Although the line up we caught at this year's AFI Fest presented by Audi didn't quite match up with the stellar picks from last year, the 2012 slate was still mighty impressive, and furthermore, boasted some of the strangest festival fare seen all year. This includes two films made up entirely of actual found footage from other films, a surrealist comedy, a meta documentary production of a Shakespeare history, a movie about people who pay to be infected with celebrities diseases and "John Dies at the End." If nothing else, these films sure are memorable. Here are the ten films from AFI 2012 that we simply can't get out of our heads, plus a few honorable mentions.
Why we can't stop thinking about it: Break my soul in half, why don't you?
Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning drama about an old man caring for his wife after she has a stroke handily lives up to the hype. The film opens on the couple's final night on the town before the problems begin, and we are witness to two elderly people that are beautiful, intelligent, wordly, easy going and hopelessly in love, utterly content with the life they have built. But everything changes the next morning when Anne has a minor stroke. From then on, we watch as Georges cares for her until the very end, treating her as an equal and partner even as she loses more and more control over her body and mind. Our hearts break even further when Anne is so paralyzed she can't eat or speak normally, but she and Georges still manage to communicate and laugh together.
"Amour" asks what love truly is and depicts it as its most unglamorous. As difficult as it is to take in, the film is uplifting in a way, allowing us to posit that love this deep and powerful indeed exists, and we should only be so lucky as to find ourselves at the end of our long lives with the person we care for most, however that end comes about.
Stand-out moment: Georges listens to a recording of classical music and imagines Anne playing it herself on the piano. Seeing her as vibrant as she was at the beginning of the movie reminds us all too harshly what the couple has lost, try as they might to be living in some semblance of normalcy.
Why we can't stop thinking about it: It must be in the genes.
Turns out creepiness runs in the family! Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, made a huge impact at AFI this year, leaping out of the gate with his original body horror slash science fiction flick, "Antiviral." The movie depicts a world where plebeians want so badly to be close to their favorite celebrities that they pay good money to be injected with diseased cells harnessed from their very bodies. The cells range from temporary maladies like the flu to more permanent options like herpes, and celebrity cells are additionally used to create colorless edible blobs fans can chow down on. And this is only the set up.
It turns out that Syd (an increasingly promising Caleb Landry Jones) an employee of one of the top clinics that provides these viruses to the public, regularly injects himself in order to cultivate viruses of his own to sell on the black market. Eventually, he finds himself smack in the middle of a relentless murder mystery that excites and disgusts right up until the appropriately disturbing final shot. With his first outing, Cronenberg proves himself in spades. Not only is the premise inventive and the story involving, but he shows a very deft hand when it comes to pacing, imagery, world building and invoking visceral reactions. He never shies away from the grotesque.
Stand-out moment: The skin-crawling final scene.
Why we can't stop thinking about it: This is the best Shakespeare adaptation you'll ever see.
If you go into this highly meta docudrama from Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani without knowing it is actually a documentary, there is a good chance you'll think the entire thing is scripted right up until the credits roll. In fact, the Tavianis went into famed Italian prison Rebibbia and tracked the actual inmates' rehearsal and production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." There are no behind-the-scenes interviews, no prisoner backstories aside from the information provided by the inventive audition sequence, no childhood photographs or historical information on the prison. This is rehearsal and performance and brief moments in between. But because the theater at Rebibbia is undergoing renovations, the prisoners must take to rehearsing in the prison itself, resulting in countless moments that walk the line between fiction and reality in almost indecipherable ways.
As the film goes on we begin to realize that this making-of documentary is simultaneously a filmed version of "Julius Caesar," and it's equally effective as both. As thrilling as it is to watch these men perform, once the curtain closes, we watch each of the main characters be walked back to their tiny cells, some of which are their lifelong homes. Maybe in a year they will get to be in another production, but they are not in charge of their own fates any longer, and this serves as a reminder. As one of the inmates, in prison for life, remarks as he returns to his daily routine just before the credits roll, "Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison."
While some may argue that murderers shouldn't be allowed such things as artistic pursuits, one can't help but watch a film like this and wonder — had they been exposed to art in the first place, would they even be here? Will this annual escape into make-believe and the illusion of freedom change them for the better? In an instant, the actors snap back into prisoners and the enraptured audience snaps back into uninvolved observers from thousands of miles of away.
