The full programme for this year’s imminent New Zealand International Film Festival was launched last week, and as always there is an abundance of exciting films on display for cinephiles to pore over. Highlights include several prestigious additions from Cannes (Moonrise Kingdom, The Hunt, Holy Motors, Amour) and Sundance (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Sound of My Voice), not to mention a wide range of local and international cinema as well as some of the most anticipated documentaries of the year. Needless to say, there’s an exhausting number of intriguing entries to choose from, so I have listed below what I consider to be the 25 must-see films of the festival.
Wes Anderson – the idiosyncratic director of such gems as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – returns this year with Moonrise Kingdom, which has been receiving some of the most glowing reviews of his career since opening Cannes last month. Although each of Anderson’s films has a timeless quality, Moonrise Kingdom is his first set in the past, taking place on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965. It tells the story of two 12 year olds (newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gillman) who fall in love and run away together into the wilderness, leaving the entire island community distressed and on the lookout. Anderson has gathered another remarkable ensemble cast here, including regular collaborators Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman alongside Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Francis McDormand and Tilda Swinton.
Watch the trailer for Moonrise Kingdom below.
American newcomer Benh Zeitlin took out the Camera D’or at Cannes for his widely acclaimed directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild, as well as the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year. The film tells the story of an optimistic and imaginative six-year-old girl (Quvenzhane Wallis), who exists on the brink of orphanhood in a forgotten but defiant New Orleans bayou community, cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee and shaken by a fierce storm. Zeitlin has been earning near-unanimous praise for his striking and original blend of magic and gritty realism here, and I can’t wait to see the exciting new talents on display in Beasts of the Southern Wild when it opens the Auckland festival on July 19.
Watch the trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild below.
3. Holy Motors
This year’s festival will close with French filmmaker Leos Carax’s “exhilarating, opaque, heartbreaking and completely bonkers” (The Hollywood Reporter) comeback film Holy Motors. From dawn to dusk, the film follows a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man… He seems to be playing roles, plunging headlong into each part – but where are the cameras? Carax’s film has been compared to David Lynch’s work, likely because it makes about as much sense, and despite a rapturous screening at Cannes it somehow managed to walk away empty-handed. Holy Motors also stars Edith Scob, Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, and it looks to be one of the boldest, most intriguing films of the year.
Watch the trailer for Holy Motors below.
Drew Godard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods has had a tough journey to our screens: after filming completed back in 2009, it was first postponed to be converted to 3D, then delayed indefinitely following MGM’s bankruptcy. Lionsgate eventually bought the film, and since its premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year The Cabin in the Woods has been wowing audiences and earning rave reviews. However, despite the State-side success and huge level of fan interest – especially following The Avengers – the film was doomed to be released straight-to-DVD in Australasia due to our apparent history of low turnout for horror films. Outraged fans petitioned against Roadshow Films’ decision to no avail, and it took Incredibly Strange programmer Ant Timpson to ensure a cinematic release in New Zealand. I say we return the favour by showing up in droves for this film’s NZIFF screenings. The Cabin in the Woods stars a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth alongside Anna Hutchinson, Jesse Williams, Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, and Richard Jenkins.
Watch the trailer for The Cabin in the Woods below.
Zal Batmanglij’s indie drama/thriller Sound of My Voice is the second of star/co-writer Brit Marling’s two breakout hits to come out of last year’s Sundance Film Festival, following the fascinating sci-fi/drama Another Earth. The film follows a couple (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) as they attempt to infiltrate and learn about a suburban cult, led by a charismatic woman (Marling) with a rather outrageous claim about her own history. It looks to be equal parts Martha Marcy May Marlene and Another Earth (two of my favourite films of last year), and if the early reviews are to believed it’s better than both. The trailer alone had me sold and I can’t wait to see more from Marling, who is fast becoming a must-watch talent in indie film.
Watch the trailer for Sound of My Voice below.
Producing partners Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have brought director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) on board to take another look at the case of the West Memphis 3, whose miscarriage of justice has been documented over the years by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in the Paradise Lost trilogy. West of Memphis promises “unprecedented access to the inner workings of the defense”, and will likely focus harder on the new suspect revealed during Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. This film was co-produced by the falsely accused Damien Echols, along with his wife Lorri Davis, and features music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. As an avid follower of the WM3 case and the HBO documentaries, West of Memphis is a must-see and I’m looking forward to seeing what new material it will bring to light, but I’m sure this film will also serve as the best entry point to this ongoing saga for newcomers.
Damien Echols will be in attendance to introduce West of Memphis.
Watch the trailer for West of Memphis below.
