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News > Staff Picks – 2012 Favorites

Staff Picks – 2012 Favorites

With awards season upon us, the AFF staff got to talking about our favorite films from 2012. Some have been nominated for a slew of awards and broke the box office bank, while others simply captured festival audiences’ hearts. While it’s impossible for most of us to pick a top favorite, we all agree that 2012 was chock-full of great cinematic experiences. We challenged ourselves to pick a favorite from the last year, outside of the 2012 AFF line-up (because otherwise, we’d all have top 10 lists!).

Patrick – YFP Director

If an almighty movie wizard tapped my skull and projected my thoughts onto a screen, it would probably resemble something like HOLY MOTORS. This was a rare film that felt made specifically for me. It had everything:  gossiping limousines, a bedraggled derelict scarfing flowers, a kidnapped supermodel (played by Eva Mendes), computer generated copulation, troubled teenage girls, knifings, accordion interludes, a family of chimpanzees, and even a Kylie Minogue musical number.    The fearlessness of HOLY MOTORS had me laughing, cringing, falling out of my chair, and made me want to high five a hippo after leaving the theater. While other directors dribble out bland awards fodder featuring dead historical figures (LINCOLN) or golden throated thespians (LES MISERABLES), Leos Carax really swings for the fences with HOLY MOTORS. Like the chameleonic protagonist, played by Denis Lavant, Carax explores a variety of narrative paths and cinematic techniques.  His film is a comedy, family drama, musical, social satire, romance, and action film all rolled into one freewheeling package. The ambition of HOLY MOTORS could have crushed it into one incomprehensible pile of rubbish, but luckily a wicked streak of absurd humor and a devil-may-care playfulness keep the proceedings in check. Who could forget Lavant, reprising his role of a taloned flower-munching troglodyte from TOKYO!, as he drags a modeling Eva Mendes into a sewer and drapes her in a burka?  Or when Lavant returns home to his chimpanzee wife and son?  Or when Lavant knifes a man, shaves his head, and steals his jumpsuit?  So many great scenes litter this film, I came back a second and even a third time to bathe in their ridiculous glory. This film is almost too good for awards.

While HOLY MOTORS satiated my juicy cerebellum, THE RAID: REDEMPTION socked me in the solar plexus and left me crawling back for more. I love how this action movie wastes no time cutting to the chase. Our hero kisses his pregnant wife goodbye, then spends the next 90 minutes snapping necks, dodging machetes, cracking skulls, and emptying round after round of machinegun fire into a slew of sweaty, tweeked-out goons. I admire the claustrophobic, Carpenter-esque, premise: a police team must fight their way to the top of an apartment complex to apprehend a ruthless drug lord. The kinetic camerawork and jacked up sound made every bone snap and bullet blast hurt like a sack of soup cans.  One question still eats at me, though.  Who was redeemed in THE RAID: REDEMPTION?  I guess you could say the slum dog brother of our supercop hero, but then again, with a body count rocketing into the stratosphere, no one really comes out on top. A lean, frothing mad-dog of an Asian action bruiser, THE RAID: REDEMPTION, shows more blatant disregard for human life than all the POLICE STORIES combined.  I wanted to jump kick the air after I left the theater and take on a kung fu fighting cartel of my own.

Honorable Mention: LAST DAYS HERE

Bears – Director of Programming

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS: With a name that plays upon the most common horror movie cliché, this Drew Goddard/Joss Whedon film is a kick in the ass of the stale state of the industry. I love horror films, but smart, well-crafted movies that push the genre and surprise us are noticeably lacking in a niche field whose main purpose is to supply forgettable fodder to Friday night teenagers. Without ruining it, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS revolves around five teens that end up trapped in a – wait for it – cabin in the woods. This however, is no typical run-down house full of chainsaw-wielding mask-wearing madmen. It has been specifically built and scientifically outfitted with everything necessary to scare and kill off the teens, much to the approval of the crew of lab-coats and ties manning the controls.

Self-aware films can be a bit indulgent, but when they work, they let the audience in on the joke and expose the machinery of the greatest gift the entertainment industry has to offer, storytelling. CABIN works because it embraces the structure of a good screenplay. It knows the protagonist has to make a choice that leads them into Act Two. It knows that the B-story has to save the A-story and offer the way into Act Three. It knows that everything it set up has to be paid off (merman? really?).

