The Pantograph Punch Recommends: The 2013 NZ International Film Festival
Every year, the number of films programmed in the New Zealand International Film Festival overwhelms me. There are too many. Too many possible masterpieces. Too many possible duds. I'm an anxious person by nature, so attempting to select a handful of films from a list of 180 fills me with crawling trepidation.
Unlike local film aficionados, I don't have a seven-tier ranking system, nor do I have an existing wishlist of recent releases. I've no idea what to expect. My selection process is far more nuanced: it involves clumsily ripping apart two copies of the booklet and creating a glossy pile that I'll whittle down based on 'feelings', on blurbs, on screenshots and trailers.
It's this process and others similar to it that brings you our top six picks of the festival (three of which we doubled up on and are presented first below). We're also joined by local film aficionado Hugh Lilly, who'll be covering this year's festival over at The Listener. -RT
Rosabel: Just watching the trailer is harrowing. Christ. Okay: Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing. It's produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the greatest documentary-makers of our time and follows a group of men who were promoted from peddling black market movies to leading the most brutal death squad during the Indonesian Killings of the mid-60s. The concept for this documentary floors me. It's art therapy for aging gangsters. You watch these happy grandfathers, these celebrated mass murderers, cheerfully recreating their memories in the style of their favourite films. It's awful, but it's through this process that they begin to reconceptualise their actions with newfound empathy. I only get to see one of my picks this year because I'm overseas for the rest and I'm so pleased it's this one.
Joe: The others already put this, I just know it – but when was the last time you were riveted for actuals by a documentary trailer? There are a number of ‘straighter’ films about Suharto’s Indonesia out there, but the high-concept here looks incredible. Reach back to the film-loving youth who became a death squad leader, make him recreate his killings as genre exercises, and finally, let these flashes of horror bleed through into the film proper. Herzog said it was “unprecedented in the history of cinema” – and he made Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, so he should know.
Hugh: Paolo Sorrentino’s latest, which appears to be his most gloriously Felliniesque, will likely prove the most stylish piece of cinema at this year’s festival. His regular actor Toni Servillo plays Jep, a blocked writer; the story takes place on his 65th birthday. Its trailer makes it seem part Spring Breakers “à Roma,” part moodily introspective journey into Jep’s soul. Here’s hoping it’s at least as good as Sorrentino’s stunning 2004 film The Consequences of Love.
Rosabel: This is my pick for best film about a middle-aged crisis (incidentally, one of my favourite genres) for two reasons. First, Toni Servillo. He's consistently marvellous. He has this particular way of embodying the full emotion of a scene, absorbing it with such ferocity that it becomes a step removed. He's the physical manifestation of subtext, like a water balloon filled with hot soup. He'll be great in this role. Second, it's Sorrentino so you know it'll be a luscious, visual delight (evident even in last year's underwhelming This Must Be The Place - don't see it, but do watch this clip of the titular song being performed).
Joe: I know Alejandro Jodorowsky has one of those big cult cinema followings, though I only know him from completely freaking out at 4 in the morning watching Holy Mountain on my old flatmate’s laptop. Very fascinated and disturbed to learn to he made a children’s movie about ‘a young English girl and an Indian elephant who share a common destiny’, but he’s been dormant for 20 years. If it seems a little less lurid than Holy Mountain, it looks every bit as batshit insane - and in places, like the most divisive possible screen adaptation of One Hundred Years Of Solitude.
Rosabel: Confession #1: This wasn't even on my longlist. I glossed over it in the programme, where it's attached to a dry blurb patched with impassioned description and a forgettable screenshot of what looks like a sombre post-war drama. It wasn't until it was recommended by a friend of mine that I watched the trailer (confession #2: friend is Joe). The Bradshaw quote in the programme doesn't do the review or the film justice - what you really want to quote is this:
Alejandro Jodorowsky's first film for more than two decades is a triumphant return, which mixes autobiography, politics, torture and fantasy to exuberant, moving effect
It is all intensely weird but The Dance Of Reality did make me laugh out loud at many moments, especially when Ibanez comes to inspect a novelty dog competition: "I don't want to live in a world of dressed-up dogs," moans one dissident.
