Grab your highlighters, folks: the New Zealand International Film Festival’s 2015 Auckland programme has been unveiled. Opening in bold style with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and closing in tears with Australian drama Holding the Man, this year’s festival looks as relevant as ever. Cinephiles can rejoice over the inclusion of 17 exciting titles direct from the Cannes Film Festival, which despite the noticeable absence of Palme d’Or winner Dheepan and critics’ favourite Carol remains an impressive haul. Also cause for celebration is this year’s Live Cinema collaboration with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra: Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1921 feature The Kid and 1917 short The Immigrant. Poring over the selection, a few trends jumped out at me: several of the 2012 festival’s best filmmakers make a welcome return — Miguel Gomes! Joshua Oppenheimer! Pablo Larraín! Christian Petzold! Hirokazu Koreeda!; documentaries are increasingly becoming the most-buzzed titles (The Wolfpack, Amy, Going Clear); and most encouraging is the number of strong directorial debuts from around the globe, including Alex Garland’s Ex Machina; Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, Yared Zeleke’s Lamb and Shim Sung-bo’s Haemoo. Read on for my most anticipated picks of the programme, and be sure to check back throughout the festival for reviews and coverage.
20. 99 HOMES (Dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Michael Shannon is one of the finest American actors working today — as anyone familiar with his performances in Jeff Nichols’ films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) will attest — so whenever his name appears in the festival programme I pay attention. In 99 Homes, the fifth feature from writer/director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop), he plays a duplicitous real estate shark with a corrupting influence on Andrew Garfield’s desperate family man. While the undeniably talented Garfield is the lead here, this really looks like Shannon’s show and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
19. COURT (Dir. Chaitanya Tamhane)
An ageing folk singer is charged with inciting suicide and put on trial in Court, the assured directorial debut by Chaitanya Tamhane which earned multiple awards at the Venice and Mumbai Film Festivals. This provocative drama looks to be an intelligent and multifaceted insight into India’s outdated and often unjust legal system, and the hype behind the film has Tamhane positioned as Indian cinema’s next big thing.
18. MY GOLDEN DAYS (Dir. Arnaud Desplechin)
Nobody does coming-of-age films better than the French, and it’s become something of a Gallic tradition for filmmakers to mine their own youth. Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale) is the latest major writer-director to do so with My Golden Days, a three-part story of first love and loose prequel to his 1996 black comedy My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, although no acquaintance with that film is required. Newcomers Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet play the young couple, with flash-forward glimpses of original star Mathieu Amalric, and the reaction to their performances at Cannes was ecstatic, with The Playlist proclaiming: “It feels like a new generation of talent emerging who’ll likely be cropping up in French cinema for decades to come”
17. CARTEL LAND (Dir. Matthew Heineman)
Matthew Heineman and his crew risked their safety to bring us this troubling portrait of vigilante groups responding to the consequences of drug cartel violence on both sides of the Mexico-United States border. Executive Produced by Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and dubbed “real-life Breaking Bad“, the Sundance-award-winning Cartel Land looks to be the most urgent and action-packed documentary of the year so far.
16. JAUJA (Dir. Lisandro Alonso)
Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso (Liverpool) is back with another meditative and enigmatic drama, Jauja (pronounced ‘how-ha’), which follows a father and daughter’s surreal journey from Denmark to the wilderness of 19th-century Patagonia. Multi-lingual star Viggo Mortensen adds Spanish and Danish to his resume here, and you can also see him perfect French and North African Arabic in David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men.
15. THE END OF THE TOUR (Dir. James Ponsoldt)
Fans of the late David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) recoiled when news broke of Jason Segel’s casting as the beloved author, but it appears that director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) knew something we didn’t as this performance has been earning raves since The End of the Tour premiered at Sundance. The film details an intense five-day period following the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking novel, during which Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is assigned to interview him and the two develop a tenuous yet intense relationship.
14. CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Thai slow cinema maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned to Cannes this year with Cemetery of Splendour, the much anticipated follow-up to his spellbinding 2010 Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. His latest cine-poem concerns a hospital full of soldiers with sleeping sickness, and a lonely volunteer nurse who falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms and romance. Weerasethakul’s enigmatic embrace of the spiritual and the mundane is obviously not for everybody, but those willing to submit to his quiet pace may find themselves sublimely transported.
13. YAKUZA APOCALYPSE: THE GREAT WAR OF THE UNDERWORLD (Dir. Takashi Miike)
Prolific Japanese genre master and longtime Incredibly Strange favourite Takashi Miike (Audition) returns to his demented V-cinema roots with Yakuza Apocalypse, a martial arts extravaganza featuring vampire yakuzas, a giant frog crime lord and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid films. Miike’s output can be decidedly hit-and-miss, but this promises to be his most outrageously fun effort in years and I’m crossing my fingers that it rivals Sion Sono’s 2014 highlight Why Don’t You Play in Hell? for sheer midnight movie delirium.
12. THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Dir. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)
The Forbidden Room is the latest tour de force from outré Canadian auteur Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg), a demented mash-up of long-lost serial-style movies that never existed with a premise only he could dream up:
A submarine crew, a feared pack of forest bandits, a famous surgeon, and a battalion of child soldiers all get more than they bargained for as they wend their way toward progressive ideas on life and love.
