Our writers have been watching a ton of films playing as part of Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival 2020.
This year’s festival, streaming online (and playing in select cinemas), from 24 July to 3 August features plenty of gems. Our team of keen viewers has gotten an early look at much of the programming, and we’re here to help make your picks for 2020. We’ve alphabetised our reviews here for your convenience.
All 2020 mini-reviews:
Latest reviews | A – D | E – J | K – M | N – R | S – Z
* All our Q&As with this year’s filmmakers
* Steve Newall’s early picks from the programme
* Liam Maguren’s early picks from the programme
The blast of energy the back end of my festival needed, this Chilean drama deserved being turned up to max volume as it detailed its title character’s struggles—with her marriage (to Gael García Bernal); their failed adoption (they “returned” the kid); her love of dancing to reggaeton over her husband’s choreography. Mariana Di Girolamo is a revelation as Ema, ever-watchable in scenes of confrontation, seduction, and of course, dancing—the film propelled by big numbers from Tomasa del Real, De Lein, and a Nicolas Jaar score. Ambitious, and enjoyable even as it almost pulls it all off.
Pablo Larraín follows up Jackie (featuring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy) with another “difficult” arthouse splurge, that’s a beautifully shot and acted case of style over substance. Dancers Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal, adopt a difficult kid, who literally sets their house on fire, sending Ema into a spiral of self-destructive loss, guilt, and anger-fuelled sex and, er, flame-throwing. Captivating but confused, visually arresting, and narratively annoying in equal measure.
Mateo Bendesky’s miniaturist, elliptical tale of sibling reconciliation locates reserves of whimsy and optimism in the strange liminal spaces of the grieving process. A disarmingly droll nugget of a movie that grows in memory. Jump in if you’re partial to iso-coastal atoms.
Beautifully animated with a style that seems to fall somewhere between hand-drawn and computer-generated, this story of political awakening in East Germany circa 1989 is pitched at a younger audience but all the more touching for it. A valuable history lesson nestled inside a sweet tale of two friends and a dog called Sputnik.
Miraculously succeeds in turning a politically-oppressive moment in history into a lovely Spielbergian animated adventure, capped with an ending that left a heart-shaped lump in my throat. Timely too, as it depicts the nature of peaceful protests in a way that’s easy to understand for older kids without oversimplifying the situation or the dangers involved. Kind of mind-blowing.
The Girl on the Bridge
New Zealand’s suicide problem is explored in this, not with lots of statistics and many family’s stories, instead concentrating on just a few. The ethics of this film get complicated, but there’s basically no way of looking at this topic where that won’t happen—and the ethics of not having the conversation at all are more troublesome at this point. There’s a meta nature to this that means ethical conversations about itself are part of it, which adds to its power. Feels like it will genuinely help a lot of people.
Who doesn’t need an underdog heist morale-booster in these times of obscene wealth inequality? A solid, slightly long-ish slice of Argentinean pop cinema, not as formally distinguished as NZIFF’s other caper of note The Unknown Saint, but gets by on its blue-collar earthiness. Nix the undercover gardening subplot and you’d have a winner.
The little guys take on the state in director Sebastian Borensztein’s tale of aged Argentinians pulling a criminal caper against the keepers of capitalism for the benefit of the poor. Sort of Ocean’s Eleven with subtitles, set in 2001 Argentina, complete with oddball characters, entertaining escapades, and a cast clearly having a great deal of fun. Light and breezy, with plenty of entertaining escapism, just a dash of serious social commentary, adding up to a big dollop of fun, if forgettable, formulaic fare.
Hong Kong Moments
An immersive portrait of the ongoing Hong Kong riots, this tracks a cast of characters from all sides of the political spectrum. Feels like a crucial document mainly due to how well it evokes the scale of the unrest and the feeling of being there. Light on actual background or information, the film is more concerned with its subjects, showing the ongoing human cost of a territory in turmoil.
A wonderful example of how a feature-length doco can greatly complement frequent short-form news coverage of an ongoing current affair. It’s comprised of poetically presented, non-judgemental observations of seven different Hongkongers with seven different opinions about the ideological battle raging in their home. It doesn’t add much factual information about the conflict—instead, it informs the viewer emotionally about regular life in a violently polarised modern-day Hong Kong. Aside from relying a little too heavily on wistful piano music, it’s a brilliantly put-together film.
I do love a good coming of age film, and this Italian/French drama has equal measures of the humour, disappointments, and twisted family dynamics it takes for an engaging recipe. A big dose of fiery screenwriter dropkick Dad, a medium helping of creative bohemian girlfriend, a touch of strongly religious Mother and Stepfather, bound together by three cool kids struggling with their various growing pains. Narrate this by the sweetly idealistic eight-year-old Alma (Oro de Commarque) in singsong Italian, set in the 1980s, and shoot beautifully (on actual film) in a deserted Italian beach town—et voilà!
