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Picks from the 2014 NZ International Film Festival programme

NZIFF 2014 Picks

The New Zealand International Film Festival returns this month with your annual dose of the finest cinema from around the globe, including hot titles direct from Cannes, much-anticipated festival highlights from the past year, yet-to-be-discovered gems and of course some strong local content. Navigating the programme and selecting from the overwhelming line-up can be hard work, so in order to ease the decision-making process you can find my list of the festival’s must-see films below. Be sure to check back for reviews throughout the festival, and as always for more frequent updates you can follow A Fistful of Culture on Facebook and Twitter.

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NZIFF spoils us for choice each year and narrowing my programme picks down to 25 is never an easy task. I’m already feeling torn about leaving Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu off the list, not to mention the Cliff Curtis-starring opening night film Dark Horse and Florian Habicht’s documentary Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets — and then there’s the gloriously restored classics: Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Read on below for an entirely subjective — but thoroughly researched and overthought! — list of the most anticipated films at the 2014 NZIFF, including a few recommendations that I have already seen.

Maps to the Stars

25. MAPS TO THE STARS (Dir. David Cronenberg)

Legendary Canadian provocateur David Cronenberg (VideodromeA History of Violence) follows up 2012’s underrated Cosmopolis with the seemingly-even-more-divisive Maps to the Stars. This darkly comic Hollywood satire finds him reteaming with Robert Pattinson alongside Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack and Julianne Moore, who was awarded Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as a troubled actress in decline.

Enemy

24. ENEMY (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Jake Gyllenhaal was the best thing about Denis Villeneuve’s mixed-bag procedural, Prisoners, and the pair evidently enjoyed working together so much that they decided to collaborate again immediately. Fittingly one of two doppelgänger films in the line-up, Enemy is a hypnotic, creepy and downright baffling take on José Saramago’s novel The Double, with a typically excellent Gyllenhaal in the lead roles opposite Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon. The head-scratching, WTF ending may prove too much for some, but Villeneuve’s enigmatic film has a deeply unnerving atmosphere that is uniquely its own, effectively getting under your skin and sure to collect its fair share of admirers.

Cold In July

23. COLD IN JULY (Dir. Jim Mickle)

After making a name for himself with Stake Land and We Are What We Are as a unique purveyor of American horror, Jim Mickle changes gear with the pulpy Southern-fried thriller Cold in July. Michael C. Hall (Dexter) is the film’s reluctant hero, hailed as a small-town hero after killing an intruder, but soon thrust into a dark underworld of corruption and violence. Sam Shepard and a reportedly-career-best Don Johnson also star in what promises to be an unpredictable and engrossing redneck noir.

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

22. KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER (Dir. David Zellner)

David Zellner’s utterly strange sounding Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) as a lonely Japanese woman who becomes convinced that a satchel of money buried and lost in a fictional film is real. The film in question is the Coen brothers’ “Based on a True Story” Fargo — whose influence seems to be stronger than ever 18 years on, with FX’s hit reimagining proving to be one of 2014’s best shows — and this absurd yet beguiling story finds her embarking on a quixotic quest across the frozen tundra of Minnesota in search of her mythical fortune.

Borgman

21. BORGMAN (Dir. Alex van Warmerdam)

The most shocking film of the 2013 Cannes line-up at last makes its way to NZ screens: Alex van Warmerdam’s malevolent fable Borgman, which follows the story of a vagrant trickster (Jan Bijvoet) who insinuates himself into the lives of an arrogant upper class family. Labelled “exceptionally disturbing” and “a singularly weird experience“, this one-of-a-kind Dutch thriller is a must-see for Incredibly Strange aficionados.

White God

20. WHITE GOD (Dir. Kornél Mundruczó)

Winner of the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year was the audacious Hungarian drama White God, which begins as the story of young girl and dog who are separated but gradually becomes a fierce parable, as the mistreated dogs revolt against their tormentors.

Love is Strange

19. LOVE IS STRANGE (Dir. Ira Sachs)

Portraying an ageing gay couple whose decision to marry has unexpected consequences, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have been receiving some of the strongest reviews of their respective careers for Ira Sachs’ timely drama Love is Strange. The pair look absolutely magnificent here, and Sachs’ film just might be the most warm and moving entry at this year’s festival.

