Jul 19, 2023 Film & TV
It’s been several years since we’ve had a New Zealand International Film Festival Whānau Mārama at the same size and strength of those of the Gosden era, when the late festival mastermind Bill Gosden oversaw the arrival of the most exciting cinema the world had to offer at chilly midwinter locales across Aotearoa. Since then, the festival has, like others around the world, been battered and bruised by the pandemic and the fraught modern landscape of cinema.
In 2020, the festival went online, swept up in what many thought was the death of the traditional cinema experience. Thankfully, that didn’t prove to be the case, though the next two years remained difficult. A lockdown-hindered stretch in 2021 saw Auckland unable to run public screenings, and the 2022 festival was scaled down because of financial strain.
Now, in 2023, we finally see the return of the festival at the scale to which we had grown accustomed, with one of the most exciting and packed line-ups in years. For cinephiles like me, the International Film Festival is no less than midwinter Christmas, a blissful time when the movies are the most important thing in Auckland, and small, independent, local and experimental films (alongside the requisite heavy-hitters) draw huge crowds into the welcoming warmth of the Civic. Here are a dozen (or so) of my must-sees at this year’s festival.
PAST LIVES (dir: Celine Song, 2023)
Playwright Celine Song adapts her own play in Past Lives (presented by none other than Metro), which is reportedly as strong of a debut feature as last year’s astonishing Aftersun was for director Charlotte Wells. The film stars Greta Lee, an actress who has been a highlight of almost everything she has been in (as anyone who has watched Russian Doll can attest to — “sweet birthday baby!”), as Nora, a Korean-American émigré struggling to reconcile the intense bond she had with a friend, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), before she left her home country. When Hae Sung comes to visit her in New York, Nora must contend with her romantic feelings for her friend, and the marriage she has since entered into with another man (First Cow’s John Magaro). Echoes of Richard Linklater’s brilliant Before trilogy abound in the imagery and trailer for this film — and boy, there are few better footsteps to walk in for a romance film. Expect a subtle, emotionally fraught and deeply resonant experience.
ASTEROID CITY (dir: Wes Anderson, 2023)
As always, the festival programmers have included some big names for tantalising bows on the mighty Civic screen. One of the most anticipated titles is Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, fresh from a run at Cannes. Anderson is one of the truest auteurs working on a large scale in cinema today. Though many have considered his recent efforts to be weaker than the big hits of his early career like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, I’ve remained enthralled by his work, which seems more authentic and deeply accomplished with every effort. His latest film, about an American space camp in the 1950s, has a joyful, well-constructed trailer and glowing reviews out of Cannes. Fingers crossed.
PASSAGES (dir: Ira Sachs, 2023)
The films of Ira Sachs are incisive, small-scale dramas with a keen cinematic vigour. Many of his films, which regularly trace the experiences of New Yorkers, often in queer communities, have debuted to significant acclaim (Love is Strange, Little Men and Keep the Lights On) — but few have arrived with the buzz of Passages. Tracing the toxic relationship between a film director (Franz Rogowski, one of the most genuinely chameleonic actors of his generation), his husband (Ben Whishaw, here revealing new layers of raw physicality) and the woman he’s recently fallen into a torrid affair with (Blue Is the Warmest Colour‘s Adèle Exarchopoulos, who is fantastic as always), it is a sensual, riveting and genuinely sexy drama. The film has an undeniable ring of truth, cunningly laying bare the neuroses of modern relationships, as Rogowski’s Tomas manipulates and traumatises his paramours with an intoxicating selfishness and casual cruelty. It’s a drama that recalls the bruising efforts of French filmmaker Maurice Pialat, but with a thrilling contemporary feel that sets it apart.
LA CHIMERA (dir: Alice Rohrwacher, 2023)
One of the most well-reviewed films out of Cannes, Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera traces the experiences of a British archaeologist who is drawn into an underground network of artefact thieves in the 1980s. Rohrwacher is one of the most vital filmmakers of her generation, the mind behind modern classics like The Wonders, La Pupille and most especially Happy as Lazzaro, a dreamlike portrait of the ravages of modernity on a small, isolated community. La Chimera sounds like a genre-heavy left turn of sorts for the filmmaker, one that is sure to be rendered with Rohrwacher’s trademark muscularity and sense of the poetic.
THE FILMS OF AOTEAROA (various)
There is no one standout in this year’s packed New Zealand film section, but plenty of intriguing titles to get excited about. At the top of my list are two films: Building Bridges: Bill Youren’s Vision of Peace (dir: John Chrisstoffels, 2023) and Loop Track (dir: Thomas Sainsbury, 2023). The story of a “farmer, family man and unlikely leftist organiser”, Building Bridges is a gentle portrait of a man who lived a modest, if politically active, New Zealand life, but who captured the sweeping waves of change around the world with his trusty 8mm camera. It’s sure to be a transporting document, particularly in its contrasting of rural New Zealand life with Youren’s three trips to China, as he became increasingly enamoured with communism in that country.
