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Our Picks for AFI Fest 2012

We love AFI Fest because it’s one of the two biggest film festivals in L.A., and a great way to wind down the moviegoing year in style. You should love it – if you live anywhere nearby – because it’s free, and you finally get to see the best of the year’s festival circuit offerings that you may only have heard us writers talk about. Continuing in the “greatest hits plus premieres of Oscar hopefuls” pattern, this year’s AFI offerings include everything from Alec Baldwin as Santa Claus to 3D tigers to whatever it is that Holy Motors is actually about. Our list of picks below is by no means comprehensive – for that, and for specific showtimes, we’d refer you to the full guide online. We’ve managed to see a few in advance this year; those are noted below as reviews rather than previews. All the rest? We can’t wait.

The ABCs of Death – (LYT review from Fantastic Fest) An anthology of 26 short films, each dealing out death as inspired by a different letter. Virtually no taboo goes unused here: You get miscarriage, pedophilia, bondage, Japanese fart fetish, competitive life-or-death masturbation, Nazi porn, a gagged woman vomiting, kitten crushing, killer turds, infanticide… most of it is not to be taken seriously (with one major exception that’s a jarring sort of PSA for awareness of real-world violence against women in Mexico), but more as sort of a live-action Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, or, indeed, a sampler of Fantastic Fest itself (many of the directors are festival discoveries/alumni). It’s a midnight movie for folks with a sick sense of humor and an attention span dulled by booze. Feel free to take this review as a recommendation or a warning.

Amour – Michael Haneke (Funny Games) likes to punish his audience, and his latest, about an old couple who slowly die, sounds particularly depressing. We’re sure it’s immaculately shot, however.

The Angels’ Share – Acclaimed Scottish director Ken Loach seems to be lightening up a bit – for him – in this tale of youthful ex-cons who try to turn their lives around by stealing some extremely valuable whiskey. We’re guessing that stereotype about Scots being drunks won’t be fought awfully hard in this one. Not that they ever are in Loach’s movies.

A Hijacking – This tense tale of negotiation set on a Danish ship hijacked by Somali pirates was shot in the Indian Ocean, on a ship that had been hijacked, using real-life weapons captured from pirates and an actual hostage negotiator playing himself. We’re a little afraid for director Tobias Lindholm if he keeps up this kind of commitment.

Antiviral – (LYT review from Fantastic Fest) David Cronenberg’s son Brandon is clearly well-versed in the body-horror themes of his father, creating a cautionary sci-fi tale about a future in which our obsession with celebrity has led one company to actually harvest diseases from the famous and infect their most rabid fans for a price; in an arguably more-disgusting side plot, the fans also buy and eat steaks cultivated from cloned celebrity cells. Great premise for a Twilight Zone episode, but where do you take it from there? Nowhere much, unfortunately. Creepy protagonist Syd (Calab Landry-Jones) never really gives us a point of entrance into his thinking, and the younger Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have much more to say than that a culture blindly worshipping the famous is diseased. Yep, got the point. Next.

Berberian Sound Studio– (LYT review from Fantastic Fest) This is a film that almost seems like the result of a perverse Lars von Trier exercise: make a movie that’s a tribute to a particular genre (in this case, Italian giallo horror) without showing any elements that are the actual hallmarks of it. Confused? Let’s get specific. Toby Jones plays a sound mixer hired to work on an Italian exploitation flick, and the rest of the story follows him doing his job in the studio, without ever once showing us any of the film being projected on the screen right in front of him as he creates his aural magic. He has culture-clash issues with the emotional Italians! He uses wacky objects to make scary sounds! Then about ten minutes before the film ends, things get really surreal in a way I wish they had from the beginning. Great lighting, production design and Jones being dependable isn’t enough to make this an accessible tale beyond the real life filmmakers who’ll relate directly.

