It’s an under-appreciated fact that New Zealand International Film Festival attendees are among the first public audiences anywhere in the world to see films direct from Cannes. This year’s stupendous roster of twenty titles from the world’s most illustrious spectacle of the cinematic arts is the jewel in the crown of a programme bursting with tantalising offerings from home and abroad. The festival begins tonight in Auckland at the majestic Civic Theatre before opening to Wellington movie-goers next week, thence to eleven other cities and towns up and down the country.
New Zealand Firsts
The opening-night selection, James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse (pictured), sold out more than a week ago — a sure sign of the pulling power of its star as much as its likely affecting story. A biographical picture of the late chess player Genesis Potini, the film stars Cliff Curtis with James Rolleston, the latter of whom broke into popular consciousness a few years ago in Taika Waititi’s splendid Boy. This is one of thirteen New Zealand features selected by the festival, and one of six being given its world première at home; each is sure to be given a warm reception.
Not all thirteen are catalogued in the “Aotearoa” section of the programme, though: Jim Marbrook’s Cap Bocage, an environmental documentary, is filed under “Framing Reality,” and Sarah Cordery’s intriguing political documentary notes to eternity, with its somber lowercase title, appears alongside fellow “Champions.” The photographer Gareth Hipkins has one of the most exciting local entries, Erewhon, based on Samuel Butler’s satire of 1872. Max Currie’s Everything We Loved is distinguished not as much for its pedigree as for its adventurous mode of distribution: the film will appear on a video-on-demand service simultaneous with its Auckland screening on July 28th.
Cinematic Works of Art
I’ll be writing about a number of the New Zealand features for the local arts-and-culture site The Pantograph Punch, where, along with the site’s editors, I’ve already jotted down a few quick thoughts about some of the festival’s big-ticket items, among them three of the most impressive-looking films in the programme:
The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a master of the engrossing, literate slow-burner. His beguiling 2011 picture Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was at base a police procedural spread over more than two-and-a-half hours that explored its characters’ psyches through sprawling discussions about seemingly trivial matters. As with so many great works of art, pleasure was to be had in reading between the lines.
Ceylan’s new film, Winter Sleep (Kiş uykusu), is, to the surprise of no one, a chamber piece that examines contemporary Turkish society through the experience of one man. It’s composed almost entirely of long, conversation-heavy scenes, runs for three hours and fifteen minutes, and sits high among the twenty selections in the nzff’s thrillingly large cache of Cannes titles. Jane Campion’s jury honoured it with the Palme d’Or; she called it “masterful” and praised its “beautiful rhythm.”
Turn the page in the festival guide after reading about Ceylan’s film and you’ll see the entry for a picture in a remarkably similar vein: the new work by the Russian master Andrey Zvyaginsev. (Do these guys synchronise watches?) Zvyaginsev’s robust first two films, The Return and The Banishment, established him as the rightful heir to the throne left vacant by Tarkovsky. While Elena, a more studied and accessible picture, was greeted in 2011 to more muted praise, his new film would appear to be a return to form — where “form” means an epic scope and a magisterial level of control.
A contemporary reworking of the Book of Job that takes its title from a landmark work by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Левиафан) follows more than fifteen characters and “gradually unwinds to a mythological scale” to survey no less cerebral a subject than the human condition itself (in the confines, of course, of contemporary Russian society).
Sometimes it seems as if every second blockbuster gets called a “hotly anticipated” “cinematic event” — to the point where such overuse has robbed the phrases of meaning. Happily, Richard Linklater’s new picture, Boyhood, a visual buildungsroman, should stall that trend: not only is the film strongly deserving on paper alone of both appellations, but it could well come to define them for the next few decades. This is chiefly because filming began in 2002 and continued in annual sessions for the next twelve years — a feat unmatched in contemporary American cinema, and one that meant Linklater’s principal actor, Ellar Coltrane, literally grows up within the narrative: he was 18 years old by film’s end. Linklater has reportedly captured a magnificently natural central performance from his star, who appears alongside Patricia Arquette and Linklater’s regular collaborator Ethan Hawke. This deserves to be seen for the audacity of its production schedule alone.
Audience favourites and award-winners from ‘indie’ festivals
Just as there are two films about the socio-political climates of adjacent European countries, this year’s festival has two films about doppelgängers: Jesse Eisenberg stars in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Double (pictured) by Richard Ayoade, whose whimsical début Submarine charmed my pants off in 2012. Jake Gyllenhaal is the other one unnerved by someone who looks and sounds just like him, in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. The Canadian director’s previous film, Prisoners, was repulsive and near-pointless on a variety of levels, but both Polytechnique (2009) and Incendies (2010) showcased Villeneuve’s ability to use the powerful physical and emotional capabilities of the medium to their full potential. His new effort, based loosely upon the José Saramago novel, may be smaller in size, but it should at least have a tantalising, unnervingly off-kilter atmosphere.
