My Five-Year Class Reunion: A Facebook Horror Story

Sometimes, you remember that life affords you stories that simply must be documented, lest they be lost to the same history that forgets American Idol winners.

This is such a story.

You might even argue, it’s the Kelly Clarkson of stories.

It’s a story of a culture shaped by social networks, of an increasing interactive irrelevance in the information age.  And this story has it all!  Cocaine.  Sex offenders.  Your mom jokes.  Meet-me-at-the-playground-after-school fight solicitation.  Life!  Death!  And a shame so thick, you’d be wise to procure an oxygen mask before proceeding.

This is the story of my five-year high school class reunion.

Did I adequately tease the forthcoming disaster?

The Facebook Group:

I wouldn’t say my high school grad class was particularly closeknit or anything.  It was a pretty normal grad class, from a pretty normal high school.  Honestly, I can’t even remember how many kids were in my class.  500, maybe?  More?

From my perspective, I had my group of friends, and I was cool with that.  College just served to reinforce that idea.  I didn’t really feel connected to anyone beyond who I chose to continue hanging out with.  I always figured that’s just how things were supposed to work.  Lose high school friends.  Gain college friends.  Get a job.  Something along those lines.

In any case, by the time I’d graduated college and gone on to become a balloon pilot (that’s another story entirely), the concept of my high school grad class was largely a non-thought.  It’s not that I didn’t care about it, or anything like that.  It just wasn’t anything I’d ever really think about.  I mean, I guess I was vaguely aware that somewhere down the line, you probably get a letter from some tryhard nostalgia addict who tries to rope you into spending one night sizing up your salary to half-familiar faces in a gym advertising runner-up banners you were never around to raise, but beyond that, high school was just something that ended in 2006.

And then I got the Facebook group invite.

(I should note, I no longer have a Facebook account.  So I can’t dig up a lot of the ensuing catastrophe here in screenshot form.  But I do have a string of e-mails documenting the entire timeline, from an auto-email comment feature I apparently forgot to disable.  Thankfully.  Because all of the evidence has since been deleted)

I’m not going to use real names here, in the unlikely event this would serve to personally embarrass anyone, so we’ll just say that a guy named Aaron A. Aaronson set up a Facebook group to reunite the class of 2006, attempting to establish a 5-year class reunion.

Relatedbackstory, and my thoughts on the concept of a five-year class reunion.

In theory, the idea here was to establish a common time and place where interested folks could catch up, a few years removed from college.  We’ll come back to this part of the story later.

But where things got interesting wasn’t in the spirit of the group, but rather, in the proverbial comments section.

A lot of people decided to use this group to post their status quo: what they were doing now, what their life was like, whether they were married, had kids, etc.  And that went about as expected.  A bunch of people I vaguely remembered, if I remembered them at all, wrote about what they were doing.  They few people that did remember them responded.  There wasn’t much spectacular about it, other than the fact it was accomplishing over a social network what the intended reunion was supposed to accomplish in person (summarily, why the concept of setting up a high school reunion over Facebook is an utterly dreadful idea).

One such classmate — and one I knew well, at that — didn’t really care for everyone’s banal updates.  Quote said classmate, who we’ll call Tim Pinkman:

“the only posts have been glory success stories? are we reading the same endless stream of emails? i see far more fail than anything else. two kids at 22? salon school? thank god for everything? i live in bumfuck indiana? i dont think so. at least [name redacted] is doing well, thats really the only person i wanted to know about. if he didnt make it i would have lost hope for all 900 of us. good to know sprinting through the halls all those years with his entire locker on his back actually paid off. good for you bro.”

(And another aside there…last I heard, the redacted individual there is actually doing very well, like, joke’s on you well.)

Responses were mixed at best:

“what did you do again?”

And from a certain individual we’ll call Joe Heisenberg:

“I just don’t think anyone should judge anyone, in their past, present, and future… If you don’t approve of their lifestyle then don’t respond or take a second glance. Some people would be happy to have two beautiful children, or beings hairstylist. If that is what someones dreams, hopes, aspires to be then more power to them and I’m happy. I feel we are all still very young ad being alive and a functioning part of society is a success for us all. Just saying undone think anyone should be judging or downing anyone or anything people have done. Truthfully I feel like all of our class has taken life by the balls and made the most of it. Whether that’s parents, enlisted men and women, teachers, etc. I think for being five years out of high school everyone that I’ve heard so far, has learned something very valuable since graduation. Things you couldn’t learn in a classroom, or from a teacher but life experiences. Which is the best experience of all.”

A moving counterpoint, indeed, eliciting a fair amount of support, but also prompting this response from a certain Jake Fring:

“I gotta side with Tim on this one. He was never judging anyone in what he said. A lot of these statements on this page so far haven’t been all glory and success. I feel like a lot of people are being fake and over exaggerating (imagine that). I can’t speak for Pinkman, but what I think he’s saying is that when people were in high school, their plan wasn’t to have a kid(s). Joe: it’s great that you have a kid, but did you intentionally have a kid or did you pull out a little late? No one who has a kid is going to be like, “I had a kid and it sucks and is hard.”. It’s great that people have children and I’m sure that for the most part, most of them are good parents, but I can guarantee you that when they were walking across the stage at graduation they weren’t thinking about how many kids they were going to have in 5 years. He’s not judging, he’s saying what half the people in this group are thinking, but don’t have the balls to say. I bet at least half of the statements on this page are either completely bullshit or embellished. Life isn’t perfect for me right now. I’m on house arrest until February 26, I moved back into my mom’s house a couple months ago, but I’m at IUPUI and should be done with school soon. I miss a lot of people from high school, but I think this group is kind of dumb because the only people I give a shit about that went to high school with us I’m still in contact with. Can’t wait to see all the hate mail reactions to my two cents, but I honestly don’t give a fuck because a lot of you didn’t like me in high school and probably still don’t. This wasn’t meant to piss people off, but I always was good at getting under people’s skin 😉 “

