This year’s festival featured one of the most impressive line-ups yet, with a record number of entries direct from the prestigious Cannes film festival. I was awe-struck by the range of must-see documentaries (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Project Nim, Senna, Tabloid) as well as Asian cinema (13 Assassins, Cold Fish, I Saw the Devil, Let the Bullets Fly, The Man From Nowhere, Norwegian Wood, The Yellow Sea). Check out my Top 5 picks below (listed in alphabetical order), followed by some honourable mentions.
13 ASSASSINS (Takashi Miike; Japan, 2010)
13 Assassins is the most conventional film to date from Japan’s most prolific director, Takashi Miike, who is responsible for countless festival favourites including Audition, Ichi the Killer and Sukiyaki Western Django. It may also be his most rewarding. This is an elegant and entertaining samurai film which embraces the traditions of the genre, rather than attempting to reinvent them. It owes much to Akira Kurosawa’s genre-defining works, especially The Seven Samurai, but does not pale in comparison to them like most. 13 Assassins is set in the late Edo period (1830s) and stars Koji Yakusho as Shinzaemon, a trusted elder samurai who is secretly hired by a senior government official to assassinate the sadistic and out of control Lord Naritsugu. In Naristugu we have a truly evil villain: he rapes, maims and kills at will but is untouchable because he is the Shogun’s younger brother. Shinzaemon recruits a rag-tag group of fellow samurai and devises a plan to ambush Naristugu on his journey home from Edo. The film climaxes with an epic battle scene which lasts nearly 40 minutes and is one of the most visually spectacular, gloriously choreographed, highly immersive and exhausting action scenes in recent memory. Hollywood filmmakers ought to pay attention to how magnificently this is crafted as it puts every summer action blockbuster to shame. This is my pick of the festival and favourite film of 2011 so far.
[Check out my full review]
CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (Werner Herzog; France, UK, USA, 2010)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us on a journey to the barely accessible and now heavily restricted Chauvet Cave in Southern France, home of the oldest known man-made art dating back some 32,000 years. And who better to document the origins of human consciousness than visionary German filmmaker Werner Herzog? Herzog and his small crew make the best of the limited access they have to the cave, relying on interviews with experts and Herzog’s enthusiastic narration to speculate about what they can’t see as well as imagine the environment in which the art was created. The film makes effective use of 3D to bring the cave paintings to life, allowing us the only opportunity we’ll ever have to view these stunning works. Like most audiences I am tired of the gimmicky, money-grabbing use of 3D, but this is one of the few justified and rewarding uses of the technology to date. As a documentary, it’s not perfect and could have benefitted from more of the philosophical musings Herzog is famous for. Nevertheless, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an awe-inspiring experience like no other.
PROJECT NIM (James Marsh; UK, 2011)
Project Nim is the latest documentary from James Marsh, director of the Academy Award-winning Man On Wire. Marsh employs the same style here, taking a well-known, media-friendly event from the ’70s and giving it context with a meticulous and impressive mix of archival footage, interviews and dramatic re-enactments. Projet Nim tells the story a chimpanzee called Nim, born in captivity in Oklahoma and taken from his mother to New York by professor Herbert Terrace to be raised as a human. Terrace wants to discover whether or not a chimpanzee can communicate with humans using sign language. Marsh is less interested in the dull specifics of linguistics and scientific research than he is in telling the story of the people involved in Project Nim, and they often don’t come across very well. While much of Project Nim is hilarious, it is ultimately a heartbreaking tale of academic arrogance run amok. It is also the best documentary of 2011 so far (not to mention one of the best films full stop) and comes highly recommended.
[Check out my full review]
SUBMARINE (Richard Ayoade; UK, 2010)
Submarine is the wonderful feature debut of Richard Ayoade. Best known for his acting roles on British comedy shows The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh, Ayoade has slowly built up a respectable directing career with his quirky music videos for the Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend, a recent episode of Community, and not to mention his role as writer/director for the criminally under-appreciated Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Ayoade enlisted Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner to provide Submarine‘s soundtrack, and it’s a great fit. He has also assembled a talented cast here including impressive newcomer Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate, a 15-year-old in 1980s Wales whose main ambitions are to lose his virginity before his next birthday and to ensure his parents stay together. Equally impressive newcomer Yasmin Paige plays Jordana, the object of Oliver’s desire, alongside established British character actors Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as Oliver’s parents and a hilarious turn from Paddy Considine as a New Age mystic. Oliver is often reminiscent of Max Fischer from Rushmore, indeed the film is full of Wes Anderson-esque quirks, but it is never so indebted to Anderson it feels unoriginal. Submarine is a remarkable debut and announces Ayoade as an exciting new talent.