Come Out and Play – Mexican remake of the 1976 Spanish horror movie Who Can Kill a Child?, in which English tourists find themselves on an island where the children have gone crazy and murdered the adults (including one pinata style, yep). As this new version stars Vinessa Shaw, we assume it’s Americans in Mexico this time. Written, directed, produced and edited by somebody who goes by the solo moniker of Makinov.

Here Comes the Devil – A couple of kids go missing near some caves in Tijuana while on a family trip. When they return, there’s something not quite right with them. Could it beeeeeeeee… Satan? We’re looking forward to finding out from this horror hit of both Toronto and Fantastic Fest (sweeping all the horror awards at the latter).

Hitchcock – Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit plays Alfred Hitchcock during the making of Psycho; that, at least, is the lure to fans of good acting. The lure to others is Scarlett Johansson in the shower… playing Janet Leigh, not that the target demographic of young dudes will care about that context.  If you’re a real movie lover, though, you’ll come because the director is Sacha Gervasi, who made Anvil: The Story of Anvil. If he can make some crazy burnout Canadian rockers seem awesome, imagine what he can do for Hitch.

Holy Motors – (LYT mini-review) It’s entirely too possible to be put off by some of the early praise for Leos Carax’s acclaimed new film. So many of the reviews focus on how weird and challenging it is that the average viewer may fear something along the lines of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, but in fact, it’s entirely comprehensible. The audience member never wonders what is happening, though we may often wonder why, or under what laws this reality operates. A businessman not coincidentally named Oscar (Denis Lavant) must attend to a series of appointments, each of which involve him playing a character, usually under layers of latex and make-up. But the roles are for real – when he’s in character, nobody ever doubts he is who he says, even those may be relatives of that person. From an aging bag lady to a deformed gremlin who stalks the cemetery and kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) to a guy who has to murder his own double, this plays out like an exaggeration of the stories you hear about Daniel Day-Lewis (an alternate satirical title could be “Hiding in Plainview”). And then the ending gets weirder still, adding another layer to things, but the prologue suggests this all just a movie anyway, and therefore anything can happen. Don’t listen to the hype, but do see it for yourself; in the unlikely event you find nothing there to like, come back to this page and yell at me in comments.

The Impossible – Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts get caught in a tsunami, but it’s their kid (Tom Holland) who’s getting all the Oscar buzz. We’re told the movie uses 3D sound technology, though the movie’s in 2D, and have no idea what that means. Apparently it’s a pretty major tear-jerker too, so somebody probably dies.

John Dies at the End – Sounds like a movie that’s it’s own spoiler alert, but we’d bet there’s more going on than meets the eye in this comedic horror film from Phantasm director Don Coscarelli. It revolves around a drug nicknamed “soy sauce” that cause people to have paranormal delusions, including “meat zombies” and giant bugs. Paul Giamatti executive produced, and we love that he’s using his powers for good.

The Last Step – An Iranian film inspired by Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce? Bless you, globalization. Narrated by a dead man, The Last Step tells the twisty, turny story of the marriage that led him to his grave, with real-life couple Ali Mosaffa (who also directed) and Leila Hatami (A Separation).

Life of Pi – A young Indian man gets cast adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger. Call this premise whatever you like, but do not say you’ve seen it before. Also, it’s in 3D, and from the director of Brokeback Mountain. We’re guessing a hungry tiger is easier to quit than Jake Gyllenhaal in a cowboy shirt.

Lincoln – A remake of that Tim Burton/Timur Bekmambetov movie that came out this summer, but without the vampires this time. By Steven Spielberg.

The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On – That’s a bold claim right there in the title, especially since the plot sounds like it deals with a fairly aimless, semi-autobiographical road trip of the sort seen in so many undistributed indies before. But for title alone, we had to include it. You will decide whether it lives up to its name.

