NZIFF 2014 Endnotes

FILM, Film Festivals
Our New Zealand International Film Festival correspondents select their personal highlights for 2014.

img_boyhood2Jacob Powell

A few days into NZIFF 2014, I was surprised to find myself immersed in sci-fi strangeness with Richard Ayoade’s sophomore feature The Double, Jonathan Glazer’s justly anticipated Under the Skin, and Ari Folman’s surreal live-action-meets-animation blend The Congress in reasonably quick succession (not to mention Dutch entry Borgman and Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut Snowpiercer in the second week). Folman’s stab at refracting Stanislaw Lem’s satire through the lens of (an excellent) Robin Wright onto Hollywoodland and beyond mirrors some of the themes Cronenberg hit in his bitingly cold Maps to the Stars (effectively ‘doubling’ Mia Wasikowska’s festival presence, an actress who elevates whatever she is put near) and turned out to be one of the richest visual experiences of festival. Ayoade’s darkened riff on Gilliam and Gondry likewise gave Jesse Eisenberg one of two vehicles in which to explore his duelling psychological fragility versus cruelty, the other being Kelly Reichardt’s relatively restrained yet tense eco-thriller Night Moves. Glazer’s oddly intimate Under the Skin held me enraptured in the utter alienness of Scarlett Johansson’s performance against the contrasted mundane versus heavily stylised visuals—well, in the first act at any rate, and that was enough to carry the film as it loosened its grip in the second half.

The viewing theme which emerged unplanned in my second week of viewing was the modern morality tale. Ken Loach’s reportedly final film Jimmy’s Hall harks back to some of his earlier work in terms of tone—and it could almost have played as a spin-off sequel to The Wind that Shakes the Barley in terms of subject matter—whilst resisting the urge to surrender to complete moroseness. Conversely, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night is both a literal and metaphorically painful march through one woman’s weekend attempt to save her job in light of a generally screwed economy for all. The film rides high on Marion Cotillard’s physically wrought performance: an arresting display of vulnerable humanity. With themes and landscapes grander in scale, Cannes winners Winter Sleep and Leviathan see Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Andrey Zvyagintsev deconstruct disparities of power from opposite sides of the socioeconomic divide but with equally patient attention paid to geographic and social context.

And yet my most affecting viewing this year didn’t really fit into either of these genre streams. Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s feat of cinematic construction, achieved a completely unexpected sense of epic proportion in a small scale family drama. Criticisms of monocultural outlook and linear narrative notwithstanding, the film opens up what it means to grow as a child, parent, and family unit in a unique and evocative manner. Linklater and co. capitalise on Boyhood’s unusual production method (for a fiction feature, documentary has been utilising longitudinal storytelling as a staple for quite some time) with excellent storytelling and acting rather than simply expecting the film’s means to be its end. With a similarly striking sense of scale in a relatively confined subject/location, Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley is like a complete cross section of the living campus of arguably the most prestigious public university in the United States. Every group and activity gets a generous showing in Wiseman’s documentary as students and academic/admin/support staff go about their day to day business. Despite no direct investigation into the institution’s renowned history of protest and socio-political dissent, it is so much a part of the fabric of Berkeley’s identity that such notions arise in a multitude of situations without prompting. Fascinating stuff. Similarly fascinating is David Robert Mitchell’s genre blender It Follows which leapt, seemingly out of nowhere, into the critical spotlight in the Cannes ‘Critics Week’ sidebar. Creating a convincing, original psychological horror yet retaining the patient observational style he employed in his debut The Myth of the American Sleepover, Mitchell is as interested in the relational interaction of his young protagonists as he is in the scares. Subsequently, It Follows achieves a rare verisimilitude whilst actually succeeding as a satisfying genre piece. Mitchell is definitely an auteur to keep an eye on.

The balance of my viewing traversed the wryly comic, the slightly unhinged, the mud, blood, and faeces spattered, with a healthy dose musical quirk to round things out. The standouts are listed below.

Top 3 (exceptional)

  1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2013) Read More
  2. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA) Read More
  3. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2013)

The rest of the best (excellent)

  • Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, Russia, 2013)
  • Jimmy’s Hall (Ken Loach, UK/Ireland)
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, France/USA, 2013)
  • Kung Fu Elliot (Matthew Bauckman/Jaret Belliveau, Canada) Read More
  • Land Ho! (Martha Stephens/Aaron Katz, USA) Read More
  • Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia) Read More
  • Maïdan (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)
  • Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2013)
  • Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, UK)
  • The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, NZ)
  • Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)
  • Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
  • Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (Sion Sono, Japan, 2013) Read More
  • Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) Read More

A Little Disappointing

  • Joe (David Gordon Green, USA, 2013

img_nationalgallery2Doug Dillaman

Ten is too few, of course: there are far too many pleasures omitted from this list, from the visceral grime of Hard to be a God (undeniably the directorial accomplishment of the festival, albeit in ways that challenged my endurance) to the meditational bliss of Manakamana, local work including the gory escapism of Housebound and the brain-bending yet highly topical REALITi, the bittersweet final film from Ghibli animator Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) and a celebration of a film that never was, Jodorowsky’s Dune. The latter would be my #11, if for no other reason than the moving final reveal that, whether or not you agree with thesis that Jodorowsky’s incomplete Dune is responsible for everything from Alien to Blade Runner to The Matrix, there’s no question that the film Jodorowsky’s Dune directly led to the octogenarian returning to the screen with The Dance of Reality—a pinnacle of last year’s program, sadly limited to Auckland.

There’s always a film each year which I underrate, then return to and discovered I’ve missed the point. This year I suspect it’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, masterfully shot but maddeningly taxing in its lengthy scenes of arguments; Brannavan Gnanalingam’s excellent analysis made it clear that I missed plenty of the context, and likely much of the impact as a result.

  1. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA) Read More
  2. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden) Read More
  3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA) Read More
  4. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
  5. The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders/Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Italy) Read More
  6. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/USA/France, 2013) Read More
  7. Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón, Argentina) Read More
  8. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2013)
  9. Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands, 2013) Read More
  10. Unnatural History (Alex Backhouse, NZ) Read More

Continue reading Doug’s post-festival report here

img_goodbyetolanguageBrannavan Gnanalingam

  1. Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
  2. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
  3. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden) Read More
  4. Story of My Death (Albert Serra, Spain/France, 2013)
  5. Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, Russia, 2013)
  6. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) Read More
  7. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision (Edgar Reitz, Germany/France, 2013) Read More
  8. The Reunion (Anna Odell, Sweden, 2013) Read More
  9. Maïdan (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)
  10. Particle Fever (Mark A. Levinson, USA, 2013) Read More

Very close: Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, Voices of the Land: Nga Reo o te Whenua.

img_undertheskin7Tim Wong

  1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013) Read More
  2. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013) Read More
  3. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA) Read More
  4. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, USA) Read More
  5. Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, Russia, 2013) Read More
  6. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden)
  7. Fish & Cat (Shahram Mokri, Iran, 2013) Read More
  8. Story of My Death (Albert Serra, Spain/France, 2013) Read More
  9. Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2013) Read More
  10. Stations of the Cross (Dietrich Brüggemann, Germany/France) Read More

Films I Missed: Leviathan, It Follows, Wild Tales, Maïdan, and Black Coal, Thin Ice.
Misfires: When Animals Dream, White God, Maps to the Stars, and Two Days, One Night.

Continue reading Tim’s post-festival report here