The Meaning of Life & The End of the World: The New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011

This year’s film festival line-up looks to be the best in many years, with a record number of films direct from Cannes; four world premières of locally-made features—including Florian Habicht’s Love Story, which formally opens the festival in Auckland; strong “Worlds of Difference” and “New Directions” sections that present the very best of those branches of cinema, and a number of sterling new restorations of bona fide classics all vying for your hard-earned, festival-earmarked dollar.

On the surface there might not appear to be anything with as wide-ranging appeal as there have been in recent years (such as In the Loop or particularly last year’s Four Lions), but there are some gems hidden deep within the programme—and there may yet be some late announcements. The “Go Slow” section, showcasing the best of the slow-film movement, is more impressive than it was in ’09 and last year, bolstered noticeably by Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse. Ant Timpson’s carefully curated “Incredibly Strange” section is, as usual, teeming with an enticing, eclectic group of films from around the globe—ranging from the scary and creepy to the shocking and the downright bizarre.

Direct from Cannes

The film at the top of many people’s lists will be Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (pictured), which, according to one review, “explores humanity’s need to find metaphysical, spiritual, or psychological solace in a physical, natural, phenomenal world whose God remains silent.” This is only Malick’s fifth feature in as many decades, and it’s been gestating since at least the late ’70s. (If I started writing about it in this post, I’d never stop, so I’ll move on.) Danish firebrand Lars von Trier got in a bit of trouble at Cannes this year—though this time it wasn’t for the film he’s made, but for momentarily aligning himself with Hitler. His new movie, Melancholia, which he describes as “a beautiful film about the end of the world,” stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård, and John Hurt, among others.

At Cannes, Aki Kaurismäki’s comedy La Havre won the International Critics Prize, while The Kid with a Bike, the new Dardennes brothers film, won a Grand Prix. Other award-winning titles: Israeli film Footnote won the Best Screenplay award, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film Elena was given a Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section. Australian novelist—and now first time writer-director—Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty exploded onto the Internet a few months back with an enticing trailer; it didn’t take any awards at Cannes but elicited immediate acclaim from critics. Another new Australian film, Snowtown, looks to be more unsettling—for different reasons—than Leigh’s film. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, TV’s Boardwalk Empire) stars alongside Jessica Chastain—who’s also in The Tree of Life—as a man plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions who doesn’t know if he should try and protect his family from an oncoming storm, or himself. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, by Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, won a Grand Prix award at Cannes should, according to festival director Bill Gosden’s programme note, “engross and reward all who submit to its placid pace and steady accumulation of vivid detail.”

There are 14 films in the programme direct from Cannes—a record haul for the festival—and that number doesn’t even include a couple of others that played out of competition. If you’re in Wellington, you have the opportunity to take in two more: Mohammad Rasoulof’s Goodbye, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the latter of which stars Ryan Gosling (and gets a limited release in Auckland—and elsewhere around the country—in November).

Films you might not have spotted the first time you flicked through the booklet

Meek’s Cutoff (pictured) is the new film from Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), and stars Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson as stranded émigrés on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Actor Paddy Considine’s directorial début Tyrannosaur looks to be moderately harrowing but no doubt rewarding viewing, while its polar opposite might be A Useful Life (La vida ùtil), a film presented by the Auckland Film Society about a cinema programmer in Montevideo who has to adjust to life after his theatre is closed down. In Asghar Farhadi’s moral drama A Separation, “a secular, middle-class family is accused of a crime by an impoverished, religious one.”

Every great festival has a great architecture documentary, and How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? fits the bill this year—it looks at the life and work of architect Norman Foster. Turning to slower films, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is British director Sophie Fiennes’ exploration of the work of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. “Fiennes immerses us in Kiefer’s world,” writes Bill Gosden, “simply and to haunting effect with stately camera movement and a minimal score by Jörg Widmann and György Ligeti.” Aita and Nainsukh, also in the “Go Slow” section, look inviting in their sparseness, while Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (pictured) is possibly the final film by the Hungarian master and, as such, will be a highlight for many cinephiles. Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, “inspired by Pythagoras’s belief in four-fold transmigration—by which the soul is passed from human to animal to vegetable to mineral”—looks to be haungtingly beautiful, while Lech Majewski’s similarly enticing The Mill and the Cross marks Rutger Hauer’s first appearance in the programme—the other is at the opposite end of the spectrum, in the Incredibly Strange section.

Independent Highlights
Audience favourites and award winners from SXSW, Sundance, and other ‘indie’ festivals

The “New Directions” portion of this year’s lineup is packed with début features, including Submarine (pictured), a coming-of-age tale set in Swansea made by Richard Ayoade—he plays Moss on The IT Crowd—and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, which has been getting rave reviews since it first screened at SXSW in April last year. If you saw Dogtooth at the festival two years ago and weren’t so offended you had to walk out, Attenberg is probably right up your alley: its director, Athina Rachel Tsangari, produced Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, and he returns the favour here by playing a minor role. First-time director Sean Durkin’s tongue-twistingly-titled Martha Marcy May Marlene won awards at Sundance, and stars Elizabeth Olsen, who may yet become as famous as her twin sisters. Wellingtonians have the opportunity to see Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

Heartbeats is the new film from 22-year-old French filmmaker Xavier Dolan, whose I Killed My Mother was a minor hit at last year’s fest. The similarly prolific Hong Sang-soo (Hahaha) has two films in this year’s programme: Oki’s Movie and The Day He Arrives. Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran (Xich lo; The Scent of Green Papaya) has adapted Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood for the screen. Elsewhere, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) returns with Beginners, and his counterpart in quirk, Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) also has a new film: The Future. (It’s narrated by a talking cat.)

