a quick wrap-up of the New Zealand Film Festival.
Spending seventeen days and nights in a row out at theatres is not everybody's idea of fun, I think; certainly, I questioned the fun of it after a while, especially with the increased difficulty of logistics this year (the replacement of the centrally-located Village SkyCity theatre with the Rialto) and what seemed to be the ever-increasing number of people clinically incapable of closing their mouths for the running length of a film, or even a ten-minute stretch of a film. For a time, I thought that the closing night film of SHERLOCK, JR. might convince people because there was an orchestra there; if anything, the opposite happened.
Right, so grump out of the way, and 57 films seen (including Cannes Palme D'Or winner UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, which screened in Auckland ten days after the fact as a special screening - but not including INCEPTION, which I snuck a look at), and many ask me, how can you even process that many films in that short amount of time? And I don't know that you can, always: certainly, moving from the sugar-high scattershot hysteria of A TOWN CALLED PANIC to the glacial, demanding POLICE, ADJECTIVE is not the best way to do justice to the latter movie, nor having barely 45 minutes afterwards to absorb its third-act inversions only to enter into the unremitting grottiness of the tank in LEBANON.
Partway through, I was chatting with a fellow hardcore festival enthusiast, who described his process as "deciding what I'll give a second look". In a time of media super-saturation, where the ability to give everything you want even a first look is beyond luxury, this might seem absurd. But in the days and weeks since the festival's ended, I'm finding myself actually revisiting older favorites at a greater pace than I have in years. I was initially attracted to taking a comprehensive approach to studying cinema because it seemed like, unlike literature, you could get a true measure of all its greatest works in one lifetime; now, with the increasing proliferation of filmmaking combined with the increased availability of works from the past, that's no longer really the case. So, I'm trying to adjust myself to the approach of getting know the things I love better, and expect that I will revisit many of these films in the upcoming years with this in mind.
On the whole, this year's line was strong but rarely superlative. Last year, I only saw 10 films, but three of them were electrifying; this year, only one new film hit me on the level of DOGTOOTH, MOTHER, or BEST WORST MOVIE. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the two most unforgettable screenings were of retrospective films. My fourth viewing of Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME ON THE WEST on the big screen gave me an even deeper appreciation of both its artistry and its cunning politics, and playing it on the first full day of the festival was both gift and curse, as for a week afterwards everything seemed to pale in its shadow. Tommy Wiseau's disasterpiece THE ROOM, coming near the end of the festival, transformed a weary festival audience into a spoon-throwing orgy of hysteria; never have I seen an audience participate in a film like that, and never for a film more deserving. (It's also worth mentioning THE RED SHOES, which stirred me on a second viewing deeply, and is one of the most stunningly shot films, oh, let's say ever.)
But maybe I missed a masterwork, or maybe I missed several. I'm still frustrated at myself for missing THE HOUSEMAID, I have heard many people call CELL 211 the "film of the festival", and others expound upon the virtues of HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER. A regular on the Criterion Forum now has a top ten for the year consisting of films from the festival, more than half of which (MELODY FOR A STREET ORGAN, THE TIME THAT REMAINS, EXTRAORDINARY STORIES, TO DIE LIKE A MAN, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, and THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA) all seemed worthy of my attention and yet slipped past me.
Below are some films that I'm looking forward to giving a second look to, that you might like as well. (Or might not. Who are you, anyway?) For various reasons, I'm going to recuse myself from discussing New Zealand films in detail, as I am far from a disinterested party, but I was particularly grateful to see David Blyth's narratively daring and bravely acted WOUND, Stephen Sinclair's droll RUSSIAN SNARK, and Briar March's THERE ONCE WAS AN ISLAND - three self-funded films getting attention both locally and internationally, and which will hopefully return to screens later this year.)
THE ONLY MASTERPIECE OF THE FESTIVAL, WHICH SOME OF YOU WILL HATE: CERTIFIED COPY (w/d: Abbas Kiarostami).