11. TEHRAN TAXI (Dir. Jafar Panahi)
Tehran Taxi is the third non-film made by Iranian director Jafar Panahi since his 2010 arrest and subsequent filmmaking ban, following 2011’s inspirational documentary This Is Not a Film and 2013’s docu-drama Closed Curtain. Awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival this year — where Jury president Darren Aronofsky described it as “a love letter to cinema… filled with love for his art, his community, his country and his audience” — Panahi’s latest effort finds him pretending to be a taxi driver negotiating the streets of Tehran, once again blurring the lines between documentary and fiction.
10. THE TRIBE (Dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
The sensation of Cannes 2014 is finally here: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s singular silent film The Tribe, a disturbing vision of teenage prostitution and gang brutality in a Kiev boarding school for the deaf. The universally acclaimed film is entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language with no subtitles.
9. THE CLUB (Dir. Pablo Larraín)
Inventive Chilean director Pablo Larraín, known for his 2008 breakout Tony Manero and 2013 NZIFF highlight No, shifts his darkly comic attention from Augusto Pinochet to the Catholic Church in The Club. This allegorical story revolves around a group of exiled priests whose clandestine existence in a small beach town is rudely interrupted by a fifth man who forces them to relive the sins of their past.
8. EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Dir. Ciro Guerra)
A lone Amazonian shaman reluctantly assists an ailing European scientist (Jan Bijvoet) — and later an American — on a journey to discover the mythical Yakruna plant in Embrace of the Serpent, the third film from Columbian filmmaker Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys). Taking the top honours in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes, this is by all accounts an astonishing exploration of the ravages of colonialism from the indigenous point of view, shot in stunning monochrome.
7. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (Dir. Peter Strickland)
The second film from Giallo enthusiast Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) stars Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) and Chiara D’Anna as lovers locked in ritualistic games of dominance and subservience. While some have reductively labelled The Duke of Burgundy as a tasteful alternative to 50 Shades of Grey, this intoxicatingly atmospheric film deserves to be judged on its own substantial merits.
6. PHOENIX (Dir. Christian Petzold)
For those unaware, Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss — perhaps the best filmmaker and actress in Germany today — have steadily been collaborating on great films for the last decade, most recently on 2012’s excellent Cold War slow-burn Barbara. Their latest effort delves further into the past, mining film-noir and Hitchcock to tell a moving tale of love and suspicion amidst the reconstruction of Berlin in the aftermath of WWII. Hoss and Petzold are at the peak of their considerable powers, and this might be their strongest work yet.
5. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking 2012 documentary The Act of Killing was a powerfully disturbing investigation into the heart of darkness, as former Indonesian death-squad leaders proudly discussed and then cinematically reenacted their 1965-66 mass-killings. He returns to this subject in The Look of Silence, a companion piece which focusses on the victims as one family confronts the killers about their crimes. Once again executive produced by legendary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the film premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, the International Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI), the Italian online critics award (Mouse d’Oro), the European Film Critics Award (FEDEORA), as well as the Human Rights Nights Award.
4. INHERENT VICE (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) is the greatest living American filmmaker in my humble opinion, so his latest film would more than likely occupy the number one spot on this list if I hadn’t already seen it, a fact acknowledged by NZIFF director Bill Gosden in his programme introduction:
“…our commitment to getting Inherent Vice, one of the great American films of late 2014, onto the giant screen in July 2015 almost looks like a nostalgic gesture. That is, until you are sitting in the Civic completely absorbed in the present tense of the film’s unique fictional universe.”
Inherent Vice follows perpetually stoned P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend (newcomer Katherine Waterston), stumbling through the groovy counterculture of 1970 Los Angeles into an incomprehensible web of conspiracy. The superb ensemble includes Josh Brolin (never better), Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Benecio Del Toro, Jena Malone and narration by Joanna Newsom. Devotees of Anderson and author Thomas Pynchon won’t need any convincing, but fans of the similarly unconventional The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski should consider this hazy, surreal and often hilarious sunlit noir to be essential viewing.
3. THE ASSASSIN (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millenium Mambo) returns at long last with his highly anticipated foray into wuxia, The Assassin. Nearly a decade in the making, the film stars frequent collaborator Shu Qi as the eponymous killer in what promises to be a ravishing and poetic historical drama. Awarded Best Director at Cannes, this is the centrepiece of the 2015 festival.
2. ARABIAN NIGHTS (Dir. Miguel Gomes)
Miguel Gomes (Tabu) delivered the most ambitious film at Cannes this year with Arabian Nights, an epic trilogy that takes inspiration from the classic One Thousand and One Nights folk tales to tell ten stories of straitened life in contemporary Portugal. The NZIFF schedule provides two viewing options: a one-day marathon for the eager (like myself), or staggering the films over three days.
1. THE LOBSTER (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Opening night promises to be the most perverse and delightfully adventurous cinematic experience of the festival, perhaps even the year. Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English-language debut with The Lobster, a surreal black comedy in which single adults are forced to find a partner within 45 days or else be transformed into an animal of their choosing. Colin Farrell stars — in what has already been hailed as his best performance — alongside a stellar international cast that includes Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Léa Seydoux and Angeliki Papoulia. As with his unforgettable 2009 sensation Dogtooth, Lanthimos’ latest created quite a stir at Cannes (where it was awarded the Jury Prize), and if I was a gambling man I would put money on this becoming the most talked about film of the festival.
The New Zealand International Film Festival runs from July 16 – August 2 in Auckland.
Tickets are on sale now and you can find all the details at the NZIFF website.