eventually made its way into theaters is flawed. The elaborate animatronics on the set were painted over with bargain-basement CGI. It has even thinner characterization than the original, and gives a poor substitute for the iconic blood test sequence. The list goes on and on from there. I really don’t care, though. ‘The Thing’ is still one of my favorite genre releases from the Class of 2011, and I think it’s been unfairly dismissed.

Mrs. Z

My pick for most underrated film of 2011 is a bit controversial. First, it’s a Canadian film from 2010, but it didn’t play on American screens until 2011. Also, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film last year, so the movie definitely had its supporters. However, I’m sticking to my guns. Despite its critical acclaim, very few people saw or even heard of ‘Incendies‘.

The film centers on a brother and sister whose immigrant mother brought them to Canada from the Middle East when they were infants. When their mother suffers a stroke, they’re tasked with carrying out her final wishes to reunite their family. While searching for long lost family members, they uncover devastating secrets and ultimately discover the mother they never really knew. I knew very little about this film going into it, yet I was pretty quickly drawn in. The story is incredibly compelling (although be warned that it does cover some difficult subject matter), and I really wanted to know where this journey was leading. It’s a powerful film, one definitely worth checking out if you missed it.

M. Enois Duarte

There were a few movies last year that I thought were unfairly overlooked by larger audiences, such as ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘Margin Call’ (although the latter has some spotty moments). But for me, the one great film most unjustly ignored by everyone would have to be ‘Meek’s Cutoff‘. Inspired by a true incident on the famous Oregon Trail in 1845, Kelly Reichardt’s film is a wonderfully engaging and contemplative Western in the spirit of such classics as ‘The Searchers’. On the surface, we have an intense and slowly brooding tale about a band of settlers losing confidence in their frontier guide, Stephen Meek. Things only worsen when they kidnap a Cayuse Indian and tensions rise among the group. Writhing beneath this plot, however, is a power struggle because the women are not allowed to participate in deciding what’s best for everyone, which only adds more fuel to the problem. The movie also features an amazing performance by Michelle Williams. Whether you’re a fan of Westerns or not, this is really a film more people should check out.

Josh Zyber

I have a couple of picks for this category. The first is Joe Wright’s action thriller ‘Hanna‘, about a child assassin (Saoirse Ronan) raised since birth to be an instrument of vengeance for her father, a burned spy. When it opened back in April, the film received so-so reviews and underperformed at the box office. Word of mouth since then has also been decidedly mixed. While I won’t deny that the movie lacks originality in plotting or richly developed characters, I personally felt that it was a whole lot of fun. Sure, this is very much a case of style over substance, but it has really cool style and (unlike a certain other arty action movie that I was much less fond of), ‘Hanna’ never pretends to be deeper than it really is. It also doesn’t hurt that the film actually has some well-directed, inventive action in it, and isn’t bogged down with endless stretches of characters just standing around staring at one another. ‘Hanna’ got a bum rap.

My second choice is Steven Soderbergh’s viral pandemic thriller ‘Contagion‘. Again, this movie received mixed reviews, even among the staff here. Aaron really liked it, while Luke called it a mediocre knockoff of ‘Outbreak’ (which really makes me question whether he’s actually seen the laughably cheesy and lame ‘Outbreak’). One of the most persistent complaints about the film is that it has too many characters and storylines, and none of them is fleshed out enough. I can sort of see that, but it’s clear to me that Soderbergh really considers the virus itself to be the main character of the story. He traces its rapid progression around the world, and obsesses over the myriad ways it spreads through innocent contact. The director’s detached and clinical style may not appeal to all viewers, but I found it very appropriate for the story, and Soderbergh lets genuine human moments shine through when they’re most needed. The most frightening aspect of the film is just how plausible everything in it is. After watching it, I wanted to never leave the house, touch anything, or even breathe ever again!

Those were some of the movies we felt didn’t get a fair shake last year. Tell us about yours in the Comments.

35 comments

  1. EM

    Tucker & Dale vs. Evil—actually a 2010 film but not released in the US (outside festivals) until 2011—has gotten good reviews and word of mouth; but its brief and threadbare US theatrical release was criminally negligent. It’s a good, non-pandering horror-comedy that deserved a chance to build a theatergoing audience before being dumped to video.

