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20 Movies You Need to See at AFI Fest 2012 

Thursday, Nov 1 2012
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AFI is traditionally the Los Angeles cinephile's best chance to catch up on the cream of the concluding year's world-class film festival crop, and the 2012 edition is no exception — the gems you missed at Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, Toronto and Venice are well represented.

Our critics have picked 20 films not to be missed, ranging from prospective Oscar nominees to new films from up-and-coming American indie filmmakers and international auteurs that might not screen in Los Angeles again.

We had to constrain our passion for space purposes, but these are not by any means the only great movies showing at the festival — both the New Auteurs and Young American competition lineups are as strong as they've ever been. Basically, go to Hollywood Boulevard between Nov. 1-9, throw a rock and you probably won't go wrong. —Karina Longworth

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Amour: Love after 80

Movies will merrily depict young human bodies being blown, carved or wood-chipped to pieces, but the inevitable decay that accompanies old age remains cinema's final taboo. Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke takes it on without flinching, depicting the final months of two happily married octogenarians, played by French legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Amour won Haneke his second Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes festival, and it's no less grueling than was The White Ribbon; what's new, and surprising, is how much genuine tenderness he also coaxes from such a grim scenario. Heartbreaking. (Mike D'Angelo)

Barbara: Spies in a hospital

Set in 1980 East Germany, Christian Petzold's depressive thriller manufactures considerable suspense from the plight of a doctor (Nina Hoss) who arrives at her new hospital post and quickly realizes that a friendly male colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld) has been instructed by the Stasi to spy on her. A bit problematic, that, because she's making preparations to cross the border illegally and because she finds herself more and more drawn to her ostensible persecutor. Both Petzold and Hoss are masters of withholding information (narrative, psychological, emotional) and then deploying it at the perfect moment. (M.D.)

Beyond the Hills: Nuns on the run

Five years ago, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was instrumental in kicking off the Romanian new wave. Now he's back with another intensely gripping tale of two young women in uncertain peril, set in a contemporary monastery rather than the Ceausescu-era suburbs. One works there as a nun, the other has just arrived in the hope of persuading her to leave, and perhaps to resume a romance they'd shared while at school. But none of that sits especially well with the priest in charge, and it gets harder to breathe as the good intentions of Orthodox Christianity go agonizingly wrong. (M.D.)

The Central Park Five: Ken Burns on the big screen

While most people have heard of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, relatively few are aware that the five teenagers convicted of the crime wound up being exonerated more than a decade later. Ken Burns, his daughter and her husband assemble a solid miscarriage-of-justice documentary, but what makes it essential viewing is the inclusion of the kids' videotaped confessions, during which you truly get a sense of how it's possible for scared and confused suspects to admit to a crime they know they didn't commit. Somebody who sees this film will decide to become a public defender/crusader, guaranteed. (M.D.)

Eat Sleep Die: The daily grind

One of the year's most impressive debuts, from writer-director Gabriela Pichler, this tale of a young Swedish woman's struggle to find work after being laid off — complicated by her status as a Muslim (of Balkan heritage and fully assimilated) — is refreshingly devoid of knee-jerk miserablism. Instead, it's a well-wrought, wholly believable paean to resilience, featuring a phenomenal lead performance by energetic newcomer Nermina Lukac. Rare indeed is the film willing to acknowledge that most people's days are filled with a mix of both joy and frustration even at the seemingly best and worst of times; Eat Sleep Die conveys the whole truth, not merely the button-pushing parts. (M.D.)

Holy Motors: Real-life role-playing

Leos Carax's first feature in 13 years finds him lamenting the digital revolution in the giddiest way imaginable. Touring Paris in a white stretch limo, the ever-elastic Denis Levant (star of Carax's Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang and The Lovers on the Bridge) embarks upon his daily series of "appointments," each of which sees him adopting a different guise, from bag lady to frustrated dad to professional assassin. For whose benefit these performances take place is never made fully clear, but seeing Holy Motors is a crazy-joyous experience. It's a movie so defiantly alive that it contradicts its mournful thesis at every turn. (M.D.)

The Hunt: A fugitive in Denmark

The set-up is boilerplate: A man is accused of an unconscionable act by a child, and his life becomes a waking nightmare as he struggles to clear his name. But there's nothing rote about The Hunt, which finds Danish director (and Dogme co-originator) Thomas Vinterberg in peak form — and working from a taut script — as he mines his obsession with the workings of community, specifically the way its attitude toward its members can flip on a dime from warm embrace to crucifixion. It's often brutal viewing as the underrated Mads Mikkelsen powerfully conveys the anguish and bafflement of a man whose life has unraveled. (Ernest Hardy)

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