And before you could even say “well, that elevated quickly…”

“Now see that didn’t upset me jake but you don’t know one thing about me… Sorry that for you being selfish your whole life has gotten you to where you are. I on the other hand planned to have my child. Sorry that’s such a crazy thought. I have been with my fiancé going on four years now. We made a conscious decision together, not oops! Pulled out to late. I feel immature people such as yourself that are self detained, snobs should for once not look at something from how you wish your life would have been or how everyone should have lived there’s. I’m sure there are a lot of people who look at what you’ve done as a failure, and in your own heart and mind you know whether that’s true or not. Me I don’t give a fuck about you nor have I ever, nor does anyone on here that I’ve heard from. I didn’t attack Tim or you, I simply stated a fact, or my opinion of the facts that no one should judge anyone. Plain and simple, now you are on here judging what I did. Sorry jake Fring I don’t live at home, I have my own house, own cars, live on my own means … Yes a have a year old but I planned to and wouldn’t change my life for nothing, when you walked across that stage did you say man in five years I’m going to have nothing to show for and still be a pompous asswhole. No, you had hopes, dreams, ambitions, so why didn’t they happen jake? Everything that’s happened in my life so far, I’ve planned or if surprises arises I handled them accordingly with god. My life wasn’t all roses, but I’ve learned a ton about respect, patience, loyalty, love, god, what are parents meant back then and still say to us now … What being a parent is, what the real world is like. So instead of attempting to use me as an example I think you should have put your own story up there instead of dogging someone elses. My life is perfect, I have a beautiful amazing daughter that I planned, a house, cars, dogs, cats, a fiancé… Etc. Need I go on… What you doing with your life, in and out of jail and now back home with mommy… Sounds like you have a ton to be judging about. Maybe not… I mean those 40 year old dudes that still live with their parents aren’t cool. I mean seriously.”

Jake didn’t take too kindly to this response:

“Is this the same Joe Heisenberg from high school that I’m thinking of? It can’t be… That loser wouldn’t try to clown me. That’s the kid who once asked me in ASL if I wanted to go do cocaine in the bathroom with him and [redacted]. Bro, you got in trouble for doing coke when you failed a drug test and then fuckin snitched on your so called friends and denied it. Anyone who’s doing is cocaine by 16 is on the fast track for success. I don’t know which is worse, being a coke head before high school is over or becoming a registered sex offender. Does your future wife know that you’re a pedophile. That’s right folks, a few years ago this kid who’s living the “American dream” had sex with an underage girl from Noblesville. Didn’t you go to jail for a little bit because of that? That I’m unsure of, but I’m sure your kid will look up to you when he/she realizes you’re a pedophile. In and out of jail? The reason I’m on house arrest is because I got a DUI, and the only reason I am on house arrest is because it was either that or jail. The only time I’ve been in jail was when I spent the nite in the drunk tank for partying a little too hard. I doubt I’m the only one in our class who has ever been in the infamous drunk tank. And yes Joe, you’re right, I live with mommy, but how many kids live with their parents while they’re going to school? Think of how many kids we went to school with who live on a college campus in a house or apartment that their parents pay for? I’ll have my degree soon big guy. Did you go to college? Oh yeah, you went to Ball State for a semester when I was there. I remember you got kicked out of the dorms one of the first weeks of school for smoking pot in your dorm room. What a scholar. Then you rented out the bottom floor of a house that YOUR PARENTS PAID FOR. If I recall, you dropped out of school at semester though, so don’t clown me for living with my mom while I’m earning a degree. You may live in a house now and own cars (which I highly doubt), but if I dropped out after one semester of college, I would probably have enough money saved up to pay for a place. You may think you have it good now, but I’ll take the college degree any day of the week. It’s awesome if you intended to have a child, but I doubt that’s true. It’s also awesome that you’re engaged, but what happened to the girls you used to date. [Redacted] and [Redacted] were both pretty tight, and I’m sure the young innocent girl you had sex with to earn your sex offender status had potential to become attractive WHEN SHE GOT OLD ENOUGH AND BECAME LEGAL, but what happened with this one? She looks like she fell from the ugly tree and hit every single branch on the way down. Good work buddy. So you may have it better than me right now, but wait until I have a degree and a real job before you ever try and embarrass me. When your kid gets older, you can sit he or she on your lap and tell them how you were a coke head in high school, or how you snitched on your friends, but make sure you tell him or her that you’re a pedophile so they can warn their friends before they sleep over at your house.”

At this point, a certain Carl Weathers attempts to step in and play peacemaker, attempting to find the “off” switch before “on” reached full Donkey Kong level:

“Jake and Joe both….really guys…is it really necessary to sit here and bash each other..I was friends with each of you at some point and we all have our struggles…just do your thing and be happy doing it. Set goals for yourself and don’t stop till you reach them. If you have a family good for you! Love and cherish them because at the end of the day they are the only ones that really give a fuck..finishing school? Good for you jake..I am happy for every single one of you that is trying to be successful at something…if you are sitting on your ass doing nothing its not too late to change….my life has been great so far and I regret nothing….just be thankful that you have made it to the age of 22…if you all remember there are a few from our class who are not with us anymore…be thankful for what you have and fuck everybody else!”