I wish that the gigabytes of commentary floating around the Interbot on INCEPTION were dedicated to this film, whose mysteries are just as deep and difficult to parse on a first viewing, but even while I can't tell you exactly what's "happening", I can tell you that the whole time I felt like this film effortlessly transcended every other one at the festival. To even attempt a plot summary would be foolhardy, as later scenes recontextualize earlier ones - or do they? I'd have to see it again to be sure, and even that might not help. Suffice it to say that for those who "need something to happen", all that happens in this movie is that a man and a woman meet, drive and walk around Italy, and talk. If that repulses you, avoid: you will miss one of the most innovative explorations of what it means to be in a relationship ever, as well as any number of entrancing studies of the central theme (what it means to be a copy versus an original), all staged and shot with a quiet artful mastery that's rarely showy but supremely confident.
THE HARDEST I LAUGHED: FOUR LIONS (d: Chris Morris, w: Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, Chris Morris).
But: to just say that it's funny (despite the claims of its poster) is to do this film a grave disservice. The very idea of a comedy about suicide bombers is enough for people to get off the train before it even starts, but this is the rare comedy that tackles its material with both a knowing depth of the subject matter and the courage not to back away from its core principles. That the laughs come through the horror, and that the film never falls prey to simple grandstanding, is simultaneously a master achievement and completely unsurprising, given what Morris has been up to on previous work like BRASS EYE.
THE MOST I SMILED: A TOWN CALLED PANIC. (w/d: Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar)
Not everything in A TOWN CALLED PANIC was laugh-out-loud funny to me, but it was never less than thoroughly endearing in its casual surrealism. Entirely reliant on the narrative logic of a four-year old hopped up on Pixy Stix playing with his action figures, only with a more deadpan sense of absurdity, A TOWN CALLED PANIC is a stop-motion delight that will delight anyone who remembers when cartoons were more notable for their gleeful derangement than their winking pop-culture references. (For those of you in the America, it's out now on DVD, so add it to yr Netflix queue, or whatever.)
THE BIGGEST GROWER: FATHER OF MY CHILDREN. (w/d: Mia Hansen-Løve)
Hansen-Løve's second film, on a superficial level, sounds like a lot of French films that follow a French family interacting, a formula that bores as many as it thrills. The titular father in this case is an overworked and overextended film producer, whose woes I could certainly relate to. But I think my appreciation of this film runs deeper than that. There's a narrative twist that's best not to discuss, apart from saying that I've never seen it in a film before, but on its own I wasn't sure if that was enough to praise it for. The camerawork isn't showy and the end slightly fades off rather than striking hard, so it was only belatedly that I realized what was this film's great virtue. Every supporting character is given a deep realism, and in particular what in a lesser film would be the antagonists of the film (the rep at the laboratory to whom the producer owes money, the director of the out-of-control film) here are instead people whose viewpoint is presented charitably. Some have maligned the film, saying this minimizes conflict, but after seeing many, many examples of characters that exist only to provide narrative conflict without any deeper humanity, I found it to seem more and more remarkable as time passed, and can't wait to revisit it. (Also, after you see the film, but not before, do some Googling to read about the real-life story that inspired this film.)
BEST CONVERSATION STARTER: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP. (w/d: Banksy?)
It was almost a recurring joke during the first week of the festival, looking around a gathered group to say "have you seen EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP?" before discussing it, then getting frustrated when one person in the group hadn't seen it. It's a film that demands discussion, not just because of the issues it raises around street art and its commodification, but because ... well, I don't want to talk about it until you've seen it. Rest assured, even if the thought of watching a documentary about commodification sounds boring, this film is anything but; even if it has problems (and having read much about it and discussed it afterwards, I have one or two serious qualms, but want to watch it again before getting too deeply into those discussions) it's solidly entertaining, and coming back to New Zealand screens on 16 September.
MOST ANGER-INDUCING COMBINATION OF FILMS: COLLAPSE and INSIDE JOB. (d. Chris Smith; d. Charles Ferguson)
That's not a critique. It's just a statement of fact. I don't understand how any person could sit through these two films, consecutively, and not roil with anger against the institutions and individuals that have wreaked havoc on our financial system, only to evade any reasonable measure of accountability. Neither is visionary filmmaking; COLLAPSE uses many of Errol Morris's techniques to document what largely amounts to a monologue by Michael Ruppert, explaining why we're in deep trouble society, while INSIDE JOB is a more organized act of reportage, explaining exactly how America wound up in the financial situation it has, and who's to blame. (And, lest anyone jump to conclusions about the politics of this film, the Obama Administration is far from spared.) Essential viewing. COLLAPSE is on DVD now; I'm not sure when INSIDE JOB is due to be released (or if it will be updated before its release, as it had information as recent as May 2010 in it at our screening).