I cheered out loud during this film, and have never laughed so hard as people are literally decimated into splatters of blood in the third act. The characters are simple archetypes, but that’s the point, and none of them really are as simple as they appear, also the point. It’s probably the smartest horror film since SCREAM, the film that re-energized the horror genre in the 90s. It’s also a horror film for people who don’t like horror films (because it mocks them), while still completely satisfying the tried-and-true fans. And it’s also just a film for people who like films, and good writing. It is a tragic shame that by the time awards season rolls around, no one remembers a film that came out in April, especially in the category of original screenplay.

Taylor – Marketing Director

I saw STARLET by chance. It was one of those magical moments that happens at film festivals — despite all the planning, scheduling, poring over the program guide — when you find yourself outside a theater, unencumbered by a plan and inspired by a burst of spontaneity. In this case, it was SXSW 2012 and there was a moment when my free time lined up with my boyfriend’s and we found ourselves in line at the Stateside for a film I had heard nothing about. I hadn’t read the synopsis, I hadn’t watched the trailer or visited IMDb to research the filmmakers. I jumped in, blind and ignorant.

Sometimes, those moments can end in heartbreak. But when they work– oh, the triumph. You feel like you stumbled upon some mystical, buried treasure (nevermind that people had already been singing its praises, the internet heretofore abuzz).

Had I read the synopsis, I doubt I would have placed it on my “must-watch” list. A twenty-something aspiring actress (Dree Hemingway) meets an elderly widow (Besedka Johnson), an unlikely friendship follows. The merits of the film are beyond a plot summery: the subtle, rich performances; the stunning stylistic choices — haunting, lustrous, and ethereal; the complexity and sensitivity in its representation of human connection. Dree Hemingway is mesmerizing as Jane, and she brings an unlikely fullness of character — curious, capricious, charming, fragile, yet instilled with a understated fortitude — to a 21-year-old malingerer.

But it was Besedka Johnson who stole your heart, in equal turns breaking and fortifying it. It’s the kind of performance, so nuanced and genuine, that leaves you breathless, wondering why the hell you’ve never seen this actress before. I discovered the answer in the post-screening Q&A: at age 85, this was her first film. Executive Producer Shih‐Ching Tsou found her at a YMCA gym in West Hollywood and asked her to audition. It’s heartening to know that an old-fashioned Hollywood-dream story still happens once and a while.

Director Sean Baker captures a rare and delicate authenticity with STARLET. And it’s a true testament to his storytelling abilities when he was able to unveil a character-defining revelation about Jane with such nuance that it was both deeply surprising and completely natural, with a lightness of hand that left the film’s flow completely uninterrupted. It was as if we the audience knew all along but only chose now to acknowledge it (if you plan to experience this yourself, I would recommend resisting the urge to watch the trailer).

While I saw a number of magnificent films in 2012, STARLET had the added pleasure of the stars aligning for an ideal theatrical experience. It was a reminder of how good cinema, and the act of viewing, can be.

Marcie – Office Manager

It wasn’t hard for me to pick my favorite film of 2012.  A combination of stunning visuals and a compelling story are rare to find these days, but BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD combines both perfectly.

Many have said that Quvenzhané Wallis’s performance isn’t worthy of an Oscar© nomination, but I disagree. Never have I seen a performance that is so strong in its subtlety, especially from an 8-year old.  The character of Hushpuppy (Wallis) is one that stands out because of the fact that this is a girl acting years above her age with the wisdom of an adult. When her father Wink (Dwight Henry) becomes ill and acts out against her, she retaliates with guff and heart, fighting to understand why his suffering grows worse and worse. Although she is lightyears ahead most children her age, she still cannot comprehend why her father is so angry. This left me and the audience with the heartbreaking revelation that at the end of the day, she is simply a child trying to understand the world around her.

Along with the performances, the visuals of this film stand out to me more than many films I have seen in the past 5 years. Benh Zeitlin’s use of cinematography captures the beauty and desolation of New Orleans in a post-Katrina state.  It not only stands out as being unique, but adds to the world that Wink and Hushpuppy live in – a bleak but playful wasteland filled with eccentric neighbors and the barest of necessities.