Our pal Jake agreed, and it looked like show over at this point.  Nothing to see here, folks:

“You guys are right… Lol sometimes when provoked I take things a little too far. I got nothing but love for most of you guys. Carl: you’re right.. We should be grateful to still be alive considering that not all of our class is still with us. [redacted], [redacted], [redacted] and whoever else we’ve lost: not a day goes by that not only myself, but many others in our class think about you guys. We miss you. I’m not sure if I’m going to be at the reunion, but I hope that everyone is doing well and is as happy with their choices in life as I am.”

But Joe was having none of it.  You know that part in Donkey Kong where the little flames start coming out of the barrels and climbing up ladders to hunt you down?  Yeah.  This was the Facebook conflict escalation stage of that:

“Dude do you hear yourself what kind of person at the age of twenty two or twenty three says shit like this… For real this was in high school…. jake does that include That you were one of, if not the biggest addict I know! Even your so called friends were telling me about you and your drunk ass!!! Im sorry you couldn’t learn enough from experiences such as [redacted]. Alcohol kills bro when you get behind a wheel. If you can’t call anyone and can’t stay where your at either call a cab or stay in your car. It isn’t worth it to risk it. I may not like you but I’d never wish death or injury or worse hurting someone else on anyone. All I’m going to say is, I dont want another one of our classmates gone bc of a mistake that could have been avoided. It’s been 7 years today that [redacted] died and I don’t go through one day without thinking about that night and wishing we hadn’t done things differently. So please don’t drink and drive. With that said. Jake you are an immature prick. All that stuff you just mentioned was in high school. Last time I checked that was way more than 5 years ago. I never got in any trouble when I got caught, nor did I snitch on anyone…You are right in high school I tried and did things I’m not proud of. I was reckless irresponsible, partied way too much, tried to make sense of everything with the wrong things(drugs) and didn’t take education as seriously as I wish I would have. How many others did the same including yourself. I really don’t know what all the animosity toward me is? In my first post I didn’t mention anything about you. All I said was dont judge anyone live your life be happy. But my post must have made such an impression you had to mention my life and child. You don’t have one and when you do you’ll understand what I’m about to say… You mention my child or my fiancé again on here or ever again I will come find you and you will regret anything you ever said about me or my family. So again jake think about what you are doing. You are mentioning my daughter and my future wife. Someone i’ve known my whole life, that I love and loves me… Something you know nothing about… so go on get that degree I’m not a hater… I don’t hate I congratulate, but before someone who is on legal house arrest comes at me talking shit, when I’m in no way in any trouble with the law and haven’t been since I got off probation over two years ago for the instance you’re talking about at the BSU dorms. Go fuck yourself! And as I said previously no one on here mentioned you, gave two fucks about you or wanted to hear your opinion. Not that mine matters much but I gave a general opinion, and you brought my one year old daughter, and my fiancé some one you’ve never met. You are by far the most immature person I’ve ever met. So if you’re not conpletely full of shit… Go online and research that statement of me being a registered sex offender… Which every state has to post those… And see if I’m up there… Again jake go fuck yourself. Youll prove me right and again therefore prove that You are jealous about what i Have and you wish you had…You live at home with your mommy and daddy… Which actually surprising a lot of people are out on there own… And have kids. And there own cars, and such but yet I do and jake can’t take that bc his mommy and daddy have spoiled him and paid for everything for him, even all his mistakes. You are talking shit about my family jake… I’m going to pray for you, That you someday realize what kind of horrible person you are, and ask god for help to change you And your heart. I’ll pray everyday for him to change my heart not to have any antagonistic thoughts against you… And to forgive me.”

(Let’s take a moment to explore the dichotomy between these two statements in particular — “You mention my child or my fiancé again on here or ever again I will come find you and you will regret anything you ever said about me or my family” and “I’ll pray everyday for him to change my heart not to have any antagonistic thoughts against you”)

So where does threat level orange do from there?

Threat level red.  I mean, who wants to wait a whole week for the next Gossip Girl, anyway?

