2012 was one full of small gems, and as such, I was inspired to add something new to my annual Best of the Year posts. With so many great blockbusters and big-name films stealing away your attention, you probably weren’t as eager to seek out independent films and films with smaller distribution.
None of the films on this list finished in the top 100 in terms of U.S. box office totals, which means you either have never heard of them or you at least heard of some of them but didn’t make it out to see them in theaters (or rent them in several cases). If you’ve seen a film on this list, I’d love to hear if you agree with it being among the year’s best unseen films.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
I’m going to start with the obvious … or what’s obvious to me, at least. If you don’t see any movie on this list, at least watch this incredibly unique gem from Wesleyan grad Benh Zeitlin. It imagines post-Katrina rural New Orleans as a fantasy world and follows a touching adventure of a young girl and her sick father, two unknown actors delivering absolute powerhouse performances. Everything about the film is different and inspired. (Read my review)
There’s a good chance you saw something about this movie and were intrigued by stars Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, but passed on it because it sounded like an ambiguous romance. Their chemistry is palpable in “Perfect Sense,” but what makes this a hidden gem of 2012 is how it tells a completely unique sci-fi epidemic story: everyone in the world is slowly losing their sense of smell, and eventually all their sense, each of which is preceded by some intense emotion or feeling. It’s interesting to watch how the world might adapt, and also how it would affect our personal relationships. It gets strange at times and the catharsis is weak, but it’s totally different and a great conversation-starter.
Take This Waltz
Seth Rogen in an indie? Yes. But his part doesn’t require all that much from him compared to Michelle Williams, who is probably a top five actress working today and delivers another stellar turn in Sarah Polley’s convention-defying film. Don’t go expecting a typical romantic drama about infidelity, but something much more grueling and poetic. If you like movies that really challenge the status quo in terms of romance and storytelling in general, I’d have to say, check out “Take This Waltz” on Netflix Instant right now.
We’re bombarded with so many Hollywood movies that our only exposure to good foreign films comes via the Academy Awards. Well, allow me to suggest “Headhunters,” a dark, violent and black humor thriller based on a book by Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø. Our main character is a headhunter who steals paintings on the side, but when he steals from a man with military training who’s an expert at GPS tracking, he goes on the run. If that doesn’t sell you, perhaps telling you the man chasing him is “Game of Thrones” star Nickolaj Coster-Waldau (that would be Jaime Lannister).
The Raid: Redemption
Your other non-dramatic foreign film option is “The Raid: Redemption.” From Indonesia but directed by a Brit, “The Raid” is the next big martial arts movie (featuring pencak silat) for those of you looking for the next “Ong Bak” or “Ip Man.” Video game-like in structure, “The Raid” is a bloody good time that’s as tense as it is gratuitous and even comical. There’s no question you have to appreciate martial arts to enjoy it, but you might even discover a newfound appreciation. (Read my review)
If you consider Canada foreign, then perhaps “Goon” makes three, as most of it takes place in hockey rinks all over the Great North. “Goon” doesn’t glorify violence, but it does have an appreciation for it, to say the least. Sean William-Scott plays a mild-mannered guy who can really beat the crap out of people. He gets a chance to do it professionally when a minor league hockey team signs him to be their enforcer, the guy who only goes on the ice to lay a hit on someone and pick a fight. “Goon” is one of the better sports movies in recent memory, namely because it doesn’t cave to formula. (Read my review)
There’s black comedy, and then there’s “Killer Joe.” Indies tend to have an off sense of humor, but “Killer Joe” is downright twisted. Matthew McConaughey had an incredible year in so many films, but in none of them is he so darn spooky that you can’t take your eyes off of him. The actor takes his patented charisma and churns it into something sinister for Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his own play. This is not a film for the faint to be sure in its portrayal of violence and sex, so only check it out if you don’t mind provoking shock tactics in your movie-watching experiences. (Read my review)
Speaking of Matthew McConaughey, the other unseen gem he appeared in this year was “Bernie.” Richard Linklater’s hilarious quasi-mockumentary tells the the real-life story of a funeral director (Jack Black) who develops a relationship with a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine). Black gives far and a way his most acclaim-worthy performance as the effeminate people-person and the way Linklater utilizes local Texans who knew the real Bernie in the film is, most appropriately, a hoot. (Read my review)
You might’ve seen a good deal of promotional materials for “Seven Psychopaths” that tried to be witty and portray the film as “Usual Suspects” type of movie and you figured, “meh, no rush to see that.” Well, it was misleading marketing, so make sure you catch it on your home viewing platform of choice, especially if you like really quirky stuff and black humor, because Martin McDonough is a brilliant writer. You may have seen his first big film, “In Bruges,” and if you liked that one you’re sure to eat “Psychopaths” up. The film takes a meta approach that I would best describe as Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” as if directed by Guy Ritchie. It’s hilarious, preoccupied with violence and amidst the chaos manages to be poignant. (Read my review).
Safety Not Guaranteed
Between Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) and Mark Duplass (“The League”), if you watch comedy on TV you like at least one of the three stars of “Safety Not Guaranteed,” but that should just be extra motivation to watch it. This is pure indie romantic comedy territory, but with a sci-fi twist as it follows a writer and two interns at a magazine that investigate a man who has published a personal ad looking for a partner for time travel. It’s got a terrific off-beat sense of humor and doesn’t short-change on some extremely relatable themes involving growing up. (Read my review).