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Highlights of the 2012 NZ International Film Festival

The 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival wrapped up in Auckland recently, officially closing with the utterly mad and brilliant Holy Motors. From the stunning opening night film (Beasts of the Southern Wild) to a wonderful silent cinema finale (Easy Street and Blackmail), we were spoiled for choice with this year’s programme and I saw nearly 40 films over a hectic two-and-a-half weeks. The diverse, globe-spanning works included a stellar selection of documentaries — from terrific music portraits (Shut Up and Play the HitsMarleySearching For Sugar Man), to urgent examinations of America’s failing infrastructure (West of MemphisInto the AbyssBully), to fascinatingly absurd fare (The ImposterRoom 237, The Ambassador) — as well as many impressive Award-winning dramas (AmourThe HuntMonsieur LazharIn Darkness); heartening stories of love and family (Moonrise Kingdom, I WishYour Sister’s Sister, From Up on Poppy Hill); dark crime tales with captivating lead performances (BernieRampart, Killer Joe); provocative indie thrillers (Sound of My Voice, Compliance); strange entries which push the limits of genre and taste (The Cabin in the WoodsKlown); and as always an astonishing range of world cinema we would otherwise never see (No, LoreThe Loneliest PlanetBeyond the Hills). Naturally, such a huge list of films is bound to have its share of disappointments (On the Road, RealityThis Must Be the Place), but by and large the selection was impeccable and I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s festival. We were treated to some engaging Q&A’s – including filmmakers Lee Hirsch (Bully) and Mads Brügger (The Amabassador) – the best of which followed Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, as a full Civic theatre audience rose for a rare standing ovation before co-producers Sir Peter Jackson, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis took the stage for a lengthy and informative discussion. That night was easily one of the highlights of the 2012 NZIFF – as was the sold out screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Easy Street and Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonia – and you can read below for more.

1. HOLY MOTORS

Fresh from its acclaimed Cannes debut, Holy Motors arrived at the close of the festival to captivate and confound audiences looking for something a little challenging and bonkers. The film marks the delirious and brilliant comeback of eccentric French filmmaker Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X), who has returned energised following a 13-year absence, seemingly with the intent to cram a decade’s worth of ideas and frustrations into one film. Any attempt to describe the dream-like plot is about as futile as trying to explain the events of a film by David Lynch, but suffice it to say that the preposterous narrative follows a mysterious, chameolonic man (Denis Lavant) on a bizarre, kaleidoscopic odyssey through the eerie streets of Paris in a stretch limo. Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue and Carax himself all feature, but Lavant is the true star and he is absolutely sensational in the eleven roles he inhabits here. Cinephiles will have a blast spotting the cinematic references as well as contemplating Carax’s musings on the current state of filmmaking, but the film is much more than some dry exercise, delivering some of the most hilariously unexpected and beautifully-shot scenes of the year. Some may find it exasperating, but I found Holy Motors to be the most imaginative, rewarding and near-genius piece of cinema I have seen in 2012.

Follow the link below for my full review of Holy Motors:

[REVIEW] HOLY MOTORS @ NZIFF 2012

2. MOONRISE KINGDOM

Fans of Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox) will be delighted by Moonrise Kingdom, which finds the idiosyncratic auteur at his best. The film tells the story of two 12-year-olds who fall in love and run away together into the wilderness, leaving the entire island community distressed and on the lookout as a violent storm brews off-shore. Newcomers Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward give excellent debut performances, and their unshamedly honest romance is genuinely moving. The remarkable ensemble cast also includes Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. Willis is almost revelatory in his role as the sensitive local cop, and Norton is also in fine form as the earnest yet incompetent Scout Master. As with all of Anderson’s work, the kids seem awfully grown-up here, and the grown-ups awfully childish and melancholy. This has been a defining characteristic of all his films, but Moonrise arguably has more compassion and poignancy than anything the filmmaker has done before, finding a perfect balance between the heart and the surreal. Moonrise can feel a little rushed in its final act, but this is otherwise an expertly crafted, frequently hilarious and sweetly moving story of adolescence, romance and family, and another highpoint in an already stellar career for Anderson.