A morally dubious set up for this Dutch drama as troubled shrink, Nicoline, (Carice Van Houten) finds herself attracted to her violent sex offender patient, Idris (Marwan Kenzari). The reasons she finds her consequent actions unstoppable are not necessarily straightforward, however they are subtly insinuated in the damaged relationship she seems to have with her mother and propelled by power grabs between the pair throughout. Tense, assured performances from both leads—subject matter may be triggering.
Starring Game of Thrones‘ Carice van Houten as a prison psychiatrist and Aladdin’s Marwan Kenzari as her serial rapist patient, Instinct’s examination of the pair’s increasingly sexually charged relationship makes for highly provocative, and often very frustrating viewing. Yet, while barely a scene goes by without one wondering “what in God’s name is this stupid woman doing now”, this tense Dutch psycho-sexual drama is nevertheless a fascinating and finely tuned watch and an unusually thoughtful rumination of the complexity of power dynamics and predation.
First encounter with confronting content of the festival this year, as a therapist and sex offender develop a worrisome relationship, pays off with great performances by its leads (particularly an excellent Carice van Houten) and a firm destination in mind for its premise, never seeming to dabble in taboo for the sake of it. Still finds room for ambiguity—not the lazily vague kind, but with character motivations open to interpretation, as discovered in a post-film chat.
Heavily indebted to Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Instinct is an impressive debut from Dutch filmmaker Halina Reijn. Despite some weaker story elements, it’s the alarming, audacious ending that clinches this film as a clever navigation of the complexities of power and desire.
AMANDA JANE ROBINSON
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway
What I imagine a Nollywood riff on The Matrix would look like. Swings large and early with the insanity (I’m punch-drunk in love with the fully-human stop-motion) though once you’ve seen its big box of creative tricks in the first 20mins, the following hour only unveils smaller bites of weirdness. Still fun though. Best music of the fest? Might just be.
What the fuck did I just watch? A character name lifted from Philip K. Dick (Palmer Eldritch) is a clue—not that this has anything at all in common with Hollywood’s shiny Dick adaptations. Creatively satisfying, confounding viewing. I think that’s a recommendation?
Miguel Llansó brings the incredibly strange by the bucket-load in this ultra-absurdist mash-up of Nintendo 64 graphics, stop-motion animation, underground filmmaking, and the perils of LSD-taking whilst film-making. If you love Jodorowsky, you may dig it as a surreal, sci-fi, pop-culture satire. Or you may think it’s a self-indulgent, arthouse, hallucinogenic trip, featuring bad acting, random events and gonzo imagery. Either way, you’d be right. Head trips don’t come much trippier than this.
Picture, if you will, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, high as a kite, attempting to make an Albert Ayler-scored Weng Weng movie. That’s the best I can do right now with a pulverised mental capacity. Inventive, inspired post-pastiche—with a clear method to its madness, although I’m unable to parse what that might be right now.
Parachuting drag queens and Stalin the VR virus—for a film so packed with provocative ideas and memorable images, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway manages to be much less than the sum of its parts. The aesthetic is that of trippy cult favorites The Holy Mountain and 3 Dev Adam, but relying on spectacle alone leaves you with a film that ultimately feels shallow and unsatisfying.
Holy Jesus-in-a-fly-costume! This is an eye-popping genre-mash-up, like Inception-meets-The Lawnmower Man, directed by both Rudy Ray Moore and Jodorowsky, but with more Batman costumes and Commodore 64 graphics. Incredibly Strange, you’ve outdone yourselves.
Noémie from Portrait of a Lady on Fire sports a cute bob and a troubling aversion to human contact (not helped by a smuttily frank mother) in this love story between a girl and an inanimate object. It walks a very fine line between dark comedy and non-judgemental drama, just heightened enough to be not-quite-real. No spoilers: I really, really loved the ending.
Zoé Wittock’s first film centres on an excellent Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) as a cleaner who falls in love with a giant metallic, light-bulb covered, amusement-park ride. It’s a quirky, unconventional love story with engaging, surreal sparkles, but rather than a rollercoaster ride, the second half clunks and grinds, feeling way too long for such a slender premise.
Hectic and tense Iran police drama sees cops busting their way up the drug trade, from rounding up dozens of homeless addicts to bringing pressure to bear on dealers, couriers and kingpin. Fueled more by argument than gunfights, the showdowns are nevertheless nerve-wracking at times as combatants bring power, influence and language to bear in a series of high-stakes verbal arm-wrestles. The film’s blend of familiar procedural and insight into Iran’s specific circumstances proves to be an eye-opener—with almost arbitrary decision-making, cops and suspects alike are vulnerable and on edge.
Blistering Iranian police drama, with an exhilarating first-half, in which a determined cop will stop at nothing to take down a local drug-lord. The second half plunges into the socio-economic injustices that lead to crime as a way out of poverty, despite the ever-present, ultimate deterrent of the death penalty. Powerfully performed, paced and produced, with enough dark humour along the way to make writer-director Saeed Roustayi’s grim ride into Iran’s dark underbelly thrilling entertainment. And what an opening! Literally a foot-chase to die for.
All 2020 mini-reviews:
Latest reviews | A – D | E – J | K – M | N – R | S – Z