    • HuskerGuy

      *slow clap* Perfect choice and well said. After watching this multiple times with tons of friends, none of us can figure out why this wasn’t given a proper chance.

      • Super-VHS

        “Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil” was certainly deserving of more than the small number of screens it was shown on, but so it goes with Magnet Releasing.

        Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban have a strict 3 tier release strategy for all of the films they have US distribution rights to. Anything released by Magnet/Magnolia Pictures gets a 1 night preview event on HDNet Movies –> limited theatrical run only shown in Landmark Theaters (a chain owned by Cuban and Wagner) for a few weeks –> DVD/Blu-ray approx. a month after that.

        • Ah yes. Great pick. I should’ve put that in as a #2 pick. ‘Tucker and Dale’ has probably been the most mistreated film in the last five years.

          • JM

            Did you see ‘Tucker & Dale vs Evil’ at Sundance when it first premiered?

            Why didn’t a real studio buy it?

            Eli Craig is teasing his next project as “Something similar, with the whole devil child genre. Where I subvert ‘The Exorcist.’ ‘The Omen’ meets ‘Meet the Parents.’ An unsuspecting guy gets married into a family, his stepson is the AntiChrist, and he has to try figure out what to do with that.”

          • EM

            Jane, that’s what I try to keep figuring out: why did the Tucker & Dale people settle for this distribution deal when it seems they could have easily gotten something much better?

            If it is because “real” studios didn’t want to touch it, why is that?!? I don’t pretend to be able to think like studio executives—which contributes to my sanity and happiness. But I thought horror was usually a good bet, and that the genre’s success usually rubs off onto horror-comedies. And my thinking is that the film’s relative cleverness would additionally appeal to people who usually aren’t sanguine about horror or horror-comedy. So, it seems like it wouldn’t be hard to fill theater seats for this movie. But studio execs can be quite allergic to intelligence (in more ways than one), and maybe they were afraid that the film’s intelligence was box-office poison. If so, I think they misjudged—the movie has intelligence but it’s not cerebral in the manner of an Ingmar Bergman pic, and I think it could have managed a fairly broad appeal.

            But maybe such analysis is irrelevant. For all I know, someone on the production is Todd Wagner’s nephew-in-law.

          • Yes. I did see ‘Tucker and Dale’ when it premiered at Sundance years ago. I have no idea what happened with that movie, it was funny AND marketable and no one said, “Hey we could easily make money off this.”

          • Josh Zyber
            Author

            For whatever reason, horror-comedies traditionally don’t do well in North America. Even the brilliant Shaun of the Dead underperformed here. Distributors are very wary of this genre.

            I liked Tucker and Dale, but it’s one of those movies where the trailer unfortunately gives away every single important plot point from beginning to end and almost all of the best jokes. I felt like I had already seen the movie by the time I actually sat down to watch it.

          • EM

            Hmm, I had assumed that ongoing franchises like Scream, Scary Movie, and The Twilight Saga suggested that horror-comedies aren’t particularly toxic. (OK, I was just kidding about that last one…) But maybe those are exceptions or I am otherwise misreading the situation.

            If Shaun of the Dead underperformed here, I would have guessed it was because it was (A) undermarketed (albeit not nearly so egregiously as Tucker & Dale), (B) British, and (C) nerdy in ways that even B doesn’t cover.

            To hell with distributors anyway!

  2. Random Commenter

    Source Code. It got great reviews and word of mouth when it was released, and personally I thought it was one of the year’s best, but it seems it has been forgotten by everyone already. No awards recognition at all.

    • While Source Code wasn’t as horrible as reviews would lead one to believe. You do have to admit that the ending was extremely telegraphed and very very unoriginal.

      I thought the premise was very cool though and the execution of most of the film definitely was not as bad as people made it out to be.

  3. JM

    (1) ‘Rubber’ – The story of an inanimate tire named Robert who possesses terrifying telepathic powers.