Stand-out moment: The inmates rehearse the murder of Caesar outside, seamlessly switching from acting the scene to commenting on its greatness and timelessness, wondering how many more times it will be performed in the history of the world. Not long after, a guard is about to call them back in as recreation hours have ended, but instead gets involved in watching and tells the other guards to wait until the end of the scene to disrupt them.
4. "Room 237"
Why we can't stop thinking about it: It's a new way of connecting with the films we love.
"Room 237" is a documentary, sure, but unlike any documentary you've ever seen before, a running theme at AFI 2012. Using only five voiceovers recorded for the film, set against repurposed stock footage and film clips, "Room 237" delves into the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." Each interviewee is convinced his theory is correct, and often two of them will use identical evidence to support completely different conclusions.
The theories for the most part are completely absurd, and the passion with which these people believe them adds largely to the entertainment factor. The AFI audience actually applauded when one of them concluded his argument as to how "The Shining" proves Kubrick shot the moon landing — not because the theory was sound, but because the undeniable proof we were being presented with so obviously had no grounding in reality.
"Room 237" demonstrates a totally different way of connecting fan to film, what Chuck Klosterman calls "Immersion Criticism," a type of examination that can only be undertaken after multiple viewings of a movie, and only if that movie is made by someone who could conceivably have ulterior motives and play with secret meanings and hidden clues, i.e. a Stanley Kubrick or a David Lynch. Ultimately, the film succeeds not because it tells us anything about "The Shining," but because it is both highly entertaining and a solid commentary on this connection — how film fans can project themselves into the meaning of a film they love. These people LOVE "The Shining" and are now a part of its history. As crazy as that might be, it's still kind of sweet.
Stand-out moment: As per the instruction of major "The Shining" theorist Kevin McLeod (aka Mstrmnd), we witness footage of "The Shining" playing forwards and backwards simultaneously and superimposed. (He who declined to be interviewed for the film.) While this method still proves nothing about the movie, it's really cool to see the twins murder overlaid on Jack's face, where it looks like he is wearing perfectly applied twin-blood clown-makeup.
Why we can't stop thinking about it: It manages to manipulate the audience along with the rest of the characters.
"Simon Killer," from the team behind "Martha Marcy May Marlene," is a film that may leave you huffing and puffing out of the theater. As director Antonio Campos warned us in his introduction, if you find yourself not liking the lead, in fact if you find yourself hating the lead, that's okay — you're supposed to. This character study about a recent college grad fresh off a break up trying finding himself on a trip to Paris is not what it seems.
At the beginning of the film, Simon (a marvelous Brady Corbet) notes that he studied in school the connection between the eye and the brain, setting up immediately that that very correlation and disconnect is what the film will be exploring. When he first meets French prostitute Victoria and seems to be falling for her, determined to save her from this life, we root for them, and for him. Where we as an audience start with Simon couldn't be further from where we end up, though, and the journey from point A to point B is a cinematic experiment in audience as character if ever there's been one.
"Simon Killer" points out our natural instincts to trust, to care and to experience a human connection not merely by telling us or even showing us, but by involving us emotionally on the same level as Victoria. When those instincts are betrayed, we feel every inch as disgusting, angry and outraged as she does. Although the film's ultimately dark nature may make it difficult to return to, there is definitely a drinking game in there somewhere if you can properly identify every time Simon tells a lie.
Stand-out moment: "You're not a man."
Why we can't stop thinking about it: It's what "The Clock" would be if it had a love story narrative.
Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi's movie is yet another AFI 2012 film made up of entirely found footage, this time from hundreds of movies and even some TV shows over the course of cinematic history. Three years, four editors, 500 movies from across the world and only the most emotive of film scores and songs are the ingredients in this examination of the tropes, themes, cliches and patterns of the love story.
Statistically, the films shown are roughly 20% Hungarian, 20% Asian and 60% American and European, and it can be watched in a variety of ways. How many films can you name? Could you describe every moment of the narrative? Which movie appears the most? It's a feast for the movie lover's senses. As an added treat, the end credits list every movie used and every score used, in order; one can only imagine the eventual Blu-ray release that tells you what's on screen as you watch. However, a release seems somewhat implausible because the film could only use these movies and music for educational purposes, but fingers crossed there is a way somehow someday that we can all enjoy this 90 minutes of straight smiling soon.