TWO GREAT THRILLERS: WINTER'S BONE and ANIMAL KINGDOM. (d: Debra Granik, w: Granik & Anne Rosellini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell; w/d: David Michôd)
Two very regional films about young non-innocents navigating dangerous criminal environments. The Melbourne of ANIMAL KINGDOM and the Ozarks of WINTER'S BONE couldn't look more different, but in each there's menace lurking everywhere, and nowhere more dangerous and disturbing than close to home. Both take their subject matter seriously and are anchored by an uncomfortable realism and powerful performances. And both are showing around the States right now, with ANIMAL KINGDOM due for a theatrical run in NZ on 16 September. And of all the films that I saw at the festival, they're two of the most likely to work for conventional audiences - in other words, even if you think most of what I like is either pretentious codswallop or annoying vacuous nonsense, you should still pay attention.
LIKE NOTHING ELSE, FOR BETTER AND FOR WORSE: AMER (w/d: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani)
Probably the most violent post-film disagreements were after this film. I had an idea what to expect from the impressionistic trailer, but I had no idea this film would be so relentlessly impressionistic - with negligible dialogue, next to no conventional coverage of scenes, a huge number of close-ups, incredibly non-naturalistic lighting, and vividly expressive sound design, this film plays like the most extremely stylized moments of Dario Argento, David Lynch, and Stan Brakhage films edited together from a feminist perspective. The narrative is, to put it nicely, occluded, and those who need a clear story will be frustrated. As one particularly angry companion put it afterwards: "Why is it in a theatre? Why isn't it in a museum?" To which I can only say two things: one, if museums actually played films like that, especially on celluloid, I'd be ecstatic (and going there more frequently), and two, given the incredible dominance of narrative cinema in 99.9% of movies, not just in general circulation but even in a festival setting, what's so bad about having one film in a festival that defies that trend? (The following night's film, ENTER THE VOID, proposed a counter-postulate: similar stunning and innovative cinematic approach with an extra hour to pad out a cliched narrative involving characters I never cared about. Responses were generally reversed.)
AND DEFINITELY DON'T MISS THIS ON THE BIG SCREEN: THE ILLUSIONIST (d: Sylvian Chomet, w: Chomet, adapated from a screenplay by Jacques Tati)
Chomet's followup to THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE hits a much different tone than that film; while maintaining his love of absurdity and minimalist dialogue approach, the deliberate ugliness of that film is transformed into something much more wistful here, and the humour of this film intentionally fades into poignancy. As a piece of art, it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find, so you can appreciate every detail of this lovingly-drawn animation. It's scheduled for a Christmastime release in America.
Also: MARWENCOL was a relentlessly surprising, touching portrait of a man coming to terms with a life-changing event in an unlikely way, a fantastic documentary; anime SUMMER WARS had me grinning ear-to-ear for most of its run time, as it combined the stories of worldwide apocalypse and a shy high-school student trying to get a girlfriend with stunning deftness; A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN is top-drawer Scandinavian crime drollery that Coen Brothers fans would do well to investigate; THE LOVED ONES and DREAM HOME topped the horror heap for me, both disturbing and bloody but also incisive and well-crafted in their own ways; ALAMAR was a lovely, gentle respite, a piece of simple beauty; NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT is an eerie beautiful documentary that links astronomy, archaeology, and the horrors of the Pinochet government in unlikely ways; TRIMPIN salutes an unconvential composer who's a spirited inspiration, albeit a slightly recalcitrant one; HA HA HA was yet another successful variation on Hong Sang-Soo's "Koreans talking about girls as they get drunk" theme (albeit one that might be mostly of interest to Hong Sang-Soo fans, and not the best starting point for his work); I AM LOVE re-invents the melodrama with bold directing technique that has lingered much longer than expected; UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES is largely incomprehensible but has some stunning moments of meditative beauty and a cheerfully casual approach to the supernatural; BIRDEMIC absolutely must be seen by lovers of bad cinema, one of the most inept things I've ever seen, even counting film school and 48 hour shorts; and SPLICE, while frustrating, had perhaps my favourite moment of the entire festival, as a presentation to investors goes horribly awry.