For more on West of Memphis, check out 60 Minutes‘ recent piece over at their website.
7. The Hunt
Festen director and Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg impressed many at Cannes with his mass hysteria drama The Hunt, which won Best Actor for Mads Mikkelsen. He stars as a warm-hearted kindergarten teacher who is falsely accused of child abuse, and by all accounts his harrowing performance is one of the best of the year. I’ve been a big fan of Mikkelsen’s ever since his early work with fellow Danish filmmakers Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher) and Susanne Bier (Open Hearts), and I’m very much looking forward to seeing a different side of him here.
Watch the trailer for The Hunt below.
Pablo Larrain’s No is so fresh it doesn’t even have a trailer yet, nor enough reviews to form a true consensus as it arrives on the back of its “Director’s Fortnight” screening at Cannes, and yet it still makes it to my top ten most anticipated films of the festival. The Chilean director announced himself as a talent to watch in 2008 with his impressive debut Tony Manero – which managed to combine Augusto Pinochet’s miserable regime and John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever dance moves – and three films later he has landed Mexican heart-throb Gael Garcia Bernal as his lead: an ad executive tasked with devising a “No” campaign to defeat Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum. Bernal has been a festival fixture for over a decade now, from his breakout performances in Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También to leading man roles in The Motorcycle Diaries and Bad Education, and he is one of the most endlessly fascinating young actors working today. It’s no surprise that early reviews have praised Bernal’s performance in No as “superb…gives the film a human heart” (The Playlist) and “deft, subtly moving” (NY Times), and this is looks like exactly the kind of film I hope to come across every year at the NZ International Film Festival.
Bernie is a strange new black comedy from writer/director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise). Based on a true story, the film reunites the director with his School of Rock star Jack Black, who may have landed the role of his career as the larger-than-life Bernie Tiede, an immensely popular assistant funeral director in the tiny, rural town of Carthage, Texas. Tiede befriended a not-so-well-liked older, affluent widow (Shirley MacLaine), travelled around the globe with her and managed her banking affairs… and reportedly murdered her. Matthew McConaughey also stars as the town’s blustery District Attorney who was determined to get to the bottom of the crime. I’m a lifelong fan of Linklater’s genre-hopping work, Black and McConaughey both look terrific here, and the bizarre true story fascinates me, so calling Bernie a must-see is a no-brainer.
Watch the trailer for Bernie below.
German-born Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (Hidden, Funny Games) took out the prestigious Palme D’or at Cannes again this year for his latest bleak drama Amour, following his 2009 win for The White Ribbon, which put him in an elite club of only seven – including Francis Ford Coppola, Shohei Imamura, and the Dardennes. Amour follows the story of an elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) whose bond of love is severely tested when Anne suffers a severe stroke. Isabelle Huppert also appears as the couple’s musician daughter. By all accounts Haneke’s film is a masterpiece, not to mention his most tender and least confrontational work to date, and while its depressing subject matter doesn’t immediately strike me as appealing, I suspect that this will be one of the most important films of the year.
Watch the trailer for Amour below.
11. Killer Joe
The Lincoln Lawyer arrived out of nowhere last year to remind us that the effortlessly charming Matthew McConaughey can still act, and he seems determined to carry on with roles that require more than just shiny abs, with his aforementioned supporting role in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, another in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, and most crucially as the lead in William Friedkin’s darkly comic thriller Killer Joe. McConaughey plays the titular hitman/dirty cop who is hired by a desperate 22-year-old, Chris (Emile Hirsch), to dispatch his mother for the $50,000 life insurance policy. When Chris reveals he has no money to pay upfront, Joe sets his sight on younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral for the job. Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church round out the supporting cast. Based on the play by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts, Killer Joe looks like a great blend of morbid comedy and tense thrills, and McConaughey’s performance promises to be one of the best of his career. While Friedkin’s output has been patchy for a long while now, you can never count out a man who directed such classics as The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A., and I’m hoping Killer Joe marks the beginning of a late-career comeback for one of America’s great directors.
Watch the trailer for Killer Joe below.
12. Beyond the Hills
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2007 for the brilliant, harrowing drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, picked up Best Screenplay this year for his new film Beyond the Hills. A drama centered on the friendship between two young women (Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, who shared Cannes’ award for Best Actress) who grew up in the same orphanage; one has found refuge at a convent in Romania and refuses to leave with her friend, who now lives in Germany. Inspired by two non-fiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the film promises to be a “tragic tale of religious and romantic conflict” (The Hollywood Reporter), and continues Mungiu’s stylistic preference towards no-frills naturalism and long single takes. I’m more than intrigued to see how Mungiu’s follow-up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days turns out, and I’d wager it will be unlike anything else we’ll see on the big screen this year.