Finally, the score to this film creates the ultimate trifecta and completes the movie-watching experience. It, too, is simplistic yet strong, just like the characters and tone of the film. I was moved to tears by the end of this story, and cannot wait to watch it again to take it all in once more. I was so excited to see this on the list of nominees for the Academy Awards©, and wish the best of luck to the director, cast and crew of this film.

Allison – Development Director

SKYFALL was definitely not my first choice when Joey, my boyfriend, suggested we go to a movie on a Saturday morning. However, since there was nothing else playing that peeked my interest I gave in and attended the matinee screening. My problem with these action-packed movies is that they jump into the story so quickly that I get confused on what the main mission or plot of the film is suppose to be- and the 007 James Bond movies are probably some of the worst offenders. I’m used to the romantic comedies that ease you into the story and films that you can just simply enjoy without thinking all the way through. Therefore, I sat in the theater and started mentally preparing myself- I didn’t talk through the previews, I ordered food and drinks before the theater got dark, and I promised Joey I wouldn’t ask questions all the way through the film.

As the movie started I immediately got nervous that I was going to lose the plot line. Between the chasing through Istanbul, riding motorcycles over rooftops and ending up fighting on a train- all the action was so thrilling that it was easy to get caught up in the chase rather than the reason behind it. But I kept relaxed and by the time Adele started singing the Original Song, “Skyfall,” I was hooked! The 2 and a half hours flew by as 007, played by Daniel Craig, followed the trail and mystery of who was behind exposing the MI6 agents. Not being a fan of any James Bond movies in the past it took a minute to pick up on the language- who was M? What is MI6? Why is this database so important? But after giving it some patience the screenplay worked out all my questions and provided a complete package of an action film. After we left the theater, I was continuously going through scenes in my head and putting all the pieces together of how he solved the puzzle. For days, Joey and I compared thoughts on the film. I found myself enjoying the plot more and more as we discussed it with each other and friends who had seen the movie.

This is when I discovered that it was my favorite movie of 2012 — it was the most memorable film I saw and one that I am dying to watch it again. In addition, when a movie is over 2 hours, you can generally feel like you’ve been in the theater for awhile. However, the fast-paced action, constant change in scenery, and the way the script flowed did not make it feel long. It kept you on the edge of your seat not knowing what was going to happen and each scene filled you with more information- making each one vital in the creation of the story.

SKYFALL might not have been my first choice of films to see that Saturday but I’m definitely glad that I went! It was not only a wonderful story but the camera work was great and the actors did a good job keeping you involved with the plot. I also learned that if I just relax and focus, I can follow the complicated action to discover the plot and storyline. When the next 007 film is released I might just be the one suggesting we go see it. Maybe I should listen to Joey more… Wait that’s taking it a bit too far!

Erin – Conference Director

I accidentally stumbled upon POLISSE while browsing my Netflix recommendations. Trust issues aside, I pressed play despite Netflix’s recurrent mistaken assumptions regarding my taste in film. The 2011 Cannes Jury prize winner had never made it to Austin theaters, and as a festival employee, I felt an obligation not to skip over this one. I’m glad I didn’t.

POLISSE is a multi-character drama that follows a Child Protection Unit in Paris, France. Somehow through the film’s pervasively raw and procedural milieu, I fell in love with an ensemble of dysfunctional and idealistic police who failed to produce a hero in themselves, but instead embraced the altruism of their work.

This is a sobering film, sprinkled with sweet absurdities. The intimacy of the narrative and cinematography arouse the stylings of a documentary, textured with honest ingredients and gritty undertones. Comprised of uncomfortable subject matter entrusted to cops who are cursed and blessed by their inability to escape desensitization, they must also endure messy home lives and the credence of their flaws. As a viewer, the immediate invitation into the privacy of this world was almost equally (yet appropriately) uncomfortable – voyeuristic even, but I couldn’t look away. Consequently, the moments of contentment, accomplishment, relief and laughter felt truly shared and mutually enjoyed.

The characters share a striking chemistry in their personal relationships and as a collective. The cyclical, black-holish nature of this occupation was demonstrated through their grave acceptance – or perhaps their conscious disregard – that their work will never be done.  While some superficial stereotypes certainly exist, deep down the film makes you feel wholly human through its own exploration of humanity.