    (2) ‘El Bulli: Cooking In Progress’ – “A fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the most influential eatery in the world… A celebration of the human desire to turn food into art, even if the results are insane.” – MU

    (3) ‘Hobo With a Shotgun’ Box office: $700,000. RT rating: 67. Oscar noms: 0.

    (4) [Tie] ‘The Beaver’ and ‘Sex and Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy’

    (5) ’13 Assassins’ – With a RT rating of 95, it’s still underrated.

    (7) ‘Hodejegerne’ – Aksel Hennie is the new Christoph Waltz.

    (B) ‘Attack The Block’ – “Well, ‘ere, lads, you’ve discovered a species hitherto unknown to science, quite possibly non-terrestrial in origin, and you kicked its fuckin’ head in!”

    (9) ‘Transformers 3′ – My most watched blu-ray of the year.

    (10) ‘A Boy And His Samurai’ The best film of 2011 without US distribution.

      • JM

        I found the cinematography by Jimmy Wong particularly asian.

        A playwright friend imported the blu-ray, screened it at an afterparty, 200″ on a brick wall. It’s a good film to gangbang, served with alcohol. One half softcore, one half torture-porn.

        Have you interneted the uncensored trailer?

        The review at twitchfilm is pretty damn accurate.

        Under the right circumstances, I would give it two singing nipples up.

  4. Drew

    ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ is the most underrated film of 2011. It’s a film that’s more like ‘The Social Network’ than ‘Moneyball’ ever could ever dream of being, and yet ‘Moneyball’ was the film that was compared to ‘The Social Network’ and ended up being nominated for the best picture Oscar.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I really like ‘Moneyball’, but ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is much closer in tone and execution to ‘The Social Network’ than ‘Moneyball’ is. I don’t know that it’s as great of a film as ‘The Social Network’ but it’s very close, and both films push the medium into the next generation more than ‘Moneyball’ does.

    ‘TGWTDT’ represents a crucial step forward in the evolution of modern cinema. In the future, this is how blockbusters will be made. Well, at least modern filmmakers will hope and wish that they can make films like this.

    Every frame is so meticulous, and the extreme care and consideration shines through every second. The score is transcendent and haunting. Just thinking about it gives me chills. Mara’s performance was hands-down the best performance by an actress in a motion picture this year, and easily surpassed the one given by Rapace in the Swedish original.

    Truthfully, the only reason why ‘TGWTDT’ was overlooked, and not lavished with the praise it deserved is because almost everybody that saw it knew the plot all too well, and it came too soon after the inferior Swedish version.

    Fincher absolutely hit one out of the park with his adaptation of ‘TGWTDT’. It is he that should be nominated for best director this year, and not Mr. Papadopolous Hack.

    ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is an instant classic, and will be remembered as such after everyone has had the time for hindsight. Many other overrated films from 2011, ahem, ‘The Descendants’, ‘Extremely Melodramatic and Incredibly Manipulative’, ‘War Horse’, will be forgotten about, or looked back on for the middling films that they are.

    • JM

      ‘Dragon Tattoo’ was shot on Red Epic. Did it feel, to you, like digital 70mm?

      How much of the brilliance of the imagery is related to the new camera?

  5. Drew

    I have to add that I agree with everything Josh says about ‘Contagion’.

    I’m surprised that it was received as poorly as it was.

    The reviews that I read from Luke and critics that held it in similar esteem, made me feel that they didn’t actually put in the effort to notice what Soderbergh was actually trying to get the viewer to focus on.

    I get the feeling that they practically made up their minds before seeing it, that it was just going to be standard virus fare, and thus, the comparisons to ‘Outbreak’.

    ‘Contagion’ was much more driven by the virus itself, to the point that it became the central character of the film. ‘Outbreak’ and other virus films that I have seen, were more focused on the effect that the virus was having on the main characters, and hence, became sappy and melodramatic by telling us to care about these characters.

    • A friend and I watched Contagion the other night, and I was struck by just how much Soderberg seemed to be channeling Stanley Kubrick for that film. Are we the only ones that noticed this?