Loop Track, meanwhile, is the debut feature of comedian Tom Sainsbury, a comedy-thriller about an anxious man who gets more than he bargained for during a solo tramp into the New Zealand bush. The self-funded feature, for which Sainsbury teamed up with the crew that saw his films take out the 48Hours Film Competition several times over, is likely to continue those projects’ tradition of clever storytelling, laugh-out-loud comedy and genuine cinematic quality on a small scale.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention two vital stops in any serious festival-goer’s calendar — the New Zealand’s Best short film programme and Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts. Both represent the cream of the crop of emerging New Zealand talent. It’s an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with filmmakers who will be leaving a mark in the years to come.
NO BEARS (dir: Jafar Panahi, 2022)
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s road to freedom has been well documented over time by the man himself. In This Is Not a Film, Panahi captured his experiences while living under house arrest and banned from making films by Iran’s oppressive government. Later released, but still barred from leaving the country, Panahi continued to make powerful, essential work that criticised the regime under which he was living. His latest work, No Bears, is a self-reflexive sort-of-documentary in the vein of the reality-bending works of his mentor, the late great Abbas Kiarostami, exploring fracturing relationships in a small Iranian town where the director has come to remote-direct a film shooting across the border, in Turkey. While proudly continuing to thumb its nose at authority, Panahi’s films also champion the creative spirit in even the harshest of conditions — what could be more vital at this year’s festival?
PACIFICTION (dir: Albert Serra, 2022)
Cahiers du Cinéma, one of the oldest and most revered cinema journals in the world, picked this film from Albert Serra as the best of 2022. It has drawn comparisons to Apocalypse Now and the works of Joseph Conrad. Suffice to say, Pacifiction is the cineaste’s cineaste pick of the fest, the one to drag friends to if you want to impress them with your film taste (and maybe have a transcendent viewing experience as well). Starring iconic French actor Benoît Magimel (La Haine, The Piano Teacher), this dreamlike piece of slow cinema concerns a wealthy French government official as he hobnobs with both high-society types and shadier figures on the island paradise of Tahiti. Expect ruminations on colonialism, nightclub culture and neoliberal elites, alongside a healthy serving of apocalyptic dread.
SHOWING UP (dir: Kelly Reichardt, 2022)
No conversation about the finest living filmmakers is complete without a mention of Kelly Reichardt, the independent American filmmaker who has carved out a territory of quietly astonishing, resolutely feminist works set primarily in the rural areas of the United States. Reichardt had the biggest hit of her career in 2020 with First Cow, which had genuine crossover appeal and has now led to Showing Up, a domestic comedy about the struggle to make art in a hyper-capitalist society. Regular collaborator Michelle Williams (who has appeared in Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women) here plays a sculptor who is trying to pursue her practice while also dealing with the everyday pressures of modern living as a creative — paying the rent, dealing with annoying neighbours, seeing other artists rise where you have not. Reichardt’s films are generally absent of bluster, but feature roaring currents of emotion just below the surface. Word is that Showing Up may be one of her finest achievements.
ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET (dir: Kelly Fremon Craig, 2023)
Judy Blume’s coming-of-age classic has somehow never been adapted for the big screen before now — so naturally the appearance of the new film from Kelly Fremon Craig (the deeply underrated The Edge of Seventeen) warrants an appearance on this list. Arriving on our shores on a wave of critical adoration stateside, the film is produced by none other than James L Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News), giving it a sheen of respectability in the ‘gentle dramedy’ lane. The film also features a killer cast, including Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates and Benny Safdie. This is, blessedly, a film you can take your kids to, but which will keep adults entertained (and reaching for the tissues) as well.
EO (dir: Jerzy Skolimowski, 2022)
Eighty-five-year-old Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End, The Shout) earned an Oscar nomination for this accomplished existential drama, told from the point of view of a donkey. With traces of that other great donkey-based European art film, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, we follow EO the donkey as he is passed from owner to owner, some loving, some cruel. The rapturously received EO has been a long time coming to our shores, and is reportedly an astonishing experience on the big screen. Not for the faint of heart, perhaps, but the chances to see new Skolimowski work are few and far between in the modern age — so this one is not to be missed.
The two coolest things a person can do in 2023 — take radical climate action and have sex — are covered in these two much-buzzed-about titles, which also represent the arrival of major new young talent. Daniel Goldhaber burst on to the scene with psychological thriller Cam a few years back, but with Pipeline — about the actions of a small eco-terrorist cell working to destroy a pipeline that is in turn contributing to the destruction of our planet — he has ascended to a higher level of attention. Expect a taut, edge- of-your-seat thriller with its finger on the pulse. Sex, meanwhile, comes to us from Molly Manning Walker, a British filmmaker whose film was the talk of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Concerning three young women embarking on a rite-of-passage trip to the golden sands and thumping nightclubs of Ibiza, the film meditates on the conversations occurring about sex and being young in 2023.
TÓTEM (dir: Lila Avilés, 2023)
Critics were singing the praises of this Mexican film from Lila Avilés at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, which traces a day in the life of a seven-year-old girl as she attends the birthday party of her dying father, and experiences the ups and downs of growing up and saying goodbye. Avilés’ debut, the well-received The Chambermaid, promised the arrival of a startling new talent — by all accounts, Tótem is another step up on that ladder, a sensitive and well-wrought piece of slice-of-life storytelling.