2012 was such a good year that I'm having a hard time narrowing my top ten down to just ten. With that in mind I've decided to compile a list of films that were really, really good but were either ignored or wrongfully maligned. These are the movies that, in a few years, will be looked back at as the hidden gems of 2012.
A note: I didn't see enough films in 2012. By a wide margin. And some of the films I missed are probably quite good, but I didn't know it, and so they are also underrated. I reserve the right to add to this list come January.
Joseph Kahn's second feature (he directed the massively misunderstood Torque) is a whirlwind experience that embodies both the meth-paced madness of modern pop culture as well as the endlessly retro echoes that inform it. Hopping genre and tone at will, Detention is a movie that seemingly baffled and repulsed many critics and audiences. But Kjam doesn't care, because this isn't a film for them. Khan is plugged directly into how Generation ADHD processes visual information, and he's made a movie for them. He's taken editing to a level that makes the barrage of visual information presented by Edgar Wright or the Wachowskis seem stolid. Should cinema survive the coming storms of format and distribution, the next Martin Scorsese is going to name Joseph Khan as a seminal influence.
This is a really funny movie, so I don't understand why it disappeared so completely. The film has problems - the ending is a complete cop-out - but most of the runtime is actually hysterical. Was it the presence of Jennifer Aniston, an untouchable in hip culture, that killed the movie for the masses? It's the only reason I can think of, since everything else is so good. David Wain creates a warm and funny world in the hippie commune of Elysium, and Paul Rudd delivers his best performance of the year. Justin Theroux is transcendent as the horny hippie leader, and the secondary players are terrific in every frame. Honestly, if Wanderlust had stuck the landing I might have made room for it on my normal top ten. Perhaps now that Key & Peele is hitting the mainstream consciousness people will give this movie a chance just for Jordan Peele's delightfully dopey character.
How did this movie not make more of a splash? Like many of the films on this list, it has problems - the first thirty minutes feel ruthlessly cut to the bone - but when Goon gets going it's a hilarious, sweet and raunchy movie that scores big. Seann William Scott is a good-natured, polite boy whose one talent in life happens to be beating the shit out of people. He gets noticed and recruited to play professional hockey, where his specialty is bloody, tooth-shattering fights on the ice. All through it he's just a nice guy who wants nothing more than to be happy, help others and be an asset to his team. The film's structure is a little wonky, and his rivalry with OG fighter Liev Schreiber doesn't quite gel, but those are nitpicks when stacked against a movie as warm and funny as this one.
7. The Three Stooges
I've seen this movie on a number of 'Worst' lists this year, and I feel bad for the people who listed it. These people must have no love at all for the base, schticky, violent physical comedy of the original Three Stooges, because if they did they would understand why this movie works so very, very well. It's silly and broad and dumb as hell... just like the original Stooges shorts. The Farrelly Bros captured the spirit of Moe, Larry and Curly perfectly, and any fan of good old fashioned nyuck nyucks will recognize that. What's worse than this gut-bustingly hilarious, ideal for 12 year olds movie getting listed as a worst of the year? That Chris Diamantopoulos' truly staggering performance as Moe will be ignored and undervalued by just about everybody. I am not kidding when I say that his take on Moe is one of the best performances of the year, going beyond simple mimicking of Moe Howard and bringing a human center to this sociopathic machine of injury distribution. I hope somebody recognizes how talented this guy is, despite the unwarranted hate this movie received.
6. Sound of My Voice
Brit Marling came out of Sundance 2011 with two buzzed scifi movies. Both were picked up by Fox Searchlight, who made the decision to release Another Earth first, and to put all their effort into it. Unfortunately Another Earth is a terrible, terrible film, which undercut the eventual release of Sound of My Voice. The film came and went, largely ignored despite being one of the best science fiction movies in recent years. The film is smartly constructed, with a couple of journalists infiltrating a cult led by a woman claiming to be from the post-apocalyptic future. Marling, who co-wrote the film with director Zal Batmanglij, plays the cult leader as an ethereal mystery. The whole film is a mystery - is she really from the future? - and it's one that is left up to us to solve.