“Hahahahahaha… I’m an addict? I would love to know who told you that I was an alchy, because none of my friends associate with you. The only friend of mine who used to associate with you is [redacted] and that was when me and him used your gay ass to get smoked out in high school then clowned you behind your back and trashed your hole in the wall crib you left at BSU. Lol everyone I’ve talked to since my post has called me laughing agreeing with me, but it’s whatever. I’ve even got props on my facebook page. I don’t know why… All I did was simply state facts about some douche bag. I’m spoiled? Yes probably a little bit, as many kids in Fishers are. However, you drove around a Z3 then a Beamer and got to take that wake boarding boat out on Geist all the time. I had a badass whip too, but let’s not act like you are not spoiled. I paid for my lawyer and house arrest as well. Why would a broke college student get his own place before they graduate?? I’ll wait until I get my degree and have a badass job and then get a real house. Clown me for living with my mom all you want, does not bother me one bit. You may not be a registered sex offender, I don’t know, I’m not going to waste my time looking it up, but I do know that that shit happened… You fucked that underage girl from Nobletucky. I heard from multiple people pedophile. Am I supposed to be scared of your threat towards me? Lol come find me Joe and I’ll say everything I’ve posted on here right to your face and then beat your ass like [redacted] did. The only reason you got shitty and created this whole mess is because I called you out for your kid being an accident. It’s great you have a son and honestly, you’re probably a decent dad, but let’s be real, you busted your nut early, or the rubber snapped, or you just plain didn’t pull out in time. Lol that’s all I was saying, but come find me Joe. Until February 26 I’ll either be home or at IUPUI. I would love to end the facebook talk and look you in the eye and clown you to your face, and then beat the shit out of you in front of anyone who wants to see it go down. I invite this whole group. Why are you even in this group? You aren’t friends with anyone you were “friends” with in high school. [redacted], [redacted], [redacted]…. I’m still close with all those dudes you used to consider your boys. They don’t know what the fuck you’re doing, nor do they care. Lol just quit digging yourself a deeper hole and do us both a favor and shut the fuck up and go chill with your kid. The invitation still stands though… Come find me like you said you were going to. You know where I live. I won’t regret it either, trust me. I would love nothing more than to beat the living shit out of your puny punk ass. Day or night, please, I’m begging you, come make me regret what I said. I’m glad you’ve settled for what you have and you are happy. Most people wouldn’t be in your situation, but at least you’ve convinced yourself that your shitty little world is a good life. Later loser, don’t forget to come find me… I’ll be waiting to see if you keep your promise you one semester burnout pedophile.”

(One Semester Burnout Pedophile is a German metal band waiting to happen, by the way.)

At this point, NATO forces start to arrive:

“this crap is ridiculous – – jake and joe you both took things way too personally – -”

“boy did this shenanigan get out of hand”

“Shit just got real.”

“…this is AWESOME.”

“this facebook group is the most entertaining shit out. bravo everyone. maybe i WILL come to the 5 year reunion. keep up the awesome work”

Unfortunately for the peanut gallery, this argument was quickly deleted, and both members booted from the group.  Because you’re not allowed to come to a five-year class reunion if you come to murder, not mingle, although it could be argued being murdered at a class reunion would be preferable to being mingled at a class reunion.

But that didn’t mean the fun was over.  No.  It was just getting started!

Let’s refer back to good ol’ Tim’s note that kicked this all off:

“the only posts have been glory success stories? are we reading the same endless stream of emails? i see far more fail than anything else. two kids at 22? salon school? thank god for everything? i live in bumfuck indiana? i dont think so. at least [name redacted] is doing well, thats really the only person i wanted to know about. if he didnt make it i would have lost hope for all 900 of us. good to know sprinting through the halls all those years with his entire locker on his back actually paid off. good for you bro.”

To which an apparent hair-stylist replied:

“… I’m just stating this out there, but isn’t Tim’s mom a hair stylist?”

She may as well have walked the softball down center plate:

“I’m just gonna throw this out there, but weren’t you the ONLY ugly cheerleader?”

AND THERE IT IS, FOLKS!  High school, in 14 words.  The rare moment where one question, one Facebook post, summarizes four years of your life.  Because if we’d learned anything about ourselves in the five years since we’d last called each other classmates, it was probably that we weren’t much different now than we were then.

Jerks were jerks.  Jocks were jocks.  Nerds were nerds.  Dumb kids were still dumb.  Smart kids knew better than to comment in the first place.  And in the end, it was never more apparent that adulthood isn’t necessarily some status simply granted by the passage of time, and time has an amusing way of amplifying our high school selves, as much as we’d like to claim we’re so different now, so grown up.  It’s really just a new haircut and plus-or-minus 40 pounds that differentiates us.

A new haircut…or a rap career.

If I can step down off my soap box, though, and get back to the story, it was around this point — with the flame war on full display, and no one’s life choices safe — that the group administrator decided to start deleting posts and banning even more people from the group.

What started as an online attempt to catalyze a high school reunion ended up something like the digital equivalent of a DMX concert.

It was glorious.

Fremdschämen:

You might think that was it.  Story’s over.  On to the next social media trainwreck.

But you would be wrong.

Remember, the initial goal of this Facebook group was to set up a five-year class reunion.  Now, again, I’ve voiced my thoughts on the idea previously.  To each his own, but nobody’s really changed enough in five years to make class reunions interesting, and the very concept of Facebook makes high school reunions largely irrelevant these days anyway.

Seriously, high school reunions used to exist so people could catch up, see what their former friends were doing, how they measured to past peers.  It was basically a free self-esteem boost to know that the token class jerk was stuck in a dead-end job and twice-divorced, or something to that effect.

But in the Facebook age, we already know these things.  Again, I deleted my Facebook a while back, but had I not, I would know exactly what former classmates were up to…or I could know if I wanted to, in any case.  Catching up is a button click anymore.  Face-to-face reunions are doomed from the get-go.

They’re especially doomed when you set them up via Facebook, the very platform which compromises your plan altogether.

Now, a little background information about this whole initiative.  The guy setting it up, the one I referred to as Aaron A. Aaranson earlier?  I’d never heard of him before.  Ever.  Normally, I’m one of those guys who has a pretty good memory, can recall a lot of things about even elementary school.  But this guy?  No.  Face wasn’t familiar.  Name wasn’t familiar.  For all I knew, he was going reunion Serpico, and fitting in like an undercover Steve Buscemi.

So if I was already opposed to the idea of a five-year reunion, and I had no clue who the guy orchestrating it was, then the third element is what really nope‘d me the hell out of there.

Bowling.

