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.

Sound Of My Voice review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, this film about a creepy cult featured a breakout female performance and was swiftly picked up by Fox Searchlight. If you said “Martha Marcy May Marlene” you’re half right, which is likely why the studio decided to hold onto their similarly themed acquisition, “Sound Of My Voice” until this year. Not only was it one of two films about cults to play the fest last year but it was also one of two films starring and co-written by Brit Marling (along with “Another Earth”), but rest assured that they delay doesn’t have any bearing on the film’s quality. Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are a couple are in their twenties - he’s a substitute teacher, her job is unclear - who have begun to infiltrate a cult for a proposed documentary. The pair agreed they want to do something with their lives before they get too old to be motivated and Peter has decided this documentary is it.

The film opens with the pair willingly submitting themselves to a shower, change of clothes and blindfold to be transported to the basement of a nondescript suburban house. Upon entrance Peter greets a cult member with a complicated handshake that makes it unclear just how long they’ve been going there. Soon we meet Maggie (Brit Marling), the cult’s charismatic leader: a beautiful blonde woman who claims that she is from the future. Maggie apparently suffers from some kind of sickness that has her hooked up to an oxygen tank and prevents her from leaving the basement so her food is grown in the garage. She puts her subjects through rigorous trials of faith, though later says she doesn’t care if they believe or not. Peter is initially skeptical (as anyone in their right mind would be) but the line starts to blur between just how committed he’s making himself to the cult.

Peter and Lorna keep reiterating how dangerous this cult might be so while the film isn’t explicitly violent, it’s filled with tension. The acting is pretty solid across the board and it’s easy to see why Marling was a breakout star here. She’s not what you would expect from a cult leader but she is fascinating and that keeps you guessing. Directed and co-written by Zal Batmanglij, it’s an impressive debut especially considering its limited scope. Never boring, the film still suffers from a “but what does it all mean” ambiguity. The filmmaker does a good job for stringing you along for 90 minutes but when it’s over you’re not sure if you’ve really gotten much closer to understanding the appeal of the cult or exactly where Maggie comes from. There is a crucial difference in obscuring the truth strategically and doing so because you’re not sure how else to tell the story. But ambiguities notwithstanding, the film is a small scale success.