The top 25 underappreciated films of 2011

Our voyage through history's underappreciated films arrives at the year 2011, and a great year for lesser-seen gems...

Even a cursory glance at the top 10 grossing films of 2011 reveals something strange: nine of the entries are sequels. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 brought the fantasy franchise to a close with a staggering $1.3bn haul. Transformers: Dark Of The Moon wasn’t too far behind with just over $1.1bn. On Stranger Tides continued the Pirates Of The Caribbean series’ wave of success, despite mixed reviews.

Elsewhere in the top 10, you’ll find another Twilight, a fourth Mission: Impossible, a second Kung Fu Panda, a fifth Fast, another Hangover, and further Cars. Standing alone on the list is The Smurfs, the adaptation of Peyo’s Belgian comic strip. In fact, 2011 saw the release of no fewer than 28 sequels – the most we’ve yet seen in any given year.

There are no sequels to be found in the list below, though. As ever, we’ve searched through the archives – and our own faulty memories – to dust off the true one-offs, the creatively brilliant or downright fun films that snuck by without much attention back in 2011. With our usual apologies for the movies that didn’t make the final 25, here’s our selection of underappreciated gems.

25. A Lonely Place To Die

It’s not every day you get to see Angel out of Home & Away climbing a Scottish mountain, but that’s exactly what we get in Julian Gilbey’s thriller, A Lonely Place To Die. Co-starring Sean Harris and Ed Speleers (Eragon, Downton Abbey), it’s fraught with suspense, as a group of mountaineers find a lost Eastern European girl in the mountains and end up on the wrong side of a group of kidnappers in the process.

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It’s a relatively low budget movie by Hollywood standards (it cost just $4m), but British director, co-writer and editor Julian Gilbey brings considerable energy and creativity to A Lonely Place To Die, and its thrills rival movies with far, far greater resources. We’re looking forward to seeing Gilbey’s next film, the action comedy Plastic, due out this year.

24. Winnie The Pooh

It seems a little strange to put a Disney animated feature on a list like this, yet the utterly charming Winnie The Pooh fell at the box office. Taking in just over $30m worldwide (not helped by opening opposite the last Harry Potter movie in the US), it’s a film targeted at the very young, but with some lovely animation, some terrific ideas (the integration of the letters of the story for a start), and a nice little twist to it too. Plus, the Backson song is a treat too (make sure you sit through the end credits as well). It’s not vintage Disney perhaps, but Winnie The Pooh is carefully crafted, and really quite charming.

23. Blitz

Featuring quite possibly the strangest screen pairing in buddy-cop thriller history – that’s Paddy Considine and Jason Statham – Blitz is a rare, British take on a quintessentially American genre. The Blitz of the title is a cop-murdering sociopath played by Aidan Gillen, who wears little plastic green shades, rides around topless on a BMX and terrorises the population of central London with his violent, gun-waving antics.

Statham plays unreconstructed lawman DS Brant, who teams up with Considine’s urbane, by-the-book Sgt Nash to catch the killer. The plot’s full of faintly quaint genre cliches, but the pacing’s taut and the acting’s top notch – there’s a weird, compelling chemistry between Statham and Considine that’s endlessly watchable.

Really, though, the film belongs to Aidan Gillen as the unhinged villain, and he turns in one of the most eccentric and downright unforgettable antagonist performances of 2011. (On a side note, our interview with Gillen from the time of Blitz’s release is a corker – especially his anecdote about trying to buy a hammer from a hardware store while dressed as a serial killer.)

22. The Beaver

Mental illness isn’t a subject often tackled head-on in Hollywood movies, and if it is, it’s seldom approached honestly or without a feel-good sheen. Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, written by Kyle Killen, has the premise of a mainstream comedy, but it’s really a compelling and poignant story about depression.

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Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, the chairman of a toy company on the decline. Depressed and unable to communicate, Black begins to address his family and friends through a glove puppet – the beaver of the title. Through this new, more outgoing alter-ego, Black begins to turn both his business and life around, yet finds the beaver’s strong personality is beginning to overwhelm his own.

Killen’s script cleverly subverts the standard trajectory of typical American comedies, and uses The Beaver‘s talking puppet premise as a means of exploring an oft-neglected, even taboo premise. It’s a superb film, with an honest, powerful performance from Gibson (perhaps his career best) and strong supporting work from Jennifer Lawrence, Anton Yelchin and Foster, who appears in front of the camera as Black’s wife.

