2011’s Most Underrated Films and Performances

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As the year winds to a close, you’ve seen plenty of “best of 2011” lists — and we’ve certainly contributed a few of our own to the mix. Wading through them can lead to a sense of fatigue; yes, we liked The Artist and Hugo and The Descendants and The Tree of Life just fine too, but it feels like we’re reading praise for all the same movies and performances, everywhere we look. So, late in the “best of” season, we wanted to take a moment to spotlight a few films and actors who, we feel, are getting overlooked in the year-end shuffle. Our picks are after the jump; yours (we hope) will join in the comments.

Beginners

Plenty of folks are talking Oscar for Christopher Plummer’s rich supporting turn as the out-at-75 dad in Mike Mills’ seriocomic drama, but (aside from a tie for Best Picture at the Gotham Awards) the movie itself isn’t getting much chatter — and that’s altogether inexplicable, since this is truly one of the year’s best films. Sweet, funny, romantic, and moving, it’s indie without being twee, emotional without being manipulative, and has one of the most smoothly involving stream-of-consciousness structures since Annie Hall.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Ides of March

There were few movies we were anticipating more than The Ides of March, and perhaps it wasn’t as much a disappointment as it was a failure to live up to our impossible expectations (GOSLING + CLOONEY + POLITICS = BEST MOVIE EVAR). It’s a perfectly serviceable death-of-idealism political thriller, entertaining if forgettable. What’s not forgettable, however, is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s terrific performance as campaign consultant Paul Zara. Sitting in a hotel bar shooting the shit with Gosling and Times reporter Marisa Tomei, Hoffman is doing the kind of tossed-off, lived-in acting that he does best — but when the time comes for his big, from-the-footlights monologue (a ruthless takedown of Gosling in a random hotel room), he nails it with force and authority. Between this and Moneyball, Mr. Hoffman had a very good year.

The Adjustment Bureau

Critical response to George Nolfi’s sci-fi drama was respectful but not spectacular, and box office was the same when it hit theaters back in the spring. But we haven’t been able to get this snazzy, smart, provocative, and challenging picture out of our brains. This story of a politician (Matt Damon) whose life is controlled by a team of “adjusters” (dark-suited men in fedoras) when his love for a dancer (Emily Blunt) threatens “the plan” (destiny?) as set forth by “the chairman” (God?) can be seen as fundamentally silly, but Nolfi’s tone is just right. He does so many things so well, all at the same time, that the film is a minor miracle — it asks the eternal questions of free will within religious dogma, creates a genuine rooting interest in a romantic coupling, and includes an electrifying chase sequence where you actually care about the outcome. The fact that all of this not only works, but works so well, is downright thrilling.

Contagion

Had Steven Soderbergh’s hyper-intelligent virus thriller come out in December instead of September, people take it more seriously than they are. Keep your War Horses and Extremely Louds, thank you very much; Contagion is one of the year’s best, a whip-smart ensemble picture as fast and ruthlessly efficient as its subject. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns refuse to sentimentalize, or over-sensationalize; it’s a quietly frightening movie, because it seems entirely plausible. And if Cliff Martinez’s dread-filled score doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, then there is no justice.

London Boulevard

William Monahan’s stylish and brutal British gangster film is currently sitting at 33% on the Tomatometer, which goes to show that, a fair amount of the time, critics simply don’t know shit. Most complained that Monahan’s script was all over the place, and it’s not that they’re wrong; in terms of plot, tone, and structure, the movie’s something of a mess, full of pieces at odds with each other that the writer/director is constantly struggling to snap together. He ultimately just slams them all into each other and barrels on through — and he does it with such sheer bravado and confidence that we end up going along with him. It doesn’t really hang together, not really. But when a picture is this sleek and pleasurable, why complain?

Laura Dern in Everything Must Go

Everything Must Go was one of our favorite little movies of the year, an understated comedy/drama based on a Raymond Carver story and featuring excellent performances by Will Ferrell, Christopher Jordan Wallace, and Rebecca Hall. Ferrell plays a functioning alcoholic who loses his job and his wife in the same day; somewhat impulsively, he looks up an old high school classmate (Laura Dern) and pays her a visit. Dern only has one scene, but it’s a beauty; she plays between the lines with real skill. Watch the way she takes him in when he shows up unannounced at her door, smiles a little, and quickly decides exactly how to handle the situation. This is an actor.

Trust

If there’s one sentence we didn’t expect to read this year, it was “David Schwimmer has made one of the year’s best films,” but there it was, in Roger Ebert’s four-star review, and we must concur. The story of a family ripped apart by their teenage daughter’s rape by a cyber-predator, Trust is a tough, uncompromising movie — hard to watch, offering no easy answers or pat resolutions. The subject matter could have (and has been) done at TV-movie level, and there are moments where it veers dangerously close to that. But the sensitivity and intelligence of the telling and (especially) the playing pulls it back. This is a fine, harrowing piece of work, with unforgettable performances by Clive Owen, Catherine Keener, Viola Davis, and an astonishing newcomer named Liana Liberato.

Submarine

Richard Ayoade’s comedy/drama was written off by most as Wes Anderson-lite, but that’s a very reductive idea; seldom has a film more astutely captured the experience of being a young man in something resembling love, and trying to negotiate those tricky waters for the first time. It looks at young romance with more clear-eyed complexity than we’re used to in films; Ayoade (who wrote the script, from Joe Dunthorne’s novel) doesn’t just remember what it is to feel the first flush of love; he also remembers the moment when you discover that someone you fancy has the capability of being just awful. And the moment when you realize that maybe that’s all an act. And the moment when you realize that you’re capable of being awful too. Submarine is so knowing and so evocative that it brings all of those moments back, in a flood of anxiety and regret and excitement. It’s a truly wonderful film.

Brendan Gleeson in The Guard

Venerable character actor Gleeson stars in John Michael McDonagh’s sadly underseen action/comedy as Sergeant Garry Boyle, a Galway, Ireland cop whose morals are firmly established in a pre-title sequence above. Boyle is genuinely compelling lead character: overflowing with vices, yet somehow also brave and honorable. Bogart could’ve played him — if he were an overweight Irishman. Gleeson gives every good line an extra snap, and though the faux-Morricone mock-heroic music in the opening credits plays as a joke, by the time it returns for the climax, he’s earned it. The Guard is dark little treat of a movie, and Gleeson is a wickedly enjoyable leading man.

The Future

People do not sit on the fence when it comes to Miranda July — you will find those who love her and those who hate her and very, very few people in between. The Future is not a film that will convert much of anyone. Her films stake out their claim in a territory of their own making; some of the events are wholly inexplicable, but we’re never uncertain of them, because July isn’t. She’s entirely earnest, as a filmmaker and a performer, and in the hands of some this’d be insufferable hipster claptrap (and some may think it is anyway). But there’s no ironic detachment, no condescending to hers or the other characters. The Future is a strange and occasionally difficult film, one so entirely off the map as to challenge our assumptions and reactions, which we may not entirely trust, during or after. But I think it’s brilliant. I’m pretty sure about that.