The immensely enjoyable 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival recently wrapped up in Auckland, and from the very first film (Behind the Candelabra) to the last (The Dance of Reality) there was no shortage of highlights. At least half of the nearly 40 films I saw rank among my favourites of the year so far, and you can find my top ten picks below — as well as some very honourable mentions.
10. THE PAST (Dir. Asghar Farhadi)
Anything less than another flat-out masterpiece from Asghar Farhadi may be viewed as a let down following the Oscar-winning A Separation, but such expectations can only serve to disappoint and The Past is an excellent film in its own right. Relocating from his native Tehran to Paris with remarkable ease, the Iranian maestro offers another powerful and complicated family drama that expertly unravels like a gripping mystery thriller, investigating a relationship mired in tragedy from multiple points of view. Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) delivers a wrenching central performance, but the entire cast is praise-worthy, including the terrific Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and rising French actress Pauline Burlet. Even when the material veers towards soapy and overly plot-driven terrain there is never any doubt that we are in the hands of a master storyteller, and The Past is another stirring triumph from Farhadi. I already can’t wait to see what he does next.
9. COMPUTER CHESS (Dir. Andrew Bujalski)
Boston indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Beeswax) — often referred to as the “Godfather of Mumblecore” — makes a stylistic departure with his first period piece, the endearingly eccentric Computer Chess. Set over the course of a weekend in 1980, the film focusses on a nerdy group of software programmers as they compete in a computer chess tournament, ponder existential questions, hang out with a sex therapy group and lay the groundwork for artificial intelligence as we know it. Shot on an obsolete ’70s video camera in black-and-white and largely performed by an ensemble of appropriately awkward non-professionals — including film critic Gerald Peary — Bujalski’s lo-fi aesthetic is so startlingly authentic (read: grey and ugly) that it feels like some long-lost Public-Access Television documentary, at least until things start getting rather surreal in the trippy second half. Without a doubt one of the most peculiar and enigmatic American indies of recent years, Computer Chess is a heady experience like no other.
8. THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Dir. James Ponsoldt)
The Spectacular Now might appear to be yet another indie coming-of-age flick on the surface, but this surprisingly authentic and affecting portrait of adolescence is in fact the genre’s freshest entry in years. (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber and Smashed director James Ponsoldt pull off an impressive feat, making something as tired as teen romance feel new again by presenting us with unconventional characters we haven’t seen on screen before. Star-in-the-making Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) play high school opposites who unexpectedly strike up a friendship that slowly and sweetly blossoms into romance, with the script cleverly avoiding the usual tropes and exploring some pretty dark territory in the second half. Their natural chemistry is palpable, and the emotional intensity gets so overwhelming at times that I feared my heart might just burst. The supporting cast are uniformly great — including Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk and Andre Royo — as is Rob Simonsen’s score and the hip indie soundtrack (Kurt Vile, Ariel Pink and Phosphorescent). Aside from the clichéd college application framing device, Ponsoldt’s film is one of the year’s most wonderful and refreshing indies.
7. WADJDA (Dir. Haifaa Al Mansour)
The best discovery of this year’s festival for me was Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda, a breakthrough Saudi film that has been getting more coverage for its historic accomplishments — the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and first by a female Saudi director — than its cinematic virtues. Like many, I went in merely expecting a modest achievement and was very pleasantly surprised to find that this deceptively simple coming-of-age story not only stands on its own merits, but is one of the most charming and subtly provocative films of the year. Following the story of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a rebellious 11-year-old girl who wants nothing more than a bicycle of her own — surely one of the most memorable young protagonists in recent years — Al Mansour skillfully uses this slight, crowd-pleasing narrative to bring attention to the staggering gender inequality still prevalent in Saudi Arabia. For such an undeniably important film — to both Saudi cinema and women’s rights in the Middle East – Wadjda is considerably more fun and rewarding than it has any right to be, and it heralds the arrival of an exciting filmmaking talent.
6. STORIES WE TELL (Dir. Sarah Polley)
Canadian actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley (Away From Her) digs up her family’s past in order to uncover an elusive truth in her wonderful and deeply felt documentary debut, Stories We Tell. Rounding up her lovable father, siblings, step-siblings and family friends for some revealing and candid interviews — and seamlessly integrating home movie footage with reenactments — Polley sets out to clarify the mysterious and complicated legacy of her late mother. The less you know the better going in, but suffice it to say that in the process she explores the nature of memory and storytelling — as well as her own need to make this film — crafting a fascinating personal detective story that is the finest and most compelling documentary of the year so far.