Stand-out moment: Playing on its own examination of themes and patterns, after showing multiple clips demonstrating going back in time, most famously Superman making the Earth rotate in the other direction, the film replays about a minute or so, clip for clip, until the gentlemen universally decided to go the other way and win the ladies back. Nice one, "Final Cut."
Why We Can't Stop Thinking About it: It's absurdist surrealism at its most accessible.
On the surface, "Wrong" is about a man named Dolph (Jack Plotnick) trying to find his lost dog, but from the moment his alarm clock turns from 7:59 to 7:60, you know you're in for something very out of the ordinary. When all the rules of sense, logic and storytelling go out the window, it may be frustrating for some but delightfully addicting for others. After all, it was written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, who made an entire film about a sentient tire.
Dolph is only slightly bewildered by the mounting absurdities of his life. Although the whole film is a nonsensical delight, perhaps the single best part of it is William Fichtner giving the performance of his career as Master Chang.
Stand-out moment: Jack calls Jesus Organic Pizza and has a long conversation with the delivery girl about the pizza joint's logo.
Why we can't stop thinking about it: This doc is a jarringly clear-cut argument against the death penalty.
In 1989, five teenagers were accused of the rape and murder of a woman in Central Park, and shortly after, tried, convicted and sent to prison with an entire city rallying together to curse their names. Thirteen years later, it was discovered and proven without a doubt that not one of these kids had anything to do with the crime. Although their names were officially cleared, the news barely made a blip, and the prosecutors who so clearly manipulated these kids refused to believe the cold hard truth and risk their reputations by admitting their mistake.
Leave it to Ken Burns, along with co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon to come to the rescue and get the word out with this startling documentary that tracks every moment of the case in detail. The film uses interviews and incredible archival footage to show New York City in 1989, the endless interrogations of the teens, their trials and much more. It's heartbreaking to watch the case go the way it did in light of what we know now, and even worse to hear the boys, now men, lament their lost childhoods and the fact that a wife, a home and kids -- things that one day seemed like such a given -- now seem like fantasies. Burns is the doc master for a reason, and keeps you engaged for all 119 astounding minutes.
Stand-out moment: Donald Trump takes out a full size ad in the paper calling for the return of the death penalty in response to this case.
Why we can't stop thinking about it: Say hello to Oscar nomination #2, Jennifer Lawrence.
While this oddball romantic comedy from the great David O. Russell might not necessarily be best picture material, one thing cannot be denied: Jennifer Lawrence is remarkable. As the recently widowed Tiffany, she enters into a dance contest with the equally screwed-up Pat (Bradley Cooper). At times, the film enters into full-on screwball comedy territory with its fast-paced, clever dialogue and host of wacky supporting characters. Lawrence shines in this genre, proving that she really can do just about anything; her neurosis is never grating, her crazy never off-putting. Lawrence is as charming, effective and captivating as ever, and she helps us buy every part of this unconventional love story, which could have fallen flat on its face with a lesser talent in the role.
Stand-out moment: The joyous dance competition sequence provides the most heartwarming climax of the year.
Why we cant stop thinking about it: More female buddy road trip movies, please?
This charming semi-autobiographical film was written after writer/director/star Drew Denny's father unexpectedly passed away, which inspired her to create an experimental live performance to help her deal with her grief. The film expands on that, following gorgeous free-spirited lesbian Andy (Denny) and by-the-book actress Liv (Sarah Hagan, playing expertly to type) on a road trip across the southwest to spread Denny's father's ashes and drop Liv at an audition in Austin. The sweetest moments emerge when the girls leave adulthood behind and play dress up, jump in the lake or draw on rocks, even if the drawings are of gravestones for those they have lost. Here is when they are at their best, most honest and most loving.
It's only when men and sexuality enter the picture that the underlying competition and tension that haunts many female friendships comes through, tainting what is otherwise a beautiful connection. The movie additionally shows the lengths we go to to avoid dealing with the death of a loved one, and what a weight is lifted when we finally come to terms with it.
Stand-out moment: Andy assists Liv in her big audition for a film noir, and for a minute, as the color drops out of the screen and the score swells, we too are playing make-believe with the girls.
The sound design in the final scene of Abbas Kiarostami's "Like Someone in Love."
Garrett Hedlund in "On The Road."
The unabashed insanity of "John Dies at the End." Expect to see imagery pop up in Gallery 1988's Crazy 4 Cult show in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …
The last 20 minutes of Romania's official selection for this year's Oscars, "Beyond the Hills."