5. John Carter
I'm not going to pretend that John Carter is some sort of misunderstood masterpiece, but it in no way deserves the Ishtar status it has acquired (for that matter neither does Ishtar, but that's another list). Crippled by a poor casting choice in the lead and a script that needed more work, John Carter nevertheless is a movie of wonderful pulp spectacle, a film that speaks to our imaginations directly. Andrew Stanton comes so close to making a new Star Wars that the disappointment can be overwhelming, but taken on its own - and being forgiving of its faults - John Carter is a thrill and a joy. It also has some of the best CGI work of the year, work that comes from Stanton inherently understanding how to integrate the FX into his storytelling. On top of that Dejah Thoris is one of the best female characters in a mainstream movie this year - she's a scientist, a warrior and a princess, all in one. Give this one another chance.
This was a great year for animation, but the animated film that spoke to me the most was the one that had a tough time at the box office. Paranorman, the latest stop motion film from Laika, hit me right in my horror fan heart. The central message of forgiveness and understanding feels almost revolutionary, and the film's nods to horror movies are delightful, not heavy handed. It contains a subtle pro-gay message and the creature designs are great. I walked out of Paranorman high on cinema, so I don't quite understand why this film never fully connected. It's a pity.
I never reviewed Cosmopolis. I keep wrestling with it - I still am wrestling with - but it's that wrestling which convinces me the film is something more than a misstep from Cronenberg. The parts of the movie that work are so mesmerizing, so fascinating, so strange and so surreally interesting that they're worth engaging completely. The other parts... well, the movie goes off the rails, that's for sure. And even the parts that are on the rails can be quite polarizing, with an ugly, flat, green screened look alienating people immediately. The movie is not Cronenberg's best looking, and the script is very theatrical, and the performances are almost impossibly mannered - but those are all plusses. This is a weird film, a film that refuses to meet you anywhere near halfway. If you're willing to go all the way to Cosmopolis' side, you'll be rewarded.
2. Not Fade Away
I'm a little guilty of underrating this film as well. While it's open in limited release right now, I still haven't finished my review. I'm trying to get it up ASAP, but you know how this stuff goes. Not Fade Away is The Sopranos creator David Chase's feature directing debut, and it's a film that kind of sunk right at the festival level, and hasn't made a peep in the awards race. When it finally opens wide I'm sure it'll disappear just as quietly. I understand why - it's not an awards picture, really - but I think the film is being unfairly passed over. It's a minor movie, but it's a beautifully made minor movie. Like The Sopranos it's a slice of real life, a story so true feeling you must assume it's autobiographical. Chase's film, about a New Jersey rock group in the 60s that never goes anywhere, is a story that everybody can relate to because it's a story about ambitions that don't pan out and how they still mold us as people. It's also a wonderful ode to the personal power of rock music.
1. Anna Karenina
I don't know if this film is really underrated or if I just don't have room on my Top Ten for it. I think it is underrated, despite landing on a number of best of the year lists, because it seems to be a non-starter in the awards race, and its box office isn't what I would have hoped. Joe Wright's theatrical take on the classic Russian novel is thrilling and brave and beautiful, and it is willing to be labeled pretentious in an attempt to make it live for modern audiences. Once again he gets an incredible performance out of Keira Knightley - he's seemingly the only person able to pull that off - and the rest of his cast is wonderful. The film is gorgeous to look at, is rapturous to sit through and is wonderous as cinema. Yes, Wright is baroque in his stylings, but I love that about him; he's uninterested in being trapped in your stuffy definitions of realism. The only thing I wish is that he had taken one more step and made this a musical. As it is, Anna Karenina is the movie Baz Luhrmann would make if he didn't scoff at the idea of good taste.