5. LA GRANDE BELLEZZA (THE GREAT BEAUTY) (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Italian cinema was dramatically thrust back into the international spotlight in 2008 courtesy of two masterful films: Matteo Garrone’s Camorra crime epic, Gomorrah, and Paolo Sorrentino’s operatic political thriller, Il Divo. Both starred the great Toni Servillo, who once again teams up with Sorrentino for his triumphant return-to-form, La Grande Bellezza. An intoxicating and utterly gorgeous spectacle with party sequences sumptuous enough to make Baz Luhrmann sick with envy, the film is centred on Jep Gambardella (Servillo), a debonair yet weary author-turned-journalist in the grand Italian tradition of Marcello Rubini and Giovanni Pontano — Marcello Mastroianni’s iconic characters from La Dolce Vita and La Notte, respectively. Sorrentino brazenly channels Fellini and Antonioni here, updating their fascination with “the sweet life” of intellectual elites — excessive parties, philosophical conversations, romantic ennui — for the rotting-below-the-surface Berlusconi era. The Neapolitan filmmaker’s maximalist aesthetic is in full swing here — cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is almost worthy of a co-star credit, so prominent is his sweeping camerawork — and he offers us a swooning, romantic exploration of Rome’s surface pleasures that also manages to be unexpectedly moving thanks to Servillo’s soulful performance. La Grande Bellezza is beautiful indeed, quite likely the best-looking film of the year, and I’m eager to have these stunning images wash over me again soon.
4. MUD (Dir. Jeff Nichols)
Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) confirms he is one of America’s finest storytellers with his magnificent new film, Mud. At its heart, this is a Twainian coming-of-age tale about two teenage boys (Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland) looking for adventure. Of course, in the classic Southern fable tradition it is about so much more than that, as Nichols’ ambitiously wrestles with themes of love, masculinity, family, superstition and working class life in modern America. The resurgent Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular character, a fanciful and sympathetic fugitive who the boys come across on a small island in the Mississippi and agree to help. Following impressive recent work in Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe, the McConaussance (™) hits a new high here with this magnetic turn — handsome but weathered, charming yet mischievous, romantic then melancholic, sporting wild tattoos and a chipped tooth, he has arguably never been better. Perhaps more than any other American filmmaker working today, Nichols’ distinctive films feel like richly detailed classic novels; a storyteller first and foremost, his is the increasingly old-fashioned cinema of emotion and character — rather than the aesthetic cool or bombastic spectacle of many contemporaries — and Mud is an essential reminder of how badly we need an authentic voice like his.
3. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)
There is no filmmaker alive cooler than Jim Jarmusch, and the influential auteur’s latest feature might be his most quintessentially cool yet: Only Lovers Left Alive stars Tom soon-to-be-everybody’s-favourite-actor Hiddleston and the incomparable Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve, a pair of centuries-old crypto-vampire lovers who have become bored with contemporary humans (or “zombies”). He is a reclusive rock star living in Detroit, while she is a Tangiers-based book-lover with mysterious gifts, and the wonderfully hazy story details their romantic reunion. For any skeptics out there, this film resembles the exhausted vampire subgenre about as much as Dead Man did a western or Ghost Dog did a samurai film, which is to say, not much at all. Considerably more accessible than 2009′s underwhelming The Limits of Control, all the elements of a classic Jarmusch film are present here: the unhurried pace; impossibly hip soundtrack (by Jozef van Wissern and Squirrel); droll dialogue, littered with wry observations and existential ennui; atmosphere so rich you find yourself yearning to be transported there; and most importantly, an emphasis on tone over all else. There are fun references to Shakespeare, Byron, Tesla, Einstein, Jack White and many more, gorgeous night shots of dilapidated Detroit and Tangiers, and memorable supporting turns from John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright, but the most cherishable element here is watching the sexier-than-ever Hiddleston and Swinton exist in Jarmusch’s universe, as they relish the deadpan one-liners and make everything around them look uncool as hell.