Speaking of doubles, there are two films in this year’s festival by the long-form documentarian Frederick Wiseman: National Gallery runs 180 minutes, while At Berkeley is an impressive 244 minutes. Additional screenings of the former have been added at the end of the schedule in Auckland.
The really surprising thing about this year’s schedule is that Jonathan Glazer’s creepy-looking new movie wasn’t chosen to close the festival under the Civic’s beautifully fake ceiling-starfield on the final Saturday night, as Enter the Void and Melancholia so fittingly have in recent years. Under the Skin, which stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who traverses nocturnal Edinburgh in a van picking up men, is based on a surrealist science-fiction novel written early last decade by the Dutch author Michel Faber. That description might sound plain enough, but then you realise that the men weren’t actors, and some of them apparently had no idea they were being filmed.
Glazer’s dizzyingly Kubrickian 2004 film Birth marked him as an exceptional talent, and has had arthouse fans salivating for more ever since — now it’s finally arrived. Elsewhere in the “Fresh” section, where Glazer’s film is perhaps mis-filed, the début feature by the Australian director Sophie Hyde, 52 Tuesdays; Force Majeure (Turist); and David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, look to be the ones to catch.
I’m not sure a film by David Cronenberg qualifies as “indie” even given the many and varied definitions of the term in relation to cinema these days, but his Maps to the Stars looks set to be the craziest film outside the Incredibly Strange section, which is where Ant Timpson is customarily tasked with detaining all the really insane films. Richard Corliss said of Cronenberg’s latest that “in addition to ghosts, incest, strangulation and a tantric three-way, the movie zings with some of the raunchiest, most knowing dialogue since the almighty Heathers a quarter-century ago.”
From the Vaults
Restorations, retrospectives and other archival findings
The BFI’s restoration of The Epic of Everest (pictured), which sports a truly incredible score by Simon Fisher-Turner, is to my mind the most enticing of the four vintage selections this year. It’s in fine company with Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête, Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, and Prix de beauté, a lesser-known jazz-age picture starring Louise Brooks, which is this year’s Live Cinema choice.
Arts & Crafts
Films about artists, thinkers, and creators
The above photograph was a decidedly un-serious moment in the life of one of the twentieth century’s most important and respected public intellectuals. I’ve no idea if it appears in Nancy D. Kates’ documentary about Susan Sontag, but I do know that I’m immensely looking forward to finding out. The four other films under the “Portrait of an Artist” banner — about the Dior designer Raf Simons (Dior and I), the late American artist Sol LeWitt, the portrait photographer Jane Brown (Looking for Light), and the anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness) — look just as appealing, if not moreso.
In the same vein and equally attractive but under the rubric of “Framing Reality” are The Great Museum (Das grosse Museum), observing Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum, subject of sorts in Jem Cohen’s superb Museum Hours last year; Art and Craft, about an American forger named Mark Landis, and Manakamana (pictured), a Koyaanisqatsi-like documentary (from the terrifically named ‘Sensory Ethnography Lab’ at Harvard) about life in the Nepalese temple of the same name.
Under-the-radar titles you may have missed
This year’s programme contains wonderful-looking entries by seasoned arthouse-cinema-makers Florian Habicht, Ken Loach, Hong Sang-Soo, Warwick Thornton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Rolf de Heer, les frères Dardennes, and Kelly Reichardt, among others — but there are a few entries in the programme that the skim-reader or casual observer might easily miss. Wim Wenders’ film about the Brazilian social-documentary photographer and environmentalist Sebastião Salgado, Le sel de la terre (pictured), should be something anyone interested in the possibilities offered by the medium sees on the Civic’s joyously belittling screen.
Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition and Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, appear to be unpleasant and attractive in equal measure, while Shoah director Claude Lanzmann’s Le dernier des injustes has been garnering considerable praise overseas, most notably from The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “The subject of [the film] is life. The miracle that it conjures is that of survival.”
Albert Serra’s Història de la meva mort is the only film in this year’s programme screening from a 35mm print. That fact alone will be reason enough to entice some punters along, but as Tim Wong writes at the Lumière Reader, the Spanish auteur “brings a richness, a serenity, and most importantly, a strangeness to the established art of slow cinema.”
The New Zealand International Film Festivals begin tonight in Auckland (with a gala presentation at the majestic Civic Theatre of James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse) before opening to Wellington movie-goers next week, thence to eleven other cities and towns up and down the country.
Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.
My coverage of the festival will be split between this site and the Auckland-based arts and culture website
The Pantograph Punch.