Despite a slightly haphazard finale, the largely masterful POLISSE (based on true CPU accounts) challenged me to reevaluate my thoughts on this difficult, layered and tragic reality. That, and – okay – the decision to give Netflix recommendations another chance.

Linzy – Assistant to the Executive Director

Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER is a charming romantic dramedy film that explores the separation of two high school sweethearts, Celeste (played by Jones) and Jesse (played by Andy Samberg).

Celeste exemplifies success as a trend analyzer (that’s a job), but breaks up with Jesse, an unemployed artist, to encourage him to go back to work.  She realizes they cannot keep up the same playful relationship while technically going through a divorce.

Jones and Samberg have wonderful chemistry and each of their characters is likeable, funny and flawed. If you, like me, have a guilty pleasure for romantic comedies combined with 13-year-old boy humor, this is the perfect film for you!   The film also includes segments of Celeste looking off into space while an indie song plays, which I’m led to believe is pretty “deep” and cool.

This movie gives you even more reason to be jealous of Rashida Jones. Her father is Quincy; she has cool friends; she’s a talented actress and now a talented screenwriter. Not bad for her first time! I can’t wait to see what other cool projects she has in store.

Sonia – Operations Manager

A tale of young love, MOONRISE KINGDOM captures the spirited innocence of first love blooms. It’s the summer of 1965 for twelve-year old lovers Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman). Only writers Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola understand their affection. Their words are the only key to both of these fragile little hearts. With one look at Suzy and her family you’re reminded that this in fact is a Wes Anderson film. Suzy, much like Margot Tenenbaum from Anderson’s 2001 film THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, is the epitome of the mysterious and offbeat female characters Anderson draws you into. She’s cool enough to wear eyeliner and has killer style. Sam, on the other hand, is the total opposite. But who cares this is love.

On a quaint island off the coast of New England better known as “Moonrise Kingdom”, the two lovebirds decide to run away together. Anderson gives Suzy and Sam the opportunity to awkwardly express their emotions through witty dialogue and humor as the gateway to their hearts. Suzy’s parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) are not thrilled but with the help of an excellent ensemble cast that includes: Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton), his chief (Harvey Keitel) and the police captain (Bruce Willis), they intrude on the young lovers before it’s too late. Eventually though, love conquers all.

Anderson and Coppola (who together co-wrote Anderson’s 2007 film DARJEELING LIMITED), manage to balance a vision of love that is both smart and charming with dysfunctional and broken adults in the mix. If you’re looking for a whimsical story about what you hoped “puppy love” would have been like growing up, MOONRISE KINGDOM is this year’s fairy tale.

Matt – Screenplay Competition Director

I’ll admit it here: I actually paid to go see Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2.  It wasn’t all that bad but I really needed to see something that would redeem my taste in movies immediately.  So naturally, I decided to go see a movie based on another popular young adult novel.  Thankfully that film was The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I didn’t read the book and I hadn’t heard much about the film, so it truly surprised me just how good it really is.

Stephen Chbosky is the writer and director of the film and it was adapted from his own novel.  It’s rare to find a writer who has retained complete control over the integrity of his work like this.  As a result, you can definitely tell a lot of love was put into his characters.  The story is about Charlie, an introverted kid with a good heart and a traumatizing secret, during his freshman year of high school as he befriends a group of seniors.  The story is fairly simple and Charlie’s secret doesn’t come as a big surprise but what won me over was how well the story was told.  Chbosky tells a straightforward story that is honest, poignant, and with just enough restraint.  There is nothing flashy or pretentious about this film.  Everything felt authentic from the early 90s soundtrack to the dialogue.  The best line in the film, “We accept the love we think we deserve”, could have easily come across as cheesy but it’s set up in a way that felt real.  Even the casting didn’t distract from the story since the principal cast were mostly relative unknowns.  Charlie was played by Logan Lerman who apparently was in Percy Jackson which I don’t think anyone saw.  Emma Watson is perhaps the most recognizable but her performance as a free-spirited rebel with a dark past is a far cry from the straight-laced Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series.

I chose this film as my favorite of 2012 because the story came first above all else and it had so much heart.  If you’ve got a heart, you’ll love this film.  The screenplay received a nomination from the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Adapted Screenplay and was also recently nominated for the USC Scripter Award.