Follow the link below for my full review of Moonrise Kingdom:

[REVIEW] MOONRISE KINGDOM @ NZIFF 2012

3. NO

Chilean director Pablo Larraín completes his informal trilogy on the Pinochet dictatorship with No, following on from Tony Manero and Post Mortem. While his previous films were set in the dark midst of Pinochet’s regime, No details its unexpected demise. In 1988, pressured by the international community to show some democratic reform, Pinochet announced a national referendum on whether or not he should remain in power, slyly aware that the public wouldn’t bother voting in such a charade. Gael García Bernal stars here as René Saavedra, a skateboarding advertising hotshot who is roped into spearheading the “No” campaign by the opposition coalition, in spite of his initial reservations and those of his greasy conservative boss (Larraín-regular Alfredo Castro). Using the same superficial rhetoric and imagery of his soda and microwave commercials, René ingeniously sets out to sell “happiness” to the disenfranchised people of Chile in 15-minute daily TV segments, much to the horror of the opposition politicians — and his radical ex-wife (Antónia Zegers) – who would rather preach about poverty or the disappeared. As befits this joyous historical moment and the sheer happiness of the No campaign, No is the most upbeat and purely enjoyable film Larraín has made, although not without its share of palpable paranoia. Bernal gives the film real heart, as his subtly moving character gradually becomes more conscious of the campaign’s significance, and Castro once again impresses with his wily and seemingly unsympathetic character. In a risky but brilliant stylistic move, Larraín shot the entire film on a rebuilt U-matic video camera to both accurately represent the era and integrate seamlessly with the archival footage. Some will find the admittedly dark and ugly aesthetic off-putting, but I thought it was a bold decision which paid off. Larraín masterfully manages to recapture the look and feel of Chile in the ’80s while telling a galvanising true story populated with engrossing human characters from both sides of the momentous vote, and the enormously satisfying No is his best film.

4. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

Benh Zeitlin makes his feature debut with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film so stunning, unique and full of imagination that it seems to come out of nowhere, and could easily be mistaken for the work of a master. The film took out the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the Camera D’or award for best first film at Cannes, and it’s not difficult to see why. Beasts tells the story of a rambunctious six-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who exists on the brink of orphanhood in the idyllic and harsh bayou community The Bathtub. Populated by resourceful outcasts who spend their days scavenging and drinking, including her anguished but loving father Wink (Dwight Henry), The Bathtub is cut off from the rest of Louisiana by a sprawling levee and threatened by a catastrophic, Katrina-esque storm. Hushpuppy and her fellow residents believe that the Aurochs – a fearsome species of ancient giant boars that were frozen during the Ice Age -– are about to be unleashed by global warming. The cast of nonprofessional actors are riveting, especially the two charismatic leads, and the striking visuals, ethereal score, and nicely rendered creature effects are all first-rate for an indie film. Zeitlin’s fascination with nature and prominent use of narration can’t help but recall Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), but this aesthetic mimicry is one of the few flaws in a film so imaginative, idiosyncratic and utterly spellbinding that it is truly unforgettable. Beasts announces the arrival of some must-watch talent in Zeitlin’s New Orleans-based filmmaking collective.

Follow the link below for my full review of Beasts of the Southern Wild:

[REVIEW] BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD @ NZIFF 2012

5. AMOUR

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke was awarded the coveted Palme D’or for the second time at this year’s Cannes film festival, not for another confrontational effort like 2009′s The White Ribbon, but rather an unexpectedly tender, sober and comparatively straight-forward portrayal of love and death. Amour stars French screen veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant (My Night at Maud’s, The Conformist) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Léon Morin, Priest) as Georges and Anne, a cultivated elderly couple whose long and loving relationship is tested after she suffers a debilitating stroke. Opening with the end, as the fire department kick in their door and find Anne deceased and respectfully laid out on her bed with flowers, it soon becomes apparent that there is no mystery to solve here à la Caché (Hidden), nor are there any showy stylistic touches on display (aside from an intense dream sequence). Haneke shows remarkable restraint here, telling a simple yet powerful story set largely within the confines of the couple’s apartment, with appearances from classical pianist Alexandre Tharaud as a former student and frequent collaborator Isabelle Huppert as their distant daughter. Boasting impeccable cinematography by Darius Khondji, masterful direction, and two of the best performances of the year by the elegant leads, Amour truly lives up to its hyperbolic acclaim and reaffirms Haneke’s position as one of Europe’s greatest living filmmakers. The film’s unflinchingly honest and harrowing depiction of old age is as bold as it is tough going, and while it can feel restrained to the point of inertia at times, Amour is utterly essential for its transcendent performances alone.

