The Ten Best Films You’ve Likely Never Heard of for 2011

When I started my version of an annual top-ten movie list a few years ago, I decided to focus on little-known indies, documentaries, and commercial features that have been overlooked, unfairly judged, or lost under the mountains of hype generated by Hollywood blockbusters. As much as I liked Hugo, Drive, or My Week With Marilyn this year, those films don’t need more attention; besides, who wants to read endless lists with the same movies included on them. My list is designed to bring attention to little-recognized titles in the hopes that viewers looking for challenging, engaging, or offbeat flicks will seek these out in art theaters or film festivals. Some are available on Netflix; others are not. According to IndieWire, Netflix has altered its policy regarding indies and lesser-known films, making them available only if a certain quota of queue requests is met. If any of these movies sound remotely interesting, consider including them in your queues as a show of support.

Just to be clear: I am not claiming that these are the ten best films from this year; nor are they my ten favorites, though a few of them would definitely make that list. This is a list of ten terrific movies from 2011 that most viewers should find compelling and that deserve a re-consideration.

HERZOG AND HIS CREW OF FOUR SHOOT 3-D IN A CAVE: EAT YOUR HEART OUT JIM CAMERON.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I can’t believe my favorite film on this list—and maybe of the year—is a 3-D movie, because I generally loathe 3-D. But, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog uses 3-D as a true cinematic technique to enhance and support his content. This unique documentary depicts the Paleolithic wall paintings in the Chauvet cave, located near the Pont d’Arc in southern France. Filled with beautiful paintings of horses, lions, rhinos, ibexes, and other animals, the cave was discovered in 1994 by three scientists. According to the film, the paintings are about 32,000 years old, making them the oldest known pictorial creations found in their original setting.

The Paleolithic cave artists were trying to create the illusion of a third dimension by using the uneven, curved, and jagged surfaces in the cave to make their paintings extend into the foreground or recede into the background. Sometimes, the chests and necks of horses or rhinos were configured around a formation jutting out from the wall of the cave, making it look like the animals were coming toward the viewers. Though thousands of years apart, both the original painters and Herzog were using the techniques at their disposal to give a two-dimensional art form the illusion of depth to enhance their subject matter, showcasing its strengths and maximizing its impact on the viewer. In Herzog’s hands, 3-D is a true artistic technique.

With a crew of four people, Herzog was allowed to shoot for only one hour per day for most of the production schedule. Because of the cave’s mountainous location, the cameras had to be stowed carefully in backpacks, hiked into the cave, and then assembled inside—sometimes in the dark. The lights, which were attached to the cameras, could not generate any heat. I couldn’t help compare Herzog’s remarkable film, made under the strictest limitations, to Avatar, James Cameron’s multi-million-dollar 3-D epic that is little more than a bloated kids’ movie.

Stake Land. Last year, The Road was declared a bleak, despairing metaphor for our contemporary society, but the vampire flick Stake Land is a better example of the same idea, except with less pretentious, turgid drama. In a post-apocalyptic future, social structures and institutions have disintegrated following an epidemic that has caused some humans to become vampires. With no social institutions to offer protection, survivors fend for themselves in a depopulated rural landscape. Teenager Martin takes up with a vampire killer named Mister after his family is murdered. They hope to get to an area called New Eden where the violent, mindless vampires are few and far between. Unlike the vampires in recent movies, the bloodsuckers in this film are not romanticized or sexualized: They know nothing about art, do not wax poetic about their feelings, and their skin does not sparkle. They are bloodthirsty fiends who rip into their victims with free abandon.

As society breaks down, so do the lines that separate the vampires from the humans as so-called religious leaders commit violent acts, law and order is in the hands of vigilantes, and a reliable economic infrastructure is nonexistent. America is being destroyed not by an external threat (such as terrorism) but from within. The film’s low budget and digital photography are used to advantage by director Jim Mickle, whose stripped-down aesthetic and muted color scheme create a haunted, eerie world that seems almost familiar.

EMOTIONAL TRUTH VIA THE SAUNA

Steam of Life. Directed by Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen, Steam of Life is about Finland’s cultural passion for the sauna, specifically for Finnish men. I saw this at the Palm Springs International Film Festival last winter, and the film has stayed with me over the months. The film consists of men of all ages, shapes, and sizes telling their life stories, revealing personal tragedies, or relating memorable experiences while in a sauna. Whether tearing up over the death of a parent or fondly remembering the discovery of a pet bear, each man tells the bulk of his story in the sauna while stark naked. The idea behind the film is that bearing your body can lead to bearing your soul—or at least your feelings. Nudity aside, all of the men’s stories speak to the highs and lows of ordinary lives, giving Steam of Life universal appeal.

