My Favorite Overlooked Films of 2012

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Look at enough year-end lists and they start to run together a bit. Prestige pictures, big Fall releases, arthouse hits and a documentary or two for good measure. There are variations here and there but you can usually count on seeing some of the same films show up again and again. (Unfortunately, my list will probably not be much different!) But if you’ve seen most of the year’s big releases and are still looking for some of the year’s undiscovered gems — the ones that just missed my Top 10 list — this is a good place to start. Here are 10 of my favorite overlooked films of 2012.

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1. Sleepwalk With Me (Mike Birbiglia) Anyone familiar with comedian Mike Birbiglia would probably not be surprised to know that his directorial debut is incredibly funny. What might be surprising however, is what an accomplished filmmaker he is right out of the gate. Adapted from his one man show, Birbiglia (who also co-wrote the screenplay) expertly handles the emotional currents of his character’s relationship falling apart while still making one of the year’s funniest films. Available now on Netflix Instant.

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2. Wanderlust (David Wain) Speaking of comedies, the absolute funniest film I saw in 2012 was this Apatow-produced gem which features Paul Rudd & Jennifer Aniston as a Manhattan couple trying out life in a hippie commune, and snuck out quietly last February. Just watch this scene where Rudd tries to psych himself up about his newly acquired infidelity pass and you’ll see why the film is destined for cult status. Available now on Netflix Blu/DVD.

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3. Nobody Walks (Ry Russo-Young) If I had to describe this underseen indie to someone I would probably call it an “emotionally complex and sensual film.” Pull-quotes aside, this Lena Dunham co-written dramedy was actually my favorite film at Sundance ‘12 (and held up quite well on a second viewing months later). A sharp script, pulsing score by Fall On Your Sword and great cast elevate this far above so many other indies of its type. Available on Netflix Blu/DVD 1/22.

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4. Smashed (James Ponsoldt) It could’ve been a bad afterschool special: alcoholic schoolteacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) decides to get sober after she hits rock bottom. Instead it takes a well worn premise and mines it for untapped heartbreak and hilarity. Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman all co-star but its Winstead who gives what should’ve been a career changing performance. Available on Netflix Blu/DVD 3/12.

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5. Compliance (Craig Zobel) Despite no onscreen acts of violence, this is one of the most disturbing films I’ve seen in quite some time. Based on a series of real incidents involving someone calling up a fast food restaurant posing as a police officer, the film explores the disturbing lengths people will go to while following orders. If you’re looking for a film to push buttons, this one definitely does. Available on Netflix Blu/DVD 1/8.

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6. Lawless (John Hillcoat) Based on a true story of 3 bootlegging brothers in Depression-era Virginia, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce and Jason Clarke star in this prohibition-era western which has, if not the greatest cast of the year, certainly the most fun. (Apparently Shia LaBeouf is in this too.) Available now on Netflix Blu/DVD.

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7. Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow) Of all the films I saw at Sundance last year, this was the one I thought had the likeliest chance of being a “Little Miss Sunshine”-style hit (but unfortunately an underwhelming ad campaign buried that). Based on the infamous classified ad (above), this unexpectedly sweet comedy is a great vehicle for “Parks and Rec“‘s Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”) as reporters investigating the ad and Mark Duplass, as the weirdo who posted it. Available now on Netflix Blu/DVD.

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8. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) It’s rare that you see a film (especially one aimed at teens) with as much heart-on-a-sleeve sincerity as this one. The writer/director adapts his own novel which has the messiness of real life and gives the impression of being incredibly personal (even if its not) and really just nails what it feels like to be young. Available on Netflix Blu/DVD 2/12.

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9. Sound Of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij) A young couple go undercover to investigate a local cult which is gathering followers in an undisclosed basement in Los Angeles and whose leader claims to be from the future. Is it a crock? Or could she be telling the truth? I completely missed this small scale thriller when it played Sundance back in ‘11 which is a shame because it’s one that has really stayed with me. Available now on Netflix Blu/DVD.

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10. Chronicle (Josh Trank) January/February is typically a dumping ground for studios so I think like most people I was taken completely by surprise by this found-footage gem which imagines what it would really be like if a trio of teens got super powers. Thanks to the film allowing us to invest in the characters, the action sequences are more thrilling than films with 10x the budget. Available now on Netflix Blu/DVD.

2012 Films (So Far This Year)

July means that we’re officially halfway through the year. I’ve seen 52 films in the theatre which includes many at Sundance and SXSW of which most of this list is comprised. Like last year at this time, I still haven’t seen anything I would consider an “A” film yet but I have seen some very good films that will likely stick around for my end of year list. So here are the very best films I’ve seen this year so far (click for full reviews)…

  1. The Raid: Redemption
  2. Shut Up And Play The Hits
  3. Nobody Walks
  4. Smashed
  5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  6. Magic Mike
  7. Simon Killer
  8. Chronicle
  9. Cabin In The Woods
  10. Sleepwalk With Me 

Notable: The Avengers, Wanderlust, Compliance, Sound Of My Voice, Safety Not Guaranteed

Chronicle review

What if you had superpowers? That’s the question at the heart of “Chronicle,” a smart new take on the superhero origin story from newcomer Josh Trank . Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a high school senior and social outcast who’s got a rough time at home - his dad is an alcoholic, his mom is dying of cancer - who decides to start videotaping everything. His only real friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) a nice, brainy guy who he wasn’t close with until recently. Andrew doesn’t drink and seems to be drawing even more unwanted attention to himself by bringing his oversized video camera with him everywhere. But during a barn party, Andrew and Matt along with charismatic class president Steve (“Friday Night Lights” Michael B. Jordan) discover a mysterious hole outside and go in to investigate. When they emerge they’re possessed with telekinetic abilities including the ability to move objects with their mind and fly. Not all at once, though. They must work out their new found power like a muscle, stretching its limits without breaking it.

Told through creative use of “found footage,” a genre previously only exercised for its potential for jump scares (“Paranormal Activity,” etc.), the format services as an excellent device to bring us closer to our characters while skipping past the exposition. The tradeoff is occasionally strained credulity and a few times I was pulled out of the movie just to wonder how this footage could have been shot. But the film works and works well. The teens goofing around with their powers are thrilling because they seem 100% real. Yes, that’s exactly what they (or I) probably would do if gifted with these extraordinary abilities. The special effects are serviceable but the story makes up for any shortcomings. The script (by Max Landis, son of “Animal House” legend John Landis) is smart and darker than expected. When one of our heroes begins to turn towards the dark side, you realize the film is about the birth of a supervillain more than a story about heroes. And that makes it infinitely more interesting. Kudos to director Trank for pulling off a minor miracle: a reason to visit the multiplex in February.