6. SOUND OF MY VOICE

It seems as though we owe the anthropology department of Georgetown University a debt of gratitude: while studying there, rising actress Brit Marling met both Mike Cahill — with whom she co-wrote/produced last year’s astonishing Another Earth – and Zal Batmanglij, who makes his directorial debut with her latest co-written feature, Sound of My Voice. These films are two of the most fascinating, inventive and thought-provoking indie releases in recent years, and both are impressively realised on minuscule budgets. Batmanglij’s film follows a documentarian couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), as they infiltrate a mysterious cult (with an elaborate secret handshake) led by an enigmatic young woman named Maggie (Brit Marling), who reveals an outrageous claim about her history. Although initially intent on exposing her as a charlatan, Peter and Lorna start to question their objective and each other as they unravel the secrets of Maggie’s insidious underworld. Denham and Vicius make for an entirely believable couple with real chemistry, but it’s Marling who once again shines in a restrained but commanding performance as the magnetic Maggie, who is at turns fragile, sensual, and severely manipulative. The film’s realistic style and relatively unremarkable basement setting allows viewers to forget that this is somewhat of a speculative sci-fi premise, which is an achievement in and of itself, and while limited visually by its modest budget, Sound of My Voice is brimming with intelligent ideas. Batmanglij may not quite nail the ambiguous denouement, but his film is otherwise an expertly paced, relentlessly tense — aided by brother Rostam Batmanglij’s (of Vampire Weekend) score — and gripping 85-minutes that will appeal to those with an appetite for inventive low-budget sci-thrillers such as Darren Aronofsky’s Pi or Shane Currath’s Primer. Batmanglij and Marling prove that you don’t need the extravagant special effects budget of Prometheus or Total Recall to make engrossing science fiction, and Sound of My Voice announces them as must-watch talents.

7. SHADOW DANCER

Although best known for his acclaimed documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, English filmmaker James Marsh likes to alternate between fiction and non-fiction — previously helming Wisconsin Death TripThe King and Red Riding: 1980 — and his latest is the gripping slow-burn spy thriller Shadow Dancer. Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the last days of “The Troubles”, the film stars Andrea Riseborough as Collette, an IRA-sympathiser who is picked up by MI5 following an aborted bombing attempt in London. MI5 operative Mac (Clive Owen) uses her young son as leverage to turn Collette informant against her IRA brothers (Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson), and she soon finds her loyalties put to the test. Complicating things further are the MI5 brass, including Mac’s icy superior (Gillian Anderson), who have their own agenda which does not include the protection of Collette. Based on screenwriter Tom Bradby’s novel, Shadow Dancer is a claustrophobic, quietly observed and refreshingly apolitical portrait of a family scarred by violence and distrust, and an almost noirish tale of the cost of secrets. Riseborough is riveting as the unreadable Collette, and she is ably supported by a remarkable cast. Marsh has delivered an efficient, hypnotic, intelligent and welcome entry to the British spy canon which sits comfortably alongside last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and I expect great things for Riseborough following her captivating performance.

8. WEST OF MEMPHIS

The notorious story of the West Memphis 3 — who were finally freed on a dubious legal technicality (the “Alford Plea”) last year, after spending 18 years in jail for the murder of three young boys, following mounting pressure on the State of Arkansas as their innocence became increasingly obvious — is given another documentary treatment in West of Memphis. The outrageous case was documented in HBO’s 1996 film Paradise Lost (and its sequels), which Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh saw in 2005 and were immediately inspired to get in touch with Lorri Davis — the wife of death row inmate Damien Echols — and offer financial support to the defense team. As new evidence was brought to light, Jackson enlisted Deliver Us From Evil director Amy Berg to document the case in 2009, unaware that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were working on a rival film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. All of which is to say that West of Memphis arrives with a lot of history and a little competition, and although a cursory understanding of the case and viewing of the first Paradise Lost film is ideal, the film doesn’t necessarily require much prior knowledge as it provides an exhaustive chronicle of this catastrophic miscarriage of justice. Despite rumours of a turf war between Berg and Berlinger/Sinofsky, West cites Paradise as the inspiration for the subsequent attention the WM3 received and makes use of clips from that incendiary film in its introductory chapter. As with Purgatory, Berg and co. point their finger hard at the increasingly suspicious Terry Hobbs — stepfather of one of the victims, with a history of violence and no alibi — delivering the most damning evidence against a suspect in the entire history of the case. But unlike the Paradise films, West is a more personal account, focussing on co-producer Echols’ defense case and rarely spending time on co-defendants Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. While this may seem like an oversight, the film has plenty of story to cover in its 150 minutes, with some revelatory new evidence and access to many insightful witnesses who wouldn’t speak to HBO, and it’s only real misstep is a little too much time spent back-patting celebrity champions of the WM3 cause such as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp. Berg and her team have delivered such an intelligent and remarkably thorough investigation that West of Memphis is a compelling watch even for those who are already familiar with the case, and it stands alone as a powerful, important and necessary companion piece to Paradise Lost that was deeply felt with Echols in attendance. It also serves as an indignant wake-up call for the apathetic, inept and corrupt state officials — most of whom would be tried for misconduct in a perfect world — who seem more than happy to forget about the case and let the real killer roam the streets of West Memphis.

