The Conversation: What Were the Favorite Films of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival?

The Conversation: What Were the Favorite Films of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival?

Jan 31, 2012

You don't need a Conversation roundup to tell you that Beasts of the Southern Wild is THE favorite film of Sundance 2012. Not only because of the critic polls at Indiewire and Movieline confirming it. And not just because it's the favorite of head Erik Davis and he's always right. If you followed the festival via Twitter or actual reviews over the past two weeks you've surely been convinced Benh Zeitlin's feature debut is the best thing to enter the world since oxygen. Pretty cool stuff given that we nearly lost the filmmaker to a horrible car accident back in 2008 (on his way to SXSW with his short Glory at Sea). Anyway, kudos to Hammer to Nail for sharing with The Conversation way in advance this would be one of the most anticipated films of the year, let alone Sundance. 

Of course, not everyone loves the film, and some that do like it still name other titles as the best of the fest (meanwhile sites like Next Movie and Geek Tyrant that round up in alphabetical order are hard to determine top of the top). With the very few that I saw, I can't rightfully put a favorite down on record though I do really like ComplianceRobot and Frank and Love Free or Die. I bet one day, if I completely wipe from my mind the high expectations I'm left with, I'll also think Beasts deserves its awards and acclaim. 

What are people saying are the best films of Sundance 2012? Here's The Conversation heard around the Internet:

At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, there was Beasts of the Southern Wild and then there was everything else. A number of past Sundances are thought of that way—the years of Ruby in Paradise, sex, lies, and videotape, Reservoir Dogs and perhaps a couple of others—but it's difficult to think of a festival at which, from an artistic pont of view, one film stood so completely apart from the others. But discoveries like Benh Zeitlin's first feature, a model American independent film that poetically examines the spirited, organic, punishing and determined lives of Louisiana fringe dwellers, don't come along every season. - Toddy McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

Beasts of the Southern Wild - As I referenced in my review, watching this reminded me of the first time I [saw] City of God, just the way it had an impact on me, how incredible the world it plays in is, the visuals, the characters, how real it all seems, how beautifully made it is. This is the film of Sundance 2012, in my opinion, the biggest discovery of the fest, and even though I saw it well after the hype had started, it still surpassed all my expectations. It's incredibly hard to describe, but it's an experience you just have to have. Be open to exploring this wonderful world, and you'll be blown away, too. My favorite film of the fest. - Alex Billington, First Showing

Beasts of the Southern Wild is an intimidating film to write about because it's so ambitious, so wildly imaginative and so many things at once that you never really know where to begin. How about we begin with it being the best film this year's Sundance Film Festival has to offer, or with it being the most ambitious piece of independent filmmaking I've ever seen at the festival. Sounds crazy and hyperbolic to say (and write) those things, but it's true. I was still wiping away tears 20 minutes after this film ended. It's emotionally devastating and hopeful at the same time; both beautiful and ugly, and angry and sad. It's the kind of film you experience instead of watch -- the kind of filmmaking you long to discover at a film festival. Beasts of the Southern Wild is independent cinema in its purist form, and if you let it consume you, the film may even change your life. - Erik Davis,


BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD - Is there really any other choice? Benh Zeitlin’s wondrous fairy tale of a film is, in this writer’s humble opinion, the best movie to play at Sundance since 2006’s HALF NELSON, and one of the best ever. It’s the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl living in the southernmost tip of Louisiana, known as “The Bathtub,” who must do battle with forces of nature—storms, floods, mythical beasts, and her stubborn father, in order to hold her family together. The film is a glorious love letter to the Katrina-ravaged south. It will make you laugh and cry, and some of the beautiful imagery of the film—as well as Wallis’ stunning performance—will stay with you for days. - Marlow Stern, Sundance Channel

Beasts of the Southern Wild (director Benh Zeitlin) - Words are inadequate when it comes to describing this visceral tale set in a Louisiana bayou ravaged by poverty and flooding. The first five minutes alone will dazzle you and make you want to go to there, as Liz Lemon would say. People laugh and whoop and rave with alluring abandon. They punch fish in the face. They eat every meal like it's their last. And the six-year-old star, Quvenzhane Wallis, is one firecracker of an actress. - Mina Hochberg, Nerve

