Our writers have been watching a ton of films playing as part of Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival 2020. Here are their latest mini-reviews.
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. Keep checking this page for the latest mini-reviews, and you can also dive into the full list of reviews, divided alphabetically below.
All 2020 mini-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
Kore-eda’s French excursion is as charming as you might expect, and relentlessly watchable thanks to the two acting titans at its centre. It’s also amusing to see Ethan Hawke relegated to the sidelines as The American Spouse, in one scene literally sitting at the kids table. All the more room for Deneuve and Binoche to dominate the screen, elevating a low-key Parisian family drama into something more memorable.
King of the Cruise
Following attention-hungry (and just generally hungry) Scottish baron Ronald Busch on one of his frequent luxury cruises, King of the Cruise paints a poignant picture of a man addicted to indulgence. But while Ronald certainly thinks he’s the most interesting man alive, I wasn’t so sure—and wished filmmaker Sophie Dros had expanded her scope to some of the ship’s other passengers (and incredibly patient staff) to better examine just what is so attractive about such this unbearably artificial environment.
For the first 15 minutes or so of The Kingmaker, it seems as though it is going to be much the same deal as director Lauren Greenfeld’s previous and best-known feature, The Queen of Versailles: a bemused study of a silly yet sad woman with too much money and not much understanding of where it came from. But as it unfolds, this stunning documentary about the past and present of the notorious former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, masterfully reveals just how sinister Marcos’s flamboyantly feigned ignorance really is—and paints a stunning and searing portrait of a woman who knows exactly what she’s doing and, chillingly, exactly what she’s done. A masterpiece!
Though it’s Shoplifters director Hirokazu Koreeda’s first non-Japanese production, The Truth feels as French as its leading ladies, and will no doubt delight many a francophile by uniting Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche on cinema for the first time. The story of a tense mother-daughter reunion set against the French film industry, The Truth is wry and charming, if not exactly earth-shattering—and in spite of excellent performances left me slightly cold.
Grímur Hákonarson follows Rams with another morality tale set in the bleak but beautiful Icelandic landscape. A tale of hard-working farmers Inga, (a superb Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), and her husband Reynir, (a suitably cynical Hinrik Ólafsson). In their battle against the injustices foisted on them by their local farming co-operative, it is Inga who takes on the heroic mantle, battling tradition with modern social media and online shopping. Powerful, engrossing, and often darkly humorous, it’s worth seeing for those Icelandic landscapes, and Egilsdóttir’s electric performance alone.
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.
You could probably film someone eating a packet of chips in the sweeping Icelandic farmscapes providing the stunning backdrops in writer/director Grímur Hákonarson’s (Rams) latest film The County, and it would look cinematic. This poignant slow-burning drama uncovers corruption and tension in a small rural community under the thumb of an oppressive Co-op. Farmer and pragmatist, Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) helms the charge against the villains, turning in such an authentic, accomplished performance, that I would be surprised if she couldn’t actually run a dairy farm by herself. Excellent!
Belgian director Patrice Toye tackles the incredibly difficult subject of paedophilia with care and empathy, despite the discomfort. A necessarily tormented portrayal of self-censorship from newcomer Tijmen Govaerts (Jonathan) provides a different angle on the perpetrator, from the more regular and rigid “monster/predator” aspect. Outstanding too is the blithely heedless performance from neglected ten-year-old Elke (Julia Brown), a charming, damaged child determined to connect with him. Shot on the dilapidated edges of industrial suburbia beside a river during a torrid summer, this is a film that gets under the skin with its frustratingly grim portent.
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.
“Perception is real, the truth is not.” Quotes “Meldy” from her strangely immovable face and there is no doubt she actively indulges this plainly nuts mantra to shape her brand. She is wincingly and unapologetically garish and what appears at the beginning to be a wryly humorous (in its observation of her excessive ways and emotionally detached benevolence) documentary portrait of the once exiled, former First Lady of the Philippines, slow burns into a terrifying exploration of the Marcos’ flagrantly corrupt and brutal dictatorship. Sobering, excellently assembled commentary on the making of monsters.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s first non-Japanese film continues his examinations of the family unit, but with a remarkably authentic French feel to it all—at least to my Kiwi eyes. This story of a celebrated actor’s broken family healing itself is second-tier Koreeda, on a par with the likes of Like Father Like Son and After the Storm. It’s far from his best, but still a wonderful watch and its sad depiction of a film star in the twilight of their career makes this somewhat of an interesting distant cousin to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
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!
