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

My Sundance ‘12 Wrap-Up

For the second year I attended the Sundance Film Festival, packing 12 films into 4 very full days (+1 after the fact). With hundreds of films playing I made a decision to stick mostly to the U.S. Dramatic category (since that’s where most of last year's breakouts came from (“Like Crazy,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Take Shelter”) with a few Premieres thrown in. All in all, I think I did pretty well, between my press pass and the @DorDotson method I was able to see everything I had the energy to show up for. I had a great and exhausting time, caught many of the fest’s most buzzed about films and got the chance to interview a few of the actors/filmmakers behind those efforts. Here, in descending order are my favorites from Sundance 2012.

1. Nobody Walks (dir: Ry Russo-Young) Peter (John Krasinski) and Julie (Rosemary DeWitt) are a Silverlake couple whose marriage is thrown into doubt by the arrival of 23 year old NY artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby). Ry Russo-Young directs this unexpectedly sensual, comic drama that takes a surprisingly mature view of relationships with a sharp script (co-written by Lena Dunham) and pulsing electronic score by Fall On Your Sword. Read My Full Review

2. Smashed (dir: James Ponsoldt) Heartbreaking and oddly hilarious portrait of alcoholism starring Mary-Elizabeth Winstead (in a career-changing performance) and Aaron Paul as a hard-partying married couple. It may sound like an afterschool special but it’s never preachy and perfectly played by an ensemble cast including Nick Offerman (yes, Ron Swanson), Megan Mullalley and Octavia Spencer. Read My Full Review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir: Benh Zietlin) The most acclaimed of the festival, the story features a 6 year old girl named Hushpuppy (an outstanding Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a post-apocalyptic wasteland called The Bathtub on the wrong side of the levee in New Orleans. Light on plotting but heavy on feeling, Benh Zeitlin’s impressive debut is the intersection between Terry Gilliam and Terry Malick. And the score made me cry. Read My Full Review

4. Simon Killer (dir: Antonio Campos) The latest from the Borderline films (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) crew was one of the most divisive films of the fest. Simon (Brady Corbet) is a college grad who escapes to Paris after a breakup with his longtime girlfriend and while there begins a relationship with a prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop). Featuring a great indie-dance soundtrack, it starts a little slow but blossoms into an engrossing (but dark) character study. Read My Full Review

5. Safety Not Guaranteed (dir: Colin Trevorrow) Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake M. Johnson star in this film treatment of the infamous classified ad“WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Hilarious and unexpectedly sweet, of all the films I saw at Sundance this year, this was the one with the most commercial potential. Read My Full Review

6. Save The Date (dir: Michael Mohan) Smarter-than-your-average rom-com starring an indie dream team of Lizzy Caplan (“Party Down”), Alison Brie (“Community”), Martin Starr (“Freaks & Geeks”) and Mark Webber (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”). Featuring strong performances by Caplan and Brie as sisters, Light without being completely insubstantial, this is what more romantic comedies should aspire to be. Read My Full Review

7. Bachelorette (dir: Leslye Headland) Produced by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher star as a trio of bridesmaids behaving badly during a coke and booze filled bachelorette party in this dark comedy. While the synopsis might read like “Bridesmaids” revisited, it’s a much darker film that even makes “The Hangover” trio look kinda like pussies. Read My Full Review

8. Liberal Arts (dir: Josh Radnor) Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) writes, directs and stars in his sophomore feature about a 35 year old college admissions counselor (Radnor) who takes a trip to visit his old alma mater only to fall for a 19 year old student (“Martha Marcy May Marlene” star Elizabeth Olsen). He attempts to keep their relationship platonic as he struggles with what it is to be a grown-up in this crowd pleasing comedy. Read My Full Review

9. Hello, I Must Be Going (dir: Todd Louiso) Amy Minsky (Melanie Lynskey) is recently divorced 35 year old who moves back in with her parents so she can put her life back together but finds herself reverting back into her teenaged self. Such a great vehicle for perennial supporting player Lynskey to get her role in the spotlight, she makes you want to overlook some of the films other flaws. Read My Full Review

10. For Ellen (dir: So Yong Kim) Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”) plays Joby, the struggling frontman of a hard rock band about to lose custody of his young daughter Ellen. Featuring finely tuned performances - including a supporting turn from an unrecognizable Jon Heder - and strangely funny moments, the film nonetheless fails to get into gear. Read My Full Review

11. Celeste & Jesse Forever (dir: Lee Toland Krieger) Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg star as Celeste and Jesse, inseparable former high school sweethearts now in their 30’s who have decided to get divorced. With a starry ensemble including Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts and Ari Graynor, this is a nonetheless disappointing effort from co-writer/star, (the extremely likable) Rashida Jones. Read My Full Review

12. Robot and Frank (dir: Jake Schreier) Set in the near future, Frank Langella stars as Frank a retired jewel thief living out his days in his upstate NY cottage whose son buys him a caretaker robot called simply, Robot (voiced by Peter Saarsgard). Initially resistant to this strange technology, Frank decides to stage a heist with Robot’s help. Liv Tyler and James Marsden co-star in this high concept, low key, heist/buddy film. Read My Full Review

13. The Comedy (dir: Rick Alverson) A supposed satire of aging hipsters starring Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. A series of loosely connected skits featuring Heidecker as a trust fund kid now nearing his 40’s seemingly improvising non sequiturs through each scene. Only intermittently funny, the film was supposed to be a skewering the Williamsburg overgrown hipsters it’s depicting. Read My Full Review

Sundance ‘12: Smashed review

Kate (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a happily married couple. They’re young, they like to have a good time and they’re blind to the fact that they are both alcoholics. Charlie is a freelance writer so his lifestyle enables him to drink with greater frequency without effecting his work but Kate is an elementary school teacher and after getting sick in front of her class one day, she realizes she may have a problem. After lying to her kids who suggested she might be pregnant - she tells them she is - Kate attempts to get sober even though her husband isn’t interested. She’s introduced to AA by Vice-Principal Dave Davies (“Parks and Recreation“‘s Nick Offerman), himself a recovering addict where she meets her sponsor Jenny (“The Help“‘s Octavia Spencer). This sounds like the setup for either a gritty Sundance drama or a wince-inducing afterschool special but somehow, “Smashed” is neither. It is heartbreaking (and perhaps sobering) but also surprisingly hilarious portrait of alcoholism.

Winstead gives a career changing performance as Kate, completely unglamorous but unmannered, just completely human. Though she’s had a chance to work with some great directors so far (Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino), I’m not sure anyone would have predicted she capable of work quite this strong had she not shown it here. Probably the finest performance I saw at the entire festival. Despite the casting of Megan Mullally (as Principal Barnes) and Offerman (who has a few unforgettable scenes) the levity never takes away from the seriousness of the situation, only tempers the feeling that you’re being taught any kind of lesson here. The score by Fruit Bats Eric D. Johnson and Vetiver’s Andy Cabic (which reminded me a bit of Devotchka’s “Little Miss Sunshine” score) goes a long way towards keeping things off kilter if not exactly lightening the mood. But credit is due to director/co-writer James Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke (herself a recovering alcoholic) who have crafted a film that despite treading well covered territory, still feels original.