Look, I don’t want to be critical of someone trying to do something for the greater good.  But bowling, guys.  Bowling!  The idea was to set the reunion up at a bowling alley, renting private lanes, having food catered, an open bar, etc.  Now, I won’t pretend to live somewhere that has the market cornered on cool, but a bowling alley?

What were the after-party plans: lazer tag & mini-golf?

As the only thing I hate more than small-talk is bowling, it was an easy ‘no’ for me.  But 200 or so brave souls did indeed RSVP to attend.  A date was set after a bit of discussion, and this improbably get-together looked like it was actually destined to happen.

Allow me some horrible narration here: once the flaming had died down in this group, and the reunion discussion had pretty much settled — this all occurred within maybe two weeks of each other — I just got bored and forgot about the whole thing.  No one was accusing anyone else of being a drug addict or sexual predator anymore, nor bashing each other’s moms, and I had no plans on attending the reunion, so there just wasn’t much to hold my attention.

I may have forgotten about this whole event completely were it not for the power of Reddit.  Sweet, sweet Reddit.

When particularly bored and around a computer, I enjoy browsing Reddit for stories.  It gives me ideas for my own works of fiction, and it allows me to vicariously experience the joy/pain/utter humiliation of others.  Because who doesn’t want to share in the universal de-pantsing of our fellow man?

One day, I came across this item on AskReddit:

For my high school’s 5 year anniversary, one enterprising student made a facebook group and went through the yearbook, adding everyone he could possibly find. About 630 of the roughly 700 students from our graduating class joined the group and started in on how everyone was doing, where everyone was living etc. For the actual IRL get-together invite, about 150 people said yes and 300 or so said maybe. The guy who organized it rented out a private room at a bowling alley, paid for a bartender and got a ridiculous amount of food and such, as well as having all 4 yearbooks and putting together a DVD of random videos from sporting events, plays, funny skits from the school news, everything. This guy went all out.

On the day of the reunion, 5. People. Came. The guy who organized it and his girlfriend (who wasn’t even in our class), myself and a friend, one random person who I recognized but never spoke to, and another guy who actually worked at the bowling alley. Quite possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. The look of defeat on the guy’s face was crushing. I’ve never felt such vicarious humiliation in my life. We ended up just getting drunk and bowling a few games before the black cloud of shame left everyone silent and my friend and I left abruptly.

And to Aaron, if you read this, everyone in our class was an asshole anyway. Sorry bro.

Guys, that was my high school reunion!  Guys!  Guys, are you seeing this?  Guys!

All of the facts check out.  Names checked out.  Yup.  That was my high school reunion, which I had completely forgotten about until stumbling across that item on Reddit.

And what a fitting end to perhaps the worst-executed high school reunion in the history of high school reunions.

At the same time this is as poetically-perfect a conclusion as exists, I felt really bad for poor ol’ Aaron.  He was just trying to do a nice thing.  He wasn’t the bad guy in any of this.  I don’t know who he is, but if I ever crossed paths with him down the road, I would totally buy that guy a beer.

That said, this is why you never organize a reunion on Facebook.  And this is why the best reunions are, essentially, “hey, some of us are meeting at [place with sizeable bar] on [date] — feel free to come if you want, pay for your own drinks”.  You never make the upfront investment on your reunion without advance dollar commitment, as in, cash-in-hand certainty.  Also, your best bet is to do this somewhere where you don’t look like an ass if no one shows.

But Aaron chose a bowling alley, and hedged his bets on the better angels of a collection of folks who had largely used the invite as a platform for summoning demons.

I doubt anyone missed much.  I guess the Redditor was right: everyone was kind of an asshole anyway.

Collin’s Best of Film for 2012

BEST ACTOR, FILM

1. Denzel Washington, Flight

Washington owns this film, from start to finish, in what is his greatest career effort to date.  One of the most honest portrayals of an alcoholic in film history that rarely approaches overbearing, Nicolas-Cage-in-Leaving Las Vegas territory.  This isn’t your typical overpowering Washington performance.  It’s considered, careful, punctuated with pauses, uncertainty and terrifying mortality — often the look of a man searching under his mask for that one lie that can keep the plaster intact.

2. John Hawkes, The Sessions

Hawkes is one of the most incredibly underrated actors working today, and was able to deliver one of the year’s most touching performances on his back for the entire run time.  Seriously, Hawkes is either in a stretcher, bed or iron lung for the whole film.  One of the most dynamic, spirited performances in recent memory, Hawkes brings a great deal of life to a character most would assume is incapable of having any.

3. Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained

In a film starring the likes of Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx & Leonardo DiCaprio, Jackson’s take on the Uncle Tom/Ruckus (depending on your century of preference) archetype is mesmerizing.  It’s the rare Jackson performance that almost makes you forget it’s Jackson underneath all that makeup.  Some have described this performance as comic…I don’t really see it that way.  There’s a fierce survivalism in this character, something burning through angry eyes and misguided conviction, that is at once a nod to cinema’s past and all the ethnic stereotypes that came with, and something more calculating, a menace that has every move plotted and dares everyone else to assume immobility.

4. Tom Holland, The Impossible

This really should read “all of the brothers from The Impossible plus Ewan McGregor”.  But Holland was the rock of the group and…Jesus.  I’ve seen some great child performances.  I’ve never seen one where the child better portrayed the fear, bravery, confusion and sense of innocence lost in such tragedy.  Holland’s character’s strength was a tangible thing in this film.  I was blown away.  I know Quvenzhane Wallis will get all the “child actor” props for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Holland’s performance was infinitely more powerful, in my view.  As with his brothers, played by Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast.  Huge, huge respect for Holland.  That kid has an insanely bright future in film.

5. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

So many actors play characters with mental illnesses or quirks into Oscar schmaltz territory, but Cooper doesn’t.  It’s an honest portrayal of a flawed character that actively embraces those flaws without spotlighting them for award showcase, like some 90s we’re-all-the-same PDA message.  I loved that.  Cooper sprints from one thought to the next, rarely pausing to breathe, and each manic episode serves to remind that life — and love — is not bounded by the social stigmas of mental/emotional conditions.

6. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

I didn’t like Lincoln.  I’m the guy who likes what masses consider boring character studies, and I still didn’t like Lincoln.  But there’s no disputing the fact that Day-Lewis, as he always does, owned this role.  Day-Lewis exudes a quiet calm, an almost-cocky assurance for a man tasked with guiding a nation through its most difficult hour, and the understatedness of it all — the trailing monologues, the grandfatherly anecdotes — work well to reinforce both the humanity and political strategy (parol room rope-a-dope) of the man.

7. Michael Pena, End of Watch

Probably a “take your pick” scenario between Pena and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, but there was something refreshingly human about Pena’s Officer Zavala.  He wasn’t just trumpeted as a hero, or action star, or buddy cop counterpart.  He was any guy in a patrol car, which made you care about him more than the dozen other cops who were put in celluloid danger this year.  Also think Pena generally deserves a nod for his brilliant performance variety — this is a guy who has pulled off some of the funniest performances in the past year-and change between HBO’s Eastbound & Down and Jody Hill’s Observe & Report, turning in yet another award-worthy dramatic performance here.

8. Hugo Weaving, Last Ride

More about Last Ride later, but Weaving is brilliant.  It says a lot about how good he was, that I felt conflicted about whether or not to root for a murderer who teaches his son to swim by intentionally drowning him.  This was one hell of a performance that really leaves you feeling conflicted until the final shot.  At once, I wanted the character shot dead, and yet I couldn’t imagine anyone else guiding his son through the Australian outback.

9. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

De Niro is a real crapshoot these days, but completed a trio of terrific performances in David O. Russell’s latest venture.  I like that we’re never given clear insight into De Niro’s motivation throughout.  It makes his character more interesting, and puts more at stake with his performance.

10. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchanged

There was a point in the climactic dinner table scene where I actually recoiled in alarm at the sound of DiCaprio’s voice.  He’s a damn good bad guy here, and as with every role, he plays it with almost reckless glee.

HONORABLE MENTION: Mel Gibson, Get the Gringo.

It’s going to take a lot for Gibson to ever be remembered as anything but “anti-Semitic William Wallace”, but this was the first film I’ve seen since his meltdown that really reminded me of how effortlessly bad-ass & likable Gibson can be when he’s not out being a horrible human being.

BEST ACTRESS, FILM

1. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Lawrence plays this character with total abandonment of conventional filter, and it’s an absolute blast to watch.  There’s nothing twee or Juno about Lawrence’s performance: she just is who she is, flawed, and goes with it.  At the same time, she guards herself like an alley cat, and slowly risks her vulnerabilities throughout, continually sharing something intimate and waiting for the claws to retract in the process.  Acting at its finest.

2. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

There weren’t a lot of strong female performances this year, I thought, largely because there weren’t a lot of strong/unique female roles.  Chastain’s was brilliant, though.  A bureaucratic Carrie Matheson, minus the distracting craziness.  Chastain plays a woman obsessed, whose life is devoted to a singular cause, in a timeline where failure is constant to the point of expectation, and no one quite has the endurance to do anything but second-guess themselves out of results.  There’s a certain brilliance to the way Chastain sells her perseverance, and her evolution from a pencil-pusher stunned at the sight of waterboarding to a hardened intelligence officer who essentially tells the CIA director that everyone else in the room can go screw themselves.

3. Naomi Watts, The Impossible

The kids stole the show, but Watts was still incredibly effective in this film.  You really felt her clinging to life, felt every painful step away from the debris.  Amazingly convincing, and touching performance.  Major kudos here.

4. Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed

I wasn’t a huge fan of Safety Not Guaranteed, but I did love Plaza’s performance, if only because it elevates from flat “Plaza humor” (which we’ve come to embrace in NBC’s Parks & Rec) and becomes something approaching Lawrence’s performance: a girl who has been hurt before, who fiercely guards her feelings, but finally finds a guy comfortable enough with his own flaws to allow her to forgive hers.  It’s probably the most I’ve ever seen Plaza put anything on the line emotionally, and it works perfectly in the context of this film, albeit in a very flawed conclusion.

5. Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Every bit as brave and commanding as Hawkes’ performance, Hunt really inhabits a tough role — a sex therapist for a disabled patient — and embodies it with class, dignity and tenderness.  You quickly arrive at the same logic Hawkes’ character does that Hunt’s character is not a prostitute, and begin to see the deeper human connection at stake through the pair’s intimacy.  Hunt really delivers strongly in a role that requires her to be just short of falling in absolute love with Hawkes, but well past financially-obligated.  It’s a tricky balance to strike in order to draw out some of the larger emotional conflicts here, and Hunt strikes it well.

