If you're a discerning moviegoer who lives in a community with a specialty theater (or art house, as we used to call them), you may have seen some of the titles on my list. But there are some smaller, more offbeat pictures, that fly under the radar of even avid film buffs. Because they don't have major marketing budgets--or, in most cases, marquee stars--they have no presence on billboards, bus stops, magazine covers, or talk shows. Some are home-grown and some are foreign-made; many are serious but others take a lighter approach to the stories they present.
A number of them have won awards at film festivals and rated high on critics' year-end tallies. Many are already available on DVD or Movies on Demand. In any case, if you haven't seen them you've missed some of the best and the brightest 2011 had to offer. If I were to extend this list I'd include such documentaries as Buck, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Project Nim, and Exporting Raymond, and such imports as The Princess of Montpensier, Tyrannosaur, Life Above All, and The Trip. This is not to disparage such high-profile Oscar contenders as The Descendants and Hugo. I'm just trying to spread the good word about other worthwhile films.
Kristin Scott Thomas stars in this moving adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay's best-selling novel about an American journalist, living in Paris, who uncovers a startling story about a Jewish girl who survived the deportation of Jews from Paris during World War Two--and a possible connection that may link the two. Director and co-screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner wisely chooses understatement over melodrama.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/sarahs_key
OF GODS AND MEN
Although it is based on a real-life incident from the 1990s, Xavier Beauvois' remarkable film doesn't deal in facts as much as faith. It's the story of an order of Trappist monks who live in a rural village in Algeria, serving the local Muslim people, but neither the Army nor the Islamic terrorists who roam the countryside accept their vow of neutrality. I don't consider myself a highly spiritual person, but I was deeply moved by this unusual and heartfelt film.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/movie_review_of_gods_and_men
One of the most purely enjoyable films of the year stars Brendan Gleeson, who's familiar to a mass audience as Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series, but better known to film buffs for such memorable movies as The General and In Bruges. This quirky, often hilarious black comedy gives him a great showcase as an iconoclastic Irish cop who may or may not be willing to help American FBI agent Don Cheadle capture a high-level drug ring.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/the_guard
Denis Villeneuve's impassioned drama (which he adapted from a play by Wadji Mouawad) was a contender for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and it's easy to see why. It begins with a young man and woman--who are twins--learning that their father is still alive, which sends the woman on a journey of discovery into her late mother's tumultuous past in the Middle East. More a personal film than a political one...and it packs an emotional wallop.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/incendies
First-time director Vera Farmiga also stars in this deeply-felt story about a woman's lifelong quest for spiritual satisfaction. Based on an autobiographical novel by Carolyn S. Briggs, the film covers many years and numerous phases in its protagonist's journey, from immersion in religion to resentment over its failings. Farmiga is superb, and completely believable at every turn.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/higher_groundmovie_review
One of the year's most quietly provocative films comes from writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and stars Paul Giamatti as a struggling small-town lawyer and family man who bends his own code of ethics in order to get ahead just a little. He also takes in a teenage wrestler whose mother has all but abandoned him, in this timely comedy-drama costarring Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey, and Burt Young.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/movie_review_win_win
We've all seen our share of coming-of-age stories, but this one, about a self-aware 15-year-old Welsh boy, has a fresh approach and a likable cast of newcomers in the leading roles. Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, and Paddy Considine provide knowing comedic performances as the grownups. First-time feature director Richard Ayouade adapted Joe Dunthorne's novel.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/movie_review_submarine
John C. Reilly reaffirms his status as one of the most valuable, and reliable, character actors working today in this slow but rewarding micro-drama about a high-school outcast (newcomer Jacob Wysocki) who is befriended by his principal. Azazel Jacobs directed; the screenplay was adapted by Patrick De Witt from his short stories.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/movie_review_terri
CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH
Writer-director Chuan Lu takes on a huge and difficult topic, the rape of Nanking by Japanese invaders in 1937. Painting in black & white on a widescreen canvas, he personalizes the horrifying events by spotlighting a number of individuals including (controversially) a Japanese soldier. As a result, his film is wide-ranging and intimate at the same time; a tremendous piece of work.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/movie_review_city_of_life_and_death
TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL
This smart, exceptionally clever parody of splatter films by first-time writer-director Eli Craig features wonderful performances by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as old friends who set out to fix up a mountain cabin...but because they look like hillbillies, they become demon figures to a group of college kids who are in the woods for a weekend of fun. The comedy of errors escalates into a series of bloody murders--all part of the ingenious parody. This film played to cheers at Sundance and South by Southwest.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/the_little_movie_that_could
THE WOMEN ON THE 6th FLOOR
Philippe LeGuay's disarming film deals with an earlier generation's immigration issues--among other matters. The year is 1962, and stockbroker Fabrice Luchini has spent his whole life in the same Paris apartment house, which he inherited with his father. When his wife hires a young Spanish maid he becomes interested in her and the community of Spanish working women who occupy the floor above him. This bittersweet comedy-drama can be enjoyed as pure entertainment--but it also has substance.
Read my complete review at: http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/the_women_on_the_6th_floormovie_review