Turns out heaps of my picks this year revolve around the play between fiction and non-fiction and this one looks like it'll be a playful and absurd exploration of that space. Nobody wants to live in a world of novelty dogs.
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked what I look for in movies before, actually. I feel like I’m actually depressingly omnivorous, and in particular movies turn me into a craven yes-man more than anything else. I’ll oblige if I’m invited to go see anything because I have no idea whether I’ll like it or hate it. Meager extractions from this: I know I like documentaries a lot, and that even flawed ones are worthwhile because of the kind of discussions that come out of them. A sense that the people involved in a film were enjoying themselves (this could come through pretty clearly on screen if it’s a comedy, more in a sense of adventure and inventiveness where it’s not) means a lot to me. The film can be a shambles and I’ll still watch people having a great time. I can enjoy stuff with an overwhelming mood, even to the point that it becomes a tone poem with actors, but I always feel very guilty that I’ve never really enjoyed those ‘slow moving slice of life in small non-Western town’ movies that comprise 70% of any film festival, anywhere. The worst film I have ever seen is Mutual Appreciation, apparently a sort of ‘mumblecore’ genre-classic. Mumblecore?
The Skeptics’ legacy looms large and devastating and terrible, and the fact that most of their music has been very difficult to find, even now, only strengthens it. A fearsome live reputation, banned videos and a singer who died too young would elevate lots of okay bands to the cult pantheon, but they’d stand up without it – more than an equal to what Swans were doing at the same time, and the nasty flipside to the rest of their label’s elegiac Dunedin drone. Simon Ogston’s doco gathers a wealth of archival footage, the surviving members, and the recollections of their contemporaries. It looks amazing. Were you really going to watch that National documentary instead? Fuck off.
I didn’t have scope to fit it into the journalism and mythmaking piece, but our official treatment of investigative journalists is singularly gross in New Zealand. Particularly in the last couple of years, where our Prime Minister has sneered off the likes of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson as kooks and come off like some ur-Deputy Head Boy. This was already on Māori TV in April, but Annie Goldson’s coverage of our country’s role in Afghanistan, and Stephenson’s dogged and dangerous efforts to observe it, deserves a wider audience.
We had three choices to go preview at the festival launch, and I figured You’re Next is the kind of thing that someone’s going to have sitting on a hard drive at some point for me to see, while I wasn’t going to stumble into watching a Sarah Polley documentary about family in the same way. The theater was virtually empty, but I’m glad I saw it and proud to thoroughly recommend it.
The stunt is that members of Polley’s family are filmed separately recounting their memories of her late mother, Diane, and that stitched together, these will film a coherent whole. But there’s much more going here – when the film feels like it’s over in 40 minutes, it’s really just beginning. There’s a couple of astonishing twists, some uncanny fake Super-8 footage recreating Polley’s young parents, some meta-moments that ask critical questions of the project overall, and a couple of shots that absolutely destroyed me of the doco’s emotional core, Polley’s stoic and sad British father. Do yourself a favour and don’t read about it – or her – before checking it out.
Impossible to find a good trailer for this one, but the advance descriptions of Heli are daunting, while the stills are beautiful. Centred around a poor young Mexican factory-worker while threading in the lives of several characters, it sounds a little bit like Gomorrah gone Latin American – all the institutions in abeyance, the moral bankruptcy at the tip reaching down to the bottom, and characters fighting to live and love in the aftermath. But it’s also got an Audition-like switchback ride into the red halfway through that apparently stunned Cannes. Probably not a crucial spoiler, but the phrase ‘already notorious penis-burning scene’ crops up in a few of the reviews I’ve read.