2. FRANCES HA (Dir. Noah Baumbach)
Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress) gives a sensational breakout performance in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a consistently witty and charming story of late-20s aimlessness and sisterly love — one which also serves as a monochromatic tribute to the French New Wave and a Woody Allen-esque celebration of the Big Apple. The endearing actress occupies nearly every frame, firing off hilarious quips with sitcom-style precision and effortlessly elevating what could have been a mere quirky character to something real and deeply affecting. Gerwig also brings out a warmth previously not evident in her director/co-writer/real-life partner’s work (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg), and this is undeniably her film — audiences will be hard pressed to find a better female lead performance this year. I laughed and swooned all the way through this film, leaving the theatre positively beaming, and I would be genuinely surprised if Frances Ha wasn’t the most joyous and emotionally satisfying 86 minutes you spent in a cinema this year.
1. UPSTREAM COLOR (Dir. Shane Carruth)
Cinematic jack-of-all-trades Shane Carruth came out of nowhere nearly ten years ago with his dense and dizzying no-budget masterpiece Primer. His long-awaited follow-up, Upstream Color, not only confirms Carruth’s reputation as one of America’s most original and idiosyncratic filmmaking talents, but is also my pick for the best film of 2013 so far. Favouring a more abstract approach this time around, the film details the sci-fi-tinged story of a woman (Amy Seimetz) and a man (Carruth) who are inexplicably drawn together and entangled in the life cycle of a complex parasite. Worms, pigs, orchids, a sound engineer and Thoreau’s Walden feature heavily, but this elliptical and willfully obtuse journey is less concerned with narrative clarity than it is with emotional coherence, which will no doubt frustrate many. However, much like the recent work of Terrence Malick, if you are willing to surrender to the film’s hypnotic flow you will soon find yourself blissfully transported. Meticulously crafted and utterly beautiful aesthetically – with gorgeous digital cinematography and a shimmering ambient score by Carruth himself, and impressionistic editing shared with David Lowery — Upstream Color was truly glorious to behold at the mighty Civic Theatre. Carruth is a true original, and after seeing his new film twice I can state with some confidence that this is the most stimulating and transcendent cinematic experience of 2013.
NOTE: I chose not to include any classic films in this list, but it is worth mentioning that the Auckland Philharmonia’s accompaniment for The Cameraman was an absolute delight, as was seeing the 4K restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest at the Civic.
BLUE RUIN (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Cinematographer/filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature, Blue Ruin, is a tense Southern gothic that follows an act of vengeance through to its nasty and logical conclusion. Impressing with its efficiency, widescreen compositions, darkly comic moments and Macon Blair’s sympathetic performance, this is an under-the-radar gem well worth seeking out.
THE DANCE OF REALITY (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Surrealist icon Alejandaro Jodorowsky makes a long-awaited and rather triumphant comeback with The Dance of Reality (La Danza de la Realidad). Revisiting his childhood in Chile à la Fellini’s Amarcord, this imaginative and supremely weird film was one of the most purely entertaining of the festival, despite its bloated running time and uneven storytelling.
DIRTY WARS (Dir. Rick Rowley)
The most incendiary and essential political documentary of the year is Dirty Wars, which follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill as he chases down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars. While he can occasionally get in the way of the story, Scahill’s dangerous and vital work here is nothing short of heroic and this riveting, justifiably paranoid film demands to be seen — if you thought the War on Terror was winding down under Obama, get ready to have your eyes opened wide.
A FIELD IN ENGLAND (Dir. Ben Wheatley)
Narrowly missing my top ten, A Field in England is another fascinating and bold experiment from the prolific Ben Wheatley (Sighsteers). A psychedelic folk-horror concerning magic and madness during the English Civil War, this is Wheatley’s most adventurous and unique effort yet, boasting glorious monochrome compositions, a palpable sense of dread and a trippy third act freak-out. While it can be occasionally grueling and frustratingly obtuse, there’s no denying that you’re in the company of a remarkable filmmaker and as soon as it’s over you will be hanging out for his next film. Fortunately with Wheatley, that’s never far away.
