The Alamo Drafthouse Programmers Share Their Unabridged Top Films of 2012

Programmers from the mother ship give their top picks.

The Alamo Drafthouse Programmers Share Their Unabridged Top Films of 2012

Every year, the company-wide Alamo Drafthouse staff is invited to submit (as many as) 10 selections for a cumulative top 10 films of 2012, each title weighted by the frequency of their mentions in addition to their placement on all submitted lists. Annually, the result proves to be a smart and concise synthesis of the cinematic taste that drives what we love to do, what people love us for, and that we get to call our jobs. As someone still relatively new to the company, and who used to eagerly await the Drafthouse Top 10s in years past, I feel I can reasonably say that with some degree of objectivity. For example, last year’s #1 title was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which programmer Zack Carlson called “a serious exploration of mental illness,” despite its glossy cinematography and high style. I could not agree more with Zack’s assessment, but also could not help wondering what the other Drafthouse staffers had written about the film, a curiosity still today left unsatisfied.

As a bit of a departure from the norm, and on account of my own past curiosity, I thought this year we would take an opportunity to publish the unabridged top films submissions from the core programming staff, myself included. Not everyone offered up a total of ten films, and neither did everyone agree on the best films of the year, but all the participants gave thoughtful reasoning for their selections, which is in itself an interesting way to get to know your fellow programmers (on my end) or to get to know us all a little bit better.

Some of us enjoy contemporary or more mainstream movies, while others prefer to peruse the past looking for undiscovered classics or forgotten straight-to-video gems. However, for the purposes of these year-in-summary lists, all participants were restricted to films that received a domestic theatrical or straight-to-DVD / Blu release during 2012. For me, this means that by necessity I was unable to include what may be the least seen and most underrated film of the year, a topic that ought to be its own standalone essay, Francis Ford Coppola’s grossly misunderstood and perpetually unavailable Twixt. I’m not saying it is Apocalypse Now, or that it could have been, but it deserves a second look. With that Coppola-shaped seed gingerly planted, it is my pleasure to bring you the Drafthouse programmers unabridged top films of 2012, starting with…

Lars Nilsen, head Drafthouse programmer and mind behind our Weird Wednesday film series.

10. CABIN IN THE WOODS

If I could have walked out in the first 30 minutes without causing offense, I would have. As it was, I was glad I stayed -- refreshingly full of new ideas and subversive.

9. MOONRISE KINGDOM

This achingly lovely little Joseph Cornell box from Wes Anderson is his best since, you know, the good ones.

8. AMERICAN SCREAM

This stranger-than-fiction doc looks at small-town haunters in Massachusetts who live for Halloween. Funny, heartfelt, and genuine.

7. LINCOLN

We should be glad that a master is still making good films. I loved the character of Lincoln. Smart, funny, resourceful. It was neither hokey nor over-respectful.

6. KLOWN

I laughed a lot at this. So few movies actually deliver big laughs and this one was jammed with them.

5. HOLY MOTORS

So new, so modern, yet with a feeling of the classic arthouse.

4. DJANGO UNCHAINED

Loopy and full of itself. It was also fun identifying all the obscure references.

3. LAST DAYS HERE

After years of dispiriting docs about crazy, doomed musicians, this was a huge relief -- one of the best human dramas on any screen at any time.

2. ZERO DARK THIRTY

I got so wound up with every masterful twist and turn that it wasn't until after it was all over that I felt the moral revulsion of rooting for the torturers.

1. THE MASTER

Gorgeous and indulgent. It sits on the shelf of memory like a beautiful decanter full of cheap, rotten hooch.

Next up, Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson, the maestro of Terror Tuesday!