THE MUSICAL OUTLAWS AND THEIR WEAPON OF CHOICE

Sound of Noise. This imaginative comedy follows a band of outlaw musicians who wreak havoc on an unsuspecting city. The sonic outlaws devise a plan to take their percussion-based, avant-garde music to the streets. The group’s opus is titled “Music for One City and Six Drummers.” The outlaws consist of the band’s leader—a spunky heroine named Sanna Persson—and five percussionists who invade four of the city’s civic or corporate institutions to make music with whatever tools, machines, or equipment they find.

An example of their musical activism is the first movement of their opus titled “Doctor, Doctor Gimme Gas (In My Ass).” They invade a hospital, kidnap a flabby patient with gastric issues, and then lock themselves in an operating room. There they proceed to play music using scalpels, the heart machine, ventilators, and other operating equipment as their instruments. They even “play” the patient, a well-known television personality whose problems with gas make him a good percussive instrument with just the right resonance as one of the drummers pounds on his rotund belly. There are four musical movements all together, each of them funny, awe-inspiring, and politically provocative. The group’s assaults on a hospital, bank, symphony hall, and power station amount to acts of anarchy against civic and corporate institutions that play a role in lulling the masses into lives filled with the unimaginative routines of the status quo.

The Company Men. Technically a 2010 film, because it was released for a week last December to qualify for the Academy Awards, The Company Men was given a general release in January 2011. Despite good reviews, the drama died quickly, probably because the timely subject matter was as depressing as it was relevant. The Company Men chronicles the effects of corporate downsizing on all levels of employees, from the young gun climbing the corporate ladder, played by Ben Affleck, to an executive partner who helped found the company, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Everyone has experienced the effects of this horrible economy, which is not improving despite the election-year ballyhoo; therefore, everyone can relate to the events and emotions in this film. However, I recommend it because it features multiple generations of Hollywood’s best male stars giving heart-wrenching performances, including Jones and Chris Cooper. Kevin Costner appears in one of his best roles in years as Affleck’s blue-collar brother-in-law, a contractor who gives work to so many unemployed friends that he can’t take a salary himself. Even Affleck rises to the occasion in this particular company of men.

Miss Representation. This documentary, directed by former actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a scathing indictment of the Hollywood film industry’s limited representations of women. Newsom presents an astonishing array of statistics that clearly demonstrates in a straightforward manner the impact of the media’s damaging depiction of females. For example, only 16% of protagonists in films are women. This includes animated features, where the primary occupation of the female protagonists is royalty, i.e. princesses. It also includes action films in which the women are dressed in S&M-style costumes while brandishing weapons—a fantasy archetype that one expert in the film dubbed “the fighting f**k toy” (like Angelina Jolie). The situation makes sense considering that only 7% of the directors in the Hollywood film industry are women, though females make up over half of the viewing audience. There were actually more women in charge of films during the silent era than there are now. A must-see for parents.

MARTHA GELLHORN

No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report World War II. Directed by Michele Midori Fillion, this glossy doc is about three women journalists who wanted to cover the front during World War II. At the time, women journalists were relegated to covering the four “F’s”—family, fashion, food, and furniture. When war broke out, newspaperwomen Ruth Cowan, Dickey Chapelle, and Martha Gellhorn were banned from the frontlines and prevented from reporting front page stories about generals and battlefield maneuvers. They were assigned to stories about nurses, female military personnel, and wounded soldiers waiting to go home. Though Cowan, Chapelle, and Gellhorn lamented these assignments and successfully maneuvered their way to the frontlines, their stories helped change the scope of wartime journalism into something more than the battlefield strategies of puffed-up generals. Martha Gellhorn’s story intrigued me the most because she was the third wife of Ernest Hemingway. A journalist who had seen action during the Spanish Civil War, she was eager to leave her home in Cuba with Hemingway to cover the war for Colliers Weekly. Hemingway was furious and used his fame to take the position at Colliers’ away from Gellhorn. That did not deter her from sneaking aboard a Red Cross ship to cover D-Day as a free-lancer without credentials. Nicole Kidman and Clive Owens are currently shooting Hemingway and Gellhorn, a film based on their volatile relationship. I wonder how the Colliers incident will be portrayed.

Night Catches Us. Haunting and romantic, the phrase “night catches us” stands in contrast to the colorless clichés and dull, literal titles of contemporary Hollywood releases. According to Tanya Hamilton, the young director of Night Catches Us, her title derives from an old Jamaican saying: Don’t let the night catch you. It’s a warning about the dangers of lingering too long, lest the night and its dangers catch up with you. As any night owl can tell you, it’s easy to get lost in the night, stumble down the wrong path, and become distracted by the darkness.