A gripping, entirely unique creation, [Beats of the Southern Wild] is part childhood fairytale, part enviro-drama, and wholly enchanting. It stars a cast of unknowns, and is the debut feature of director Benh Zeitlin, whose true grit visuals – paired with dreamy narration – are both whimsically arresting and grubbily unpretentious. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, remarkable) lives in a Delta community known as ‘The Bathtub’, because it’s in constant threat of flooding. When Hushpuppy’s father falls ill, the end of the world seems nigh – especially when the melting icecaps unleash deadly monsters called aurochs. Wonderfully weird and flush with atmosphere, Beasts is a beautifully-lensed, surprisingly savage lullaby. - Josh Winning, Total Film

The best movies I saw at this year’s festival were Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which won the Grand Jury Award last night, and Craig Zobel’s “Compliance.” “Beasts,” about a young girl named Hushpuppy living in the bowels of southern Louisiana, mixes a low budget with magical realist CGI, incredibly lived-in production design, and the kind of voiceover and rural concerns that bring to mind early Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green. Those comparisons don’t do the film justice, however, as Zeitlin’s film has a chaotic, restless energy all its own, along with a unique concern for the ways man and nature–animals, especially–live together, which seems to stem directly from the film’s setting. “Compliance,” full of razor-sharp writing and directing, follows employees at a rural fast-food restaurant being asked to do unthinkable things by a prank caller pretending to be a police officer. The narrative is both a subtle examination of class issues, since the prank caller is an educated, comfortably middle-class suburbanite (we see him making sandwiches in his clean kitchen, a contrast to the dingy fast-food digs), as well as a a stunning example of dramatic irony, since we know what the audience doesn’t: that this man, who makes increasingly awful demands, is no cop. - James Francis Flynn, Cinespect

My favorite film of the fest, Mike Birbiglia’s warm, winning comedy Sleepwalk With Me, won the Best of NEXT Audience Award; another favorite, the wry time-travel comedy/drama Safety Not Guaranteed, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. - Jason Bailey, Flavorpill


Safety Not Guaranteed - Take time travel and wrap a quirky indie comedy around it, and you get this awesome, hilarious and original flick starring Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson and newcomer Karan Soni. What's most entertaining about Safety Not Guaranteed is that it keeps you guessing all the way through as the characters discover themselves and do a little bit of existential time traveling as they try to unravel the pieces of a potential time traveler who may or may not be absolutely crazy. The end will likely have audiences stand up and cheering. - Ethan Anderton, First Showing

'Safety Not Guaranteed' - Movie history littered with talented stand ups and supporting actors who just couldn't carry a feature comedy on their own. Fans of Aubrey Plaza may be surprised to learn that the "Parks and Recreation" star doesn't fall into that category after the debut of the farcical dramedy "Safety Not Guaranteed."  It helps that Plaza is surrounded by a more than capable ensemble including Jake M. Johnson ("New Girl"), Mary Lynn Rajskub, newcomer Karan Soni and current indie darling Mark Duplass  Admittedly, the script gets sidetracked a bit with Johnson's character, but the unexpected and moving ending makes up for it in the end. And Plaza? She actually conveys warmth and a three-dimensional character.  Who knew? - Gregory Ellwood, HitFix

West of Memphis - Amy (Deliver Us from Evil) Berg tackles the tale of the West Memphis Three, who were wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of three boys. With the help of producers/financers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh on board, the film goes heavily into investigating the new evidence discovered including talking to many people who have never spoken on camera outside the trial - from jurors to Judge Burnett and the prosecutors and even some of those who testified against the three guys who now denounce their own claims made on the stand. The biggest revelation is the amount of DNA evidence and testimony that further backs up claims that Terry Hobbs, one of the boys' stepfathers, may have been responsible. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for those guys, particularly Eccols being in solitary for so much time, but the film is incredibly powerful and moving, and you're not likely to leave it not outraged that the real killer (or killers) are still out and about. - Edward Douglas,

'The Imposter' - Hollywood's finest screenwriters will have to be working at their absolute peaks for any scripted drama this year to match the twists and turns of Bart Layton's documentary "The Imposter." The story of missing 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay and the mysterious French stranger who constructed an elaborate web of lies to take his place, seemingly fooling family and authorities alike, is a warped chronicle of grief, guilt and unknowable motivations. Layton had interview access to all of the members of Barclay's family and to The Imposter himself and their memories range from reflective to deluded to self-agrandizing, leaving viewers constantly questioning the interpretation of facts and memories in the most dynamic way possible. - Daniel Feinberg, HitFix