Watch a clip from Beyond the Hills below.
13. Shadow Dancer
British filmmaker James Marsh is chiefly known as the man behind such superb documentaries as Man on Wire and Project Nim, but he started off in drama with the cult films Wisconsin Death Trip and The King, and more recently contributed the second film (1980) in the terrific Red Riding trilogy. His latest effort is the slow-burning spy thriller Shadow Dancer, set in 1990s Belfast where an active member of the IRA (Andrea Riseborough) falls into the hands of an MI5 officer (Clive Owen), and becomes an informant in order to protect her son’s welfare. The supporting cast includes Gillian Anderson and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones). I’m a sucker for spy tales and political thrillers, a big fan of Marsh’s work, and a long-time admirer of Owen, so this ticks every box for me.
Watch the trailer for Shadow Dancer below.
Stanley Kubricks’ The Shining is perhaps the greatest horror film of all-time in my humble opinion; a visually spectacular film full of mysteries and hidden meanings to explore. Which is exactly what Rodney Ascher’s subjective documentary Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts sets out to do. Five very different points of view are illuminated through voice over, film clips, animation and dramatic reenactments in this documentary, and together they aim to draw the audience into a new maze, one with endless detours and dead ends, many ways in, but no way out. Room 237 was a hit at Sundance this year, and as an avid Kubrickian this project is right up my alley. Kubrick’s classic film will also be screening at this year’s festival in high-definition DCP, and while a double-header of The Shining and Room 237 would have been preferable, I’m still excited to see Kubrick’s radical vision up on the big screen for the first time.
Watch a clip featuring the infamous Room 237 from The Shining below.
Lynn Shelton charmed Sundance audiences this year with Your Sister’s Sister, her follow-up to 2009’s Humpday. Her latest indie dramedy stars Emily Blunt as Iris, a straight woman who invites her best friend Jack (Mark Duplass) to stay at her family’s island getaway after the death of his brother. At their remote cabin, Jack’s drunken encounter with Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’ lesbian sister, kicks off a revealing stretch of days. I love this cast, and Your Sister’s Sister looks to be that rare examination of relationships which avoids rom-com conventions in favour of truth, and rewards with rich characters and great performances.
Watch the trailer for Your Sister’s Sister below.
Italian director Matteo Garrone has followed-up his 2008 masterpiece Gomorrah with the markedly different Reality, a reality television satire which also earned him the Grand Prix at Cannes. The film follows an entertaining Neapolitan fishmonger (Aniello Arena) who is encouraged to try out for Grande Fratello (the Italian version of Big Brother), and in chasing this dream his perception of reality begins to change. Garrone’s film has been described as Fellini-esque, which sounds rather promising, and it will certainly be interesting to see if he can pull off a completely different genre here.
Watch a clip from Reality below.
Mikkel Nøgaard’s raunchy Danish comedy Klown, which won Best Picture (Comedy) at Fantastic Fest, has been lauded as one of the funniest films of the year. The film stars Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen as fictionalised versions of themselves: comedians with extremely tolerant girlfriends. The two wildly inappropriate friends run amok through the Danish countryside, plowing through endless awkward confrontations and unspeakable debaucheries on an extremely misguided canoe trip. Klown looks likely to push the awkward envelope further than the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm would dare, and it will likely garner the most riotous audience reactions of the festival.
Watch the green-band trailer for Klown below.
Directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch (Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony), Bully follows five kids and families over the course of a school year, whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. The film has been hailed as a powerful, essential wake-up call for a society in denial, and it is probably the most hyped documentary of 2012 so far, thanks in part to the controversy surrounding its R-rating and The Weinstein Company’s subsequent decision to screen Bully unrated in the U.S.
Lee Hirsch will be in attendance to introduce Bully.
Watch the trailer for Bully below.
19. I Wish
Hirokazu Kore-eda – the Japanese master of quiet observation (Still Walking, After Life) – returns with the charming, kid-centric I Wish. The film follows 12-year-old Koichi, who has been separated from his brother Ryunosuke due to his parents’ divorce and begins to believe that the new bullet train service will create a miracle when the first trains pass each other at top speed. Real-life brothers Koki Maeda and Oshiro Maeda star alongside veterans Kirin Kiki and Joe Odagiri. Kore-era’s latest has been praised as “wonderful adventure film that’s no less thrilling for its modest scale” (Salon), and although it may not leap off the programme page as much as some of the more attention-grabbing Asian entries this year (Himizu, Vulgaria), I Wish is the one I’m most looking forward to.
