15 Films to See at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival
Our top picks from this year's New Zealand International Film Festival, featuring mass forgeries, a Technicolour fever dream and a very special bad movie.
This year, the New Zealand International Film Festival has announced its largest selection of films ever, news that will alarm as many as it excites. For every cinephile eagerly creating spreadsheets to track their schedules, there are dozens of normal humans overwhelmed by choice. Where to start?
Well, we’d suggest Faces Places (Visages Villages), the latest film by the ‘Mother of the French New Wave’, Agnès Varda. But of course we would: we’re delighted to be sponsoring this year’s Centerpiece film. This joyful and bittersweet road trip across France (between the octogenarian filmmaker and the young muralist, JR) took Cannes 2017 by storm.
We’ll have more about Varda - and other films and filmmakers at the NZIFF - over the next few weeks, and Aucklanders: we’ll be coming to you live with a candid conversation about truth and the blurry lines that documentary-makers have to navigate. Featuring filmmakers Gaylene Preston (My Year With Helen), Annie Goldson (Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web), Paul Oremland (100 Men) and Tearepa Kahi (Poi E: The Story of Our Song), Hard Truths will be taking place at The Civic’s Wintergarden on Saturday 22nd July at 1pm. Tickets go on sale next week, but in the meantime: here are the films we're excited to see.
Jacob’s special NZIFF recipe: in your cinematic bowl combine a cup of observational documentary, a spoonful of social satire, a tablespoon of twisted psychodrama, a squeeze of vérité, a sprinkling of coming-of-age and romance, a dash of deadpan—no, make it two. Now, bake for eighteen days. What could possibly go wrong?
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
There are certain filmmakers whose sensibilities are completely in tune with yours, and Yorgos Lanthimos is most definitely on my wavelength. His inimitable blend of artful transgression and pitch-black whimsy makes some people’s skin crawl, but gives me the right kind of goosebumps - and I'm super excited to see his Cannes-selected The Killing Of A Sacred Deer included in the NZIFF programme. The write-up points to a tone skewing more dark than humorous this time round, but Lanthimos has re-teamed with Colin Farrell, who astounded me with an unexpected career best in The Lobster, and is joined by Nicole Kidman who excels in unsettling roles like these. Basically, bring on the messed-up Greek weirdness!
On Body And Soul
We live in an information reality that precludes the kinds of cinematic surprises we used to get regularly pre-social media saturation, where everything is talked to death before it gets near our screens. But I’ve never heard of this film, or Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi, and On Body And Soul has the kind of write-up that makes me light up: Abattoirs, dead-armed, finance-controlling suitors, strange shared dreams and the kind of manic tonal gymnastics Bong Joon-ho gave us in The Host? Sell me a ticket now.
Where I may enjoy the weird and creepy, I’m actually a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror. Not a ‘code brown’ scaredy—at least that’s what I'll keep telling myself!—rather the kind of person who does not get pleasure from trying to freak myself out. But a documentary about the people who run and work in a monster house 30 minutes drive from my home? This could be just the ticket. Every Florian Habicht documentary I’ve seen has been a warm, joyous exploration of everyday people intersecting with interesting events. Florian mixing it up with Spookers’ unlikely bunch of horror hounds promises to be a magical, if somewhat grisly, ride.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm no film buff, but I do love sitting in a good theatre seat, childless, with a glass of wine. My picks for this year’s NZIFF are driven by my taste for any type of cultural consumption, art and literature alike, which is a craving for good stories about indigenous, people of colour or non-dominant groups told well.
China’s Van Goghs
I’m excited for anything that conflates our ideas of authenticity within the Western art canon. Art holds onto many hierarchical ideas of the artist and the labourer, which China’s Van Goghs looks to confront. Dafen, China is the world’s largest oil-painting village, employing around 10,000 painters to produce replicas of the Western canon’s most famous paintings to be on-sold in Europe. Focusing on one painter from Dafen – who I call an artist, others may call a labourer – Zhao Xiaoyong, the film examines this booming replica trade and the Chinese labour that fuels it. Zhao is a Van Gogh specialist, a master in his own right, whose dream is to travel to see the originals he has come to know so well.