“Keep the Lights On” -I’ve already reviewed this breakthrough work from New York indie-film veteran Ira Sachs, which is both a fearless autobiographical examination of a drug-fueled long-term relationship and a delicate, almost anthropological examination of American gay life at the turn of the millennium. I fervently hope that “Keep the Lights On” can reach beyond the traditional limitations of the gay-cinema audience (which is pretty large, to be fair), because it’s a beautifully made American film anchored in a mesmerizing central performance by Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, who’s now ready for his crossover moment. - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

Keep The Lights On: This tender gay love story has two things going for it. First, it’s an unconventional romance that bucks the Hollywood insistence that the story ends when a couple gets together or decides to stay together. It’s tremendously refreshing to see a movie that chronicles the rise and fall of a relationship, insisting that just because two people can’t continue to be together doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Second, it’s a warm, funny, explicit look at what it means to be gay and in love in a post-AIDS era. The movie’s specificity, whether it’s the results of an HIV test, the documentary the main character Erik is working on, or changes in the hookup scene give the movie wonderful roots. - Alyssa Rosenberg, Think Progress

'Celeste and Jesse Forever' -There were plenty of rom-coms at Sundance this year, with many needing a defense on the very notion that they’re romantic. Rashida Jones’ debut screenplay can stand up for itself. It’s witty at the same time that it’s blushingly juvenile, wrapped around a story with which anybody who’s ever loved and lost can sympathize. Andy Samberg was able to baby-step into a more dramatic role while still keeping his geek-cool. Jones surrounded herself with believable and absurd supporting cast who keep a bummer of a break-up moving on, er, along. - Katie Hastey, HitFix


'The Surrogate' - Writer/director Ben Lewin is a longtime veteran of Hollywood, a man who is nearly 70 years old at this point, and it shows in the wise and warm way this film treats human sexuality.  John Hawkes and Helen Hunt don't shy away from any of the shades inherent to telling the true story of Mark O'Brien, crippled as a child by polio but determined in his late 30s to finally become a sexual being.  It is funny, it is painful, and it is impressive. - Drew McWeeny, HitFix

I firmly believe that Ben Lewin’s “The Surrogate” could be one of those movies that pops up next fall and turns into the kind of Oscar-bound sleeper that “The Artist” is this year. Last year at this time, no one had heard from Michel Hazanavicius’ silent film; now it’s the odds-on Oscar favorite. In the same way, Lewin’s film, based on a true story, features the kind of heart and intelligence with which audiences and critics connect a la “The Descendants.” - Marshall Fine, Hollywood & Fine

The most likely of all potential major nominees is Sundance darling John Hawkes for his work in "The Surrogate." Acquired by Fox Searchlight, audience members saw a career-defining performance from Hawkes playing -- like it or not -- an Academy favorite: A disabled person with a sense of humor. The Academy nominated Hawkes' much more subtle work in "Winter's Bone" a few year's back, so hopefully they'll also warm to his work here. - Peter Knegt, Indiewire

With the current crop of Oscar nominees just announced, Hawkes’ performance [in The Surrogate] is already considered a sure-fire contender for next year’s award season. Hold on to that stovepipe hat, Daniel Day-Lewis. - Anthony Breznican, Inside Movies [Entertainment Weekly]

Conversation Twitter Poll: What's your favorite film(s) of Sundance 2012?

@kateyrichBeasts of the Southern Wild, for all the reasons everyone has been saying. It's a wild and unique gem.

@misterpatchesSleepwalk with Me. A personal story executed in a uniquely personal fashion that speaks universally. And it's wicked funny.

@brandonRohwerV/H/S, for simply being a great ride and the first film to make the whole found footage thing actually work for me.

@jlichmanUNDER THE PINK SKY. It not being weird, but Japanese, turned a lot of folks away during P&I.

@dordotsonTeddy Bear, Oslo August 31st, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 28 Hotel Rooms, The Invisible War, The House I Live In

@pkwak: My favorite film at Sundance: I am Not a Hipster and Father's Chair

@ioncinema: Best film of Sundance 2012: Hands down Antonio Campos' Simon Killer - dark character study that prods the viewer - IFC Films have a winner



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