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Five must-see films at the NZ International Film Festival

NZIFF 2015

The New Zealand International Film Festival launches this Thursday in Auckland with a sold-out session of The Lobster, the new film by the Greek satirist Yorgos Lanthimos. If you’re still mulling over what to go to, here are the five films I’m most looking forward to.

The Lobster

THE LOBSTER

I didn’t catch it until the following year on DVD, but by all accounts when Yorgos Lanthimos’ spectacular début Dogtooth screened in the 2009 New Zealand International Film Festival, it occasioned a huge number of walk-outs. This is possibly because it wasn’t programmed in Ant Timpson’s Incredibly Strange sub-section, as it perhaps should have been: instead of the nuanced Greek family drama some were apparently expecting, audiences were greeted by a shocking, frequently hilarious and deeply weird political satire about three teenagers who invent their own language after having been imprisoned in their home by their over-protective father for their whole lives. The lesson here, for unadventurous moviegoers? Always read the blurb.

The festival has chosen to launch in Auckland with Lanthimos’ new outing, his first English-language film, a decision for which it should be hugely lauded. Instead of opening with another by-the-numbers Kiwi drama — the nadir in recent years has to have been Apron Strings — the NZIFF has opted for a film-buff’s film, as any international festival of its calibre ought to. Giving locally made films their due is certainly something the festival does very well, but it’s healthy every so often, surely, to let that role undergird the rest of the programme rather than give it centre-stage.

The Lobster stars Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, and Rachel Weisz, and seemingly dwells in similar comic-surrealist territory to Dogtooth: “single adults are required to find a partner within 45 days or be transformed into the animals of their choice,” say the programme notes. It’s difficult to say whether people will exit in droves mid-film — it doesn’t sound like there’ll be as much overt violence here as there was in Dogtooth — but this year’s will certainly be a more exciting gala opening than any in recent memory.

Arabian Nights

ARABIAN NIGHTS

The Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes last graced our cinema screens in 2012 with his masterwork, Tabu — a love story spanning generations, told mostly in silent-movie-style flashback, and filmed in crisp, nostalgic black-and-white. (FYI, it screened in this year’s Auckland Film Society programme.)

Gomes returns this year with something truly stunning: his six-hour take on the One-Thousand-and-One Nights. “This is not an adaptation of the book, despite drawing on its structure,” the trailer announces. Each of the three volumes — “The Restless One,” “The Desolate One,” and “The Enchanted One” — are set in present-day Portugal, but appear almost entirely fabulist in their outlook.

Aucklanders have two options: see it all in one go over most of the festival’s first Saturday, or take it in slowly over three consecutive evenings. Although I’d love the endurance-test nature of the former, I think I’ll go with the more leisurely option. The festival notes that each part is “perfectly viewable in isolation,” but from some discussion online with Twitter pals who’ve seen it in Sydney and elsewhere, it’s advisable not to see these Arabian Nights out of sequence.

While We're Young

WHILE WE’RE YOUNG

Noah Baumbach has always been something of an imitator, closely aligning himself with actors and filmmakers he admires. After Kicking and Screaming, his Whit Stillman-esque début in 1995, the director made a name for himself — and began to create his own style — in 2005 with The Squid and the Whale.

Margot and the Wedding (2007) pointed toward a more morose comic impulse, and in 2010, Ben Stiller starred in the title role in Greenberg, Baumbach’s best movie to date. Frances Ha made nods to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and outright lifted from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. Baumbach’s new film, While Were Young, is another comedy starring Stiller — though this time in what seems like a less crotchety character, a documentary maker — alongside Naomi Watts. The two befriend a cool young couple, played by Adam Driver (GIRLS), and Amanda Seyfried.

Tim Robey, writing in the Telegraph, says the film is “about retro-hip — VHS, typewriters, and vinyl — being the domain of cool young things, while their elders go digital and attempt with tragic vanity to keep their fingers on the pulse.” Appropriate, then, that the folk singer Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), and Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. the Beastie Boy Ad-Rock) have small roles, and that the score is by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, whose paean to digitally induced middle-aged cultural irrelevance, “Losing My Edge,” features the line “The kids are coming up from behind.”

Cemetery of Splendour

CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR

The best moment in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a brilliant but sometimes-impenetrable cinematic tone poem by the slow-cinema maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul, involves a man who has been reincarnated as a monkey-like creature: he visits his family late in the night, and his eyes glow an eerie neon-red against the inky black of his fur and the greenness of the surrounding jungle. It’s a profound moment thematically in the context of the film (which won the Palme d’Or in 2010), but it’s also an astounding image in its own right — and it’s broadly emblematic of what the Thai director does repeatedly in his films, collections of powerful images which linger in the mind and often weave a totally logical story only in hindsight.

Weerasethakul returns this year with Cemetery of Splendour, a love story set in a hospital ward full of soldiers afflicted with sleeping sickness. Rak ti Khon Kaen, the film’s original title, translates as “Love in Khon Kaen”; the film follows a lonely middle-aged nurse who tends to one of the soldiers, and succumbs to hallucinations. Describing the film as “trance-like” for The Playlist, Jessica Kiang implores readers to, “for the love of all things holy, of which this film may very well be one, see it in a cinema.”

Out of the Mist

OUT OF THE MIST

Of the 42 films I plan on seeing in this year’s festival, Out of the Mist: An Alternate History of New Zealand Cinema — Tim Wong’s documentary on little-seen, under-the-radar homegrown movies — is probably the one I’m most looking forward to, not least because I know embarrassingly little of our national cinema. Short of the landmarks and international hits (Once Were Warriors, Heavenly Creatures, The Piano, Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, Goodbye Pork Pie), and a few well-known offbeat entries such as Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth and Vincent Ward’s The Navigator, I haven’t gone to the effort to track down very much. I watched Alison Maclean’s Kitchen Sink at uni, but I hadn’t seen the marvellous, wonderfully moving and groundbreaking Utu until its 2013 restoration, and I’ve shamefully never scouted out Merata Mita’s Patu!

I’m hoping Wong’s film will place all three of those, and many more besides, in context. Wong runs the online journal The Lumière Reader, and was able to enlist no less a luminary than Eleanor Catton as narrator. While I don’t think we should expect a rigorous academic survey, festival director Bill Gosden’s advice to bring a notebook along (so you can jot down titles and names) certainly seems worth taking.

Out of the Mist is among three films Wong is launching as part of a new video series, The Lumière Reader Presents, and on July 11, as an unofficial preamble to Out of the Mist, the Academy Cinemas screened Cinema of Unease, Sam Neill’s 1995 analysis of New Zealand cinema shortly before it was afflicted with Jacksonitis.

 

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