Watch the trailer for I Wish below.
The Last King of Scotland director Kevin McDonald returns to his documentary roots with Marley, which promises to be an exhaustive, evenhanded portrait of reggae’s biggest star. This film is the first authorised Bob Marley biography, made with the support of his family, and it’s reportedly filled with revelatory insider tales and insights from those who knew him best, including fellow legends Jimmy Cliff and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. McDonald’s ambitious film aims to cover Marley’s enormous life in 145 minutes, and I’m looking forward to seeing Marley‘s electrifying concert footage up on the giant Civic screen.
Watch the trailer for Marley below.
21. The Imposter
Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter tells the unbelievable story of Frédéric Bourdin, a young Frenchman who convinced a grieving Texas family that he was their 16-year-old son who went missing for 3 years. His impersonation fooled several authorities and even many of the boy’s family members, even though he was seven years older than the missing boy, had brown eyes and dark hair (rather than the boy’s blue eyes and blond hair). The Imposter combines atmospheric recreations with actors and stark interviews to explore its mind-boggling case of mistaken identity, and it looks to be the most fascinatingly weird documentary since Errol Morris’ Tabloid.
Watch the trailer for The Imposter below.
French filmmaker/actor Mathieu Kassovitz is back with Rebellion, his best-received directorial effort since 1995’s brilliant La Haine. He also stars here as Philippe Legorjus, a captain in an elite counterterrorist division hastily dispatched to New Caledonia following the Ouvéa cave hostage taking in 1988, and upon whose memoir the film is based. The story sounds like an ideal blend of tense thrills and fascinating politics, and after some awful Hollywood missteps – Gothika and Babylon A.D. – I’m eager to see Kassovitz’s return to form in Rebellion, which some are already comparing to The Hurt Locker.
Watch the trailer for Rebellion below.
This concert documentary chronicles the final days of revered dance-punk outfit LCD Soundsystem, surrounding their triumphant final show at Madison Square Garden last year. Directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, Shut Up and Play the Hits follows frontman James Murphy over a crucial 48-hour period, from the day of the final gig to the morning after. While it will no doubt be bittersweet viewing for those of us who still sorely miss the group, I’m glad that their farewell was handled with such class and filmed for posterity.
Watch the trailer for Shut Up and Play the Hits below.
24. Sleepless Night
Frédéric Jardin’s non-stop thriller Sleepless Night gained some serious buzz following its screenings at TIFF and Fantastic Fest last year, with rumours of a Hollywood remake circulating already. The film tells the story of a dirty cop, Vincent (Tomer Sisley), whose life suddenly tailspins one night following a drug heist gone wrong in which his partner is shot and his son is subsequently kidnapped. Vincent has to walk a fine line between drug dealers, good cops and bad cops in order to save his son and survive the night. Sleepless Night looks to be an intense French thrill-ride akin to last year’s excellent Point Blank, and I suggest you catch it before the inevitable remake.
Watch the trailer for Sleepless Night below.
Prolific German director and living legend Werner Herzog has followed-up last year’s stunning festival entry Cave of Forgotten Dreams with a multi-part examination of capital punishment and death in America. The ever-inquisitive Herzog filmed a mini-series for Investigation Discovery titled On Death Row, with each episode of the series focussing on a specific murder case and those convicted to death row for the crimes. One of the episodes originally intended for the series was expanded into a feature titled Into the Abyss, and both the feature and the episodes are playing individually throughout the festival. Into the Abyss is another insightful, probing investigation from Herzog, who explores the American prison system, capital punishment, and the families affected by violent crime here with his usual passion, leaving politics and agendas out of it and opting not to appear on camera this time. While the subject he is pursuing here is a bleak one, with none of the outrage of something like West of Memphis, that doesn’t make Herzog’s latest project any less essential viewing.
Watch trailers for Into the Abyss and Death Row below.
As always, there are several notable festival films that I was hoping to see in this year’s programme which didn’t make it for whatever reason. These include Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, John Hillcoat’s Lawless, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, and Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love from Cannes, as well as Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial and Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow. I was also holding out hope for the new 4K restoration of Sergio Leone’s butchered masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America, which also screened at Cannes this year, now clocking in at an epic 245 minutes. There is always a chance of late additions, and in fact Ant Timpson has intimated that we will be seeing one in the Incredibly Strange section, so here’s hoping a couple of these sneak into the programme at the last-minute.
The 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival begins in Auckland on July 19. Stay tuned for future updates and reviews, and for more information head to the NZIFF website.