3. SCARLET ROAD

Call me a prude, but I consider sex to be a very private function. Like defecation, I don’t see the point of discussing it, much less watching it in a movie. The concept of an erotic narrative film is hilarious, actual porn makes me weep for the future of our species, and I would never expect a documentary that’s ostensibly about prostitution to strike so many emotional chords. That’s largely because director Catherine Scott’s story is much broader and more important than I’d short-sightedly anticipated. Her camera mainly follows 30- something Australian sex worker Rachel Wotton, a composed and good-natured self-deemed “whore” who has spent a great deal of time establishing long-term physical relationships with several disabled men. Rachel maintains that these members of our communities have just as much right to sex as anyone, but are unfortunately given fewer opportunities to get it. Rachel is portrayed as what she is: a healthy, levelheaded adult who is confident in her career path and determined to help others find their paths as well. She has the support of several friends, colleagues, her loving boyfriend and even her elderly mother. Her clients are treated with a similar respect by the filmmakers, never pitied nor portrayed as defeated by their individual challenges. Scarlet Road isn’t flashy, artsy, or clever. It’s better than that: a plain, old effective documentary that benefits from its simplicity and objectivity. And – unless you’re a completely small-minded, judgmental asshole – it’s inspiring and unforgettable regardless of your age, background, vocation or freedom of mobility.

2. THE MASTER

I really respect how this film avoided being the "lid-blowing expose" that people expected, and instead turned in a painful, graceful platonic love story between two men who could barely exist in the same universe. Joaquin Phoenix has already stated that he has no interest in winning an Oscar for his performance (which makes me like him even more) but he should still get it anyway.

1. LAST DAYS HERE

Whether you live for heavy metal or hate it with every fiber of your being, this alternately spirit-crushing and life-affirming documentary is easily my favorite music doc of all-time. It follows thermonuclear self-destructor Bobby Liebling, singer of terminally unsuccessful metal combo Pentagram. But the film isn't about the band, his drug abuse, or his non-stop war on his own erroneous ass. Instead, it's about how even the greatest schlub in the world can get a shot at personal redemption, whether or not he deserves it. Also, the doc features a man who may be the greatest, most giving, and likable human in history... and his name is "Pellet."

Sarah Pitre, programmer behind our Girlie Night, Man Crush, and Afternoon Tea!

Back when I was in college, I worked at the student radio station. Surrounded by people who were dying to expose me to new, eclectic, and straight-up weird forms of music, I soaked up unfamiliar sounds, reveled in the bizarre, and discovered bands that quickly became my favorites. All the while, however, I was also jamming out to 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, because duh, they're awesome. I'm telling you this so that when you look at my list of favorite films of 2012, you'll understand the taste behind my decisions. Because, as I learned back in college, it is actually possible to enjoy the avant-garde along with the mainstream, and if a movie shows me a good time, whether it's art house or a rom com, I'm never ashamed to embrace it. Haters gonna hate, but these ten movies slayed me with their cinematic magic, and I'm thrilled to finally go public with our relationship.

In no particular order:

1. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

2. BERNIE

3. 21 JUMP STREET

4. ARGO

5. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

6. THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT

7. MOONRISE KINGDOM

8. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

9. STEP UP REVOLUTION

10. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES

Greg MacLennan, Drafthouse’s resident Tough Guy and Bangarang programmer! 

10. THE HOBBIT

I can hear the boos already... The Hobbit was everything I had hoped it would be and more. It was fun, light, and I think Petey J. and company did a great job of creating a more epic storyscape on which to paint their Lord of the Rings lore. I didn't like 48fps and the film relied too heavily on CGI, but ultimately if you asked me which movie I'd be revisiting the soonest after watching everything that came out of 2012, it would probably be this. I'm a sucker for an epic... I just wish this one had more men-in-makeup, matte paintings, and megatures.

9. THE MASTER

I had to find a spot on this list for easily the best-acted film of the year. P.T. Anderson uses 70mm in a truly spectacular way and crafts a beautiful, albeit flawed film. It's a movie that stuck with me several days after I saw it and it's a movie that deserves your attention. It's got so many ideas swirling around and is just so captivating as a film that I barely noticed that the time had gone by.