6. Kelly Reilly, Flight

The yin to Washington’s Yang, Reilly gives a strong, confident performance as the one reminder in Washington’s life that there is tangible evidence of control and healing — not just giving oneself up to the drink, or to God.  It may be a bit of a stretch that someone strung out enough to score heroin off a porn director would be able to just quit cold turkey after a brief stint in the hospital, but all the same, her role is necessary to flesh out what I thought was the top male performance on the year, and Reilly absolutely delivers.

BEST FILM

1. Django Unchained

Simply put: the most fun I had watching a movie all year.  Great performances?  Check.  Great writing?  Check.  Carefree violence?  Check.  Quentin Tarantino’s latest was fun, funny, suspenseful, and so thoroughly in control of genre — balancing homage with re-envisioning — I could forgive it for its 20 unnecessary minutes of run time.  A great film is well-constructed, smart and actually fun to watch.  Django scores highly for me.

2. The Impossible

Let’s address the elephant in the room first.  People disliked this film, in the worst circlejerk-y way possible, because the filmmaker made a choice to tell the true story of a Spanish family, and replace them with British actors.  The general offense, some would tell you, is that they basically glossed over the tragedy of the Thai, and put a white family touristing in the maelstrom at the center so we could more relate to the tragedy.  My response to that — so the hell what?  Not only is it a fairly common filmmaking practice to alter characters so that they best resonate with the target audience, but at the end of the day, does it really matter what nationality the characters were?  It’s a film.  My central concern is whether or not I care about these characters.  I cared more about the fates of the characters in this film — more was at stake, I just felt compelled to give a damn — than any other film this year.  I can’t say enough about The Impossible, other than I was emotionally-exhausted by the conclusion.  This is an extremely moving, touching, sad, inspiring film, and you reach a certain point where you’re actually so emotionally-drained, it becomes hard to react anymore even when you know you should.  Best acting performances across the board this year, bar none.  Incredibly well-shot.  As far as insane true story goes, it builds organically, stays true to itself, never feels exploitative.  This is powerful filmmaking.  There isn’t enough applause in the world for it.

3. Silver Linings Playbook

The very end was a bit of a mess, but it almost felt fitting in a film about celebrating the flaws that define us, and accepting that everyone has them.  David O. Russell always gets the most out of his actors, and there was no deviation from that pattern here, as ‘SLP’ was the year’s best-acted film.  What scores extra points, though, is the film’s refusal to go where you think it should or will go.

4. The Sessions

It’s not easy to make a film with a largely-immobile protagonist, and more to the point, it’s not easy to make a film whose central concern is the taken-for-granted intimacy of human sexuality, with characters you really don’t want to see having sex (to put it bluntly).  But in its refusal to make sex a spectacle, something purely visual, the film succeeds in illuminating the importance of physical contact, how our intimate connections with others are defined by touch, smell, and other sensations.  It’s as much a mediation on how to love another human being — the many forms in which we can — as it is a reflection on sexuality itself.  Really felt this film has some beautiful, important messages within.

5. Flight

I’ve covered a lot of my thoughts on this film already, but let me quickly express how amazed I was at the first half hour.  Director Robert Zemeckis filmed the single most heart-pounding, intense scene I have seen since Children of Men in the initial crash landing, and I was more or less won over from that span alone.  Beyond that, though, it’s a smart deconstruction of control.  On the surface, it might appear to be a film about alcoholism, and that’s certainly under the umbrella here, but more to the point, it’s about how we deal with things bigger than us.  Or at least that’s the only way all the religious monologuing made sense to me.

6. Zero Dark Thirty

I find you either love or hate Bigelow/Boal films.  I enjoyed The Hurt Locker because I felt no need to pick apart its technical flaws or military accuracy.  It was what it was: an unflinching war picture largely void of emotion, love stories, twists, etc.  I’ll say many of the same things for ‘ZDT’.  It’s very much an A-to-B journey, and in almost three hours, it makes very few pit stops to offer anything other than the next successive event in a complex race to the finish.  I like how Bigelow’s films leave little room for sentimentality or attachment.  Characters are there one minute, gone the next, and if not always based on military fact, it at least offers a bit of the bleak reality of warfare.

7. Lawless

John Hillcoat can really do no wrong, in my book.  The Proposition is one of my favorite films ever.  The Road was an insanely well-executed adaptation of tough source material.  And even though just about everything I’ve read about Lawless suggests Hillcoat wasn’t happy with the final cut, I still loved it.  Gorgeously-shot, great casting (yes, even with Shia LeBeouf in the lead, it somehow works and don’t ask me how) and absolutely brutal conflict resolution.  This film doesn’t glorify violence so much as it uses it to paint a horror story of gangster violence and backwoods vengeance.  All the little things just add up in this film, and I went in with no expectation that would be the case, given the reviews.

8. End of Watch

The poster child for brutal honesty in filmmaking, nothing will make you pray for LA cops quite like End of Watch.  An unflinching brutality pervades, punctuating organic moments of everyday life brought to life by two terrific central performances.  The ending is a bit much, and some of the Cartel soldiers descended into that obnoxious “guy who plays Latino gangster in everything, even though nobody talks like that” territory, but the film itself was as perfectly-paced a movie as you’ll find, really making you dread what comes next even in the more lighthearted moments.

9. Last Ride

Fact: if you shoot a film in the Australian outback, it will look beautiful.  If you shoot a film anywhere in Australia, it will probably look beautiful.  Found this to be a great character study of father and son, that just made all the smart plot decisions.  It refuse to give us good/evil, it refused to let us determine what was just and what was not, and it refused to paint anyone any shade other than what they were.  Ambiguity doesn’t always work in film — some owe us more resolution than others — but the whole point of this film was to take our minds off rooting interests, and instead focus our attention on the characters themselves, and the nature of blood bonds.