NEWCOMER ANTHONY MACKIE HAS THE CHARISMA AND TALENT OF A MOVIE STAR.

The title adds resonance to Hamilton’s portrait of a Philadelphia community that is falling apart during the mid-1970s. The talented Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker; Adjustment Bureau) stars as Marcus, a former Black Panther who returns to Philadelphia for his father’s funeral. Before he left home, fellow Panther Neil was killed in a police shootout, and many believe it was Marcus who told the cops where to find him. Marcus runs into Neil’s widow, Patricia, now a civil-rights lawyer who is raising her daughter alone. He also encounters Patricia’s cousin, Jimmy, who grew up idolizing the Panthers and can’t let go of the mystique. Jimmy seems to be headed for his own violent confrontation with the police. Night Catches Us reveals the ways in which ex-revolutionaries struggle to put their radical pasts in perspective and move on. Some, like Patricia, channel their energies into working for the system, seeking change from within; but for others, like Jimmy and Marcus… well, night is catching up to them.

The Interrupters. In 1994, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences denied director Steve Jones’s highly acclaimed Hoop Dreams a chance to compete for the Oscar for best documentary because of its outdate, overly complicated rules. The bad publicity caused the Academy to re-evaluate its procedures. This year, the Academy snubbed Jones’s new film The Interrupters,  one of the best reviewed documentaries of the year, for reasons known only to them. The Interrupters tells the stories of three “violence interrupters” who try to protect their Chicago neighborhoods from the kind of violence they once knew first hand. The film’s subjects work for an innovative organization called CeaseFire, which was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who believes that the spread of violence mimics the spread of infectious diseases. To “cure” the problem of violence, treatment should involve going after those most infected to stop the infection at its source. The Interrupters was produced through Chicago’s own Kartemquin Films, a film organization that has been devoted to making social documentaries since the 1960s.

WHO DOESN'T LOVE SAMURAI, COWBOYS, AND PIRATES?

13 Assassins. Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, who is best known among film enthusiasts for his sadistic, violent thrillers (Audition; Imprint; Ichi the Killer), directed this remake of a 1963 samurai film by Eichi Kudo. Like most samurai films, the storyline centers around loyalty, honor, and sacrifice from a warrior class that is long past its time. However, it’s the 30-minute battle that concludes the film that sets it apart from other samurai films. The samurai meet their enemies in a secluded mountain village, using the town’s narrow roads and dead end alleys to trap them. Though bloody and violent, the extensive sequence is masterfully edited, taking the viewer on a wild ride. The pace increases to sustain interest then slows down to give the viewer a breather.

20 Responses The Ten Best Films You’ve Likely Never Heard of for 2011
Posted By TAFoster : December 19, 2011 4:19 pm

re: Miss Representation, the lack of female directors is scandalous. When women direct films, they seem to do at least as well as men. Katherine Bigelow won an Oscar, but since then I’ve heard nothing about increased opportunities for women. Why? Does it all come down to the casting couch, that is, the director is key to casting actresses and therefore women directors constitute a ceding of (sexual) power? Or do (good) movies by or about women make less money than other good movies? I suspect it’s the former reason.
(I write westernsonfilm.blogspot.com)

Posted By TAFoster : December 19, 2011 4:19 pm

re: Miss Representation, the lack of female directors is scandalous. When women direct films, they seem to do at least as well as men. Katherine Bigelow won an Oscar, but since then I’ve heard nothing about increased opportunities for women. Why? Does it all come down to the casting couch, that is, the director is key to casting actresses and therefore women directors constitute a ceding of (sexual) power? Or do (good) movies by or about women make less money than other good movies? I suspect it’s the former reason.
(I write westernsonfilm.blogspot.com)

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 19, 2011 6:12 pm

I recently watched STAKELAND and enjoyed it more than I had anticipated. And 13 ASSASSINS and CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS have been sitting in my netflix queue for a few weeks. Hope to get a chance to see them soon. Had not heard of NO JOB FOR A WOMAN and that sounds really interesting so thanks for including it, Suzidoll!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 19, 2011 6:12 pm

I recently watched STAKELAND and enjoyed it more than I had anticipated. And 13 ASSASSINS and CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS have been sitting in my netflix queue for a few weeks. Hope to get a chance to see them soon. Had not heard of NO JOB FOR A WOMAN and that sounds really interesting so thanks for including it, Suzidoll!

