And so begins my annual 'films of 2012' list round-up, where I try to do more than merely compile the '10 best and 10 worst' of the year. It's often just as much fun to talk about films somewhere in the middle, the underrated gems, the hidden gems, and the overrated would-be critical darlings. This time I'm starting it off with a list of ten very good or great films that you probably didn't see. This is often among my favorite lists to compile, as it allows me to shine a spotlight on films that perhaps didn't get the attention they deserved. These are not "underrated" per say. Most who did see them in fact enjoyed them, but the audience was too small in number for all of the films mentioned below. As always, the following are in alphabetical order. So, without further ado...
Joseph Kahn's genre-twisting and post-modern horror freak-out had the bad luck to open in limited release on the same weekend as the wide release of another somewhat more mainstream self-aware horror exercise. Of course, opening a youth-skewing genre film in limited release is pretty much box office death anyway, since those who might see it won't know to seek out an art-house and those who frequent art-houses aren't going to see a movie like Detention. This future cult classic is a completely whacked-out little film, basically playing the conventions of horror films against the hyper-connected constant-communication age that is today's youth. That's somewhat of a simplistic reading of this film, which blends 90s-era nostalgia with modern-day apathy in a way that comments on both, but I don't want to give away too much. Let's just say the film goes in completely unexpected places in its final half and it's a hell of a ride. Does it all work? Not entirely, but the effort and ambition deserves notice and I can't wait to see what the director of the slightly underrated Torque does next.
Oh the irony of Tim Burton... After years of fans (guilty as charged) saying that he may have lost a step over the years and/or gotten to the point where a Tim Burton film isn't all that worthwhile, Burton went back to his roots, cashing that Alice In Wonderland Disney capitol and making a feature-length, black & white, claymation remake of the 26-minute live-action short film that got him fired from Disney (and got him noticed by Paul Reubens) nearly 30 years ago. This is arguably his most personal film since at least Big Fish back in 2003 and no one showed up. Basically, America's children, mine included, thought it looked scary and wanted to see Hotel Transylvania instead. Is it on the level of Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, or even Sleepy Hollow? Nope, but it's more-than-good enough to forgive 'paycheck Alice In Wonderland' and 'private joke Dark Shadows' and actually look forward to what Burton has up his sleeves as his career turns what is probably the final corner (he is over 50 years old, people). It's also one of the most overtly coherent A-to-B-to-C stories he's ever told, with a powerful and timely pro-science message thrown in for good measure. Burton's not in a slump, he just still works enough to crank out a miss more often than perhaps he otherwise would if he were less prolific.
This future cult favorite not only contains one of Sean William Scott's best performances, but it also is one of the best films about hockey in recent history. It is a warm and empathetic portrait of a relatively decent man who is capable of great violence, who attempts to channel said strength into good use after he lucks onto a spot on a local minor league hockey team. This is a very R-rated comedy that slathers on vulgarity and profanity without actually becoming vulgar or mean. Eugene Levy plays a 'straight' version of his standard doofus dad, Kim Coates actually gets to play a well-dressed good guy, and Liev Schreiber shines as a wise veteran on an opposing team who becomes a rival/mentor of sorts. The film doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it is smart, sweet, and genuinely funny.
Doomed to a very limited release due to its mostly-deserved NC-17 rating, this William Friedkin gem is a particularly nasty bit of old-school southern gothic film noir. Matthew McConaughey got the lion's share of the credit for his deliciously psychopathic hitman, but everyone shines here, including Thomas Haden Church, Emile Hersh, and a discomfortingly sexy Juno Temple as a young girl who is perhaps more aware of her sexuality that her IQ implies. I think the final scene goes a bit too far in reveling in the humiliation of a certain character above the other equally guilty parties, but the first 3/4 of the film is a near flawless example of the sub-genre. If you don't mind the finale (and I'm in the minority in terms of disapproval), you're gonna love this bit of high-quality trash. Between this and Bug, I'm declaring that William Friedkin should only make movies adapted from Tracy Letts plays from now on.
Killing Them Softly (review):
Very few non-critics saw this one when it opened just under a month ago. The few that did apparently didn't like it too much. They're wrong, period. This Brad Pitt-starring gangster drama is a wonderfully literate and thoughtful look at organized criminals on all steps of the economic ladder. Andrew Dominik isn't subtle about using George V. Higgins's novel as a political metaphor, arguing that organized crime is the purest form of capitalism. But the actors carry the day, including a heartbreaking James Gandolfini, a darkly comic Richard Jenkins, a weirdly empathetic Scoot McNairy, and a so good he's taken for granted Pitt. What makes this film so special is the quality of the dialogue, crafting conversations so rich and authentic that yet, I'd compare not just to Pulp Fiction but to City Slickers.