8. CABIN IN THE WOODS

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard did it. I was WAY over-hyped before I went to see this film and thought I'd certainly be the cynical asshole who ends up hating this movie because everyone just loved it so much. However, the film has such little pretense and just has so much fun being the clever little genre film that it is, that you can't deny it. I will concede that Thor is not a good actor... and I smiled when he died.

7. MOONRISE KINGDOM

This is Wes Anderson at his idiosyncratic best. It's not Mr. Fox or Tenenbaums good, but I find Wes Anderson movies difficult to dislike, especially when the movie has its heart in the right place and is executed this well.

6. LOOPER

I was excited, then skeptical, and then sold. Looper has a super cool concept executed very slickly with some horribly charming leads and a pretty top-notch supporting cast.... but then again that's just me talking… and Bruce Willis is just an American Liam Neeson to me... so take that with a grain of salt. HUDSON HAWK RULES!

5. THE GREY

I love Liam Neeson, so I'll pretty much watch anything he's in. Combine that with Joe Carnahan and I'm double downed. This movie was horribly marketed and as a result let a lot of dude\bros down. Neeson crafts an emotional superhuman of a man who's lost his wife and I was captivated through every ‘gotta stay alive in the snow against these wolves’ minute. I came for the ‘broken bottle knuckle dog fight’ scene... I stayed for the Neeson.

4. CLOUD ATLAS

Ambition is something that current filmmakers seem to be afraid of and with Cloud Atlas the Wachowskis made a work of unfaltering ambition. It challenges the viewer to engage and its story reveals itself like a cleverly crafted piece of origami. They presented a narrative unlike most had seen before, creating a segmented film with an emotional arc and punch. Lots of people will think of Daniel Craig as their action hero of the year... but mine still remains Asian Jim Sturgess.

3. 21 JUMP STREET

Channing Tatum is an actor I once had respect for coming out of his debut and then lost all hope in. However, here he proves himself to be some sort of comedic genius. I had a big stupid smile on my face that no amount of Jonah Hill-ing could ruin. It also had one of the best cameos I've seen in a movie since Steve Martin in The Muppet Movie.

2. DJANGO UNCHAINED

The acting is jaw-droppingly good across the board, the dialogue pops, and the story is pure spaghetti fun. I wasn't expecting myself to like this movie as much as I did but that's probably because I severely underestimated how much I like Christoph Waltz and a racist Leonardo DiCaprio.

1. ARGO

This movie is pure cinema – it’s taut like a high-wire act and fast-paced. It's not my favorite movie of the year, but it's definitely the most finely-crafted film I saw. I'm somewhat saddened Ben Affleck has proven to be such an adept filmmaker, because it means that I will never get to see the sequel to Armageddon I've been waiting for.

Joe Ziemba, Art Director and Programmer:

2. THE AMERICAN SCREAM

I don’t cry much during movies. The only films that have made me cry in the theater are Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Never Too  Young To Die starring John Stamos (both for different reasons, obviously).

However, as the last few minutes of American Scream rolled by, my eyes welled up with tears. This wasn’t due to Halloween-related nostalgia or monster-related joy. I cried because of what happens between all of that. The American Scream is about people turning their homes into haunted houses during the Halloween season. But it's also about people being human. It affirms the fact that whatever we choose to do in life is valid, as long as we believe in it. It also affirms that people are hilarious. The subjects of this movie argue, make fools of themselves, assert their questionable opinions, and love each other. They’re just like us.