10. The Dark Knight Rises

I’m still waiting for everyone to stop bitching about this film.  Yes, Christopher Nolan went too far by showing us Bruce Wayne in Venice.  Who really cares, though?  This wasn’t Inception.  It was Batman.  And if you’re a real fan of the trilogy, I think it was the best Batman.  Tied together loose ends, resolved the important thematic notes, and had a lot of fun doing it.  Too many people wanted this to be The Dark Knight, and it was always a separate beast entirely, with different aims, ideas and plot/character arcs.  I can’t imagine the trilogy having concluded any differently.

GUILTY PLEASURE, FILM

1. Get the Gringo

I expected nothing but a Netflix movie to get me through a head cold kinda night.  This was probably one of the more awesome movies I’ve seen in the past few years, though.  I mean, it totally tried too hard to be cool, and I think it just lifted half its plot from Max Payne 3, but I didn’t even care.  It was Mel Gibson kicking ass.  For all the wrongs he’s done in recent years, it’s good to know he can still do that.

2. 21 Jump Street

Was there a more unexpectedly funny film this year than 21 Jump Street?  Genius script.  Hilarious performances, with the year’s best cameo.  As much a parody/dissection of remakes as a remake itself, everything about this film worked to perfection, and gave me hope that comedy need not be so formulaic (cough American Pie/Wedding/Reunion/Retirement Community)

3. Dredd

Karl Urban doesn’t take his helmet off for the entire flick.  He’s largely a bulked-out half-man, half-robot who grunts one-word replies and blasts his way through a tenement skyrise.  This film is awesome because it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is, and somehow it just comes off as gritty fun in the process, subverting camp altogether.  I had a lot of fun with this one, and for what should have theoretically been a run-of-the-mill shootout flick, it was beautifully-shot — if a bit over-reliant on slow motion trickery.

4. The Avengers

I hate comic book movies.  I don’t have a good explanation for why I do, but I do.  They all feel the same to me.  Guy gets super-powers, guy must learn how to use super-powers, guy initially kicks ass, villain discovers guy and kicks his ass, final battle is 2/3rds villain winning and then 1/3rd an improbable move that scores the victory for the home team.  And while this struck a lot of those notes I hate, it was also one of the most entertaining films of the year.  I was surprised by how funny it was, actually.  I lost it at a few parts (Hulk slamming Loki), and normally I’m just grimacing too much to even crack a smile during comic book movies.  Lesson learned: if you want to do it right, hire Joss Whedon.

5. V/H/S

I’ll make the concession that some of the segments were flat-out terrible, the ending made no sense, and the film lept around its own logic at a dizzying pace.  But what did work made up some of the best horror concepts I’ve ever seen…particularly the first segment, which I won’t spoil, but will say is one of maybe two or three films to ever make me instinctively try to shield my eyes.  The found footage concept is outplayed, and some segments follow suit, but Christ, the ones that work work insanely well.

MOST DISAPPOINTING, FILM

1. Moonrise Kingdom

If you know me, you know this one resounding fact: I hate Moonrise Kingdom like I have hated few films in history.  I wanted to walk out 20 minutes in.  Regrettably, I did not.  What followed was the worst film I have ever seen, I can almost confidently saw.  Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a Wes Anderson thing.  Rushmore is one of my favorite films of all-time, and I’m even one of those guys who loved hanging with Steve Zissou.  But this film was nothing more than twee for the sake of twee, with terrible, stilted dialogue, bad child acting, and an admixture of live action and cartoon comedy that really didn’t work, at all.  Everything about this movie screams “HEY GUYS, LOOK, I’M WES ANDERSON, LOOK AT ME BEING WES ANDERSON!” and I hated it for that.

2. Lincoln

I didn’t hate the film, but I was very disappointed.  It was boring.  There’s no way to really sugarcoat it.  I just didn’t care about most of the characters.  I’m the guy who likes boring character studies, and I still found this a chore to get through.

3. The Cabin in the Woods

If this movie was just its last 30 minutes, it would be awesome.  Unfortunately, the first two acts were just awkward and overdone.  The first act is so conscious of trying to avoid tropes, it actually become obnoxious.  The second act is every “teenagers in the woods” movie you have ever seen, which is kind of the point, I understand, but still, annoying to watch as a result.  In the end, most of this film just tried to hard to be different.  The payoff is cool, but ultimately can’t make up for the first two-thirds.

4. Grave Encounters 2

The first Grave Encounters is one of my favorite horror films.  It’s equal parts fun, humorous and scary, and the scary parts — provided you’re watching in the right context, of course — really elicit some “Oh Lord Jesus!”es.  I actually had to take a break from watching the first film in the dark, on my lonesome.  The second film was just laughably bad.  So, so dumb.  It tries to be so meta dude, and then it just results in schlock, and recycled scares.  Boring.

5. Piranha 3DD

One of my favorite theater-going experiences of the past few years?  Piranha.  Probably the most unapologetic film I’ve seen in quite some time.  When a fish spits Jerry O’Connell’s severed penis out at the audience — IN 3D — you know the filmmaker just don’t give a what.  What made the first film fun and unabashedly gonzo, though, was missing from the follow-up, which just seemed like an attempt to cash in on a ill-conceived gore flick.  Pass.

I will follow up with my TV selections in the coming days!