Considering most of my problems with the film reside in the compromises required to get an ill-fitting PG-13 rating, and that most readers now renting this will likely pick up the 'unrated' version, I will merely concentrate on what works in this deliciously campy ode to those straight-to-VHS Die Hard rip-offs from the late 1990s. The special effects often look like they were created on a Gameboy, and I mean that as a compliment. The film is obscenely violent in its treatment of innocent bystanders, and the film contains the best alternate title of the year. Go ahead, imagine the film is actually called 'Space Jail' and see how much more fun it sounds. Best of all, Guy Pearce decided to stop trying to be a serious actor in 2012 and embrace his inner B-movie clown, delivering a wonderful action anti-hero turn here and a cartoonish super-villain out of a Dick Tracy comic strip in the otherwise lousy Lawless. His delicious old-school bad-ass 'Snow' (as a cop framed for murder but the only one who can rescue hostages taken aboard a space prison) may not have the pathos and layers of John McClane, but I'd argue he's actually cooler than Snake Plissken.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower:
Usually it can be a dangerous thing to let an author write the screenplay to and even direct a film version of his own novel. But this is no Maximum Overdrive, but rather among the very best 'young man comes of age in high school' movies in recent years. Stephen Chbosky's film doesn't break any new narrative ground, but everything just clicks and everything just works, including fantastic performances by both the kids (Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller) and the adults (Dylan McDermott and Paul Rudd). The film constantly flirts with cliche but just-as-constantly goes in a worthwhile and/or unique direction, ennobling an occasionally embarrassing sub-genre. Watson proves, as if there were any doubt, that she's going to be around forever. Lerman displays the chops that made him one of the more promising child actors of his generation (The Patriot, The Butterfly Effect, The Number 23, 3:10 to Yuma,etc.) before he got lost in the woods trying to position himself as the next Spider-Man (see, or don't Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Three Musketeers). The film earned rave reviews and debuted to around $57,000 per-screen back in September, but Summit Entertainment never expanded the damn thing, leaving it in limbo on under 800 screens for 13 weeks. As such, what could have been a mainstream hit along the lines of Pitch Perfect limped to $17 million.
The Raid: Redemption (review):
Like last year's Attack of the Block, this was a film that was endlessly discussed even as pretty much no one outside the blogosphere actually saw it. It is simply the best pure action picture of the year, but the key to its success is more than just the stunt-work and fight choreography. Gareth Evans' brutal and stripped-down action drama, concerning several SWAT officers who end up trapped in a high-rise as the targeted crime lord sends a proverbial army to hunt them down, plays more like a horror film than an action movie. Evans captures the sheer panic and fear that any one of us would feel at being trapped in such a scenario, where each fight scene or shoot-out isn't just about showing off skill but rather sheer survival. The heroes (and villains) aren't just fighting out of moral righteousness or to show off how good they are at ass-kicking, they are fighting because they are fully aware that the instant they stop, the instant they can't keep going, the instant they trip up, they die, end of story. The key to The Raid is that it is a top-notch action film with the sensibilities of a top-notch zombie flick. It's not just relentlessly exciting, it's actually terrifying too.
Another top-notch action entry that didn't find an audience, this is easily Jason Statham's best action vehicle yet (I'd argue The Bank Job is a caper picture, but just rent them both!). This surprisingly thoughtful and character-driven crime drama spends most of its first half exploring the dynamics of its two warring crime families, as well as the young girl caught in the middle by virtue of her borderline-autistic math skills. But when the action hits, it hits hard. Writer/director Boaz Yakin doesn't just showcasing high-quality shoot-outs and smack downs but sets these action staples not in abandoned flame factories or empty alleyways, but in crowded hotel lobbies and the like, which adds extra tension as we see innocent bystanders clearly in harm's way. It's a novel and authentic touch, just one that makes this a pretty terrific action drama. I know it's a cliche to say something like this, but if you liked Jack Reacher, then you'll love Safe.
Safety Not Guaranteed:
This was a year when most of the would-be arthouse gems eventually expanded to a wide enough level that they were able to be seen by those who wanted to see them. Alas, this wonderful time-travel dramedy struggled to stay noticed as The Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild got most of the press that didn't go to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Bernie. This is an unexpectedly powerful little gem that deserves to find its audience on the various home-viewing formats. Aubrey Plaza is superb and Jake Johnson has a wonderfully realistic romantic subplot, so good that he reused it on this season of The New Girl. Writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow are more concerned about the emotional implications of figurative and/or literal time-travel than the quantum mechanics, and it's the rare picture that unfolds in such a way that you have no idea how it's going to end. How it does end I won't reveal, but I will say I admired the sheer courage on display, as much as I admired the whole darn movie overall.
And that's it for now. Join us for the next bit of business, the 'Underrated films of 2012'.