9. I WISH

I Wish is the latest kid-centric film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese master of quiet observation, best known for Still Walking and Nobody Knows. The film follows 12-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda), an introspective kid who lives with his unemployed mother (Nene Otsuka) and retired grandparents in the southern region of Kyushu, having been separated from his gregarious younger brother (Oshiro Maeda) and musician father (Jô Odagiri) — who live in northern Kyushu — for a year following their parents’ separation. When Koichi learns that a new bullet train line will soon open, linking the two towns, he begins to believe in the legend that a miracle will take place the moment these new trains first pass each other at top speed, and his wish to reunite the family can come true. He sets off on a heartening journey with a group of school friends, each hoping to witness a miracle that will improve their difficult lives. Kore-eda clearly understands children — and how to get effortless performances out of child actors — better than any other director working today, and the real-life Maeda brothers are just a joy to watch here. I Wish may be gentle, simple and modest, but that doesn’t make the adventure at its heart any less thrilling, and the emotional power of the story will sneak up on you in its wise and graceful final act. This wonderful, nuanced and rewarding film manages to perfectly capture the spirit of childhood without any cloying sentimentality, and it reminds us why Kore-eda is considered one of Japan’s greatest living filmmakers, likely to one day be remembered as fondly as Japanese Golden Age inspirations such as Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa if he keeps it up.

10. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Following a lengthy delay and some distribution hiccups, the highly-anticipated The Cabin in the Woods finally made its New Zealand debut to a ravenous audience at the Civic, accompanied by a Q&A with local actress Anna Hutchinson. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror has a deceptively simple premise: five attractive teens head to a remote cabin in the woods and get picked off one by one. But fans of Buffy are aware that these two men have a knack for subverting genres, and they have great fun sending up many clichés here; in fact, Cabin is probably the most playful and inventive entry in the formulaic American horror canon since Wes Craven’s Scream. Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchinson, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz star as the aforementioned teens headed to the titular cabin, with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford appearing as two technicians in a mysterious facility who have ominous plans for the group. To reveal any more of the plot would be a disservice to the film, as much of Cabin‘s pleasure is derived from its meta-twists and knowing commentary on the horror genre, so it’s best enjoyed going in cold. The film gets just about everything right in its brisk 95-minutes, and although Goddard and Whedon write themselves into somewhat of a corner by the WTF ending, I’ll take an intelligent, high-concept film like Cabin over the torture-porn of Saw or found-footage tedium of Paranormal Activity any day. My hat is off to Messrs. Goddard and Whedon for delivering one of the most sly and purely enjoyable entries in the genre for quite some time, and their outrageous film was probably the most fun I had at the festival.

Follow the link below for my full review of The Cabin in the Woods:

[REVIEW] THE CABIN IN THE WOODS @ NZIFF 2012

Those were my favourite films of this year’s festival, but I also enjoyed many more and some honourable mentions include:

Compliance, The HuntThe Imposter, Klown, The Loneliest PlanetLore, MarleyMonsieur LazharRoom 237Searching For Sugar ManShut Up and Play the HitsWuthering Heights and Your Sister’s Sister.

I recommend each of these films, and should be writing more about some as they are released in the coming months. I should also note that I decided not to include older films such as Easy Street/Blackmail and The Shining in the above lists — despite enjoying them immensely on the wonderful Civic screen with its new 4K projector — as I would rather support exciting new releases and it doesn’t seem fair to compare them to classics.

I was not able to see every noteworthy film in the programme due to obvious scheduling and budgetary constraints. Some potential highlights I missed were:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Barbara, In Another Country, In the Fog, Le Tableau, Neil Young JourneysSightseers, SisterStudentTabuUndefeatedWish You Were Here.

I’m looking forward to catching up on these later this year; let’s hope a few of them will receive a theatrical run.

For more on the New Zealand International Film Festival, head to their website.