Nodding enthusiastically at Joe's mention of Mutual Appreciation (sorry Hugh there's no way I'm thanking him for Girls, not even in a roundabout way). It's one of the most regrettable video-store decisions I've made. Miranda July's The Future is another. Though I'm not discounting mumblecore films as a genre, it can only work if you have a filmmaker with a natural instinct for storytelling and actors who can improvise a compelling narrative. Mutual Appreciation lacked both. The Future felt like a sad parody of quirk and whimsy - "indie film's greatest joke", with the great twist being that it's not (it's for this reason that Frances Ha isn't on my list. Even though I adore Noah Baumbach the trailer for this made me gag).
In terms of what I look for in a film, apart from a well-formed plot, I have major love for sharp dialogue (The Squid and The Whale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Royal Tenenbaums), visual stylishness (The Fall, The Consequences of Love, 2046) and structural experimentation (Adaptation, Reprise). I like confrontational films (Amour). I like big, dumb films (300), and a cursory thematic analysis reveals an unhealthy appetite for doomed romance (Videodrome, Oldboy), childhood trauma (Pan's Labyrinth, Spirited Away) and Eastern European absurdity (Black Cat, White Cat).
In selecting these festival films, I haven't taken into account whether they're going to come out on general release, nor whether they're being screened digitally or on film because I simply can't tell - let alone appreciate - the difference. I have taken into account the unique enthusiasm of a festival audience and how much that adds to the experience of a film. The Room and The Cabin in the Woods stand out as remarkable nights of shared fear and delight, and would have been nowhere near as enjoyable alone, without spoons (my picks this year are You're Next and Lesson of the Evil).
A Touch of Sin links four stories set across modern-day China, based on true events but cast in hyperviolent tones. It's a departure from Jia Zhang-Ke’s previous style of documentary realism but, as with The Act of Killing, this creates that uncomfortable dissonance where your enjoyment of unmeted violence depends on its truth.
It's something I thought about with Zoe McIntosh's The Deadly Ponies Gang, too, bewilderingly categorised on the NZIFF website under 'Women Make Movies' and 'Horses' (honestly don't know what I'm looking at here). Remember the 'help my mate Dwayne get some teeth' gig at Golden Dawn? This is about those guys, Clint and Dwayne, West-Auckland pony-riding gang who "deal tinnies to pony club mums and bling out their own brave steeds with pearls, sunglasses and glitter." So, so funny, and plays with the way you enjoy comedy (which came first: the gig or the film, and does it change the way you engage with the humour?)
Translated as 'mum and dad are not home', Ilo Ilo (Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia) is a loosely autobiographical account of a Filipina maid settling in with an unruly ten-year-old boy, a pregnant mother, and a secretly unemployed father. It's my most personal pick. When I was six I spent the Australian summer with my aunties and uncles in Singapore - my brother had just been born and I was a godawful attention-seeking nightmare. I remember being astounded by the concept of a live-in maid. My grandparents treated theirs like a friend. Little was asked of her given their low-maintenance lifestyle, and during the five years she lived with them she rarely returned to the Philippines. Other families were more demanding. Far more demanding, but what remained clear was that they were part of the family. It's a relationship that continues to fascinate me. It borders on a kind of polygamy, accompanied by uneasy intimacy, jealousy and territoriality. It's also something I've never been able to ask my family about, so I'm privately pleased to see this in the programme.
Not entirely sure what this film's about since it seems to defy concise description (the programme refers to it as "the year's most tantalising cinematic whatsit"), but it looks beautiful, will be fantastic (it's from the guy who made Primer, the most mind-fuckingly complex time-travel movie ever made), and it's my recommendation to you if you want to see, say, a Lynchian science fiction about (I think?) synthetic manipulation of the mind.
I’ve already seen a few of this year’s film-festival selections, but I’ll be shelling out to see two of them again on the big screen—so dazzling are their visuals, and so sumptuous their sound design. To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s mesmeric follow-up to the greatest film of the last decade, The Tree of Life, has been on iTunes* for a few months now; the new film from Primer director Shane Carruth, Upstream Color, is available on his website in various physical and digital formats. Both of these narratively elliptical dream-worlds will benefit enormously from being projected on a huge screen—and, in the case of Color, being heard through the Civic’s impressive new speaker system. (I’m sure they’ll also look and sound great in other centres.)