Posted By swac : December 19, 2011 6:19 pm

A great list to be sure. I’ve only seen three of these 10 films, but I hope to catch up with more, especially Miss Representation, which addresses something that had been bothering me lately about actresses I like who seem to vanish from the screen with the passing of time. I wonder why I’m not seeing more films with Ellen Barkin, Helen Hunt, Kathleen Turner and dozens of other actresses I’ve enjoyed onscreen in the past. It seems as if they’re deliberately put out to pasture once they reach a certain age (or they just don’t see roles worth playing), and instead I have to contend with amateurish theatrics from more inexperienced performrs who wear out their welcome a lot more quickly (remember Julia Stiles? Erika Christensen? I never could tell them apart anyway. I’m sure Kristen Stewart will be joining them soon in limbo a title or two after the Twilight series wraps).

Posted By swac : December 19, 2011 6:19 pm

A great list to be sure. I’ve only seen three of these 10 films, but I hope to catch up with more, especially Miss Representation, which addresses something that had been bothering me lately about actresses I like who seem to vanish from the screen with the passing of time. I wonder why I’m not seeing more films with Ellen Barkin, Helen Hunt, Kathleen Turner and dozens of other actresses I’ve enjoyed onscreen in the past. It seems as if they’re deliberately put out to pasture once they reach a certain age (or they just don’t see roles worth playing), and instead I have to contend with amateurish theatrics from more inexperienced performrs who wear out their welcome a lot more quickly (remember Julia Stiles? Erika Christensen? I never could tell them apart anyway. I’m sure Kristen Stewart will be joining them soon in limbo a title or two after the Twilight series wraps).

Posted By Commander Adams : December 19, 2011 8:37 pm

Attack the Block and Another Earth are two of the best films I saw this year.

Posted By Commander Adams : December 19, 2011 8:37 pm

Attack the Block and Another Earth are two of the best films I saw this year.

Posted By suzidoll : December 20, 2011 12:50 pm

I am hoping Miss Representation gets more attention. I think it showed on Oprah’s network, but I don’t think that network has as high a profile as was originally anticipated.

Commander Adams: I will check out your two best. Am always looking for recommended movies.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Posted By suzidoll : December 20, 2011 12:50 pm

I am hoping Miss Representation gets more attention. I think it showed on Oprah’s network, but I don’t think that network has as high a profile as was originally anticipated.

Commander Adams: I will check out your two best. Am always looking for recommended movies.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 22, 2011 3:54 pm

I ‘ll admit I didn’t read the whole article, but the caption:”Who doesn’t love samurai, cowboys, or pirates?” I know that I do! The photo reminds of Akira Kurasawa films, which TCH had a festival of his films awhile back. Domo origato.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 22, 2011 3:54 pm

I ‘ll admit I didn’t read the whole article, but the caption:”Who doesn’t love samurai, cowboys, or pirates?” I know that I do! The photo reminds of Akira Kurasawa films, which TCH had a festival of his films awhile back. Domo origato.

Posted By william : December 23, 2011 2:14 am

I loved NIGHT CATCHES US!!! But,Anthony Mackie isn’t exactly a “newcomer”, although he is quite good. The film really succeeded in capturing the look and feel of the times, as well, which added a real authenticity to the story and the characters. It is definitely one of my top ten of the year.

Posted By william : December 23, 2011 2:14 am

I loved NIGHT CATCHES US!!! But,Anthony Mackie isn’t exactly a “newcomer”, although he is quite good. The film really succeeded in capturing the look and feel of the times, as well, which added a real authenticity to the story and the characters. It is definitely one of my top ten of the year.

Posted By michaelgloversmith : December 23, 2011 11:04 am

Lists of underseen/underappreciated films are the most valuable. From yours I’ve only seen 13 Assassins and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, both of which will be making my list of the Best Films of 2011.

You’ve really piqued my interest about the others, especially Miss Representation.

Posted By michaelgloversmith : December 23, 2011 11:04 am

Lists of underseen/underappreciated films are the most valuable. From yours I’ve only seen 13 Assassins and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, both of which will be making my list of the Best Films of 2011.

You’ve really piqued my interest about the others, especially Miss Representation.

Posted By debbe : December 24, 2011 1:01 am

i love your point of view.

Posted By debbe : December 24, 2011 1:01 am

i love your point of view.

Posted By tiellover70 : February 17, 2012 11:26 am

Reblogged this on Tiellover70's Blog.

Posted By tiellover70 : February 17, 2012 11:26 am

Reblogged this on Tiellover70's Blog.

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