The archetypal pour-yourself-a-red-wine-and-have-a-nice-French-time pic of NZIFF (unless you’re Ethan Hawke’s onscreen teetotaller), The Truth offers plenty of enjoyment, much of it thanks to Catherine Deneuve’s portrayal of a give-few-shits French acting legend. She’s the anchor of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Paris-set follow-up to Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, leading a splendidly watchable cast including an equally strong turn from Juliette Binoche, their mother-daughter relationship an ongoing emotional arm-wrestle. Chuckles abound in this family dramedy, not least of all from Deneuve’s often haughty rudeness, a performance drawing on her real-life legacy in an enjoyable, unchallenging watch.
After a looooong wait (this played Venice and Toronto in 2019 and was a nominee for Best International Feature at February’s Oscars), there’s plenty to enjoy in this tale of a paroled Polish juvie masquerading as a priest. Throw in a small-town mystery/scandal alongside the con/redemption storyline, mint performances, a firm grasp on tone ranging from sombre to gak-fueled and this comes together as a classic NZIFF audience pleaser. If you want to see more from director Jan Komasa, you only need to wait until July 29 when The Hater arrives on Netflix.
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 Long Walk
My favourite of the fest so far is shrouded in mystery and drenched in portent, the tale of an old man, a young boy, and the woman who connects them. To say more would ruin the fun, but suffice it to say there are subtle sci-fi elements and a twisty plot—one that might seem impenetrable at first but is well worth sticking with, tying things up in a way that’s satisfying and profound.
Oh great, now there’s all this to worry about. Does a great job patiently laying out how racial inequality can be baked into software just as much as other areas of life, and that’s just part of the ethical quagmire surrounding facial recognition. Well worth your time as a primer on this and other privacy issues—ones that we’re all already mired in whether we know it or not.
True History of The Kelly Gang
Entertaining, shot through with a nihilistic punk energy, and featuring some stark photography of the Australian landscape, but man I wish Justin Kurzel would lighten up a bit. Kicks off with a kid watching his mum on the business end of some forcible fellatio and only gets more gruelling from there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good… great, even, but at a certain point became a bit of a slog for me. “Oh come on!” I said to the screen at one point. There was still like twenty minutes to go.
New Zealand’s Best 2020
Daddy’s Girl by Cian Elyse White – I could’ve watched a whole feature of this father and daughter ribbing each. The actors are so damn funny and the camera frames their actions in a way that highlights the comedy. Then the drama strikes like daggers – painfully, precisely, potently – making excellent use of B&W photography.
Safety Net by Anetha Williams – A frank, confronting, superbly constructed look at guardianship from the perspective of a boy in emergency care limbo. Hell of a turn from young William Best. Could see this one blow up into a feature film.
Daniel by Claire van Beek – A nicely-realised convert setting and a great lead performance from Edith Poor power this short’s exploration into the weird stuff that happens when sexual desires are repressed. Aside from Matt Whelan’s character, who felt a bit unbelievable, this is sharply perceptive filmmaking.
Love is Real! by Calvin Sang – This was fun. A good musical additive to what I hope is New Zealand’s growing collection of anti-rom-coms (think Breaker Upperers). The pacing’s a bit jagged in parts, especially for a film so reliant on song and dance, but it made me smile big and often.
Oranges & Lemons by Robyn Grace – Bound to appeal to those looking for a Kiwi nostalgia blast. From the classicly-dressed schoolroom to the tiny box of raisins inside the little girl’s lunch briefcase, this is a very tidy and attentive production with sublime cinematography. The story seemed a bit bare-bones in comparison.
Pain by Anna Rose Duckworth – Not sure I can review this without bias—I’ve played social indoor sport since I was a child, witnessed White Line Fever far too many times AND dislocated a finger on several occasions—but BOY could I relate. The little girl’s great. I winced several times. Stellar ending.
So bloody good. A punchy priest parable that joins the choir of First Reformed and Calvary, surgically exposing the nature of redemption and forgiveness lying within the bloody guts of human grief and hatred—all entombed inside an uncaring legal system. The ending made my soul skip a beat.
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.
“Remember, it’s only a parable” says the priest in the last act of director Jan Komasa’s engrossing tale of Daniel, a young man, fresh from juvenile detention centre, who takes on the guise of a priest in provincial Poland. Blessed with exceptional acting, led by a blistering performance by Bartosz Bielenia as the convict who’s either a con-artist or a convert, this crisply lensed, sparingly scripted, rivetingly portrayed morality tale is a stark, simply-told rumination on the complex nature of faith, forgiveness and human frailty.
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.
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.
All 2020 mini-reviews:
Latest reviews | A – D | E – J | K – M | N – R | S – Z