It’s something about being in the Trump era that makes me want to hold onto the Obama years. In Quest, we see ten years of filming - following a young African American family and their working-class neighbourhood during the Obama Administration - condensed into an hour-and-a-half. While here in Aotearoa we look to America through a much-welcomed sense of distance, Quest focuses on those who perhaps had the most at stake. Quest joins the NZFF line-up along with I Am Not Your Negro and Step, which all attempt to shed light on various aspects of the African American experience.
Now I don’t know about you, but I had no idea about the Indigenous Sami people of Sweden until a number of ‘reckons’ popped up about Sami Blood last year after it screened at Sundance. Set in the 1930s, Sami Blood reveals a shameful history of assimilation. a past that many colonised lands - Aotearoa and our Australian neighbours included - can identify with. I'm always sceptical about who is authoring stories like this, but I'm happy to reveal that this film is inspired by the Sami-Swedish writer-director's own grandmother, and the cast includes Sami actors (casting calls our Hollywood mates could learn from!)
I recently realised that because I have to see so much theatre, my film habits have shifted to fill the delicious extremes I miss out on onstage, leading to a (let's face it, imbalanced) diet of Korean revenge films, procedurals, thrillers, and dark and dystopic sci-fi. There’s probably something lofty I could say about how these all explore the extremities of human experience, but really I just love big ideas and dumb emotions. When it comes to the Festival, I also gravitate towards films that are better shared with a theatre full of people: horror movies, tough social dramas, and films made in Aotearoa (because how great is it being able to celebrate new work with hundreds of other people?)
This year’s surprise Palme d’Or winner, The Square, promises a merciless skewering of the contemporary art world from Swedish director Ruben Östlund (who brought us 2014’s wickedly awkward Force Majeure). The film follows a curator on the brink of a disastrous PR stunt involving the titular installation, which visitors are invited to occupy and be well-behaved within (as expected, this immediately falls apart). Reviews for this deadpan satire have been mixed, but expect this two-and-a-half-hour film to pose some hefty questions (can art have real social value?) while shockingly - disturbingly? - still making you laugh.
While there isn’t much information yet about Waru, I know enough to know I won’t be missing its world premiere. The film stitches together eight shorts by eight Māori female directors, each circling around a young boy who’s been killed at the hands of his caregiver. Spanning the perspectives of the family, the extended family, the community and the national media, Waru feels like an expansive, complex and necessary portrait of an issue we don’t see represented - or talk about - enough.
It’s a very specific kind of nerd (me) who’ll delight in the absurdly high-but-who-cares stakes of this stylish thriller from director Nattawut Poonpiriya. Bad Genius tracks a group of Thai high-school students willing to do anything they can to ace their exams and make a profit in the process - including engineering an international plot to get their hands on the most important thing in the world… the answers to their multi-choice university entrance test.
My film festival MO is pretty simple: I want to see and feel something unexpected. Like Doug (below), I go for films that I’ll never be able to see again, and those that promise a terrific in-cinema experience - whether that’s a screaming audience of likeminded nerds, or a film that swallows you whole. After kinda stuffing up one year, during which I selected a bevy of beautiful, worthy but relentlessly difficult films, I also make sure I include some upbeat couch-jumpers to act as cinematic palate cleanser. Either way, the weird and wonderful always jump the queue.
The Love Witch
Retro romantic horror-thriller The Love Witch ticks all these boxes. It’s a luxuriant, exquisite passion project, constructed with meticulous, obsessive love by writer / director / costume and production designer / cinematic polymath Anna Biller. The swinging, yearning and often murderous escapades of lovelorn witch Elaine are rendered archly as a hyperreal 1960s Technicolour fever dream – think Angela Carter’s dark, feminist fairy tales by way of Russ Meyer. Pastiche has been the po-mo language of choice for quite some time, but this delicious confection sits well-coiffed head and elegant shoulders over anything comparable, and slyly demonstrates the satirical power of camp.