21. Wild Bill

Actor Dexter Fletcher turned director and co-writer for this well-made yet little -seen drama. A mix of western and British kitchen sink drama, Wild Bill’s about an ex-convict (played by Charlie Creed-Miles) who’s determined to reacquaint himself with his two sons (one of them played by Will Poulter) while resisting the temptation to return to a life of crime.

The acting’s first rate, with the cast (which includes Andy Serkis and Sean Pertwee) all adding weight to Fletcher’s bleak account of life in London’s least affluent areas. Despite great reviews, Wild Bill didn’t get the attention it deserved in 2011. Three years on, it’s still as lovingly crafted and engrossing as it ever was.

20. God Bless America

Actor, writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait continued his uncompromising brand of filmmaking with God Bless America, a coal-black comedy that plays out like Bonnie & Clyde for the reality TV era. Joel Murray plays Frank, a middle-aged man who’s grown weary with his life and the state of American culture. He forges an unexpected alliance with a similarly disillusioned teenager, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), and together, they go on a murderous rampage across America, where victims include a political TV host and people who use mobile phones in cinemas.

God Bless America rails angrily against a modern cultural landscape, and while not everything in the film works – it’s a less even, accomplished film than Goldthwait’s Sleeping Dogs Lie or World’s Greatest Dad – it’s extremely effective (and funny) when it does hit the mark.

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19. Goon

This bone-crunching ice hockey drama’s high on violent impact, but equally brimming with warmth. That’s thanks in large part to Seann William Scott as Doug, the oafish hockey player whose lack of skill is offset by his ability to take a severe beating on the ice. Despite his middle-class parents’ disapproval, Doug heads to Canada and joins the Halifax Highlanders, where his unique playing strategy – basically, getting into fights on the ice – quickly makes him a local sporting hero.

Bolstered by some strong work from writers Jay Baruchel (who also appears in the film as Doug’s friend Pat) and Evan Goldberg, Scott manages to make his central character entirely likeable, despite his capacity for violence; we quickly realise he’s a gentle soul beneath it all, and his awkward romance with Eva (Alison Pill) is every bit as beguiling as the hockey games are blood-curdling.

Goon made an unremarkable $6.9m at the box office on release in 2011, yet the rumours of a sequel suggest that it’s deservedly found an audience since. If you haven’t seen it yet, Goon‘s well worth digging out – props, too, to Liev Schreiber and Eugene Levy for their supporting work.

18. Red State

Kevin Smith really went out on a limb with Red State, a risky film about a heavily-armed religious movement and the disproportionate reaction of government agents. Shifting with surprising ease between quasi horror (the entry point into the story sees a group of randy male teens ensnared by the cult), religious drama and tense siege movie, Smith introduces a group of characters that are absorbing to watch if not always necessarily likeable.

There’s Michael Parks, who’s stunning as the fire-and-brimstone teacher at the heart of the group, Kyle Gallner as one of the teenagers who’s captured with the assistance of Melissa Leo’s Sarah Cooper, and John Goodman as an ATF agent drawn into a violent stand-off. Not everyone will be sold on the wryly off-beat ending, but as a distinctive, brave movie that deals with a difficult subject with an even hand, it’s well worth seeing.

17. Bernie

A Richard Linklater movie that was released in 2011 for the first time, but only made it to the UK in 2013, Bernie is notable for one or two reasons. Firstly, it reunites Linklater with Jack Black (after School Of Rock), and as a result of that, Black gives his best screen performance in eons.

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Secondly, it’s one of Linklater’s better films too (and we say that as huge fans of the man). It tells the story of a mortician who becomes friends with a widow. Yet, with no spoilers here, the friendship that people see on the outside isn’t quite all it appears.

Delicately handled, and with a deft comic edge to it as well, Bernie gives Black just the kind of role that proves he’s a lot more than some of the parts he’s wasted his talents on. It’s a low key, underrated drama, and well worth seeking out.

16. Cedar Rapids

There’s a bit in Cedar Rapids where Kurtwood Smith is stark bollock naked. It seems fair to warn you of that (we actually looked back at the finest films of the mighty Kurtwood Smith here).