      I liked the film a lot, but I think many people (me included) were mislead by the marketing of the film to think we were going to see an apocalyptic vision of an earth ravaged by this contagion, and what we got was a much more realistic vision of how something like this would go down. It never veered into something so obviously fictional or rather the fictional characters never did anything so stupid that you knew that nobody would act like that.

      Soderberg should not only be recognized for making a great film but for the restraint he showed by not letting it devolve into something more “Outbreak” like, which is a film I really love.

      • Yeah. You can’t ever trust trailers anymore. The trailers for ‘Contagion’ and ‘The American’ are perfect examples of marketing departments believing that they won’t be able to sell tickets on the initial opening weekend without sexed-up, action-packed marketing behind movies that clearly aren’t that.

  6. Super-VHS

    “it’s clear to me that Soderbergh really considers the virus itself to be the main character of the story.”

    Whoa, Josh–mind blown. I didn’t even think of that when I watched “Contagion” a few weeks ago, but, in retrospect, that’s spot on!

  7. I agree on both “Tucker and Dale” and “Source Code.”

    My pick for most underrated was the hilarious and utterly black superhero comedy “Super” starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon. It received unfavorable comparisons to “Kick-Ass” and a rotten tomato rating of 46 percent, and it earned back only a little more of an eighth of its remarkably efficient $2.5 million budget.

    Critics accused it of an uneven tone, but the tragic and the comic are yoked in the darkest possible way. The plot point which Roger Ebert calls “not a joke” and absolutely spoils in his review is definitely a joke, just an incredibly bleak one.

    There are a couple of issues with the film, but nothing to dampen the overall effect of this wonderfully bizarre film.

    Also, I know it premiered at film festivals in 2010, but it got its theatrical release in 2011.

    • JM

      ‘Super’ was super! Rainn Wilson with wrench violence. Ellen Page with her sexy sidekick poses. But don’t forget Nathan Fillion as The Holy Avenger!

  8. besch64

    I’m pissed because Drew just said anything and everything I could ever want to say. I was looking forward to typing a mini-essay on why Dragon Tattoo was been criminally overlooked, but somebody else did it for me.

    Although Drew hesitates in making certain claims that I will not. Dragon Tattoo is a better film than The Social Network (as far as they can be compared). In fact, I believe Dragon Tattoo is probably one of the 10 or 15 best films released since the turn of the millennium.

    As Drew said, Dragon Tattoo is absolutely defining a new movement in contemporary mainstream cinema. After The Social Network and Dragon Tattoo, things will change. The industry will change in response to these films just like it changed in response to Pulp Fiction in the mid ’90s. We still feel that effect today. We will doubtless be feeling the effects from The Social Network and Dragon Tattoo over the next decade. It kind of startles me that people don’t seem to recognize this. Dragon Tattoo has been dismissed far too often and far too easily. Don’t.

    Dragon Tattoo is a frigid, distant, dark, wrathful, beautiful, digital piece of art cinema that essentially “rapes” the classic crime film genre and rebuilds it from the bottom, a foundation laid a year ago in The Social Network. The way Fincher has done this to a specific genre is certainly representative of the way that Dragon Tattoo will result in a shift in not any specific genre, but the art of creating big, meaningful wide-release films. We’re looking at something new, a new movement, and it started a year ago with The Social Network and it exploded into frenzied motion with Dragon Tattoo.

    I don’t want people to mistake me for one of the infamous online Fincher fanboys. I like Seven a lot, Zodiac is halfway between interesting and unremarkable, and you already know my feelings on his last two films. But Fight Club is a bore, Ben Button is… ok, and the rest of his movies are irrelevant at best. It wasn’t until this year and Dragon Tattoo that I came to see Fincher as a legitimate genius in the film industry.

    So that’s how I feel. Looks like I wrote a mini-essay anyway.

    And not to be a bummer, but Meek’s Cutoff is definitely not a 2011 film.

  9. Eric

    I would like to put a vote in for Win Win. Not only is it more deserving than several of the best picture nominees, Paul Giamatti should have been nominated for best actor for his amazing performance in that film.

  10. Eric

    I also found 50/50 to be incredibly moving and funny. I would have liked to see Joseph Gordon Levitt get some much deserved love from the academy.