The Farthest is the sort of expansive, joyous, and deeply humanist doco that makes you want to cry, ‘Hell yeah science!’ Two dozen enthusiastic first-person accounts of the insanely ambitious and successful 40-year-old Voyager project are illustrated with documentary footage and stunning, whooshy CGI that’ll make the cinema feel like your own personal planetarium. The film opts for a tone of genial curiosity rather tech-focused detail, but in doing so it expresses a profound sense of optimism that is about as outward looking as you can get. Pair with Minute Bodies for the ultimate macro / micro experience.
My Life As A Courgette
I’m a little obsessed with children’s films, and Oscar-nominated treasure My Life As A Courgette will leave the little kids entranced and the big kids (i.e. me) feeling all warm and weepy. Adapted for the screen by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood and Tomboy), it’s the tender story of a boy nicknamed Courgette who, following the death of his alcoholic mother, finds himself in a welcoming orphanage populated by delightful misfits. Do you want a big-hearted exploration of the families we make for ourselves, rendered in gorgeous, tactile, and invitingly smooshable stop-motion animation? Yes please. It’s screening both in its native French and with an American overdub, and if you don’t have little kids in tow I’d absolutely insist on the former.
As an omnivorous cinephile, I could be talked into seeing any film at NZIFF, which makes prioritising maddening. Apart from the directors that I’ll always catch up with - and you best believe that I broke out the soju when I saw two Hong Sang-Soo films were playing this year - I have three types of films I prioritise: films that demand the big screen, films I may never have a chance to see again, and films that are likely to provide an unforgettable cinema experience. Here are one of each:
I’ve seen Stalker on the big screen before, fifteen or so years ago, and it was a religious experience. I use the term advisedly: Andrei Tarkovsky is a man who is serious about his devotion. It’s a miracle that Stalker exists: after a year, of shooting, it transpired all the film was improperly developed and unusable. One of the few retro films on the programme this year (the others being Belle de Jour, Multiple Maniacs, and Minute Bodies), Stalker is a transcendental reverie, oft ripped-off (most recently in Z For Zachariah) but never surpassed, and while its dour tone and slow pace may strike some as ponderous, its stunning imagery will command Auckland’s Civic screen like no other film this year. Come get washed away with a visionary science fiction masterpiece.
There are plenty of films I’ve been anticipating by reputation, but I’d never heard of this film before yesterday. It immediately pushed all my buttons - a premiere at Locarno (the film festival that makes Cannes entrants look like Baywatch), a three-hour runtime (a veritable guarantee that it’s something special, given that it’s taking up timeslots two other films can fill), a peculiar subculture (Japanese nightlife in Thailand), and warm reviews in my Letterboxd filter bubble. Director Katsuya Tomita is a complete unknown to me - his other film, interestingly, focuses on Brazilians in Japan - but I can’t imagine I’ll have another chance to discover his work anytime soon.
The Evil Within
Let’s say you’ve gotten this far, and you’re frustrated because you don’t like movies like these … y’know, “arty”, “good”, “well-made”. Well, I’ve got a movie for you. When the initially unpromising horror film The Evil Within surfaced this year, disasterpiece aficionados quickly sounded the klaxons. It’s important to understand that any cynical person can make a terrible movie (screw you, Sharknado), but the truly special 'bad movies' are borne of a unique, completely misguided personal vision. Troll 2 and The Room are two that have previously received the Incredibly Strange seal of approval. Now, this 15-years in the making passion project by Andrew Getty, who died before its completion, comes to the newly refurbished Hollywood Theatre to stake its claim for immortality. Come watch a bunch of genre nerds lose their shit - if you’re not too busy scraping your brain off the floor.
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We are also excited to be presenting a one-off conversation about truth and documentaries as part of the Festival's opening weekend!
In the era of post-truth editorialising and 'alternative facts', it's easier than ever to distort reality to further an agenda. But where does this leave documentaries? What are our expectations when it comes to seeing the truth on screen, and can we ever justify a lie in service of something bigger?
For one afternoon only, we're bringing together documentary-makers Gaylene Preston (My Year With Helen), Annie Goldson (Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web), Tearepa Kahi (Poi E) and Paul Oremland (100 Men) for a candid conversation about their relationships and responsibilities to the truth, and the uncharted waters they've navigated in their work. Chaired by Julie Hill.
Saturday 22 July • 1-2pm