20,000 Days on Earth

18. 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (Dir. Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard)

With Nick Cave touring New Zealand in December, what better time could there be to delve into the dark mind of this iconic singer-songwriter? 20,000 Days on Earth promises a genre-bending, semi-autobiographical profile of Cave and his artistic process as it follows a fictitious day in his life, set to a score by Cave and regular collaborator Warren Ellis. The documentary premiered to glowing reviews at Sundance earlier this year — winning Best Directing and Editing (World Cinema Documentary) — and as a die-hard fan I am over-the-moon about how much of Cave we are being treated to this year.

The Double

17. THE DOUBLE (Dir. RIchard Ayoade)

The other doppelgänger film on the festival circuit this year is Richard Ayoade’s great sophomore feature, The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg in terrific form as a meek office worker whose life is overturned by the appearance of someone his physical double and personality opposite. The wonderfully eclectic cast includes the omnipresent Mia Wasikowsa, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor and cameos from Christopher Morris, Chris O’Dowd and Sally Hawkins. A drastic departure from 2011’s coming-of-age drama Submarine, Ayoade skillfully balances deadpan humour, a darkly absurd tone and expressionistic visuals and the result is a surreal trip that feels like nothing else screening now.

Frank

16. FRANK (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

Sundance hit Frank features yet another celebrated Michael Fassbender performance, although this one hides his ridiculously handsome face underneath a mask for the film’s entirety. He plays the mysterious titular musician whose avant-garde rock band — including Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal — finds fame via Twitter, and the whole thing seems so damn weird that I can’t help but get excited for it.

Starred Up

15. STARRED UP (Dir. David Mackenzie)

Rising star Jack O’Connell (Skins) is poised for breakout success following his performance as a psychotic young convict in Starred Up. Hailed as “an instant classic of the prison movie genre“, David Mackenzie’s film offers a brutal and realistic exploration of the dehumanising prison system, with consistently-great character actor Ben Mendelsohn co-starring as O’Connell’s inmate father.

Locke

14. LOCKE (Dir. Steven Knight)

One man, in a car, juggling phone calls while his life unravels over the course of 80 minutes: that’s the simple yet effective premise of screenwriter-turned-director Steven Knight’s Locke, an impressive exercise in minimalism that serves as a terrific showcase for Tom Hardy. That Hardy is one of the great actors of his generation is a consensus most critics and filmgoers already share, but they’ve never seen him quite as riveting as he is here, conveying so much with nothing but his eyes and voice — his performance is so compelling, in fact, that I could just listen to him deliver Welsh-accented traffic updates!

The Rover

13. THE ROVER (Dir. David Michôd)

David Michôd made a sensational debut in 2010 with the crime drama Animal Kingdom, an instant classic of Australian cinema, and rather than following its success with any number of Hollywood offers he has admirably taken his time to develop another original project. The Rover is an angry post-apocalyptic western set the Australian outback, starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson as a pair of unlikely travelling companions. Both actors have received rave reviews for their intense performances, while Quentin Tarantino has praised the film as “a mesmerizing, visionary achievement. The best post-apocalyptic movie since the original Mad Max.

Why Don't You Play In Hell?

12. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (Dir. Sion Sono)

Japanese master-of-trash Sion Sono (Love ExposureCold Fish) is back again with the incredibly titled Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, an insane genre-mashup that many have been comparing to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. At once a Yakuza caper and a tribute to filmmaking, a slapstick comedy and bloodthirsty action extravaganza, this could be Sono’s most bonkers and hilarious effort yet and looks destined to become a midnight movie favourite.

Jodorowsky's Dune

11. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (Dir. Frank Pavich)

At the peak of his creative powers in 1973 following Holy Mountain, Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to make an enormously ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune. Set to star Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger (!), the film never managed to get financing and became not only one of the great ‘What Ifs’ of cinema, but perhaps the most influential film never made. Frank Pavich’s engrossing documentary tantalises us with what might have been, and the 84-year-old Jodorowsky makes for enormously entertaining company as he rather immodestly relates the inspiring and heartbreaking story of his dream project that never was.

Wild Tales

10. WILD TALES (Dir. Damián Szifron)

This year’s closing night film is Damián Szifron’s surprise Cannes sensation Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes), a compendium of vengeance-themed shorts that looks awfully entertaining. Co-produced by Pedro Almodóvar with an ensemble led by Ricardo Darin — the Bogart of Argentine cinema — this will undoubtedly be an incredibly fun way to see out the festival with a packed Civic audience.