New Zealand Firsts
World Premières

In addition to the regular selections of short films which precede the presentation of certain features, and their companion showcases, the festival hosts four world premières of local features, starting with Florian Habicht’s Love Story which opens the festival in Auckland. Brother Number One (pictured) is Annie Goldson’s documentary inquiry into the death of Olympian Rob Hamill’s brother Kerry, who died in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the late ’70s. Korean filmmaker Park Kiyong captured the devastation of the Canterbury earthquake in his film Moving, and in Daytime Tiger Costa Botes profiles Kiwi author Michael Morrisey.

Grace Notes
Music-related movies

John Tuturro’s passion project Passione “presents a series of mini-dramas, staged in the streets and piazzas” of Naples. Merle Haggard and Levon Helm get profiled in Learning to Live with Myself and Ain’t in it for My Health, and Michael Rappaport’s semi-controversial documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life gets “uncomfortably close” to A Tribe Called Quest. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (pictured) is a black-and-white mumblecore feature that centres on a young jazz trumpeter, and while The Black Power Mixtape, 1967–1975 isn’t directly about music, ?uestlove did the soundtrack—so that counts, right?

Gastronomic Delights
Movies about food

A trio of films about food feature prominently: The Trip is Michael Winterbottom’s feature-length condensation of his BBC series starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as versions of themselves on a restaurant tour of England’s Lake District. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (pictured) is a documentary about a sushi-maker called Jiro who obviously works too hard because he apparently dreams about his job. Another doc profile, ex-pat Kiwi Sally Rowe’s A Matter of Taste looks at English-born star chef Paul Liebrandt’s struggles in the Big Apple, and tangentially at the New York Times food critic Frank Bruni.

From the Vaults
Restorations, retrospectives and other archival findings

The 30th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is celebrated in style, with a new restoration; German expressionism gets two outings, with the long-awaited ‘complete’ version of Metropolis, and Nosferatu: a Symphony of Horrors both screening, the latter with live orchestral accompaniment. (Outside the festival, Metropolis also screens on November 12th with accompaniment by the Auckland Philharmonic.) The festival is also host to wonderful new restorations of La Dolce Vita (pictured) and Elia Kazan’s under-appreciated 1960 film Wild River, which stars Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick.

New Zealand filmmaker Merata Mita is posthumously honoured with a screening of her film Mana Waka, which premièred at the Commonwealth Games Arts Festival in 1990. The Wellington leg of the festival celebrates its fortieth birthday with screenings of two films which played back in the ’70s: Éric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, and a restoration of Cría Cuervos, Carlos Saura’s “gripping, profoundly mysterious” 1976 film.

Reel Life

The New York Times was tangentially exposed in the truly excellent Bill Cunningham New York (on now at select locations around the country), and in Page One (pictured), the Grey Lady is given the full bio-pic treatment. Errol Morris returns with Tabloid—which might pique a few more festival-goers’ interests given recent news—and Frederick Wiseman plonks his camera down in a boxing gym in Boxing Gym. The Apple Computer creation myth is explored from an alternate angle—that of the guys with financial control—at the centre of Something Ventured, which looks at the world of venture capitalism. Artyon Senna, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the late chess prodigy Bobby Fischer are all profiled in documentaries, while How to Die in Oregon and Hot Coffee look at euthanasia and tort reform, respectively.

Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders both have 3-D documentaries—about cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and a choreographer (Pina)—that push both cinema technology and the festival’s ordinary schedule to the limit: the Auckland leg goes into overtime on August 1st so that Event Cinemas Queen St. can accommodate these special screenings.

Off the Wall
Incredibly Strange

Ant Timpson has once again pulled together a collection of the most wonderfully weird new movies for his Incredibly Strange section, every one of which, as usual, is worth checking out. Among this year’s group: Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, a remake of a 1963 film which was in itself an homage to The Seven Samurai; The Man from Nowhere and I Saw the Devil, which join Chaser director Hong-jin Na’s The Yellow Sea in the bursting-at-the-seams Korean-revenge-thriller subgenre; Sion Sono’s Cold Fish, a shorter film than his titillating four-hour extravaganza Love Exposure from a few years back, and Ti West (The House of the Devil) returns with The Innkeepers, a story of paranormal activity with a difference.

Jason Eisener’s violently colourful Hobo with a Shotgun (pictured) marks Rutger Hauer’s second appearance in the programme after The Mill and the Cross, and—as the title might suggest—he plays a homeless vigilante who, to the dismay of bad guys all over town, brandishes a loaded shotgun. While other I.S. entries Kill List, KNUCKLE, The Last Circus, and Troll Hunter all look to be enjoyable and crazy in their own ways, Lucky McKee’s The Woman looks terrifyingly batshit insane by comparison—like Antichrist taken to its (il)logical conclusion.

Time Out
The Film Café

Finally, a note on a new addition to the Auckland leg of the festival: Gina Dellabarca and the Show Me Shorts team have organised a cultural hub in the Civic’s elegant Wintergarden (pictured—though it probably won’t look that fancy the whole time) that runs from noon on weekdays and 2pm on weekends. The Film Café—aside from living up to its name by being home to an actual café and bar—will witness short film screenings, discussions with festival guests, and Script-to-Screen Filmmaker Talks, and much more. The Film Café’s events programme, which starts on Saturday evening with a film-centric pub-quiz style event, is on the festival’s website.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals begin tonight in Auckland with an opening gala featuring the world première of Florian Habicht’s Love Story before travelling to Wellington on July 29, thence to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.