A year ago, we reflected on a raunchy, female-dominated, fairly diverse year in comedy and concluded that 2012 would likely bring a similarly strong crop of films. Coming out of 2011’s Bridesmaids-induced box office boost, 2012 promised eagerly awaited new works from Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Woody Allen; plenty of reboots and sequels (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Amazing Spider Man, MIB3, 21 Jump Street); an end to Twilight; and the birth of The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Among all the action, young adult, and animated films rolling out each week, comedy fans didn’t have quite as many premieres to look forward to; but though there may have been fewer high profile comedies on the charts, 2012 saw several unexpected highlights, a spike in independent releases, and a marked increase in the attention paid to expanding the comedy lineup at acclaimed festivals like Sundance, Cannes, and SXSW.
As is usually the case, most of the year’s big box office comedies – or, at least, those with the biggest advertising and production budgets – weren’t necessarily the most favorably reviewed. Kevin James’s Here Comes The Boom, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator catered to fans of each actor’s respective, mechanical styles; The Three Stooges, American Reunion, and MIB3 cashed in on nostalgia; and stacked casts helped make otherwise tepid offerings like The Watch, The Campaign, and Seven Psychopaths more palatable. Ted, on the other hand – Seth MacFarlane’s raunchy teddy bear bromance – garnered surprisingly positive reviews among critics and harder-to-please comedy fans alike, earning the coveted title of Highest Grossing Comedy of the Year. The third highest grossing film (after MIB3 in second place), 21 Jump Street, was another highlight: after its premiere at SXSW, the remake went on to earn a Critic’s Choice Award nom for Best Comedy. Also ranking in the top 100 most profitable films of the year? Teen movies with adult appeal, like glee club dramedy Pitch Perfect and high school party jam Project X. And as we head into the last days of 2012, one of the year’s most anticipated films is finally hitting screens: Judd Apatow’s semi-autobiographical semi-sequel This is 40, released last week to mixed reviews and featuring a supporting role from Albert Brooks that’s got Academy Award speculators going crazy.
Incidentally, there were a lot of amazing scripts written and produced by women this year: Rashida Jones’s Celeste and Jesse Forever, Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in New York, Lena Dunham’s Nobody Walks, Lauren Miller’s For A Good Time Call, Zoe Kazan’s Ruby Sparks, Kay Cannon’s Pitch Perfect. There were a lot of amazing scripts written and produced in general this year. Romantic comedies, for example, seemed to reach a new depth, with titles like Bachelorette , Lola Versus, andSaves the Date offering smart takes on typically fluffy tropes. While there were plenty of forgettable rom-coms released in 2012 (This Means War, Think Like a Man, LOL, What To Expect When You’re Expecting), there were also thoughtful and complex comedic films about dramatic relationships.
On the “young love” end of the spectrum, Celeste and Jesse Forever and Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel’s The Five Year Engagement were not-so-guilty pleasures (even if they didn’t have the best box office reception); David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World offered offbeat stories about embracing your inner weirdo; and midlife crisis comedies – David Wain’s Wanderlust, This is 40 – explored the shelf life of romance. Interestingly, Whit Stillman’s highly anticipated, almost inaccessibly intellectual satire, Damsels in Distress, was released with limited fanfare, as was Woody Allen’s ensemble offering To Rome With Love.
Also worth noting is the number of actors making the move from small to big screen. It was a great year for Community’s Alison Brie (Save the Date, The Five Year Engagement), 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer (A Thousand Words, The Campaign), Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat (Damsels in Distress, That’s What She Said, Ruby Sparks), Modern Family’s Ty Burrell (Goats, Butter), and New Girl’s Jake Johnson (21 Jump Street, Safety Not Guaranteed); even Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim mixed things up (Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, The Comedy):
Heidecker’s dramatic role in the deceptively titled The Comedy was one of many noteworthy focal shifts; another big one was The End of Love, a dark family drama written and directed by Mark Webber and co-starring Michael Cera and Jason Ritter. Chris Rock got in touch with his sensitive side in 2 Days in New York, while typically typecast Chris Pratt bulked up for his role in controversial drama Zero Dark Thirty (Mark Duplass makes an appearance, too). The most delightful comic actor in a dramatic role, though, was definitely Bill Murray’s version of FDR in the witty period piece Hyde Park on Hudson, a nice reminder of his brilliant versatility:
Though it wasn’t very surprising that cult hero Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, when Huffington Post sifted through Sundance’s packed lineup and dubbed this the “year of comedy,” we took notice. Some of the festival season’s most popular selections were strong, standout films like:
Casa de mi Padre
A tongue-in-cheek take on telenovela style, this Spanish-language film premiered at SXSW and stars Will Ferrell as a farmer facing off against a local drug lord, played by Gael Garcia Bernal.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass are perfectly matched in this only slightly sci-fi story of attempted time travel, which premiered at Sundance and was nominated for over a dozen critical awards; also starring Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jake Johnson, and Jeff Garlin.
Sleepwalk With Me
Standup Mike Birbiglia’s mostly autobiographical film – about the start of his comedy career, the relationship it ruined, and the sleep disorder that almost killed him – won an audience award at Sundance and was named one of the National Board of Review’s Top Ten Independent Films of the year.
Save the Date
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this emotional story of two sisters and their eternally patient partners features stellar performances from Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend, and Mark Webber.
God Bless America
Bobcat Goldthwait wrote and directed this boundary-pushing satire – a selection at festivals in Toronto, Calgary, Seattle, and Edinburgh – in which an ill middle-aged man takes a teenaged girl on a killing spree targeting stupid Americans.
Some of this year’s more under-the-radar festival favorites included:
Another takeaway from 2012? The growing, glaring divide between critical reception and box office success:
Some of the year’s most well-reviewed comedies were also its least profitable. But thanks to a huge crop of indie releases, plenty of festival exposure, and the wide reach of on-demand distributors (Casa de mi Padre, Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, 2 Days in New York, and Sleepwalk With Me all ranked in the top 200 films of 2012 available on Netflix Instant), this generally slow year still produced some really great comedies. And even better? 2013 is looking absolutely insane. Jim Rash and Nat Faxon – the writing team that took home an Academy Award for The Descendents – have cast Steve Carell and Toni Collette in their latest, The Way, Way Back; Aubrey Plaza stars in another high school comedy, The To Do List; John Francis Daley (of Freaks and Geeks fame) wrote the script for Steve Carell’s other new film, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; Melissa McCarthy stars in the action comedy Identity Thief with Jason Bateman; Tina Fey returns to the big screen with Paul Rudd in Admission; Roman Coppola’s latest, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swann III, teams Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray up with Charlie Sheen. There’s also Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel’s post-apocalyptic comedy This Is The End; Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s The World’s End; an Emily the Strange adaptation starring Chloe Moretz; Vince Vaughn’s The Internship; Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; a new feature from Diablo Cody; and, of course, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, Kick Ass 2, Grown Ups 2, and The Hangover 3.
Samantha Pitchel writes about and watches comedy in Austin and Los Angeles.