Night Moves

9. NIGHT MOVES (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Minimalist filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has made some of the most fascinating independent American cinema of recent years — particularly her two collaborations with Michelle Williams (Meek’s CutoffWendy and Lucy) — and her much anticipated new film is the haunting political thriller Night Moves. Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard star as environmental activists who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam. The film looks to share some DNA with paranoid thrillers of the 1970s — not to mention a title (Arthur Penn’s under-appreciated 1975 noir) — and this combination of genre, filmmaker and cast has me very intrigued.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

8. THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA (Dir. Isao Takahata)

Hayao Miyazaki recently retired to great fanfare with his stunning The Wind Rises, and Studio Ghibli’s next film is no less of an event as director/co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the FirefliesMy Neighbors the Yamadas) returns with his first film in 14 years, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Needless to say, this is essential viewing for fans of animation, and Ghibli devotees also have the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at the making of these latest films with the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

7. BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (Dir. Diao Yinan)

I was a little surprised to see a Chinese noir win the Golden Bear (Best Film) at Berlinale this year over the likes of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood — as well as the Silver Bear (Best Actor) for Liao Fan — so mark me more than a little intrigued to see Diao Yinan’s very promising Black Coal, Thin Ice for myself.

Snowpiercer

6. SNOWPIERCER (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

While fellow Korean filmmakers Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon stumbled with their recent English-language debuts — the disappointing Stoker and The Last Stand, respectively — Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) hits it out of the park with the thrillingly ambitious, action-packed dystopian spectacle Snowpiercer. In his strongest performance to date, Chris Evans leads a wonderfully diverse ensemble that includes an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris as the frozen Earth’s last survivors aboard the titular train. Blockbuster science fiction is rarely this intelligent or fully realised, as Bong expertly juggles biting social commentary and exhilarating action sequences at breakneck pace, and you owe it to yourself to experience his grand vision on the biggest screen possible.

Two Days, One Night

5. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)

Following Cannes critics’ overwhelmingly positive response to Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit), the Dardennes looked poised for an historic third Palme d’Or win — having previously won for 1999’s Rosetta and 2005’s L’Enfant (The Child) — so many were stunned when both the Belgian greats and their Best Actress contender Marion Cotillard were overlooked for what appears to be some of the strongest work of their respective careers.

Leviathan

4. LEVIATHAN (Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Awarded Best Screenplay at Cannes, Leviathan is the new film from one of Russia’s most important contemporary filmmakers, Andrey Zvyagintsev (The ReturnElena). Curiously funded with support from the Russian Ministry of Culture, this blackly-comic tragedy looks to be a scathing and powerful critique on the corruption of Putin’s Russia, complete with grand imagery and unflinching ambition.

Winter Sleep

3. WINTER SLEEP (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Turkey’s pre-eminent filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been a festival fixture for nearly two decades now, steadily collecting awards and devoted followers for the likes of 2008’s Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys) and 2011’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. His latest and lengthiest film to date, Winter Sleep — which clocks in at 196 minutes, making it the longest film in competition at Cannes this year — was awarded the 2014 Palme d’Or by Jury President Jane Campion, who praised it as “masterful” and went on to say, “The real gift of the film is how honest it is. It’s ruthless. If I had the guts to be as honest as [Ceylan], I’d be proud of myself.”

Boyhood

2. BOYHOOD (Dir. Richard Linklater)

Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is unprecedented in the history of cinema and has been universally acclaimed since its Sundance premiere as a remarkable achievement. Shooting started in 2002 when star Ellar Coltrane was six years old, and he and other key cast — including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette — reunited with Linklater once a year to update the story until age 18. Following last year’s career-best Before Midnight, expectations could not be higher for Linklater’s most ambitious project.

Under the Skin

1. UNDER THE SKIN (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Visionary director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) makes a long-awaited comeback following a 10-year hiatus with Under the Skin, which looks to be a visually-stunning return to the kind of challenging and original science fiction cinema that thrived in the ’70s (Roeg, Kubrick, et al.). Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien in alluring human form on an eerie journey through Scotland, and by all accounts her unnerving performance is like nothing she has done before. This has been my most anticipated film of the year since the mesmerising first trailer surfaced, and I cannot wait to be hypnotised by Glazer’s film on the giant Civic screen.

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