The film’s from director Miguel Arteta (who helmed the brilliant Chuck And Buck), with a screenplay from Wreck-It Ralph co-scribe Phil Johnston. And it centres on Ed Helms’ character Tim Lippe, as he heads off to represent his company at an annual insurance convention.

Helms is perfectly solid here too, but it’s the supporting cast, including the likes of Anne Heche, John C Reilly, Sigourney Weaver and the scene-dominating Smith that really enrich the film. Funny, and not hanging past its welcome, Cedar Rapids is a very likeable piece of cinema.

15. Panic Button

Stuart Hazeldine’s impressive Exam had one spin on the idea of locking a bunch of characters in a room for the duration of a film. Panic Button, a very low budget British film that’s a regular in Blu-ray special offer promotions (which is how we saw it) takes another.

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In this case, a clutch of apparently disparate characters are on board a flight, all seemingly the recipients of a prize trip to New York. You can guess from the outset that things aren’t quite as they appear, and the slow peeling back of what’s actually going on makes for a tense, tidy thriller. Its ending may be its weakest part, but even then, it’s a very effective movie you get for your limited pounds. At times, it’s clear that the budget isn’t a high one, but for the most part it’s hard not to be immersed in what’s going on.

14. Miss Bala

This suspense-filled thriller is a little like City Of God might have looked had it been shot by Alfonso Cuaron, in that it evokes the atmosphere of a violent Mexican city with an unblinking lens. Loosely based on real events, the film stars Stephanie Sigman as Laura, a young woman who dreams of winning a beauty pageant, but finds herself drawn into a bloody inter-gang war instead.

There’s little time for character subtlety as director Garardo Naranjo’s story lurches from one intense situation to another, but there’s no denying his strength as a creator of thrilling set-pieces – one fire fight, in which the leading lady is pinned down inside a truck, is jaw-dropping, and appears to have been shot in one unbroken take.

Having received a ripple of attention at one or two film festivals, Miss Bala undeservedly faded shortly after. Lean and involving, Miss Bala is well worth tracking down.

13. Meek’s Cutoff

There was a brief resurgence in the number of westerns coming out of America around the late 2000s and 2010s, including 3:10 To Yuma, The Assassination Of Jesse James and True Grit. Meek’s Cutoff is one of the most thoughtfully made and memorable, yet perhaps among the least well-known. Directed by Jelly Reichardt, it sees guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) shepherd a group of settlers through the wilds of 19th century Oregon. But gradually, it becomes clear that Meek isn’t quite the pathfinder he claimed, and as the group becomes lost and low on food and water, the tensions among them rise. Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Will Patton all put in superb performances, and Reichardt gives the grim story (based on real events) a real sense of grimy authenticity.

12. Corman’s World

Low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman will need little introduction for most movie geeks, but this feature-length documentary is a warm and entertaining account of the man and his movies. Everything from his Z-grade early efforts to his more recent Syfy Channel monster pictures is covered here, with greater emphasis placed on his 60s and 70s heyday, when he either directed or produced such films as The Little Shop Of Horrors, Masque Of The Red Death (one of the best of his Poe cycle), Death Race 3000 and Piranha.

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What’s most exciting about Corman’s World is the breadth of its contributors, which ranges from stars like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro to directors like Ron Howard and Joe Dante. The documentary paints a portrait not only of a Hollywood outsider responsible for several decades’ worth of films – some of them genuinely accomplished – but also a producer who launched the career of dozens of other directors, writers and actors. As filmmaking profiles go, Corman’s World is one of the best.

11. From Up On Poppy Hill

We’re including Goro Miyazaki’s animated film on this list not because it was a failure either critically or financially – in truth, it was neither – but because, in Studio Ghibli terms, From Up On Poppy Hill could easily slip under most people’s radars. Less fantastical than much of the Japanese studio’s earlier output – Spirited Away is probably still Ghibli’s biggest international success – it is instead a low-key drama about a young girl growing up in post-war Yokohama and finding love with a fellow student.

