My Top Picks of 2012 - The Best Festival Indies of the Year As 2012 comes to a close, it's time to take stock of the year in cinema and post the requisite "Best of" list. However, this one won't look like any other you may see. And for good reason. Rules, disclaimers, and those good reasons follow for those who are as passionate about the subject as I am.

My world revolves around independent films and festivals so this list includes only indies which I saw at festivals for the first time in 2012. I specify "first time" because there are several which I saw in 2011 but were still on the circuit this year and saw again. Obviously I don't count those even though they may still have been among the best I saw at those particular 2012 fests.

Next, defining an independent film is something else entirely. I try to avoid including pictures produced and/or distributed by Hollywood studios or major studio specialty arms like Fox Searchlight, even though I may have seen them at festivals. However, in some cases there are truly independent films which were acquired for distribution just prior to, during, or after the festival in which I saw it. In those cases I simply use my best judgment.
It follows from the above that while many of these do not yet have distribution (and, perhaps, never will) there are some which have already been released in theaters. So you may see some of these films on other critics' lists. But you'll find that this list can be quite different from others because most critics use date of theatrical distribution as a rule. Therefore, you may see some being nominated and winning awards now which were actually on my list last year because they weren't released until this year. It's not uncommon. For example, Submarine was on many 2011 year-end critics' lists and it won a slew of awards. It played dozens of film fests and hit theaters in June 2011. But it was on my list in 2010 because I saw it, and selected it as a Top Pick, after its World Premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Alpha Dog, which I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006, made my year-end list in 2006 but it wasn't released until January 2007. Fierce People debuted at Tribeca in April 2005 and had a small release in theaters in September 2007, but most didn't see it until it finally came out on DVD in February 2008, almost four years after it was shot. I attended the World Premiere of Cook County at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival and it opened last Christmas season, over three and a half years later. There are quite a few movies that come to the attention of other critics long after they've debuted at festivals which had been on my Top Picks in the years I first saw them. So my lists are often quite ahead of the curve.

While I do choose a list of Top Picks for each individual event I attend, taking a list from one and comparing it to another is like apples and oranges. First, the quantity of films at each one is different. I might catch as many as 40 screenings or more at a particular festival, such as the 49 features I saw this year at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (FLIFF), or only a few (just seven at FLIFF's Israeli Film Festival) and then choose up to 10 or more Top Picks per festival depending on how many I saw. Sometimes I don't pick any at all. Second, the quality of the lineup can vary greatly from one to another. For example, my #1 Top Pick from one festival might not even make a list of Top 10 Picks from the next. So to then compile some sort of grand list becomes quite difficult. At first glance it would seem to make the most sense to slice off the cream of the crop for each festival to come up with an overall list of Top Picks. But, alas, some simply fall short when compared to others. I'll leave it to the reader to do some research and read between the lines.

So those are my criteria. Now my job is to tally up all my 2012 film festival Top Picks and see what stood out. But forcing an artificial limit of 10 begs the question -- why 10? Looking back, I posted a Top 20 at the end of 2006. In 2007, I attended 11 festivals, saw 200 films, and narrowed that down to 25. In 2008, I attended 10 and saw about 150. I did manage to choose 10 but only with great difficulty. (I'm still not sure why I didn't just do what I did the year before -- maybe it was just a bad year overall.) In 2009 I went to nine festivals and saw around 125 films. I thought the smartest thing to do was to go back to my 2008 criteria and simply pick the ones with the biggest "wow" factor, so I chose 16. I did the same in 2010. But last year I was able to come up with a meaningful Top 10 without much difficulty. Then again, I did also name 10 Honorable Mentions. I also named five I liked but had "limited audience appeal" (like rock docs). Oh, and I singled out four others for good measure. Okay, so I guess it really ended up being a Top 29 list.

So do I try to chop them down to 10 as I've been trying (and failing) to do for the past seven years? Or do I do what I've always ended up doing and just go with my gut? It's a dilemma -- and I'm not alone. Even such esteemed critics as The New York Times' A.O. Scott has not limited his Ten Best list to ten. Several years ago he chose 19 titles for the same reason. This year I attended 10 festivals. I saw approximately 200 films in total and selected 70 collectively as Top Picks (going by my guidelines of about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total per fest). This list comes from that pool of favorites. There's no doubt in my mind that this year's overall crop of movies was better than in 2011. So here's my decision for 2012...

I don't always list narrative features and documentaries separately. But this year there were many docs among my Top Picks -- 11 to be exact -- and several were exceptional, so I've chosen the four that stood out the most. In addition, while English-speaking films are the ones which traditionally get released and are seen by North American audiences, I always try to see as many "foreign films" as possible -- particularly subtitled ones (as opposed to "foreign" films from English-speaking countries). In the vernacular of the Academy and many critics' groups, these would be known as "Foreign Language Films." I've never considered those in a separate category, but with 15 foreign language titles among my pool of 70 favorites, I'll single out five that deserve special recognition. That leaves everything else -- English language narratives -- which includes 44 eligible films. I've selected 15. Therefore, this will be a year-end Top 24.

I've also included a short list of "Honorable Mentions." These include several films that were "on the bubble" -- I agonized over leaving them out -- and some with qualifications -- titles that came very close to making my list but had to be set aside due to their appeal to a narrower, more specific audience.

Here are my Top Picks of 2012 (countries of origin in parentheses).

Top 15 (in alphabetical order -- click title for review, photos and video of Q&As, and interviews where available):

Blackbird (Canada)

The Cabin in the Woods (US)

Cloud Atlas (Germany/US/Hong Kong/Singapore)

Disconnect (US)

Electrick Children (US)

For a Good Time, Call... (US)

Funeral Kings (US)

I Declare War (Canada)

John Dies at the End (US)

On the Road (France/UK/US/Brazil)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (US)

The Playroom (US)

Robot & Frank (US)

Sinister (US)

Tio Papi (US)

Top 5 Foreign Language Films (in alphabetical order -- click title for review, photos and video of Q&As, and interviews where available):

Apartment in Athens (Italy/Germany)

Dead Europe (Australia/UK)

Father's Chair (Brazil)

The Hunt (Denmark)

The Matchmaker (Israel)

Top 4 Documentaries (in alphabetical order -- click title for review, photos and video of Q&As, and interviews where available):

Beware of Mr. Baker (US)

Last Call at the Oasis (US)

Uprising (Egypt/US)

Searching for Sugar Man (Sweden/UK)

I would also like to acknowledge the following films, some whose content precludes me from making broad recommendations but which I believe deserve recognition nonetheless. These include movies that were "on the bubble." Keep in mind that just because a film is an Honorable Mention shouldn't take away from the fact that I loved it. Remember, I saw dozens of pictures which you don't see listed in this article at all, including many that I selected as Top Picks from their respective festivals.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order -- click title for review, photos and video of Q&As, and interviews where available):

Fat Kid Rules the World (US)

Goats (US)

Hunky Dory (UK)

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)

Pavilion (US)

Una Noche (US/UK/Cuba)

Vanishing Waves (Lithuania/France/Belgium)

Stuck in Love (US) -- formerly Writers

Some of these films have already played theaters and come out on VOD, DVD, or are awaiting home video release, others are playing now or will be soon, and the rest don't yet have distribution in the States or overseas or both. But all are worth your time. Try to see them if you can -- I guarantee you won't be disappointed.


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at

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  • Author: Larry Richman
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