1. LAST DAYS HERE

I thought this was going to be just another old-fart-heavy-metal-crackhead-falls-on-hard-times-and-turns-his-life-around sort of story. It was. But never has an old-fart-heavy-metal-crackhead turned his life around AND made me feel like I could conquer the world. Last Days Here is a documentary about Bobby Liebling, the songwriter, singer, and one-man force behind 1970s doom metal band Pentagram. And when I say "about Bobby Liebling," I mean it. While the mythical awesomeness of Pentagram is represented in the movie, it's really just a jumping off point. Bobby is a self-destructive and selfish man. He might be crazy. He's definitely on crack. In other words, he's not the kind of guy that invites sympathy from an audience. But this movie doesn't spend time wallowing in the decay. It moves forward. Liebling grabs on. The process of making the documentary becomes a conduit to harness the small amount of hope that remains in his body. That hope is transformed into pure power -- power to live, learn, improve, and get shit done. The world could learn a lot from Bobby Liebling.

Lastly, here are my own selections for the top films of 2012. At six months in, I am still relatively new to the Drafthouse and developing programming ideas, but my claim to fame so far has been our Saul Bass co-presentation with The Academy.

 10. W.E.

Audiences, critics, and programmers alike ran in terror from this film, which everyone called a disaster. I realize I am an outlier here but, having seen the film in Toronto, I found it mesmerizing. It is, quite simply, a film that no other person (or, better yet, personality) could render or finance. W.E. is such a trivial and unnecessary film that its beauty comes from its frivolity. Only someone with as much influence, power, and money could bankroll and helm a motion picture which at its core is about the director's own obsession. A flimsy framing mechanism places a modern-day woman, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) as someone who gradually develops an interest in and total fascination with the historical character of Wallis Simpson and what Wally deems the great love story never told – Simpson’s love of and sacrifice for the would-be King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy). The film ping-pongs across time and space, creating goofy, not-quite-there parallels between Wally and Wallis, all the time (over-)dramatizing a love story that in an odd sort of ways is the story left out of Tom Hooper's The King's Speech. Future double feature, perhaps? On display here is Madonna's own obsession, so crazed and driven that she made an entire movie to prove how strongly she feels about a topic that nobody else gives a damn about. Call it genius or call it insane, it probably does not matter. The scene with royalty slo-mo dancing to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" while tripping on Benzos is the film at face value – pretty, beautifully vacant.

9. GREEN

A haunting story of jealousy and writer/director Sophia Takal feature debut, Green is an unquestionably mature narrative and one of 2012's stand-out independent films. It is a small picture, with a cast of three who in real life are all roommates, two of whom are the director and her fiancé (now husband). Takal crafts a startlingly universal and terrifying story around a premise that is outwardly quite simple: the other woman who intrudes both physically and psychologically on a couple's privacy. Can friendship exist between man and woman without romance entering into the picture? Watch and see.

8. THE MASTER

We installed permanent 70mm projectors at our downtown location specifically for this title. If nothing else, 70mm projectors are the gift that keeps on giving, now that we're committed to at least one 70mm title per month. As to The Master itself, the film was gorgeous and thought provoking, one for which proper digestion requires multiple viewings. It is a powerful, beautiful, complicated achievement in filmmaking and despite its relative low placement on the list, The Master is the only film on this list that I would describe in this way. Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have remarkable latitude as a filmmaker, to make big budget epics, entirely of his own design. I admire and respect the art that results. What more need be said about this film?

7. COSMOPOLIS

David Cronenberg's latest film was out of theaters faster than any other title that played this year. As such, I’m beyond happy that I caught it on opening day. In my experience, the audience laughed uncomfortably throughout, or walked out of the theater during, scenes that to me read as wholly sincere, unable to process its heady mix of intellectual demagoguing, primal attraction, and oddly uncinematic staging. There are moments in this narrative where nobody talks, where the walls of the white limo block out any outside sound whatsoever -- in other words, moments of total silence. Robert Pattinson’s character and the story that surrounds him exist in a world within and yet without the real world -- a kind of nothing space or vacuum that glides effortlessly through New York City for the most trivial of reasons -- a simple haircut. I felt initially ambivalent towards this film, but could not stop thinking about it days and weeks afterward. Ultimately, I gave in to what felt right and decided I was in love with it.

