With Avatar and Sherlock Holmes obliterating year-end box office records, it can be easy to forget the smaller, more unheralded releases of 2009. While some of these films may have garnered some positive pre-release buzz, and perhaps had blockbuster ambitions, they quickly (and unfortunately) dropped off the radar after their release, in theaters. Fortunately — by virtue of their eclectic, yet undeniable, charms — they are sure to inspire a devout following on DVD.

Sunshine Cleaning
For a movie that hits you over the head with death (mostly suicide), this film is remarkably subtle, even at times cheery. Much of this is due to Amy Adams (Enchanted), who turns in one of her most electrifying, jarring performances as a former popular high school cheerleader who is now a housemaid and crime-scene sanitizer (a hideous, though lucrative, business). But while the film treads in Friends With Money territory, it never comes close to becoming melodrama — instead it resonates in a sometimes painful, all too familiar way. The lesson: Cleaning up your life, though messy, is nearly always rewarding.

Funny People
How can a film by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill be overlooked? Well, perhaps it was just ignored. The two and-a half-hour run time, the boorishness of the main character (a popular stand-up comedian) and meandering plot could have scared general audiences away — especially since Sandler was simply playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself. Still, those who did watch Apatow’s most personal film (he cast his wife, Leslie Mann, and daughters in key roles) will find a fascinating buddy comedy that pairs an over-the-hill movie star with an aspiring stand-up comic. At the very least, watching Rogen and Sandler relentlessly tell dick jokes is a fun, sometimes cheap, way to enjoy a (n) (in)decent laugh.

Away We Go
How do you follow-up the dreary Oscar bait Revolutionary Road? For Sam Mendes, the answer was simple: direct a breezy, heartfelt (but not sentimental) road-tripping film with two actors that have near-effortless romantic chemistry. John Krasinski (The Office) and Maya Rudolph are a couple expecting their first child and roaming America for a new city to live in. Along the way, they visit friends and relatives (Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal) who offer many of their own unsolicited opinions and probing, hilarious perspectives. This is how road-trip films are meant to be — quickly paced and populated by memorable (but not cartoonish) cameos for a constantly satisfying journey.

The Informant!
Corporate espionage never seemed so zany as when Matt Damon gained weight to play the duplicitous snitch in this aptly titled (including the exclamation mark) film. Of course, while it was marketed as a damning, populist film exposing corporate corruption (á la Capitalism: A Love Story), it’s really more of a character study of a slightly stupid, trapped corporate hack. Think of Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can except that this character makes all the wrong decisions and never is never quite savvy enough to pull off any heist. Still, be sure to check out the film for some Fight Club-esque twists and a great self-loathing performance by Damon.

Adventureland
Greg Mottola followed up Superbad with a wistful, ’80s indie-romance that closely resembled his own post-college summer spent working at a tacky theme park. Eschewing much of the broad slapstick that made his breakout comedy a success, the director enlisted future starlet Kristen Stewart (Twilight) and dorky, amiable Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) to carry this light-hearted coming-of-age film. On these solid performances (and a soundtrack to rival the touchstone of the decade, Garden State) the film has already achieved cult status for rendering the bewilderment and simmering frustration of a summer spent working a dead-end job during a recession. It’s timely, touching and definitely the most deserving overlooked film of 2009.        

erik@vcreporter.com