Superbly designed (though not quite as fluidly animated as you’d expect from the maestro himself, Hayao Miyazaki), From Up On Poppy Hill skilfully and charmingly evokes the mood of a unique time and place in Japanese history. After World War II, Yokohama was still a sleepy fishing village and port, but would soon be transformed beyond recognition as Japan modernised itself in the preceding years. More than this, From Up On Poppy Hill is a delicate, sometimes disarmingly funny coming-of-age drama, with cleanly-delineated characters and a bewitching level of detail.

10. Take This Waltz

Seth Rogen doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for seeking out more challenging, off-kilter roles and films. Observe And Report, for instance, wasn’t much of a movie, but it was a brave one to take on, given that his character was thuddingly unlikeable throughout.

Take This Waltz is a quieter piece though, from director Sarah Polley (who made the excellent 2013 documentary Stories We Tell). Rogen stars alongside Michelle Williams in the story of a married woman who finds herself falling for an artist who lives nearby. It’s a focused relationship drama you get here, interested more in nuances than bombastic moments. Polley does details very, very well too. Williams is the standout of the cast.

Sold with an element of it being a date night movie, Take This Waltz is a quieter and deeper than that, and not always comfortable viewing. It’s also very good.

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9. Snowtown

Justin Kurzel’s film is based on the true story of the Snowtown murders, which took place in Australia back in the 1990s. He’s unflinching in his approach too, often to the point of making the film near-impossible to watch (and Snowtown is a film that, for the most part, resists gory moments). But then this is a horrible story that the filmmakers make no attempt to glamourise. As such, it’s got as many people who don’t like as there are those willing to fight its corner.

If anything, the film feels more like a docudrama, and a chilling, distressing one, with a focus on a serial killer. Arguments continue to rage over whether the film should exist, but it’s a powerful piece of cinema.

8. Take Shelter

Director Jeff Nichols earned the plaudits last year – rightly – for Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey. Take Shelter is an equally strong achievement, in this case casting Michael Shannon as a man dealing with the question as to whether to shield his family away from an oncoming storm. The energies he puts into his storm shelter take away from those he invests in his relationships with his family, and Shannon’s portrayal on an obsessed man is one of two excellent performances on offer here.

The other comes from the brilliant Jessica Chastain (who also appeared in another underappreciated 2011 release, Texas Killing Fields). She’s excellent here, a crucial component in a slow moving, deliberate movie, that delivers exceptionally well on its set up.

7. Tomboy

Flying under the radar of many is Tomboy, a film that’s since had a Blu-ray release in the UK, but is still deserving of far more eyeballs on it. It’s about a 10-year old girl, who when she movies into a new neighbourhood is mistaken for a boy. This mistake is not corrected in time, and so she must like with her assumed identity. And the film then touches on relationships formed, set against a childhood background.

There’s an astonishing performance from Zoe Heran at the heart of the film, which comes from writer-director Celine Sciamma. And while on the surface Tomboy is a quiet film, it’s an intelligent and affecting one. Do seek it out.

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6. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Writer and director Sean Durkin brings an almost spectral quality to this drama about a young woman’s experiences of a cult, its charismatic leader and her attempts to escape its clutches. Elizabeth Olsen is magnificent as Martha, the young woman enticed into the fold by John Hawkes’ horrifyingly predatory Patrick.

The film’s structure, which cuts between past and present, underlines the sense of fear, revulsion and paranoia, and much of Martha Marcy May Marlene unfolds like a thriller – just about every scene hums with palpable tension. Intense and troubling, Durkin’s film is truly haunting, and an assured debut feature. Receiving only a limited release in 2011, Martha Marcy May Marlene nevertheless served as an effective calling card for the filmmaker’s talents; last year, Durkin directed the four-part British drama Southcliffe, which employed a fractured narrative to similarly devastating effect. We’re hoping to see more from Durkin very soon.

5. Tyrannosaur

This bleak drama isn’t for the faint of heart, but there’s no denying the raw power of Paddy Considine’s direction, nor the quality of acting from its leads. Olivia Colman plays Hannah, a woman scarred by the merciless abuse from her lowlife husband, James (a terrifying Eddie Marsan) and who ends up staying with the widowed, grizzled Joseph (Peter Mullan).