6. ATTENBERG

Life lived without explanation, to its fullest, in all simultaneous directions. Attenberg is about locating warmth in the face of an all but abandoned society as well as within oneself. Attenberg also features what may be the performance of the year, from Ariane Labed in her film debut. Attenberg danced about in distribution limbo for some time. Finished in 2010, not released until 2012, but only because of the overwhelming demand for it on the international film festival circuit. Attenberg is a minimalist coming-of-age tale and every frame is very nearly perfect.

5. 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH

Forget Lars von Trier's Melancholia (even though it came out in limited release around November 2011), the only end-of-the-world movie worth watching in the past year was Abel Ferrara's comparatively understated take on the last hours of consciousness in the face of inescapable destruction. Whereas LvT’s Melancholia was about destruction on a grand scale, going out with a big, gross CGI bang, 4:44 was about going out with a whimper, while being close to those you love.

4. TURN ME ON, DAMMIT!

Who would have thought a sweet, but serious Norwegian coming-of-age comedy from a first-time director would be a hit? This is another title that mostly flew under people's radar, which is a damn shame. It deals with teen sexuality in a raw, real, and honest way that avoids trivializing the complexity and confusion that puberty yields. The characters are memorable and lovable. Trust me, this is a great one.

3. THE COLOR WHEEL

We played this absolutely extraordinary, black-and-white, independent film at the Drafthouse back in August, but nobody came. The same thing more or less happened nationwide to any theater that booked it, with the exception of festival screenings, though Factory 25 deserves kudos for distributing it. It breaks my heart that for some reason, most audiences are less interested in new American voices or otherwise unwilling to take risks on something (or someone) they don’t recognize from TV or a hundred previous films, preferring instead familiar leading actors and actresses. I must be built differently, because this remarkable film is something I sought out from the first time it came up on my radar and is about something totally real, something tangible, and has more daring than any comedy film Hollywood has produced in the last decade.

2. WHORES’ GLORY

Nobody saw this gut-punch of a film because only Lincoln Center in NYC was brave enough to grant it a theatrical run. A cinematic triptych in documentary form, Austrian director Michael Glawogger's (who alternately directs auspicious documentaries and stoner comedies) film reveals the horrors and realities of prostitution in three of our world's locales: Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. While most documentaries feature an omniscient narrator, Whores' Glory speaks for itself -- the voices we hear are solely from prostitutes, their patrons, and the passers-by. All commentary is within the narrative, rather than at any kind of critical, purportedly objective, distance. Glawogger is present in the films visuals and its soundtrack, but is otherwise invisible. Whores' Glory is a film about something people avoid talking about, due in part to the fact that they do not understand it. This film is a window to understanding; a claustrophobic experience and one that every human should have.

1. HOLY MOTORS

Holy Motors is a film filled with so many sheer pleasures, countless charming, wonderful, and titillating surprises, that to describe it in linear, descriptive terms would be to spoil the experience altogether. It is that rare breed of film, an art house title lauded by critics, adorned with festival awards, and embraced by film programmers. Its utterly playful unpredictability casts any false notion of foreign film pretentiousness aside. Holy Motors is in many ways the perfect fit for the Alamo Drafthouse – a beautiful film that our audiences are drawn to magnetically. It delights me that until it left our theater on 12/25 we were the only theater showing this film in Austin.

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2012 truly held some remarkable films. No doubt there are many we have individually and cumulatively left off in our year-end lists, but exclusion is sadly inevitable. We are all looking forward to the many new cinematic experiences that 2013 holds and hope to see you at a Drafthouse location sometime soon. Happy New Year to all! Feel free to share your enthusiasm about these films, ask questions, and/or discuss openly. Cheers!

Sam Prime's photo About the Author: Sam Prime is a film programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and was previously the Director of Melnitz Movies at UCLA. His all-time favorite Sonny Chiba movie, WOLFGUY: ENRAGED LYCANTHROPE (1975), features Chiba as a werewolf detective tracking down a murderous, invisible ghost-tiger.
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