A HIJACKING (Dir. Tobias Lindholm)
Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm — known primarily as a writer for the excellent political series Borgen and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt – displays true directorial prowess with his remarkably tense second film, A Hijacking. This gripping thriller tells the fictional yet highly plausible tale of a Danish cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and held at length for ransom. Borgen stars Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling give sympathetic performances as the ship’s beleaguered cook and a pragmatic CEO, respectively, and this refreshingly realistic and claustrophobic film eschews the sensationalism and clichés commonly associated with the genre and instead focuses on the situation’s complex human toll.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Dir. Joss Whedon)
Joss “Midas Touch” Whedon follows up the insanely successful The Avengers with a no-budget contemporary adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Hastily shot in his own home with a cast of friends in black-and-white, this charming and energetic take on the material is absolutely irresistible — providing some of the biggest laughs of the festival — and Amy Acker in particular is hilarious as the relentlessly sparring Beatrice. Fans of Whedon and the Bard alike are sure to be delighted.
PRINCE AVALANCHE (Dir. David Gordon Green)
David Gordon Green makes a welcome return to indie filmmaking with Prince Avalanche, which nicely bridges the gap between his acclaimed character studies (George Washington, All the Real Girls) and recent excursions into broad comedy (Pineapple Express, Your Highness). Starring the perennially likeable Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch and adapted from the little-seen 2011 Icelandic comedy Either Way, the film is a warm and affecting odd couple story that follows two isolated men as they paint lines on a rural road in a fire-ravaged area of Texas in 1988. Balancing offbeat humour with meditative sequences — including some gorgeous scenic interludes set to a transportive score by David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky — this is a winning return to form for Gordon Green, as well as a delightful showcase for his rarely-better lead actors.
TO THE WONDER (Dir. Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick dials his distinctive aesthetic up to maximum in the gorgeous but emotionally detached To the Wonder. Featuring less dialogue, narrative or characters than ever, the film finds the reclusive auteur indulging in his usual obsessions — spirituality, love, nature — while channeling a rare personal story concerning a mournful love triangle. Of the principle cast — Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem — only Kurylenko is able to make any significant impression in the narration-heavy proceedings, and she gives a stellar performance as the anguished Marina. Those not already on board with Malick’s singular brand of evoke-rather-than-tell will certainly not be won over, but cinephiles who are happy to surrender to the flow of the eloquent orchestral score, impressionistic editing and Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning imagery will likely find themselves enraptured.
A TOUCH OF SIN (Dir. Jia Zhang-ke)
Acclaimed director Jia Zhang-ke (Still Life) successfully transitions into genre fare with the violent omnibus A Touch of Sin, inspired by four shocking true stories found in Chinese newspapers. This disaffected exploration of corruption, capitalism, class separation and desperate violence in contemporary China can be tough-going — it was easily the most pessimistic film of the festival — but it is also one of the most bold and important films of the year from a master filmmaker, not to mention the most consistent omnibus feature in recent memory.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Dir. Scott McGehee, David Siegel)
Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) update Henry James’ What Maisie Knew to contemporary Manhattan, following the heartwrenching story of a little girl’s struggle in the midst of her parents’ bitter custody battle. This is an undeniably difficult film to watch at times, as Maisie’s parents — played by an unhinged Julianne Moore and passive-aggressive Steve Coogan — are truly awful people, but its honest portrayal of the effect a messy divorce can have on a child is praiseworthy. Equally worthy of praise are the powerful performances, especially that of the incredibly talented young Onata Aprile, whose captivating and wide-eyed Maisie is the most deeply affecting child character I have seen on screen in a long time. While it can be overly melodramatic, What Maisie Knew is a beautifully observed and unnerving drama that might just be the most emotionally devastating film of the festival.
NOTE: I should point out that I missed a few potential highlights that I hope to catch up with soon, including Leviathan, Heli, The Selfish Giant, Cheap Thrills, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and The Rocket.
THE BLING RING is about as hollow as its characters and only mildly entertaining. Sofia Coppola has nothing to say, aside from perhaps, “Check out my cool (anachronistic) soundtrack!”
The exhaustingly eccentric, hyperactive and self-satisfied MOOD INDIGO is a frustrating and pointless mess. At this point I really think Michel Gondry should just go back to making music videos.
I only lasted half of the 250-minutes that make up Lav Diaz’s punishing Filipino drama, NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY – my first ever NZIFF walkout. Obviously I couldn’t fairly review the film, but suffice it to say that I agree wholeheartedly with THR‘s Neil Young: “[Diaz is] one of those filmmakers who, apparently incapable of conveying the passage of time, instead must simply inflict it.”
Carlos Reygadas’ unpleasant and pretentious POST TENEBRAS LUX is the most detached viewing experience I have had in a long time, and was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the festival.