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
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)
In Another Country: Was I on vacation here before?
Featuring French movie star Isabelle Huppert and performed partially in English, this is the most accessible of the recent meta-dramedies from prolific Korean writer-director Hong Sang-Soo (many of which have not screened in L.A. outside of AFI). Huppert plays three Frenchwomen visiting the same seaside Korean town in three different stories with meaningful parallels (mostly involving, in vintage Hong fashion, drunken seduction). The repetition of story elements reflects Hong's own tendency to do the same things over and over again, but Huppert, who is most fun at the film's most farcical, gives the great bard of soju-soaked melancholy a transformative face for his investigations. (Karina Longworth)
Kid-Thing: A very weird walk in the woods
Ten-year-old tomboy Annie (Sidney Aguirre) leads a lonely life of solo play and pranks, until she happens upon a hole in the woods from which she can hear an old woman calling for help. Featuring the last screen performance from the late Susan Tyrell (Fat City, Cry-Baby) as the mysterious voice, Kid-Thing is an exciting swerve away from the lo-fi absurdist comedies that director David Zellner, who usually collaborates with his brother Nathan, has been screening at Sundance and other festivals for more than a decade. It's part throwback to live-action kids films of the 70s, part experiment in supplanting the audience in a pre-adolescent's not-always-reliable subjectivity. It's 100 percent sincere. (K.L.)
Leviathan: The most wired fishing boat ever
More avant-garde imagescape than traditional documentary, this abstract portrait of the workings of a fishing boat — shot with multiple tiny cameras from unimaginable vantage points — serves up some of the most astonishing footage ever captured. Disembodied arms and shoulders work valiantly at unidentifiable tasks; a terrifying phalanx of hungry seagulls engulfs an otherwise pitch-black sky; the night's catch slides to and fro in a way that makes you feel like you, too, are destined to be on the menu. There's not a shred of story, character or implicit message to be found, but as a sheer sensory experience, it's mindblowing. (M.D.)
Like Someone in Love: Japan meets jazz
There may be no more beautiful sequence in this year's festival than that in Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, in which a beautiful coed is taxied to an escort gig and the camera takes in the nighttime street life of Tokyo. The film itself is an intoxicating series of sleights-of-hand as the call girl befriends an elderly professor who becomes a protector of sorts — especially against her hectoring boyfriend. Kiarostami masterfully plays with expectation; clichés are upended in both character arcs and manipulation of visual perspective. The result is a film that riffs beautifully on the jazz standard that gives it its title. (E.H.)
Nairobi Half Life: Acting is tough, especially in Kenya
Aspiring young actor Mwas finagles his way out of his small village to Nairobi, only to immediately be brutally mugged, arrested and swept into a current of criminality that all but defines the bustling city. Though director David "Tosh" Gitonga and his superb cast (especially Joseph Wairimu as Mwas) wonderfully illuminate the quotidian resilience and creativity needed to survive and thrive in such a cutthroat environment, Nairobi itself, and the options it affords or denies its inhabitants, is perhaps the most vibrant character on screen. As such, it provides fodder for viewers to contemplate the movie's advertising tagline: "Have we chosen to be the way we are?" (E.H.)
Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith: Sex or religion?
Two-thirds of a planned trilogy from Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export), who is known for a blurring of fiction and documentary that's been called "staged reality," the Paradise films follow the self-actualizating adventures of Austrian sisters Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) and Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter). Love — lurid, hilarious and sometimes sad — follows Teresa on a vacation to a Kenyan beach resort, where the doughy, pasty, middle-aged mom goes looking for love, only to be hustled for sex by the dark, handsome locals of the former colony. Meanwhile, in Faith, Anna Maria takes a trip motivated by her own passion — for Christ. (K.L.)