Nairobi Half Life – It’s tough to become an actor in Hollywood, but try becoming one in Kenya. That’s what Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) does, only to swiftly find himself first in jail, then in a gang. Yet he still hangs onto his showbiz dreams. Hey, if 50 Cent can do it…

Not in Tel Aviv – You think your teacher was nuts? This one kills his mother, kidnaps a student, then sets off on a road trip with his former high-school crush. All because he got fired and doesn’t care any more. But watch out for that movie star and those radical feminist gangs…

On the Road – That movie where Kristen Stewart does a nude scene. (Yes, I’m fully aware that description does a disservice to author Jack Kerouac and director Walter Salles. But it is what people are saying.)

Quartet – Dustin Hoffman directs a movie about retired opera singers. Yes, really. But don’t let the music scare you, because it stars Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon, all of whom are apparently pretty good at the acting thing.

Rise of the Guardians – A tattooed Russian Santa Claus, boomerang-slinging Easter Bunny, half-hummingbird Tooth Fairy, mute Sandman, and neophyte Jack Frost team up to take on the Bogeyman. Sounds uncomfortably close to The Santa Clause 3, but it’s based on a series of books, so we expect better.

Room 237 – (LYT mini-review) A documentary composed almost entirely of re-appropriated footage from The Shining with added narration, Room 237 demonstrates that the movie’s fans can be as obsessive – or more! – as any other varieties of movie geek, as they espouses subtextual theories ranging from the Holocaust to Stanley Kubrick’s alleged confession of guilt in faking the moon landing. carefully selected clips appear at times to back up their points, and at other times wildly discredit them (how does that poster of a skier possible resemble a minotaur?). One gets the idea that these individuals simply grafted pre-existing obsessions onto the first thing that caught their eye, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into one-track nit-pickery, at least as entertaining as the whole “Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy” spiel.

Silver Linings Playbook – Bradley Cooper plays a guy who has basically lived out a bad country song, losing his wife, job, money, etc. He’s failed at life, which makes this practically science fiction given that we’re talking about Bradley Cooper. But then he hooks up with Jennifer Lawrence, which is more believable. Directed by David O. Russell, so we’re hoping and assuming there’ll be some kind of unusual take on the familiar-sounding material. After all, you give him the Rocky formula and he makes The Fighter, so let’s be honest – his name attached to this kind of thing is the silver lining. Also, his middle name is Owen. In case you’re ever asked in a trivia contest or something.

Tabu – Normally we don’t just quote the official program, but: “a haunting and beautiful homage to tragic love, as seen through the eyes of a hungry crocodile.” There’s no way to beat that synopsis, ever.

War Witch – A 14 year-old child soldier in the Congo is given hallucinogenic milk which allows her to see the dead. But she’ll only stay alive as long as her “witchy” powers are useful to the rebel leader who kidnapped her. A mix of documentary footage and drama, this is a movie that could play overly earnest or hit the just-right spot , winning viewers over to its cause with a great story. Looking forward to see.

Wrong – (LYT mini-review) Quentin Dupieux’s follow-up to the absurdist Rubber, which was about both a killer tire and the complete nonsensicality of the existence of  a movie about a killer tire, hits a similar groove. This time, the topic is a lost dog, but what might be a simple dilemma in real life gets further complicated by the fact that characters in the movie frequently do the exact opposite of what any normal human would do. This is a world in which clocks roll over from “7:59” to “7:60,” it’s always raining indoors at the office, and William Fichtner plays an Asian character with a Scandinavian accent who’s burned like Batman foe Two-Face. The locations are very simple, and the deconstructionist comedic take is one that you may wish you’d come up with yourself first. I’m a sucker for humor of the weird and it hit me just right – but it also feels like Dupieux may be painting himself into a corner if he doesn’t try something drastically different next time.

Zaytoun – An Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff, who we hope doesn’t lay on a thick accent) and a Palestinian orphan escape from a refugee camp in Beirut and together try to make their way back to Israel. Along the way, these two natural enemies will most likely come to recognize that people are people and that fighting is needless. Except when it adds drama to movies like this one.

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