British cinema isn’t short on doses of social realism, but we’re not complaining when they’re served up as honestly as they are here. A brutal study of domestic violence and trauma, Tyrannosaur is all the more effective thanks to the restraint of its performances and direction; Mullan only has to sit in a chair and look ruefully into the middle distance to provoke a visceral response. The conclusion, by the same token, is quietly shocking. One of the best British dramas in recent years? Quite possibly.

4. Margaret

If all had gone to the original plan, then Margaret wouldn’t be on a list of 2011 movies at all. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who also made the excellent You Can Count On Me, originally shot Margaret in 2005, with the plan being for a release in 2007. Yet a prolonged battle for a suitable cut, combined with a budget shortage, meant that the film didn’t seen the light of day until 2011.

It was, to be fair, worth the wait, even if it wasn’t Lonergan’s preferred cut that finally got released (the disc release provided the longer version). Margaret has an impressive ensemble cast, but it centres on Anna Paquin’s character, a 17-year old who’s sure she’s played a part in a traffic accident. Lonergan though utilises many story threads to weave the film’s tale, not always successfully. But when it works, as it often does, Margaret really does become a brilliant piece of work. It’s best you don’t know too much about it going in, just that it seem scandalous that something so strong took so long to make it to the screen.

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3. Another Earth

Director Mike Cahill’s Another Earth is a subtle science fiction piece about regret and second chances. Britt Marling stars as Rhoda, an otherwise clever young woman whose moment of drunken foolishness ruins both her own life and that of musician John (William Mapother). Several years after their lives are changed forever, Rhoda emerges from prison a shadow of her former self – tentative, guilt-ridden, and with her career prospects long gone. By sheer coincidence, she crosses paths with John again, who’s still grieving over the loss of his wife and child. Then news breaks of the discovery of a distant planet, identical to our own. Determined to find out whether the version of herself on this other Earth avoided making the same mistakes she did, Rhoda enters a competition to visit the duplicate planet, while a cautious friendship grows between she and John.

On a low budget, Cahill directs with assurance, and he’s unafraid to simply observe his characters and let the story gently unfold. It helps that the two leads are magnificent; Marling acts with restraint and intelligence, while Mapother (Lost’s Ethan Rom) is magnificent – a coiled spring of sadness and repressed anger. Like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, Another Earth wears its sci-fi cloak lightly, but gently explores the possibilities of its doppleganger premise with maturity and grace.

2. The Guard

A hit and a half in Ireland, The Guard enjoyed some modest success in the UK too, but nowhere – nowhere – near as much as it deserved. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (the brother of In Bruges‘ writer-director Martin McDonagh), it follows Brendon Gleeson’s Irish law enforcement officer, who takes, it could be said, quite a laid back approach to his work.

That doesn’t gel well with Don Cheadle’s FBI officer, who needs help tracking down a smuggling ring that’s landed on Gleeson’s patch. Mind you, as good as Cheadle is here, you end up aching for the many moments that Gleeson gets to take centre stage. Often flat-out hilarious – his milkshake headache for a start – he delivers one of his very, very best performances here. The film itself leans more heavily towards comedy than anything else, but also firmly realises that character matters. As such, The Guard is brimming with it.

It’s a flat-out treat this one, and a confident movie debut from McDonagh J. His next collaboration with Gleeson, Calvary, is also supposed to be very special indeed…

1. Headhunters

The influx of Scandavian thrillers getting exposure on UK TV and in cinemas has offered rich pickings for those willing to seek them out. Headhunters, based on the book by Jo Nesbo, is one of the best.

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It’s spearheaded by Aksel Hennie, playing the headhunter of the film’s title, who is having relationship problems, and also elects to take on a job that might just be a little bit beyond him. It involves a painting, but crucially, a painting that’s owned by someone who’s really rather dangerous too.

What ensues is a taut thriller that stretches and pushes Hennie’s character. It leaves thing open as to whether you’re on his side or not too, but you can’t help rooting for him just a little as he gets himself in ever more dangerous predicaments. Even though, at heart, he’s really quite an unpleasant human being. But then the injection of dark comedy that runs through the film helps there, and director Morten Tydlum – who’s currently putting together the long in gestation The Imitation Game – balances his key ingredients exquisitely.

There’s inevitably a Hollywood remake to come, but it’s going to have to go some to match the boldness, the nerve and the skill of this take on Headhunters. It’s one of the best, and best acted, thrillers in years.

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