Pieta: Gangsters have moms, too
South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's Pieta is a droll madhouse of offenses. A sadistic collector for a loan shark (he brutally cripples those who can't pay so his boss can collect the insurance) is thrown off his game when a woman claiming to be the mother who abandoned him suddenly reappears in his life. What follows isn't exactly a tender reconciliation but a jaw-dropping essay of violence, the Oedipal complex on steroids and a third act full of plot twists that recast everything that came before. Laced with black humor, Pieta likely will offend quite a few in the audience. (E.H.)
Reality: Big Brother is watching me
Unfairly dismissed by many at Cannes as a lukewarm satire of reality TV, Matteo Garrone's follow-up to Gomorrah has more on its mind than its goofy, high-concept premise initially suggests. Yes, the story involves a middle-aged family man and amateur thespian who becomes obsessed with being cast on the new season of the Italian Big Brother. But the increasingly demented steps he takes in pursuit of this goal — including giving away all of his earthly possessions and constantly behaving as if he's being observed by scouts judging his worthiness — suggest an allegory ferocious enough to merit comparisons to Buñuel. (M.D.)
Room 237: How Kubrick faked the moon landing, or didn't
No film has inspired as many, shall we say, creative interpretations as The Shining. Various amateur sleuths and scholars claim it's about everything from the extermination of the American Indian (somewhat plausible) to the Apollo 11 moon landing, which Kubrick allegedly helped to fake (get real). This fascinating doc assembles five such theories, with disembodied voices making their case over relevant clips, but director Rodney Ascher is ultimately less interested in who may be right or wrong than in the ways that viewers take possession of their favorite movies and transform them into an endless feedback loop. (M.D.)
Rust and Bone: Marion Cotillard meets special effects magic
The beautifully acted latest film from director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) stars Marion Cotillard as a bombshell aquarium worker who loses both legs in an accident, and Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) as the pretty but apparently vacant thug she turns to for sex/comfort. A triumph of meaningfully deployed artifice (Katy Perry's "Fireworks" plays twice, the second time jerking tears), it's either one of the year's most manipulative slices of Oscar bait or a brilliant, knowing critique of the way such films muddle the difference between realism and fantasy, synthetic sentimentality and authentic emotion. (K.L.)
Simon Killer: Casanova was a neuroscientist
A fascinating, visually hypnotic study of a seductive creep. Antonio Campos' follow-up to Afterschool (he also produced Martha Marcy May Marlene) follows the post-collegiate wanderings of Simon (Brady Corbet, phenomenal), a would-be brain scientist (or is he?) attempting to escape a painful break-up. He uses his baby-faced good looks and mastery of the mechanics of perception to manipulate his way through Paris, and into the beds and lives of young women. A brutal indictment of willfully misspent youth, it's also a startling treatise on the difference between looking and seeing, commenting on cinema as a manipulation of the eye and the brain, while embodying the medium's sensual pleasures. (K.L.)
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Tchoupitoulas: One crazy night in the Big Easy
They may look like Echo Park bartenders, but make no mistake: Brothers Bill and Turner Ross are the future of cinéma vérité. Tchoupitoulas, their free-form, nonfiction portrait of three young brothers on an all-night walkabout around New Orleans, is a cleverly constructed ode to formative experience. Call it the documentary Beasts of the Southern Wild if you must (the films share more than geography and young narrators — they actually share several financiers/producers). But Tchoupitoulas is rougher and rowdier, its depiction of life through a child's eyes not quite as fantastic but no less thrilling. (K.L.)
Tey: Last day on Earth
African-American spoken-word artist Saul Williams powerfully anchors Tey while, ironically, barely uttering a word. His character, Satché, awakens to his last day to live and sets out on a farewell tour where he encounters old flames, friends and locals who come to see him off. Information is sparsely doled out, so we're never clearly told why seemingly healthy Satché must die, and conversation with those he encounters is elliptical, filled as much with recrimination as love. The gorgeous visuals (lots of close-ups on faces) jell into a hypnotic poem as Senegalese writer-director Alain Gomis suggests that our lives are not wholly knowable even to us, and life itself carries brashly on without us. (E.H.)