TAKE SHELTER (Jeff Nichols; USA, 2011)
Jeff Nichols delivers both a riveting thriller and a devastating drama in Take Shelter, with a mighty performance from rising star Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire). Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a construction worker and family man in small-town Ohio who is haunted by nightmares of an apocalyptic storm. Curtis hides these disturbing visions from his wife (Tree of Life‘s Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter, instead channelling his anxiety into the obsessive building of a storm shelter. Curtis’ sanity is questioned throughout the film, but Nichols leaves this wide open to interpretation. Take Shelter is a powerful, allegorical tale of the problems facing ordinary people in an age of natural and economic disasters.
THE KID WITH A BIKE (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne; France, Italy, 2011)
The Kid With A Bike is another absorbing drama from Cannes-favourites Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Son, The Child), who continue their commitment to unlikable protagonists with this film. Thomas Doret stars as Cyril, a sullen, stubborn 12-year-old boy who is doggedly determined to find the father who placed him in a children’s home, sold his bike and abandoned him without a trace. Cécile De France is wonderful as always as Samantha, a hairdresser who meets Cyril by chance and agrees to let him stay with her. The Kid with A Bike is another compelling, realistic and heart-warming film from Belgium’s finest storytellers.
POINT BLANK (Fred Cavayé; France, 2010)
Up and coming French director Fred Cavayé made a splash in 2007 with his intense prison break thriller Anything For Her. With a title like Point Blank this film has some hard-boiled competition to live up to – I’m referring here to the classic 1967 film of the same name starring Lee Marvin (not to mention Ed Brubaker’s noirish 2002 comic). Cavayé does not disappoint, delivering an even leaner, meaner and somehow more intense thriller than last time around. We’re dropped straight into the action as nurses-aide Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) thwarts an attempt on the life of hospital patient and thief Hugo (Roschdy Zem), only to be beaten and have his pregnant wife Nadia (Elena Anaya) kidnapped in response. Samuel quickly finds himself up against both gangsters and crooked cops in a desperate race to save his wife and unborn baby. The exhilarating momentum never lets up for a second, which serves the film well as you never get a chance to consider how preposterous the plot gets. Cavayé has succeeded greatly with this breathless action-thriller, easily besting his impressive debut Anything For Her (remade as The Next Three Days). I recommend seeing Point Blank before the inevitable Hollywood remake.
TABLOID (Errol Morris; USA, 2010)
Tabloid follows the lascivious exploits of Joyce McKinney, a Miss Wyoming beauty queen with an IQ of 168 and an incomprehensible love for a plain Mormon man. Her extreme devotion leads her across the globe, into jail and onto the front pages of England’s tabloids. To comment further on the plot would ruin the many surprises Tabloid has in store, but suffice it to say that this is a delightfully outlandish documentary which proves the old adage that fact is stranger than fiction. Errol Morris has made better films (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), but this may be his most bizarre and purely enjoyable.
THE YELLOW SEA (Na Hong-jin; Korea, 2010)
South Korean cinema is unbeatable when it comes to underworld thrillers. The Yellow Sea is further proof of this, as if any was needed by now [See also: The Man From Nowhere and I Saw the Devil, both solid revenge flicks which also screened at NZFF 2011]. This is the story of a downtrodden cab driver in Yanji City (a region between North Korea, China and Russia) who is offered an opportunity from a local gangster to both repay his crippling debt and find his wife in South Korea. All he has to do is kill one man. Director Na Hong-jin has already made one impressive entry to the genre with his explosive 2008 thriller The Chaser and this time around he ups the ante and delivers an epic noir with more ambition as well as locations. However, with a two-and-a-half hour plus running time, The Yellow Sea is a tad too long and falls just short of the classic status achieved with The Chaser.
Another obvious highlight was seeing Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver restored and remastered on the big screen for its 35th anniversary. Bernard Herrmann’s infamous final score never sounded better. As a fanatic of American cinema of the ’70s this was a glorious experience and I’ll admit to having a silly grin on my face through the entire film.
I was just as ecstatic over last year’s screening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and I can’t wait to see which restored classic the festival programmers find for us next year!
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention I was unable to attend potential festival highlights The Future, The Guard, Melancholia, Nosferatu and Sleeping Beauty as they screened while I was over the ditch for Australia’s massive music festival Splendour in the Grass (Splendour review on the way). From what I’ve heard Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia was a highlight for many, which comes as no surprise.
For more information on any of these films, as well as screening schedules for the rest of the country, be sure to hit up the NZFF website.