It hasn’t made my recommendation list, but Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is worth seeing. Initially a superficial-seeming documentary about her family’s past, the film solidifies as an imperfect essay on how half-remembered theories transmute into historical facts, and how keeping simple truths hidden can be a) really difficult and b) ultimately pretty hurtful to just about everyone involved.
Noah Baumbach and Sofia Coppola both have new films this year… only time will tell which will attract the most hipsters. (Although nothing will beat the flood of well-dressed horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing Wes Anderson devotees at last year’s screenings of Moonrise Kingdom.) Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, dramatises the story of “the most audacious burglary-gang in recent Hollywood history.” A movie by Coppola about power-hungry bored rich kids who want to become infamous (and even richer) shouldn’t come as a surprise if you look at the themes of her previous films. From The Virgin Suicides (bored, suicidal kids) to Marie Antoinette (bored, powerful kids) to the kinda-autobiographical Somewhere (a bored man-child and his rich kid), Coppola’s work has, sometimes intensely and always unashamedly, given weight to what the Internet facetiously labels “first-world problems.” At the very least it’ll be interesting to see what it has to say about the youth of today in the context of such films as Project X and Harmony Korine’s latest outing.
On the surface, Baumbach’s Frances Ha seems to be a mumblecore-ish contemporary ode to Manhattan; it’ll either end up being so much more—a comedy about twentysomething indecision with a real heart—or it’ll fall into pastiche. (Its theft of the “Modern Love” sequence from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang is already infamous…) Greta Gerwig, who was radiant opposite Ben Stiller in Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg, stars in the title role.
Andrew Bujalski kick-started the mumblecore movement almost a decade ago with his début Mutual Appreciation. So it’s him we have to thank, in a round-about way, for Girls and films such as Your Sister’s Sister. At first glance, Bujalski’s latest outing could be mistaken for documentary—but it’s actually his (and the genre’s) first period picture. The vérité film, a thriller-comedy that takes place in one weekend at an early-’80s computer-chess tournament, was shot on video with contemporaneous equipment—so it’s both a thematic and stylistic departure from his previous work. It’s not just about chess though: a couple’s-therapy seminar in the same hotel encroaches on the story bit-by-bit. The director’s previous films feature astute observations on human interaction and dependency (thinking here of the so-so Beeswax), so it’ll be fascinating to see what happens when non-human objects are bought to the fore.
A Kiwi film that isn’t a coming-of-age story about disenfranchised youth in a (semi-)rural community? Sign me right up. I’ve never been to the ballet and I haven’t seen Toa Fraser’s № 2, but, having read and looked at a fair amount about it, this documentary of his—which follows the RNZB’s most recent season of the titular ballet—seems like it’ll be really fantastic. I’m just annoyed that it hasn’t been given the opening-night gala treatment.
After winning Best Director at Cannes last year, Carlos Reygadas announced that he wanted to re-tool his film, which had been vociferously booed, before it was distributed around the world. (A similar thing is happening with this year’s Palme winner, though that’s more at the behest of US censors than of angst-filled critics.) Lux was one of the most-talked about films on the Croisette that year, and the nzff were promised it for this year’s slate. A little odd, then, that more fanfare hasn’t attended its appearance in the programme—though the notes do describe it, a little off-puttingly, as “primal, mystifying, and enthralling.” Terry Malick, eat your heart out.
Conspicuously absent from this year’s programme is James Gray’s much-vaunted The Immigrant, the film I’m most looking forward to this year. (If you’re not familiar with his work, go watch Two Lovers right now.) I hope the festival’s inability to secure it for the current programme doesn’t mean it’ll get the kind of treatment The Master unfairly received. Picked up by a mainstream distributor, Roadshow Films, probably because of parent-company obligations, Paul Thomas Anderson’s near-perfect film was, after months of erring, dumped on fewer than a half-dozen screens in only one city. It’s the best film of last year, and barely anyone saw it. It would be a horrible shame if Gray’s picture were to receive the same fate.
* To the Wonder is available only in the US store, which you can access form New Zealand by buying a gift-card.